Monday, September 22, 2008

Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie *****

ooooops I slipped in one more book before my trip - and it was great! I didn't really want to take this hard cover book on the plane (weight and size) but I really wanted to read it, so I started it (thinking maybe I'd finish it in the 3-hr drive to the airport) and couldn't put it down.

It was a delight! Min, our not-stick-thin heroine, allows herself to get picked up, which started as a bet between Cal, our picture-perfect hero, and her ex, just to make her ex mad. It's all about taking a chance on love - and the gamble that is life.

Don't have time to put down more thoughts so I'll just say I loved it - I laughed out loud several times - I found it sweet, and believable, and romantic, and I was rooting for Min the entire time. Not once did she push any buttons for me - she was credibly sharp and witty and loyal and at times deep - and when she was mad, I was mad - and she stuck to her guns, as much as possible anyway. What person doesn't turn into an 8-year-old when confronted with her mother?

gotta go, time to finish packing.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Darkfever by Karen Marie Moning ****

OK, I did it, finished the free podcast audiobook of Darkfever by Karen Marie Moning before taking off on my trip tomorrow.

This is my first by KMM, although I know she has a big following both of the Fever series and her Highland romances. This is the first book in the Fever series, in which we are introduced to MacKayla aka Mac. Mac is 22 years old, living at home, taking a few classes, working as a bartender and enjoying her summer weekends at various lakes around town. The book opens with her sitting by the pool - her cell phone got dunked a few days earlier and she hasn't bothered to get a new one. She gets the call from the police on her parent's phone: her older sister Alena was studying abroad, in Ireland, when she was brutally murdered.

Mac isn't happy with how the case is being handled, so she heads over to Ireland to get her sister's effects and find out more about what happened. When she gets a new cell phone, before heading overseas, she picks up her messages and has one final, desperate message from Alena that makes no sense to her at all.

Once in Ireland, she is on a journey she never expected, into the world of the Fae.

In her quest, she stumbles into a bookstore called Barron's Books and Baubles, where she meets the owner Jerricho Barrons and his employee Fiona. It's apparent soon enough that both Jerricho and Fiona know what she is and what her powers are, but it isn't clear if they have powers of their own, or even what their relationship is...

Now, this is a fantasy subject I haven't done much reading in, so I had a little bit of a hard time keeping up (especially in audio) with the bad guys and their various forms. There was a hierarchy of fairies (or maybe they spelled it faeries), I believe 4 levels, with some good and some bad. If I understood it correctly, at the King/Queen/Prince/Princess level, good and bad looked alike. Mac and her sister were born sidhe-seers, pronounced "she-seers", meaning they could see the true forms of the fae even when regular people only saw the human form. They also had the status of... (sounded like: null?) which meant they could also freeze fae creatures.

Mac undergoes a transformation - a sort of Buffy the Vampire Slayer-type transformation - from pampered Southern belle to kick-ass Fae stomper in the course of the few weeks she is there. Her life is turned upside down and inside out and she learns that something much bigger than than the murder of her sister is at stake.

The book is about Mac's quest to uncover the whole truth behind her sister's gruesome murder and to learn what she really is - and since it's the first in the series, we only get so far. She learns that her sister had a boyfriend, whose description sounds suspiciously like Jerricho - not Irish, older, dashing, rich, handsome. Jerricho doesn't really develop a thing for Mac, though, and he seems to wonder who she is, so if he was the boyfriend, he's keeping it under wraps. He trots her out into underground worlds as if she's his woman in order to uncover who is good and who is bad. (wish I had a hard copy so I could see the spelling of the creatures...)

It was fun, action-packed and sorta spooky, although listening to it in 20-minute bursts with commentary on either end was not the same as listening to it in a regular audio book. It breaks up the tension to stop between each chapter. It isn't exactly romance, either, as the ending didn't qualify for HEA, and if Jerricho is meant to be the hero aka love interest, that isn't made clear. He does have a slightly out-of-character tender moment right at the end...

4 stars. If you want a copy, go to the Darkfever Podcast website.

Egypt Bound!

I am leaving Monday, September 22, for an 11-day trip to Egypt! My 2 sisters and I leave Houston at 10:30 PM on a flight to Cairo with a layover in London. We will spend a few days touring Cairo, fly to Luxor to board a Nile cruise for 4 nights, fly from Aswan back to Cairo for another couple of days touring the area, then fly home Friday, October 3!

I have an iPod full of books - Nora Robert's Hot Ice, as well as the last 3 of the O'Hurley books also by NR, Suzanne Brockmann's Into The Fire (the 13th in the Troubleshooter series), Diana Gabaldon's Voyager and Drums of Autumn (I'm working sllloooowly on my re-read of this series), and my in-progess listen to the free podcast of Darkfever by Karen Marie Moning. I'm actually hoping to finish Darkfever before I leave, and I don't expect to listen to all the books I have with me, but ya never know.

In addition, I'm taking hardcopies of Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, The Stanislaski Sisters by Nora Roberts and Blue Dahlia, also NR. One must be prepared for whatever circumstances (like not being able to recharge the iPod). I'd like to take the hard cover I just got of Jennifer Crusie's Bet Me, but I'm thinking it's too much, too heavy. Maybe I will anyway... well we'll see, since I really want to read it!

My older sister is gifting my other sister and me with this trip in honor of an upcoming major-milestone birthday she will celebrate next year, so thank you Beth! I have a journal with me to write anything that comes to mind while on the trip - I will not be taking a computer and I'm not sure what opportunities we will have to access the internet. I'm sure I'll suffer major internet withdrawal since I normally spend several hours a day either surfing or working online.

Devil's Cub by Georgette Heyer **

First I want to say that Georgette Heyer is reputed to be a pioneer in "modern" Romance novels, having established the genre of Regency romance, and that many authors credit her with being a model. I say "modern" because she wrote during the 20th century, so her work is "historical romance" as opposed to Jane Austen whose work was contemporary. This book is a sequel of sorts to These Old Shades, which is the story of Devil's Cub's hero's parents. Needless to say, her books are considered classics, and this one is on the AAR Top 100 for 2007 and has DIK status in an A review at AAR.

In fact the reviewer specifically says:

Quite honestly, romance simply doesn’t get any better than this.
Uhm... Maybe she should have qualified that with "in [her] opinion" because romance does, often and usually, get a lot better in my opinion. Quite a lot better.

Devil's Cub was originally published in 1932. Ms. Heyer is credited with writing witty and well-researched stories, and indeed, I have no quarrel with her writing style even though I did find it sometimes difficult to keep up with the double, triple and even quadruple negatives used to make a point (how many negatives make a positive again?). Her books are being reprinted by HQN - and are apparently in big demand, as I ended up paying full price at a book store!

The Cub in question is Dominic, Marquis of Vidal, son of the Duke and Duchess of Avon. He's a rake, a rogue, in all ways a demanding, spoiled young man given to drink, loose women and duels that he wins by killing his fellow duelist, usually over cards or some other slight not worth someone's life. He has been wooing young Sophia Challoner - a pretty 18-year-old miss bent on making a good marriage with the Duke, in full support of her scheming mamma.

Sophia's just-older sister, Mary, is not as pretty but much more educated and wise in the ways of the world. Somehow - it wasn't clear to me how - Mary realizes that Dominic plans to ruin Sophia and never marry her, and she does her best to keep them apart.

Dominic fights another duel after a drunken game of dice, and his father orders him to leave England to avoid prosecution for this almost-murder (the fellow hadn't died, yet). Dominic sends a note to Sophia asking her to accompany him to France.

Now - I sorta got a little lost here. I wasn't following the plot point that he only intended to ruin Sophia. He did things which smacked of courting - meeting her on walks, taking her to the theater, sending her this note, calling her his love. If I wasn't privy to Mary's POV, I would have understood he was indeed courting Sophia. And I also got the idea that Sophia was interested, in spite of being told, again from Mary's POV, that Sophia didn't really love Dominic but just wanted to trick him into marriage. OK. So you gotta buy those 2 assumptions.

Mary intercepts the note, and hatches a plan to foil the lovers - she will meet Dominic in Sophia's place and tell him that she and Sophia planned only to make a fool of him, and she assumes he will be disgusted with Sophia and her and throw her out and forget about Sophia.

She dons a mask and meets him, he puts her in a coach and takes her to the coast where he discovers her plan. He is enraged and tries to strangle her (and this is supposed to be side-splittingly humorous?) and forces her onto the boat to cross the channel, figuring he'd as soon ruin Mary as Sophia. She is sea-sick the entire way - somehow I think one is supposed to realize he is taking care of her in a way out of character.

