Thursday, January 29, 2009

What I Did For Love by Susan Elizabeth Phillips ***

This was an eagerly awaited book for me - a new SEP! I had the book on my wishlist at paperbackswap and then thought to see if it was on audio, and it was. So I deleted it from the WL and downloaded it from

It might have been a mistake to do that in the middle of my Chicago Stars marathon re-listen. Anna Fields/Kate Fleming was a narrator whose talents are so above almost every narrator I've heard that it would be hard for me to hear a new voice. Fleming died in a tragic accident 2 years ago, just months after finishing the final Chicago Stars audio Natural Born Charmer. Her ability to create not just voices but complete, 3-dimensional characters is truly unsurpassed in my experience.

The new narrator not only couldn't compare, she didn't ever even rise above mediocre in my mind. She used a sort of serious tone that didn't match the light and humorous words of the typical SEP prose, and she sounded pretty much like so many of the midlist narrators used in the run-of-the mill audio books. Her male voices were not good and her voice for Lance was awful. Basically, I think I'm going to have to get the book now and read it to see if I liked it because I'm so disappointed by this new narrator I can hardly remember the story...

Let's see: Georgie is a former child star of a successful sitcom that's been off the air now 8 years. She's a sort of has-been at this point - she was dumped by her husband, who cheated on her and left her for another actress (think Brad and Angelina... hmmm...). She runs into her co-star from the sitcom, Bramwell Shepard, the fellow who took her virginity, ruined the sitcom and has a real bad-boy reputation at this point.

Unfortunately, at a party, there's some - well, date rape drugs?? - something slipped into their drinks, and they wake up together in a hotel room with a marriage license, not remembering what happened the night before. And it's too late to dissemble - the papparazzi already knows. So they decide to go forward with the marriage as though it's real, for the sake of... something. She's still got her money, since her father was a good manager, so she offers to pay him to pretend to be married.

Plotwise, it's the predictable "marriage of convenience" type scenario. They don't let on to anyone, and put up a good front for the press as well as for family and friends, but behind the scenes they are mortal enemies, doing anything and everything to piss the other off. Oh, and along they way, they are building a true relationship that leads to love.

Actually, in spite of my annoyance with the truly mediocre (not dreadful, just boring) narration, I think the story was fun. I generally like SEP's style, and there were a lot of laughs and some poignant moments. I'll just have to read it again, in a book, to get a better sense of it. There's a book that Bram has optioned for a movie - he's desperate to produce it and play the lead, and along the way Georgie decides it's a good bet and backs him, hoping to play the leading actress role herself. There are the usual lovable secondary characters, Chaz and Aaron, Bram's and Georgie's personal assistants; Paul, Georgie's father and Laura, her agent; Lance and Jade (Brad and Angelina-esque); Trevor, best friend to both of them.

OK - for now, I'm going with 3 stars. The scene at the end, where Bram declares his love, was confusing - I know he declares it towards the end, not actually meaning it and then turns around and does it again, meaning it. But I was so distracted by the droning on and on of this narrator that I sorta lost track and wasn't sure what was going on. Maybe when I read it, I'll feel his transformation from enemy-to-friend-to-lover.

The only challenge it fits is the A To Z for title. Back to the Chicago Stars for me!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The House on Olive Street by Robyn Carr ***

This is the story of 5 women authors and how the tragic death of one of them changed their lives.

I've enjoyed the Grace Valley series and the Virgin River series by Carr. This one is women's fiction - it follows the lives of the 4 women left after one of the group, Gabby, is found dead on her 50th birthday from an aneurysm. The women had an ongoing writers' circle: one was Elly, the academic, and the oldest; Sable, a best-selling author with a secret; Barbara Ann, who writes category romance relatively successfully but yearns to break out of the mold and write best-sellers like Sable; and Beth - hmm I can't recall Beth's books, but she is shy and the youngest...

In addition to their lives as writers, each has completely different personal lives: Elly, long divorced, is thought to be a spinster but actually has a regular lover that she never introduces to the group. Sable lives isolated, afraid of having her past life found out, and afraid to have personal relationships. Barbara Ann has 4 young adult sons, all still living at home, and a loving if clueless husband - all her money gets sucked up by the boys needing toys, and she feels unappreciated by her family and her editor. Beth has a handsome womanizing abusive husband.

After Gabby dies, the women find a letter she has written to them (something she writes every New Year's Day) asking them to handle her paperwork. We learn about Gabby's life through a fictional autobiography she was writing that the 4 women try to finish for her. Eventually they all end up moving into Gabby's house for the summer, and create their own family group, including Gabby's mother and children and even Gabby's ex-husband.

It was a nice light read but wasn't as emotionally satisfying as the series I mentioned above. But it has been in my TBR a long time, so I'm fitting it into the "read something that's been on the TBR a long time, out with the old, in with the new" category!! 3 stars

Dream A Little Dream by Susan Elizabeth Phillips *****

What a wonderful ending! It mists my eyes every time I listen to it, and this might be the 5th time. This is #4 in the Chicago Star series, even though it's really about the brother of a Chicago Stars player and doesn't really involve the Stars at all.

It's also a little darker than the rest of the series, even with its touches of humor. Gabe Bonner is Cal Bonner's (Nobody's Baby But Mine) brother - the one who was in Mexico, drowning his grief in tequila during that book. Gabe's wife Cherry and young son Jamie had been killed in a tragic car accident the year before that book, which fueled Cal's feelings about family, about babies, about the relationship of his wife Jane to his family.

Between books, Cal and Ethan did an intervention of sorts and brought Gabe back to Salvation, North Carolina, to start a new life. Gabe bought the old Pride of Carolina drive-in movie theater, and was renovating it as his own personal salvation. Just like divine providence brought Jane into Cal's life, Rachel Stone's car died right under the theater's battered old sign.

Rachel Stone is the former Rachel Snopes - it was her husband, G. Dwayne Snopes, who ran a religious scam on the town of Salvation. The thing is, many of his followers felt that Rachel was the reason G. Dwayne fell off his high horse and scammed everyone, so there's a lot of bad feelings towards her. She's spent the last 2-3 years running from that reputation - broke, with her 5-year-old son Edward, and on her last leg, she's come back to search the house (now Cal and Jane's) for the money that G. Dwayne stole, since it wasn't found in the plane when he went down and was killed. She thinks it might be in either the family Bible or the "Kennedy box" seen in a recent People magazine photo of the Bonners.

The story pits 2 broken souls against each other - each lost his/her reason for living but is dealing with it in different ways. Gabe keeps a loaded gun by the bedside, and he admits to Rachel it's not there for security. Rachel, on the other hand, is a fighter - she has Edward to think of and to live for, and she'll do whatever is necessary to keep Edward safe, including living out her car and taking any kind of menial job. Gabe hires Rachel to help him fix up the drive-in theater, and even lets her live in Grandma Annie's home - Annie's gone on to her reward by this time.

Gabe admires and even envies Rachel's ability to keep fighting against all odds, and it gives him a new perspective. He lost his wife and child but still has his parents and brothers and the community, as well as a large nest-egg, while Rachel is completely without a support system, and yet she charges forward, doing whatever it takes.

Each is also searching for something different - Gabe is looking for a reason to live, and Rachel is looking for the money - Edward's inheritance - so she can leave that part of her life behind. What they find is each other, and a new outlook on life. Gabe has the additional burden of his attitude towards Edward/Chip - he keeps comparing the small, sickly little boy with his boisterous and healthy son, not seeing Chip for himself.

