Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Review: "Key of Valor" by Nora Roberts

Key of Valor (Key Trilogy, #3)Key of Valor by Nora Roberts

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This final installment in the Key trilogy was the weakest for me. I don't know, maybe I shouldn't have read all three books in a row, because reading about the tale of the three demigoddesses' souls trapped in a box of glass and how three mortal women, the heroines, were destined to find the "keys" to release them got a bit stale this time around. It was pretty much the same basic thing all over again, and neither Zoe nor Brad, the couple du jour, was compelling enough to engage my full interest.

I admit I didn't like Zoe very much from the glimpses I had on the previous books, Key of Light and Key of Knowledge: she came across like this "wonder woman", larger than life and independent to the point of being too stubborn. Unfortunately, my impression didn't change after reading this book and there was a time or two when I wanted to give her a good shake to make her see reason. Her reluctance to accept Brad's love was justifiable in the beginning - after all, single mothers are, or should be, wary when considering a new romantic relationship - but I though she dragged it a little too long. If Brad was a "shady" character, I could understand it, but he was far from it.

Brad was the handsome, honest millionaire with a heart of gold, no flaws and not a single skeleton in the closet. He fell fast and hard for Zoe and, bonus points there, he also adored her son Simon. The ultimate good guy, he was perfection in flesh and bone, there was absolutely nothing wrong with him... and I couldn't care less about him. Would I love to have a guy like him in real life? Sure! But that kind of hero doesn't work for me in Romancelandia, I'm sorry to say. Hmm, maybe that's why Zoe took so long to fall for him, LOL.

As for the search for Zoe's "key", it was obvious - for me, not for Zoe - that the answer was linked to her accepting Brad's love, so the mystery part of the story didn't add much spark to make this an engrossing read. I was kind of bored halfway through the book, since neither the romance nor the mystery was thrilling. It's somewhat funny: I liked the mystery but not the romance in Key of Light, liked the romance but not the mystery in Key of Knowledge, and didn't like either the romance and the mystery in Key of Valor. Not exactly the combo I wanted.

Since this was the third and last book in the series, Key of Valor ends with a nice scene featuring only the three heroines in order to give closure to the whole quest for the "keys". While I understood the reason behind the way NR chose to end the story, I was left feeling that Zoe and Brad were "cheated": I would have liked to see them in a special one-on-one final scene, the same way their friends had in the previous books. That was the final nail in the coffin for me... Meh!

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Monday, January 30, 2012

Review: "Key of Knowledge" by Nora Roberts

Key of Knowledge (Key trilogy #2)Key of Knowledge by Nora Roberts

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Even though this is the second book in the Key trilogy, Key of Knowledge can be easily read as a stand-alone because Dana, the heroine, gives a pretty good - and funny - recapitulation of what happened in the first book, Key of Light. That said, I still recommend reading this series in order, as you get a better understanding of how things work in this PNR realm created by NR.

That certainly helped me to guess where the "key" Dana was assigned to find was hidden, because the pattern had already been established in the previous book. I had it all figured out pretty soon, and it was only Dana's stubbornness and blindness about all things involving Jordan, the hero, that prevented her from getting it too. There was a twist in the end that shifted the pattern a bit, so it was nice to be surprised and see that not everything was predictable.

As for the romantic part of the story, Dana and Jordan had good chemistry and I enjoyed reading their scenes together. Theirs was a "lovers-reunited" kind of story, and this plotline doesn't always work for me - I mean, if you couldn't make your relationship work the first time around, why rehash it? - but I think NR did a good job showing why their first time together wasn't meant to be and how they needed to go their separate ways - Jordan being the one who had left - before getting back together for good.

As it happened in Key of Light, there's a lot of talk about symbolism, coincidences and fate in this book too. All interesting, but I confess my eyes started to glaze during some parts. Thankfully, those scenes were minor bumps in a story that, as a whole, flew quite smoothly.

Now, on to the third and final book in the series...

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Sunday, January 29, 2012

Review: "Key of Light" by Nora Roberts

Key of Light (Key trilogy, #1)Key of Light by Nora Roberts

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As the first book in the series, Key of Light did the job: it set the story arc up, introduced all the main characters and, in the end, wrapped up the first couple's love story in a nice HEA.

The PNR aspect of the story was interesting, with a gothic vibe that was eerie and unexpected. An old mansion named Warrior's Peak, guarded by gargoyles, sitting at the top of a hill surrounded by mist... A dark and stormy night... A woman driving alone, wondering what she was going to find at the mansion... That was on the first pages of the book and, no matter how cliché that was, I was chilled to the bone and wondering if Malory, the heroine, would turn out to be one of those TSTL blondes whose aim in life is to step willingly into the arms of death just to keep the story going. Thankfully, it wasn't like that and the story moved along quite nicely, once Malory and her newfound friends/partners Dana and Zoe, the heroines in the following books in the series, were presented with the task they were supposed to do: find the keys that would release the souls of three demigoddesses who had been imprisoned hundreds of years ago. I'm not going into details here, but the tale about their lives was very charming and romantic - regardless of the sad ending, that is.

Flynn, Dana's brother, joined the quest for the keys in no time, even though he was skeptical about the whole thing... Well, all of them were skeptical at first, but they changed their minds when strange things started to happen. Back to Flynn... He was the all-around good guy, charming, seductive and, of course, commitment-shy. Malory was soon in love with him - who could blame her? :) - and he was in too, even though it took him longer to see it that way. There was really no conflict in their relationship, and that was a problem for me. Not that I wanted them to go all angsty or start a fight just for the sake of it, but there wasn't anything that prevented them from being together and their relationship felt kind of boring to me.

On the other hand, I think NR did a much better job when it came to showing Flynn's friendship with Jordan and Brad - not coincidentally, the heroes in the next books in the series. I actually thought that Flynn's scenes with his friends were more interesting than his scenes with Malory, and that's not a good thing in Romancelandia. Malory's scenes with Dana and Zoe were less entertaining and felt a little too juvenile to me. They would have been more fitting if they had been in their early twenties, IMHO.

There's a lot of talk about symbolism and coincidences in this book: some interesting, some confusing. I thought the "key" Malory was supposed to find was only a metaphor but it turned out to be "real" - or the next best thing, since this is a PNR story. As for the ending, I was as fooled by Malory's trick as the villain: I thought Flynn would have to rescue her with a bang, but I should have known that she was smart enough to do it by herself. Girl Power, yay! ;)

All things considered, this was an overall good, although not stellar, read for a nice and lazy afternoon/evening. And, referring to the first paragraph above, it did the job: I'm interested enough in keep reading the series.

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Saturday, January 28, 2012

Review: "Dangerous Passion" by Lisa Marie Rice

Dangerous Passion (Dangerous, #3)Dangerous Passion by Lisa Marie Rice

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

OMG, I loved this book! The hero, the heroine, the story, the epilogue - yes, there's a very good and sigh-worthy epilogue in this book, yay! -, everything was just perfect, IMHO. I'm a devoted LMR fan but, as much as I enjoyed all her books, only the Midnight series earned 5 stars from me. Well, not anymore! Dangerous Passion has just made it too. :)

Victor "Drake" Drakovich is a dangerous arms dealer who lives a very secluded life. Due to his "profession", he has a lot of enemies who would be more than happy to end his life in the most violent and painful way, so he's very careful about not having any weaknesses that could be explored by them. Caring for someone would be a major weakness because his enemies wouldn't think twice before striking someone he cared for to get to him, so he doesn't have friends, he has extremely well-paid employees. And he doesn’t have lovers, he has sex partners. "Luckily" for him, he also doesn't have a family, since he doesn't even know where he was born and had never gotten himself emotionally attached to anyone all his life. But this solitary life of his changes when he meets Grace...

