Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Secret Desires Of A Gentleman by Laura Lee Guhrke

Title: Secret Desires Of A Gentleman
Author: Laura Lee Guhrke

Type: Historical Romance
Published: 2008

Once Upon a Time…
Maria Martingale was going to elope. But Phillip Hawthorne, Marquess of Kayne, put a stop to those plans when he learned his younger brother intended to marry a cook’s daughter. Now twelve years later, Maria discovers that the man who holds her fate in his hands is none other than the haughty gentleman who sent her packing – and he’s as handsome and arrogant as ever.

Happily Ever After?
Always the proper gentleman, Phillip will do anything to protect his family from scandal, and when Maria dares to move in right next door, he knows scandal will surely follow. She is as tempting as he remembered… and the more he sees her, the harder it is for Phillip to hide his own secret desire for her…

Why: This is one of five in a series that Guhrke herself does not appear to call a series. So maybe just related books:

She's No Princess
And Then He Kissed Her
The Wicked Ways Of A Duke
Secret Desires Of A Gentleman
With Seduction In Mind

Of the five, I'd only read And Then He Kissed Her. I enjoyed that one quite a bit and, in the mood, was happy to pull Secret Desires Of A Gentleman from my TBR stack.

Thoughts: Light and entertaining. But not necessarily convincing.

Phillip resides at the top of society and Maria is a merchant--owner of a bakery shop.

Maria is the more compelling of the two, if you can accept her attitude and behavior. While I liked her wit, I couldn't always reconcile her behavior in this book's setting. Don't get me wrong, I love a historical heroine that bucks societal constrictions. I just wondered--more than once--whether a woman of her station would really feel so free to act as she does. I also wondered how her station--beneath that of the hero--didn't bother her more than it did. Yes, it was the source of the conflict. But she didn't seem to take it as deeply to heart as I would have liked. It seemed a vulnerability Guhrke could have explored but didn't. A chance for her to engage reader emotion that she ignored.

Phillip is the least compelling of all SDOAG's characters. Another missed opportunity for Guhrke, IMO. Where Guhrke took Maria's mouthy disregard to one extreme, she took Phillip's stoic, rigid adherence to the rules to the other extreme. And then failed to balance that social prison with sufficient glimpse of the emotion within. IOW, his own emotional grappling with the issue of station didn't run any deeper than Maria's. Again, it was a vulnerability Guhrke failed to explore.

I say that Guhrke failed to explore these vulnerabilities because although she didn't adequately explore or develop them, she did provide the occasional hint or sign. Like when Maria is forced to leave Phillip's home via the servants' entrance--not all that safe and in a downpour no less. Or when reader's learn that it is Phillip who took and has coveted Maria's favorite hair ribbon for 12 years. Both of these 'opportunities' tugged, found me holding my breath, bracing for the emotional fallout. It just never came. Every time I shifted to the edge of my seat, Phillip quietly retreated into society and Maria had a temper tantrum.

Bringing them together in bed changed that dynamic little. Another disappointment. And, in the end, when Phillip chooses a public venue to announce his love for a woman beneath his station, it wasn't enough. I wasn't convinced of his choice of her over societal rules. Nor was I convinced that she was ready to put her love for him first and her need to live outside societal constraints second.

Overall, light and entertaining. One, because Guhrke doesn't trouble readers with very much emotion or angst in the telling. And two, because there are lots and lots and lots of desserts.

Of note: If memory serves, I thought the H/H from And Then He Kissed Her better developed than these two. So while SDOAG didn't stir as much emotion as I would have liked, I'm still keen on reading the other titles in this set of Guhrke books.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Stranger by Megan Hart

Title: Stranger
Author: Megan Hart

Type: Erotic Romance
Published: 2009

Why: Hart is an auto-read for me.

Thoughts: This was the first Hart book that did not wholly satisfy. Engaging and provocative, I enjoyed the reading of it as much as the other Hart titles I've read. Her voice, pacing, characters, all of it worked for me. In this one, I simply did not like the outcome.

I liked Grace best--a good thing since she narrates every page. She exhibited that matter-of-fact outlook I appreciate in Hart's heroines. For me, it's not that she's practical or modern or that she is emotionally void. I see her as neither. Instead, I see her as mature. In that she accepts what she cannot control or change and doesn't meddle (like in her sister's choices or the budding romance between her employees). She listens, but does not take their problems onto herself. She also manages a perspective I admire in the face of her idiot father. He gets to her, yes, but she does not become overwhelmed by the emotion he evokes. Nor does she waste a lot of energy hoping he will change.

