Thursday, June 29, 2006

Squeeze Play by Kate Angell... June TBR Challenge

This was recommended to me several times at the Lori Foster/Dianne Castell get together in Ohio. And it really is my type of book. Very Rachel Gibson-like. Only think baseball, not hockey. I normally don’t retell plot all the way through, but the retelling is so fun, I feel I must. This revolves around a baseball star who comes home to his small town frequently to visit his “rebound” lover. They have been best friends and lovers since high school, and have been secretly in love with and faithful to each other despite living in separate cities and their agreement that he will be her rebound lover. This time, he comes back determined to win her for good. Risk and Jacy are a sweet and fun couple, and I enjoyed their story. It was escapist fun. Nothing to write home about, but nothing to complain about, either. I knew they were in love, knew they would end up together. The trip there was a blast.

The secondary romance was the real story here. Stay with me now. Zen (his name even implies he’s solid and even-keeled, doesn’t it?) and Stevie (Jacy’s best friend). Put your seat belt on, it’s going to be a bumpy ride. Let’s see. Zen, also a ball player, comes to town with Risk to recover from an injury. Stevie and Zen are immediately attracted to one another. But Stevie has been in love with Aaron, star pitcher and also Jacy’s cousin, forever. They have been an item for that long, and the whole town expects them to get married. Aaron is also in town, but unexpectedly announces his engagement to his team owner’s daughter, Natalie. She gets off on sex in public places, which is why Zen dumped her long ago. But Natalie has always wanted him back. Yes, she’s engaged to Aaron, but she views Zen as the one who got away. Confused yet? Is it beginning to sound like Who’s on First? I haven’t even gotten to the Bat Pack yet... the young upstarts who like to treat Risk, Zen and Aaron like old men.

Ho-kay. So. Zen and Stevie are immediately attracted to each other, but she is in love with Aaron, and he doesn’t poach on other men’s territory. Once Aaron makes his announcement, Stevie and Zen are free to let their feelings of friendship blossom into something more. They finally have fantastic sex. When Aaron comes to say goodbye, the Bat Pack tries to kick him out for hurting Stevie, and Zen tells them to let Stevie say goodbye. He inadvertently walks in on a true and final goodbye hug, but misinterprets it. So, Zen, being the unselfish, magnanimous, giver that he is, hops in the limo with Natalie and drives off into the sunset, figuring that Stevie and Aaron will have their HEA. Idiot.

Okay. While this was the more interesting of the two romances, obviously it was full of problems. Problem 1. Why, oh, why, did no one give Aaron any crap about dumping Stevie?! Not his cousin. And Stevie is her best friend. Lord knows, she knows Aaron well enough to give him crap. Not his good friend Risk. And he even got the “I’m not having sex with you because you knew about this” line from Jacy. Not any of the townspeople, who adore Stevie. Not a soul except a few young ball players who lived to give the older players crap about anything. What is up with that?

Okay. Problem 2. Zen totally trusted Stevie to go say goodbye to Aaron alone in the kitchen. That fits. So why would he misinterpret the little goodbye hug right off the bat and leave without a word? Totally un-Zen-like. I didn’t buy it.

Now the fun part. Aaron was really uncomfortable with the public sex. After Natalie leaves with Zen, he has lots of dreams about the two of them doing it in public. Natalie, on the other hand, has lots of dreams of Aaron dominating her in private. She realizes that she actually really loves him. Zen, who’s been sleeping on the couch the whole time, begs Stevie to take him back, and she does – right away! Doesn’t make him suffer. I would have made him suffer, miserably. Maybe she’s a better person than me.

Well, there you have it. 3 romances in one. This was a zany, madcap, crazy, fun book. If you can get past the problems with the characterizations, and take it at face value, it is a fun, one-evening quickie, very reminiscent of a Rachel Gibson novel.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Extreme Exposure by Pamela Clare

This was my first Clare title and one I would highly recommend. It falls into the category of books I’m happy to have read, but not a must-keep, must pursue author relentlessly for next title kind of book. Largely because of my personal reading preferences and little to do with author talent.

It was very well written.

Clare’s characters are sharp and interesting. She lends Kara just the right dose of self-deprecating humor and Reece a well-fitting confidence. Both are honestly flawed, but without false insecurities or arrogance. Very believable, easy to relate to folks. I enjoyed their story even though my reading (escapism) preferences tilt more toward characters less likely to live next door.