Grace Larsen is a struggling artist who's almost (but not quite) as solitary as Drake. She'd like to live to paint rather than paint to live, and the closest "friend" she has is the owner of the art gallery owner where she exposes her artwork. She doesn't have real friends, she has acquaintances. And, like Drake, she doesn't have a family either: her father left when she was nine years old, her mother let herself go after that, and there were no aunts or uncles or cousins to love her when her mother died. Grace has always felt like a misfit, and the only thing that she cares about is her art.

And it's her art that brings Drake and Grace together when, one day, he sees her paintings exposed through the window of the art gallery while stuck in traffic. He's fascinated by the paintings and, in a completely out of character behavior, goes into the art gallery to appreciate them more closely. While he's there, Grace walks in and, bam, in a true LMR fashion, he falls hard and fast for her. Only, he knows he can never be with her because that would make her a target in his enemies' eyes. So he leaves the art gallery unnoticed, and contents himself with buying (anonymously, of course) everything she paints. He also ditches his bodyguards and "escapes" from his tightly secure world to watch - okay, stalk - her from the alleyway outside the art gallery twice a month. This routine goes well for about a year, but a man full of enemies like Drake is bound to be betrayed by one of his employees sooner or later. And when one of his enemies discovers how obsessed he is with Grace and threatens her life in order to get to him, Drake knows it's time he pulled out all the stops and changed his life forever, for there's no way he'll ever let anything bad happen to her. So he takes her to his private "fortress" and pretty much stakes his claim, vowing to protect her with his life.

Grace is a bit shocked at first - seeing people die in front of you, being shot at and almost dying in the process will do that to anyone - but she senses a connection with, not to mention a strong atraction to, Drake and knows she can trust him, even though there's no doubt there's something dangerous about him. But, hey, he's a LMR hero so we all know that he's dangerous to everyone but the heroine. :)

I have to say, I didn't think Drake was hero material when I met him in Dangerous Lover, where he played a secondary role. I mean, he wasn't one of the good guys so I just dismissed him and forgot about him. That shows how clueless I am, LOL, because Drake has become one of my favorite heroes now that I read Dangerous Passion. He was strong, protective, caring, and he loved Grace so much that I was almost envious of her. ;)

Grace started out as the typical LMR heroine: beautiful, delicate, trusting, sweet and kind. But she got stronger as the story progressed, and I was pleasantly surprised to see her saving the day in the end. Very impressive! Kudos to LMR for changing her "formula" and giving us a more (sort of) kick-ass heroine.

As for the ending, I confess my eyes were a little misty (in a good way) when I closed the book. Hormones, I say! ;) This was the second LMR book in a row with a very good epilogue, so I guess she paid attention to her readers' "complaints" about the abrupt endings in her earlier books. Very well done, Ms. Rice!

All in all, this was an excellent read that only made me love LMR's writing more than I already did.

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Review: "Dangerous Secrets" by Lisa Marie Rice

Dangerous Secrets (Dangerous, #2)Dangerous Secrets by Lisa Marie Rice

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was another enjoyable read by LMR. Strangely enough, Nick and Charity were my least favorite H/h by this author so far, even though this wasn't my least favorite book.

I don't know, I got the impression that Nick wasn't as uncomfortable as he should have been about lying to Charity and, quite frankly, he should have never agreed to let her pull that stunt in the villain's mansion before all hell broke loose - especially if you consider that he knew she wasn't a good liar and couldn't be expected to fool the most vicious criminals on Earth. I had never expected to see a LMR hero let his heroine enter into a dangerous and life-threatening situation so willingly, and that made me see Nick with some contempt.

Charity was somewhat boring to me: not a bad heroine, but nothing to talk about either. But I cared enough for her to feel a small pang in my heart while I "watched" her trying to deal with Nick's "death" (this isn't a spoiler, since his "death" is stated in the prologue).

As for the plot, this story had some uncanny similarities with Dangerous Lover, the previous book in the series, but it was better developed, IMHO. It was almost like LMR had heard all the readers' complaints and decided to dedicate more time to the aspects that were found lacking in that book. I was happy to see that, this time, there was a more satisfying ending and epilogue. :)

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Review: "Dangerous Lover" by Lisa Marie Rice

Dangerous Lover (Dangerous, #1)Dangerous Lover by Lisa Marie Rice

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

LMR's books are one of my comfort reads. Is her writing "formulaic"? Yes, it is. But I happen to like her "formula" - especially her alpha heroes, who always fall hard and fast for their heroines - so I have yet to find a book by LMR that I didn't enjoy.

Dangerous Lover was no exception. It was hot, sexy and emotional. Even though Jack was basically obsessed with Caroline and his behavior at the beginning was borderline stalker-ish, I was OK with it. A guy like him would have freaked me out in RL, but he lives in Romancelandia and I can give him some leeway there, LOL. Seen through Jack's eyes, Caroline was the perfect, almost saintly heroine. Too good to be true but, again, it didn't bother me.

Now, the ending... WTF was that??? I'm kind of used to LMR's abrupt endings by now, but I thought this book took it way too far. Okay, there was an epilogue but, seriously, who cares about the darn diamonds? It was a given that Jack and Caroline would live HEA - after all, this as a romance book! - but I'd like to have seen at least some glimpse of it. That would have been a true and more satisfying epilogue.

Anyway, that was the only thing that bothered me. All things considered, this was still a very enjoyable read to me. :)

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Sunday, January 22, 2012

Review: "Goddess of the Hunt" by Tessa Dare

Goddess of the Hunt (The Wanton Dairymaid Trilogy, #1)Goddess of the Hunt by Tessa Dare

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I love finding new authors to add to my towering TBR/WL, and Tessa Dare is my latest addition. Goddess of the Hunt is her debut book, and what an excellent book it was!

Lucy Waltham has been in love with Sir Toby Aldridge, one of her older brother Henry's friends, since she was eleven years old - ah, what a precocious child she was! - but he's about to propose to another woman and she must take action before it's too late. So she sets a plan to seduce him and show him that she's the right woman for him, not this Miss Sophia Hathaway he seems smitten with. The problem is, Lucy's never even been kissed and everything she knows about the art of seduction is theoretical. She clearly needs to get some practice before putting her plan in motion, but who's going to be her "guinea pig"? Why, Jemmy is, of course!

Jeremy "Jemmy" Trescott, Earl of Kendall, has been friends with both Henry and Toby since their first year at Eton, and he's been visiting Waltham Manor each autumn since Cambridge. He's quite emotionally closed off because of his troubled relationship with his late parents, but Lucy has always been able to get past his armor. He's always tried to avoid her, regarding her as his "personal version of a biblical plague", and he knows disaster inevitably strikes when she's around. So when she knocks on his guest bedchamber door at Waltham Manor in the dead of the night, it can only mean disaster. He braces himself for the worst and...

"Then Lucy Waltham, the younger sister of his oldest friend, popped up on her toes and pressed her lips to his with such force, he stumbled against the doorjamb.

Good Lord. The girl was kissing him.

Well, he thought ironically, he’d been prepared for the worst. And of the many kisses Jeremy Trescott had experienced in his nine-and-twenty years, this was, undoubtedly, the worst."

After recovering from the shock, Jeremy demands an explanation for her outrageous behavior. When he learns about her crazy plan to seduce Toby, he bluntly tells her that Toby is all but engaged to Sophia and Lucy had better forget her silly crush on him. Obviously, Lucy refuses to listen to Jeremy so he has no other choice but to "distract" her from her plan. But this "diversion" gets complicated when the attraction between them escalates and they start falling in love with each other...

Oh my, I adored Jeremy! He was always there for Lucy, to protect her and to (figuratively) shake some sense into her whenever it was necessary. He was sensible, sensitive (against his will) and tortured enough to make me want to cuddle him. Not to mention wickedly sexy... Please lock me in the wardrobe with him and throw the key away! ;)

I really liked Lucy too, even though her single-minded pursuit of Toby in the beginning was a bit annoying. I wanted her to realize that Jeremy was the man for her sooner but, hey, better late than never. She made up for it when she came to her senses before marrying him, so it was all good in the end.