I like these things about Grace. One, because I can relate. And two, because I aspire to the idea of worrying less and living more. However, I also suspect that these things do not translate into emotional well-being for Grace. One, because I can relate. And two, because I acknowledge the oh-so-fine line between worrying less and straight-up avoidance (or...perhaps selfishness).

In some aspects of her life, her matter-of-factness works well for her. Specifically, dealing with her sister, her parents, her employees, her clients and the tasks that make up her job. IMO, she is a good (healthy) judge of how much or how little she allows the clutter inherent in each to occupy her headspace. .

In the more personal aspects of her life, her matter-of-factness appears to work well for her. She is decisive and unapologetic. Paying for sex--instead of investing emotionally in a relationship--seemed to work just fine for her. Of course we all know her reasons for doing so were unhealthy. But honestly? For me, I didn't see a lot of harm in it. I figured that one day, she'd fall hard for someone, her fears be damned. IOW, I didn't see Grace's 'affliction' as a long-term or permanent one.

This is likely why I didn't care for the book's outcome. Personally, I think Grace should have waited for a better man to fall hard for. At first, Sam titillated. He charmed. I wanted Grace to take her chance on him. I wondered at her ability to get it on with Jack while Sam was on her mind. I think I was right in the muddle Hart intended me to be.

Then we got to know Sam. Turns out he's a bit of an asshole. A loser even. Meanwhile, Jack is growing up before our eyes. Interesting. At least I thought it was, because Grace is still a woman with freedom of choice. Nothing weighing her down, nothing demanding she choose right now.

But somewhere in here, Grace fell for him. Enough so that she hesitates to stand up for herself, for fear of losing what she's just allowed herself to find. That's the part I missed or failed to buy. Or just flat-out couldn't respect. The character that Hart built for us felt smarter, more self-assured than that.

So right there, it went from interesting to unbelievable. If you've read any of Hart's books, you know that her characters--her heroine narrators specifically--rarely make choices you or I would. In every other instance but this one, I understood the choice(s). Here, I simply could not reconcile Grace's actions and mindset throughout most of the book with the love-struck doormat she occupies at its end.

Had Hart opted for Grace to experience the ache of that love, but ultimately walk away from it (because he is an asshole, let's face it), I would have been satisfied. But she didn't. And I closed the book thinking "not my favorite Hart book."

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie by Jennifer Ashley

Title: The Madness Of Lord Ian Mackenzie
Author: Jennifer Ashley

Type: Historical Romance
Series: Highland Pleasures, Book One
Published: 2009

Blurb: The year is 1881. Meet the Mackenzie family--rich, powerful, dangerous, eccentric. A lady couldn't be seen with them without ruin. Rumors surround them--of tragic violence, of their mistresses, of their dark appetites, of scandals that set England and Scotland abuzz.

The youngest brother, Ian, known as the Mad Mackenzie, spent most of his young life in an asylum, and everyone agrees he is decidedly odd. He's also hard and handsome and has a penchant for Ming pottery and beautiful women.

Beth Ackerley, widow, has recently come into a fortune. She has decided that she wants no more drama in her life. She was raised in drama--an alcoholic father who drove them into the workhouse, a frail mother she had to nurse until her death, a fussy old lady she became constant companion to. No, she wants to take her money and find peace, to travel, to learn art, to sit back and fondly remember her brief but happy marriage to her late husband.

And then Ian Mackenzie decides he wants her.

Why: Jennifer Ashley hit my radar as Ashley Gardner couple years back. After her Captain Lacey mysteries (written as Gardner), I'm happily sampling her 'other' genres and names (of which there are a few). I also recall a strong blogger buzz for this particular title (thinking it was positive overall).

Thoughts: A bit disappointing. I enjoy Ashley's words--she is a fine writer. She also bucks the expected, which I appreciated as well. But not all of her characters leave the page. Given that Captain Lacey still walks and talks for me, I was disappointed. In the end, there were just too many characters vying for my attention and, worse yet, the heroine failed to embody or command the role--it was as if she just showed up having memorized her poorly assembled lines and cues.

On the premise. Without the benefit of having read Ashley before, I would have passed on this premise. I'm more of the big, strong hero in charge ilk. The blurb and blogger buzz suggested that this was a hero in need of saving, protecting. So I went in prepared not to love him.