The secondary romance in the book is the youngest Bonner brother, Ethan, a pastor who questions his commitment to God and the church. He's a funny character, who hears different Hollywood characters as his messages from God - the mother from Happy Days, Oprah, Clint Eastwood. His long-time secretary Christy has been invisible to him, despite the fact that she's had a crush on him since elementary school. Christy takes a lesson or two from Rachel as well, about feeling good about herself and doing things the way she wants instead of always thinking of Ethan first - and finally attracts Ethan's attention.

Another fun listen - 5 stars - and it's in the AAR Top 100 and also in my Serial Readers Challenge.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Duncan's Bride by Linda Howard ****

This is a short Silhouette category romance from early in Linda Howard's career (1990). Reese Duncan is a trademark Howard hero - alpha, stubborn and not very nice to his woman until he figures it out. He's a rancher who went through a bitter divorce from a woman who took half his assets. Now he figures all women are like her, but he has a biological clock issue: he wants an heir. For that he needs a wife - and for a rancher out in the middle of nowhere, working 14 hour days, he decides to go the mail-order bride route and advertises.

Madelyn is Robert Cannon's stepsister (Robert is the seriously badass alpha hero in the sequel, Loving Evangeline.) If you read the stories in order, you meet Robert in this one and learn to hate him in the next - I read LE first, so I was already wary. But Reese isn't as bad as Robert, he just needs a lot of sensitivity training to catch on. Although Maddie is in NYC, a friend's mom sends her the local Omaha paper every week, and she sees the ad there. On a whim she answers it - and flies out to meet him.

It's lust at first sight for both of them - but Reese decides this NYC fashionista will be the same as the evil first wife, so he turns her down. Eventually, though, he changes his mind after the only other 2 candidates don't pan out.

It's no bed of roses, being a rural rancher's wife, but Maddie does her darnedest to learn to keep up - she cooks, she works in the barn, she rides along on fencing missions and cow herding. They even decide to go ahead and start a family. But the real conflict comes when it's time to face facts about the mortgage - he refuses to let her use her money to help pay for anything, afraid she'll take it all in a divorce. It takes him a long time to realize that she's in it for life - and that she needs to hear him commit as well.

I was impressed with this realistic look at the relationship - for one thing, Maddie is a virgin and the initial love scenes don't gloss over that and have them both in simultaneous ecstasy several times. In fact, it's a while before she even looks forward to it - he's not the "usual" romance hero who is an incredible lover who turns virgins into wantons in one move. In spite of their lust, Howard doesn't have them falling in love right away, and their relationship grows realistically. OK, yeah, it's fiction, and the chances of these initial circumstances even happening are pretty slim, still it didn't have me rolling my eyes constantly!

So I'm going with 4 stars. It fits the Winter 2008 Challenge and the Serial Reader's Challenge too.

To Taste Temptation by Elizabeth Hoyt ***

I consider myself a fan of Elizabeth Hoyt's work because I read her first trilogy and really liked it. I found her "voice" fresh and interesting, and the conceit of using a fairy tale (that she created, not a regular tale in children's books) was fun.

This time I found the fairy tale thing, well, almost annoying. I mean, been there done that. And the story, while I liked it ok, wasn't one I found compelling and moving. In fact, I managed to find other things to do and dragged it out over several days, even waiting to read the last several pages...

The hero Sam is an "untamed" fellow, raised in the wilds of the American colonies - it's 1760s I believe - and was a tracker or some such with a British unit in the French and Indian wars several years before. He served with the heroine's brother, who was killed in an Indian ambush that the hero believes was a sell-out by one of the British troops. Sam has come to England to track down this traitor and... well, I wasn't really sure what he planned to do with him, except that he may have wanted to clear his own name, since everyone thought he had run away to save himself. He did run - to get help and ransom for the British officers that were being held.

The heroine is Emeline, a lady who also chaperones young women entering society. Sam brings his sister along as a cover, so he has a reason to get close to Emeline and also to get invited to certain balls and soirees in search of his traitor. He originally thinks the traitor is Jasper, Emeline's fiance, but when he discovers Jasper is not, he and Jasper join forces.

I dunno... something about the tone of the book just didn't work for me. Sam was all alpha male, in control, except he had this PTSD thing going on with crowds - when he smelled men's sweat, he imagined himself back in the war and had anxiety and panic attacks. And Emeline was this very tightly coiled, very respectable widow with a hidden passionate nature. All very melodramatically portrayed, and mostly I kept thinking she was a bitch with a stick up her behind. Whenever I read something like this, I wonder if it's me, if it's my current mood - I'd been putting off reading it, even though everyone has been raving about it, and I sorta forced myself to go ahead and start it. And I liked it ok, but not a lot. I wonder if I had waited until I wanted to read it if I would have liked it better?

Well, I'll never know the answer to that. 3 stars - it's in my Serial Readers Challenge, my A To Z challenge and the Winter 2008 challenge.

Nobody's Baby But Mine by Susan Elizabeth Phillips *****

The first time I read/listened to this book, I was pretty appalled at heroine Jane Darlington's method for getting pregnant, and even though I enjoyed the story, I did have a hard time getting past it. This time (my 4th or maybe even 5th) I just went with the fantasy: a 34-year-old brainy scientist decides she wants to have a baby on her own, but is determined the child will be in the normal IQ range. Her own experience with being way-above-average was lonely and isolated, and she didn't want that life for her child. The biological alarm clock was going off in her head so loudly that she wasn't thinking straight when a dim-bulb neighbor offered to pair her up with the Chicago Stars quarterback Cal Bonner. Jane had seen Cal on the TV, and something about his dumb-jock appearance and talk fit the image of the low-IQ sperm she sought...

Apparently Bonner was off his game in more ways than one, and his team buddies decided he needed a woman to take the edge off. Cal's usual woman was young - real young - and not too bright, so they figured he needed something different, maybe a society babe with some brains and maturity. Jane's dim-bulb neighbor is a waitress at the bar the team frequents, and she offers to find just the right person. Of course, Jane is so out of the world of sports, she never realized that quarterbacks in general, and Cal in particular, are likely to be pretty smart, and that his dumb-sounding speech pattern was a put-on for the TV journalist.

Jane is offered up to Cal as a birthday present from the guys - complete with bow - and the birthday party scene is pretty funny as she tries to convince him to take her. The only dance she knows is from her workout class, and the music he puts on is Flight of the Bumblebee - that one scene gets me giggling every time.

A lot of readers write in their reviews that they feel Cal was too hard on Jane, and they didn't feel the chemistry between them. For me personally, what Jane did was truly unconscionable and he was reacting normally. Also, there's a piece of the story that you have to be paying attention to: right after she leaves his house after the birthday party, Cal admits to himself that he's attracted to her. And here's a tiny spoiler: he keeps the bow she was wearing and presents it to her at the end of the story. That told me it was a love-at-first-sight type of story for Cal and Jane. In the story, one character refers to it as divine providence.

Once Cal figures out who she is and what she's done (she doesn't get pregnant the first time, so she has to stalk him to an out-of-town game and try again), he's understandably angry. He insists they get married and come to a custody agreement. Once it gets out in the press, he decides to take Jane with him to his hometown and hole her up there for appearances sake, then they'll divorce after the baby is born.

Of course, the rest of the story is their journey from strangers to enemies to friends and lovers. What Jane brings to the relationship is a strong personality that can take on his own inner warrior and challenge him, many times even besting him, which is something the young 20-somethings he'd been dating had never done. The secondary romance in the story is Cal's parents, who faced a family tragedy and can't seem to get back to each other. Their story mirrors Cal and Jane's, and they help each other work it out.

It's nice to have one of the protagonists have a fairly healthy and normal family life, with both parents still alive - it seems pretty usual to have the conflict revolve around being raised in a dysfunctional and/or 1-parent family (which Jane was, but Cal wasn't). There's the usual SEP wit in the story as well as some touching moments, and we also get the backstory for Cal's brothers Ethan, a pastor, and Gabe, whose wife and son were killed in a car accident. Gabe and Ethan are featured in the next story, Dream a Little Dream, where Gabe learns to love again and Ethan reconciles himself with his career as a man of God and the woman of his own dreams.

