Saturday, January 31, 2009

Reread Challenge - January: Sweetheart, Indiana by Suzanne Simmons

Sweetheart, Indiana by Suzanne SimmonsWelcome to Sweetheart, Indiana, pop: 11238. Make that 11,239. Gillian Charles has just moved to ton - and the town's all hers. The New York socialite expected to inherit from her grandfather a mansion or two, and maybe even a Roll's Royce, but certainly not a whole town. There's just one minor caveat: she has to live there. Honoring her grandfather's wishes is a must, but what can a small town possibly offer a Big City girl? Well, for starters, tall, dark, and dangerous Sam Law, the executor of the will, and the man who happens to have his own plans for Sweetheart - and for Gillian. The sparks between them could set the town on fire. Unfortunately, somebody other than Sam is trying to take her breath away - literally...

With the tragic death of Suzanne Simmons last month, I though this would be a perfect book to begin the reread challenge. When I mentioned her death over at Let's Gab, I noted that Simmons wrote with a wonderful sense of humor and joy. I loved this book the third (fourth?) time around just as I did the first few times I read it. It's just one of those light, fluffy, feel good books that doesn't require a whole lot of energy, but you notice that you are just happy when you close it at the end.

Sam and Gillian are a great couple. Their attraction for one another is adorable, even as they fight it. He is, after all, her attorney. When he tells her to just fire him so they can finally have sex, and she just says, "You're fired," ... so cute. Because you know it was just an excuse on both their parts. And that he was going back to being her attorney the very next morning.

There are some wonderful scenes: a fantastic kissing scene at a town dance that leads no further... HOT; a terrific middle-of-the-night phone call when they are each in their kitchens and can see each other while they are talking on the phone. I love that Sam's dog immediately attaches himself to Gillian and he allows him to stay with her so she doesn't feel lonely in a new town. Yeah, he's a keeper.

Sam is totally content with who he is - I love that about him. He went to the big city, was successful, but decided to come home to his small town. His choice. No angst. Just his comfort zone. Gillian finds that small town comfort eventually. Decides it's the place for her, of course. Finds out some interesting things out about herself along the way.

There is a silly "suspensy" type subplot that I could do without, but it's not terribly distracting, not a primary focus at all, and only serves to bring Sam and Gillian closer together.

This book has all the requisite small-town folk - the meddling older ladies, the quirky weird guy, and plenty of other endearing folks. All in all, I enjoyed this one just as much this time around. Yes, it will stay on my keeper shelf. I just wish I could find where on earth I put the next one... Goodnight, Sweetheart, which is Sam's brother Eric's story.

Friday, January 30, 2009

The Art Of Desire by Cherie Feather

Title: The Art Of Desire
Author: Cherie Feather

Type: Erotic Romance
Published: 2008

Blurb: Museum director Mandy Cooper is obsessed with nineteenth-century artist Catherine Burke and the artist's erotically charged relationship with Atacar, her enthralling American Indian lover. But Mandy's link to the legendary couple runs deeper than she knows. She's having a heated affair herself with Jared Cabrillo, Atacar's handsome great-great nephew who knows precisely what it takes to seduce a woman.

He's in possession of Catherine's explicit journal. He knows every intimate detail of what she wanted and needed. But he also knows how desperately Catherine had loved Atacar and how dangerously he'd loved her. The journal is timeless and tragic, and the secrets contained within its pages can bring Mandy and Jared together, or just as surely destroy them both, desire by shocking desire.

Why: I added this book to my TBR list after reading a blogger review. And I cannot find that review. I'm going to have to start writing my sources down.

Thoughts: Historically, I've not had good luck with erotic romance. Aside from Megan Hart and early titles from Sarah McCarty and Lora Leigh, I've been consistently disappointed. Until last month, when I read three titles from Deanna Lee. [Still trying to figure out which blogger recommended those, BTW.] Emboldened, I reviewed my TBR list for more erotic romance recommendations and selected four to be purchased with my last holiday gift card. Feather's The Art Of Desire was the first I picked up to read.

A very good read. Feather doesn't reach Hart's heights, but she does deliver (like Hart) a sexual relationship ultimately stretched beyond its bounds by emotions both foreign and uncomfortable to its participants. Tough to pull off, no question. How do you give characters emotional depth when their experiences, by definition, are designed to avoid emotion?

How do you start them off with that detachment and then, believably, peel away the layers to reveal the emotions, be they repressed or simply hidden from the other's view? Tough. Hart manages it through a single point of view and dialogue that is often harshly economic. It's like she reveals more through character denial than she does through character thought or action. IOW, her characters are not even honest with themselves, let alone the reader.

Feather does not keep it all as close to the vest as Hart does. She offers a POV from both characters and counters their loveless affair with flashbacks to an affair that is filled with love and deeply romantic. It seemed to make for a shorter, lower-impact route to the acknowledgement of feelings. But it also brought their emotional struggle closer to the surface, giving the reader a better view.

Because Feather writes very, very well, the view is compelling. There is very little waste, very little clutter here. Feather keeps the focus on their relationship, involving secondary characters pretty much only when necessary. I say pretty much because there is one scene that appeared to serve strictly as a sequel builder--setting readers up for a BDSM romance for Mandy's colleague. While Feather's segue back to Mandy and Jared was very smooth, I still felt like I'd been unnecessarily sidelined for a moment.