The chemistry between Jeremy and Lucy was fantastic, and there was no doubt in my mind that they belonged together. That's why I got a little frustrated right after they got married, as I didn't understand why they failed to communicate with each other. I understood Jeremy's fears and silence because he was a man used to isolate himself to avoid being hurt, but I couldn't understand Lucy's distance. After all, she was a woman who always went after what she wanted, and she most definitely wanted Jeremy! Anyway, that didn't last long and didn't really curb my overall enjoyment of this story. This was a great read, and I'm definitely going to pick up the next books in this trilogy.

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Saturday, January 21, 2012

Review: "Slightly Tempted" by Mary Balogh

Slightly Tempted (Bedwyn Saga, #4)Slightly Tempted by Mary Balogh

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After being somewhat disappointed with Slightly Scandalous, the previous book in this series, I'm glad to say that things got back on track in this book. Slightly Tempted tells the story of Morgan Bedwyn, the youngest, most beautiful of the Bedwyn siblings, and the only one who had the fortune of not being afflicted by the famous, prominent Bedwyn nose.

Thirty-year-old Gervase Ashford, the Earl of Rosthorn, has been living in exile on the Continent for the last nine years after being banished from England by his own father due to a scandalous and humiliating affair involving the Duke of Bewcastle. If there's one person Gervase blames for his situation and hates with all his heart is Wulfric Bedwyn, the Duke of Bewcastle, and his bitterness and thirst for revenge gets the best of him when he meets Bewcastle's youngest sister, Lady Morgan Bedwyn, at a ball in Brussels. Ah, it looks like fate is finally smiling his way after all these years... Is there any better way to get even with Bewcastle than to involve young and innocent Morgan in a scandal and leave the duke to deal with the consequences?

Eighteen-year-old Morgan is in Brussels looking for a respite from her first Season in London, where she was bored to tears by the ton's brainless events (balls, assemblies, rides in the park, etc.) When she's invited to join one of her suitor's family to Brussels, she jumps at the chance of participating in a meaningful and most certainly historic event, the coming Battle of Waterloo. Bonaparte has escaped his prison in Elba and the threat of a new war against him is in everyone's minds. Unfortunately, the life of a lady in Brussels turns out to be the same as in London, and Morgan is annoyed to find herself attending the same brainless events where no one is willing to "worry her pretty little head" with talks about the iminent war. So when she's introduced to Gervase at one of these infernal balls, she's bored enough to give him the attention she wouldn't think of granting him in other circumstances.

Gervase's sole purpose in pursuiting Morgan is to have a quick (and very public) dalliance with her, so he sets out to charm and woo her. She isn't stupid and doesn't take him seriously - he's obviously a rake, not to mention much older than she is - but she decides to have some fun with his flirtation, all the while letting him know that nothing will come out of it. But as they spend time together and he gets to know her, he begins to like her and to question his plan to use her as a pawn in his revenge against Bewcastle. Then war erupts, chaos ensues, her brother Alleyne goes missing on the front line, and Morgan ends up alone in Brussels with no one to lean on but Gervase. He becomes her faithful friend while she waits to hear any news from Alleyne, helps and escorts her around the city - and thus compromises her reputation in the process, even though he isn't thinking of revenge anymore.

When Morgan is informed of Alleyne's death a few days later, there's no reason to stay in Brussels anymore and Gervase escorts her back to England. When he's confronted by Bewcastle right upon their arrival, all the hatred comes back and he can't help feeling some satisfaction with his enemy's "distress". It took nine years, but Gervase got back at Bewcastle. So why does he feel that it isn't over? And what will Morgan do when she finds out that he's used her? Will she ever forgive him?

I'm not a big fan of revenge-driven plots, mostly because the character who's seeking revenge usually ends up doing something nasty and unforgivable. Fortunately, Gervase didn't do anything to that extreme in this book and Ms. Balogh did a great job making me understand and even support his hatred for Wulf. I'm not saying I agree with what Gervase did to Morgan - because I don't - but even I hated Wulf at one point. Obviously, the conflict between the two men was resolved in the end - the HEA wouldn't be complete without that - but I can't say I was completely satisfied with its resolution. Gervase's beloved father died without knowing the truth, and there was no way to make amends to that. I can't say much more without revealing a big spoiler, but suffice it to say Gervase was too forgiving.

That was actually one of my problems with Morgan. She was the one who kept urging him to forget the past and forgive those who had hurt him, but she didn't suit her actions to her words. So it was good and right for him to forget and forgive, but she was allowed to keep nursing her grudge against him? That was a little hypocrit, wasn't it? I also thought that some of Morgan's lines were too mature for her age. I know, she wasn't a regular eighteen-year-old brainless woman and she wouldn't be a good match for thirty-year-old Gervase if she were, but her "philosophical" talk didn't ring true.

As for the plot, I really liked the first half of the story that takes place in Brussels. There was action, some suspense (whatever happened to Alleyne?), and interesting encounters between Gervase and Morgan. That was when Ms. Balogh showed how they fell in love with each other, even though neither was aware of it then. When the story moved to England, it became more predictable and less thrilling, but it was still enjoyable. The fake bethrotal made its appearance in this series again - I really hope it doesn't show up in the next books! - and so did the Bedwyn family. The sad note in that gathering was Alleyne's absence, since he was (presumed) dead, and that rendered a wonderful little scene with Wulf that brought tears to my eyes:

"She did not knock on the door. She opened it quietly, intending to creep inside without drawing attention to herself.

He was standing before the empty hearth, staring into the fireplace, his back to her. His shoulders were shaking. One of his hands was balled into a fist on the mantelpiece above his head. He was sobbing, choking on the sounds as Aidan had done days before.

Morgan gazed in horror for a few paralyzed moments.

Then she closed the door even more quietly than she had opened it and fled upstairs to her room.

If Wulf was weeping, the end of the world seemed near indeed."

Oh boy, Wulf definitely doesn't have ice in his veins like his enemies like to say. I can't wait to read his book!

Overall, Slightly Tempted was a very good read. Not the best in the series, but totally worth the reading. It's Balogh, what else can I say? :)

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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Review: "Love is Blind" by Lynsay Sands

Love Is BlindLove Is Blind by Lynsay Sands

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was my first book by Lynsay Sands and it was really good. My sister loves her books and had urged me to read one of them for ages, but I only caved in yesterday. Now I'm wondering why I didn't pay attention to her sooner.

Lady Clarissa Crambray is extremely nearsighted and "blind as a bat" without her spectacles, but her stepmother Lydia has forbidden her to wear them - in fact, she has broken them and thrown them away to prevent Clarissa from disobeying her. Lydia is trying to get Clarissa married off this Season and believes no gentleman will look at Clarissa twice if she's wearing those ugly spectacles, but this silly "scheme" isn't really working. Without being able to see anything but blurry colors and shapes, Clarissa has one graceless accident after another and is soon nicknamed "Clumsy Clarissa" by the ton. Clarissa is a pretty and wealthy lady, but her "clumsiness" has sent most of her suitors away. Nonetheless, Lydia still refuses to allow Clarissa to wear spectacles, arguing that "being clumsy is better than being ugly". Okay, if she says so...

Adrian Montfort, the Earl of Mowbray, is back to London after a ten-year self-imposed exile in the country, where he's been "hiding" from the ton since he came back wounded and scarred from the Peninsular War. He's very self-conscious about the scar he has on his face and doesn't believe any woman will have him as husband because of it - silly, silly man! -, but he knows it's time he did his duty and found a wife, so here he is in London, enduring the Season and the marriage market. He meets Clarissa in one of the ton's balls and, lucky for him, she can't see his face, his scar, or anything else for that matter...

Even though Clarissa's "blindness" is very attractive to Adrian, he quickly grows to like her for who she is and enjoys spending time with her. She also appreciates his company and the way she doesn't feel clumsy around him. But as they start falling in love with each other, doubt arises. She can't remain spectacles-less forever, can she? Adrian is sure she's going to run away screaming when she finally sees his "horrible" scar, while Clarissa is afraid he's going to be disgusted by the sight of her in her "ugly" spectacles. So each tries to buy time in his/her own way - Adrian delaying the purchase of new spectacles for her and Clarissa hiding the fact that she's already purchased them - while working to make the other fall in love. After all, love is blind.

