Sunday, March 25, 2012

Review: "Surrender of a Siren" by Tessa Dare

Surrender of a Siren (The Wanton Dairymaid Trilogy, #2)Surrender of a Siren by Tessa Dare

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Tessa Dare is definitely on my authors-to-watch list now. I loved her debut novel, Goddess of the Hunt, and even though this sequel wasn't as amazing as the previous book, it was still a great read.

Sophia Hathaway has just abandoned her fiancé Sir Toby Aldridge at the altar, and she's decided to finally live her life as she wants and not as her parents and society expect. She seeks passion, adventure and excitement, and she knows she isn't likely to get that by marrying a man she doesn't love. So she packs her art supplies and four dresses, withdraws five hundred pounds from her bank account - oh, just imagine the look on the face of the bank clerk! -, wins another hundred pounds at a card party, leaves a letter to her family saying that she's eloping with Gervais, her fictitious painting master and lover, and buys a passage on the Aphrodite, the next ship leaving to Tortola. Sophia's plan is simple: pretending to be a penniless governess, Miss "Jane Turner", on the journey to her next employment, she'll be able to leave England - and thus escape her parents' pursuit - and buy the time she needs (not much, only a few months) until she turns twenty-one, when she'll assume control of her inheritance and her life.

Benedict "Gray" Grayson is, in his own words, "a liar, a thief, a libertine, and worse". He's no gentleman either, but he's the owner of the Aphrodite so Sophia has no choice but to convince him to accept her as a passanger on his ship. Gray is a former privateer, which is basically a pirate sanctioned by the Crown, but now that the war is over, he's starting a new life and this will be the first time the Aphrodite will sail the sea as a respectable merchant ship. Gray knows from the start that Sophia is going to be a threat to his decision to leave his womanizing days behind, but he's also a practical man and the Aphrodite can't afford the luxury of refusing passengers if he wants to make a success of his new business. So he takes the vexing woman to his ship, and this is how their journey begins.

Obviously, spending time together in close proximity for weeks and weeks makes it hard to control the growing attraction between them, and they end up falling in love with each other. Gray opens his heart to Sophia, and tells her things that he's never shared with anyone. On her part, she isn't that open, afraid that revealing her identity to him will turn him away. But the deception will have to end eventually. What will happen when Gray finally learns the truth? Will he be able to trust her then? More important, will he be able to trust his feelings for her? If she's lied to him all the time, does he really know her at all?

Kudos to Ms. Dare's writing to make this story work for me, because I'm not a fan of pirate/privateer heroes or deceitful heroines. Gray wasn't a privateer anymore, but this book took place mostly at sea so it was as if he still was. As for Sophia, she was almost a pathological liar and couldn't tell the truth to save her life. Strangely enough, I liked both Gray and Sophia despite all that. Sure, I wanted to shake them - well, mainly Sophia - a couple of times, but I found myself rooting for them all the same.

Gray was a true scoundrel trying to reform, and I love that kind of hero. He had lied, cheated, stolen his brother Joss's inheritance - not only once, but twice - and let his sister Bel down. He made no excuses for that and he would have done all of it again if given another chance, as he believed it was all a means to an end: to protect his brother and sister, to restore their family's fortune and to secure their future. Gray had some unfinished business with Joss, who also had some problems of his own, and I thought their relationship was one the best things of this book. I wish Ms. Dare wrote Joss's story someday, but I'm not sure it will happen.

Sophia, Sophia, where do I start? She was spoiled and selfish, but I couldn't help being charmed by her "vivid imagination" at first. Her plan to escape an unwanted marriage was, well, idiotic, but I was willing to go along with it because it was "in character". It made sense considering how her mind worked: Sophia wasn't one to go from Point A to Point B in a straight line. She needed a wake-up call, and Gray didn't mince words to give it to her after she almost died in one of her foolish antics:

"You—" He shook a finger at her. "You are so bloody stupid. You have no idea how damned lucky you are. Do you know what could happen to you, crossing the ocean alone with no money and no chaperone? Do you have any notion what a dangerous game you play, going addled with rum and then prancing before the crew like a common harlot?"

