Sunday, November 30, 2008

Surrender by Pamela Clare ****

Wow! This was a true adventure story that takes place in America during the French and Indian wars, but stars a couple of Highland Scots, Iain MacKinnon and Annie (aka Lady Anne Burness Campbell).

Iain grew up in America, the son of an exiled Highlander after Culloden. Iain's the eldest of 3 sons, and they live on the family farm (I'm trying to recall - I guess both parents have passed on). They grew up with Mohican's as playmates, and are wise in the Mohican ways. OK, it's spelled differently but Mohican made more sense to me. They get conscripted into becoming Rangers for the British army with a threat of hanging for a murder they did not commit.

Annie was a gently bred virgin from Scotland, daughter of an Earl who died at Prestonpans, the battle before Culloden. Her family fought on the British side of the war, and she feels much fear and hatred for the dreaded MacKinnons who slaughtered her father and brothers. But she learns to fear her evil uncle even more when she realizes his fetish - strangling lovers and in some cases, killing them during sex. This is how her mother dies - which she observes. She runs away, with her mother's jewels sewn into her dress, but is caught, thrown in jail and even branded -by her uncle - as a thief. She is then sold into indenture in America.

Annie escapes her owners when they are slaughtered by Indian and French scouts - and manages to land, barefoot and battered, at the very feet of Iain and his Rangers. He has 2 choices: shoot the bastard that's getting ready to rape her and let their position be known, or skulk away, leaving her but keeping his men safe. Of course, honorable guy, he shoots the Indian and French scouts, then sends his men back to Fort Whichever while he and Annie take the scenic route. Ok, that's not exactly right, but he's doing it to keep both Annie and his men safe.

He manages to get her back to the fort relatively unharmed, never knowing she's lied to him about her name and position both as a lady and as indentured slave. She lets him believe she was living with a sister and brother-in-law as her only living relatives and her name is Annie Burns. She's afraid if he finds out, he'll take her back to Albany where her indenture papers are. She also doesn't want him to find her thief brand, placed high on the inner thigh so that no man will want her.

This is really a terrific adventure story, and the heat level is very, very high, along with some unusual scenes. Apparently the AAR reviewer found at least one of them not to her taste, but I wasn't put off. This same reviewer also felt Iain was a little too alpha, but I guess I missed that part. I felt it was more in the spirit of Marsha Canham's Robin Hood stories - so swashbuckling and fast-paced, old fashion adventure that his actions seemed to be appropriate to his character and the time and the spirit of the story. After all, maybe if he made some decisions for the heroine it was because he was older, a lot more experienced and had a better fix on the situation than an 18-year-old Earl's pampered but spirited and courageous daughter! He can make some decisions for me any day!

4 stars

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Coast Road by Barbara Delinsky ****

Coast Road has an interesting premise - a woman, divorced from her ex for 6 years - is in a car accident and a coma for 16 days. During the 16 days, her ex comes to take care of their children, and also spends time with her, urging her to come back. And in the course of these 16 days, we learn of their relationship - how they met, how they came to live in San Francisco, what led to the divorce and where they are today, mostly from the POV of the hero since the heroine is in a coma.

In addition, we meet the new friends she has made in her new life without him - a book club group of women, the neighbors, work-related friends, as well as the players in his life - a business partner, a steady girlfriend pushing for commitment. It was an interesting way to bring a group together, in tragedy, to test their relationships and force them to look at their lives.

Rachel is an artist, working on a set of paintings for a solo exhibit coming up in 3 weeks, and raising her 2 teenage daughters alone in a small community. Her ex is Jack, an architect in San Francisco - a "Sunday dad" who takes his daughters on weekends from time to time, when he can fit it into his workaholic life.

It was his commitment to building his practice that drove the 2 of them apart. In the city, she seemed to need all his time, while he missed out on school plays and sports meets to jet around the country drumming up business. She had no friends, no outside life except him and the girls.. In her new life, she's surrounded with people who care, who seem to know her better even than he did. Where did they go wrong? He reminisces about meeting her in college, and changing his schedule to take classes with her, be with her. But somehow, along the way, they didn't ever put voice to their future plans, and where his life went, she no longer felt a part and didn't share the dream.

A rather nosy, buttinsky friend spends a lot of time at the hospital with Jack - if not for her, he might not have learned what he did about her new life, things that made him face the truth about his "abandonment" of her. The way he saw it, she left him - and he had never really stopped loving her. He moves into Rachel's home to take care of the girls, and being forced to be the parent in charge, learns to appreciate even more what Rachel has had to face without him. The older daughter is facing her first prom, and is pushing the limits by switching allegiances at school from her safe, known friends, to the faster crowd. Without Rachel there to ask questions and make phone calls, she's able to convince Jack these kids are fine and he should trust her. The younger daughter is griefing for her elderly cat who is on the verge of death, and she is struggling with abandonment as well - first dad, then the cat and now possibly her mother.

I can't decide if it's Romance or Women's Fiction - somehow, not having the heroine participate changes things, although we get a lot of perspective of her before the accident. But I liked it - 4 stars.

Watch and Learn by Stephanie Bond ***

I downloaded this from - it's one of the "Sex for Beginners" trilogy. The premise is that in a college course laughingly referred to as Sex For Beginners, the professor had the participants write themselves a letter containing their sexual fantasies. She sent the letters, unopened, back to the original writer 10 years later.

In Watch and Learn, the heroine Gemma had a fetish for being watched by strangers that she indulged in briefly in college before almost being caught. That event scared her straight, as it were, so that when she was introduced by her best friend to a law student, she decided to give up the fantasy and concentrate on him. They married - lived together for 10 years - but then he divorced her, no reason given, and moved away. She was devastated and had a hard time facing the reality of her new, single life - and then she received the letter.

Next door to her, a house that had been on the market for 2 years had a new buyer - Chev Martinez. He was a carpenter who was flipping houses between commercial jobs, so he had moved in temporarily to renovate. Of course, he was a hunky guy too - which caught Gemma's eye. Motivated by the letter and his looking out his bedroom window one day, she acts out her fantasy.

Unfortunately for Gemma, she's too conflicted by her guilt of the fetish to actually consummate ther relationship - and she still holds on to the other fantasy in her life - that her ex-husband will change his mind and come back. Meanwhile, she needs a job. With a degree in art history and no work experience beyond charity work, she finds it difficult. Happily - and way tooo conveniently - the local museum is hiring temporary help in the form of docents for an adult-themed exhibit of sexual devices and furniture. The docents are required to wear masks to hide their identity and sexy costumes, which somehow Gemma is allowed to wear home (go figure). Seeing Gemma in her outfits, Chev is moved again to put the moves on her, but she still shies away.

I'm not sure if the peacock in the story should be considered a Notable Pet, but one appears in her yard - a male looking for a mate. He's destructive and loud - and Chev has to come over more than once to chase him away from Gemma's car so she can come and go, giving him an opportunity to make small talk and expand their relationship to friends if not with benefits other than occasionally watching.

The narrator on this story was really good! I liked her voices for the characters (well, ok, her accents for Chev and his family were a little odd to me) and she did the narration interestingly without being breathy and overly dramatic (breathiness that doesn't work is my pet peeve in romance audio). She actually made the story work better for me than I think it might have if I had read it. The resolution of Gemma's relationship with her ex, who does try to come back, as well as the details of their divorce, all seemed weird and wonky to me - not very believable. I mean, he just walked out and the divorce was finalized before she had even told her parents? Don't these things take time? Maybe not in Florida, where the book was set, who knows?

And the museum job - I'm sorry, while it had to be this way for the storyline to work, surely no place who has the workers wear costumes just lets them wear them home after work, especially specialty/provocative costumes. Again, I just let those things go and listened to the narrator speak as though it were the most common thing in the world... After all, it was the job and the costumes that allowed Gemma to act out her fantasies for Chev, so without them, where would the story go? But it was the peacock that allowed them to talk, become friends and hopefully grow the relationship that led to their HEA.

so - 3 stars - I liked it.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Whispering Rock by Robyn Carr ****

I was in need of some comfort-food reading material, and somehow marked my records that this was #2 in the Virgin River series. I found the first one, Virgin River, a true comfort read, and so decided to read this one - even though I was saving it for after reading the Grace Valley series.

However, as I read I kept thinking I missed something - sure enough, this is the third book and I missed the second book in the series. I hate when that happens!!

This book had a number of characters from the first - and a number, I guess, from the second that I didn't know the story of. You could read it as a stand-alone, because she fills in with backstory, but I was disappointed to miss out. I guess it will all fall into place when I finally get the second one and read it.

The main romance couple is Jack's sister Brie and Jack's Marine buddy Mike. Both characters had to overcome a major trauma (that I guess we learn about in the second book?) and learn to live and to trust again. Brie's husband left her for her best friend, and not too long after that she prosecuted a major rape case and lost - the rapist went free. The true trauma was that the rapist followed her home, and raped and beat her, and in that instant she went from confident and independent to a shell of her former self. She left her job as county prosecutor, and moved in with her father during her recuperation, and became essentially a hermit - afraid to go out, afraid to be seen.

Mike had been a member of the LAPD, working a gang task force, when he was ambushed and shot by a 14-year-old gang member, and nearly lost his life. After being released from the hospital, he went to Virgin River for physical therapy with Mel. Again, I guess that part was in book two, because at the beginning of the book, he's recuperated enough to take a trip home to visit his family in Los Angeles. He had first met Brie soon after her marriage, and again after her breakup with her husband, and has always carried a torch for her.