That upclose view of the romance I mentioned is also very titillating. The erotic scenes--and there are many of them--are wrought with need. Their desire for one another is palpable, their addiction to each other easily understood and accepted by the reader. Even when it is edged by dominance. And this is a sticking point with me, personally. There is such a fine line between sexual dominance that is arousing or seductive and sexual dominance that is repelling (abuser repelling). Feather stays firmly and honestly on the sexy side of this line. Jared may be twisted up about some things, but he is not twisted.

Which leads me to think of him and Mandy individually. So far, my comments apply very much to them as they are together--believable, combustible. Separate them and the impression becomes less clear. I think Feather gives us better insight into Mandy than she does Jared. But still, for both of them, the focus remains on what they have and do together. When we spend time alone with either one, that single-minded focus is still there. Each is thinking about the other. Interesting, when I think back, that I never really got a sense of either one of them on their own. More interesting that I didn't notice it. It didn't matter. In Feather's telling, the power lies in their attraction to one another. It simply overrides everything else. Beautifully.

As for the book's other romance--the one played out via flashbacks or entries from a personal journal--it was equally compelling, just as beautiful. But still, secondary. The reader learns upfront that theirs is a great love story and that Jared is related to them in some way. And as the story nears its conclusion, we begin to see the parallels between past and present seductions. Feather ties that all together nicely. Still though, as the reader, I was glued to Jared and Mandy, curious to see where they would end up. And pleased with the kind of HEA Feather ultimately chose for them.

So, overall, a very good read for me. Not flawless, but very satisfying. I will absolutely be reading more from this author.

The Education of Madeline by Beth Williamson (ARC)

Plum Creek, Colorado 1872
Madeline Brewster practically owns Plum City, Colorado. But at thirty-two, she knows she has missed any chance for happiness. Until she finds a tall, strong, handsome Irishman on the wrong end of the hangman's noose. Suddenly this unconventional woman comes up with an outrageous idea...

Teague O'Neal has rugged cheekbones, tousled black curls, and eyes as blue as the sky, even if he is caked in Colorado mud. The men insist they caught him horse-thieving, and there's something desperate about him that says he'd do anything for a buck.

Maybe it was pure chance, or maybe it was something more that brought Madeline and Teague together. But one thing's clear, between a woman who has just about everything she could ever want, and a man who's lost that and more, they might find something in between worth living for.

Beth Williamson's new book, The Education of Madeline, is being released from Brava on February 24. This is a rerelease of a 2005 ebook from Loose-Id, that is now the start of a series. Beth has kindly consented to give away an autographed copy over on Let's Gab (contest ends Feb 6).

I have long been a fan of Williamson. She combines tough talking, but sensitive men with strong women; women who are able to survive the tough times in which they live. Madeline and Teague are no exceptions.

Madeline is a rich woman, having inherited the town's bank (and pretty much the entire town) from her father. She is determined to treat folks with respect, yet believes the townsfolk can't see past her father's poor treatment of them. She spots Teague as he is about to be hanged for stealing a horse. She rescues him, takes him home, and propositions him because he is a big man, and she believes he can handle a big woman such as herself. Seems she doesn't want to get too old and die without knowing the physical side of love.

Teague is a worn out Union soldier, running from his memories. He accepts Maddie's proposition, and together they embark on a series of erotic "lessons." Although they progressed rather quickly, I liked that they began with kissing in lesson 1, etc before they actually got to intercourse in a much later lesson. Each lesson was not viewed as a means to an end, but a start to finish piece of lovemaking all on its own. Awesome.

Each has personal baggage to overcome, and there is a subplot of several higher-ups in the town attempting to strip Madeline of her power. As wonderful as the sex scenes are (and they are!), I really enjoyed the scenes where Maddie and Teague open up to one another about their pasts. They recognize fairly early on how important they are to one another, and about the last third of the book is spent trying to clear Maddie's name.

Also terrific are the two main secondary characters, Eppie, Madeline's mulatto best friend and housekeeper, and Micah, a Rebel soldier. Eppie has a fantastic mouth on her, and a wonderful sense of humor, and her outrage in certain situations is almost comical. Micah has his own demons to slay, and lives alone as a hermit up in the mountains. The scene where Teague (the Yank) and Micah (the Reb) meet was really well done. The shared experience between them was palpable, and required no words. And the physical reaction that Teague had to the meeting was very well written.

So, yes, a great deal of this book revolves around sex, but there is so much more to it. Gender roles, abuse of power, even a little PTSD - all addressed here. It releases on Feb 24 from Brava. Order it here. But you can have an early copy of it right now!

The second book in the series, The Redemption of Micah, releases June 30, '09. Interestingly, while I love the cover for Micah, and can totally picture Nathan over here «« as Micah, the cover image of Teague (above) isn't how I picture him at all. He seems too young; not tough enough for his character. Maybe it's just that the hat looks a little... girly? Not Teague at all. Go figure.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Year of the Category - January: The Horseman's Son by Delores Fossen

The Horseman's Son by Delores FossenBlurb: From the moment he first saw his son, ranchman Dylan Greer knew the baby he'd adopted was his in every way that mattered. And no one--not even the beautiful, strong-willed cop who claimed she was the child's mother--was going to change that. Collena Drake swore a criminal ring had stolen her baby and that someone was crossing every line to keep the illegal adoption secret. Now, in order to protect one innocent child, Collena made him a tempting offer: get married and share custody. As a businessman, Dylan thought the plan brilliant. But as a man...resisting his "bride," especially as the danger mounted, would be damn near impossible.