It was fun to go back to Salvation, North Carolina for a visit - I'll be there again for the next book in the series too. 5 stars.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Heaven, Texas by Susan Elizabeth Phillips ***

I'm doing a full re-listen to the Chicago Stars series, but Heaven, Texas, is really my least favorite of the series, so even though I love the series as a whole, this one is just an ok listen.

The Chicago Stars is a fictional NFL team, owned by Phoebe and Dan Calebow from book 1, It Had To Be You. We met Bobby Tom Denton, wide receiver, in that book, where he was a young man on the way up. In Heaven, Texas, unfortunately Bobby Tom suffered a career-ending knee injury at the Super Bowl, and is now trying to find himself, after football. He signs a contract to star in a movie, with a contingency that the movie be filmed in his home town, Telarosa, Texas. The town is so excited they schedule a festival, with the home Bobby Tom grew up in as a focal point to bring in tourists.

Gracie Snow was hired as a production assistant by Willow, who runs the production company. Willow's parents were at the nursing home run by Gracie's parents (and then by Gracie) - Willow decided Gracie had the skills to get Bobby Tom to the location - something he'd been successfully avoiding, causing lots of delays and money lost. Gracie is a sort of ugly duckling - bad hair, no fashion sense, not very confident of her looks but trying her best to be professional. Too bad when she shows up at Bobby Tom's house, his guests mistake her for a hired stripper (the last one was dressed as a nun, so I guess her out-of-date business attire qualified).

That one scene makes me grit my teeth every time. If you're a Bobby Tom fan, you probably find it funny that he recognizes she isn't a stripper but still makes her go partway through with the act before taking her inside. But I just found it teeth-grinding. OK, the "football quiz" part is amusing, and sets up how Bobby Tom keeps women on the line, sorta. It sure does make it seem as if every single woman he knows except Gracie is dumber than a post - does any one of them actually think he'll marry whoever passes this quiz??

Gracie uses her wiles to finally convince BT to head towards Texas, but he manages to make it a long, long road trip, in which we learn that BT is a soft touch for everyone who asks for a handout, worthy or no. Gracie does 2 things on the road trip: (1) falls in love with him and (2) determines never, never, never, never to take anything from him, only to give. In the most stubborn, mulish way possible. BT, mind you, is pretty oblivious to anything about Gracie except how convenient it is to use her as way to distance himself from needy women.

Once they finally arrive in Texas, Willow fires Gracie for failing to bring BT in on time. BT finds out, and behind Gracie's back, pays the production company to keep her on as his personal assistant. See, this will blow up in his face, because Gracie has vowed to never, never, never, never take anything from him. So just wait for that powder keg moment.

Eventually BT and Gracie do the horizontal mambo - but you know what? I really disliked BT's POV on this. He does it, he believes, because he feels he should be the one to introduce her to sex. Does he feel anything for her? Well, if he does, he sure didn't show it to her or me with his words and actions. Still, we're all kept amused with his antics.

There's a secondary romance between BT's widowed mother Susie and Way. This time, this relationship bothered me more than usual. When I listened to this part this time, I felt Susie's attitude was really twisted - she still continued to think of Way as the teen delinquent, but slept with him, seemingly reluctantly, theoretically to save the town. It was so wrong in so many ways, even though eventually she admits her feelings. He led her to believe he intended to use her, and she let him. I dunno, this time it seemed wrong, although I don't recall feeling that way the first (several) times I listened to it.

The scene where BT finally realizes he loves Gracie was the most squirm-worthy for me this time. But it's mostly Gracie's fault, in my opinion. That whole weird "never, never, never, never take" position just isn't flexible enough. Personally, if a man wanted me to change my hair and makeup and offered to pay for the makeover, I'm all over that - he SHOULD pay, especially when he's rich and I'm not. I just couldn't get into her head for that. So when she overreacted to finding out who was footing the bill, and BT made his grand gesture of love (waaaay too late and public, mind you), they were both publicly made fools.

Still and all, as much as these things bother me (some every time, some more this time), silly me, I'm such a fan of the narrator Anna Fields and the author that I just put it in the lineup for every series re-listen anyway. Go figure. 3 stars.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Down By The River by Robyn Carr ****

This is the last in the Grace Valley trilogy, and I think it's the best of the 3! It had a terrific, romantic ending with HEAs for a bunch of the characters, as well as some tension, some new characters and some re-appearances, and the continuation of our old friends - June and Jim, June's dad Elmer and her aunt Myrna, George the cafe owner, Chris and Nancy, John and Susan.

In the last book, we learned that June - silly doctor - had never gotten around to actually using the diaphragm she got as birth control, meanwhile telling Jim she couldn't get pregnant, and lo and behold she was pregnant. As soon as Jim learned that, he rushed to the scene, ready to wed. However, June - silly woman - wasn't sure marriage was the answer, since both had been single and independent for so long. Go figure. As long as everyone pushed, she refused to agree. Then a good friend mentioned something that made her reconsider...

In this book we learn the identity of Myrna's long-time penpal, a funny surprise. The new Presbyterian preacher Harry is a likable fellow, even though he does keep borrowing money from everyone. Jurea Mull continues to thrive, but Clarence spends most of the book in the VA hospital being treated for his PTSD. A new family shows up, and Sam the garage owner adopts them, after trying to run the no-good father away.

Where the previous book was about Women Getting Even, this book was more about healing and family. Jim's family comes for Christmas - his sister Annie, her husband and 2 kids - just in time to help June make some important decisions and to help the town in a crisis. Even Harry's ex-wife makes an appearance and is there as family for Harry when he needs help. Myrna's family is brought back together, and Chris and Nancy face some important family decisions.

It was a great ending to the series, and I recommend reading them all, in order, before reading the Virgin River series, since so many of these characters make appearances in those books too. I like Carr's writing style, although she needs a better editor - please, "calvary" for "cavalry" is one of the worst typos!! And "what" for "want" at one point - and there was a section in book #2 that I know had to have been completely out of order, June's ultra-sound. When it came up, I kept thinking, did she get a second ultra-sound?? No, but it was out of order and the details of the ultra-sound were already mentioned several times before this section appeared. Threw me for a loop.

Ah, fictional small towns are truly fun to read and fantasize about - and Carr, while romanticizing it, doesn't pull any punches - there's drug addiction, and spousal abuse, and death - but underneath is this community that cares (maybe too nosey at times) and sticks together.

I'd consider it for more than 4 stars - I liked it better than book #2 but it can't compete with Virgin River or any of my other favorite 5 star reads.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Just Over The Mountain by Robyn Carr ****

This is the 2nd in the Grace Valley trilogy, and maybe because I'm already familiar with the town and its inhabitants, I liked this one a little better than the first one, so I went with 4 stars.

We already know June, the 2nd doctor Hudson, and her widowed doctor dad Elmer - we're familiar with newcomer John Stone, the new doc at the clinic, as well as his wife Susan. The shadowy DEA agent Jim makes a couple of clandestine appearances and phone calls. The regulars are all there - Aunt Myrna, George at the cafe, the poker playing buddies, the quilting circle.

There's a very strong theme in this book that was also in the first book, although not as prominent - women being treated as less than first class citizens. Women being treated with disrespect and taken advantage of by their spouses. Women struggling - well, maybe struggling is too strong a word - attempting to take back their dignity and to establish their own ways in life. Women who've had enough and aren't going to take it anymore. In fact, a lot of the women in the story are still worked up about incidents from the first story - and they are establishing the New Ground Rules for the men.