But in Carr's books, it isn't just about Mike and Brie - it's still about Jack and Mel, and about Preacher and Paige, and all the other characters in Virgin River as well as their extended families. Hope, who first hired Mel, talks Mike into becoming Virgin River's first cop - a "constable" position that isn't actually a member of a police force. His credentials as a Marine and a member of the LAPD are enough to give him credit, but he spends some time with local sheriffs and other law enforcement types who would normally cover Virgin River to be sure they will accept him and his work. There isn't much crime in Virgin River, unless you count the number of hidden marijuana growers dotting the area, or the occasional drunken misbehavior at Jack's bar. Or unless you realize there seems to be a pattern of high school girls coming to Mel with the marks of date rape, none of whom actually remember what happened.

So Mike does some investigation on this subject, while also trying to spend some time driving to Sacramento and calling Brie, wooing her slowly back to herself. There's another new family in town, also related to the Marine buddies group - a general, his daughter who is married to one of the buddies, and his teenage son Tom. Tom figures in the storyline about the high school date rape issues; the daughter Vanessa is the love interest, not returned, of another of the buddies.

Once again, I was sucked into the lives of the characters in this non-existent small town, wanting to have a beer with them at Jack's bar and gossip with them and go with them to the county fair. I think I might have enjoyed it even more under different circumstances, one of which would be reading it in order!!

4 stars

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Up Close and Dangerous by Linda Howard ***

This is a romantic suspense novel - although it's more a road-trip type (well, a survival trip, anyway).

Bailey is the widow of James Wingate, to whom she was married for a business reason only: she was the trustee of his adult children's trust funds, and Wingate was hoping to shock his kids into being responsible with this action. He was diagnosed with a terminal illness and died less than a year after the marriage to Bailey. The Wingate heirs Seth and Tamzin were pretty hateful and public about it too.

When Bailey takes the Wingate private charter plane to meet her brother for a 2-week vacation, the regular pilot Bret is ill and has to allow his partner Cam to fly the plane. Cam and Bailey have never gotten along, so it seemed like it was going to be a long 5 hour trip - until the engine died over the mountains in Idaho, out of fuel.

Cam manages to find a place to land the plane, but is knocked unconscious with a gash in his head. Bailey has no survival training or skills, but she was on her way to a 2-week rafting trip, so she has 2 suitcases of helpful items including hiking boots and such. She manages to get Cam out of the plane and sutured up, and even builds a shelter of sorts for them.

They spend 5 days in the wilderness - Cam figures out the plane was sabotaged, and they both realize that Wingate's kids must have done it to kill Bailey. Meanwhile, on the ground, we have Cam's partner Bret and their secretary Karen, both shocked and grieving over the suspected deaths. Bret uncovers evidence of potential tampering and turns it over the to NTSB, but without real proof, no arrests can be made. Seth Wingate, scared straight that he might go to prison for this, starts work at his father's company, hoping to avoid any suspicion.

Cam and Bailey also spend their survival time realizing they don't hate each other after all...

So - there ya go. Suspense. Road Trip. Love and a HEA for Cam and Bailey. You'll have to read it yourself to find out whodunit. It wasn't bad, it wasn't good - average. 3 stars.

The Mulberry Tree by Jude Deveraux **

Ahhh... Jude Deveraux - sometimes I love her stories and sometimes... I don't.

I didn't love this one. At all.

The story revolves around Lillian Manville who changes her identity to Bailey after her wealthy husband Jimmie dies and leaves her nothing except a pittance in funds and a run-down farm in Virginia. The billions he leaves to his older brother and sister whom he despised - in fact they get everything, including Bailey's clothes.

The mystery is why - and to be honest, now that I've finished, I don't have a clue why. OK, I know the mystery but I still don't get WHY.

For one thing, when one dies and leaves everything to his/her spouse of 15 or so years, how can anyone contest that and win? Especially when the deceased is a billionaire? So that doesn't seem to be the real reason.

OK set that aside and follow Bailey's journey to discover herself. She was married at 17 to a man some years older than she, somewhere between 9 and 15 years (the years don't all add up in the book...) older, who was on the road to being rich and famous. He plucked her out of a local state or county fair where she was the winner of a jam contest - she was overweight and had an awful crooked, broken nose, but somehow she was the love of his life in the few minutes they spent together before getting married that same day. Go figure.

From the flashbacks and memories Bailey has, we learn that Jimmie did indeed seem to really treasure and love her. But he also had affairs - or seemed to, I guess (same thing in her mind). He was also incredibly, abusively controlling - he kept her fat and ugly and hidden away on purpose, to keep her dependent on him. Then he died and suddenly she was lost. Her mother dead, her only other living relative was her estranged sister; she really had no friends, no one - except Jimmie's lawyer who helped set her up in the farm house.

Then we meet the odd characters of the little town in Virginia. Creepy odd. At first I thought maybe it was going to be a paranormal, since the first 2 women we meet don't seem to think the other one exists. However, it is just a family feud, and they are cousins who don't speak to each other although they are constantly together. They are 2 of the more normal people in town.

Then we spend time with Bailey who is trying to figure out what to do with her life and while doing so, she stumbles over some town secrets. What do the secrets have to do with her? Wellll - maybe there's a connection between this town and her dead husband? Maybe that's the reason he left the billions to his brother and sister and not her?

By the time we get to the turning point in the mystery, I needed a damn scorecard to follow the players. Frankly, I didn't care enough to bother to find paper and write down who was married to whom, who was sleeping with whom, who the parents were of various people. It was a case of a group of small town bullies with a secret that they did everything they could to cover up - and succeeded for years. Where Bailey fits into the story is what you learn when you get to the end. (well, she doesn't really fit in - how's that for a spoiler?)

Since it turns out Jimmie knew the secret all along, why didn't he do something about it while he was alive?? Why did he let his brother and sister get away with so much? Were we supposed to believe he was planning on doing it later or something? And the biggest mystery of all is - why did so many people write positive reviews about this??

There is a (mild) love interest in the story - Matt. Well. I dunno. He's just a local guy, related to but unaware of the town's secret. But it really isn't Matt and Bailey's story - it is more a story of the town, as uncovered by Bailey while she tries to get on her feet after being left destitute by her dead billionaire husband. There was very little romance in this book - I'm not even going to tag it romance. One reviewer mentioned that she feels Deveraux is good at writing about women who have come to crossroads in their lives - maybe that's what I missed about this book, it was about a turning point and not about romance at all. There were several turning points - Bailey's, after Jimmie's death; Jimmie's, when he left the small town and became a billionaire - it seemed every character (and there were a bunch of them) had a major crossroad issue.

I didn't hate it and I finished it, so it gets 2 stars.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Crystal Clear by Jane Heller ****

This is another of the wad o'books I picked up at the Portal Library Sale held each October. I can't recall now whether someone there recommended it, or I picked it up for it's chick-lit cover and possibly the cover blurb.

It's chick-lit to the max, hitting all the points: first person POV, 40+ year-old single career woman from NYC (is it just coincidence that my 2 chick-lit experiences have been Jewish women from NY?) trying to make sense of her life. Like I've come to expect from chick-lit, it's snarky comedy too. Crystal is a CPA, a partner at her NY accounting firm, dating a lawyer - at least, trying to, whenever she and Steven can fit in a movie or dinner in their chockful calendars. Crystal visits her father every Sunday - but he couldn't care less; as far as he's concerned, she's keeping him from his reruns of Barnaby Jones.

All in the space of a couple of days, Crystal learns that Steven's ex-wife is back in his life, causing her to doubt their relationship, and that her accounting firm is about to downsize and she figures she's the partner on the shortlist to go. To top it all off, her father blurts out that the person he misses most is her older brother - a child who died at age 3 before she was born and whose existence was kept a secret from her, until now.

Her assistant at the accounting firm encourages her to become more spiritual and take a trip to Sedona, Arizona, on a quest to find inner peace. The last thing she expects to find in Sedona is her ex-husband Terry - a man she married right out of college, divorced one year later and hasn't seen in 20 years. Apparently he was the quintessential Peter Pan - he'd been a college jock, everyone's favorite, but couldn't settle down and find a job after college and marriage. Job security was apparently very high on her list of important things in life, and without that, their relationship was over.

Just to further complicate her life, once Steven sees her reaction to his ex-wife being around, he decides it's time to get serious, threatens to follow her out to Sedona and begs her to marry him.

Terry apparently settled in Sedona 11 years before, with a girlfriend who got pregnant, had the baby and split - leaving him with a preemie infant to raise. That experience forces maturity on him - he starts a company taking tourists on Jeep tours around Sedona, buys a house, and in effect finally becomes what Crystal had been looking for in a man: mature and settled down.

On the Jeep tour is a millionaire heiress, Amanda, and her entourage: a group of unhappy lackeys, all of whom have ulterior motives and agendas which make them each a suspect when Amanda goes missing. But the number one suspect is a close friend of Terry's, a native American spiritual guide, and Crystal decides to do whatever she can to help clear his name.

Now - I'm sorta conflicted about this book. I enjoyed it, mostly, and am rating it 4 stars. But there were some things that really bothered me about this book. Crystal's attitude was nowhere near as annoying and snarky and outright obnoxious as that of Shelby in With A Little Help From Above. But it was not exactly the opposite of that, either, and some of the things she said and thought just rubbed me wrong (not that I can come up with a single example now...). While I know I should expect this in chick-lit, I also felt that the characters of Amanda, the shallow millionaire heiress, and all of her entourage, were cardboard and 2 dimensional. Yeah, yeah, it was supposed to be (sorta) funny and all, so they were cartoony, which I didn't like, because I felt the author went overboard in her effort to make them that way.

