Friday, June 29, 2007

Untie My Heart, by Judith Ivory [3]

***/***** (3/5)
"A man in cahoots with a woman's sexual instinct [is] the devil himself, for he [has] the united power over her - himself and her own longing - greater than a mere man." -from Judith Ivory's Untie My Heart

Another enjoyable read overall (I'm on a roll!). I'm immediately struck by Judith Ivory's attention to settings. Some may find her descriptions a bit tiresome, but I find it adds to the reading experience considerably, and Ivory excels at adequately setting the scene with luminous sights, resounding sounds, redolent smells and shivering touches. The only descriptions I found monotonous: rehashing Stuart's handsome, tall, broad-shouldered and muscular physique again and again with different words. I think I get the idea, he's handsome. Although the hero Stuart's character conforms to convention both in appearance and personality, the heroine Emma's does not and the novel belongs to Emma's glib humor and unsavory history. In fact, many parts of the novel had me laughing out loud because of Emma's mature humor. I was happy to read about a heroine's struggles to overcome her trust issues for a change and overcoming her demons.

Another very fun aspect: Emma has retired from a career as a hustler and con artist, only to become embroiled in a con game years later with the hero, a game she really doesn't want to be a part of. The plot was good, I thought there should have been more scenes dealing with the current con game or flashbacks relaying Emma's prior games. Unfortunately, the plot's pacing seemed to stagger and linger trying to paint a deeper relationship between Stuart & Emma. Still, even these efforts were substantive, as you really get a sense of a burgeoning connection between Emma & Stuart. They have common interests and habits, whether that's in matters of intimacy or art or shady dealings. Definitely, their connection resonated, and the sparks were visible and natural rather than staged.

I found Judith Ivory's characterizations exceptional and they resonated. Demons haunt both the hero and the heroine, both must overcome a tortured history, and both have somewhat of a bad streak in them (not just the hero). Judith Ivory's prose is good (albeit a bit confusing to follow at times since we're often treated to 1-sentence paragraphs), and I was very appreciative of Ivory's attention to settings. This isn't just another regency romance comprising of a series of conversations/dialogues and seductions. The plot was good, but once again I would have liked to see more about of the con games. Finally, the romance and passion was palpable, substantive yet steamy.

My complaints?

Well for one, I thought for a novel which wasn't in a hurry to end, ended too abruptly and too soon. The ending could have been much better crafted; we read about a proposal yet the answer to that proposal is simply assumed. I hold romance novels to a higher standard as far as endings go.

Secondly, I was put off by the prevalent references to the hero's beauty and handsomeness. Well I suppose the romance rage is having tall, dark, chiseled and perfectly handsome heroes attracted to very ordinary, below-average looking heroines. I get that romance novelists wish to cater to their predominantly female readership who enjoy reading about an experienced, perfect, and handsome hero instantly falling for ordinary heroines. But seriously, I think 2-3 references and descriptions to the hero's handsomeness would suffice, not 20!

Here's my biggest pet peeve: why in the name of Zeus's bunghole are heroines allowed to describe their hero as handsome (over and over) and yet heroes don't describe their average-looking heroines -- whom they find ineffably attractive -- as beautiful?! It's as though Judith Ivory was going out of her way to avoid having her hero think of her heroine as beautiful even though he's hopelessly attracted to her! I mean she even has a double chin (flab underneath her real chin), and he's attracted to her like a hormoned-crazed stallion, yet nope, I see the words "cute," "round," and "ample," used to describe the heroine from the hero's perspective, but the one word conspicuously absent: beautiful. You know, if a handsome guy is so instantly attracted to a woman like UNTIE MY HEART's Stuart is attracted to Emma, they do on occasion view their heroine as beautiful.... So why the hesitation to use the word "beautiful" to describe the heroine?! Oh and by the way, the picture of the thin, fit heroine on the inside cover is nothing like the heroine described in the book! Alright, enough of my rant...

The Story.

Stuart Aysgarth, the new Viscount Mount Villiars, returns to England from the Continent only to find his avaricious Uncle Leonard claimed the viscountcy in his absence. Although Stuart reclaims the title and estates, he discovers his Uncle Leo may have hoisted off with a couple items from Stuart's childhood he would like returned desperately: an ugly statue and his mother's earrings. Unfortunately, most of Stuart's lucrative accounts related to the viscountcy have been frozen, and it will take some time to free them. UNTIE MY HEART isn't bashful describing Stuart's handsome appearance and in many different ways. Stuart embodies perfection: tall, muscular, broad-shouldered, graceful, big strong hands, striking, attractive face, dark hair and dark eyes. Other than the stutter he's mastered, Stuart hardly exhibit a single fault in appearance.

Thirty year-old widow Mrs. Emma Hotchkiss is a sheep farmer, attempting to make a humble living after a very unsavory stint as a con artist with her late husband. Her sheep farm lies right down the street from the Viscount's seat at Castle Dunord. Emma exhibits a knack for humor, and I was often reminded of Elizabeth Hoyt's Georgina from THE LEOPARD PRINCE. Blond-haired, blue-eyed Emma is described as very round, very woman, pudgy, plump and with very generous curves. She captures Handsome-Stuart's interests however, and Handsome-Stuart immediately requests a liaison after an initial meeting.