While I still read a lot of Harlequins, I tend not to buy a lot of Intrigues. One of the things that I love about the Intrigue line is also one of the things that I find makes it so unbelievable as well. The stories take place in a very quick, fast, blink-of-an-eye time frame. This one is no exception. Within less than a week's time, Collena and Dylan have met, squared off over their son, Adam, gotten married, are insanely attracted to one another, have sex, and fall in love - all while fighting off attempts on Collena's life. Pretty unbelievable.

Yet there is something tremendously enjoyable about the Intrigue line anyway. I enjoyed Collena's smarts. Her desire to find her son and be a mother to him. She's no victim.

Dylan is not a cookie cutter hero, either. He was a guy with doubts - all the way. Doubts about the right path to take in order to protect his son, doubts about being with Collena, doubts about his past.

This book fits in with the Intrigue model - high on suspense and action; low on the angst and emotion. We never really get a good glimpse into who these people truly are. That's more a product of the length of this book, I think, than anything else. Fossen makes a really good start, especially on Dylan and his past - all his loves have ended up either dead or attacked in some way. The impact on him has been severe. Unfortunately, the length prevents a fully in-depth exploration of this, and the mixup of the danger plots - the attempts on Collena's life are two-fold - make it nearly impossible to delve into any of the issues that either Dylan or Collena have - and Fossen makes it plain that they have many.

I feel about this book the way I do so many of te Intrigue line... I so wish that it could have been another 150 pages long. It could have been a great book. Instead, it was a quick, skimmy read that never completely engaged me. Which is a shame, because I think that Fossen is a terrific author. I enjoyed it, but not as much as I enjoy other books in other lines.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Lord Next Door by Gayle Callen

Title: The Lord Next Door
Author: Gayle Callen

Type: Historical Romance
Published: 2005

Blurb: To rescue her family from financial ruin, lovely Victoria Shelby has no choice but to marry. Her options for a bridegroom are limited . . . until she remembers the shy servant boy next door. Then she discovers that her childhood friend is actually Viscount Thurlow -- ruthless businessman, future earl, and a man whose family is shrouded in scandal!

After two rejected marriage proposals, David Thurlow needs a wife who will give him an heir, someone who will not only overlook his past but also be above reproach. Victoria is the ideal candidate -- quiet, unassuming, and in desperate need of funds. But even as she strives to be the perfect wife, her calm demeanor masks a shocking secret . . . one that is overshadowed by David's slow, heated lessons in the art of seduction that threaten to transform a "convenient" marriage into a torrid and passionate affair.

Why: Callen is an author on my TBR list as a result of blogger reviews. There are several titles I've listed under her name and Lori graciously sent me a couple of them. This was my first.

Thoughts: Slow and easy. Just a gentle, simple romance through and through. And for the most part, I enjoyed that about it. It really was all about the growing relationship between David and Victoria. I appreciated that focus. I appreciated Callen's single-mindedness, her continuity and her voice. I also appreciated the story's pace--it never seemed to lag.

By all rights, this should have been a very engaging book for me. Unfortunately, despite its appealing focus, voice and pace, there was simply no "grab" for me. No hook that compelled me to "get back to my book" every chance I could. Know what I mean?

I can't say I was bored, because again, Callen's pacing was topnotch. Nor can I say that I didn't want to finish it. I did. It just took me far too long, IMO, because the story and its characters didn't call to me when I was busy doing other things.

And that is probably it, right there. In the characters. I wasn't vested. Interested, yes. Callen's characterization is not weak by any means. But they do live and think within societal confines, measuring their own fathers by society's standards and expending a lot of energy to appear themselves as society dictates. And that made them less believable for me. For two reasons. One, neither appeared all that critical of societal expectations. And two, their adherence to society's rules felt downright pollyanna at times. David's firm dismissal of his mistress upon marrying, for example. And Victoria's determination to see father and son reconciled. Both actions show the reader an attempt--on each's part--to be a good, respectful and loving spouse. But phrased or presented as duty or appearance, they fell flat. For me. In my mind, I wondered at his sex drive and found her meddlesome. Not what Callen was aiming for, I'm sure.

Still, I continued reading and was content to read it through to the end. I guess I looked at it as both an overdue return to historical romance and a break from the dark and gritty stories I've been picking over all others. I was ultimately pleased with Callen's HEA for these two and actually look forward to the next one--The Viscount In My Bedroom. If the characters there pack more punch, then Callen will be a good addition to my reading lists. Like I said, everything else is there--prose, pace, and even romance, albeit a tad tipid.

One more thing. Lame as it is--and probably a trend that grates on your last nerve, but--I cannot sign off from this review without this qualifier. My reading mojo is adrift and my life is presently a warzone with daily "busy versus balanced" battles. I think I'm winning the war and, today, am actually feeling excitement over my next handful of reads. Progress. But in all fairness to Callen, I'll go ahead and admit to a bit of the "it's me, not you" syndrome.

Word on the Web:

Where's My Hero - Didn't care for it.

Pearl's World Of Books - Not good, but not awful.

Ok, I didn't think it was that bad.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Fall Into Me by Linda Winfree

Fall Into MeHmmm... where to start. I'm very conflicted about this book. I loved the characters. I'm just not so sure I liked where Winfree took them. Their individual character-building journeys were excellent. The storyline... I'm not so sure it worked for me. My own personal hangups for sure.