Then there was Annie, Terry's 10-year-old daughter - another character who just didn't exactly ring true. I'm not exactly an authority on kids, but have known my share - and the whole bit of her watching C-Span and discussing politics just did not ring true. OK, maybe it was just smart-ass writing, and we're just supposed to think the kid was worldly and wise, but I thought she pushed the envelope on that. However, she did pull back and have the kid say some kid-like things and have some kid-like reactions - until the end. Then I was rolling my eyes again at the trampoline scene at the end which really did not work for me. It should have been suspenseful and scary, but instead was silly and unrealistic.

Maybe I'm expecting too much - I like a laugh as much as the next person, and hey - I read Time Travel books, so who am I to expect realism? And in the end, I did enjoy the story as a whole - although I would like for the epilogue to have wrapped it up for me a little better. Somehow just taking her to the house, and not inside for the reactions, was like being a kid and having one of my sisters offer me a cookie then eat it herself and laugh at me...

Monday, November 24, 2008

Open Season by Linda Howard *****

I have listened to the abridged audio book of Open Season three - or more? - times and it's one of my favorites. However, I knew I was missing out on the whole experience, because abridged means a lot of the story was left out. So when I purchased an eBay lot of Howard's books, I was glad it contained Open Season, and I picked it up to read.

As a matter of fact, the abridged version does a very good job of giving most of the story, and most of the very best scenes in the book. But, having listened to it so many times, I could practically mark the book with the deletions made!

Daisy Minor faces her 34th birthday with some dread: she's drab. She's a small town librarian, and she lives up to the worst stereotype: she's single and hasn't had a date in years, she's prim and prissy, and she lives at home with her widowed mother and aunt. She decides she needs to spruce up her wardrobe, her hair and her makeup and be a party girl if she wants to ever meet a man, much less get married.

Jack Russo is the small town chief of police, but he's an outsider, having grown up in Chicago. His police background is as a SWAT member in both Chicago and New York City - but when his elderly aunt died and left him her home in this small town, he decided maybe it was time to make a change, so he gave up his big city cop life and is now the chief of police in a community with very little in the way of crime.

Jack and Daisy first meet in the library when Jack goes in to sign up for the virtual library. He gets a kick out of her prickly behavior, but she's put off by his invading her space and being too big, too male. But the next time they meet, he saves her from a barroom brawl she's inadvertently started. He follows up on that meeting by taking her for a ride while he updates her on the potential dangers of date-rape drugs being used in the area.

The story is a romantic suspense - the suspense is that the local good ol' boy mayor is actually involved in the sex trade, and has in his employ several shady characters, one of whom (Mitchell) has been killing women with GBH. Daisy is in her car in the bar parking lot when she witnesses one of the other bad guys having Mitchell killed - and now they need to tie up that loose end by killing Daisy!

The truly famous scene in this book is when Daisy decides the best way to announce her availability to the single men of her small town is to buy condoms at the local drug store. She knows the pharmacist's wife will spread the gossip, so she goes in and grabs a PartyPak - half a gross of condoms in varying colors and flavors. As she's checking out, Jack gets behind her in line. The dialog after they leave the drug store is hysterical, and has me gasping for breath every time I listen to it. The next best scene is when they actually use the PartyPak, trying to decide what the best color will be. These two scenes always come up in discussions of funny moments in romance novels.

There's also a Notable Pet - Midas, the golden retriever puppy Daisy gets as a guard dog. Midas eats everything in sight, and is pretty much adorable through and through. Having owned a goldie, I can picture this puppy completely!

So it's still one of my favorite books, and I now know "the rest of the story." Mostly what was left out of the abridged audio was detail: there's nothing about Daisy's sister Beth and her family; there's less detail in every scene (even the condom scenes); there's less detail about the puppy - the scene where she picks him out of the litter is left out. Pretty much everything about Todd Lawrence was left in, though, which still has me scratching my head: was Todd Lawrence working as a federal agent on the sex-trade issue, or was his involvement only personal? I never did figure that part out. If not, then what the heck were he and Howard doing? And that scene in the epilogue with the mayor's wife and Sykes, well, that was just creepy - was it a setup for a sequel or just there to make us be creeped out? Cuz frankly, I'm not sure I want a story about Jennifer and Sykes, because they weren't exactly sympathetic characters to begin with. Well... then again, I loved LH's Death Angel, and those were 2 similarly nefarious and flawed characters.

Still 5 stars.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

An Accidental Woman by Barbara Delinsky *****

This is the sequel to Lake News and it's the story of Poppy Blake, the middle of the 3 Blake sisters we met in that book. They all live in Lake Henry, a small town in New Hampshire.

Delinsky writes in the back of the book that she originally planned to do 4 Lake Henry books, one for each season. But she didn't write more Lake Henry books for several years after Lake News, and then only because of the requests for Poppy's story.

At the end of Lake News, Poppy has finally met in person Griffin Hughes, a journalist who had been calling for news about her sister Lily's debacle (the false rumors of her being a Catholic Cardinal's lover). They struck up a relationship by phone, and Poppy never wanted him to know she was paraplegic. She's actually got a good setup - her home was built specifically for her needs, and she has what seems to be state-of-the-art equipment - wheelchair, car - for getting around. But she's never fully forgiven herself for the role she played in the accident that killed her boyfriend and caused her injuries 12 years earlier. They meet in person at the news conference at the end, and we are left only to imagine that a relationship bloomed between them at that point. An Accidental Woman takes up several weeks later, after John and Lily marry, and Poppy has given Griffin the brush-off.

Griffin Hughes doesn't have much in the way of secrets or disabilities himself, unless you count a sister having run away and never being found some 7 years earlier. He comes from Money and has 4 or 5? brothers, all of them living high-powered lives, but since their sister ran away after a drug scandal, the family hasn't been close. However, he mentioned to his FBI brother that a cold case fugitive photo looked a lot like a woman he met in Lake Henry - and the next thing you know, Heather Malone has been arrested for murder and flight from prosecution.

The FBI is claiming Heather is actually Lisa Matlock, who ran over and killed an influential California politician's son 15 years ago and was never brought to justice. Heather claims she is indeed Heather Malone, but refuses to help the lawyer, Cassie, with any details that might exonerate her. Now in jail in another New Hampshire town awaiting trial, Heather left behind her lover Micah and his 2 young daughters with whom she'd been living for 4 years - well, it was heartbreaking all in all.

And Griffin is responsible for this, he feels, responsible for tearing the town in half - half thinking Heather could never have killed anyone and she wasn't this Lisa, and half thinking nobody really knew Heather or what she was really capable of.

Like Lake News, it's a complicated story with a cast of thousands (well, ok, dozens), all fully fleshed out. I said Lake News wasn't complex or layered - I'm not sure I was using the right adjectives. It's got several storylines going on at once - Poppy coming to terms with her disability; Poppy coming to terms with her mother Maida; Griffin's search for his sister and also his search for redemption for having inadvertently turned Heather in; Heather's story - was she Lisa? - and Micah's story - could he still love Heather if she was Lisa and had never told him the truth? We got a glimpse of Lily and John, and we got a taste of the life of lawyer Cassie and her husband and children. Everyone has a story, all intertwined, and all leading up to whether they could let the past rule their present and their futures.

There was a twist in the book that felt forced and not as natural, almost as if there were no other way to find the child given up for adoption so the author threw in an extra, sort of mysterious character. I'm not sure why that bothered me - it wasn't really that outrageous, it just didn't flow easily from the story in my own mind. It seemed too pat, too coincidental. And where we got justice for the wrongs done to Lily in Lake News, we had to settle for what little justice could be had for Heather when the facts were put on the table. It was a lot messier than Lily's cut-and-dried situation: Lily had not done anything at all wrong, including the affair which did not exist. What Heather had done - what Poppy had done - even what Cassie was doing to her own family, these things were not as simplistic and as easy to resolve. No Die Hard YESSS! moments here.

Still the story was tender and touching and I teared up on more than one occasion, most notably when Micah's younger daughter Star urges him to go see Heather in jail and take her a tuna fish sandwich so maybe Heather would be think of Star when she ate it. It reduced an enormously complicated issue to a very small and simple one: all that really mattered to Star was whether Heather thought about Star, or had left her for good, like Star's mother had done by dying.

There's a notable pet in the blind cat Victoria that Griffin picks up in town and then loses to Poppy, and the maple sap business is given enough copy that you'll be able to open your own someday - but not so much that I felt like I was being lectured to!

I am not as conflicted about the genre on this story - this is really women's fiction. The actual romance between Griffin and Poppy is no more important that the relationship between Micah and Heather, and there are other threads in the story that overwhelm these as well. But still, it was a wonderful, relaxing, satisfying and heart-wrenching read.

5 stars!

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Lake News by Barbara Delinsky *****

This is a new-to-me author whose name I've seen listed in lots of PBS bookshelves but not discussed much in the forums I frequent or the blogs I read. A friend in the area loaned me this and the sequel, An Accidental Woman, to read, and I bought a slew of her books at the local library sale as well.

It seems Delinsky straddles the Women's Fiction/Romance genre borders, from what I can tell. Her book affected me like the Robyn Carr book, Virgin River, I read recently - I truly loved it. I found the writing warm, and lush - not complex or layered as much as detailed and thorough. Well, I'm not much of an author myself, so maybe I'm not describing it right. There were some suspenseful moments, and some tender, heart-breaking moments, and I felt those. I felt Lily's fear as she battled the newspaper reporters after being accused of having an affair with a Catholic priest, and I felt John's grief as he watched his father - as he wrestled with the feelings of inadequacy and longing for approval. She made me feel - and that's my first requirement of a good story.