In the meantime, it looks like there's someone out there trying to harm Clarissa. When she's almost killed in a suspicious "accident", Adrian hires an "investigator" to find out who's after her. Considering Lydia's dislike of her stepdaughter, she's Adrian's prime (and favorite) suspect, but is she that evil? And is the killer really after Clarissa, or is he/she indirectly after Adrian?

This was a charming and funny story that kept me captivated right from the start. When Clarissa set one of her suitor's wig on fire in the opening scene, I couldn't help laughing out loud - which immediately prompted my sister to say, "Ha! What have I been telling you all these years?" Anyway, my sister's teasing aside, I knew then that this was going to be a humorous read and I got myself ready to enjoy it. There were several funny moments in this book, but my favorite were the ones regarding Clarissa's wedding night, her "pie" and Adrian's "truncheon". "Her mind was filled with the image of the truncheon smashing into the pie, and the red juice spilling out." LOL, what a way to explain what happens on the wedding night to an innocent woman!

Adrian and Clarissa were very likable characters, and I really rooted for their HEA. Their interactions were sometimes sweet and sometimes hilarious, and they had great chemistry together. Aidan was caring, sensitive, and I loved the small things he did for her (like reading to her and arranging a private picnic for her) to compensate for the restraints imposed by her temporary "blindness", but he could have given up on the idea of delaying the purchase of new spectacles for her a bit sooner that he did. That was selfish of him, and he lost some points with me for that. As for Clarissa, she was adorable but too naive and soft-hearted. Normally, that wouldn't be necessarily a flaw, but it ended up being one due to a particular event that I can't reveal here. Suffice it to say that I wasn't happy with the way she dealt with the situation.

As for the secondary plot, the mystery regarding the attempts on Clarissa's life, it was interesting but the culprit and his/her motive were easy to guess. As I wasn't reading this book to get my "romantic suspense fix", I wasn't bothered by that. The romance was well written and Adrian and Clarissa made me smile and sigh, so I was more than happy with this book. I will definitely read more books by Ms. Sands!

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Monday, January 16, 2012

Review: "Instant Attraction" by Jill Shalvis

Instant Attraction (Wilder, #1)Instant Attraction by Jill Shalvis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The first book in the trilogy about the Wilder brothers - T.J., Stone and Cameron -, Instant Attraction was an enjoyable and easy read.

Cameron Wilder is the youngest of the Wilder brothers, a former Snowboarding Olympics and X-Games champion who "lost it all" when an accident ended his career one year ago. Used to the adventurous life and the adulation that came with his fame, he's having a hard time dealing with his current situation and doesn't know what to do with his life anymore. After spending the last year wandering around the world and trying to "find himself", he's finally back home in the Sierras - but he's still pretty much wallowing in his private pity party.

Katie Kramer is also struggling with a traumatic accident - she was the sole survivor of a bridge collapse that killed thirty other people - but the way she chooses to deal with it is completely different from Cam's. While he's basically decided to shut himself to the world and hide from life, she's decided to live it to the fullest. So she quits her boring job at LA, gets into her brand-new used car, hits the freeway and, eight hours later, finds herself in the wild Sierras, where she ends up taking a temporary job at the Wilder Adventures, a local outdoor adventure and expedition compay owned by the Wilder brothers. Is there any better way to start her new adventurous life? :)

Cam and Katie are instantly attracted to each other but, unlike what's become a standard in recent releases, they don't jump into bed right away. Neither wants anything permanent - Katie's only staying in the Sierras for a month before leaving for her next "adventure" and Cam, well, he doesn't know what he wants - so they take their time trying to figure out how to deal with their feelings. They slowly fall in love with each other but don't realize it right away. Katie convinces herself that she doesn't want more than a nice fling with Cam, but he really cares for her and he's afraid he'll hurt her in the end. So they dance around each other...

Overall, I really liked this book. Cam and Katie's interactions were funny and sweet, their relationship was romantic - as much as they had the hots for each other, I never felt that lust was their main focus - and the story had a nice pace.

There were a couple of times when I wanted to smack Cam in the head - enough with the self-depreciation already! - but I cut him some slack because I believed he really loved Katie, he just didn't know how to deal with his feelings. To be fair, he'd never learned how to, because that family of his wasn't the best example to follow when it came to communicating with each other. Don't get me wrong, I loved all the Wilder clan - Cam, Stone, T.J., their aunt Annie and her husband Nick - but communication wasn't their forte.

On the bright side, Annie was just adorable. Like Cam, she was also emotionally damaged but her positive attitude towards life was engaging. She wasn't perfect either, and I thought it was very realistic to have her refusing to talk about her accident and, at the same time, "forcing" Cam to talk about his. It's human nature: sometimes it's easier to focus on other people's issues than to look inside oneself.

While Cam and Katie's romance and emotional healing was central to the story, there was also a secondary romance involving Cam's aunt Annie and her estranged husband Nick that provided some funny moments. I loved her aprons - you could always guess her mood by the saying that was printed on them - but her stubborness made me want to shake some sense into her. Hmm, smack Cam in the head, shake Annie... I sense a theme here. Maybe the Wilder family had a knack for pushing my emotional buttons, LOL. Not enough to annoy me, though. In fact, I can't wait to read Cam's brother's stories.

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Sunday, January 15, 2012

Review: "Slightly Scandalous" by Mary Balogh

Slightly Scandalous (Bedwyn Saga, #3)Slightly Scandalous by Mary Balogh

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As someone who had been quite happy hating Freyja Bedwyn since meeting her in A Summer to Remember, I have no qualms admitting that I wasn't very thrilled about reading her book. At the same time, I couldn't help feeling some kind of morbid anxiety about it, as I wondered if Ms. Balogh would be able to redeem "lovely" Freyja. So, it was with some trepidation that I started reading Slightly Scandalous...

As the story opens, Freyja has left Lindsey Hall, her older brother Wulf's estate, and is on her way to Bath just to avoid being in the neighborhood during the birth of her former beau Kit Butler's first child. Even though that was not the impression I had when I read A Summer to Remember, it looks like Freyja was truly in love with Kit back then and she hasn't quite recovered from it, so she can't stand being near and pretend to be happy while watching Kit and his beloved wife Lauren burst in joy with the arrival of their love child. Bitter much? Ha, haughty Freyja fancies herself above that! Riiiight... Anyway, I digress. Let's get back to the story...

During her journey to Bath, Freyja has to spend the night at a rather shabby inn. While she's fighting the lumpy mattress for sleep, a disheveled man bursts into her room, hides in her wardrobe and asks her to cover for him. How dare he?!? Freyja isn't willing to harbor a "criminal", but when his pursuers treat her with less than the respect she deserves, she lifts her regal chin and orders them to leave her room without giving away the man hidden in her wardrobe. But then, the man has the nerve to kiss her and Freyja, being Freyja, punches him in the nose - Strike One! - and forces him out the window. Naturally, Freyja and her unexpected visitor are to cross paths again, as he's none other than Joshua Moore, Marquess of Hallmere, and he's also on his way to Bath, where he's to spend some time with his grandmother.

One of the first things that Freyja does when she meets Joshua in Bath is confront him about another misconduct of his and punch him in the nose - Strike Two! And she does this in public, for everyone in Bath to see! But as it turns out, Joshua's innocent of what she's accused him of, and he doesn't hesitate to mockingly put her in her place. Strangely enough, Joshua and Freyja end up striking some kind of friendship - Bath must be a very boring place! - where he enjoys teasing and winking at her and she finds pleasure in threatening to punch him in the nose. Again!... I'm making fun here, but Joshua and Freyja's relationship does work and their progression is quite believable.