The suspense plot reminded me of others I’ve read and watched (in the movies). But Clare does it well, never boring the reader. She did include at least one stereotype—that of professional journalists and their chauvinistic bosses—that turned me off a bit. Her portrayal of Kara’s boss was slightly over the top, IMO.

The sex was hot and the humor was laugh out loud. I loved the vibrator’s role all the way around. Of course it also explained why I could never find this book in my local library. Clare pens some of the most erotic sex scenes I’ve read.

The role of Kara’s small son—and her role as mother—could have been more authentically portrayed. Little ones have great character and do not need to be limited to images of vulnerability or cuteness. Clare depicted their bath time rituals beautifully and would have benefited from extending this glimpse of their relationship throughout the story. Also, in the face of danger, I had to close my eyes when Kara sent him off with his grandmother. Under such a threat, the job—however noble—would have been second to the safety of my son and myself. I would have taken off, with my son, to a safe place. Clearly, that would not have worked for the book. But it was a slight stepping off point for me.

I imagine it is quite difficult to portray characters that you or I, as the reader, might know in the real world. The end result is that we hold them more accountable to the “that would never happen” rule.

Overall, I really did enjoy this book. And while I haven’t rushed to Clare’s website for news of her next release, I will read more of her books.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Two by Marjorie M. Liu

Tiger Eye by Marjorie M. Liu

This book dispelled any and all aversions I had to characters with animal DNA. How?

First, Liu lulled me into the story with words. Lyrical, haunting arrangements so vivid, painted with such startling truth that I could hear, smell and see the world of Dela Reese. Within pages, the magical quality of her prose had already prepared me for Hari’s bizarre arrival. Liu deftly suspends reality for Dela and reader, overwhelming senses and commanding attention. Liu’s voice is stunning and enticement enough to compel readers forward.

Second, Liu promises danger that is elemental, evil in its purest form. The suspense is gripping right from the start, the mystery unfathomable. It is a rare combination of threat—villainous men of the modern world and evil materializing from Liu’s mystical world of cursed shapeshifters. Whether by prose or ingenuity, Liu manages to defy formula. She builds a world unexpected and easily wraps characters and readers in fear of the unknown.

Third, Liu’s characterization skills match her writing ability. Quite simply, Liu makes readers ache for Dela and Hari.

Everything about this story was unexpected. The characters, each turn of events, the outcome. And most importantly, the exquisite manner in which captivates the reader. She doesn’t just invite the reader into her world. She entices, lures and dares the reader.

Tiger Eye is an absolutely gorgeous book.

Shadow Touch by Marjorie M. Liu

This story features characters established in Liu’s first work, Tiger Eye. It offers the same vivid, other world characters and the unspeakable evil in which they are trapped. And Liu’s writing is just as stunning here as it was her first time out.

The only difference is in reader experience. The characters of Shadow Touch were not as easily embraced, their actions not as easily reconciled to their experiences. This is not to say that Liu failed to tell their story with unerring truth. I believe she portrayed Elena and Artur honestly. Their bond however, remained tenuous throughout the story. And, as the reader, I sensed an unfulfilled expectation.

I can’t say whether the omission was the result of the story’s brief timeframe or the nature of the characters’ scars. I’ve heard some say that Elena and Artur’s relationship needed more development time. Others may say that Artur’s gift, by its very nature, negates the possibility of any romantic relationship.

I can’t comment either way. I loved their story, its mysteries and miracles. It was a page-turner and one I would highly recommend to fellow readers. The difference in reader experience between this one and Tiger Eye ultimately lay in nuance—a difference in depths. In Tiger Eye, Liu dragged me under. In Shadow Touch, she allowed me to break the surface, resulting in a hair more emotional distance between her characters and me.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

72 Hours by Shannon Stacey

3 books, 3 different genres. Shannon Stacey is proving herself to be quite a versatile author. This is a fast paced, tightly written action-adventure romance that moves forward from page one and keeps moving until the last word.

The blurb, courtesy of The Devlin Group: A privately-owned rogue agency unhindered by red tape and jurisdiction.