Once they reach France, she convinces him she was never in league with Sophia but only intended to thwart his ruin of her. Also she admits to herself she's actually been in love with him for weeks. Hello? When did that come about?? Stealing her sister's beau? I missed that little plot point all together.

He is suddenly overcome with what he has done and decides he must marry Mary to avoid her ruin, since it has become apparent to him she is indeed honorable and virginal and he would never ruin someone like her. Uh, he would ruin Sophia but not Mary? OK, I missed another plot point, once again, because I wasn't following the logic there.

Meanwhile we get to meet his mother, the heroine of the book These Old Shades. What an awful person she was. I truly disliked her the entire book. In her eyes, that scoundrel son really could do no wrong, everyone who said anything negative about him was deemed a liar, and she defended him way past what is normal even for mothers. Maybe someone else reading this found her to be funny, humorous, witty, whatever, but I found her to be a Stage Mother Supreme. The descriptions of his character were pretty clear to me - he was a murderer, a complete asshole when drinking, and held no regard for any woman except her - to a degree that was beyond Oedipal.

Ah, and there's Dominic's cousin Julianna, a school mate of Mary's, in love with a commoner, Frederick. What a twit she was. She was waaaay mean to Frederick and frankly didn't deserve him.

The rest of the story is everyone getting different accounts of Mary's abduction, and chasing around England and France to find Dominic and Mary and get their lives sorted out. Per the reviewer at AAR, this was "a love story that is as heart-achingly romantic as any I’ve ever come across" in which case I might recommend she keep reading. Not once did my heart ache - when Dominic theoretically "shows" his love for Mary the first time (ok, maybe the vomit scene was the first time) after he accidentally stabs her, I had to take the author's word on that because I did not Feel The Love. He does declare it later, but again I never once felt or saw the love bloom between the two - I only knew it because Heyer told me.

So (1) I did not feel the story was at all romantic and (2) I never felt moved to even smile, much less laugh. When I first finished, my inclination was to give it 3 stars, but now that I've written all this, it has slipped to 2 stars. Truly, I did not get out of this book what I want when I read. Mostly I was just annoyed at trying to figure out what was happening and why. And dang if there aren't 2 more by this same author in my AAR Top 100 Quest...

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Serpent Prince by Elizabeth Hoyt *****

This is the 3rd in her Prince series, after The Raven Prince (which I loved) and The Leopard Prince (which I didn't love) - and, hurrah, I loved this one!

There were so many things to love about this story - the Viscount Iddesleigh, Simon, with his strong but misplaced sense of honor; Lucy who discovers the world outside Maiden Hall when she takes Simon into her home to convalesce; the wonderful secondary characters like her father the sea captain, Simon's sister in law and niece, the return of Edward from Raven.

Simon is found by Lucy, naked and unconscious, in a ditch, after being beaten and stabbed. Lucy takes him into her home to recover, against the wishes of her father, and she nurses him back to health. She and her father live in the country, and the fellows who tried to kill Simon had attacked him in London but took him here to die.

Having someone from London stay in her home is an eye-opener for the country miss who has been courted by the vicar for three years with no proposal in sight. She realizes there's more to life than wearing brown and gray and talking about repairing the church roof - and turns down the inevitable proposal from the vicar she doesn't love, even if it means a life without marriage at all. But Simon has fallen head over heels for Lucy, and comes back for her.

Meanwhile, he is still out for to avenge the death of his brother by the men he has been systematically dueling and killing.

Interestingly, I liked that Simon is in love with Lucy by the time he returns to London, that he proposes marriage, and that he is determined for her to remain chaste until after marriage. It seemed almost quaint and practically unheard of in romance. And even as he continues with the revenge of his brother's death, we are shown more and more reasons that shore up his determination for this revenge that make it seem almost right, almost necessary. But the killing is taking a toll on Simon's soul.

I also liked the Serpent fairy tale that is woven through the story - this time told by Simon to Lucy as a story he learned growing up - and how it intertwined with their story.

The story did what I like: it made me feel the emotions felt by the characters - their growing affection for one another, their joy at getting married, Simon's grief at losing Lucy, Lucy's anguish over Simon's inability to share what he was going through with her, and her reluctance to leave. All that. That's what makes it a 5 star read for me, and apparently for a lot of readers since it's an AAR Top 100 read as well.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Leopard Prince by Elizabeth Hoyt ***

This is the 2nd in the series, the first of which was The Raven Prince and the last The Serpent Prince.

Now - only Raven and Serpent made it to the AAR Top 100 and I'm in accord with that. I just didn't think Leopard was anywhere near as good as Raven.

The heroine is Georgina - but everyone calls her George. She's an Earl's sister, and she inherited a large estate from an aunt. She hired Harry Pye, the hero, to be the estate manager. Harry's a buddy of Edward from Raven - they are in the Agrarian Society together.

Right off the bat I'm getting confused by the heroine being called George.

Harry is a native of the region where the estate is located - in fact, his father was gamekeeper of the local magistrate and villain, Granville. Granville is buh buh buh bad to the bone. He's a womanizer, maybe even a rapist, and he hates his older son. He raised a younger son (Bennet) born to Harry's mother. In fact, it's even possible Harry is also his biological son. When Harry was 12, Granville horsewhipped Harry and his father, and Harry lost a finger to this treatment. So that sets up the bad feelings twixt Granville and Harry.

Now, there's sheep dying from poisoning and everyone blames Harry because... well, someone found a tiny carving near a dead sheep, and Harry carves tiny beasts. Not that that is actually evidence, but everyone starts gossiping about it anyway.

Then there's George's 15-year-old sister Violet - she thinks Harry did it. She also is in hiding from a man 10 years her elder who seduced her and is trying to blackmail her into marrying him cuz she's rich and he's in debt. This entire story line never did mesh into the main story line so I kept wondering what the point of it was... OK, so Harry ran into the guy once, but it didn't have anything to do with anything. Since Violet thinks Harry did it, why does she send George a hysterical note to tell her Granville had Harry arrested? I dunno. Didn't make any sense to me.

This story didn't flow nearly as easily as Raven did for me - I just did not make the leaps with the author this time. I never really felt that George had any feelings for Harry - she just kept showing up in his cottage but I never felt she was actually falling in love. It was more like she was just toying with him. He was not in her class, after all, which she made more than clear.

After I did think they had declared for each other and everything was ok, Harry is called away to a catastrophic and fatal fire - and he has to convince her not to come help. Somehow - this was really stupid in my opinion - she decides he is actually saying he doesn't want her in his life, which gives the author a chance to throw another obstacle in their path. As if they didn't already have to leap over tall buildings, now she has George run away from Harry and try to marry someone else. How she turned his telling her to stay away and not put herself in danger at the fire into a declaration that their relationship was over, I have no clue. None. And by this point, I was already not that engaged in the story, so I wanted to reach in and slap the twit.

Of course, it's romance, so it's not a spoiler to say he keeps her from marrying the other fellow - but the scene at the church was as out of left field as all the other scenes and story lines in the book as far as I was concerned. Let's see, we had poisoned sheep, a womanizing villain, a murdered woman, an extra kid, an Earl's sister boinking the hired help... and a lot of it got left unresolved - was Bennet now the Granville heir, or were they going to try to make Harry the Granville heir? Was anyone going to take care of Will (the extra kid) or what? Was Violet interested in Bennet?

Sorry, but it just didn't give me the warm fuzzies that I like to feel at the end of a good book. Mostly I was glad it was over and I didn't have to try to follow all the divergent threads anymore. So I'm going with ... well, if I gave fractions, it would be about 2.75, so I'll round up and go with 3 stars.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

blog babbles

wow - who knew?

well, me I guess. There's this HUGE book-review-blog world out there, and here I was just blogging it for 2 reasons

1. my friend John thinks my emails are funny and suggested I blog

2. blogging my feelings about books and an occasional movie helps me keep track of what I've read and why I rated it the way I did

I wasn't really joining the revolution so much as just walking in the edges of the surf of the huge ocean of book bloggers. And truthfully, I'm having some fun just jotting my thoughts down, and I've met some great folks online who share my passion for reading romance too who occasionally drop in to comment on my posts.

But this whole BBAW Book Blogger Appreciation Week opened my eyes - I truly had NO idea! None, that the phenomenon was so huge and so many people are out there competing, and offering free books and having contests and just having fun!