There's Susan and Julianna - Susan (the new doc's wife) was a nurse before they had a child, and is now in the position of stay at home mom. Julianna is a long-time resident and Susan's new BFF; she and Mike have 5 kids and she is also a stay at home mom, by choice. The two of them were the ones who organized the boycott to get the womanizing preacher in story 1 to pack up and leave. After the town's nurse, Charlotte, has a major heart attack, Susan steps in to help out at the clinic - and she's even better than Charlotte! June wants to ask her to stay, but John makes it clear Susan has no career ambitions.

Too bad John didn't ask Susan about that first - Susan approaches June about the job, and now June is caught in the cross-fire. Seems Susan isn't as fulfilled taking care of John and their daughter as John hoped... When their argument comes up in front of their buddies, Julianna and Mike, Mike and John dig their own graves with an attempt at humor and end up insulting both women and their choices. The men are both facing sleeping on the couch for the foreseeable future!

Another couple in town is having trouble too - long-time residents Blythe and Daniel. It seems Daniel has decided to move in with another woman - and apparently he and the other woman have been seeing each other for 2 years. But there's more to their story, and it takes a while to straighten out the details. When Daniel also has a heart attack (lots of heart attacks in the story), the town is forced to recognize there's a situation, and nobody is exactly sure how to help.

The backwoods couple from book 1, Clarence and Jurea, also have some issues. Clarence was fine after being treated for PTSD in book 1, and Jurea got plastic surgery to fix a childhood scar that had horribly disfigured her. But Clarence, believing his family no longer needs him after the surgery, goes off his meds and leaves Jurea and the kids, going back to his paranoia, thinking the Viet Cong are invading.

Aunt Myrna has some men troubles of her own. Her husband disappeared twenty years before, and since she's a murder mystery writer, her books have often contained a plot where the wife kills the husband and buries him in the back yard - but is that what happened to him? A mysterious man shows up in town and discovers proof that there's a body buried in the bushes...

To top it all off, June's first love comes home to live with mom and dad for a while - divorced from his wife, 2 teenage sons in tow - and he's reinforcing the rumors that he's hoping to strike up the old sparks with June. June isn't really receptive though ... at least, she thinks she's not. But is he playing her just like he did 20 years ago when he dumped her?

What are women to do with all these men treating them so badly? Well, it's a multi-pronged approach, and the book chronicles all the prongs. Carr has a way of writing about the residents that's homey and fun and also warm and even sad sometimes. I cried when a resident died of cancer after making some hard, and maybe unwise choices about health care; I was jubilant for Jessica getting her GED and wanting to start college. And of course, there's a romantic moment or two, and a sweet ending, when the mystery guy comes in from the cold.

I guess my feeling that she had known him from before was wrong - he seems to have been a stranger when they met. What a great fantasy that is, huh? Mystery guy sneaks into your house for a handful of clandestine midnight rendezvous, and you can't tell anyone you even have a sex life??

Monday, January 19, 2009

Deep In The Valley by Robyn Carr ***

My first Robyn Carr book was book 1 in the Virgin River series, Virgin River (my review here), and I loved it! I realized there was another series before it that introduced some of the Grace Valley characters that appeared in Virgin River, so I started a mini-glom. Wouldn't you know, I lost one of the books (probably packed in a box somewhere) in my move, so I ordered another and started the series last night. This one is also a trilogy, followed by Just Over The Mountain and Down By The River.

June Hudson is the town doctor of Grace Valley, daughter of the retired town doctor Elmer Hudson. She grew up there and left only long enough to get her degree. She's 37 and in addition to everything else going on around Grace Valley, her biological time clock is ticking loud in her ears.

The area's population has grown, and she interviews a new doctor to help out at the clinic. John Stone seems to fit the bill - he's a OB/GYN looking to get out of the big city and raise his family in a small town. His recommendations and references are great, he's good looking to boot - what's not to like? She just hopes he realizes that leaving the big city doesn't leave behind the troubles: Grace Valley also has a large drug problem, with marijuana growers secreted deep in the mountains and unsavory characters and activities in the shadows. Grace Valley also has other troubles - the womanizing preacher, the backwoods family headed by a Vietnam vet still suffering from PTSD, spousal abuse.

When one of June's patients implies that the new doc might have touched her inappropriately, June goes on a fact-finding mission that brings in mixed results - some of his colleagues think Dr Stone hung the moon, and others have a much lower opinion of him.

In the midst of the regular day-to-day activities of their small town, a couple of beefy guys show up at the clinic one night, one of them with a gun-shot wound. The other holds a gun on her until she patches his friend up. But something about this guy Jim doesn't fit with the criminal activity...

This series is more Women's Fiction than romance - the story revolves mainly around June and her life, and the addition of late night trysts with a secret DEA agent is just spice, without much in the way of romance. In fact, I woke up wondering if the DEA agent was a stranger to her when he showed up or if he might have actually been someone she knew before... (now I have to go back and find the references...)

I enjoyed it, but didn't find it keeper material - I'm giving it 3 stars "I Liked It". It just didn't give me the same warm and cozy feel that I got from Virgin River - I didn't end it wanting to pack up and move to Grace Valley like I did Virgin River. It fits my Serial Readers Challenge and the A to Z Challenge.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

It Had To Be You by Susan Elizabeth Phillips *****

This is one of my favorite audio book series - the Chicago Stars, a fictional NFL team. It isn't really about football at all, but the team provides a focal point for the characters in the series to meet. In the first book, the team owner Bert Somerville has died and left the team, temporarily, to his oldest daughter, Phoebe. Phoebe and Bert have been estranged since Phoebe ran away from home at 18, right after she was raped by a college jock. Bert didn't believe her, so she left and floated around Europe, settling down with an older artist, posing as his mistress for several years. She's now 33 - and has a younger half-sister, Molly.

Phoebe is nobody's bimbo but she's been blessed, or maybe cursed, with her bimbo mother's body - all of Bert's wives were Las Vegas showgirls, with lush, full curves and movie-star good looks. She knows nothing about football, which shouldn't matter, since Bert has always considered Phoebe his one failure, so he cut her out of his will. Except... ok, he changed the will just before he died, making Phoebe the temporary owner of the team. His wish is that she'll learn something about living right and give up her wild life posing nude for artists and befriending gay men. The team has to win the playoffs under her care for her to keep the team - if they don't (and no one expects them to), as long as she has shown up for work every day, she'll get a large trust fund and the team will go to her cousin Reed, the son Bert never had.

The head coach is Dan Calebow (forgive my spellings, after all, I've only listened to it, and don't have the book!). Dan is recently divorced from a ball-busting career politician, and is searching for a baby-making woman to be his bride. He's identified just the woman - sweet, shy Sharon, a kindergarten teacher. However, the chemistry between him and Phoebe is strong and undeniable - when he doesn't want to kill her, that is. She's left the team in the lurch, deciding not to jump to Bert's tune, but without her signature, nothing can happen - no contracts can be signed, leaving players without contracts, and the team without a place to play in the future.

Dan convinces Phoebe to go to the team's office and at least be the figurehead, and sign the contracts he has waiting - but he didn't figure in her high IQ and ability to learn fast. She thwarts him on several issues, goading him again and again into wanting to strangle her (or, conversely, boink her mad). She manages to hoodwink him more than once into doing things her way - and pretty soon, he's impressed with her business acumen. He's also fallen for the illusion that Phoebe has a lot of experience with men, an illusion she continues to let everyone believe, even though it is far from the truth.