Both Lake News and Virgin River also made me long for a small town to go home to, a community of people who know me and accept me for what I am and defend me. That's actually laughable since I grew up in a small town and frankly don't have any yearning to ever return there. I don't find the reality of small town living anywhere near the romance of it in fiction. (I don't count my current rural living as really small-town because I consider "small town" as more like 1000-5000 people, with the accompanying accoutrements, and I'm rural, as in, pack a lunch to go into town rural.)

The Blake family of Lake Henry, New Hampshire, has run the apple orchard and cider business for generations. Currently Maida Blake is in charge, since George died some years back. Maida's daughters Poppy and Rose live in town. Poppy's paraplegic, and lives in a cottage on Maida's property, and Rose is married and lives in town. Rose and Maida don't approve of the oldest Blake sister's life: Lily Blake is a nightclub singer and music teacher in Boston.

Lily left Lake Henry after a teenaged scrape that gave her a (sealed) juvenile record: a boyfriend, Donny Kipling, stole a car and took her riding in it. She didn't know it was stolen, but he claimed she did so his jail sentence would be reduced. Now living a relatively quiet life in Boston, she counts among her friends and associates Father Francis Rosetti, who has just been elevated to Cardinal. A Boston reporter decides there's more than friendship, and cons Lily into making some statements that, taken out of context, set her up as the Cardinal's lover - and the story breaks on page one of major newspapers all across the country.

John Kipling is Donny's older brother. He also left Lake Henry at a young age - but he's about 8 or so years older than Lily, so he didn't really know her then. He's become an accomplished journalist, but 3 years before his father had a heart attack, and John decided to move back to Lake Henry to watch over his dad, and run the local weekly newspaper, the Lake News. Donny died years ago, and their mother left their father a long time before that, so John is Gus's only relative. Not that Gus has ever respected him, or forgiven him for leaving, or anything. Gus is a crusty old bastard, and John grits his teeth and goes forward, trying still to win his approval after all these years. When John gets a call from his long-time nemesis, the crooked journalist who broke the Lily/Cardinal rumors/story, he develops an interest in the story.

The book chronicles, in rich details, what Lily goes through - losing her two jobs in Boston, her flight to NH to hide and her slowly developing relationship with John. John is hoping to get a book deal out of Lily's true story of injustice, and he's got a publisher chomping at the bit for it - but his sense of honor won't allow him to use the underhanded techniques his colleagues used to break the story. He works away at Lily slowly - and slowly finds himself head over heels in love with this shy singer with a stutter.

Reading the book felt like swaying in a hammock, comforting and comfortable, and the ending was satisfying and smile-inducing. In fact, on one level, it almost had the same effect that watching Die Hard movies has on me: wanting to jump up and shout YESSS! when the bad guys get it and the good guys come out on top. Except not in a shouting way, but just a smile and a nod of the head. Same emotion, different level, is all.

Now - why is it more women's fiction than romance? Well, the emphasis of the tome is more on their lives and their families and neighbors and how they intertwine than the actual romantic relationship between Lily and John, but it's a tiny, narrow line between the 2 genres and could be either, really. There are also the undercurrents of the relationships between father and son, and between mother and daughter - the latter shown between Maida and Lily, and echoed in Rose and her daughter Hannah, but these don't necessarily make it not a romance. In a Harlequin/Blaze I have on audio, Hot for Him by Sarah Mayberry, the relationship between the heroine and her mother is an important element and the book is still romance.

Anyway, it's a 5 star read, and I'm already several pages into the sequel.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Now You See Her by Linda Howard ****

This book came from an eBay glom I did - got several LH books for a low, low price. I read it, I enjoyed it - but it wasn't --- great.

It's a murder mystery with a background in romance. Maybe it should be called a thriller or suspense - I just went googling in search of some definition assistance. Mystery is the unveiling of the clues, the whodunit, and in suspense you as the reader know it's going to happen but not how the protagonists will react or the outcome of the suspense (to which the protagonists are not privy).

So this was a mystery with suspense - well, thriller maybe, because while the victims didn't know it was coming, the hero and heroine sure did.

I agree with some of the criticisms pointed out by the 2 reviewers on AAR for this story. Our heroine, Sweeney, became psychic - she sees dead people. She knows the answers to Jeopardy! before the clues are even revealed. Her presence makes traffic get out of the way, traffic lights turn green and cars abandon the best parking spots so she can park right in front. And she sleep-paints death scenes and is unnaturally cold afterwards. But, why? What happened to her to make these gifts suddenly start? What is the significance of the traffic and the Jeopardy! answers, other than to prove she has some gift? We are never shown and we are never told.

She's an artist, living in NYC, and since her Gifts appeared, she's been painting stuff she finds weird and wrong - although once shown to her adoring gallery owner, it seems everyone loves them. Ah - the adoring gallery owner is going through a nasty divorce from Richard Worth, a Horatio-Alger story fellow, grew up poor, got rich and is now dumping Candra.

Candra's another dilemma. If Richard was as great a lover as she thinks, WTF was she doing screwing everything in pants? We are shown she's a snob - and maybe there's a hint of insecurity, but it doesn't add up to sexual addiction, which is the only answer I could come up with for collecting an average of 2 additional lovers a month. Or more. She makes it clear he was insatiable so how could she be even more insatiable than he? We are never told. Richard knows about her adultery, but he's an honorable fellow who keeps his vows until she reveals she had an abortion. Then it's over.

Richard has always thought Sweeney was attractive. Sweeney was always too wrapped up in her art to give any man a single thought. Until that Diet Coke commercial...

OK - she sees Richard for the first time since the Gift and in her heightened awareness is wildly attracted to him. And he senses it and returns it in spades.

The story is then about how Sweeney has these two episodes of painting while asleep, each a murder scene. The second one comes in spurts - first just shoes, then more but no face. When she finally paints the face and learns who the victim is, the victim is dead. Now we're on a manhunt to uncover the killer whose face hasn't yet been painted. Uh, why didn't they watch her at night to see if she would paint the killer's face??

There was a shortlist for the position of killer - there weren't that many characters in the story - and it's given away pretty easily. So - I enjoyed reading it, I liked the hero, I didn't understand the heroine, and the story wasn't as good as I've come to expect from a great author like Linda Howard. Yeah, yeah, a rich guy, an artist, a senator and his ambitious bitch of a wife, the gallery owner and her lover - whodunit? Guess.

still, 4 stars because she is such a good writer that even mediocre from her is 4 stars.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Reckless by Amanda Quick ****

Reckless was picked up at the local library sale, which this year I realized is mostly the dregs and leftovers of donated books, probably donated back every year, and not the overstock of the actual library. When I chose it, I had only read one other Amanda Quick - since then I read the AAR Top 100 of 2007 pick, Ravished, and enjoyed it quite a lot.

I enjoyed this one as well. Phoebe Layton, youngest daughter of an earl, is an imaginative and daring young woman who harbors a strong Arthurian-legend streak - she likes to believe there are indeed knights-errant out there to help damsels in distress. Of course, she manages to put herself in distress so often, she should have realized the lack of available knights.

Her last suitor, Neil Braxton, was apparently searching the South Seas for enough treasure to win her hand when he was murdered by a pirate. The token she gave him before he left, a book of medieval romance, has returned to England, possibly in the possession of that very pirate - and Phoebe sets off on a quest to find the book and unmask the murderer. It's not that she actually loved Neil - indeed, she was glad he was gone, because she didn't love him and has no intention of marrying until she finds true love.

She cloaks herself in disguise as The Veiled Lady and spends 2 months attempting to hire the services of Gabriel as the knight-errant to help her on the quest for the pirate. Gabriel has just returned from an 8-year odyssey to the South Seas himself, having gone after being financially ruined by Phoebe's father when Gabriel attempted to rescue Phoebe's older sister from an arranged marriage she dreaded. It seems Gabriel, like Phoebe, once harbored that same romantic Arthurian streak, which was squashed and ended forever after this ill-advised event. Meredith, as it turns out, was just having pre-wedding jitters, married the arranged fellow and is now happy as a clam with him and their 3 children - no one else in the family actually has Phoebe's romantic, reckless streak.

Gabriel wants revenge against the family for forcing him to leave the country, and when he realizes it's the younger daughter who is seeking his services, decides to ruin her. Of course, he's also drawn to her because of her daring and courage. And he does not reveal to her that he is the owner of the book of her quest - he took it from Neil's cabin after forcing the fellow to walk the plank.

It seems the two are each keeping lots of secrets from the other: Gabriel is also the anonymous author of a popular new book. Phoebe knows this because she is secretly the publisher and editor of the book - she has become the silent but controlling financial partner of a publisher because it's too risky for a woman, especially of Society, to be in trade.

All of Gabriel's attempts to manage Phoebe end in disaster as Phoebe will not be managed or dictated to (Isn't that just like a man! Will he never learn?), and no one has ever been able to do so. When her father and brother approach him in a club - first to challenge him, then to merely warn him - he starts to understand their motivation: they love her and want to protect her, mostly from herself! And then he begins to realize he is also falling in love with her, which will negate all efforts to affect revenge.

It's a fun tale, and Phoebe's daring and outrageous actions never seem to come across as Too Stupid To Live - mostly they're hare-brained schemes or Lucy Ricardo-esque situations. When she ties the sheets together to escape her Night In Hell, she is actually rescuing herself from a dangerous situation. And her knight-errant, Gabriel, through clever story-telling, always manages to be there to rescue his lady in distress.

4 stars

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Notorious Rake by Mary Balogh ****

Ah, so I figured out the connections amongst The Trysting Place, A Counterfeit Betrothal and this book. The hero of this book is Lord Edmond Waite from The Trysting Place - the man who pursued Felicity Wren first as a mistress, then as a bride. The heroine is Mary, Lady Mornington, Marc's "friend" from A Counterfeit Betrothal. At the beginning, Mary is trying to get over her loneliness from the loss of her friendship with Marc, and Edmond is still nursing his wounds from being jilted by Felicity - and suffering from the effects of his jilting of his long-time betrothed, Dorothea.