What little I was reading (Dear Author, Smart Bitches, Shelfari/PBS friends' blogs) was already taking up valuable reading time - now, will I ever get to read books again? I've added some more blogs to my sidebar. Keeping up with all of them will take hours. Must get higher paying job with fewer hours.

I'm also feeling a little cheesy for my complete lack of imagination in setting up my blog. Back in the day, I was a pioneer in web page authoring - I mean, I had a big ol' web page for a different subject back in 1994. In fact, I used a B&W monitor for creating it and got negative feedback on some graphics because frankly I couldn't even see them in color. Had to buy a new computer. I even got a mention in Texas Monthly for it... whoo hoo, big whoop, now I'm using canned themes and no graphics.

Anyways here I am with my generic gathering-of-thoughts blog. I never did tell my friend John I took him up on his suggestion, cuz I don't know if he'd actually appreciate how I put my twist on it (romance book reviews).

So - kudos to all you incredibly talented Book Bloggers!! And to think the news reports that nobody reads anymore!

The Price of Desire by Jo Goodman *****

I am a fan of Jo Goodman's writing. I think she writes clever, witty, luscious, layered and complex prose with interesting, three-dimensional characters meeting and finding love in less-than-usual circumstances. There. I've said it.

But I don't always love her work. While A Season To Be Sinful once held the #1 spot in my favorite list (now I guess it's #2), and I liked the Compass Club and Hamilton series, I'm having a hard time getting through the McClellans, with Tempting Torment not so tempting in my TBR pile, since the first 2 were so... not great. I did like the Thorne Brothers ok, but not enough to re-read or even to suggest them to others.

I'm rating this new release 5 stars but I don't love it as much as the others in the Grantham series (which starts with A Season To Be Sinful, making this one #4 after One Forbidden Evening and If His Kiss Is Wicked). And can I just ask, who makes up her titles? Is there some kind of weird contest to make the oddest titles for her books or what?

The hero of Price is gaming hell owner Griffin, Viscount Breckenridge, whom we met at least once before in Restell's book (If His Kiss Is Wicked) when his wife went there under the assumed identity of his mistress. Griffin won the business in a wager, and he's been running it profitably as the main source of support for his inherited title - the property and the dowries of his sisters were draining the coffers. He "wins" our heroine, Olivia, when she is given as a marker for the debt of her brother Alistair while he tries to get his father to give him an advance on his allowance to cover his debts.

Olivia is Alistair's older half-sister whose mother died in childbirth. We learn slowly, painfully so, about the reasons for her estrangement from their father in her teens; mostly all we know at first is that she has an incredible knack for card play and that she calmly accepts her station in life as the woman given as payment to men. Alistair is a misguided young man of only 21 who loves gambling and women and liquor - and he makes a few mistakes along the way, which land him in the predicament of having to give over his sister.

Of course it's always interesting to me, on a side note, that heroines can be this young and yet so mature, and heroes need to be at least 29 to be taken seriously... (shaking head - wait, maybe it's true)

There are so many complications in the lives of Griffin and Olivia - for one, Griffin has a wife who fled the continent some years before to avoid Griffin's divorcing her sexually-addicted self. He actually could have divorced her, but there are rumors about that he murdered her so he's reluctant to start divorce proceedings until she's located alive. Olivia's secrets are many, and uncovering only some of them isn't enough for Griffin.

He does consent to let her deal faro at the hell since she manages to bring in a lot of customers and profit, but she does it under an assumed identity to avoid scandal. A wig, some makeup, next thing you know she's Ann Shepard, his mistress. And eventually, she decides she must give in to him sexually - although, mind you, he hasn't so much as hinted that he expects or even desires it. I guess it's like waiting for the other shoe to drop - she decides she must go to him to control the outcome of this meeting. I believe her exact words were "to have done with it".

There are still more complications - one external one involves the gentleman villain, a man who finds his way into Olivia's room, presumably to rape her - but she manages to outwit him and almost strangle him. Then he seems to be gone, but appears from time to time, without warning, and may be stalking her.

Meanwhile, Griffin allows his "marker", Olivia, more and more freedom and responsibility, and they slowly develop a friendship and partnership, business and romantic, while running the gaming hell together.

I was entertained and engaged throughout the book but not moved to much emotion or tears, even at the shocking revelations and continued introduction of more and more complications that seemed to make their lives a living hell (oops pun). Maybe it was all too much, or maybe I just have to be in a certain mood to be touched by the sorrows of others. I never worried that we wouldn't learn what motivated Olivia (indeed, I guessed many of the reasons early on), or that their relationship was in any danger, or anything. Of course, in a romance, there's always a HEA - but I have read books where I did wonder and anguish over how in the world the author would even get them past their obstacles. I did not do that with this story. But still, I felt it was worthy of 5 stars because I liked it much better than other books I've rated 3 or 4.

Now that reading challenges are motivating my reading, I'm trying to figure out how to make it fit any one of the 3 I'm involved in - and it doesn't. Hmmmmm.

Monday, September 15, 2008

The Last Honest Woman by Nora Roberts ***

I have all 4 of the O'Hurley family books as audio books on my iPod, and since I had to make a trip to town, decided to start with this one, the first in the series. I live really far from town so I was able to finish it in one day (about 6 hours).

There are 3 triplets, Chantal or Chantelle (not sure, since it's audio), Maddie or Mattie and Abby, and the 4th book is about their older brother Trace. The O'Hurley parents are old vaudevillians*, traipsing about the country singing and dancing in whatever venue they can. The kids all grew up as part of the act, and now Maddie's a Broadway star, Chantal's a movie star, and Abby's a... SAHM. (for the uninitiated that means Stay At Home Mom) Go figure.

This is Abby's book - apparently at age 18, during a show in Florida, Abby met Chuck, a famous Grand Prix driver. They had a whirlwind romance and got married, had 2 kids, then he was killed in a race. Since he was so famous and so infamous, a publisher has hired famous/infamous biographer Dylan Crosby to write his authorized biography. So what do biographers do? They move in the home of the widow for weeks and weeks and ask a lot of obnoxious questions while taping interviews.

Ok, tiny credibility slip #1 for me. Maybe they do, what do I know? It just seemed sorta, I dunno, cozy. And being a romance novel, I knew where that would lead.

Abby is making do on her Virginia farm where she plans to breed and sell horses. The rumors have it Chuck was a philanderer/adulterer/drug abuser, born with a silver spoon in his mouth and raised by his over-protective and over-bearing mother. The young bride spent the first few months of their marriage traveling with Chuck, but got pregnant and then lived with Mother until buying the farm

Ok, it was Chuck who bought the farm (heh heh, couldn't resist the silly pun).

Dylan has already done a lot of research, and Abby's story is apparently the last piece he needs. And dammit, he wants the TRUTH!

Uh, but while she's telling the truth, she's just not telling all. His preconceived notions about her come from the tabloid stories and photos - Abby in white mink, Abby on the town in Monte Carlo. So, where are her servants and staff? The expensive luxuries? What is it about this cozy, homey farmhouse, messy with kids' toys, that tugs at Dylan's ... heart? He's convinced she's a lying bitch - so why is he so attracted to her?

Slowly, the truths come out - meanwhile, he's gotten very attached to these 2 loving, trusting little boys and their wary, not-trusting mom.

I had a couple of issues (beyond some mild credibility things) with this audio book. First, the narrator - she was ok, but breathy, like she was whispering loudly in my ear. Well, Abby's voice was breathy, and her narration was breathy - but Dylan's and the children's voices were strong. I wanted to say STOP WHISPERING AT ME. I prefer all scenes, even SEX scenes, to be read straight-forward, not as if we were at a golf game listening to on-the-scene commentary.

Second - omigawd - the ending thing that brought it to a head. I just muttered and shook my head. I won't give it away, but to me it was so out-of-left field and I had so many questions (exactly how did the kid get up there, anyway?). I was ready for them to get together and didn't need a weird accident to do it.

I also need to check the publication date, cuz I'm having a hard time with the hero smoking in her house. I don't always have issues with characters smoking (sometimes the author even makes it attractive, normal or even necessary), but in the beginning one of the kids remarks about it being a dirty habit. Dylan never even asks Abby if it's ok if he smokes in her house where she has 2 young children. She even has trouble finding something to act as an ashtray - hello? Hint? Second hand smoke? It wasn't like NR used smoking as a plot device, unlike another book I read recently where the hero could see only the heroine's red-tipped cigarette glowing in the dark (whichI found very effective). But that didn't ruin the story for me, it was just a niggling incident.

So while it hovered on a 4 star read at times, it dropped neatly into 3 at the ending, for Average or even Mediocre. Dang. It didn't even fit any of my challenges, I just got it on sale for 1 credit for all 4 stories...