Ouch! I cheered Gray for trying to shake some sense into her, but I also felt kind of sorry for her. Yes, like the Aphrodite's sailors, I was still engaged by her "brainless" charm. But when she chose to drag her deception instead of coming clean when presented with the oportunity to do so, I had to take one star off from my rating.

As a minor complaint, the ending felt a bit rushed to me, even with the epilogue. Considering how Sophia based her postponing telling the truth on Gray's reaction to it, I was expecting a "bigger" showdown that what I was given. I wasn't disappointed, just surprised.

All in all, this was a very enjoyable read, with a wonderful hero, a likable but flawed heroine, an unusual (to me) setting - a ship! - and a story that had enough romance and action to keep me turning the pages almost nonstop. This was only my second book by Ms. Dare - well, it was only her seconnd book too, LOL - but she's already become one of my favorite authors. Her writing really talks to me.

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Saturday, March 24, 2012

Review: "Slightly Dangerous" by Mary Balogh

Slightly Dangerous (Bedwyn Saga, #6)Slightly Dangerous by Mary Balogh

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

3 1/2 stars

As the last installment in the Slightly series, this was probably the most anticipated read of my recent reading history. To be fair, I didn't love all the previous books in the series, but I was more than ready to love this one. Why? Because it was about Wulf... *sighs*

As the story opens, Wulfric Bedwyn, the Duke of Bewcastle, is feeling somewhat morose and too old at thirty-five. His siblings are all happily married, procreating and living away in their own residences, his long-time mistress passed away a few months ago and he hasn't replaced her yet, and the parliamentary session has ended, leaving him to dread the lonely summer that awaits him at Lindsey Hall, his country estate. This unusual state of mind prompts him to accept an invitation to attend a two-week house party at one of his friends' sister's estate, something that's completely out of his character. He regrets his decision almost immediately, as he doesn't expect to find any enjoyment there, but he's a man of his word and he's accepted the invitation, so off he goes... only to have his already low expectations crushed right upon his arrival.

Christine Derrick is a 29-year-old widow who's only attending the house party as a favor to the party's hostess, Lady Renable. Considering that Christine's brother- and sister-in-law were also invited to the party and they pretty much despise her, she'd rather be somewhere else, but she couldn't refuse her friend's request. She plans to "hide" in the background and avoid drawing attention to herself, but disaster seems to follow her. It doesn't take long until she catches not only Wulf's attention but everyone else's too. She can't help it. She's just too "full of life" to sit quietly in the corner. Riiiight...

Wulf and Christine are complete opposites. He's aloof, haughty and the Duke of Bewcastle. She's bubbly, clumsy and a schoolmaster's daughter. However, they can't help falling for each other, even though they know they're completely ill-matched. So where does this leave them? Well, if you're familiar with Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, you know what happens next. Wulf makes an offensive proposal, and Christine flatly refuses. He makes another offer, she refuses him again, and they part ways after exchanging some harsh words. But he can't forget her, so he eventually sets out to woo her and prove her that he's more than "just" the Duke of Bewcastle. He's also Wulfric Bedwyn, and the man behind the Duke is worth loving...

Oh man, what can I say? I'm devastated, but this book didn't live up to my sky-high expectations. As I said in the first paragraph above, I was ready to love it, so one could say I was even willing to accept minor grievances. Unfortunately, things didn't work out that way. It took me three days to finish this read, and that's bad considering I was expecting to devour this book in one sitting. So what went wrong?

In one word, Christine. I didn't like her for the most part of the story. She was supposed to be fun and loving, a big contrast to Wulf's character, but I think Ms. Balogh went a bit too far. Christine's antics made her look childish and foolish, not charming and endearing. Many reviewers liken her to Elizabeth Bennett, the heroine in Pride and Prejudice, but I kept picturing Lydia, Elizabeth's silly, idiotic sister. :( It was quite jarring, because Christine also had some moments of great maturity and wisdom. In the end, I just didn't know who (or what) she was.