On this, Ashley won me over instantly. When Ian appeared at the opera, I was as taken as Beth. Virile doesn't begin to describe him. Ashley gives him a physical presence and sex drive that obliterate any hint of weakness in him. Like Beth, I didn't care how his mind did or did not work at this point. From here, Ashley went further, drawing him to life with a singular intensity, one unencumbered by societal concerns or drama. He had the right idea.

It is here that I expected a heroine equally unencumbered. Given her background, I expected both resilience and a maturity that speaks to perspective. For Ian, I wanted a woman who could stand apart from society, not be taken in by its frivolities. Instead, Ashley presents Beth, right from the start, as embarrassingly naive. She is engaged to a man Ashley paints as transparently perverse and untrustworthy (so why didn't Beth know this?). When she learns otherwise, she breaks the engagement and packs off to Paris to take up drawing. There, she meets Isabella on the street and moves in with her. This just after she meets Mac (Ian's brother) and agrees to drawing lessons. Ok. When she encounters Ian again, she propositions him. Then happily goes about their game of seduction, breathless with the excitement of it. One night, she eagerly goes for some illegal gambling fun before holing up with Ian to consummate their attraction. After which she takes all of a minute to agree to marry him on the spot, thus thwarting the evil inspector's plan to arrest Ian. I didn't buy any of these moments, hence my sarcasm.

The fiance was far too deviant I think, to be believable as her fiance (not if we're expected to see Beth as intelligent). As for Beth and Isabella, they were unacquainted, had little in common and shared no history. Yet Ashley gave them all the makings of a lifelong friendship. As Ian's brother, I expected Mac to be more protective of him, more interested in what Beth might be to him. Instead, Mac seems to hold a far shorter attention span than even Ian. He is another who plays his role without actually filling it. Aside from baiting her next book, I'm not sure why Mac (and Isabella) were in here. Finally, Inspector Fellows is appropriately slimy and obsessed, but ultimately powerless. That Ashley would have us believe otherwise was silly.

Instead of fitting together, all of these pieces distracted from the story of Ian and Beth. None contributed to foundation. None served to explain. They all felt like props, cluttering up the set. Overall, I had the sense that Ashley couldn't make up her mind. In some instances, her characters--Beth in particular--behaved as society would dictate. In other instances, her characters (again, Beth) threw off societal rules. I guess I could say this held true for every character but Ian. The result was not a solid, planned set of choices that led readers to the book's end. There was just too much and it all fell together in a flimsy, jumbled telling of a great story.

I read on, but was never able to shake the annoyance. Largely because Ashley continued to offer Beth more opportunities to prove herself an immature busybody. In short, when she wasn't with Ian, she was acting the fool. Looking back, had Ashley honed in on Ian and Beth, this would have been my perfect dark and witty read. Their connection was both physical and emotional and required none of the extras, save the murder mystery.

So will I read the next in this series? Honestly don't know. On the one hand, Ashley writes to my taste--dialogue instead of rambling internal thought, humor, and more. On the other hand, at least in this series, she failed to wholly engage--her fault for throwing me out of the story so often. So I'm not sure.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

No perfect words to describe it.

It's so hard to put into words. I'm there, waiting, watching him on the line. Physical and emotional knots of worry twisting me inside out.

Then the gate drops.

And I'm awestruck. Then all business. And ultimately, separate.

Completely separate from him.

In this one thing, he leaves his father and I behind, aside, apart.

Can't find the words... At 6 years old, this is the one instance in which he steps wholly away from me, severs the connection that feels constant otherwise.

I can't feel him, can't anticipate his responses, can't see his train of thought.

It's like he's his own man out there, no matter his size.

To my astonishment, it is not a loss. Not at all.

Instead, there is unspeakable joy in those moments, watching him fly.

Friday, October 09, 2009

The Price Of Desire by Jo Goodman

Title: The Price Of Desire
Author: Jo Goodman

Type: Historical Romance
Published: 2008

Blurb: Absolutely not going to muddy this review with the official blurb. It was very misleading.

Why: Blogger rec put it on my TBR list and a book sharing friend put it in my hands.

Thoughts: Holy Moly. This may be my best read this year. Fucking. Flawless.

Not sure where to start this review. There are my overall impressions, sensations. And there are my ooh-this and ohhh-that observations.