*about that "old vaudevillians" statement - since I'm 53 and the parents are about my age, it may seem odd to call them old. I mean old vaudevillians, not old in age. After all, how long has it been since anyone even was a vaudevillian?? Apparently the book was published in 1988, so someone 50 in 1988 was born in 1938... Maybe there was still vaudevillians then. Entertainment act. Whatever. I just felt the need to explain since it seemed a little weird for me to call them old.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Passion by Lisa Valdez *****


I mean, Wow.

OK - I read this because it's an AAR Top 100 and I have this QUEST to read them all. Or most of them. I figure I can't really know what is popular and good in romance if I haven't read "the classics" - that is, the ones people like the best.

I had read some things about Passion, including a lot of commentary about the delay of over a year now in the publication of book 2 in the series, Patience. It's clear that this author must be having some loss of confidence or mojo or muse if she can't finish or publish the second book. The speculation is that it's related to the backlash from readers, although mostly I've read positive things about the book.

First off, this book dances on the edge of erotica - the protagonists meet and immediately sneak behind a screen in a crowded exhibition to have sex which the author describes very graphically. They do this day after day, without knowing any more than each other's first names, and even those only by the 2nd or 3rd time. In public, mind you. With the offending words that so many romance readers widen their eyes at, like the F word and the C word and the Q word and.... ok, you get the jist of it. And he's a rather demanding and dominant fellow too, with an insatiable appetite and a sizeable appendage, which we learn a lot about. Graphically.

So it's pretty SHOCKING and I guess some readers were taken aback, and some even aghast. So - hey, if you don't like it, don't read it, ok? You'd know by page 10 it wasn't for you!

As their attraction with each other deepens, they begin to share more details with each other. Passion is the heroine's name - her father is a vicar, and she was named for Passion Sunday. Her sisters' names are Primrose and Patience. She's a widow who values duty and honor and family, and she plans to live the rest of her life solitary because her marriage was apparently pretty loveless. Since they had no children, she believes she is barren, especially considering her husband may have fathered a bastard (or 2). She's not anxious to repeat that mistake, and now values her independence and solitude.

The hero is Mark - he's also an earl with a misleading other name, which adds to the confusion later. He doesn't really like the duties of an earl, and is actually - gasp - in trade as an architect. He has a dreadful mother who cheated on his father, and a wonderful brother Matthew, who is in love and plans to marry Rosalind. As it turns out, someone is privy to the information that Matthew's biological father was the gardener - and that someone is blackmailing Mark into marrying her daughter to keep that information private.

Mark had never planned to marry, and indeed he informs Patience early on that he usually tires of a woman by 2 months into a relationship. That's fine with her, since she has no plans to marry again either. But by the 2nd encounter it's obvious her heart is beginning to be engaged - and if you look past the shock of where they Do It and how it's described, you can begin to feel his heart engaging as well. He convinces her to give him the full 2 months - you know, before he tires of her. (hmmmmm)

It's pretty obvious from his dealings with his mother where he learned to feel that love was an illusion, and that women were only good for one thing ( A Good F) and only for a pre-determined short period of time. But to keep his brother's paternity a secret (even from the brother, and especially from the brother's fiancee), Mark goes forward with the plans for marriage, intending to dump the woman as soon as he gets his hands on the offending letter.

That is, until it's uncovered that the woman in question is Passion's beloved cousin Charlotte. Once Passion learns the truth of his identity as the Earl to whom her cousin is engaged, and even after she learns about the blackmail, she decides their relationship - which was always going to end soon - is now over and that no matter what, he must go through with the marriage to keep from ruining her cousin.

Each of them is acting to protect a loved one, without thought of consequences as it pertains to their relationship until it is too late. Mark soon realizes that Passion has completely unfrozen his heart and he is in love with her, and now they are doomed to live without each other.

In spite of the sensational beginning, it is indeed a romantic love story where the protagonists must choose between family/duty and what is in their hearts - and duty seems to win out, so that you are left with the agony of their parting, and the anguish of Passion knowing her cousin is married to her heart's true desire. In fact, as part of the blackmail bargain, the letter will not be given up until Charlotte has born three heirs...

Sigh. The ending is so romantic and fulfilling - ok there's some criticism of the epilogue, and to that I say "are you people never satisfied?" At least they weren't Doing It in public anymore. 5 stars.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Secret Pearl by Mary Balogh *****

This is a new-to-me author, although she's been publishing for over 20 years. She has 5 titles currently in the AAR Top 100 for 2007.

The book starts out with an emotional punch: a man picks up a prostitute outside Drury Lane Theater, and takes her to an inn. We learn, in the course of conduct of business, she's a virgin - and he's apparently a ruthless, heartless and violent cad. It's a shocking scene to observe as the reader.

Then, slowly, their story unfolds as we learn what drove her to sell her virtue, and what drove him to take it the way he did.

Adam is the Duke of Ridgeway - he's a scarred veteran of Waterloo, who returned a sort of war hero after being presumed dead for a year. His younger brother Thomas, no longer the Duke, leaves for parts unknown - and Adam marries Sybil, and they have a child, Pamela. But all is not right with their marriage. Although she was his sweetheart before he left for the war, after his presumed death she took up with Thomas and they had plans to wed. Assuming Adam drove Thomas away, she married Adam, reluctantly, but never forgave him. I'll leave it to your imagination why she felt compelled to marry at all...

Fleur was the daughter of a baron who died when she was 8. She was raised in the family of the next baron, her father's cousin. After that baron's death, his son Matthew is now Fleur's guardian, and in control of her finances, of her life. She wants to marry the local Reverend; Matthew obsessively wants her for himself. In a near-rape scene, she fights back - and Matthew's valet is killed accidentally. Matthew convinces her it was murder and she will hang - and to seal the deal, he claims she also stole family jewels. She flees to London, penniless and homeless, under an assumed name, with only one thing that belongs to her - her body.

We have two tortured souls here who find each other, under the worst possible circumstances. Redemption seems an impossible goal for both of them. In a fit of guilt over taking her virginity, Adam has his secretary locate Fleur and hire her as his daughter's governess, without her knowing it was him - until he shows up, several weeks later.

The story contains some serious hot buttons for romance: adultery, for one, on both Adam's and his wife's parts. For Adam, we learn it was just the once. For Sybil, numerous times, numerous men. Adam continues to try to find some common ground with her, for the sake of their daughter Pamela; for her part, Sybil is a weak, tortured, selfish woman who suffers from melancholy as well as a respiratory illness.

The relationship between Adam and Fleur develops slowly over the course of the book - Fleur is at first traumatized and revolted by him, but not, as he thinks, by his scars, but by their first encounter. His intentions, however, are noble, and he truly wants what is best for her. In her he finds the first true happiness - his "pearl" - that he has felt with a woman. Slowly, excrutiatingly so, their friendship develops into something more solid and lasting.

At one point during the book, I felt let down by the heroine's actions - she seemed to have run away from Matthew without even trying to get any help locally, and as it turns out, she did have people she could have turned to. But as the story went on, I was drawn more and more into the romance, even the utter bleakness of the situation, knowing Adam wouldn't do anything to jeopardize his daughter's or his wife's reputations. The tension, the anguish of the situation make the ending that much sweeter when the HEA finally comes to fruition.

So it went from a 4 star to a 5 star read for me by the end, and I've ticked another Top 100 off my list and have a long backlist of books by Ms Balogh to glom, once I get that TBR pile under control...

Thursday, September 11, 2008

A Lady At Last by Brenda Joyce ***

I'm reading these de Warenne books all out of order, and it's making me all out of sorts!! I like to keep all my characters in order and tidy and such, and somehow...

A long while back, I picked up The Promise of the Rose - in the beginning of my Romance novel journey, before I even knew about PBS or AAR or series or anything. I liked it - well, I gave it 5 stars anyway - and had no idea it was #2 in the medieval part of this series, or that there were others.

Then I happened upon a free copy of A Dangerous Love, and read it - and did the research where I discovered I had missed a lot of the series. Since one of the Reaching Challenges I'm involved in required a Pirate romance, I decided to get A Lady At Last - it's about the father and stepmother of the heroine of A Dangerous Love, which I also rated 5 stars.

After I finished Lady today, I pondered my feelings about this story. Then I read the AAR review, which gave it a D. I was on the verge of giving it 4 stars, and hesitated. That reviewer made some good points, and frankly I did find myself gnashing my teeth at both Amanda and Cliff (mostly Amanda, the immature twit) throughout the book. So, 3 stars it is.