When Joshua's aunt comes to Bath and starts stirring trouble, trying to get him to marry her eldest daughter Constance, he asks Freyja to enter into a fake betrothal with him to thwart his aunt's plan. Bored with life in Bath and willing to have some fun, she agrees. But what starts as a temporary diversion to fool Joshua's aunt gets more and more complicated, and they can't find an easy way out of it. So what does this mean? Should they turn their fake betrothal into a real one?

As everyone is tired of hearing, I really disliked Freyja in A Summer to Remember and none of the previous books in this Slightly series have changed my mind about her. She was too haughty, spoiled and truly unlikable! The way she talked, walked and acted, lifting her chin and punching the nose of every poor male who had the misfortune of crossing her path, everything in her annoyed me. There's a difference between being feisty and being downright rude! BUT - and it pains me to say it - I couldn't keep hating her after reading this book. I still don't like her and I haven't excused her behavior, but now I understand why she was so awfully nasty towards Kit and his beloved Lauren. Plus, Lauren has forgiven her so who am I to hold a grudge? While I was reading this book, I got the feeling that Ms. Balogh had worked hard trying to redeem Freyja and, to be fair, Freyja did show some redeeming qualities but, at the end of the day, she was still haughty and spoiled Freyja - as she was supposed to be since she didn't have a personality-change surgery - and she wasn't the kind of heroine I love. I've learned to tolerate her, though. :)

As for Joshua, he seemed to be a bit silly and air-headed at first, which wasn't a bad thing considering Freyja's character - I mean, no stuffy and serious man would have been able to tackle her and survive, LOL. He had to be that way to get past her initial defenses, both emotional and physical, but he grated on my nerves with his frequent winking. Halfway through the story, I was on the verge of asking Freyja to punch him in the nose if he "depressed one eyelid in that slow wink of his" one more time! Anyway, I was glad to see that there was more to him than what he presented to the world, and he was a caring, protective and honorable man. I even felt a bit sorry for him the first time he made love with Freyja, because I think she was just using him to forget Kit. I do believe she fell in love with him later, but that first time didn't feel right to me.

As for the plot, it wasn't the most original one and I'm starting to wonder if all the books in this series have the same theme, as in marriage/betrothal of convenience. As much as I love Ms. Balogh's writing, I don't think it's good to have all the books in the series with the same basic plot.

All in all, this was a slightly better than average read to me, but I don't think it would be fair to place it in the same level as Slightly Wicked, which I liked better and has earned 4 stars from me, so I'm giving it 3 stars.

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Saturday, January 14, 2012

Review: "Vexing the Viscount" by Emily Bryan

Vexing the Viscount (Leisure Historical Romance)Vexing the Viscount by Emily Bryan

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Having read - and not particularly liked - Pleasuring the Pirate a few days ago, I decided to lower my expectations about its sequel Vexing the Viscount. My reasoning was, if I didn't expect a masterpiece, anything from the same level of the previous book would be nice. Well, I'm sorry to say that not even my low expectations were met...

Daisy Drake was introduced in Pleasuring the Pirate as one of Gabriel Drake's nieces. Vexing the Viscount is her story. As the story opens, she's "admiring" an ancient lamp (shaped like a penis) on display at the Society of Antiquaries when she runs into Lucian Beaumont, Viscount Rutland, who's there to give a lecture about an ancient piece he's discovered that can lead to the recovery of a long lost Roman treasure. Lucian is almost in dire straits and needs to find this Roman treasure in order to restore his family's fortune and secure his future, but he doesn't have the money to afford the search. Daisy's interested in joining and funding his treasure hunt but, unfortunately, Lucian's father hates Daisy's uncle - and therefore all her family - so any association between Lucian and Daisy is (supposedly) impossible.

Bored and annoyed by Lucian's refusal to allow her to join his treasure hunt, Daisy decides to masquerade as a courtesan named Blanche and attend one of her great-aunt's parties. Lucian is invited to the same party, thanks to Daisy's great-aunt's doing, and he's instantly smitten with "Blanche". When Daisy realizes that he hasn't recognized her, she harbors the "perfect" plan to join the coveted treasure hunt: as "Blanche", she offers to fund his project, knowing he has no reason to refuse. And so he accepts, only to find out later that "Blanche" wants Daisy to act as "her" agent and work with him. Naturally, Lucian and Daisy working close together makes them fall in love with each other in short time. But wait, what about "Blanche"? Part of "her" agreement with Lucian includes lovemaking lessons, i.e., he wants her to teach him how to please a woman. Remember, he's a virgin and she's supposed to be a courtesan. But she's also a virgin, so what can she teach him??? *rolls eyeballs* Thankfully, it doesn't take long before Lucian guesses who's behind "Blanche"'s mask, this silliness is over, and they can concentrate on the treasure hunt. But there's more behind this treasure hunt that meets the eye... Is the treasure really valuable? Is it worth dying for?

This was a very strange story, with a mix of romance, humor and mystery, that didn't work for me. Lucian and Daisy were likable, but their romance didn't move me and I was actually more interested in following their treasure hunt than in watching their sexcapades. I "blame" Ms. Bryan's writing for that, because Lucian and Daisy's love scenes, from flirting and kissing to foreplay and lovemaking, just left me cold. I don't know what the problem is exactly, but there's something about Ms. Bryan's writing that doesn't work for me. Lucian and Daisy's interactions were sometimes funny, but never romantic or sexy in my eyes. The story was filled with sexual innuendos and phallic symbolism - based on what was found in Lucian's archeological dig, Romans were obsessed with sex -, but that didn't make it hot or enjoyable to read.

Lucian's character wasn't that well-drawn either. He was viewed by the ton as a reclusive rake, but he was actually still a virgin. Huh? How did he acquire such a "bad" reputation if he didn't have the money to attend the ton's social events, play cards for money, take mistresses, or even court (and slightly compromise) young ladies? It didn't make sense. As for Daisy, don't get me started on the whole acting-like-a-courtesan charade. Only a virgin could buy that act, LOL.

I know several readers enjoyed this book, but I'm sorry to say I'm not one of them. This was only my second book by Ms. Bryan and, considering both books failed to win me, I doubt I'll ever read another book by her.

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Friday, January 13, 2012

Review: "Chasing Trouble" by Anne Stuart

Chasing Trouble (Harlequin American Romance #413)Chasing Trouble by Anne Stuart

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I can always count on Anne Stuart for a good read, and I'm glad to say that this book was another winner. It was written as a clear hommage to noir movies, from the heroine Sally's fascination with Bogart, Bacall, Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler to the cynical lines uttered by the jaded hero P.I. Diamond. Gotta love that! :)

Diamond smoked too much, drank too much and lived a life-style that was as foreign as it was romantic, but he was so charming doing it that I couldn't help falling for him. Obviously, it was only a matter of time before he changed his ways due to Sally's "nagging", and it was fun to watch him trying to fight that lost battle.

Sally was kind of ditzy, prone to lying and, let's say it, acted TSTL at times, but I ended up loving her anyway. Probably because she drove Diamond nuts, making room for a lot of funny banter between them. Bottom line, Diamond and Sally's interaction was what made this story work for me.

The plot was a bit convoluted, with a few twists thrown here and there, but it was in sync with the film noir setting so I'm guessing that was planned and not a result of "bad writing". As for the ending, the final showdown with the bad guys wasn't as thrilling as I had expected it to be, but Ms. Stuart made up for it later with Diamond's delightful proposal:

"James," she said in a broken little voice. "You really do love me, don't you?"
He'd almost reached her. "I thought you'd already figured that out. Who else could make me give up cigarettes and hooch?"
"You said you wouldn't love me till 1999."
"I'm a quick learner. So what's it gonna be, doll? Marriage to a shamus like me, or a life full of empty pleasures? Name your poison."
"Diamond," she said happily, "I'm yours."

And so am I, honey!

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Thursday, January 12, 2012

Review: "Catch Me If You Can" by Nina Bruhns

Catch Me If You Can (Silhouette Intimate Moments, #990)Catch Me If You Can by Nina Bruhns

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was Nina Bruhns's first release and, wow, what a way to start her career! This was actually my second read by her - my first was Top-Secret Bride, which I really liked and prompted me to track her backlist - and it may be too soon to say it, but I think I've become a fan.