This is the story of Angel and Troy Lee. Troy Lee is the deputy that Tick has been picking on for several books now, and Angel is the bar owner that Mark (Cookie) had his one night stand with in Hearts Awakened (the book just prior to this one). The two characters are written very well. I especially liked Troy Lee and his struggle with coming into his own as a cop. Cookie became an interesting mentor for him, given the history between Cookie and Angel, and he plays a huge role in this book because of it. His interactions with all involved - Troy Lee, Angel, Tori, and Tick, are all well done. I do love Mark as a hero. Mmmhmmmm.... But that may have been part of my problem here. Because Troy Lee was an equally wonderful hero. And is a book big enough for two fabulous heroes? Especially when one has had his tale told already?

If you've been around here for any length of time, you know I can't stand the older woman/younger man theme when it's a problem for the woman - the "I'm too old for you" as a main plot device. It's a "what will the neighbors think" avoidance issue that, frankly, makes me want to pull my hair out. For a good while, I thought that was where Winfree was headed with this book. But she wisely moved off that course, and brought Troy Lee and Angel together, beautifully. Angel grew past that, grew into herself, grew more self confident as a woman, grew into Troy Lee's love. Ahhhhhh, says I. Not so fast, says Winfree.

For Angel has a problem. Troy Lee is incredibly understanding. A saint, really. I expected a little frustration on his part. If anything, Troy Lee was a little too perfect, a little too wonderful. He should have lost it - even if just for a moment. And I was not happy with the resolution of said problem. I will say this: Winfree wrote her characters into a very tight, very realistic corner. No good way out. Someone was bound to be unhappy. In this case, it was me.

There is an entire subplot about teen driving that makes me terrified to let my kid take driver's ed and get his permit (damn, that's coming up quickly!). It's incredibly well written. And heartbreaking.

Interestingly, since his own book, all the glimpses we've had of Tick have been quite uncomplimentary. Even though Winfree has gone out of her way to show his stress, both physical amd emotional, I'd really like to see his good side pop out at some point again, cause he's really starting to be a pain in my backside here.

Winfree has written an incredibly layered, emotionally complicated, and frustratingly complex book that didn't go where I wanted it to, dammit. Don't get me wrong, Troy Lee and Angel get their HEA. Oh yes they do. All the twists and turns just weren't exactly what I wanted. And don't you know, it's all about me?

Reading back over this review, it sounds like I didn't care for the book. In fact, until I read the very last page, I was thinking, wow - damn... great book. Again. I've reflected on the book for a couple weeks (I read it on release day 6 Jan) and all this just came pouring out when I sat down to write my review. But if you ask me if I liked the book? I'd still say, aside from the last page... I loved it.

Buy Fall Into Me, and the entire Hearts of the South series (which I named as my best series of 2008, btw) at Samhain.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

2008 Year In Review

Had to wrap up my 2008 reviews (specifically, Demon Bound) before I could put this (unfortunately incoherent) year-in-review up. I'm trying to get current and post often, I swear.

2008 was a dismal year in reading for me. And I'm so tempted to just leave it right there; came close in fact, to just not addressing it. But I will, if only to serve as a reminder of what I need to do differently in 2009.


I read 98 books in 2008. Continuing my downward reading trend, from 158 books read in 2006, to 115 in 2007, to this, less than a hundred books last year. Funny, or not, last year I complained that I had less time to read as a SAHM/WAHM than I did when I held down a corporate (read full-full-time) gig. Yeah, well that's not it either. Because this year saw me working more hours outside of the home (especially over the last 4 months) and not only did I NOT return to old reading levels, I read even fewer books in those months than I did in the first months of the year.

I think I bottomed out in reading as last year ended because even though I went back to working outside the home, I was futilely still trying to accomplish/create/maintain all the SAHM benefits for my son. As this year starts, I'm working even more hours (full-full-time now) and trying to simply adjust to the changes--less time with him and less patience for him and the world in general (because I'm stressed over work and having less time). I've got all the good stuff on perspective and balance, thanks, now I just have to let it settle over me, remind myself daily to take all the minutes I need for the most important things. Somewhere soon, I will fit reading back into all of this.

Moving on to breakdown by genre:

Historical: 25
Romantic Suspense: 30
Contemporary: 26
Paranormal: 16
Non-fiction: 1

Fairly even across the usual genres and the same degree fewer in the paranormal category as previous years. Wish I could explain that last tidbit. Doesn't make sense. Because if you ask me right now what my preferred genre is overall, I'll tell you--paranormal. So, did I read fewer because I had less time for reading? Or because those I did read took me longer (like Demon Angel for example)?

Or was I wasting my reading time on genres/books I didn't like as much.

Because if you ask me which is my least favorite genre overall, I'll tell you it's contemporaries (apologies to anyone who cares). So how did I manage to make 25% of my reading last year contemporaries? No idea. I really, honestly, don't care for them that much.

There might be a clue in this bit of data--I read 58 different authors last year. Filter out the DNFs (of which there were 7) and I read half as many authors as I did books. Looking closely at the authors, I can say there was a fair split between simply spending time with authors and series I liked (Carla Neggers being one, Kresley Cole another) and wasting time on series installments even after the magic wore off (Janelle Denison).

I did try 20 new-to-me authors in 2008, a respectable number. Of those 20, there are 10 I plan to read more from, a respectable percentage.

Best Of:

Looking at titles, I'm hard pressed to find as many TOP reads as I have in years past. I CAN note five:

The Spymaster's Lady by Joanna Bourne
Grimspace by Anne Aguirre
Tempted by Megan Hart
Demon Angel by Meljean Brook
A Gentle Rain by Deborah Smith

And yes, there are two contemps in my top five. I won't take back my earlier words. I'll just amend them to exclude Hart and Smith. (If I were smart, I'd simply recategorize them as erotic romance and women's fiction respectively.)