Grace Nolan walked away from the Devlin Group carrying Alex Rossi’s child in her womb and his bullet in her shoulder. But a ghost from the past has kidnapped her son, Danny. The ransom—Alex Rossi. To get her son back, Grace will have to step back into the life she’d left behind and reveal her secret to Alex.

With vengeance for his mother’s murder nearly at hand and a deadly substance on the loose, the last thing Alex Rossi needs is to find himself at the business end of Grace’s gun. Now the clock is ticking as they race to save a child and stop a madman bent on destruction.

But Alex has a secret of his own, and it may be the ultimate betrayal.
I truly enjoyed this one. Stacey managed to create a sense of history and closeness between not only Grace and Alex, but also between the supporting characters Carmen and Gallagher (am I the only one who was waiting for him to smash a watermelon?) in what turned out to be a much shorter book than her previous two works.

When we first meet Grace, she appears to be out of her element, burning chocolate chip cookies (who hasn't done that?), trying to be supermom. We immediately see the range of emotion, as she learns her son has been kidnapped, then she effortlessly puts down the bad guy sent to give her the message. Don't mess with this chick.

Off she goes to find Alex, where she would get the better of him, too, if only he hadn't followed her instructions to get dressed. She gets a bit distracted when he loosens his jammies. Oops. Now Alex has the upper hand. This is just the first of many terrific interactions between the two.

There is the clichéd 'you had my baby and didn't tell me', but as I've mentioned many times before, formula is what got us all hooked on romance in the first place. As long as it's well done - I'm good with it. And this one is well done. Grace had her reasons, and they were good ones. I was just amazed that Alex never questioned the timing and the paternity of her child. If there was one flaw with this book, that was it. Alex seemed too smart to buy into Grace's story that easily.

This book has it all - action, romance, humor (a must-have for me!), secret agents (oo-la-la!), a fun, well supported story, and excellent characters. Shannon Stacey's writing seems to get better, more complete, with each book she writes. This has the makings of a terrific series. I can't wait to read what's in store for this team next.

Friday, June 16, 2006

2 books by Kay Stockham

I don't usually write up series romance. Heck, I don't read much of it these days, either. But I picked up Man With a Past last month and enjoyed it so much that when I saw Montana Secrets at the Reader/Writer get together in Ohio, I bought it right away. I had the pleasure of meeting Kay Stockham at this event, and she was kind, gracious, and beautiful - just as I would have expected from reading her books.

Man With A Past: Here's the blurb:
Joe Brody: Out of prison but still serving time — all because no one in his hometown believes he's innocent. He'd leave the place in his dust, but his father — the only family he has left — needs him.

Ashley Cade: Widowed with a toddler to take care of. She's moved here to make a fresh start — but being accepted into the inner circles of a close-knit town isn't easy. Especially after she hires the town pariah as a handyman.

Joe and Ashley. The attraction between them is powerful. But is it enough to overcome the whispers that Ashley has begun to hear?

This book really grabbed me. I'm not sure why. I don't often go for this type of book, but something about it grabbed me. So much so that I then read Stockham's first book, Montana Secrets. The story is this: Joe was convicted at age 18 of the murder of his infant daughter by shaken baby syndrome. He's out of prison after 10 years and comes back to his small town to be near his father, who's recovering from a stroke. Nobody will give the "baby-killer" a job. Of course, it doesn't help that the mother of the baby was the sheriff's daughter.

Ashley's husband was killed in the war, and she comes to town to start a new life. She needs a handyman and hires Joe, knowing nothing of his past, of course.

I found this to be a powerful story of redemption, survival and forgiveness. It pained me to read about the way Joe was treated. I wanted things to work out for them, I truly did. I guess that's a testament to the strength of Stockham's writing. Especially because, as I said, not only do I not usually read series romance, but this is not the usual story I go for. And not only did I read it, I sent it off to Anne for her to read, also. I can't quite put my finger on what I liked so much, I just know this book hit me in the heart.

Montana Secrets: Here's the OBC blurb: As a physical therapist, Grace Korbit has had some tough cases, but returning to her hometown to care for Seth Rowland will be the most difficult job she's ever had. When she left ten years ago, Grace was running from the secrets in her past. And from Seth.

After a riding accident left him in a wheelchair, Seth holed up in his room, shuttingg out the world. He doesn't want help from anyone. Especially Grace, considering she left him without an explanation ten years ago.