Goodman gets right to it--the H/H 'it'--with minimal set up. (Thank you Ms. Goodman.)

He owns a gaming hell and she is offered up by her brother as a marker. He sends men round to collect her and she arrives without fuss or fainting. Think you know how this played out? If you haven't read it, then, no, you don't. Goodman writes her own story, trust me.

Griffin has power, Olivia does not. But, as Lori said to me, it is what it is. His power makes him neither ruthless nor possessive--typical hero-like dispositions I expected. And, powerless, she neither cowers nor rebels--behavior I expected might define her personality. At this point, neither of these characters gives anything away--not in dialogue or internal thought.

On that, Goodman does not allow either character to think too much. To put it more plainly, there is not so much as a paragraph of internalizing in this book*. (Thank you Ms. Goodman. Thank you, thank you, thank you.)

There are snippets of thought or, more precisely, impression, that precipitate their spoken words, but never more than a sentence. Goodman places Griffin, Olivia and reader in the same room and forbids any one of us to pursue our own thoughts. Griffin and Olivia communicate, or not, but never lose focus or presence of the moment. Afraid of missing anything, the reader simply sits glued, hanging on every word exchanged. Here--and this is an overall impression--Goodman writes with a deliberateness that is both calming and disconcerting.

Calming in that there is little else to divert reader attention. You get used to that quiet and soon grow to trust that Goodman will not rush you or her characters through a scene. Disconcerting however, because Goodman is not the least bit compelled to share inside information with the reader. Rather, she lets the reader in on each detail--as it is woven--exactly when the character gets it. And by character I do mean either Griffin or Olivia, or both. While there are secondary characters, they are few and they rarely interupt.

Back to the hero and his defiance of romance reader expectations. (Thank you Ms. Goodman.)

He is powerful, yes. But again, in that it-is-what-it-is manner. His position, gender and experience dictate that power. But in possession of it, Griffin remains matter-of-fact and without presumption. Honestly, it is damned difficult to determine what motivates, what moves this man. Money, revenge, justice, the heroine? Something, anything to hint at his purpose. Strangely, you stop looking for it after awhile. Goodman's deliberateness at work I suspect. Though all the while she is weaving and unraveling, weaving and unraveling, showing the same slight of hand Olivia does in revealing him to be just a man. Intelligent and arrestingly mature. Balanced. But just a man.

He says at one point that he and Olivia are "of a kind." True I suppose, in that both wear the mantle assigned them, neither of them railing against their circumstance nor judging the other for it. For Olivia however, the mantle is devastating; each event folding her in on herself more than the last. The quintessential vulnerable heroine.

Not. (Thank you Ms. Goodman.)

I thought Olivia would shatter before it was over with. She didn't. I thought Griffin would be her strength. He wasn't, at least not in any stereotypical romantic sense. Turns out that she was her strength, or rather she had it in her. Which didn't surprise her or Griffin. Throughout, he showed remarkable respect for her privacy--not pushing, not presuming. And he did so without arrogance. In other words, while it consciously occurs to him that he should not push her, though he could, Goodman leaves readers with the sense that he makes the choice out of something other than a self-important notion that he does so for her sake. Hard to explain. Put another way, Griffin consistently demonstrates both respect and awareness of boundaries. So much so that, at times, I wondered if he was going to just leave her hanging there.

That she has no expectations only heightens the sensation. She stands up only for her need to cover her own expenses, nothing more. She defies him once, but it is not out of anything more than that single principle. She doesn't share, demand or hope. But she isn't withdrawn or uncommunicative either. She simply lives her life, such as it is, there in his gaming hell. They converse. They work. They get along.

There is a scene, wherein he wishes to pull her to him but waits instead for her to "step into the shelter of his arms." When she does--in that moment and metaphorically--she appreciates the shelter but does not hide in it. That is it exactly. The whole crux of the book. It is not about him fixing her. It is more about him giving her a place to do that for herself. From the beginning, they go about everything, under the same roof (her shelter, if you will), growing to know one another but laying no claims.

Until it becomes a permanent arrangement. A stutteringly beautiful yet painful moment, there before the window, after she has learned that she has finally and forever been forsaken by her family. A clear line between before and after, you can almost see Griffin relax (not in this terrible moment, but in the days that followed it). Once they "have done with it," a completely inside joke I'll leave to them, Griffin reveals a bit of determination to the reader. Assured of his own desire to spend the rest of his life with her (coupled with the fact that she has no where else to go, ever), Griffin seems to open. To Olivia and to readers. There is less weariness and more warmth in him.
Here, Goodman softens the lighting, but holds on to the dry wit and frank conversation. (Thank you Ms. Goodman.)