Now Wulf, ah Wulf! I'm in love with the man! He was pretty much like he was in the previous books: icy and always in control. I was glad to see that Ms. Balogh didn't turn him into an overtly emotional hero only because he was in love. The glimpses into his inner thoughts were sufficient to show that, contrary to what everyone believed, there was a beating heart inside his chest and blood in his veins. Even so, he opened up enough to Christine to tell her about his upbringing and how deeply he was affected by the way he was "molded" to be the Duke of Bewcastle. That was a beautiful and powerful scene, and I had tears in my eyes when I finished reading it.

As for the plot, this book was clearly an homage to Pride and Prejudice, as many reviewers have already mentioned. I don't have a problem with it, as Ms. Austen's classic novel is one of my all-time favorite books, but Ms. Balogh didn't do the job as well as Ms. Austen when it came to making me believe that a hero and a heroine so unlikely matched would live HEA. Strangely enough, the sex scenes were part of the "problem". Wulf and Christine's lovemaking felt cold and I didn't sense any sexual tension between them, so I couldn't help picturing a lukewarm marriage in their future. Paired with the fact that Christine would definitely have a hard time adjusting to being the Duchess of Bewcastle, the whole scenario didn't scream HEA to me.

All in all, this was a disappointing read. Not because it was bad - it wasn't - but because it could have been so much better... I was poised to love it, but ended up finding it "only" slightly better than average. I know I'm in the minority here, as most readers love this book, so don't let my review influence you. If you're following the Slightly series, you definitely have to read this book.

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Friday, March 23, 2012

Review: "Mistress" by Amanda Quick

MistressMistress by Amanda Quick

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was only my third book by Amanda Quick, but I knew what to expect from her: a funny and charming story with a bright but quirky heroine who defies society's conventions, a brooding hero who's in need of an emotional makeover and a somewhat convoluted mystery to be solved while the H/h fall in love with each other. Mistress had all that, but it was by no means predictable. In fact, the mystery plot had some very unexpected twists, and I'm still a little dizzy.

Iphiginia (ugh, what a name!) Bright is a 27-year-old financially independent country spinster who's just returned to England after a year touring the ruins of Italy, when she learns that her dear aunt Zoe is being blackmailed. Determined to find out who the blackmailer is so she can put a stop to his/her unsavory threats, Iphiginia decides to pose as the unsuspecting Earl of Masters's latest mistress in order to gain access to his inner circle of acquaintances/friends. See, she's sure she'll find the blackmailer among them and she believes Masters is dead, so her plan is quite brilliant, isn't it? Unfortunately (for her), her alleged lover is very much alive and more than curious to meet his "newest mistress"...

Marcus Valerius Cloud, Earl of Masters, is a bit suspicious of Iphiginia's charade and doesn't buy her explanation, especially after he finds out that one of his friends is being blackmailed. But even though he thinks that Iphiginia is the blackmailer, he doesn't put a stop on her charade and plays along with her, decided to see how far she'll go. The fact that he's more than enchanted by her and wouldn't mind making her his newest mistress for real isn't relevant, because he lives his life by a set of simple and straightforward rules he formulated several years ago and never deviates from them:

#1 - Never remarry.

#2 - Never discuss the past.

#3 - Never explain his actions to others.

#4 - Never retreat from an objective or alter a decision.

#5 - Never get involved with virgins or other men's wives.

Little does Marcus know, but Iphiginia is going to make him break all his rules one by one in a short time. And he won't regret it. ;)

This was another great book by Ms. Quick, and I really liked Marcus, Iphigina and the whole cast of secondary characters. Marcus's sarcastic comments and Iphiginia's smart replies were so funny to read, I couldn't get enough of their witty banter. There were some serious moments between them too, especially when he finally broke Rule #2, but the lighter scenes were the ones that sparkled.