But what Seth doesn't know is that Grace had a really good reason for leaving...

This book is a very emotional story of survival, both in terms of paraplegia and of child abuse and molestation. Stockham writes of the emotional toll that an accident such as Seth's can have on an entire family; his brother and sister-in-law gave up their dreams to come run his ranch, and the effect that has on their marriage is portrayed well. Their young daughter's confusion over why her favorite uncle doesn't want to spend any time with her ("he doesn't love me anymore"), Seth's self-pity, all are portrayed accurately.

Grace's inability to connect on an intimate level with any man is also explored, albeit very reluctantly on her part. She freaks out when Lexi, Seth's niece, is alone with a ranch hand that Lexi's known since birth. This same ranch hand knew Grace's stepfather, and makes all sorts of insinuating remarks toward Grace. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that Grace was molested as a child. Stockham handles the situation realistically and with, um, grace and dignity. The scenes where Grace and Seth finally do make love, and afterwards, are really well done. When Seth finds her afterwards in the shower curled into a ball, crying, I thought, "Wow, I bet that's what it's like for a lot of women who've been long-term abused".

The only part of this book that even remotely disappointed me was that Seth did get the feeling back in his legs and was able to walk again. Yes, that's why Grace was brought back in the first place, because the doctor's had given Seth that chance and he wasn't taking it, but still, it would be nice to portray that a paraplegic could have a satisfying and full life without the "miraculous" recovery, too. Still, I do recommend this book highly.

2 romantic suspenses... Impulse and Dead End

I read a ton of books last weekend travelling back and forth from California to Ohio for the Lori Foster/Dianne Castell Reader/Writer Get Together. I'm gonna write them up a couple at a time.
Sitting around late one evening, laughing my butt off in an hysterical conversation in the lobby of the Marriott hotel, author Gail Faulkner asked a question of us readers: "Can an author turn a good guy into a bad guy and be forgiven?" General consensus: yes, if the appropriate hints are given along the way so that the reader doesn't feel cheated and taken advantage of. Here are two books that demonstrate this beautifully and expertly. Without giving away the whodunnit, both authors drop enough hints that the reader can narrow the whodunnit down to 2 or 3 good guys, but is kept guessing. I was afraid to be loyal to any one character out of fear that they would turn out to be the bad guy, yet these authors did such a wonderful job of creating their characters, that I felt disloyal questioning the integrity of these characters.

Impulse by JoAnn Ross... Sheriff Will Bridger, along with several of his deputies and the radio reporter he loved and lost years before must find a serial killer in their sleepy Wyoming town. JoAnn Ross does a fabulous job giving us both the perspective of the killer and the sheriff and his lady love. She begins by describing the killer as "the boy who was raised by wolves". And while she never explains this... was he truly raised by wolves, or does he just feel that way?... we see into his past, beginning with his first kill of a childhood acquaintance's kitten and the feelings that arouses in him.

The book opens with the murder of an Olympic ice skater, and prime suspects include, among others, Bridger's own teenaged son and one of his deputies. The murders move on to include the skater's mother and Bridger's lover's ex-husband. Ross explores the depth of the murderer's sick mind, all the while making the reader wonder which of the good guys is the killer. Is it the young, innocent fresh faced deputy? The helpful college professor? The wise deputy who should have been sheriff, but got passed over for Bridger? Bridger's own teenaged son? The gorgeous female deputy who seems too perfect to be true? It could be any one of them, and all of them are likeable, and I felt disloyal guessing about any of them. I will admit that I had it narrowed down to two suspects by the end of the book, and one of them was the right choice, but I didn't know which it was until the culprit was revealed. Ross does a masterful job.

The romance takes a back seat, but is still an integral part of the story, as is (Bridger's radio reporter lady love) Faith's back story - fearful of her alcoholic husband, she is on the run under an assumed name. This was an excellent read.

Dead End by Mariah Stewart... I've ranted before about my favorite authors being released in hardcover, and I had to wait almost 2 years for the paperback release of Dead End. Mariah Stewart is a master of suspense. You all know how I love my agents! The last of the FBI "Dead" series, this one focuses on FBI profiler Anne Marie, whose sister Mara was the focus of book one. Mara married Aiden Shields, whose brother Dylan was Anne Marie's fiance before he was killed in the line of duty. Anne Marie has now got a new man, but because her sister has married into the Shields family, and they are all FBI agents, as is Anne Marie, it is very tough to let go of the past. So together with her new love, a police detective, they decide to find Dylan's killer.