Katherine "Kit" Colfax is an insurance investigator whose job is on the line because her company is in the process of downsizing its personnel and only the most "lucrative" employees will be kept in the end. Kit has an almost perfect performance history when it comes to solving her cases, but she has some expensive ways of doing it and her boss is being pressured to let her go because of that. So he gives her one last case to redeem herself: either she brings down Remi Beaulieux, a jewel thief who's been giving hell to the insurance company by heisting its clients' jewels, or she's out of the job she loves by the end of the month. Kit's plan to catch Remi is simple: join a very private and friendly poker game with him in Las Vegas, lose her sapphire necklace to him in order to lure him to steal more where that came from, then — bam! — catch him in the act. Naturally, not everything goes according to her plans...

Simon "Beau" Beaulieux, who's Remi's cousin and shares a fair resemblance to him - not good enough to fool anyone who's close to them, but enough to fool passing acquaintances -, is also trying to track down his black sheep cousin in order to "persuade" him to return the family jewels - no pun intended - he's stolen from their grandmère. Beau's the Chief of Police in his hometown of Verdigris, LA, but he's also the head of the Beaulieux family and will do anything to protect his family - which, at the moment, means hiding the theft from his family and trying to get them back unnoticed. So he sets his own plan to catch Remi: set up a backroom game using his cousin's name in his usual Vegas haunt, and rattle him out of hiding. But as we all know, even the best plans go awry sometimes...

As the story opens, Kit and Beau are facing each other over the poker table - Kit mistakenly thinking that Beau is Remi - and they're down to the final bet. Short of chips, Kit ends up betting her sapphire necklace - which is okay, since that's actually part of her plan - and the expensive Karl Lagerfeld dress she's wearing - uh-oh, that's not part of the plan! Obviously, she loses and, in a scene that had me gigling, leaves the game backroom and crosses the hotel lobby wearing nothing but her high heels and her underwear. Only in Vegas! (To be fair, Beau isn't a sleazy bastard and offers to give the dress back to Kit, but she refuses. After all, a bet is a bet and she lost it.)

Immediately after leaving Beau, Kit discovers his true identity and now she's in a bind: she lost the necklace - and the dress - to the wrong man, and she needs them back in order to salvage any chance of keeping her job at the end of the month. And what's up with Beau pretending to be Remi? Is he a dirty cop in cahoots with his cousin? On his side, Beau's also intrigued by Kit: he knows she's after Remi, but he doesn't know why. Is she a con artist set on forming an alliance with his disreputable cousin?

As the story progresses, Kit follows Beau around - first to San Diego, then to his home in Verdigris -, both of them looking for Remi. Kit wants to bring Remi down, but Beau isn't sure his cousin's really guilty of all the thefts she claims he's done. Beau's pretty sure Remi's guilty of stealing their grandmère's jewels, but this is one theft no one but him is aware of and he's going to keep it this way. Things get more complicated as the attraction between Kit and Beau grows stronger and they start falling in love with each other. He soon realizes that he wants more than a temporary affair with her, but she's afraid of getting seriously involved with him due to a bad experience in her past. But how can she resist him? Well, she can't. ;)

I really loved this book. It was one of the sexiest books I've ever read, the love scenes were sigh-worthy and hot, and the sparks between Kit and Beau could put any Fourth of July fireworks to shame. Oh, and the plot was good too! I didn't know if Remi was innocent or guilty till the end. I had my hopes, but I didn't know how Ms. Bruhns would make it "right" for everyone. If Remi was innocent, Kit would have wasted time and money on a fruitless chase and would lose her job; if he was guilty, she would keep her job but Beau would never forgive her for being the one who got his cousin arrested. What a dilemma!

As for the H/h, Beau and Kit were very well-developed, and I fell instantly in love with them. Beau was charming, funny, sexy, and protective but not overbearing. He turned me into a puddle of goo several times while I was reading this book. *sighs* The scene where he bet Kit that he could kiss her without touching her... Wow, the man definitely knew his moves! Kit started out very well too, but then she went into her I'm-afraid-Beau-will-try-to-manipulate-and-hurt-me-so-I'm-going-to-stay-away-from-him mindframe and I got a little annoyed with her. I mean, he did manipulate her a bit but it was for her own protection and he would never, ever do anything to hurt her. Anyway, she did come to her senses in the end, so this minor "annoyance" wasn't enough to ruin the book for me.

Overall, this was one of the best SIM novels I've read, and I'm definitely going to keep tracking Ms. Bruhns's backlist.

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Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Review: "Slightly Wicked" by Mary Balogh

Slightly Wicked (Bedwyn Saga, #2)Slightly Wicked by Mary Balogh

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm going to sound like a broken record here, but here it is: another Balogh, another winner! She hasn't disappointed me yet, and I just love her writing.

Slightly Wicked is the second book in Balogh's series about the Bedwyn siblings, and tells the story of third son Rannulf (aka Ralf).

As the story opens, Ralf is on his way to Grandmaison, his grandmother's estate, well aware that, once again, she's going to try and persuade him to finally take a wife. He's used to her "gentle persuasion" and understands her concern, since she's named him heir to her property and fortune and has every right to be worried about her heritage, but this doesn't mean he's ready to settle down with the newest young lady she's chosen for him and start procreating. Ralf doesn't really know what he wants to do with his life - ah, what a joyful and idle life these rich aristocrats live! - but he knows that marriage isn't in his immediate plans. However, fate intervenes - of course, LOL - and, in the middle of his journey to Grandmaison, he comes upon an overturned stagecoach and one particularly lovely passenger who introduces herself to him as Claire Campbell.

Claire Campbell is actually Judith Law, an impoverished clergyman's daughter who's on her way to her wealthy aunt's estate to live the life of a "poor relation", i.e., to "work" as a companion to her grandmother and be subjected to all kinds of humiliation by her rich relatives - excluding her grandmother, who turns out to be the only person in the family who likes Judith. Think Cinderella and you'll know how Judith's life is in the hands of her vicious aunt. But before she reaches her destination, the stagecoach she's traveling in has an accident and all the passengers end up stranded in the middle of the road. That's when help comes in the form of a young gentleman on horseback, who introduces himself as Ralf Bedard and offers to take Claire/Judith with him to the next inn and send people to help the remaining passengers as soon as possible. Needless to say, Ralf Bedard is no other than our dear Rannulf Bedwyn, and the stage is set for a little deception by both Judith and Ralf.

Thinking of the imminent dreadful life that's waiting for her at her aunt's house, Judith throws caution to the wind and decides to experience one "grand adventure" before resigning herself to what's going to be close to Hell on Earth. So she pretends to be an actress - and we all know what kind of reputation actresses have! - and gives free reign to her attraction to Ralf, surrendering her virginity to him and enjoying two nights of passionate lovemaking in the nearest inn. Ralf is willing to spend more than these two nights with Judith - not that he's alreay in love with her, but he's definitely smitten - but she knows she can't keep the farce much longer, so she tricks him and leaves without notice, taking the next stagecoach and resuming her journey to her aunt's house. Ralf gets more than unhappy when he finds out she's left him, but he isn't about to go after an actress just to get some satisfaction.

Naturally, fate intervenes once more to get Ralf and Judith together again... As it turns out, Ralf's grandmother's estate and Judith's aunt's estate are in the same neighborhood, Ralf's grandmother and Judith's grandmother are close friends and, worse, the latest young lady Ralf's grandmother has selected to be his wife is Judith's brainless cousin. It's a small, small world, indeed! But now that the early deception is over and Ralf and Judith know who the other really is, how do they feel about it? They're not in love with each other, but there's definitely something between them. However, he's a Bedwyn, a wealthy aristocrat, son and brother of a Duke, and she's only a poor daughter of a clergyman, so a match between them would be extremely inadvisable. He's also a gentleman and she's a gentlewoman - impoverished but deserving of his respect - so he's obliged to ask her to marry him after having "compromised" her, isn't he? ;) Well, what follows was just delicious to read...