This is the deepest and darkest of the three books, with the accidental death of Edmond's brother some 15 years before coloring his every action from that day forward. He had even considered suicide, which isn't surprising considering his father, his other brother and even his mother - who died shortly after the accidental death - considered him a murderer. The facts of the death were really so shocking that I found it hard to believe that his father could have been so cruel, considering his father was elemental in the circumstances that surrounded the accident.

Those facts drove Edmond to be the rake, the libertine he was - and his shocking jilting of Dorothea for Felicity (in the previous book) made him persona non grata to the ton which exacerbated his condition. It was just happenstance that he appeared in a party at Vauxhall Gardens where Mary went at the invitation of a friend, hoping to re-start her lonely social life. And it was her phobia of lightning that forced her into his arms when they were trapped out walking the gardens.

This was a shocker of a scene for me - her previous books have never had the hero and heroine in a sexual clinch by page 15 before, especially scandalous since they had just met! Mary is certainly ashamed of her actions - her willingness even - but allows him to take her to the home he maintains for mistresses (none currently in residence) and spend the night.

It seems they are both surprised and confused by the attraction. She is not his type at all - she's a bluestocking, hosting weekly intellectual salons in her home; she's petite, not a striking beauty. He is nothing like what she wants or needs in a man - his roving eye alone puts him beyond the pale. Still, he pursues her, against her wishes, and to the outrage of her friends and acquaintances.

Balogh puts an interesting twist into the story in the form of Lord Goodrich - a widower with grown children who pursues Mary for his next wife. Goodrich also maintains a mistress and her 5 children by him, unbeknownst to Mary, and had even before his first wife died. Mary never did find out, but it made an interesting comparison - was Goodrich really better than Edmond? After all, Edmond wasn't married and had no illegitimate children to support. He just liked to party, and put up a good front drinking and gambling, though actually never to excess.

It's Edmond's meddling Aunt Eleanor who provides the catalysts in the book. After Edmond takes Mary to a garden party there, Eleanor can see that Edmond has fallen in love with her, and goes out of her way to include the 2 of them in invitations. As her 60th birthday approaches, she hosts a week-long house party, and invites both Mary and Lord Goodrich, as well as her nephew. Indeed, the surprise guests include her brother and nephew - Edmond's father and brother from whom he is still estranged. Forcing Edmond to face his past and reconcile with his father and brother eventually brings out his true inner nature.

Well, actually, it's a sort of complicated psychological story about a man who has suppressed his true self, running from it and trying as hard as possible to be the very opposite, to live up to the reputation he gained through gossip and innuendo. The true inner nature is what Mary reacts to, and falls in love with even though he hides it from everyone else.

OK - not sure I've explained it well. To be honest, I liked the previous book quite a lot better, but this one I still really liked, so it's a 4 star read and an AAR Top 100 of 2007 checked off.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A Counterfeit Betrothal by Mary Balogh *****

What a delightful and different story this was! It's listed as the 2nd in the series, between The Trysting Place and A Notorious Rake, which is an AAR Top 100 of 2007 - so I collected the series from eBay to read in order. I don't recall any connected characters from The Trysting Place showing up in this book (perhaps at the wedding?) - but I am so glad I read this!

Although the backcover blurb leads you to believe this is the story of Lady Sophia Bryant arranging with an old family friend, Lord Francis Sutton, to have a pretend engagement, it's equally the story of the reason behind their deception. Sophia's parents have been estranged for 14 years, and in an attempt - a la Parent Trap - to get them back together, Sophia tries to come up with a plan that will force them to get together. She decides that a completely impossible marriage offer will do the trick - Marc and Olivia will have to get together to convince Sophia not to go through with the relationship.

Who is more impossible than Francis? Practically from birth, he has been teasing her and goading her and getting her into scrapes and trouble as she followed him and his older brothers everywhere. There is no way in the world she would ever consider actually becoming engaged to him, and she knows he is the one person her parents will never allow - so she will throw fits and threaten to elope with him or worse - until she knows they have realized their love for one another and gotten back together. And then, of course, Sophia and Francis will cry off and go their merry ways. She, for one, never intends to actually marry anyone, especially not Francis.

Francis, a few years older and really not much wiser, decides it's an amusing way to spend the next few days - or weeks - or, good God, not years? So he goes along with the plan, a sort of anchor in her madness.

Their dialog scenes are hysterically funny - he continues, as he did when they were children, to goad her into arguments and tease her and... well, they have to kiss every now and then to keep up the charade, do they not?

But the real love story is Marc and Olivia's story. Fourteen years ago, Olivia insisted Marc go to London to a friend's wedding while she stayed home with measle-ridden Sophia, against Marc's wishes to stay home with his family. While out on the town with his friends, they dare him and goad him and he gets drunk and visits a brothel with the them. Unable to keep it secret, the guilt-ridden Marc confesses all to Olivia, who, in her innocence and naivite, cannot find it in her heart to forgive him. Ever. He leaves, but continues to write begging her forgiveness for six months. She finally breaks it off, and they have only exchanged polite letters about Sophia's welfare ever since.

Of course, Sophia's news does bring them together, and her father hosts a house party with Francis' parents and their friends. Trying to convince her not to go through with the betrothal is more difficult than they originally thought, considering they were even younger when they themselves wed, so they agree. Sophia, keeping up the deception, decides it will be best if they go ahead and plan the wedding for right away so that Olivia must stay at her husband's house. Francis laughingly goes along, threatening all along to commit her to Bedlam for the madness of her plan. She even slips from time to time, talking about after they are wed - where will they honeymoon? And perhaps her parents would stay together until the first child is born... Oh, wait, they are not actually going to go through with the wedding! Right! She would sooner wed a toad!

The counterpoint to the farce is the underlying agony of Marc and Olivia - both still in love with the other but unable to close the breach and admit their feelings and forgive each other and themselves for the past 14 years.

Marc and Olivia are really the hero and heroine of the book, in my opinion - it is really their story, of learning to love and trust and forgive against the backdrop of the two young lovers, er, friends, well, enemies, but... It's a delightful romp and a touching love story, braided together.

5 stars.

Shane by Jack Schaefer *****

Recently I downloaded a PDF of extras for Suzanne Brockmann's latest in the Troubleshooter Series, #13 Into The Fire, from the author's website. On it she has a workshop, Tall, Dark & Believable: Writing compelling romance heroes in which she mentions Shane as being one of her all-time favorite heroes. In fact, she says, "No doubt about it, this character has influenced every one of the men in my books." (In case you're not familiar with Shane, it's a Western.)

For one thing, for you Brockmann/Troubleshooter fans, Sam Starrett's last name is the surname of the family in the book, no doubt a tribute. Shane himself has no last name, although you can see Shane's character and his implied background in Sam as well.

I've seen the movie Shane a couple of times, maybe more, but had never read the book - which, she points out, is her inspiration, not the movie. So I gandered over to the Amazon hitchin' post and ordered me a copy. I didn't just get any ol' copy, I got The Critical Edition, which comes packed with a lot of other stuff - mostly reviews and critical expositions on Schaefer the author and Shane the concept and Schaefer's symbolism and historical details and such. It's a lot of stuff - I read some of it before jumping into the meat of the story (which is short, by the way) and a couple of things after I was done.

First the story. From what I recall, the movie is a pretty fair rendition of the story - even if Alan Ladd doesn't exactly fit my image of the gunslinger. And hey - they changed the kid's name from Bob to Joey in the movie!

The story is told in first person by Bob Starrett the adult, as a recollection from his childhood. Shane is a mysterious stranger who shows up at the Starrett's Wyoming homestead one afternoon in the late 1880s. He asks to water his horse, and as he's leaving, Bob's father Joe Starrett asks him to stay for supper and the night.

The Starretts are one of several homesteaders in the area, working their 160-acre plots as both farmers and minor cattle ranchers. According to some of the extra material in my edition, this was a critical time for open-range ranchers and homesteaders, and there was a lot of political activity, mostly funded and initiated by cattle barons, to keep homesteaders from fencing out the cattle from ranging. That's actually an issue that is hot even today in some states - but I digress.

The other homesteaders consider Joe their leader, and when Joe's most recent hired hand is forced out of town by cattle baron Fletcher's cowboys, a line has been drawn in the sand. Between the 2 factions lies the town and the people who live there to serve them. The town isn't Switzerland, though, and their loyalties shift with the perceived power - which, at the time Shane arrives, is slightly leaning toward Fletcher.

Joe and his wife Marian both take to Shane immediately, although it isn't made 100% clear through Bob's youthful and naive eyes exactly why. In fact, as the reader you're left to draw your own conclusions at the end. I kept wondering if in fact they knew him, or knew of him, all along. Shane also takes to them, all 3 of them, and warily settles in as a hired hand. One thing is clear: he owns a gun, but he never carries it. Another is only hinted at - the balance of power on the Starrett ranch shifts perceptibly when Shane takes over Joe's chair at the dinner table. It's a powerful image but conflicting, because in Bob's eyes, Joe never really gives up anything to Shane, he only accommodates him to serve his own purposes.

The cattle baron tries to run Shane out of town, sending cowboys to rough him up, but Shane is wise in the ways of fighting, even without a gun. And he does have a reputation - of the 2 cowboys sent first, one either recognizes him or is scared off by his looks, and leaves town rather than face him. I read it as recognition. The other takes him on, much to Shane's chagrin. Shane doesn't want to fight him - and lets him know it before breaking his arm.