Marcus was a bit inconsistent at first: he was known to gather all facts before reaching a conclusion and making a decision - remember Rule #4, which made him a very judicious man - but he quickly assumed that Iphiginia was the blackmailer without any evidence to support that. Granted, he didn't stick to that misconception too long and he learned to trust her beyond doubt, but his initial behavior was frustrating. Overall, he was a well-drawn hero and it was very nice to see him breaking all his rules and becoming a better person in the end.

Based on the premise, I thought I would have a problem with Iphiginia because, let's face it, her plan to unmask the blackmailer was just "crazy". As I read the book, it started to make sense - I mean, the ton didn't know her and she could "retire" quietly after the charade was over, with no damage to her or anyone's reputation - so I was happy to go along with it. Plus, Iphiginia was a blast of fun and I can forgive a lot of nonsense when I connect with the characters in a book. That said, I wasn't fully happy with the way things ended for her...

Marcus married Iphiginia and they lived HEA, but she'd be forever viewed as "the mistress who got lucky and managed to marry her lover" because her true identity was never revealed to the ton. To be fair, I don't know what other ending would have been possible, since revealing that she was in fact a single woman pretending to be a mistress would have ruined her reputation, so I guess Ms. Quick had to settle for the lesser of two evils. Oh well...

As for the mystery part of this book, it was okay but some of the blackmailer's actions didn't make sense to me. At one point, I was so confused that I had to pause and wonder what the heck was going on. I got an explanation for that in the end, but it only made me think that the blackmailer wasn't the brightest person in the world. All in all, that wasn't a big deal because the main focus of this book was always Marcus and Iphiginia's relationship, and that was nicely written.

Final verdict: not my favorite book by Ms. Quick, but a very good read anyway.

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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Review: "Slightly Sinful" by Mary Balogh

Slightly Sinful (Bedwyn Saga, #5)Slightly Sinful by Mary Balogh

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Okay, let's get it out in the open: the premise of this book didn't sound very appealing to me at first. I mean, there's amnesia, deception, and another fake marriage - the fourth fake marriage/bethrotal in the Slightly series, and the fifth if you add A Summer to Remember, which is a prequel to the series. It should have been too much to take, right? Wrong! Somehow Ms. Balogh made it all work by making me fall in love with the H/h, and the rest is history...

The events in Slightly Sinful and Slightly Tempted, the previous book in the series, take place concurrently so it's a good idea to read both books back to back. I did, on the advice of my friends Beanbag Love and BJ Rose, and I had a lot of fun realizing how things could have been completely different if "this or that" happened. What's Romancelandia, if not a place full of what-ifs? ;)

Lord Alleyne Bedwyn, who's just embarked upon a career as a diplomat, has been sent to the front of the Battle of Waterloo to deliver a letter to the Duke of Wellington. On his way back to Brussels, Alleyne is shot, falls from his horse and suffers a head injury. Unconscious and defenseless, he's robbed, stripped naked by looters, and left to die in the forest.

Rachel York was working as a ladies' companion in Brussels when she fell prey to the so-called Reverend Nigel Crawley, who was actually a con artist and managed to steal all her meager funds. He's also robbed the life savings of four whores (I don't like using this term, but that's how Ms. Balogh calls them in the book) who are friends with Rachel, so now she finds herself having to live in a brothel with these "painted ladies" while they plot how to track down the conniving "Reverend" and get their money back. But they need money to afford this chase, and the quickest way to get some at the moment is to loot the dead from the Battle of Waterloo. So off they go to the battlefield, but Rachel decides to stay behind in the forest...

As fate would have it, the first "dead" body Rachel finds is Alleyne's, and when she realizes he isn't really dead, she cries for help. This is one of the what-ifs I mentioned above, as Gervase, the hero in Slightly Tempted, happens to be passing by right there and then, hears Rachel's cries, but doesn't stop because another man rushes to help her. What if Gervase had stopped? Well, both Slightly Tempted and Slightly Sinful would have been very short novels, LOL.