Amanda was the daughter of a pirate. OK, he was once an officer and a gentleman, but over the years his business kinda crossed the line, and although he's a good pirate, the governor of whatever Caribbean island they are on (Jamaica?) decides to hang him as an example that he is cleaning up the seas. Amanda's mother is a lady in England, and her father has told her all these years he kidnapped her from her mother's arms. Amanda has been raised with little supervision - she is called La Sauvage by the people in town. She can sail and wield a sword and she can steal and lie and beg. She's a number of conflicting things, actually. Is she independent and can take care of herself, or is she a pitiful waif?

Cliff is the 3rd son of an earl, and he took to the seas at the tender age of 14. Although his family is loving and supportive, he prefers his solitude, his 2 illegitimate children, his home in Jamaica and the beds of any number of women to being tied down to family. And he will never wed, in spite of the de Warenne trait that all of them love Once and Forever. (I think I hinted at this in my review of A Dangerous Love, since it seems he managed to love a couple of times before Amanda - hence his son Alexi and his daughter Ariella.)

Fast forward - Amanda's father hangs - Cliff agrees to take Amanda to her mother in England - they spend 6 weeks at sea with the children, 300 sailors, a nanny and a teacher, all trying to make Amanda A Lady At Last so she can be introduced into polite society and find a husband.

Amanda is an immature twit. She's incredibly naive for someone who's spent so much time with pirates and also begging, lying and stealing to survive. She's reckless and doesn't think more than 2 seconds ahead. I found her fairly needy, unlikeable and annoying most of the time.

Cliff is incredibly attracted to her and manages to leave her only technically a virgin on the voyage. He is determined never to marry, so he can continue debauching and collecting bastard children I guess. They arrive in London where he tries to get Amanda's Mom to take her off his hands; Mom says no. He designates himself Guardian - which his family accepts while snickering loudly and often behind his back. The only two who don't realize Cliff is besotted with Amanda are Cliff and Amanda.

The usual stuff happens: the women make a list of possible suitors for Amanda, Cliff hates them all, they go to some balls, again he's always in a jealous rage... Blah Blah Blah. Amanda was wrong-headed and jumped to conclusions and... well she wasn't exactly the brightest bulb in the chandelier about everything. Eventually Cliff sees the light, and with a few more complications, we finally reach our HEA. Thank Gawd.

Truly, I almost gave this 4 stars just because I often like Brenda Joyce's prose if not the personalities she creates. There were gossipy and mean ladies, trying to ruin Amanda, the mother who could only think of herself and her own reputation, and we got to meet Cliff's family. What a bitch his sister Eleanor was...

OK - 3 stars because I did manage to finish it, and I had some moments of enjoyment reading it. Would I recommend it? Not unless you're a die-hard Joyce fan who must read everything she's written, or you feel compelled to read every single de Warenne tome out there.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Raven Prince by Elizabeth Hoyt *****

Funny how the ending of a book can change your mind about ratings... I was a little put off in the near beginning, and thinking it was stretching my limits of credibility, then I just slid off the cliff into the story itself, and have just finished it, silly grin on my face.

What a superb hero was our Edward! He was gruff, and surly, and bad tempered and - frankly, soft as a marshmallow. And so much in love with the heroine Anna!!! Sigh...

Anywayssss, on to the review. I loved Edward! Oh wait, that's not a review!

OK - Anna is a widow in a country town, living with her mother-in-law and a young woman they are trying to train (unsuccessfully) to be a maid. She is about out of money, and goes looking for a job.

Edward is a widower whose wife died in childbirth - and an Earl of Swartingham - in need of 2 things: (1) a secretary and (2) a wife. The #1 need is the secretary because Edward has a lot of correspondence and a manuscript to transcribe, so he sends a servant to town to locate one. This is 1760, mind you, and a secretary would be male. His servant runs into Anna (literally) and she learns his mission and offers to do the job. Meanwhile, Edward heads to London to make arrangements to marry some virginal miss.

Edward is a rather forbidding fellow, with small pox scars on his face and body. His first wife found him rather ugly, a fact which hurt him at the time, and now he's a little, well, distant as a result. See, he was the only survivor of an epidemic of small pox during his teen years - he lost his parents and all his siblings. Over time, he has covered his pain of these losses and the reality of his appearance with this gruff, loud, scowling persona - one that Anna sees through rather quickly.

He also has a wonderful mongrel/mastiff dog that Anna takes to as quickly as she takes to Edward.

Anna realizes there is an attraction between them, but knows as well as Edward it can never be - for one thing, she is apparently barren, and Edward wants children. For another, there's a disparity between their stations in life. Edward decides to take out his sexual frustration with a visit to a well-known London brothel which, get this, sends their patrons bills. Being his secretary, Anna learns about this place and hatches a crazy plan.

It was the crazy plan that had me thinking, ???? and wondering how I felt about the book. However, the book, in addition to being fiction after all, has a running fairy tale at the beginning of each chapter, about The Raven Prince, a fellow who is cursed to be a Raven by day but a beautiful man at night. The "fairy-tale-ness" of it saved it for me! In addition to the excerpts in each chapter, the book itself is a player in the story as Anna discovers the book in Edward's library and attempts to read it. First Edward takes it back from her, but later he uses it to lure her to him.

OK Crazy Plan Spoiler Alert - Anna learns that sometimes even virtuous (appearing) women go to this brothel in disguise and take lovers, so she high tails it to London on Edward's heels, and gets a room and asks the Madam to send Edward to her while she wears a mask (and little else). And then the sparks fly.

After 2 nights of this joyous sexual abandon for both of them, she rushes back to their country village and tries to go on as if nothing has happened. Eventually, through some rather obscure clues, Edward realizes it was she who had made love with him in London, and determines they must marry. At first, he decides they must marry because he has compromised her. She leaves his employ, and then he realizes the hole she has left in his heart, and goes about - in his own gruff and scowling way - wooing her into his own heart. Not that it would take much, since she is smitten, but she holds out because she cannot give him children.

There are a couple of subplots with some intrigue and blackmailing going on - but the bottom line is, these 2 needed each other to heal their hearts. He is afraid to find out why she left him - does she hate his scars? Or just not love him? And she is afraid she cannot be the wife he needs. Oh it's so touching!

The characters were so much fun - even the villains were kind of silly and not at all scary. Davis, the valet, was a real hoot, and Jock the dog is now one of my favorite fictional dogs. I read a review somewhere that summed up the fairy tale story that ran in each chapter as some combination of Greek myths and something else. I guess my mythology education is sorely lacking - I didn't recognize the story for anything but a wonderful fairy tale that had as happy an ending as the The Raven Prince novel itself.

This is an AAR Top 100 pick, as is one of the others in the series, so I can check it off - I also listed it as my fairytale pick in the Fall 2008 reading challenge. Now on to The Leopard Prince and then The Serpent Prince and maybe even a full glom of this author! 5 stars.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Seaswept Abandon by Jo Goodman ***

This is the second in the McClellan trilogy by Jo Goodman, and it takes place during the American Revolution. The McClellan family has 5 adult offspring, 3 of whom have their own books, and have lived in Virginia on a rather large expanse of land for... a long time.

This is daughter Rahab aka Rae's story, and her hero is the mysterious, shadowy Smith of book 1, Crystal Passion. Smith helped save Ashley, Salem McClellan's bride, from her notorious uncle/guardian, the Duke of something-or-other. Ashley is now helping Salem in his war efforts by being a courier, posing as a Loyalist and delivering secret dispatches to the Patriots. In a rather contrived setting, she sends Rae on one of her missions while Rae is recovering from laryngitis. This is key because Rae cannot talk. Ashley is secretly hoping to get Rae out of her funk over losing her beau to her younger sister (ain't that a bitch) by getting her out in the world. By sending her to a bar where British redcoats drink and whore, so she can meet a spy and pass correspondence. Go figure.

Rae goes and doesn't see the gent she is supposed to meet. And - now follow closely - the bartender mistakes her for a new hire barmaid, and she decides to play along, for the adventure. Even though, remember, she cannot talk.

Turns out the gent she's supposed to meet has sent Smith in his place, since Smith knows Ashley. In a "cute" turn of events, apparently Ashley and Salem have been trying to fix up Smith and Rae all along, but they have never met. Is this the way a spy business is really run??