This story wasn't particularly original - there were some echoes of the fairy tale 'Cinderella', which I've already mentioned above, and also Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice - but Ms. Balogh's writing was so good that I never felt shortchanged. As a bonus, this book was a bit spicier than I came to expect from Ms. Balogh and I really enjoyed reading Ralf and Judith's lovemaking scenes. Ralf was definitely sexier than his brother Aidan was in Slightly Married. :)

Plotwise, there was a "mystery" involving the theft of Judith's grandmother's jewels in the second half of the story, but the resolution was quite obvious so it was only a matter of finding out how the culprit would be caught and not who he was. The whole incident was kind of predictable, but it added some light action to the story and was the perfect opportunity to introduce Judith to Ralf's siblings. And what a scary lot they are, the Bedwyns... I thought Judith would be eaten alive by them, considering how insecure she was.

I have to say, Judith grated on my nerves a couple of times with her insecurities and the way she let her aunt stomp all over her. The only reason I didn't think she was a complete doormat was because she had no problem standing up to Ralf. On the other hand, Ralf was just perfect. Okay, he was basically an aimless playboy in the beginning of the story, but he started to change his ways when he fell for Judith. There was more in him than I'd expected, and now I must eat crow: I really disliked Ralf in A Summer to Remember but now I'm in love with him. Kudos to Ms. Balogh for redeeming him!

Overall, I had a great time reading this book and I can't wait to get the next one. As far as I can tell, Ms. Balogh can do no wrong.

Note: The next book in the series is Slightly Scandalous, and I admit I considered skipping it because I still don't like Freyja and can't make myself root for her HEA. But I'm going to take a deep breath and read it, even if it's only to see what kind of "loser" will be leg-shackled to her. It should be an interesting experience, cheering against the heroine, LOL.

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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Review: "Pleasuring the Pirate" by Emily Bryan

Pleasuring the Pirate (Leisure Historical Romance)Pleasuring the Pirate by Emily Bryan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I admit I'm not a fan of pirate stories but, despite the title and the cover, this book isn't really a pirate story - the hero is a former pirate who's returning home to claim his noble life back. As this book has received some interesting reviews and I was in the mood to try a new author, I decided to give it a try.

Gabriel Drake is the "pirate" in question. The second son of the Lord of Dragon Caern, he had his ship attacked by pirates a few years ago and was believed to have died then. But the truth is, faced with the option of being left to drown and die with his ship and the much better option of joining the pirates and keep breathing, Gabriel chose the latter. Somehow along the way, he ends up rescuing King George's royal cousin and, as a reward, he's given the King's pardon - as long as he remains within the limits of his family's lands and never sets his feet in London. So he leaves his seafaring days behind and returns home, only to learn that his father and his older brother have died and he's the new Lord of Dragon Caern now.

Jacquelyn Wren has been managing Dragon Caern since the old Lord's death and, having been warned against the new Lord's arrival, she attacks Gabriel without knowing who he is. When she realizes he's the estate's true heir, she quickly sets up the plan to have him married to a rich heiress so he can have the money to support his property, his newfound family - his deceased brother has left 5 daughters - and his tenants. But Gabriel is - or better, was - a pirate and, thus, needs to be "educated" in gentleman behavior and social etiquette if he hopes to convince a proper lady to marry him, so Jacquelyn starts tutoring him in the matter.

Gabriel and Jacquelyn are attracted to each other from the start and, as they spend more and more time together, the attraction grows and they fall in love. But she's the illegitimate daughter of a courtesan and, even though she's received the education reserved to the most noble ladies, she's not the mistress Dragon Caern needs. So Grabriel must find and marry a lady, and forget Jacquelyn.

In short, that was the basic conflict that kept Gabriel and Jacquelyn from being together, and it didn't work too well for me. I just couldn't buy the reason behind it, because I never felt that Dragon Caern was that important to either Gabriel and Jacquelyn. Okay, they weren't heartless and they did care about the welfare of his 5 nieces and the estate's tenants, but there were at least 2 good solutions to the problem that would allow them to be together without "hurting" anyone. Both of these solutions were presented - and dismissed without much sense - during the course of the story, BTW.

I liked both Gabriel and Jacquelyn, though. They were nice, likable characters, and they had chemistry, which is always good. She wasn't one of those extremely naive heroines - her mother was a courtesan, after all - and that was refreshing. As for Gabriel, he was the average hero, a bit wicked but always caring. I thought he went along with Jacquelyn's plan to have him marry a rich heiress a bit too long, considering he knew he loved her. I mean, what of the old saying, "What a pirate wants, a pirate takes"? Didn't he want Jacquelyn enough to take her and damn the consequences?

At the end of the day, this was "just" an average read. The pace was a bit slow - especially in the first half of the book - and I struggled to get into it sometimes. The writing wasn't bad, but I kept finding myself distracted by other things. And as much as I liked Gabriel and Jacquelyn, I have to say that their love scenes weren't to my liking: there was nothing kinky or offensive about them, I just felt the wording used by Ms. Bryan gave the scenes a clinical feel and that left me cold. The ending was fast paced but uneven, with a few twists that were a little OTT. A more "sedate" ending would have been better, IMHO. Anyway, Gabriel and Jacquelyn got their HEA, so I was happy too.

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Monday, January 9, 2012

Review: "The Billionaire Next Door" by Jessica Bird

The Billionaire Next Door (The O'Banyon Brothers) (Silhouette Special Edition #1844)The Billionaire Next Door (The O'Banyon Brothers) by Jessica Bird

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was my first book by Jessica Bird, who is better known as J.R. Ward, the author of the bestselling Black Dagger Brotherhood series. J.R. Ward's writing style is very characteristic and I was curious to see if her writing as Jessica Bird would be as "unique", so I decided to give this book a try.

So, what's my "verdict" after reading it? Well, there was definitely some similarities in the writing style of these "two" authors, especially when it comes to showing the hero's POV. That wasn't a bad thing, since I happen to like the way this author tells a story. And the best thing about this book when compared to the BDB books was the fact that there was no switching POV with the villains. Argh, how I hate those scenes with the BDB's lessers! Anyway, I'm getting a bit sidetracked here. Let's get back to the main program...

Sean O'Banyon is a Wall Street genius who doesn't do relationships, either with women or friends. He's barely survived an alcoholic and abusive father while growing up, and he has the emotional scars and constant nightmares to prove it. When he's informed of his father's death, he flies back to his hometown Boston to do his "duty": claim his father's body, arrange his cremation, pack his affairs, sell his old house, and forget the whole thing as quickly as possible.

Lizzie Bond was Sean's father's tennant and friend. With an absent father, a mentally challenged mother and on the verge of losing her job, her life is anything but easy. But she's one of those strong and no-nonsense heroines who never falter, and she's just what Sean needs to start overcoming his tortured past. Their relationship is a bit tentative at first, mainly due to his emotional hang-ups, but it isn't long before they realize there's more than a simple attraction between them. Unfortunately, trust isn't something that comes easily to Sean, so they have to face a major bump before they get a more than deserving HEA.

I loved this book! I don't remember the last time a "category" book got me so emotionally involved with the story and the characters. I could see Sean and Lizzie falling in love with each other, and I could feel their connection. Every time Sean had one of his nightmares, I wanted to jump inside the pages of the book and comfort him. Yeah, I'm crazy like that! *sighs*

As for the the plot, it wasn't unique but Ms. Bird has managed to craft an excellent story out of it, with a well-rounded hero (who I just wanted to hug and never let go) and a likable heroine (who sometimes seemed too good to be true but, hey, it fit the story). I wasn't even bothered with the fact that Sean only said his ILY on the epilogue, because that was just the right time to do it. He was so emotionally damaged that he really had a long way to go before he could open himself to say those three little words. And the waiting was more than worth it... :)

All in all, this was a more than satisfying read, and I'm going to try and find more of Ms. Bird's backlist.