Anyway, Rachel takes the nearly dead Alleyne to the brothel with the assistance of Sergeant William Strickland, the man who rushed to her help in the forest. While nursing both men to health - Sergeant Strickland was also injured in Waterloo -, Rachel develops a special "connection" with Alleyne and, between moments of blessed darkness oblivion and painful consciousness, he becomes infatuated with her. He knows that he's feverish and at least partially delirious, but what red-blooded male wouldn't fall in love with such an angel? The problem is, when this red-blooded male finally awakes from his brush with death, he's got amnesia and doesn't know who he is.

Slightly afraid of facing his new reality alone and hoping to buy some time until he recovers his memory, Alleyne decides to join Rachel and her friends in their quest to recover their lost money. So off they go back to England, where Rachel is to deceive her estranged uncle and convince him she's married to a nice gentleman (aka Jonathan Smith aka Alleyne) so she can get her hands on her inheritance. Once in posession of the jewels her mother has left her, Rachel can sell some of them and finance the chase after the dastardly "Reverend". But when they arrive at her uncle's estate, things get a little tricky, and Alleyne and Rachel are forced to spend more time together than they've planned. Pretending to be happy newlyweds in love for a month for her uncle's sake is due to take its toll, isn't it? And what will happen when Alleyne recovers his memory? Will he be back to being the haughty Lord Alleyne Bedwyn and forget about the group of misfits he met in Brussels?

As I said in the first paragraph of this review, I loved Alleyne and Rachel. They were great together, and I could easily see why each fell in love with the other. There was a small misunderstanding in the beginning of their relationship, and Alleyne was aware of it and could have cleared it sooner than he did, but it wasn't bad enough to ruin the progress of the story. In fact, I understood why he chose to keep his silence and let Rachel keep her misconception about his feelings. It was just the way he found to resist his attraction to her.

I also loved Rachel's relationship with her uncle and her friends. Granted, those four "painted ladies" were unbelievably nice and kind-hearted - I could have bought one, maybe two "whores with a heart of gold", but four at once was too much - and I had to suspend disbelief with their antics at Rachel's uncle's home, but they made me laugh so they didn't really bother me overall.

As for the plot, I was okay with the amnesia and the deception in the beginning, but they lasted a bit too long. I got really nervous near the end of the story, when there were only three chapters to read and there was no resolution in sight. As it was, I was afraid the ending would be too rushed because there wouldn't be time to set everything right. Trust Ms. Balogh to turn my fears to dust! The ending was just perfect, and I admit that the scene where Alleyne was finally reunited with his family made me sigh like a ninny. I know this book is about Alleyne, but I have to say that his brother Wulf completely stole the scene there:

"Bewcastle had already seen him. His gaze was steady and silver-eyed and inscrutable. His hand reached for the gold-handled, jewel-studded quizzing glass he always wore with formal attire and raised it halfway to his eyes in a characteristic gesture. Then he came striding along the terrace with uncharacteristic speed and did not stop coming until he had caught Alleyne up in a tight, wordless embrace that lasted perhaps a whole minute while Alleyne dipped his forehead to his brother’s shoulder and felt at last that he was safe.

It was an extraordinary moment. He had been little more than a child when his father died, but Wulfric himself had been only seventeen. Alleyne had never thought of him as a father figure. Indeed, he had often resented the authority his brother wielded over them with such unwavering strictness, and often with apparent impersonality and lack of humor. He had always thought of his eldest brother as aloof, unfeeling, totally self-sufficient. A cold fish. And yet it was in Wulfric’s arms that he felt his homecoming most acutely. He felt finally and completely and unconditionally loved.

An extraordinary moment indeed."

Okay, I'd better stop now because this is no longer a review, but a rave from a die-hard Balogh fan, LOL. When it comes to her books, I just can't stop gushing about them. I. Just. Love. Her. Writing!

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