We learn through flashbacks told mostly from the killer's perspective, but also from other Shields' perspectives, that the killer is one of the Shields cousins. As Anne Marie seeks answers and enlists the Shields family's assistance, we narrow it down to two Shields brothers. Once again, we have no clue which is the killer. Hints are dropped, as we learn all kinds of interesting information about each brother that would seemingly lead to guilt or innocence. It is all masterfully done, and Stewart keeps the reader guessing up until the last minute.

This is all weaved into an intricate story of Anne Marie and Evan learning to become a couple while each is involved in an important, high powered career, in different cities. Evan's serial murder case becomes intertwined with Dylan's murder case in an odd twist, and leads to the key that solves both crimes.

These books are both excellent examples of the "good guy gone bad" done extremely well. There are enough hints dropped that the reader knows that a good guy is going to fall from grace, but the story is so well done that even I, a self-proclaimed whodunnit master, could not guess the true culprit with complete confidence. In addition, they both delivered excellent romances. Heavy on the suspense, light on the sex (almost nonexistent in the Stewart book), but I don't miss it when I read these books. Love them both.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

An old favorite... England's Perfect Hero by Suzanne Enoch

With everything my dear friend JB is going through this week, I felt the urge to reread something with depth, with emotion. Something I knew would move me like nothing else. So I pulled out England's Perfect Hero. Book 3 in the Lessons in Love trilogy, this is the story of Lucinda and Robert. Lucinda is the daughter of a general, Robert is the brother of Viscount Dare (hero of book 1). I wrote a couple weeks ago about how disappointed I was in Tara Janzen's portrayal of PTSD in Crazy Wild, and how I had read other books that had done it so much better. This, my friends, is the book. This hero, who was a POW of the French for 7 months, suffers from a brutal case of PTSD. We meet him 3 years after his return to England. He still cowers in the corner of his room. He still rocks back and forth on the floor, lost in his own world. He still cries. He still is afraid to interact with people, his own family included. Afraid of his own memories - because to remember would be to die. He still is fine one moment, and the next simply disintegrates into a quivering ball of uncontrolled fear and emotion.

Into this walks Lucinda, best friend of Robert's sister-in-law. Somehow, she manages to draw him out. Slowly. But she still reaches him on some level that no one else has before. She strikes a chord in him that reaches far into the depths of his despair and reminds him of how he used to be. And while he knows he will never again be whole, and never again be that man, he longs for some sense of normalcy, so that he can interact with Lucinda on some level. And bless Enoch, she doesn't miraculously "cure" Robert's PTSD with the love of a good woman.

I love that this book shows the effect that PTSD has on the entire family - the Carroway brothers all strive to have a normal family life, all the way from the oldest - the Viscount - to the youngest - 10 year old Edward. And they do it very well. When the chips are down, this family rallies around each other. They embrace their friends as their own. They try to let Robert lead as normal a life as possible without smothering him with concern. All right. Point taken. This is an excellent portrayal.

The romance grows slowly, out of friendship. There is no sex until 2/3 through the book. There is a very short mystery - someone is out to discredit Robert, and both he and the reader figure out quickly who it is. The last third of the book is devoted to catching the real culprit. While the PTSD does take a back seat to the capture of the bad guy, it never truly leaves the story, and for that I was grateful to Enoch. Robert is constantly swallowing his fear in order to face the world and his enemy. Lucinda is unswerving in her devotion and friendship to him. Eventually they prevail, of course. They both acknowledge the long road ahead. The recovery that may never happen. The nightmares that will never go away. The stares that may never stop. Yet they are willing to give it a go. This is true love.

This is one of the most poignant, emotional, books I have read. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Robert is a beautifully drawn character, one who makes you want to cry with him over his losses and weep with joy over every tiny victory. Enoch writes him as completely human - suffering horribly, at times full of self-pity, yet incredibly strong and stoic and accepting at the same time.

Hang in there JB. You, too, will prevail. We here at Don't Talk, Just Read are thinking of you and your family, and sending you all our unswerving love, too.
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