In an award category of its own, I'll nominate:

Wicked Deeds On A Winter's Night by Kresley Cole

Because I'm really enjoying this series, but fell particularly hard for this one. And the series stands up to the quality of my top five.

I can also note two Honorable Mentions:

Private Arrangements by Sherry Thomas
Seducing Lisa by Deanna Lee

Both impacted, both captivated, but neither left me as appreciative of prose or plot (not compared to my top five's anyway).

So what will I do differently in 2009?

In addition to finding a happy working Mom mojo, I'm going to--at least at the start--stick religiously to my TBR list. Unlike the daunting TBR stacks ya'll talk about, my TBR list is a simple document that lists upcoming new releases from my auto-buy authors, highly anticipated series installments and, most importantly, blogger recommendations. In the past, I've found that if I stick to my "list", I have a higher number of quality (to me) reads, which directly fuels my reading mojo. In 2008, I strayed from the list and picked up books that were either shared by friends (random picks from their keeper shelves) or that appeared on my library's free paperback shelf and only sounded familiar. Overall, I experienced fewer good (to me) reads and far too much lag time...those times where I chugged along for days with zero compulsion to "get back to my book." Not good for the reading mojo.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Demon Bound by Meljean Brook

Title: Demon Bound
Author: Meljean Brook

Type: Paranormal Romance
Published: 2008

Why: I read and loved Demon Angel.

Have to say this first: I remember when I first read Tiger Eye from Marjorie M. Liu. I was...astounded. Masterfully drawn to non-human characters of alternate worlds through an arrangement of words as beautiful as the imagery they projected. It was a turning point in my reading history, swinging wide the door to paranormal romance while, at the same time, narrowing my tolerance for weak writing. Liu showed me how good it could be.

Then, of course, no one else ever measured up. Not to Liu anyway.

Until Meljean Brook. (And yes, because I came late to Brook's books, I know that you already know this. You've been telling me and telling me and believe me, I've already kicked my own ass for waiting so long to read her books.)

Thoughts on Demon Bound: The dynamics of Brook's world remain complex--in a challenging and stimulating way--and I found myself still trying to assimilate it all. Given that Brook's world defies...well everything, I don't know that I ever will. And that's part of the charm, isn't it? Seriously:

1. There is no repetition--IOW, Brooks does not necessarily pit the same forces against one another book after book. Nor does she take us to the same places.

2. There are no stereotypes--not even of her own making. Take Michael, for example. Just when I have his position or his role--one of benevelence in my mind--figured out, Brook more than casts doubt on his true nature. In Demon Bound, she completely up-ends it, revealing his origins in nothing less than a matter-of-fact tone. A tone that says "deal with it," accept his fate, whatever it may be. And what of the angel held in the grip of a demon's bargain? We are not assured--in either case--of the characters' inherent goodness. Caged by circumstances and born of sometimes horrific conflict, these characters are as unpredictable as they would be had they breath or blood.

3. There is no balance--not between good and evil and not even within the factions of either force. In Demon Bound, Caelum remains practically deserted. Civil war continues to rage in hell. And there are other species--more than I can keep track of--straddling the good versus evil line on earth. And everyone operates under a different set of rules--some breakable and some not. Clearly, Brook started this series exactly as she meant to go on--with an impossible love affair--between the highest of good, an angel, and the lowest of bad, a demon. Put simply, it's all mixed up.

In my review of Demon Angel, I said that Brook's world did not feel like it was entirely of her own making. And that's exactly it. First, there is enough in here to evoke our own, personal understanding of heaven and hell--places not of Brook's creation. And second, her own rendering lacks clear definition or boundaries. She won't even establish one supreme, "right" force. Yes, the Guardians--hence the series' title--but, through Brooks' eyes, even they're not exactly invincible. Or always right for that matter. In this, Brooks is like no other. Period. Even Liu doesn't compare.

The worlds of Liu captivate, but they are too fantastic to penetrate. Liu engages the senses, absolutely, but the reader remains in her seat, watching. Mesmerized even, but still, simply watching. Brooks has created a world almost "real" in concept, one in which she refuses to assert control. The result is a feeling or idea that we, the reader, could be pulled into that world and then tossed about at the mercy of an unknown and unchangeable fate. Powerful and not just a little bit scary.

In both Liu and Brook's worlds, the reader can never be truly, comfortably certain of an HEA. Yeah, we KNOW to expect an HEA, but Liu and Brook are frightenly adept at making us second guess it. Which is particularly troubling here, because again, in both, reader vestment in the characters is almost painfully instant. A product of the forces (read conflict) at work in their respective worlds.

In the case of Brook, it makes for some amazing characterization. Let's take the matter of complexity first. We learn (and I do mean learn) of this world through Brook's characters. No glossary, no info dump. Best to pay attention to every single word, every single action her characters take. Puts a new spin on getting to know her peeps, eh? You literally can't take your eyes off them for a second or you'll miss something critical. And, keeping the "real" and the "real scary" of her world in mind, we can't AFFORD to miss something critical.

Second, there is the wild assortment of powers or gifts. Interesting in their own right, but also key to defining character. Alice for instance, jiminy. Able to sense spiders, communicate with them, spin her own web of indestructible thread, and so on. Her spinster persona. All of it. I think she even walks like a spider--can't tell you how much time I spent trying to ENVISION that. Like Jake, I couldn't initially figure her out and frankly, wasn't even sure I wanted to.