Finally (you must be exhausted by now), I have to laud Goodman's attention to detail. This is not a mystery, yet she presents each detail as a clue and assembles them in such a way as to lead Griffin and Olivia to their HEA. Every single detail contributes to the whole. Tightly written, tightly woven, however you wish me to say it. Goodman proves a master storyteller.

By its end, Olivia's trauma is revealed, the villians outed and the obligatory obstacle to marriage removed. It all sounds so predictable. Strong, silent type finds himself in possession of near-to-shattering victim heroine. Determined to make her own stubborn way, he must exercise unending patience and an uncanny understanding of her mind to win her trust, then her heart.

Had Goodman put us in their heads instead of in their presence, it would have been predictable. Had she written nearer to the surface, it would have been acceptable.** Well written mind you (which means I would have liked it anyway), but still predictable.

She didn't however and the result was extraordinary. The best I've read this year.

Thank you Ms. Goodman.

* I didn't actually go back and check mind you, but that I come away with this statement is testament in itself.

** Oh geez, I didn't even address the depth of Goodman's characters.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Three Been-There-Done-That DNFs

Wendy has a Romancing The Blog post up that made me re-think this one in the midst of writing it. I had started it thinking my problem stems from an aversion to re-reading--a book or even a plot or story arc. But that's not true really. The problem with these particular DNFs--thinking along Wendy's lines--is that they no longer suit my evolving reading tastes.

Ride The Fire by Pamela Clare
Couple of things happened here. First, I was reminded of how violent historical westerns can be, particularly when there is scalping (and far, far worse stuff) to fear. The early scenes in this book were extremely violent (in the degree of torture) and are still giving me trouble. Second, when I reached the part where H/H meet, get acquainted and begin to desire one another I felt like I'd been here before. Back in my old Harlequin days. Like as a teen. It left me feeling...tepid and bored. I knew (or presumed to know) exactly how this story was going to unfold and I couldn't shake the feeling that it was going be a total pollyanna telling. When he bartered a reading lesson for a kiss each day I groaned and put the book down. More than 100 pages into it.

Not without some little bit of hesitation though. Lot of blogger buzz about this set of Clare westerns. And Lori liked them. And it's Pamela Clare afterall--writer of contemps that I love. I asked Lori the next day if I was making a mistake. What do you think? Pollyanna? Or is there grit in there (not violence, but grit)?

His Captive by Diana Cosby
This was a blogger rec that made its way to my TBR stack. In the mood for another Highlander romance (after Howell's Highland Warrior), I picked it up. In this instance, I went in knowing that I've read this story before--just the prior week in fact. I wanted to experience it again (think Scottish historicals are the only instance of this for me; thank Garwood). Unfortunately, Cosby's version fell flat. The hero did not seem at all sure of himself (on any level) and hence did not fit the warrior body and role Cosby assigned him. The heroine was equally inexperienced and Cosby's formulaic vulnerability (she's afraid of confinement and thunderstorms) felt paperthin. IOW, where Cosby may have succeeded in re-creating beloved Scottish characters, she failed to breathe her own life into them. Not sure why I hung in there so long--at least halfway through--but I ultimately put it down when Cosby hinted at a touch of paranormal (magic rocks or something). I'm not big on the paranormal in my Scottish. (Probably because Garwood didn't do it.)

The Seduction Of His Wife by Janet Chapman
This premise had great potential, but it too suffered a pollyanna tone and could well have been penned in the 80's. It lacked today's realism. The hero is lost and presumed dead in a Brazilian jungle and is unable to reach his family via phone as he makes his way home. The heroine has led a ridiculously isolated existence, previously trapped in a sexless marriage (complete with evil MIL) and apparently unable to exercise her own will to get out (it's available to her; she is not imprisoned) and regain control of her bed-and-breakfast business. Now safely removed from that situation, she is remarkably passive about getting her business or its monetary worth to her back. Throughout, neither avails themselves of technology to stay connected. Silly really.

