Saturday, March 13, 2010

Smooth Talkin' Stranger by Lorraine Heath *****

I feel great when I happen onto a new-to-me author and love her writing! This is the 2nd in the series, and this one stars Mrs. Neighbor from Hard Lovin' Man, whose actual name is Serena Hamilton. Serena's husband was killed while overseas in the military, before their child was even born. She and Jack from that book were raising their children together, helping each other out with what from the outside looked like parental duties, as though they were one family. But Jack was besotted with his high school teacher (see Hard Lovin' Man) and Serena had been celibate since Steve died.

The truth that she and Jack were never to be started the ball rolling, but when her mother dies, her grief drives her to a rather desperate measure - she dresses up and heads for a bar near her parents' home, drinks too much and goes home with a stranger. When she screams out a name at the height of passion, it's Steve, her dead husband. She doesn't even know the stranger's name.

Hunter Fletcher is another romance-novel-cliche heroes: something dark and undercover with the CIA. You know, if he told you what he did for a living, he'd have to kill you. He'd been out on a mission some years ago, got caught by the enemy and rescued by the military. A young soldier had died on that rescue mission, and had given him a matchbook from a bar near where he lived called Paradise. Hunter went there and built a home in the country near there, where he could go while not doing The Secret Job. He never got close to women - he just picked them up in bars. He preferred married women - they were usually just looking to hurt their husbands, not for a relationship. So when he saw the look on Serena's face, and the wedding ring on her finger, he figured she was a safe bet.

And then she screamed her husband's name.

Once again, author Heath put in some cliches and some curve balls and wrote a wonderful romantic story. The hero is drawn to the heroine, and on the 2nd time they meet, he asks her, "what did your husband do to you?", her answer is unexpected (by him - we the readers already know) "He died." I loved that scene! When they finally learn each others names, he puts 2 and 2 together - and there's now another big secret between them.

Between that and his Black Ops Secret Covert CIA Job, Hunter's between a rock and a hard place - now he wants a woman and a life and a family, things that make his "I could be killed on every job I do" attitude change.

And wait - did I mention that the reason Serena and Jack were neighbors is because Jack served in the military with Steve and was with him on the mission where Steve was killed?

Would Jack recognize Hunter?????

I loved it! Really, it was just another cliche-ridden romance novel, well-written and moving and with a Happy Ever After for Hunter and Serena and her kid and Jack and Kelley and their kids (all THREE of them). I could put it down and smile and feel good. That's why I read romance! 5 stars.

Hard Lovin' Man by Lorraine Heath *****

I got this as a Kindle download on my iPhone (I am sooo looking forward to getting an iPad for reading!!) along with the 2nd in the series, Smooth Talkin' Stranger. This is a new author for me, and hey - I loved it!

The story revolves around the heroine, Kelley Spencer, and her former student Jack Morgan. Kelley was fresh out of college, on her first teaching job - senior English - when she met Jack, a 19-year-old senior bad boy. She took an interest in him as a student, because he seemed to have potential but was doing everything he could to fail. Of course, her interest was a little deeper - and so was his. After all, she was only 3 years older...

Jack had one of those classic romance-novel childhoods - no father, bad mother who took off. He was living by himself, taking care of himself and still going to school - in spite of being held back a year. He didn't want anyone to know his mother was gone - but Kelley finds out when she shows up to talk to her, and Jack is there alone. He makes a move on her, and she's sorely tempted, but tells him she could never be interested in an uneducated man. He has to graduate from high school before she could even consider it.

OK, there is also that pesky thing about her being the teacher that keeps her from doing it as well. I guess since he's over 18, it won't be illegal, but immoral? Unethical? Yeah, there's that.

Jack showers her with little reminders of him throughout the year - a teddy bear on her desk, flowers, and she is constantly aware of him, but doesn't give in and put out. (good for her) He's pretty thoroughly besotted, but a guy can only hold out for so long. When the senior prom comes along, he brings a date, but sneaks away to dance with Kelley in the hallway. There they have a great fight - and, well, what's a guy to do with all that testosterone, especially with a cute senior girl as his date?