Fletcher takes it up a notch by bringing in a gunfighter who goads another homesteader into a gunfight, in which the homesteader is killed. Then Fletcher puts the ball in Starrett's court: sell out or face the consequences. Joe wants to sell out, to save everyone - Shane, Marian, the other homesteaders - from any further fighting. Oh, you know he doesn't really want to sell out - but he's a family man, and a leader - he knows he must at least put voice to the fact that people and lives come first, even before honor if it means being Dead Right. It's a lesson that goes a long way with Bob, I felt, even though Marian and Shane convince him leaving is not the answer. Marian knows leaving without a fight will mean giving up more than land, and that it will go against all the things he believes in. She knows he is doing it for her, but stands her ground.

The issue of any feelings between Marian and Shane is left completely to the reader's imagination. Bob overhears things said between them, and he relays them filtered through his youth. It could be she fancied him as a man, as a lover, or it could just be that she saw him as a hero just as Bob did. Her love for Joe is never really questioned, in my mind, by Bob's narrative. Her reaction to Joe after the bar fight gives me the idea that Shane brings out the good and the strong in Joe, which she appreciates. I think even the movie gives you more of her wanting Shane than might be there in the book. She only questions whether what Shane does for them is only for her - she speaks this as though maybe something has passed between them, maybe only shared looks and nothing more.

Well - this isn't romance, although there is a happy ending for Joe and Marian. We don't know if Shane ever gets his happy ending, because he does what Western heroes do - he goes off into the sunset, alone. The scene, through Bob's eyes, choked me up, but the real tears started after that, when a cowboy shows up to take Shane's place on the farm. I can't rightly say why that got me going, but as I write this now I'm tearing up again. It isn't just Shane, it's Joe, and it's Marian and it's the town and the cowboy. Shane wasn't the only hero in the book, he was just the catalyst to bringing out the hero in every good person in the story, even Bob. Maybe especially Bob. While the movie ends with Joey-the-kid calling out to Shane not to leave, the book goes on to show us more of the impact on Bob's life, the lessons he took away from the entire story. He already had more than Shane had ever had - loving parents, a strong community, roots, education. Shane was just a passerby who made it all clear.

5 stars. A tearjerker and a keeper. Maybe I'll even read all those boring critical reviews about all the symbolism and stuff.

Monday, November 17, 2008

In A Bind by Stephanie Bond *****

I had been listening to Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, narrated by Anna Fields. In fact, I was up to the part where Carmen takes Mr. Hosikawa upstairs. I've already read the book, so I know what happens. The thing is, I needed an audio book to listen to on my drive to town today, and frankly wasn't in the mood for Bel Canto. It's not romance, and while there is actually a happy ending for some of the characters, the ending is so jarring, so not-happy for other characters (which, if you haven't read it, is foretold in the first chapter, so I'm not really giving a spoiler) that I just couldn't do it.

So I went into my audible library and stared. What appealed to me? Nuttin'. Then I perused my wish list. Nuttin'. OK. I looked through the Blaze listings at audible - yeah, a Blaze - short and hot - sounded good.

Lucky for me, I happened into something new that I enjoyed! I didn't even realize it was a series by Stephanie Bond called Sex for Beginners. The premise is completely unique to me: 3 college friends took a class laughingly referred to as Sex For Beginners - a psychology class that examined sexuality. The teacher had each student write herself a letter containing a sexual fantasy, a letter the teacher vowed to send to each student 10 years later.*

It's 10 years later, and each heroine receives her letter. If the other 2 (Watch and Learn and No Peeking) are the same, the letter is the device that changes everything for the heroine.

In this story, Zoe Smythe is an international flight attendant from Atlanta, engaged to be married to Kevin in a month. She is on her last international flight, to Sydney, Australia, and after she marries she wants to be closer to home. In her section is a gorgeous, hunky Aussie - Colin Cannon - who unnerves her with his looks and his looking at her. During a break, she tries to work on her wedding plans, and opens mail she has brought along. In it she has received the letter from herself, 10 years earlier, with a fantasy of bondage. She hasn't thought about college or the letter or even this fantasy in years, and it also unnerves her.

Colin leaves his seat to find her, and motions to a lavatory - where they join the Mile High Club - and he uses his silk tie to restrain her hands. Although it is totally out of character for her, she believes, she felt drawn to him anyway, and was so ... tempted... unsettled... by her letter to herself, that she gives in to this one, uncharacteristic indulgence. She loves Kevin, really, but he has never exactly given a mind-blowing orgasm... and... well, she can't imagine Kevin ever agreeing to any bondage either, so just this once...

Later, at the resort hotel in Sydney where she and a co-worker are staying for a few days, she runs into Colin again. She angrily accuses him of following her, and discovers, to her chagrin, he actually owns the hotel. He offers her more of what they shared onboard the airplane - and she is tempted. She googles him, and learns he's a wealthy ex-soccer player who is often featured on the society pages with a certain woman on his arm.

In spite of her misgivings both about her own situation, and Colin's apparent relationship, she can't let the fantasy go, and finds herself knocking on his penthouse door.

Ok - without reciting the entire plot, they do spend several days together indulging in Zoe's bondage fantasies, and telling each other it's just sex, not love, a last-minute pre-wedding fling to get it out of their systems. What the author does well is start to put the nugget in the reader's mind about the same time the characters start to feel it - there is more than sex, there is emotion between them, and a relationship is building. When Colin takes her to his outback ranch and discovers how much she enjoys it, he compares Zoe's experience to his girlfriend's - which is just the opposite. The girlfriend hates it, and was actually attacked by magpies! I like how Ms. Bond showed me with their actions and dialog that they were falling in love without actually ever saying it to each other or even realizing it.

Of course - reality sets in, and Zoe must go back to Atlanta and her fiancé and the muddle of her wedding. I won't spoil it for anyone by saying what happens, although - hello! - it's romance and Zoe and Colin get a nice HEA. But the one thing I did not like was how she treated Kevin. By she I mean, actually, both Zoe and the author!

The narrator Gabra Zackman apparently does a lot of Harlequin books, and she's got a long list of other works at She's a competent narrator, and her Aussie accent sounded pretty good. She's a narrator that I would like to ask to stop using breathiness in her reading, though - she's not quite the actor that Anna Fields/Kate Fleming and Barbara Rosenblatt are. They can pull off all kinds of voices and inflections and make it sound good. Great even. In my opinion, most narrators I've heard should stick to reading with some inflection and some attempt at differentiating amongst voices but should not push it and try to act unless they have the Gift!

* I wanted to add, for any nay-sayers, that I took a psychology class in high school in which, similar to this story, we planned a reunion for 10 years hence at a specific spot in NYC on a specific date as part of an exercise. I actually remembered it but was not in a position to go to NYC, and hadn't kept up with any of my classmates (EGSP, Brazil, class of '73). I've often wondered if anyone showed up. I mention it in case anyone feels the premise is ridiculous and unrealistic.

Oh - it's a 5 star listen anyway!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

As You Desire by Connie Brockway *****

Wow! I can't believe that I've been reading romance for more than a year and can still find authors I'd not even heard of who are writing incredibly wonderful books that no one seems to be talking about!!

Wait, of course, this is an AAR Top 100 of 2007, so someone has talked about it and read it. I just don't see this name (Connie Brockway) mentioned frequently on the forums. Why is that? Well, she's still writing, so I don't know how I have missed out on her books before.

OK: plot first. Desdemona Carlisle is a prodigy - an Englishwoman who, as a child, learned to read a dozen languages. Not speak, just read. Her parents - uhm, archeologists? well, whatever they were, they dragged her all over Europe, displaying her talents and simultaneously depriving her of a real childhood, with friends and school and such. She used romance novels to fill in her lonely life, and in her head has a constant inner monologue that translates her experiences into Romance-speak. That is one of the funniest parts of the entire book!

Her parents died when she was 15, and her only living relative is her grandfather, an Egyptologist living in Cairo, so she has lived there with him for 5 years. She does translating and other odd jobs to help support them, as grandfather is not a good businessman and they live on the edge of genteel poverty.

Harry Braxton has made a life for himself in Egypt, trading antiquities both above and below board, as it were. He has a rather sordid past - he was thrown out of Oxford for cheating, and left England "under a cloud". He suffers from dyslexia, known in Victorian times as "word blindness" - he cannot read. He discovers he can read hieroglyphics, and he has a wonderful memory and ability to mimic what he hears, so he picks up Arabic and other local dialects very easily.

Desdemona, or Dizzy as Harry calls her, has been in love with Harry forever - and, to be honest, Harry harbors the same for her but cannot bring himself to act on it. For one thing, there is the age issue: when she finally declared herself to him, she was only 17. For another, there is the shame of being unable to read - some even call it retardation. So he rebuffs her, and keeps her at arms' length, even though he does have to keep rescuing her - over and over - from the many scrapes she finds herself involved in.

Harry's hand is forced when his cousin arrives from England and tries to woo Dizzy for himself. And Dizzy is put into a more serious situation, requiring one more rescue by her knight-errant.

Ok, it's more complicated than that. There's another woman in Harry's life - well, she wants to be in his life anyway. And there are several feuding elements - grandfather feuding with other explorers; Harry feuding with an unscrupulous site foreman; Harry and his cousin feuding over their ancestral lands and Dizzy's hand. And of course, the English, Turks, Arabs and native Egyptians feuding over who is in control, of the government and also of the discovery and transportation of antiquities.

Yes, it's complicated, and it's fun, and there's intrigue and kidnapping and sandstorms and relics - there's really only one evil villain, and a number of rather misguided folks whose actions take on more than they intended, and the wonderful love story of Harry and Dizzy.