Totally creeped out by it, just like Jake, whose own gift--that of teleporting--provided more than just insight into his own character. It provided the book's fall-out-of-your-chair humor. Literally. That image of him tipping over backwards in his chair, instantly vanishing off to God knows where, all because Alice creeped him out, was nothing short of hilarious. His latent adolescence; her creep factor. Engaging and endearing. But underscored by the seriousness of Alice's bargain and threatened by the shear brutality of their fight to survive.

Finally, there is Brook's cast of regulars. It's a cast that includes Lucifer. What more can I say on this? His presence alone...yeah.

Going forward (and for me, backwards to catch up with the series), I've no idea how it will all play out. No idea how it CAN all play out. Hers is such a complex world. With a life of its own. And me, completely in its grip.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

The Kite RunnerCourtesy of The Kite Runner is a novel about friendship, betrayal, and the price of loyalty. It is about the bonds between fathers and sons, and the power of their lies. Written against a history that has not been told in fiction before, The Kite Runner describes the rich culture and beauty of a land in the process of being destroyed. But with the devastation, Khaled Hosseini also gives us hope: through the novel's faith in the power of reading and storytelling, and in the possibilities he shows for redemption.

This is likely the truest blurb I have ever read. In a word, Wow. Just Wow. This book was beautifully stunning in its narrative, in the author's obvious love for his homeland, and his obvious distaste for what has become of it through violence; yet his love of the land and its culture shine through to the end. It is a story about love, forgiveness, redemption, sorrow, betrayal, hope, as well as the loss of all the above - good and bad.

The book takes us from Amir's journey from 1960's Afghanistan, westernized and capitalistic, to the current days of the Taliban, oppressive and violent, and just post 9/11. It is the story of Amir and Hassan. Amir is the son of a wealthy Afghan businessman, and Hassan is the son of their lifelong servant. The two boys are raised as brothers, as were their fathers. Yet Amir, driven by a sense of inferiority and indifference from his father, feels the need to show his superiority toward Hassan, and does so in many small, subtle ways. Hassan is one of those truly good people who never rises to the bait, and only seem to want the best for Amir, and to want to be his friend and enjoy their time together.

The year they are twelve, something horrific happens to Hassan, that Amir may or may not have been able to stop. He hides his involvement, and carries the guilt with him throughout his life. He feels so guilty, in fact, that he drives his lifelong friends away from their home together. Hassan and his father leave, adding to Amir's guilt.

Amir and his father escape and emigrate to America during the war with Russia. We see what life was like for Afghan immigrants in the 70s; those who were wealthy and well known in their homeland reduced to pumping gas and selling garage sale rejects at a flea market to make money. But the Afghan community is a close-knit community, much like most immigrant communities. Their pride in who they are, and their customs remained strong, even as they miss their old life. Their desire to build a better life for their children was strongly felt. Amir's father, in one scene, told him, "I'm doing this for you." Powerful, full of love, and yet, more fuel to the fire of guilt? His wealthy businessman father, who lived like a king in Afghanistan reduced to pumping gas. Baba never presents it this way to Amir, however, and the two regain some of the closeness that Amir so craved in Afghanistan. Amir soon meets a woman and falls in love.

I loved getting a look at Afghan culture - not the one that we see on the nightly news, but the one told with such love and affection by Hosseini. There is such love and respect among the generations, even as the younger generations sometimes wish they could roll their eyes and the intergenerational understanding goes awry.

The guilt that drives Amir his entire life sends him back to Afghanistan when he receives a call from an old friend telling him "There is a way to be good again." Once there, he begins a journey that takes him through old childhood haunts, old childhood enemies, and old childhood nightmares. He learns of a childhood based on a large lie that throws him completely for a loop.

Hosseini tells a gripping tale, an immensely sad tale. Just when I thought the darkness and sorrow would come to an end, he dropped me into its grip once more. Amir earns the opportunity for redemption through Hassan's son, Sohab. Once again, each time I though that Amir and Sohab would have a happy ending, Hosseini ripped it out of my hands. Yet he never managed to make me lose my sense of hope for this family. I felt buffeted by the wind, yanked back and forth, emotionally drained once I finished. An amazingly powerful book. Hosseini has a second book that we immediately went and bought: A Thousand Splendid Suns. When I asked Bob how it was (he's reading it first), he answered, "As good as The Kite Runner, and even sadder." Wow. Just, Wow.

Buy The Kite Runner here, and get A Thousand Splendid Suns here.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Ironic casualty, of sorts

B.H. (Before Holidays), I read Demon Angel by Meljean Brook. This rare gem had languished on my TBR list for over a year and, when I finally picked it up, it took me three weeks to get through it. Amazing book. Powerful and rich.

So much so that I feared another year would pass before I could dedicate a month of reading to my next Guardian book. Through comments, Meljean assured me otherwise. “I don't think the others are quite as epic or literary,” she wrote.

So why then, did it take me nearly six weeks to finish Demon Bound?

The cruelest irony. I actually begin a book consciously expecting a page-turning pace (as opposed to a page-savoring pace).

And get the expected page-turning pace. (And the unexpected bonus of a sexy, adolescent male humor I so, so dig.)

When suddenly, my hands became too busy to turn the pages. Or even hold the book.

This and having a wisdom tooth removed smack in the middle of my holiday madness are my only two regrets of last month. Ok, not accepting prescription painkillers from my dentist counts as a third regret.

But yeah, not having the time to immerse myself in Demon Bound ranked up there with acute physical pain.
Review is forthcoming.