Fun fact: Butch O'Neal, from the BDB series, was briefly mentioned in this book as being one of Sean's childhood buddies. While it was funny to see that loose connection, I couldn't help but wonder if Ms. Bird (or Ms. Ward, I don't know how to call her anymore) wasn't getting a bit too far with her "obsesssion" with the BDB.

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Sunday, January 8, 2012

Review: "Slightly Married" by Mary Balogh

Slightly Married (Bedwyn Saga, #1)Slightly Married by Mary Balogh

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've yet to find a book by Ms. Balogh that I didn't love. Her writing always sucks me into the story right from the start, with slightly (no pun intended) imperfect characters that I can't help but feel strongly about. Taking this book as an example, my eyes were already misty when I finished reading the 1st Chapter, and I had just met the heroine Eve...

Slightly Married is a beautifully slow paced story, completely focused on Aidan's and Eve's emotions and the loving relationship that grows between them despite their "best intentions". Aidan starts off being rather cold, reserved and grim, but as he slowly falls in love with Eve, his demeanor starts to change and he opens himself up to the possibility of a life of happiness with her - something that he's never dreamed of when he proposed a marriage of convenience to her. Eve's a rich coal miner's daughter, sweet but strong, and the least likely candidate for marrying one of the aristocratic Bedwyn brothers, but Aidan's remarkable sense of honor and duty is stronger than this "mere" social inconvenience. He's promised her dying brother to protect her, no matter what!, and if marrying her is the only protection Aidan can offer Eve, so be it. It's not supposed to be a real marriage at all, but life has a way of getting in the way of best laid plans...

Aidan was a difficult hero to love at first, due to his stiffness - please, keep your minds out of the gutter, LOL - and coldness, but once his facade started cracking up, I fell for him as strongly as Eve did. And when he finally smiled at her for the 1st time... When he kept finding excuses to delay his departure... When he took her swimming in the river... *sighs*

On the other hand, Eve was extremely easy to love from the start. For a moment, I was afraid she was going to cave under the pressure of Aidan's older brother, the mighty Duke of Bewcastle, but she stood her ground not only once but twice. She was willing to submit to Bewcastle's demands to a point in order to help Aidan, but she was no pushover.

If I had one "problem" with this book was, there was something "off" with the love scenes. I don't know if I've been reading too much erotica/romantica lately, but I didn't feel much passion in Aidan and Eve's lovemaking. There was hardly any foreplay - the 1st time, they didn't even bother to undress - and Aidan came across as the ultimate wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am guy. The fact that Eve always reached the Big-O was only because they were in Romancelandia. Anyway, that didn't really bother me because Ms. Balogh had me around her little finger all through the story and, quite frankly, I wouldn't have minded if there were no love scenes at all. Yes, that's how much I love her writing!

Note: I feel like the Bedwyns deserve a "special" comment from me. I didn't like any of the Bedwyn siblings when I met them in A Summer to Remember, and I admit that I only read Slightly Married because Aidan wasn't in that book and therefore was "saved" from my wrath, LOL. Now that I've read this book, I don't dislike them anymore - except Freyja, who I still want to kill slowly and painfully - and I'm interested in reading the next books in this series.

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Saturday, January 7, 2012

Review: "His for the Holidays" by L.B. Gregg, Harper Fox, Josh Lanyon, Z.A. Maxfield

His For The HolidaysHis For The Holidays by Josh Lanyon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This anthology contains four stories that take place during the holidays, but the only one that fully integrates the season into the plot is the third.

I had a problem deciding how to rate the book as a whole, because I loved one of the stories and disliked another. As usual, I did the math (added all the individual ratings and calculated the average rating) but that resulted in 3 1/2 stars. Should I round it up or down? Well, I decided to round it up because there was only one story I didn't like.

Mistletoe at Midnight by L.B. Gregg (4 stars)

This was my first read by Ms. Gregg and I'm glad to say that I enjoyed it very much. The story is narrated by Owen and I'm not too keen on first-person narratives, but I liked Owen's "voice". He was an overall nice guy with a few shortcomings - like his unwillingness to let himself open up - and I felt myself drawn to him. I didn't connect with Caleb on the same level, though. I liked him - or what I got to see of him, I should say. The "problem" is, Owen's family was as interesting as Caleb and I'd dare to say they had as much screen page time as him. Owen's mother made me laugh and want to bang my head on the table at the same time, his father tugged at my heart and his brother was just crazy enough to be the best brother ever. I even liked Owen's ex-boyfriend Keith, which was refreshing considering how Romancelandia is full of despicable and hateful ex-lovers, LOL.

Besides the first-person narrative, I had a bit of a struggle with the way flashbacks were inserted into the story. I liked seeing how Owen and Caleb met and fell in love when they were in their late teens and coming to terms with their sexuality, but some of the flashbacks came out of nowhere and hit me right in the middle of a scene. All things considered, that was just a minor issue I had because I did like Ms. Gregg's writing and had a fun time reading this story. Oh, and I loved the Christmas gifts Owen and Caleb exchanged. Sweet!

Nine Lights Over Edinburg by Harper Fox (2 stars)

Phew, this was not a light read! The story had a dark tone and none of the characters was particularly nice. I didn't like McBride, I didn't get to know Toby well enough to either like or dislike him, and as a result, I didn't care about their relationship. I liked the action scenes, but I don't read romances for them.

The plot was too complex to fit the constraints of a novella, and that affected the development of McBride and Toby's romance. In fact, I felt that the focus of the story was McBride's downfall and recovery, and his relationship with Toby was just an afterthought. If I had to classify this story following the rules I know, I'd have to create a new genre: women's fiction with a male character as protagonist. As I'm not a fan of women's fiction and having a man as protagonist makes no difference to me, this story failed to grab me.

I Heard Him Exclaim by Z.A. Maxfield (3 stars)

First, let me say that I didn't get the title of this story. What did you hear him exclaim? Who are you? And who is him? Does that have anything to do with the story? (My confusion didn't affect my rating, of course. I'm just curious.)

I thought this was a very sweet Christmasy story, but it was also very unrealistic and I couldn't suspend my disbelief enough to enjoy it without frowning over Chandler's and Steve's foolishly trusting behavior. Chandler was neurotic about Poppy's safety, which was okay considering he was as insecure as only new parents can be, so how come he didn't think twice before accepting Steve's ride offer? Steve was a complete strange and you just don't climb into a strange's car like that, especially when there's a safe alternative available. Steve's safety wasn't in any danger when he offered Chandler and Poppy a ride, but I thought he pushed his luck when he invited them to stay at his house. On his defense, he knew Chandler better by then, but still.

All in all, this was an okay read, with some quirky but likable characters and a good amount of holiday cheer. There wasn't much conflict in the story, but that was fine because I wasn't expecting it. The HEA felt a bit forced at first, but a nice epilogue cemented it and made it okay. After all, all's well that ends well.

Icecapade by Josh Lanyon (5 stars)

I wish all short stories were like this. I adored Noel and Robert, the sexual tension between them was masterfully built and their HEA made me sigh like a ninny. This story was written in third person POV, but we only "see" what's in Noel's mind (and heart) and we never get Robert's POV. I was pleasantly surprised to see how well that worked, considering I'm not a fan of first-person narratives exactly because I feel there's something missing when I can't "read" all the characters' mind. In this story, not being privy to Robert's thoughts and feelings was essential - and that's all I can say without giving too much plot away.

This was my first read by Mr. Lanyon, but it won't be my last! I really enjoyed his writing style and I think he's made a great job depicting Noel and Robert. The only "complaint" I have is the absence of an epilogue. I had no doubts about Noel and Robert's HEA and liked the ending, but it left one loose end that could have been settled in a nice epilogue. All in all, that was only a minor issue and it was nowhere close to ruining this excellent read.

Note: I received this eARC from Carina Press via NetGalley. That had no influence on my review/rating.

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