I continue to get a lot of laughs and pleasure from hearing A+ narrator Anna Fields read this story. Phoebe and Dan fall hard for each other - and Dan figures out Sharon isn't the one for him after all, even if it is late enough in the story that Phoebe finds out about Sharon, with bad results. Phoebe accuses him of wanting Phoebe as his wife so he'll be co-owner of the team, throwing a major monkey wrench into the works. She decides there isn't any way she can be sure he loves her if they win, and goes into the final game with heartache. But there's another plot twist - or two - along the way that can change the outcome of the game. The end conflict is so gripping - with a second-by-second play-by-play as we watch the Stars come so close to winning the final playoff game... Even knowing how it will come out, I feel the tension!

The secondary characters are so much fun - Darnell Pruitt and his lady love Charmaine, Bobby Tom Denton (who gets his book next, in Heaven, Texas), and Molly (who gets her book later, when she's older, in This Heart of Mine). There are more team members in the next books, which are separated by several years in Chicago Stars time, but we continue to follow Dan and Phoebe in all the books, which is what I love about series!

It's a 5 star listen, in fact, even though I don't love all the stories, after doing several re-listens, I give the series a 5 star rating anyway! Oh and I'm adding Notable Pet for Poo, Phoebe's dog, who plays a big part in many scenes.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Kiss Me While I Sleep by Linda Howard ****

Wow - 1 series finished for the Serial Reader's Challenge! And it was a great one. I read them all in a row - Kill and Tell, All The Queen's Men and Kiss Me While I Sleep. I'm a big fan of Linda Howard's books anyway, so it wasn't a hardship.

On Fantastic, the books are referred to as the John Medina series - ok, John appears briefly in book 1, Book 2 is his story and in book 3 his name is mentioned one time... Elsewhere I saw it called the CIA series, which more closely describes it.

Interestingly, and especially in book 3, the CIA is made out to be very all-powerful and all-knowing. That's in contrast to my impression that a lot of the time the government guys are, in fiction plots, made out to be desk-jockeys, going by the book, not getting it right. OK, I have no examples of that. But in this series, they are The Man (even the women). And of course, I think I've mentioned my secret childhood fantasy of being a paid assassin/cat burglar, so Lily - the heroine - was a woman after my own heart. (really, I think it was the influence of James Bond books and movies that made me think that would be a romantic career, and not because I actually wanted to kill anyone or even handle guns and steal stuff.)

Lily was approached at age 18 because of her marksmanship talents to become a sharpshooter/assassin for the CIA. After her first kill at age 18, she was hooked. Oh, I think she had some misgivings at first but next thing you know, she's a lethal weapon owned by the CIA. After her best friends and their adopted teenage daughter are killed, however, she turns rogue and sets out to kill the head of the family that put the hit on her friends. And succeeds. But this fellow, as bad a bad guy as ever existed, is also an asset to the CIA and so dangit if they don't have to take her out. Somehow. But how?

Well, John Medina is out of consideration since he's on another job (there's his one mention) so Frank Vinay brings in West Texas cowboy Lucas Swain - he's almost as good as John. Swain goes to France, where Lily killed the Bad Guy, and sets out to find her. He's just a step behind her at every turn - and he figures out where she will be and dangit if he doesn't locate her in just a few days! She walks into the park across the street from the lab where the action is (think avian flu, vaccine and morphed virus development) while he sits there and ponders - and rescues her when the Bad Guys start shooting at her.

Well - there's instant chemistry betwixt the 2 - and he decides to actually help her out. Seems Swain has a soft spot for kids and dogs, and once he realizes that she (a) is grieving over the teenager's death and (b) goes out of her way to help an old guy with a dog, he figures he'll at least see what her motivations and plans are before Taking Her Out. (Look - it's romance - so while we're led to believe Lily will be Terminated aka Killed, I'm going to spoil the ending for you: HEA.)

There's moles, bombs and a terrific security plot that I wished I'd thought of!! Plus the nice vacation in Greece when it's all over, before The Big Sleep. Yeah, there were probably some unrealistic spy things in there - hey, it's fiction!! but they went right over my head!

It was a 4 star read for me - and it's the last in my first completed series in the challenge.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

First Lady by Susan Elizabeth Phillips *****

This is one of my all-time favorites that I have now listened to several times! I just did a re-listen, sorta in tribute to the upcoming inauguration of a new president.

Cornelia aka Neely Case is the widow of the recently assassinated president of the US. She was raised in a political family, and her marriage - although she thought it was a love match - was as politically motivated as everything else in her life. And her stint as First Lady wasn't over when her husband died - the VP is a widower and asks her to stay on as his First Lady. It's too much! She needs some time for herself, so she finagles a costume/disguise and gets into a group touring the White House, and escapes. She realizes she will get caught sooner or later, but meanwhile she plans to enjoy the joy ride of freedom for a few days.

Mat Jorick has somehow ended up as the father of a mouthy teenage girl and a 1 year old toddler. It seems he was married for a short time, 15 years ago, until he realized she was pregnant with another man's child, and he divorced her. She kept his name, and gave it to both kids - even the toddler who was conceived and born a good 14 years since she'd even been near Mat. When she dies, leaving the girls orphaned, the teen manages to keep city workers at bay until the lawyer gets Mat involved. And now he's in a motorhome, driving them to their grandmother's house in Iowa when he runs across a pregnant woman whose car has just been stolen. Poor Mat - he grew up the oldest brother in a family of women and sisters, and he just wants to get away from females.

The pregnant woman, Nell Kelly, looks an awful lot like Cornelia Case, the First Lady who has coincidentally gone on the lam - enough that she wins 2nd place at a local mall celebrity look-alike contest, behind a fellow who won for his resemblance to Santa Claus! But even when Mat figures out the pregnancy is just a pillow, he still doesn't guess her real identity. And he's not very forthcoming with her about his identity as a journalist either...

These are such great characters - the toddler, referred to as The Demon by Mat and called Butt by her sister, is wonderful; the teen Lucy is every bit as confused and belligerent and teenagery and smart as you'd expect; there's even some adopted grandparents, Bertis and Charlie, that they picked up in an RV park! Lucy's main objective is really to find a great family for Butt, and she pegs Mat and Nell as potential parent material right off the bat. Mat's main objective is to get the girls to their grandmother and get his career and his life - sans women - back on track. Nell's main objective is just to get away for a while - it's a nice bonus that their little make-believe family fills a hole she didn't even realize existed.

Going back to the SEP/Anna Fields audios is such comfort-food for me, like macaroni and cheese. I get something different from them every time as well as getting a nice comfy feeling from the story I already know will make me happy. It's a 5 star listen, through and through.

All The Queen's Men by Linda Howard ****

Wow! Another great, fast, thrilling suspense from Howard in her CIA series!

It's always fun to read about these incredible heroes, the special ops or, as they are called in this book, black ops - special training that makes them the most dangerous men, who can sneak up on anyone and kill them without a trace and without remorse, know all kinds of computer tricks, can break into any locked building or room, and are hot hot hot to boot!! Hmmmm do these men really exist?

We first met John Medina in the first book in the series, when his father (with similar experience) was killed doing an undercover job. John always stood in the shadows and rumor had it he killed his wife as part of a mission. As part of another mission, he worked with man-and-wife operatives Niema and Dallas Burdock in Iran - and Dallas was killed. He managed to get Niema out of the country, and had surreptitiously followed her life ever since.

Niema (somehow pronounced vaguely like Naomi as Nye-ema but I couldn't tell from the book if it was Nye eeeema or Nye Emma) worked in electronics for the CIA - she could build and rebuild radios, microphones, whatever was needed. She and Dallas were both adrenaline junkies, and she had convinced him to go on this op instead of a planned thrill-seeking vacation in Australia. So she spent 5 years trying to get over the survivor guilt as well as the grief of losing him.