Let's see... a bar patron feels up Rae, she objects (silently), he objects to being objected to and she stabs him. To death. Oooops. Smith, having given up on getting the dispatch from Ashley, steps in to rescue her, takes her up to his room where they climb out the window and run off to a boat. Damn if she doesn't contract Brain Fever on the way to the boat, so she's unconscious for 3 days and wakes up WITH AMNESIA. Yeah. Go figure.

Already my limits of credibility have been stretched and snapped. Boing. That's them snapping.

He thinks she's a barmaid/whore, so he tells her that. She's amnesiac and figures he must know. He, however, remains honorable and doesn't boink her. At least not right away.

Jericho Smith didn't reveal any of his background in the first story, not even his first name, but we learn he was the bastard son of an earl who eventually married his mother and was then killed right away. Should have left him the earldom, but some other cousin stepped in, had young Smith put on a ship to somewhere and declared himself the Earl. Smith managed to survive, make it to America, live among the Indians, and become a stealthy Patriot spy. There. Now we have that setup.

Rae's brothers figure out that it was Smith who abducted/rescued Rae from the bar, and track him down and try to beat him up for violating their sister. Their sister who doesn't even know who they are because of her Brain Fever Amnesia. Remember how they were all secretly hoping Smith and Rae would hit it off? Well, they didn't exactly plan for him to live with her for a week on a boat, thinking she was a whore and boinking her senseless. They take her away, a long time goes by and then Smith and Rae are reunited after she gets her Memory back.

Rae is about the stoopidist heroine Jo Goodman ever wrote. Maybe THE stoopidest - until I finish her backlist, I can't be sure. What a dolt. She isn't exactly feisty or hoydenish - she's just misguided and wrong-headed. And that amnesia thing... Puhleeze. Only Goodman's way with words kept this from dipping into 1 star or even DNF territory. The Duke sends someone to kidnap Ashley or one of her children, and Rae intercepts the kidnapper and stoopidly tells him SHE is Ashley. Not out of heroism, or with great forethought, just cuz it popped out of her stoopid mouth. Since the kidnapper caught her sucking Smith's tonsils out, he went along, saying he was Salem. After all, it wouldn't do Ashley any good to have it known she was sucking the tonsils out of another man, would it?

The kidnapper(s) take Smith and Rae to England - blah blah, long story here - and once there, try to ransom her to the Duke. Rae - ok, did I mention she's stoopid? She has this thing about alcohol. From what I can tell, she never drank any until the night she ran Ashley's little errand, and somehow even though she drank enough to fell a horse, she recovered very quickly then. Now, the kidnappers put drugs in the wine they bring Salem and Rae - and poor thirsty Rae drinks all of it. And is out for the count, leaving Smith with an unconscious girlfriend to deal with while he executes his escape plan. He's a smart fellow - he leaves her, and swims to shore.

She gets taken to the Duke who takes one look at her and says, she ain't the one, and tells the footman to "take care of her". Since the footman has never seen The Sopranos, he actually thinks he's supposed to Take Care of Her - as in, make sure she is well, and dry, and fed. She ends up in the Duke's employ. Meanwhile, Smith has transformed himself into Quality, and coincidentally runs into her on her day off in town. When he tells her his plan of how he will take care of the Duke problem so Ashley and her children will be forever safe, I thought "what a smart fellow he is, it will work!" but Rae thought "I'm smart and don't need no stinkin' man to take care of me" and says she wants to go back to the Duke's house and take care of him herself.

This after he reminds her, RIGHTLY SO, she has never been able to take care of herself, and has always needed her father or brothers or Smith to rescue her from all kinds of stooooopid scrapes.

What a stoopid twit she is.

Smith gets perty dang mad at her, mad enough to force her. Force her to go with him? Nope. Force her aka rape her, then leave her, after some bitter words are spoken. Boy, did he catch her stoopid virus or what? He shoulda knocked her out and taken her home. Instead he rapes her, like that solves anything. Hello, Ms. Goodman, what were you thinking??

Look - there was a HEA after some nail-biting scenes where Smith has to win a game of whist to (1) get his Earldom back and (2) win Rae's freedom from the Duke and (3) dodge a bullet, or 2. And really, Goodman does have a way with words that made even a stoopid twit's story be readable.

But I worried about the McClellan family back in Virginia, because after the kidnapping, we never heard about them again, ever. Did they worry about Rae and Smith? Did they think they drowned? Did they realize they were kidnapped, and try to follow? Did they ever receive Rae's letter to them? Maybe this will be revealed in Book 3, Tempting Torment, where hopefully poor Noah will get a smart heroine.

Dunno. 3 stars.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers *****

Wow - who knew? This is "inspirational" aka Christian romance, and - despite my own personal dearth of faith - I loved this story! Ms. Rivers is an incredible writer.

I listened to the interview with the author at the end of this, and she is indeed a born-again Christian who is devoting her writing and her life to spreading God's Word. This is something that normally I run from, in a big way, as fast as possible.

I was raised Christian - so I do have some background and minimal education in this culture. Not really religious, but we did go to church pretty much every week when I was a child, and we were involved in the church socially. But I haven't darkened the door of any church for anything other than tourism or maybe a wedding in several decades. And I don't plan to start going to church or reading the Bible or anything now - this wasn't a born-again moment for me. In fact, I got this book to read to fulfill one book in a Challenge - so much for Challenges being a way to whittle away the TBR mountain!! I did a little research on inspirational romance, and just jumped into this one.

Redeeming Love is Ms. Rivers' first inspirational Romance. According to the interview, she wrote "steamy historical romance" before this, and then had her calling - and apparently she got the rights back to all those other books and they are no longer in print. Too bad, because her writing is really wonderful! She decided, however, that true love was between God and Man (or Woman) and not between Man and Woman, therefore her switch.

That's not to say there wasn't wonderful romance between a man and a woman, along with some good secondary romances as well. But nothing graphic, and basically the idea was that love of God comes first and other love stems from that. Or something like that, anyway. That's ok because she managed to put a boatload of tension, sexual and otherwise, into her story.

The story is based on the biblical story (surprised?) of Hosea and Gomer. Go figure, Gomer is a woman's name. It's a sort of allegory about God and Israel (the people) - how, no matter how much they strayed from his Word, God forgave them. In both this book and the Hosea/Gomer story, God tells the hero (Michael Hosea in this story) to wed a prostitute and to continue to love and forgive her no matter what.

In Redeeming Love Sarah aka Angel has a much more detailed and incredibly tragic story than what I could learn of Gomer's story via google. Sarah was born in 1832 to a single woman, May, who had an affair with a married man. He apparently set her up for 3 years, but declined to meet his daughter. He finally throws May and Sarah out of their house, at which point they go to May's parents, who also refuse to help. Down on their luck, they move to the docks area, get a shanty and a simpleton protector for several years. During this time, May turned tricks to help support them, as this was the only option left to her. When Sarah turned 8, May died - and the simpleton, not even knowing her name, sells her to a man he thinks is adopting her.

Unfortunately for Sarah, "Duke" isn't exactly adopting her. Instead, he's got a thing for little girls, and Sarah begins her life of prostitution at age 8. He gives her the name Angel because she's so beautiful she looks like one.

Michael Hosea traveled to California with his sister and brother-in-law Paul around 1848. His sister died on the way, and Paul decides to join the Gold Rush after they get land and build cabins. Michael is truly devout, and is waiting for God to reveal the woman meant to be his wife. By this time (1850), Angel has managed to run away from Duke and get to a place in California named Pair O'Dice (I am guessing at the spelling since I listened to the audio book) where she is the featured prostitute at The Palace. It's the nearest town to Michael's and Paul's land, and he sees her when he is in town selling his produce and getting supplies. He hears God tell him she's the one... and when he learns her career and reputation, he realizes he's being tested.

Just like the Hosea/Gomer story, Angel isn't convinced he's the one - and she runs away from him time after time, going back to turning tricks to support herself. While Michael is filled with patience - and well-described and realized love for her - she is filled with self-doubt and self-hatred. How can she ever trust a man, after being prostituted as a child? She learned her hatred of God and men also from watching how her mother's life played out - her dreadful biological father, her unforgiving grandfather, the awful way May died, with a rosary in her hands. As far as she's concerned, there is no God, there is only Hell on Earth for her, and she isn't worthy of anything better.

There were so many heart-wrenching things in Angel's short life - for one, she had 2 abortions while living with Duke, and during the second one, the doctor was ordered to permanently end her child-bearing ability. Even though she tells Michael, and he tells her it's ok and he still loves her, over time he does slip and say and do things that indicate he wants children. Another family moves to the area, and there's a daughter about Angel's age - a kind, lovely, virginal girl who seems to embody all the things Angel - and Paul - think Michael deserves in a wife. It's a constant source of pain and tension for Angel, and for Paul, to see Miriam and Michael together, even though Michael says they are just friends, and that Miriam sees him only as an older brother.