Their characterization was also silly. He shouts a lot--a habit I didn't find charming or endearing. And she sets her timer so she won't miss Oprah--which yeah, made me question her maturity. She also lives for cooking shows, quilting and, for a brief period, romance novels. And she can't drive. Seriously, Chapman does not paint her as the brightest bulb. What Chapman does, unsuccessfully, is try to portray her as cute and sassy. Didn't buy it. I couldn't. Not when the telling reminded me of my teenage daydreams wherein I constructed the perfect--read unrealistic--romance stories. But again, I hung in there well into it. Don't ask me why. I can't explain myself.

The really, really good news is that I've picked up Jo Goodman's The Price Of Desire. Wow. I am, at present, a happy and awed reader again.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

One final plea for ACS donations

This is the last week before my ACS Relay for Life Walk this weekend. I'm only 80% of the way to my goal of $1000. I need $200 more!!

If you are so inclined, and haven't already done so, I'd really appreciate a donation to the cause. October is, after all, Breast Cancer Awareness Month. For those who already donated - big huge sloppy hugs and kisses - thank you!!

Donate here. And thanks :)

Reflections... and my top 10

In another 2 weeks, our little blog will be 4 years old. Jen wrote about her top 10 reviews a couple weeks ago. It got me thinking about my favorite reviews. And in looking back at some of my reviews, I realized once again just how much I love to read. Isn't it wonderful how much joy reading can bring into our world?

An even greater joy for me was discovering other like-minded readers online. Readers like Nikki, who is practically my doppleganger when it comes to books. We are almost always reading the same books at the same time. And from a series? We're almost guaranteed to have the same favorite. It's almost freaky-scary. But we laugh about it every time we see each other. Which isn't often enough, given that we only live 20 minutes apart. But life intervenes.

And readers like the rest of the So Cal Bloggers - Wendy, Rosie, Tracy, Holly, Renee, Rowena, Alice, Blanche, Daphne (and Lisabea - our honorary So Cal Blogger) - I feel so fortunate to have met them. You never know who you're gonna meet when you go off to meet your internet friends. There are some nasty freakies out there. But we all lucked out. Big-time. Not a nasty freaky in the bunch :) Just a lot of women who love to talk and read books.

But I especially feel fortunate to have gotten a recommendation on Amazon one day that read: If you liked Lori Foster's book, you may also like Sarah McCarty's books. Why? Because I read Promises Prevail (awesome book, BTW) which led me to her online Yahoo group, where I met JenniferB and Anne. Without a doubt, two of my best friends. And even though I've never met Jen in person (dammit - this year fo sho), we talk on IM almost every day, and I feel like I've known her forever. The day she invited me to join her little start-up blog for book reviews was one of the luckiest days of my life. It started a great friendship. And a blog that's been a blast, too! And we had a blast doing the Let's Gab blog as well.

So... mushy mushy stuff out of the way, here are my favorite reviews, in no particular order.

  1. Trust in Me by Kathryn Shay
  2. Our Endangered Values by Jimmy Carter
  3. England's Perfect Hero by Suzanne Enoch
  4. Giving Chase by Lauren Dane
  5. Lord Perfect by Loretta Chase
  6. Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase (which I loved so much, it took up two posts)
  7. Into the Fire by Anne Stuart
  8. Chasing Stanley by Deirdre Martin (which I hated so much, I ranted)
  9. Rhett Butler's People by Donald McCaig
  10. He Said... The Gentleman's Club Series by Patricia Waddell

Monday, October 05, 2009

Highland Warrior by Hannah Howell

Title: Highland Warrior
Author: Hannah Howell

Type: Scottish Historical Romance
Published: 2006

Blurb: Fleeing an obsessed suitor, Fiona MacEnroy rides recklessly into Scotland's wildest hills and is captured by a horde of well-armed men. Instead of battling for her life, she finds herself swept away by a powerful stranger and carried off to a remote, forbidding keep. Oddly, here at Scarglas, a place shrouded in mystery and the black reputation of the rogue clan MacFingal, Fiona feels a strange, comforting sense of safety...and a consuming passion for its rugged laird.

Spellbound by Fiona's beauty yet determined to fight the longing she ignites, Ewan MacFingal plots to ransom Fiona back to her kin. Sworn to protect his eccentric clan against the dangers invading Scarglas, he refuses to be weakened by the power of a woman whose every glance and touch tell him that she is everything his heart desires. Now, as pride and passion war within, dark peril and forbidding secrets will force them to trust what has yet to be spoken - the unshakable power of a timeless love.

Why: In the mood I guess. Plucked it from my TBR stack--a paperback I either picked up at my UBS or the library's sharing shelf.