John mentioned to the deputy director of operations Frank Vinay that he was interested in Niema, so Frank put them together in a job. Niema didn't want to take the job - she'd been a desk jockey for the CIA, almost as a penance, since Dallas's death. John convinced her she was the right woman for the job: All she had to do was get invited to Louis Ronsard's house party in the south of France. Ronsard was the middle guy for terrorists looking for materials and weapons, and John suspected he was involved in a recent airline bombing in the US. John and Niema needed to get into Ronsard's home and copy the files about the product used in the bombing. Niema also needed to plant something electronic - a new device she invented that was invisible to sweeps for bugs, and something she put together on the spot in his office.

There were fewer fleshed out characters in this tale than in the previous - the main focus was on Niema, John and Ronsard. But she managed to make Ronsard a three-dimensional and even complex and sympathetic guy whose motives were not purely evil - he had a young daughter with cystic fibrosis who needed at least a heart transplant to survive, and all his profits went to her health care. Well, and his extravagant lifestyle, but still Howard wrote him to be from a wealthy family with a thriving regular business before his daughter was born, so that lifestyle would have been the same.

Niema felt the attraction to John almost from the beginning, but John was an enigma to her - he was always so controlled that she thought it was business only for him, and the attraction he showed her was just part of the play-acting they did for Ronsard. Very James Bond-ish stuff here, and lots of action and excitement and tension too.

It was truly a page-turner - I read it all in one day. Since it's a series, it fits the Serial Reader's Challenge, but not the Winter or A to Z challenges - already have A in the titles and H in the authors! 4 stars.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Kill and Tell by Linda Howard ****

This is a really good suspense/thriller with romance! And I love the conceit of having the bad guy be a high-powered senator on his way to the White House! That isn't really a spoiler, by the way, because they reveal it pretty early. It did take me a while to catch on to his motive for being the bad guy, though, so that was good. I just get a giggle out of thinking of a guy like that, being soooo bad and yet having this oh-so-good public persona, going down (it is romance, so there will be a HEA!).

Howard does write great alpha heroes, and Marc is one of those - a New Orleans homicide detective (pre-Katrina) called to investigate the death of a homeless guy. Except something about the homeless guy gets him to thinking it wasn't just a case of a guy living on the streets - this guy was healthy, in good shape, and his "dirty homeless guy" look seemed to be more in the way of undercover makeup.

When he locates the guy's only relative, his adult daughter Karen, Marc is upset with a woman who would let her father live like this, until he gets to know her and finds out the truth - her father left her and her mother when she was a child, after returning from his stint as a sniper in Vietnam, apparently the victim of PTSD. He contacted the mother from time to time, and she never divorced him and apparently continued to love him until her own death just a few months before.

The guy is killed by a professional who is then - immediately - killed. Considering both of them, homeless guy and professional, were so incredibly good at what they did, I wonder how they found anyone better who could track them both down and kill them? But, moot point, they did. But the little black book that homeless guy theoretically had was nowhere to be found - could it have been in the package he mailed to his wife and daughter a few months before?

Karen went to New Orleans to identify the body, and in spite of his initial reaction of dislike, Marc was drawn to her. In fact, it was the thunderbolt of love for both of them, although he recognized it first - she was still in shock over her father's death, after all. It took Marc a few days of what he considered "courting" to get her to trust him, so they could have one night of blistering monkey sex before she ran home. But when she is almost killed 2 times in 2 days, it occurs to her that these are not coincidental - father's death and 2 attempt on her own life - and she runs back to Marc.

In addition to the main characters of Marc and Karen and the senator, there were some interesting secondary/supporting roles - Antonio, Marc's colleague that he is mentoring; John Medina, the undercover operative whose father was The Professional who killed Karen's father; McPherson, the CIA guy; Raymond, the Senator's, uh, butler? or something - more like a Closer I guess.

So I liked the suspense part, maybe even better than the romance part (which was still good, if slightly over the top) - and this is the first in a Series so it fits my Serial Readers Challenge as well as the A To Z Challenge!

Monday, January 12, 2009

One Night For Love by Mary Balogh ****

As I started this story, as I read the first 100 pages, I was sure this was going to be a keeper. What a unique story! Of course, I've read the "jilted at the altar" plot line before, but this one had so many unique twists...

Neville and Lauren had been promised to each other practically from birth - but when Neville decided to rebel against his fate, his parents, his life, he joined the army and told her not to wait for him. But she did wait, and now it was their wedding day. Lauren couldn't believe anyone could be this happy - and she didn't realize how badly it would end for her, in just a few hours.

While Neville was in the army, he had been wed briefly - one night only - to Lily, before she was shot in the heart and he was also wounded. He spent one month in the hospital recovering, where he was told Lily died on the field. They had had to leave the dead and keep moving. But Lily hadn't died - she had been captured and was held prisoner for several months before being released. And now she was making her way back to Neville, and she entered the church just before Lauren.

Of course, he couldn't be married to two women, so the wedding was called off, and Lily was now the Countess - Lily, who had been the daughter of an enlisted man, who was illiterate, who had never lived in England and knew nothing of peers and the ton and titles and wealth.

I was so touched by their predicament, and by the way they were now reacting to being reunited. They didn't have the joyful reunion dream that had kept Lily alive. There was now the specter of her life as a prisoner, being raped and used, between them. There was her pride and her humiliation, thinking that Lauren was a better match, more suited to the life as a countess.

And there was the fact that the priest who had married them had been killed before registering their marriage license, and that her own copies of the papers were destroyed when she was captured - rendering their marriage null in the eyes of the state. Neville was prepared to keep it a secret between them, and get a special license to be married again, but Lily's pride won out, and she refused. And left.

I really did love the story and it's unique twists, even Lily's unwillingness to stay with Neville for love, thinking that it would eventually be destroyed by her inabilities. Maybe she was right about that.

But it dropped to a 4 star read for me towards the end when Lily still wouldn't give in to love, still made Neville wait and wait and wait and wait. Please! I finally tired of her toying with his affections, even when he remained steadfast. And the plot twist of her true parentage seemed like a little too much sugar and sweetness - I could have loved her as the base-born sergeant's daughter, even though that twist also brought the suspense into the plot.

Ah, but it fits in my A to Z challenge, my AAR Top 100 of 2007 Quest (I was wrong about that one), the Serial Reader's Challenge AND as my second round of books in the Winter 2008 Challenge!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

All Through The Night by Connie Brockway ****

This was a wonderful story and seemed a little different in the telling, in the writing, than the other Brockways I've read. It's also an AAR Top 100 of 2007 - and I can see why.

It's a Regency, starring Anne Wilder, a widow who was not born into but married into the ton, and undercover spy, Colonel Jack Seward. Anne is also working undercover - for herself - as a cat burglar (something I always thought sounded like the perfect career when I was a child and James Bond books and movies were popular!!). She leaps from roof to roof, stealing from the people who would pledge but never pay the charity she runs. Ostensibly she does it to exact retribution as much as to get the needed funds for the soldiers' home she founded and supports.

Jack was an orphan, plucked as a 7-year-old from an orphanage by Jamison, who trained him to be a ruthless undercover operative and is also his boss. Jack's latest job is to find the thief who stole an object that contained a letter, possibly from the mad king, that is apparently very politically sensitive. He learns early on that his thief is a woman - an alluring woman after whom he lusts. From the clues, he decides the woman is either a member of the ton, or a servant of a member of the ton, and so he gains access to parties and balls in order to find her. Although Anne is sure she's been found out, instead Jack falls for her and follows her for different reasons. His brain cannot process that the wanton woman he met in the night, who got away from him, could be Anne, so he continues under the notion that, after years of not feeling love at all, he is now in love with 2 women: the thief, who would be his equal, and Anne, who is too far above his station and whom he does not deserve.