5 stars and a keeper to boot!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Desperado by Sandra Hill ****

This is my first Sandra Hill - but not my last! Well, I glommed her in a big way with at lot from eBay, so it's a good thing I enjoyed this book.

I'd been reading that her books were funny, so I'd been looking forward to reading them one day, but had so many others in my TBR pile that I hadn't started on her yet. Then I got an offer from a PBS member to take a freebie, and the only thing I found I might want was a Sandra Hill, and of course it was the 3rd in a series, so I had to get more, and then on eBay... You get the picture? ("yes, we see" "that's when I found him, the Leader of the Pack vrrooom")

This one, by the way, is a stand alone time-travel romance. The heroine is Helen Prescott, Major Helen Prescott that is, career military. Helen is the daughter of General Prescott and engaged to be married to Elliott, also career military. Helen is the senior officer on a training mission for National Guard members fulfilling their annual 2-week obligation, and she has a group going out for a parachute drop.

In the group is Rafael Santiago. Rafe was a classmate of Helen's at military school 12 years before, but is now just keeping his National Guard status to pay back his college loans. In real life, he's an L.A. lawyer, looking to get the debts paid and live the high life. He hasn't forgotten his crush on "Prissy" Prescott - or the matching butterfly tattoos they each sport as the result of a drunken escapade in school. He pushes all her buttons when they meet again, and she (trying to forget the major crush she had on him) is all rules-and-regulations, straight backed and, well, prissy.

Then something goes wrong on their jump, and they fall out of the plane, together, with only 1 working parachute... into California 1850! Because of his resemblance to a Mexican bandito "Angel", they are picked up and dragged off to town for the reward. And because she's with him, they assume she is Angel's whore, Elena.

Ms. Hill does write hysterically funny prose - there are some real laugh-out-loud moments on every page. It isn't funny in the style of Julia Quinn or Susan Andersen, with witty dialogue and amusing situations, it's more Three Stooges/slapstick stuff - outrageous pranks and over-the-top lines. She also pulls a little on the heartstrings, and she writes smokin' hot sex too.

Rafe and Helen manage to bumble their way through life in the past, where they meet a gold prospector and hide out in his cabin. In all, they spend 3 months in 1850. Hill interjects an interesting time travel twist - apparently, the operations and subsequent scars they bore in 1997 are gone because they would have been anachronistic - and this includes Rafe's vasectomy he had because he does not want to have children. Since he only had 3 condoms in his wallet (notice his wallet, as anachronistic as that might be, managed to make the time leap...) he decides they must remain celibate in spite of their raging chemistry because he cannot risk getting her pregnant. He wants to save the condoms for their last night in 1850...

They do manage to wait for several days, but then use all 3 condoms in one memorable night. Of course, that just stirs the fires in Prissy/Helen - she never felt this way about Elliott, I can tell you that! So she decides to work on Rafe - to get him both to end the celibacy and also give up his pledge never to have children, since her greatest wish is to have children. In fact, that's why she was going to get married even though she didn't love Elliott. (I'm actually slightly uncomfortable with a heroine's nagging the hero to change his mind about having children, but it's a minor quibble in an uproariously funny book that is so unrealistic anyway.)

I sorta missed how they decided that if they could recover the parachute and jump off the cliff under which they originally landed, they would be back in 1997. But every time travel book has to have the way to get in and out of the past, so that was their way. Unfortunately, one of the original banditos ran off with it, so their quest in 1850 (besides boinking like bunnies) is to get the parachute. And while they are at it, Rafe wants to get enough gold to get him out of debt. His motivation is to be worthy of Helen - he figures she won't be interested in a poor Mexican-American lawyer, but if he was rich...

There's a strong thread in the story of the class and ethnic divides - he is painted as a kid who grew up poor, in L.A. gangs, not worthy of her upper middle class background. In 1850, it's even worse - the prejudice against him as a "greaser" is widespread. Hill pulls no punches on this - while she doesn't exactly moralize, it's blatant and it's a major part of the story.

The real story, in my mind, is the last few chapters after they get back to the future. Helen is whisked away by her father and fiancé, and Rafe is taken back to the base and grilled for hours about his involvement in their disappearance. In 1997, they were only gone 24 hours, and each of them remembers the time travel past slowly. Rafe tries to contact her, but cannot find any phone numbers for her. Then he goes to Mexico to help his younger brother who is in prison, and ends up imprisoned alongside him. A photo in the paper of Rafe and his sister going to Mexico is shown to Helen, who jumps to the conclusion that his sister is instead his girlfriend, and when she doesn't hear from him, she agrees to go ahead and marry Elliott (after breaking off their engagement right after her return from 1850).

Well, any more details about this part gets me into major spoiler terroritory. I was really enjoying this book as a 5 star read until this part and then Helen stepped slightly into Too Annoying and Almost Too Stupid To Live Land. While I still really liked it, after that it dipped into 4 stars for me. But I'm going to keep reading because I know I'll probably live a little longer on the belly laughs this book gave me.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Ravished by Amanda Quick *****

Another one bites the dust! This is #42 on the AAR Top 100 Romance Novels of 2007, so I am one book closer to my Quest. And I enjoyed it as well!

Amanda Quick is a pseudonym for Jayne Ann Krentz, and this is my second Quick book. I have not read any under Krentz's name at all. The first Quick book, Thee I Wed, only garnered 3 stars for me, so I wasn't exactly looking forward to it. However - I've found that most authors have books I love and others not so much, so I shouldn't be surprised.

The heroine Harriet is a bluestocking - she's practically off-the-shelf at nearly-25 (oh, how I laugh at this description!) and she's a dedicated paleontologist as well. She spends her days hunting for fossils and studying them and journaling them. She also discovers hidden loot in one of "her" caves, and summons the landowner to assist her in nabbing the thieves so she can safely fossil-hunt alone.

The landowner is our hero, The Beast of Blackthorne Hall, Gideon. In addition to his massive size, he bears a hideous scar on his face from swordplay with a friend many years before. He also bears a hideous scar on his psyche: 6 years earlier, while betrothed to the rector's daughter, the woman killed herself and the unborn child she was carrying. As rumor would have it, he ravished her, and when told she was pregnant, he broke the engagement, causing her grief enough to shoot herself. As this happened shortly after his older brother died in an accident, rumor further embellished the story that he was instrumental in both deaths. Because of the grief his parents felt, they also bought the story of his ravishing and leaving his betrothed.

Harriet cares nothing for rumor; she only wants the thieves caught so she can go on rock-hunting. Gideon forms a plan but neglects to share it with her, so in her curiosity she watches over the caves from the cliffs above to see if he catches the thieves. He does, but she is also caught by one of them, who drags her into the caves right as the tide is rising, threatening to trap them both for several hours. The thief tries to escape, and Gideon comes to the rescue. But, lo, what does that mean? That Gideon and Harriet are now trapped for the rest of the night, alone just the 2 of them (since the thief did get away) in the cave while the tide is in... Hmmmm...

Well, it's not exactly a spoiler to say she was ravished. After all, that is the name of the book. But since she's actually attracted to him, and actually participates fully, she feels the next day there is no need for him to jump to any wild conclusions like he must marry her. (ah, that almost had me ditching the book - lucky for me, the witty prose had already engaged me so I hung on...) Of course, society being what it is, he had to marry her or she would suffer the ruination of her reputation - indeed, she would suffer what he has been suffering for the past 6 years, and he could not bear it.

The story is one of intrigue and indeed murder - and there was more than one villain to keep track of. After the betrothal, Harriet goes to London for the Season and some well-meaning buddies from the paleontology society kidnap her and try to marry her off to someone else to prevent her marriage to The Beast. No one can believe she goes willingly to him, even Gideon himself. Over the course of the book, while mysteries and murders are being solved, and fossils uncovered, Harriet is instrumental in helping The Beast learn to love again - and it's a wonderful, touching journey.

The ending brought this up from a wonderful book to keeper status. 5 stars!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Don't Look Down by Jennifer Crusie & Bob Mayer ****

I think this might be my first collaboratively-authored book ever, and it's an interesting concept. Crusie wrote the female POV/romance sections and Mayer, a former Green Beret with a passel of best-selling thrillers under his belt wrote the guy stuff. You know, the Glocks and Special Ops stuff. Together they've written 2 books, this being the first, in what I guess is romantic suspense genre.

Truly, I enjoyed quite a lot of it - although there were plenty of times I was confused and felt the writing and the story went off track. Way off track. Like, they needed a GPS, a laptop and night goggles to get back. And frankly, I had a real hard time buying the Relationship. First off, it was only 4 days - and excuse me, but Mr Hero was pretty busy boinking someone else on Day 1 so that was, well, off-putting. It had me thinking: and then he suddenly is in love with Ms Heroine? When did that develop?

The Heroine is Lucy Armstrong, a Wonder Woman lookalike - tall, long dark hair, great build. She's an ad director, formerly married to a stunt coordinator, Nash, who calls her in to direct the last 4 days of the movie he's working on, Don't Look Down. The movie's stars are Bryce and Althea - the movie's production assistant is Lucy's sister Daisy, who has a 5 year old daughter named Pepper who has a Wonder Woman fetish.

The Hero is J.T. Wilder, a Green Beret/Special Ops guy (not a SEAL) (sorry, all the different military stuff confused me, so I had to note that) who is hired by Bryce (movie star) to be his consultant/stunt double on the film after the original director dies and most of the crew including his current stunt double quit. J.T.'s backup singers include Rene LeFavre, a Cajun special ops buddy and a CIA guy whose name escapes me now. Crawford, I think.