Well, cute senior girl gets pregnant. Jack swears it's not his, but admits it could be - and therein lies the rub. Not that Kelley had any right to be jealous, after all. But she encourages him to do the right thing and marry the girl and take care of his kid. And Kelley moves away, broken hearted.

Kelley has her own issues - it's 9 years later, her parents recently died in a car accident, and she is now having to raise her sister, younger than her by 15 years. The sister is a hellion, and Kelley is hoping small town life will keep her out of trouble. She also hints a lot at having lost her trust of men, first with something that happened when she was 15, then with Jack. She moves back to the same small town, and now Bad Boy Jack is the small town's sheriff. Oh, another romance novel cliche, you're thinking - how good can that be? Yeah, even with cliches, the story is well-written and moving. Even when the next cliche rears its oh-so-ugly head (not that the reader will be the least surprised when it's revealed), the story is still wonderful.

The author throws in a couple of curve balls - Jack's neighbor is a single mother, and now Jack is a single father since the cute senior girl abandoned him and her kid (but was it his kid??). The 2 neighbors do everything together since their boys are the same age - and there's some sparks when he brings Kelley into the picture. He's still besotted with Kelley, but Mrs. Neighbor is territorial, and secretly hoping they can merge their 2 little families.

so there's kids, and mothers who abandon them, and maybe a secret or 2, and that bad boy turned sheriff thing - all in a small town "in the shadow of Houston".

I just love a besotted hero, and I love bad boy heroes too. 5 stars!

Monday, March 8, 2010

Still Alice by Lisa Genova *****

This is a little different - ok, a LOT different - from the romance books I usually read. Still Alice is told from the POV (third person) of a woman in her 50s diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimers.

Having been affected by Alzheimers, and facing the potential of it myself, I found it fascinating. My grandmother went slowly into Alzheimers, and it took years to realize how much she was affected. My mother, now in her 80s, is showing signs of and has been diagnosed with dementia. My father's sister also developed Alzheimers - also in her 80s. No early onset in the family, something this book says is genetic with a 50% chance of passing it on, and a 100% chance of being affected if the gene is present (same odds as Huntington's).

The book is a novel - not based on any true story, but the book has an author's interview in the back that indicates Genova is well-versed in the subject. For one thing, she shares some traits with her heroine - she is a PhD in neuroscience from Harvard. Alice is not only a PhD, but a beloved professor at Harvard who finds one day she cannot remember where she lives while on the way home from her daily run. During a lecture she has given year after year, she can no longer read her notes or remember a word that keeps her from finishing. At one point, she goes to her class and sits with the students, wondering where the teacher is.

Her POV shows her husband trying to be loving and supportive, but obviously not able to totally deal with the pressures of being the caretaker. He has a telling trait - he spins the wedding ring on his finger. While we don't hear from his POV, I imagined it showed his conflicting emotions - the woman he loves is disappearing, and he isn't dealing with it very well. Her children are also affected - 2 of the 3 take the genetic test, and one of them has the gene. How would you deal with knowing you faced this disease? and that you could pass it on to your children?

It was emotional and moving, and yet strangely not as depressing and overwhelming as I expected. As she slips further into this world where memories are disappearing, she seems to become detached. She refers to those around her by other terms - she doesn't know them anymore. I think of my aunt sitting quietly, smiling, while we all chatted and laughed around her - she didn't know the words to say, she didn't know who all of us were. It's too confusing.

It was a wonderfully well-written novel, and the end shows the decisions that are made, again from her point of view, now horribly skewed by the disease. I don't know. I don't know how I would - or will - deal with it in myself, and I don't know what the right way is to deal with it in others, in my mother, potentially in my father (not yet, though), possibly in my sisters one day.

But I'm glad I read it, and I recommend it. 5 stars

Beyond the Highland Mist by Karen Marie Moning ***

I was perusing All About Romance the other day, and read with interest a recent post about audiobooks. One of the ones mentioned was this book, read by narrator Phil Gigante. The posters (more than one) mentioned what a good narrator he was, and how his voice was so perfect*. I guess I set myself up for disappointment - at least I got this one free from the library.