Frankly, I got a little confused by all the different people involved in both the undercover work and the suspects and their friends and family - maybe because I was reading in less-than-ideal situations, while working and while the TV was on. It was near the end I started to at least recognize who was whom, even though I was still struggling with things like ages and relationships. The government fellows were Jamison, Seward's alleged father (but probably not); Knowles; Strand; Vedders... I think Jamison and Knowles were older, but wasn't sure of the relationship between the two. Vedders and Strand and oh, Frost - I sorta got the idea they were maybe contemporaries in age of Seward (mid-thirties?) but above his station even though they were all working for Jamison, or maybe for Knowles...? These things mattered because some of them were parents of adults, and some of them were associating with younger women, like Anne's young cousin who was making her debut that season, and I was constantly confused about which was which.

But the story was interesting, and Brockway's prose was more interesting in this story than in the others I've read as well - and her characters were dark, brooding, and in pain. All around, I enjoyed the read and gave it 4 stars. I went on over to AAR to read the review (some of the reviewers have a true gift of expression) and once again the reviewer managed to better describe the book - starting really from something revealed at the end (Jack's childhood).

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Midnight Bayou by Nora Roberts ****

I listened to this as an audio download from - and stretched it out over several days. The story is a contemporary/paranormal - there's ghosts and reincarnation. The audio book is read by 2 narrators - a woman reads the story from the perspective of the couple in the 19th century, and a man reads the contemporary POV. Both were ok - although I felt the woman's "Cajun" or bayou accent was more Hispanic, and the man's Cajun/bayou accent was sorta Irish... I'm prejudiced, having lived in south Louisiana, I guess.

Declan Fitzgerald is a Boston lawyer who fell in love with an old mansion on either the river or the bayou near New Orleans, Manet Hall. (I was a little unclear on the location - not in New Orleans but apparently really close.) He jilts his Bostonian fiancee 3 weeks before their wedding, leaves his big wealthy Irish family and his law career behind and moves to New Orleans to restore the old beauty.

Right away, he discovers the house is haunted. His buddy Remy and Remy's fiancee Effie come to visit, and even a skeptical Effie sees things which convince her things are not right at Manet Hall.

In 1899 or so (can't reference the book for the dates...), the Manet family consists of Mama Manet and her twin sons Lucien and Julien. Julien is Mama's favorite - and he's the evil twin. Lucien, The Good Twin, falls in love with a servant, probably Cajun but I don't think they called it that back then so she is referred to as "from the bayou" - uhm, can't recall her name and since it's in audio, can't page back to find it.... Lucien and the Cajun girl marry, but she is never accepted by Mama Manet and she is coveted by the evil Julien. While Lucien is out of town on business, Julien rapes then murders the girl in an alcoholic fog. Mama walks in on them and decides to cover up the murder, tossing the girl in the bayou and making it look like she ran away, leaving their infant daughter behind. Lucien and Julien both die soon after (I'll let you read it to see how that happens) and the infant Marie Rose is given to the girl's family to raise.

In the present, Declan meets the granddaughter of his neighbor - Angelina Simone, who, not coincidentally, is the great granddaughter of Marie Rose. Angelina runs a bar in town, and Declan falls in love with her as he did with the house, right off the bat. That could be because the 2 of them are reincarnated or are channeling the spirits of the house - I'll let you decide.

Declan decides to get to the bottom of the ghost issue so that the spirits can be released and he can live there with no more spirit problems - and he decides that Angelina is his woman, meant to be the mistress of Manet Hall. She's not at all convinced, and needs a lot of TLC and such to win over.

I liked this story a lot, although the narration wasn't quite as good as I could have wished for. The ghost elements and the historical story were interspersed with some humorous moments and a lot of realistic house-renovation moments. I liked Declan's determination - to renovate the home his way, both following the style of the time and including some of his own tastes; as well as to make Angelina see the light about their relationship. The paranormal elements didn't overwhelm the overall story, which was good too.

So I gave it 4 stars - "really liked it".

Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Love Potion by Sandra Hill ****

This is the first book in Hill's Cajun series about the LeDeux family - Lucien, Remy, René and half sister Charmaine. Oh, and the young Tee-John LeDeux, half brother, is also introduced (even though he doesn't get his HEA till years go by and in the Jinx series).

This is Lucien's story. He's the Swamp Solicitor, the Bayou Bad Boy - he's a lawyer now, and spends his time representing the unrepresented, especially shrimpers whose jobs are being threatened by Big Oil. And his dad, the bad Valcour who abused the boys, made his money in Big Oil so he's pissed off at Luc - well, all the time.

Sylvie is descended from a wealthy Creole family - and they have always looked down their noses at Cajuns in general. As far as Luc is concerned, Sylvie has been out of his reach since they were schoolmates. He never realized Sylvie was painfully shy, not stuck up and aloof. And now Sylvie is a chemist working on a Love Potion she's injected in jelly beans and been feeding to rats - who are boinking their brains out. Maybe her company has discovered the next Viagra!

And ooooops, while visiting Sylvie's office to ask a favor, Luc just popped a bunch of jelly beans into his mouth...

Now the 2 are on the lam - Sylvie from the media about her Love Potion, Luc from Big Oil trying to stop his efforts to test the water for pollutants (with Sylvie, the chemist, doing the analysis). And Tante Lulu has set them up with a lot of St Jude statues and food so their soujourn is well spent on making wedding plans!

Once again, Hill's over-the-top, often silly humor makes for a fun ride. And this is the first Hill book I've read that really seemed to have an axe to grind about environmental issues! I'm sure it's true that shrimpers have been adversely affected by Big Oil in the southern Louisiana bayous - and I support the environmentalists. I'm just not used to politics in my romance novels!

The end was funny - the Cajun Village People routine was pretty funny, as well as the Happy Hookers where Sylvie breaks out of her shell. So I teetered betwixt a 3 and a 4 star rating - maybe it was a 3.5, cuz I liked it a little more than "average" but didn't loooove it like a keeper. So, because I round up and don't really use fractions, I give it 4 stars. It's also a Series for the Serial Readers Challenge.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Almost Heaven by Judith McNaught ***

I have a sort of hit-or-miss record with Judith McNaught's books - and Almost Heaven, #3 in her 1800 series, is a near miss for me.

I enjoyed a lot of the story. We have a young, virginal, naive, titled-but-impoverished heroine, Elizabeth Cameron. Her parents are dead, her father practically gambled away the family fortune and what was left was gambled away by her half-brother who has a different father (so he isn't the heir). Elizabeth is sent to London for a season at age 17 to find a rich husband so her family (just brother and evil uncle) won't go under and she won't lose the family home and property. Lucky for Elizabeth, she's beautiful beyond reason. She's also real smart but that's not an admirable trait for the ton so she's told to play dumb.

And boy is she naive. She goes to a house party with her buddies not realizing it's got a fast crowd in attendance, including the rake/rogue Ian Thornton, half-Scot, no title, handsome beyond reason, and not poor. Her buddies put her up to getting him to ask her to dance. Usually, Ian avoids virgins and innocents, so he tells her he won't ask her to dance. Later she defends his honor at cards, and he's fallen "half in love" with her (his own words) and decides they should meet in private, not really for a tryst as much as to avoid gossip. Ahhh, if only that would work. As it turns out - her "buddies" are nasty gossip-mongers out to ruin her specifically to get her almost-fiancé. She does meet him in private, sorta by accident, which does get found out - then one of the bad friends sets up another tryst where they are found by everyone - and Elizabeth is ruined. Ruined!

The Brother comes in on them and challenges Ian to a duel, the crazy fool. He has already signed the betrothal contract with the fiancé, which Elizabeth didn't know but Brother announces to them both. Now Ian feels the fool - Elizabeth was playing him! Dang!