The stunts being shot apparently make no sense whatsoever since the movie was supposed to be romantic comedy, with the lead actor an accountant, not military. But some Irish guy Finnegan has put some money into the film and wants the stunts added in and is promising a lot of money to make it happen. So everyone is doing whatever they can to make it happen, in spite of the odds against the stunts they have planned working. (Oh, and I figured out way early on what they were looking to do - I guess it wasn't supposed to be that big a secret, but it sure took J.T. a long time to figure it out. Hint: the bridge is over a RIVER with boats. Duh.)

There's a Russian mobster, a case of jade phalluses being sought for their ability to enhance male potency, $50 million dollars to be repaid, and some crazy shenanigans with the alphabet including CIA/FBI/ASPCA (Ok, I stole that from the book, it was kinda funny). J.T. is first going along for the consulting fee, then he's tapped by the CIA to be working on the inside, under cover, then... well, keep a notebook handy to keep track of who is what in this book, it's confusing. Real confusing - lots of names, lots of characters, and they can never decide whether to refer to them by the first or last name, so double the confusion. No, go ahead and triple it.

Here's some stuff that did not make sense: Finnegan is theoretically IRA, but apparently we are lead to believe his accent is fake. If the accent is fake, who was he? Just some idiot? And why did people look up at the night sky in the middle of the day? And someone needs to explain to me again about Daisy and the medicine she was taking, because really, it did not make any sense at all - it seemed it was there only to be available for the final scene. And now that I'm done - who were the bad guys?? Cuz there was so much mis- and re-direction at the end that I don't think even the authors were sure. They never did make the connection with the Ghost - who hired him, who funded him, what was his angle?

And the most pressing question of all: does Moot the alligator qualify as Notable Pet? I'm thinking Not since she wasn't domesticated. But I'm tagging the post anyway, just in case.

Well, by the time I got to the end, I was feeling a 4-star finish, so even though a large part of the plot made absolutely no sense whatsoever - and hey, Mayer? Your hero did not have anywhere near the kind of self-control I've come to expect in military heroes in romance novels - I am going with 4 stars. Maybe 3.75, but I always round up.

Friday, November 7, 2008

The Trysting Place by Mary Balogh ****

This is the first of a series of 3 books by Mary Balogh, and the second is A Counterfeit Betrothal, followed by The Notorious Rake, an AAR Top 100 Romance for 2007. Wouldn't you know they would not only be out of print, but also difficult to find? So I ended up getting them on eBay and really spending more than I should for 20+ year old 240 page books!

But I'm glad I did. It was an interesting read, and as I got to the end, I was even thinking it was a 5 star read. However, I re-thought and decided I "really liked it" as a 4 star read.

Lady Felicity Wren is a widow returning for the first time in years to her childhood home. She now has money and social standing and spent the 7 years with her elderly husband traveling and living the high life. Her parents and younger siblings are delighted to see her - well they should be, as her marriage to Lord Wren was done to save them from financial ruin. It was also at the cost of her true love to neighbor Tom Russell, her childhood pal.

She sees Tom again, and decides she has finally put their childhood love aside and sees him only as a friend. Poor Tom - he sees her and realizes that he thought he too had put it aside, but had not. His feelings are engaged again, but he can see that she doesn't return his love.

Her younger twin sisters convince her to take them back with her to London for their first Season, and Tom decides rashly to accompany them. Felicity is also thinking of this being her own coming-out, as it were. She can now look for a younger husband amonst the ton, and she sets her sights on the handsome Lord Edmond Waite.

However, Waite is all but promised to a childhood friend who is also titled. He pursues Felicity not for marriage but for an affair.

The story is truly entertaining, especially the exploits of the twins and their younger brother. But it's almost painful to follow Felicity's story - she continues to believe that Lord Waite will dump his almost-betrothed for her hand in marriage. To that end, she convinces poor Tom to pretend to be engaged to her to make Waite jealous, even realizing what a burden she is placing on Tom.

Of course, she believes Tom really doesn't wish to ever marry, and that he only feels brotherly towards her. Once she realizes Waite will never have her and starts to think she might actually have feelings for Tom, she decides it would be best for her to leave Tom rather than force him into a loveless marriage with her that he would resent.

Somehow, even though I kept thinking how much I resented Felicity's mistreatment of Tom, Balogh managed to sweep me into the story so that I found it a page-turner at the end: what would Felicity do?? And even then, the ending doesn't really wrap things up neatly (there are things left undone) so I should have been less satisfied. Yet I was satisfied, and would recommend it - but don't spend $20 on eBay. 4 stars.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Night of Sin by Julia Ross ****

I got this book to read as the last in the Fall 2008 Reading Challenge: read a book because of its cover. I had asked for some help at PBS with this, and had narrowed my choice to 3 books, 2 of which had covers adorned with lovely naked male chests, and this one. As it turned out, the naked male chest covers were in series and not the first - and I'm a sort of stickler on series. This one has a lovely graphic of a garden with a butterfly, and it appealed to me, so - it was chosen.

It's my first book by this author, and now that I'm done, I may put her books in my Someday To Acquire pile, after I've glommed my current favorite authors and finished my large TBR pile from the recent library sale. It's the first in a 3-book series, with Jack's older brother Ryder and his cousin Guy the heroes of the next 2 books.

The basic plot involves a virginal, betrothed country miss (Anne) getting in over her head and inadvertently with a worldly, reckless gentleman (Jack).

Jack is the second son of a duke (St. George), and has been traveling the world, ostensibly looking for his place in it. During his travels, mostly Oriental - eastern Russia, China, India, the Himalayas - he has encountered a fossil, a dinosaur fang, that is being sought by a number of unsavory characters as well as (or including?) himself. The fang represents several things to both him and to the story: scientifically, it opens a world of new thought about the existance of such creatures and their bearing on the Creation story and the potential downfall of religion; spiritually, it seems to be possessed of magic and power, and was leaving a long line of deaths in its path. It's also seen as a dragon fossil, and Jack as a dragon slayer in the reputation of his ancestor, St. George the dragon slayer. For Jack, it represents the one thing that he needs, to trade to get what he prizes most of all: notes he kept to create a new map of China/Russia/India.

Anne is merely an unwitting pawn in his quest to recover the fang, because the sailor who possessed it hid it in her basket as she passed by, moments before he is murdered. Jack observes the switch, and attempts to retrieve the fossil from her. Unfortunately, Anne has already turned it over to her fiancé, coincidentally a naturalist/fossil hunter fellow. Because the fossil is now being sought for its magical powers by ruthless thieves and murderers, Anne's life is in danger until it is found and restored to... well, whoever is the rightful owner.

Jack manages to talk her into accompanying him to his ancestral home where he promises she'll be safe until he can regain the fossil and settle a score. On the way, however, they are forced to stop at a deserted gatekeeper's cottage and wait out a storm. Ah, the deserted gatekeeper's cottage in a storm conceit. Works like a charm every time - and because the only thing she can find to drink is plum brandy and also because Jack has been hit on the head, instead of her remaining a virgin, they have hot monkey sex. In addition to the deserted gatekeeper's cottage plotline, we have the curious virgin plotline: the "just show me what happens so I won't be surprised in my marriage bed with my fiancé" plot.

I truly almost gave up on the book at this point because it was such a stretch for a religious virgin to do this. OK, she did drink 3 glasses of brandy, but she just kept insisting he show her what is done in a marriage bed. I guess we are to buy into her innate sensuality that overpowered her lifelong religious training. Not to mention her lack of fidelity to her betrothed...

I'm glad I stuck with it because by the end, I was enjoying this author's way with words and her story-telling ability. I also found it a page turner as I wondered how in the world they would ever have their HEA if Jack couldn't give up his quest and wouldn't admit to himself his feelings for Anne. Plus there was the intrigue of the fossil, who would end up having it?

Oh, and it's got a notable pet: Horace the gray and white kitten, who plays a lovely part near the end.

Because I lost faith in the book and had to be talked back into it, I give it 4 stars - at the end it was worth the journey.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

No Man's Mistress by Mary Balogh ***

This is the sequel to More Than A Mistress and the hero is Tresham's younger brother Ferdinand. While the story is not the usual virginal heroine and rakish hero, it's not entirely unique either, and frankly the heroine annoyed the hell out of me most of the book.

In fact, shocking revelation, Ferdinand is not only not a rake - he's, well, I'll just say inexperienced. However, Miss Viola Thornhill, the pretty young thing he finds living in a country manor he won at cards from the current Earl of Bamber, is quite the opposite, as it turns out. And she's convinced the manor is hers - willed to her by the late Duke of Bamber, even though Ferdinand had his lawyers research the issue and determined that will provision did not exist.

Viola used a conceit I recall from perhaps a Jo Goodman book - she went out of her way to make sure Ferdinand hated living in the country, engaging the servants and the neighbors in her tricks. Unfortunately for Viola, not only does Ferdinand figure it out and take it as a challenge, he decides country squiring might be his true calling. He teaches the local children Latin and cricket, and joins the church choir. Subjects she thought would bore him he finds fascinating - and he joins the ladies' sewing circle meeting and reads them Pride and Prejudice while they sew. Reads it well, I might add.

And Viola's reaction? She hates him for thwarting her. Go figure.

She has a major secret or two - and it enters spoiler territory to reveal them here. Suffice it to say, she challenges Ferdie to a bet with the manor as the prize - and wins. But does she stay there and live in the manor after winning? Nooooo, she's too proud to do that. So off to London she goes, partly because she learns her sister is about to enter into a bargain with the devil and she must stop her.

Oh, whatever. The story was fun, and I myself was totally besotted with Ferdinand, even if Viola was too full of herself to see his charm. It was Viola and her complete wrong-headedness about everything that made this book a chore. Was there ever any heroine so unlovable? Maybe - but keep them out of my books, please!!

3 stars for the agony of putting up with a too-proud-to-live heroine.