Thoughts: As with most Highlander romances I've read (since Garwood), I found nothing new here. I did enjoy the romp however. Howell is a solid go-to for this sub-genre, heavy on the brogue and dead-on with the humor. Her Scots are the perfect, prescribed mix of brooding, lusting and laughing--a medieval version of the adolescent alphas I adore in Brockmann's SEAL teams and Ward's brotherhood of vamps.

Ewan is laird to a bizarre clan of misfits, comprised largely of his father's bastard sons (dozens of them) and an odd assortment of nuts cast out by other clans or villages. Still in residence, his father is responsible for the clan's goofball name, family rift and more enemies than is natural--even for this region and time period. With virtually no allies, the constant threat of attack and an overgrown 2-year-old for a father, Ewan is tailor-made for the role of darkly serious, brooding laird. He's got a lot on his mind.

And like most darkly serious, brooding lairds, he is loathe to repeat his father's mistakes. Afraid a similar madness lies within himself. So he has sex once per year, on his birthday. Instead of every chance he can get, like his father. So darkly serious, brooding AND a man with very little experience in the bedroom. Oh, and he is physically scarred as well--the result of torture at the hands of an enemy clan and a beautiful but wicked woman who seduced him into their trap. All of which is to say that Ewan also fits the mold of reluctant hero. He's got a lot of baggage.

His heroine, Fiona, is more emotionally mature than him in many ways. Or maybe she just appears moreso next to his raised-with-crazies, nine-and-twenty year-old self. She is certainly more self-assured than he is, despite her own physical scars, the deviant stalker responsible for those scars and the fact that Ewan has essentially abducted her. Raised by the men in her family, Fiona easily holds her own among Ewan's clansmen. Influenced by the heroine in her brother's story, she is also compassionate (witnessed in her treatment of the clan's nuts) and perceptive (the first to challenge the foolish exterior of Ewan's father). She also decides fairly early on that she wants him.

All in all, not what I was going for when I picked up this book. I was looking for a powerful and possessive alpha assured of winning his fiesty but vulnerable heroine. Instead, I found a less-than-sure-of-himself laird too emotionally stubborn to accept his beautiful and totally self-sufficient bride. A bit of role reversal that won me over anyway.

Don't get me wrong. There are some pivotal alpha moments, albeit laced with humor. There was sigh-worthy possessiveness when Ewan rescues her from the deviant stalker, followed by gut-busting laughter when his father warns her against getting anymore scars. Then there was Ewan's promise to beat her for the risks she took to free him from the beautiful but wicked woman returned to exact her revenge. All good stuff, but underscored by that unexpected role reversal. Still, Howell easily charmed me, despite my preconceived notions.

Especially given the humor Howell inserts as the backdrop. It's there in every scene I swear. And Ewan's father--both source and butt of nearly every joke--almost steals the show. There is that one scene in particular where he is yet again remarking on her physical scars. That scene sealed the deal for me; ensured that I would read the book through to the end. He filled the role of hilarious but sly old Scot perfectly.

By the last page--shortly after Ewan's estranged family shows up and Fiona's brother finally arrives--it became clear to me that Howell has penned many, many Highland books. I know I've read at least one other--hence this one's appearance in my TBR stack--and feel confident in choosing again from her backlist. But...it's an enormous backlist, so I'm not committing myself to all of it. At this point, Howell's backlist may contain as many titles as I'm reading in one year.

Should I ever be laid up for weeks however...I'd consider it. :-)

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Virtually Hers by Gennita Low

Disclaimer: Heeding Wendy's piece on objectivity (cuz she's right), I'll stand up right here and say: "My name is Jennifer and I'm an unabashed fangirl of Gennita Low." This isn't to say that I've "friended" or "followed" her online. Rather it is to say that I LOVE her books. All of 'em.

Because she knows of my love, she asked me to review an ARC of Virtually Hers, releasing next week from Samhain Publishing. I replied, as my first grader often does, "Well yeahhhhh." My squeeeeing, Fucking Fabulous category review follows---timed, linked and labeled for promotion--but written for me. Seriously, I loved it. Flat-out loved it. This is some honest, objective squee ahead.

Title: Virtually Hers
Author: Gennita Low

Published: October 6, 2009
Publisher: Samhain Publishing

Why: Low became an auto-buy author for me as soon as I turned the last page of Into Danger. And the first book in this trilogy, Virtually His, knocked me on my ass.