It's a very involved story, and I spent most of it on the virtual edge of my seat, hurting for Angel, hurting for Michael, even occasionally hurting for Paul (although mostly I wanted to strangle him for how much he assumed and messed up). Things that happened to Angel before she moved to California get revealed slowly, and on more than one occasion I gasped in shock. If you're going to read this, it isn't really a spoiler to know there is indeed a HEA (since it's a Romance) but it's so late in the story and so much happens to keep them apart that it was incredibly hard to keep reading without knowing for sure!!

And if you are somewhat squeamish about being preached at in a book of fiction that you intended to read for fun, you'll be glad to know she avoids it until the very end - there are lots of references to Michael's faith, and some references to the faith of the new neighbors (he's apparently an ordained minister, something which I didn't realize until late in the story) - but it's not overly preachy. Ok, at the very end (and I may be tainted by having listened to the interview which was proselytize-y) after Angel's conversion, it did start to get a little more preachy.

The narrator is Kate Forbes - I loved her narration of Linda Howard's Open Season (unfortunately, that was an abridged version) and she was wonderful in this one too. She has a sort of young-Judy-Garland thing going on with her voice, and her character voices are good and consistent. Her narration gets 5 stars from me.

So - ok - 5 stars too for Ms Rivers' incredible gift of story-telling, for her ability to confront child abuse, prostitution and the treatment of women in general and turn it into a wonderful story of the redeeming power of love.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Remembrance by Jude Deveraux ****

Another day, another book. Actually, I'm feeling a little flustered - somehow, I'm a day behind!!

Ok - Remembrance - it's a paranormal, I think - not really time travel, but a past life regression, except...

Romance writer Hayden Lane is obsessed with a hero she's created. She loses a real-life fiancé, time, friends - all while holed up creating this fellow. She isn't even really writing the book - she just accumulates hundreds and hundreds of pages of descriptions of Jamie, her medieval Scottish hero, who then becomes English, and then changes times...

Hayden consults therapists, friends, others trying to get over her obsession. Finally she finds herself in the office of Nora - a woman passing as an astrologist who is really a psychic. Nora is the real deal - and she knows things, reads Hayden's thoughts. Hayden decides that she'll listen to Nora's ideas only for the research value, so she can maybe write a book using the information. Truth is - she's fascinated by Nora's assertion that Hayden has a soul-mate that she has kept through the ages, but that she is destined not to meet again for 3 more lifetimes.

Given some details and ideas, Hayden is off on another tangent - researching about the woman who might have been her in a past life. Next thing she knows, and against Nora's advice, she undergoes hypnosis with a past-life regressionist - and finds herself in her past life's body in 1901. Her persona, Catherine, lets her in - and Hayden overpowers her. Catherine's husband, Adam Tavistock, is getting ready to divorce her and marry Fiona - as it turns out, Catherine's and Adam's marriage was never consummated because he is suffering from ED, but only with her. With other women, he's as virile as any romance novel hero, but the only one he loves is Catherine. Why are Catherine and Adam doomed even though they are in love and are true soul-mates? Why can they not realize their love? Hayden is desperate to find out the truth.

Once again a hypnotist comes into play - and Hayden is suddenly inside an infant as she is being born - in the mid 16th century.

Here is where the story of the soul-mates begins. Callasandra and Talis are born on the same day, at almost the same time, to 2 women. Talis' mother dies in birth after issuing a proclamation about them that joins the babies' fates; Callasandra's mother gives birth to yet another girl, and claims the boy as hers instead. In a tragic turn of events, she decides to have both children die in a fire - but their wet nurse and her husband run away with the children, and raise them together for 16 years as their own. Everyone at the castle believe the children are dead, until one day...

Their story is the key to Hayden's search for her soul-mate. Hayden's 20th century self doesn't emerge in Callie's life, but when the story of Talis and Callie ends, Hayden was witness to the fate and the curse that led to her current situation. When she returns to consciousness, it's to Catherine's body, not her own, and she still needs to solve the problem between Adam and Catherine before she can wake up as Hayden in 1994.

Truthfully, it was a good story but oh sooo frustrating. The continuing miscommunication between Talis and Callie about drove me nutz, which after reading this book was a very, very short trip. If I had to read one more scene where Talis did something to make Callie jealous, or where Talis had to remain true to Alida because of honor - sheeeeesh!!! I wanted to scream!

But I was touched by the end of the stories - for Talis and Callie, for Catherine and Adam - and then for Hayden and her soul-mate. 4 stars.

Friday, September 5, 2008

The Velvet Promise by Jude Deveraux ****

This is the first in the Velvet Series, about the 4 Montgomery brothers. This story is about Gavin, the eldest, and his marriage to Judith Revedoune.

Here's a shorty-type review. 4 stars - the story was good, but frankly Gavin will never make my "favorite hero" list. Maybe it's because it was published in 1981, maybe it's because Deveraux thinks 16 century men rape and beat women as a matter of course, but I was pretty much disgusted with his behavior towards Judith about 98% of the time. In spite of that, Deveraux tells such a good story that I stuck with it for Judith's sake, and liked the story. I hope his brothers will be more honorable in their own stories - already I like them much better than their brutish and disloyal adulterer/batterer brother. (hmmm, how could I like this book?? This is why I have this blog, to write my thoughts directly after reading so I'll remember why I felt the way I did - now I have another book in my head.)

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Beguiled by Lori Foster ****

I downloaded this on audio - a recent release of the book that occurs before Caught In The Act, which I already had. This is Angel and Dane's story, with Mick from Caught In The Act as a teenager.

Dane Carter comes home to his family and the family business some 3-4 months after the death of his identical twin, Derek, to investigate. He's got it in his head his brother was murdered. Dane's a PI with his own firm - he left the family/business after his overbearing mother bought off his fiancée who was pregnant. The fiancée subsequently miscarried (or, he suspects, got an abortion) and he's been overcome with the guilt and the disgust of the situation. And now the guilt of not being there for his twin brother is a factor.

He's contacted by Angel who thinks he's Derek - she comes to his office because she needs his help. She's now a single mother - the child is Derek's, which comes as a shock to Dane. He plays along to learn what she knows of what happened. Apparently, Angel was a secretary in the records department of the business - Derek came on to her, and in one evening of passion*, impregnates her, steals documents from her in an act of corporate espionage, and later publicly dumps her. He expected her to abort the baby that resulted, and doesn't want to have anything to do with her. To top it all off, she didn't even find sex with him was all that great...

The attraction between Angel and Dane is instant, and Angel thinks over and over that something is different about Derek - he doesn't dress the same, he doesn't react to her the same - but for some weird reason she never knew Dane was Derek's identical twin, so she never suspects the truth. I mean, I got that she and Derek were never actually close, but she did know he had a brother. Well, that's explained because he had left the family under a cloud so they talked about him, but ...? I guess there weren't any family photos. Ok, whatever.

Angel needed Derek's help because she'd been receiving threatening letters and calls. She no longer works for the company - after her public embarrassment at Derek's hands, then the pregnancy, then a debilitating car accident, she can barely work enough to make ends meet. Dane immediately steps in - he buys her things for herself and the baby, and becomes a Sugar Daddy - which of course she hates because she is independent and feisty. The kind of help she needed was protection from the bad guy, but in her confusion over his reaction to her and their chemistry, she sorta neglects to mention all that at the beginning.

Once the relationship gets physical, Angel is confused even more because Dane is no Derek in that department! (makes ya wonder, though, doesn't it?*)

Meanwhile, over at the family business we meet Dane's overbearing mother and his sister Celia, affianced to Raymond. Raymond is being groomed to step in as CEO after Dane gets the company back on its feet. I'll just say that the narrator gives Raymond a smarmy voice which leads one to believe that maybe Celia doesn't have the catch of the season.

So, we gotta find Derek's killer and Angel's stalker - could it possibly be the same person?

The narrator on this book was slightly better than mediocre - her voice is pleasant, she does manage to have different voices for the characters and she was very consistent with them, even if I found both Raymond's and Mother's voices very obnoxious. That was probably deliberate, but came across almost more cartoony than realistic. It made me wonder every time Raymond spoke what was wrong with Celia that she even liked him. And there's a hint that Raymond wasn't fond of women either*... I also wish narrators wouldn't get breathy when reading intimate scenes - just a straight forward reading of what the author wrote has more impact, in my opinion and experience. Narrators should be required to listen to Kate Fleming and learn some tips - however, talent can't be learned!