Back-pedaling a bit

Back in October and November, I was on a mission to return to regularly reviewing most if not all of my reads. That effort—and everything else—fell off along about Thanksgiving. Like so many of you, my holidays were wildly busy and frankly, I shelved any and all book-fun related stuff. I know it’s a new year and folks are already moving on, but I have to go back in order to go forward. Freakish maybe, but I need to pick up where I left off, catch up and recap the old year and then move on. I’ll try to do it all super fast, LOL.

When I left off, I had just breezed through a stack of 2008 releases—new titles from Roberts, Stuart, Bourne, Hoyt, Singh and Janzen. Then I caught myself up on Robb’s In Death releases—Salvation In Death and two novellas. Pretty sure I reviewed them all. Then I moved on to blogger recs (one old, one new)—Demon Angel from Meljean Brook and Private Arrangements by Sherry Thomas. Reviewed the first, and ok, maybe I fell off a bit before Thanksgiving.

Jumping back in…

Private Arrangements by Sherry Thomas (blogger rec/lots of buzz)
I understand why this title ended up on many Best Of 2008 lists. Thomas’ prose is polished and her premise actually scandalous. Her telling, not altogether comfortable for the reader, hinged on the constant tension between hero and heroine. The constant presence of her betrayal and the difficulty in forgiving it—definitely an emotional conflict not even the reader can be sure is surmountable. It also made for a darkness in the hero most would excuse or accept as his due. More interestingly though, the conflict gave us a heroine we should, by all rights, despise. But don’t. I admired her enough to get past her mistake. Overall, character-driven with emotional tension that is palpable. An author I’ll read again.

Riding The Storm by Sydney Croft (blogger rec, flat-out gorgeous book covers)
I’m fairly certain I finished this one—if only skimming the last half. Formulaic, stereotypical, shallow. I liked the premise well enough, but it all fell flat. No depth, nothing to make me believe in shadow government orgs or mad scientists. So despite those titillating covers, I won’t be reading anymore of this series.

From Private Pleasures, an anthology:

The Men and Womens Club by Robin Schone
Creepy. Itchy wool creepy, sexually repressed and/or deviant creepy. For some, I imagine Schone succeeds, evoking devastating emotion. Not so much for me. It all felt very wrong to me.

Decidedly Devilish Duke by Allyson James (The reason I bought this anthology; I loved the series she wrote as Ashley Gardner)
Ok, but no grab, no punch. No hint of the clever and talented wordsmith behind the Captain Lacey mysteries.

There were a couple of other shorts in this anthology and I couldn’t get more than a page or two into either one.

Friendly Fire by Megan Hart (old ebook)
Solid. Characters with a pulse, dialogue sharp in wit and intellect, steamy sex. A story simply told (her trademark, IMO) but one that elicits emotion both raw and complex. Makes me want to go back and read every thing she’s written. This one was from Amber Quill Press.

Dark Needs At Night's Edge by Kresley Cole
Cole has hooked me. Completely. I found this one just as powerful (the romance), just as entertaining (the cast) as its predecessors. Like Singh, Cole has created a world I enjoy, one I find interesting and, believable, insomuch as I can lose myself in the romance, comfortable in its setting. My first task of 2009 is to hurry up and read the next one so I'll be "on time" to the new release party in February.

My Wicked Highlander by Jen Holling (old, old blogger rec)
Good. I fear that the Garwood of old ruined me for highland romance from anyone else, but Holling tells an engaging story here and I’m tempted to read the rest of this series (the MacDonell Brides).

And finally—the weekend just before Thanksgiving, I picked up a book by Deanna Lee. Despite direct word from her that no, it wasn’t her, I still want to swear that it was Wendy that tipped me toward Lee. She denies it, LOL. So WHO the hell was it? Whoever you are (and I’m so, so sorry I’m not remembering correctly), you read and reviewed Barenaked Jane (or maybe it was Undressing Mercy) from Lee. The name stuck in my head and, when I saw a Lee title at my UBS, I picked it up. It was Exposing Casey—at least on the cover, spine and title page. But the book also included Seducing Lisa by Deanna Lee. And THIS was the gem—one of the best reads I’ve had in ages. So thank you, whoever you are. (Please tell me!)

Seducing Lisa by Deanna Lee
Fucking fabulous. Lee captures perfectly the fear that accompanies a consuming relationship. She connects readers and characters emotionally, but in a bare-bones, honest manner and tone. Both hero and heroine enjoy a frankness I identified with and appreciated immensely. In the bedroom and out of it. Simple but powerful. Lee writes very, very well and I was utterly captivated. I’m not a huge fan of contemporary romance and remain a skeptic when it comes to erotic romance. This was both, and so beautifully done. I wish I could better articulate my thoughts—but all I’ve got is this leftover feeling of being totally satisfied and touched.

I’ve since read Barenaked Jane and enjoyed it nearly as much as Seducing Lisa.

There is one more for 2008…

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Broken WIng by Judith James

Broken Wing by Judith JamesOK, finally hopping onto the bandwagon here... I read Broken Wing and here are my thoughts on it.

I really liked the first half of the book. I thought the way that the love story was written, the burgeoning feelings, the late night talks... all well done. I did feel as though Sarah's brother was far too schizo in his dealings with and feelings about Gabriel. One minute he was all about supporting him, and the next minute he was calling him a whore. Also, James, the young brother at the crux of the entire storyline immediately disappeared the moment he was found, save for a few stray thoughts from Gabriel on how James didn't seem to need him anymore. He felt like simply a plot device to get Gabriel into Sarah's home.