Thoughts: Fabulous read, I'll get that out of the way. In the Fucking Fabulous category, yes. But very, very interesting as well. Interesting in that Low was able to pull me out of my character-enamored haze and grab my plot-thickening attention. I'll explain.

First, I'm flat out in love with these characters. In Virtually His (the first in this trilogy), Low surprised me with the appearance of a character from her prior work. One of her more enigmatic characters, Low revealed Jed's identity only near the very end, after a book-long deepening of his character. Her reveal at the end of Virtually His pulled this three-book-long story together in a startling and powerful way. Like I said, it knocked me on my ass.

Not only because I was stunned to see Jed again, but because Low's heroine of Virtually His demanded this eerily quiet powerhouse hero. A Super Soldier Spy, the heroine is no where near weak, or even vulnerable. She is highly intelligent, highly trained, experienced and savvy. And I'll admit, I'm usually more of a sucker for a heroine who needs the protection and safety a strong hero presents. But here, Low tapped an altogether different attraction for me. A hero--silent, still, patient--with the power (or so he thinks) to control the heroine. In this setting, it was both emotional and sexy. Because...

In that first book, Low also introduced a third, integral character--the technology. A writer of military romantic suspense, Low offered this remote viewing / virtual reality technology as state-of-the-art intelligence gathering and deftly bound hero and heroine through its execution. For me, it was arguably one of the sexiest means of forced proximity I've seen in romance. We've seen plenty of H/H's thrown together on military missions or stranded together, dependent on one another for survival. Low took this further, demanding synergy and ultimately, intimacy, at mind and brain level--each and every time Jed (mentally) accompanied Hell on one of her remote viewing sessions. May sound far-fetched or sci-fi-ish, but trust me, Low keeps it all firmly grounded in human emotion and motivation.

You've heard the expression "keepin it real"? Well think "keepin it romance" for a moment. There is conflict. There are trust issues. Again, Low uses the technology to its absolute sexiest potential. In order for the technology to work, the handler, Jed, must be able to command the remote viewer; control her if you will. To give her handler total control, the remote viewer, Hell, must trust and obey her handler. Being a strong-minded heroine (not a submissive bone in her body), that's not so simple an equation. But for the hero, a ruthless operative, it's the simplest of equations. What ensues is a battle of wills that is both tender and scorching.

He anchors her, commands her from base; but, in his mind, travels with her through the ether, reliant upon her and, ultimately, powerless to protect her there. Great, great conflict. And layers and layers here, all working to cement Hell as the newest kickass heroine; and to challenge one of Low's most powerful heroes. I was hooked in the first book, drawn completely into this struggle, only marginally aware of everything else going on around them.

By the end of Hell's training, her and Jed are inextricably bound, by a sexual imprint and trigger neither can completely control. It sizzles, heightens that conflict and, to my delight, Low devotes a lot of book two exploring that connection. There is some hot, hot stuff in here.

In Virtually Hers, Low also peels more than a few of Jed's layers away, lets his guard down a bit and draws him and Hell closer yet. IOW, she doesn't belabor their personal conflict(s). Instead, she smooths the sharp edges and eases the tension by revealing Jed's long-buried romantic. It's a release--for hero, heroine and reader.

Then, just when you're comfortable, Low pivots the camera outward and successfully jolts readers to a new awareness of the external threat. Again, it's tied inextricably to the technology and to an international mission Low first spun in earlier books. In short, our hero's Super Soldier Spy joins the hunt for weapons missing worldwide--a hunt Low fans will recognize and cheer. Along the way Hell encounters more of Low's previous characters (in really, really unexpected ways, love that) and--this is where she sucked the breath from my lungs--Hell will battle both the unknown effects of remote viewing and an enemy remote viewer (through which Low threads more of the eroticism inherent in the mind-level technology). On that count, I can't even begin to guess where it will go next. Let me just say that this will not be a typical military/operative rescue.

So, long explanation behind me, I'll just say that I'm sitting here, emotionally vested, on the edge of my seat, with Jed's screams echoing in my ears. Waiting for the third and final book, Virtually One.

Also: Being honest, I can't really say if Virtually Hers will work for you as a standalone. I can only say that my enjoyment of it was inextricably tied to the build up for me in book one. You won't be lost in book two--Low provides all you need to know--but you may not be as near to orgasm as I was.
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