Almost 2 years go by (now she's all grown up - 19!) - the Brother has disappeared, possibly to avoid debtor's prison; Elizabeth has had to sell almost everything to pay off the debts and is now managing her property on a song and a prayer; Ian has tripled and quadrupled his wealth; and the Evil Uncle is determined to sell Elizabeth to the top offer, and sends out letters to her former suitors (including Ian). Even though he intended to turn the offer down, Ian's secretary accepts the uncle's offer to have Elizabeth visit to see if they still suit, and when they get together he realizes he's still in love with her. He decides to acknowledge his true heritage - he's the grandson of a duke - so he can offer for Elizabeth, since the Evil Uncle insists on wealth and title.

Ok - up to this point, I've been enjoying the story. Ian is an honorable if stubborn fellow, and he's logical, in control and reasonable. Elizabeth seems to be The One and it looks as if things will work out for the lovers. Whew! That's what we like about romance!

But wait! There hasn't been quite enough controversy! We need more angst! I guess when the story goes to 500+ pages, and the lovers are set to get married in the 300s, you gotta expect another obstacle. What could it be? We've already resolved Ian's problem with his grandfather, got the ton accepting both Elizabeth and their marriage; gotten rid of the Evil Uncle. Oh - remember the Brother? Elizabeth hired a PI to find him - and on the wedding day, the PI comes in begging her not to marry the Evil Ian who has apparently done away with her brother!! She struggles, and decides to marry Ian after all - and their marriage is fairy-tale perfect. In spite of her complete lack of knowledge about sex - which is really weird considering how smart she is - they have a perfect wedding night, lots of orgasms, and sex is perfect for them. He is dripping in wealth; he allows her a lot of freedom; she completely restores the family property. Life is good.

But wait! The Brother shows up, convinces her (but not me) that Ian is indeed The Source of All Evil, and she runs away with him. At this point I decided she was really TSTL and about threw the book against the wall. Here I was, enjoying the story. Suddenly, out of nowhere, her niggling doubts caused her to run away from the best thing that ever happened to her? WTF?

Does it get worse? YES. spoilers ahoy - Ian is brought up on murder charges - did he murder his young wife and her brother?? Yeah, as if. Sweet Jesus, if any reader thought Ian was evil, I'm a monkey's uncle. There's no suspense here - we've known all along what Ian did to the brother, and where the brother is.

So what is the theme of this story? That gossip and the media rule and ruin. That in spite of how she actually felt in her heart about Ian, she didn't trust herself - Elizabeth didn't know how to process information and was a complete idiot in spite of being genius-smart. And frankly, Ian should have smacked her and left her to rot for her idiocy.

Good news for romance readers, there's a HEA - Ian is truly forgiving in spite of what we've been told. Elizabeth hopefully redeemed herself, matured and never doubted him again... Well, the author doesn't really address that part, so I'll just imagine it.

So I went with 3 stars because I liked most of it and I wanted Ian to be happy.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Mavreen by Claire Lorrimer **

This is an old-school, old-style historical romance - about 550 pages or so of angst and drama and purple prose that doesn't really offend but doesn't exactly make for the best read either. Mavreen (not Maureen) is the illegitimate daughter of a titled aristocrat and the governess of his 2 daughters. His wife is frigid and apparently hates men and sex, so he dallies until he meets his true love, who remains his mistress for the rest of his life (Clarrie). He doesn't know about his daughter because the governess runs away and only sends him a note on her deathbed about their child.

Mavreen is a curious mix of hoyden, wild-spirited child and gracious, loving and sensual young woman - not a mean bone in her body, independent and all things good. While her father doesn't ever publicly recognize her and indeed doesn't even tell her for years, he does act as a kindly uncle, making sure the family raising her has plenty of funds and resources. When she is about 15, she meets the Frenchman Gerard who holds her heart all her life. Unfortunately for both Mavreen and Gerard, Gerard must marry titled money, and so is betrothed to another woman. Mavreen has an offer from a friend of her father for her hand in marriage as well - a marriage that will bring her into society and allow her to live a good, respectable life with a man 3 times her age. Gerard, the bastard, asks her to promise NOT to do this - where the hell does he get off asking her that when he himself is betrothed to money?? He plans to make her his mistress, living the life of her father's Clarrie.

Mavreen decides to marry the old guy instead, thwarting Gerard - who meanwhile never did get around to marrying.

Then the 2 embark on a lot of years of one marrying then the other, so that every time they met they couldn't marry due to a previous engagement. The old guy dies, right before Gerard marries. Then Mavreen marries again, and Gerard's wife dies. What a tangled web, huh? And yes it gets close to 600 pages of this, racing about England and the continent after each other and taking on spouses and lovers to fill in between the 2 or 3 times they ever actually get together. Gawd it was frustrating. At one point it was almost like that play where the married man and married woman meet once a year at a summer cabin for a long-term, 1x a year affair - but Gerard misses the first meeting and Mavreen rebels by becoming a courtesan for a while.

If you like old style, purple prose and a couple that doesn't get together much, this is your book. Otherwise, stay away. 2 stars.

My Dearest Enemy by Connie Brockway *****

I enjoyed this book all the way through, but it was the ending that turned it into a 5-star read for me.

It was fun to watch 2 intelligent protagonists spar with words as they corresponded for 4.5 years - she trying to keep up with him to send his "allowance" so that she could keep the inheritance, he trying to stay one step ahead while he waited her out. When he finally shows up, a few months early of the 5 year deadline, the 2 then have to "fight" it out - who will inherit the property? It's funny that in the description it says "the woman whose love brings him home" because he does indeed fall in love with her letters, even though he has no intention of letting her get the better of him.

It's an unusual theme for a historical - Lily is a staunch feminist who is out to prove that, not including things which require physical strength, women can do anything men can - including successfully run a homestead and even make a profit. Avery is just waiting to inherit the home he was promised as a child and is just waiting for Lily to fail so that he can.

But it was the romantic ending that got me - Avery risked it all in a gamble to win over the woman who swore she would never marry anyone.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Pegasus Descending by James Lee Burke ****

This is the 4th audio book from our Louisiana-to-Arizona-and-back trip over the holidays, and it's in the Dave Robicheaux series, of which we listened to The Tin Roof Blowdown on a road trip in 2007. (Tin Roof comes after Pegasus in the series.) Will Patton is the narrator, and does a wonderful job with the accents and voices in both audio books.

In Pegasus, Dave - a New Iberia, Louisiana, homicide detective - has 3 deaths on his roster. First, an apparent suicide by a young woman who is planning to go to UL in the fall and has shown no suicidal tendencies. Next, her frat-boy boyfriend Tony, whose father is mixed up in some shady dealings, is murdered with a shotgun. Lastly, the ongoing investigation of a man referred to as Crustacean Man because he was found already dead with crawfish clinging to his body - probably homeless, since no one matching his description has been reported as missing. Dave is pretty sure there's a link, and he's pretty sure Yvonne didn't just kill herself without any help from someone - but he's not sure who.

Dave is a former alcoholic, and starts the book with a description seen through his alcoholic haze of a law enforcement buddy in Florida who is killed in what appears to be a robbery some 20 years before. Dave was sure at the time that it was a mob hit on his buddy, but couldn't convince the local police. Now the buddy's daughter shows up in New Iberia, as well as 2 or 3 of the wiseguys involved in her father's death. The daughter is with a group that scams casinos and possibly also did a bank heist. Coincidence?

Burke writes great characters - Dave's PI pal Clete, his wife Molly the ex-nun, the local DA whose main focus is his own political career. He also includes a lot of local color and history. He spends as much time in Dave's mind going over motives and psychological meaderings as in describing the scenes and locales and the deaths themselves. 4 star listen - part of the Dave Robicheaux series