I enjoyed the epic style of the writing... for a while. Once Gabriel left, I became completely disinterested in the entire story; felt that it dragged on far too long and lost any of the sparkle that it previously held for me. I foresaw that it was deSevigny long before that tidbit was revealed. I was over the angst already.

I had mixed feelings about our heroine as well. At first, I thought it was really terrific that she would be so understanding of Gabriel and that she was so forgiving. I admired her support and caring in bringing him out of himself and making him recognize his own worth as a person. After a while, however, I felt like shouting at her to grow a backbone. She never seemed to lose her cool or get upset with this guy no matter what he did. She never seemed to hold him responsible for his actions no matter what. After a while, he needed to take a little responsibility for his own actions. Seriously.

And the hero. Gabriel. I liked him a lot. I admired the way he fought to open himself up to Sarah, and to fight to learn to like himself. Obviously, he still had a way to go by the time he was lost at sea. His actions were understandable in terms of self-preservation, but all the talk of 'I'll love you forever', and 'I'll wait for you forever', and he immediately thinks she's gone and married someone else already? What was that about?

Probably the most disjointed, stream-of-consciousness type review I've written in forever, but obviously I'm conflicted about this book. It's written very much in the old-time, sweeping, epic style, but it faltered in keeping my interest as soon as Gabriel left for his adventures. If the book had ended with their marriage right there, I would have been more satisfied. He wouldn't have had his 'satisfaction' in killing deSevigny, but I also feel like he wouldn't have needed it quite so much either. See? Still conflicted, still mired down in stream-of-consciousness and unable to bring this damn review to a close.

Anyone else out there besides Nikki and Wendy have the conflicted feelings about this book? Or did everyone else just love it to bits?

Friday, January 02, 2009

2008 in retrospect...

Happy New Year to you all!

I don't know if I can come up with enough for a "best of" list this year. I wrote up so few reviews this year (BAD LORI, BAD...), and am so scatterbrained that I can hardly remember anything I didn't actually review. Sheesh. But what I can do is to list off some standouts.

Most surprising and fun new author: Cindy Miles
I read all 3 of her books, and reviewed 2 of them: Spirited Away and Highland Knight (Into Thin Air is the book published in between them). Her books are refreshingly different. Fun, funny, and warm. Somehow believable, even as they are so crazily unbelievable. The books are about 21st century women who meet up with medieval Scottish knights (usually in ghost form). She manages to do it with a charming voice, humor, and fun; manly, alpha heroes, who manage to be sensitive at the same time (and always whisper love words in Gaelic to the heroine - yum); strong quirky female leads; and always an eccentric, lovable secondary cast that sometimes threatens to overtake the book all on their own. Definitely someone to watch in the future if she can keep the streak going. It might be a tough one to keep fresh and different.

Most fascinating read: Rhett Butler's People
This character study into Rhett and his family and friends was intense, riveting, heartbreaking, poignant, touching, fascinating, sad, depressing, and fabulous. And any other adjective you care to come up with. I loved seeing Rhett from a different perspective, and seeing him as a whole individual instead of the larger than life hero from GWTW.

Best series: Hearts of the South by Linda Winfree
I reviewed the Hearts of the South series here, here, and here. It's not often that a book grabs me by the heart and squeezes it from page one to the last page, but that's exactly what happened with What Mattered Most, the "prequel" to the Hearts of the South series. I grabbed each and every book on release day after that. Each one was a well written, jaw-droppingly, heart-wrenchingly, emotionally satisfying read. How often can you say that about an entire series that is now 6 or 7 books long? The next book releases from Samhain on Jan 6.

Redeemed author: Lorraine Heath
The last few books from Lorraine Heath have been a pretty big disappointment to me, and I'm fairly certain that everyone agrees with me on that. But I absolutely adored In Bed With the Devil. It reminded me very much of an early Kleypas novel, in both its characters and its settings. I loved that the characters are not all from the aristocracy - they can be rough, yet we see them as human, not caricatures. I loved that we saw into the journal of the hero rather than the heroine - a nice juxtaposition on the norm. And Luke reminded me of my all time favorite hero - Nick Gentry. Most excellent.

Most controversial: Into the Fire by Suzanne Brockmann
With Dark of Night getting ready to release, everyone is still talking about Sophia, Decker, and Dave. And they weren't even the main love story. Or the secondary love story, LOL! I don't know whether to be happy with the outcome or not. But it sure was nice to see a different side of Dave in this one (literally, I suppose, considering the scene with his butt under the desk *g*). And I know Suzanne Brockmann is just sitting back in her easy chair grinning away at all this controversy, loving every second of it. She's a rabble-rouser, that one.

Most disappointing series: Nightwalkers
I started off loving Jacob. It totally rocked. I found Gideon to just be creepy. The old guy with a hard on for a younger woman freaked me out and was just gross. Damien and Elijah were pretty good, and Noah was soooo long I thought it got lost in itself. Perhaps rather than disappointing, the correct way to put it is "most uneven, and therefore disappointing". It got off to such a great start and then fizzled out too quickly for me. I couldn't even see my way to reviewing the last three. I wanted to, but they couldn't inspire me out of my reviewing slump. Nuff said. I don't know if I'll pick up the Shadowdwellers or not.

So I left a lot off this list, and didn't go about it the way most of you have done it. But it worked for me. I'm really hoping to review more in 2009. I know I read a lot of really great books in 08, but I don't have a tracking system (I tried, but couldn't keep it up!), and without it (this blog is my tracking system, GAH!), my senior brain just failed me.
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