It wasn't so much that his Hawk voice wasn't perfect - he does have a deep, rich voice for the hero. It was his other voices that weren't so great, including heroine Adrienne. He does a funny falsetto thing for the women's voices that made Adrienne and Lydia, Hawk's mother, sound odd. His Scots accent for Hawk was good, but for other characters his accents - including Scots - were not that good. Marie, the Cuban housekeeper - what was her accent (and since when is Marie a Cuban name?)

The story itself leaned toward Sandra Hill's type of prose - kind of funny, not taking the fantasy story of a Puck-like fairy throwing a 20th century women into 16th century Scotland too seriously most of the time. So Gigante's mostly serious reading sometimes came across as odd as well.

And every time he said Sam Hane for the feast day Samhain I cringed - how hard is it for the narrator or at least the producer to look up the proper pronunciation of a word this widely known? There are several accepted pronunciations - Sam Hane isn't one of them.

Adrienne is a modern (1990s) woman on the run from her ex-fiance - the bad bad Eberhard something or other from New Orleans. Since she doesn't reveal all the details of their relationship right away, I hesitate to include them - for a nanosecond. She was an orphan; he was a gangster, using her to traffic drugs across international borders. Go figure. She's hiding out in Seattle when we meet her - however, the fact that she had a housekeeper living in a garage apartment and a fairly intricate security system that included dogs told me she had some $$. She's bemoaning beautiful men who just use her when Adam aka Puck-ish Fairy decides to use her as revenge against Hawk - the most beautiful man in Scotland. He throws her into Hawk's path as his bride-to-be, the madwoman Janet Coman. His plan: to destroy Hawk by giving him a woman who actually says no to him.

See, the plot has room for some light humor - and Moning puts a fair amount in (not quite as much as Hill does in her books), even if Gigante reads it fairly straight. I still managed to laugh a number of times - it's not just the fish-out-of-water stuff either. Hawk does seem to be quite full of himself, even if later we're meant to feel sorry for him that he's had thousands of lovers... (yeah, too bad about that, huh?) I can picture a sort of Dudley Do-Right quality about him.

Of course, they actually want each other a lot, but Adrienne keeps remembering her vow to never fall for a beautiful man - plus she figures eventually she'll get back to the 1990s - and stops Hawk cold. He quotes Shakespearean-type language to her, and her knowledge of Shakespeare is good enough that she can finish the quotes. She speaks 3 languages. She can actually read and write - something rather unusual for anyone, much less a woman, in the 16th century.

Just when she decides maybe she should just give in, the fairy king tells the Puck character to send her back - and whoosh, she goes back (and forth and back and forth). They manage to do that to her a couple more times - argue over which century to leave her in - and confuse the heck out of everyone around her.

Her wishing to stay in the 16th century was something I tried to comprehend - she didn't want to hear traffic sounds. I kept thinking, but don't you miss all the comforts? I mean, if one wanted to be isolated from noise, one could move to the country - it's real quiet.

Enough of my criticisms. I liked Gigante's voice for male characters but not much for female. I found his narration mostly good, but I wasn't completely satisfied with the story itself. I liked it - 3 stars - but didn't love it. As I said, it was FREE from the library, so I did get my money's worth, even if I did have to burn it to disk to get it on my iPhone.

It's a little frustrating that the library and OverDrive Media now have software to put the WMA audiobooks into iTunes for Windows but not for Mac! I have a Sansa Clip specifically for this reason (to get WMA audiobooks), but have become so enamored of my Halo bluetooth headset that I prefer to listen on the iPhone. Sorry, just a little rant.

*I re-read the column for Phil Gigante mentions, and it seems it's Dane from Linda Howard's Dream Man that the poster said was so good, not Hawk from this book. However, more than one person mentioned this series (Highlanders) as one of their favorite audio series.