My first reaction to the book is 3 stars, so I went back to see my rating for Caught In The Act - I gave it 4 stars. I feel about the same towards this one, with one exception - I loved the other narrator's voice for Mick. A Lot. The other narrator was male, and he dropped his voice a touch and gave it a little... depth, or something - I dunno, it was very sexy. The story affected me about the same, maybe it was a little hotter. So I guess I'll go with a notch above mediocre, which is 4 star territory.

* spoiler alert - as I said, it was an audio book, so I can't exactly go back and figure this out, but it's hinted that maybe Derek's problem with Angel was he preferred men to women in bed, and I finished the story not quite knowing if that was just an assertion by smarmy Raymond, or that is the conclusion one might come to considering Derek was apparently a dud in bed with Angel. Maybe if I had the book and could read the info he left for Angel again... Why he wanted her to abort the baby, though, is still a mystery, no matter what his sexuality, considering he was trying to protect her... and.... ok that part is confusing.

A Little Help From Above by Saralee Rosenberg ***

This is a book that was loaned to me by a friend. I let it sit in my TBR pile for months and months because I've been on a Romance novel binge and this is more Chick Lit.

That, of course, brings up the whole Women's Fiction thing - what is Romance? what is Chick Lit? What is strictly Women's Fiction?

Basically, Romance is a relationship story. There are several sub-genres off that, but a relationship (usually male/female - always m/f in my case) is center to the story. They meet, perhaps not the first time, and develop a love relationship during the course of the book, which ends with a strong possibility they will live happily ever after, together. There may be suspense, comedy, murder involved. It can take place any time, historical or contemporary.

In Chick Lit, from what I can gather, the story is centered around the woman's life, which usually does involve a man. She is single, career-oriented, and probably urban, and we learn the conflicts and obstacles in her life. And there's humor and, from what I understand, usually snarkiness in the writing style. It's (usually or always?) contemporary.

Ok - on to our story. This is the debut novel for author Saralee Rosenberg, written in 2003. It contains a thread about DES, a drug given to women for decades to prevent miscarriages that is now known to cause birth defects and cancer in the children and even grandchildren of the woman who took it. I don't know if Ms. Rosenberg or her family was affected, or if she just used it as a story line.

The Protagonist is Shelby - almost 40, single, a successful and driven journalist in Chicago. She is obnoxious. Rude. Mouthy. Snarky to the extreme. I wanted to reach into the book and slap her about 3 times per page. I kept putting the book down and asking myself if it was worth finishing. There isn't anything she does like: her job, her current boyfriend, past boyfriends, family members - no one is safe from her acid tongue.

Her younger sister calls her to tell her their father and stepmother have been in a near-fatal accident and are both at Death's door, and she tries to figure out a way to avoid going to their home, where she grew up, in New York. Apparently she has some issues: her mother died of cancer when she was 10, her father married the mother's sister (her aunt), her sister and the aunt's son grew up calling both parents Mommy and Daddy, and for some reason to be revealed, Shelby hasn't spoken to any family member in 2 years.

It gets even deeper - her mother's death from cancer spooked her to the point of never going to doctors or hospitals again (or rarely), partly because she blames the hospital and the doctor for her mother's death. Her mother was told it was nothing until it was too late for any treatment. And to cap it all off, her very best friend in the entire world was the boy next door, who moved away with his family the week after her mother died, and he was never heard from again - despite her efforts over the past almost-30 years to locate him. Keep in mind, she was 10 years old at the time.

The book takes on a number of issues, all of which Shelby mouths about but shoulders, in a number of twists that push credibility even for fiction. She is determined to remain single and childless, despite the pushiness of her family. However, her sister is a victim of the DES her mother took - and cannot bear children. She and her second husband push and push and push Shelby to consider being a surrogate mother for them - at age 38? For a neurotic sister with a husband who comes on to Shelby at every chance? Everyone around conspires to make Shelby feel guilty about saying no.

She's also convinced she will find her first love (from age 10?), the boy next door, and live happily ever after with him - she knows he is the only one for her. What, is she a vampire or werewolf who can only have one mate? Also unbelievable, as is how she eventually tracks him down.

The reason we are to believe all this is the Help From Above - Shelby's mother is meddling from the beyond to see that her daughters find happiness in life. So I guess the central theme is Mother's Love Overcomes All Obstacles. Including death.

To be perfectly honest, by the time the book ended, I was happy for her. Ms. Rosenberg's writing is good, and often funny - in spite of my dislike of her heroine, I found myself laughing out loud. And she did manage a romantic HEA for the ending as well, as incredible as it was. I still never got over how mean Shelby was to everyone - maybe it's a New York thing, people talking to each other like that, but it grated on my nerves to the point that I am begrudgingly giving it 3 stars. I didn't think someone who lived and acted and spoke like Shelby even deserved a HEA, especially since I was never convinced she redeemed herself or made a true turn-around in her attitude, but I did manage to like it somehow. Such is the power of good writing.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Death Angel by Linda Howard *****

I have this book on audio from - it's not my first Linda Howard on audio, but my first with Joyce Bean as narrator. I have to say right upfront that for the first several minutes I thought I would have to stop and read it instead. I found her narration stilted and unnatural - she over-enunciated so many words that I wasn't sure I could stand to listen to it for 10 hours.

However, Linda Howard is such an incredible story-teller that before long I was drawn into the story, and the nuances of Ms. Bean's awkward narration disappeared into the background. (shockingly, 3 of the 4 current reviews on noted how great this narrator was... ???) Well, Joyce Bean wasn't dreadful, like the narrator for the first of the Feehan Dark series, but she's no Anna Fields. Personally, if I was allowed to give professional criticism, I'd say lighten up on those T's and D's, and try to make the flow of the narration less stilted and more like natural speech. But who am I? Just another listener.

The story centers around the major theme of the redeeming power of love. The h/h are both anti-heroes - Drea is the mistress of a drug lord, Rafael, thinking she is using men to get what she needs by playing the bimbo; "the Assassin" is just that - a killer-for-hire. The Assassin demands that Rafael give him Drea in lieu of payment - just for one afternoon. Rafael agrees, and leaves Drea heartbroken and sick, feeling worthless and crushed that she meant so little to him. The Assassin manages to make her even more confused, however, in a 4-hour stint that completely breaks her down because she loses control and actually enjoys - no - craves him. Although by the end she is begging him to take her with him, he tells her "once was enough" - and leaves a completely shattered woman, desperate to change her life.

Drea isn't the bimbo everyone believes her to be, however, and she's always had a plan for taking care of herself as soon as she had gotten what she needed from Rafael. She leaves him the next day, and in the execution of her plan, also manages to steal a large amount of his money - a sort of "up yours" gesture. When he figures out he's been had, he hires the assassin to do his job: kill her.

At this point we learn the assassin's name: Simon. He doesn't accept the job right away - first he sees if he can track her down. He admires her courage and her ability to stay one step ahead of him. He was not sure whether he would have taken the job - or her life - if fate hadn't stepped in and taken it from her in an accident. Once he's convinced she's dead, he takes her ID and calls 911. Although he proves to Rafael she is dead, he hadn't accepted the job and so doesn't accept payment either.

But he can't seem to shake her from his life and decides to locate her grave. He needs closure. Instead, he's shocked to learn that Drea actually survived the accident.

Now going by her nickname Andie, she realizes that she was never the one in power or in control of her life as she had thought, but that she had allowed men to use her. Her near-death experience forces her to face the truth of her way of life. Now she needs to reclaim her life and seek redemption for her past. Although she still has the original $2 million she stole from Rafael, she decides to fly under the radar, with a job that pays cash, living on what she makes, and use the money some way that will bring her redemption.

Then Simon is revealed to her by a flash of lightning during a storm - he's been watching her. As the reader, we know he's been her guardian angel, but to Andie he's still the relentless assassin who has found her and plans to finish the job he started. Although he had never planned to reveal himself, once again divine intervention plays a role, and now the two of them must face both their fears. And Andie must find her redemption and reason for her second chance.

Well - I loved the suspense, the skillful story-telling, the powerful transformation Andie undergoes from feeling worthless to finding her power within, and especially Simon's own redemption, because he had so much further to go than she did. Rafael's ending almost caught me unaware - it seemed to come out of nowhere but then made perfect sense after it happened.

I would rate the narration 3 stars for mediocre. I can't blame Linda Howard for that, though, so Death Angel gets 5 stars from me.