The novel begins as a speeding 8-horse carriage bearing the Viscount Mount Villiars' seal runs down and kills Emma's only male sheep, detrimental to her upcoming sheep season. After failing to secure a recompense from the Viscount for her grievances, Emma decides to return to some old, shady habits, conning her way to acquire what she rightfully deserves: 50-some pounds.

When Stuart discovers mysterious loss of a paltry 50-some pounds from his frozen bank accounts, he tracks the account to a specific bank branch and location. Only to discover that his neighbor, the delectable Mrs. Emma Hotchkiss (known to him before as Miss Muffin) has duped him of the money. He then discovers her history as a con artist from the past and enlists her help in a confidence game of "poke and send" to reacquire the statue and his mother's earrings from Uncle Leo. Stuart threatens jail for conning him out of the 50-some pounds and Emma agrees to Stuart's request as a result. They share a very steamy love scene right off the bat, far from cliche.

The confidence game takes off there, as Stuart and Emma engage in a fun game to con Stuart's Uncle Leo out of what belongs to Stuart by right. In the process, both grow closer and the game helps them defeat their demons from the past.

An entertaining read, and I could have used more scenes from the con game rather than Stuart & Emma's burgeoning love.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Gentle Warrior, by Julie Garwood [3]

***/***** (3/5)

I actually enjoyed Julie Garwood's GENTLE WARRIOR, though there's many things wrong with it too. My first book by prolific author Julie Garwood features a very harsh hero from the middle ages (1086), gentle in matters of intimacy, but very rough otherwise. Still, I found GENTLE WARRIOR's prose above-average, the plot had potential for better intrigue though falls short, the settings below average, and the romance not bad at all. I found the relationship between our lead pair, Geoffrey and Elizabeth, interesting to say the least, and not what I'm normally used to from romance novels. There was plenty of teasing between the two, and that had me smiling too. It was refreshing to see the hero helping the heroine for her quest in revenge for a change of pace.

Opposite from the last novel I read (THE DRAGON AND THE JEWEL), I felt GENTLE WARRIOR's harsh hero really didn't deserve his loyal, trusting heroine. Ah, it's always one or the other isn't it? But alas, Elizabeth Montwright gives everything she is -- her faith, her trust, her love -- to her hero Geoffrey and yet Geoffrey holds back until the very end. When Geoffrey finally comes to understand his true feelings for Elizabeth, he still holds back from divulging them to Elizabeth until later. That was cruel in and of itself.

I thought Geoffrey's refusal to share his plans with Elizabeth really led to the danger Elizabeth finds herself in towards the end. She really places a lot of trust in Geoffrey in a very short time, and all he had to do was be more forthcoming with her. But he refuses to be more forthcoming with Elizabeth, obstinately holding to traditional values of a woman's place.

Still, Geoffrey is gentle in his own way, and his rigid demeanor is probably more realistic for the time period than other romantic heroes (Simon from THE DRAGON AND THE JEWEL, for example). I found the relationship between Geoffrey and Elizabeth very unique, and only a few pages into the novel, things get moving quickly as we're treated to a marriage and a love scene. No meek heroine herself, Elizabeth stubbornly challenges Geoffrey's traditional way of thinking and shrugs off his rules in public. For example, Elizabeth pulls up a chair beside (not behind) Geoffrey while he's holding court and hugs him in front of everyone, essentially contesting Geoffrey's traditional rules. Elizabeth challenging Geoffrey formed the highlights of the novel, and were very fun to read as Geoffrey's austere nature slowly crumbles in the face of Elizabeth's gentle affection and stubborn challenges. I thought there should have been more parts of the like. And Geoffrey deserved a dressing down, his harsh demeanor and arrogance was over-the-top, even for me.

The Story.

Elizabeth Montwright has witnessed the death of her entire family -- her two sisters, her parents and many others. Barely escaping Montwright Manor with her 7 year-old brother and now the heir to Montwright Manor, she now pledges death for who she believes is responsible: her greedy uncle Belwain. Elizabeth is described as strong-willed character, expert with her bow as well. Still, she's probably more affectionate and caring to her hero than any heroine I've read as of late. She's the first to voice the words I-Love-You and trusts her hero like no other heroine I've ever read.

As the story begins, Lord Geoffrey Berkley resolves to expunge his enemies from his vassal's holding at Montwright Manor. Although Geoffrey's forces are successful in reacquiring the manor, he's critically injured. Elizabeth arrives as a peasant to assess the new victors of the manor and to help nurse Geoffrey back to full health. They share an intimate kiss while Geoffrey is still recovering and he cannot forget her. Geoffrey is a very rigid man, he adheres to traditional values of a woman's place, he believes intimacy only appropriate during the night, and often is prone to fits of frightening anger.

At first sight, Geoffrey wants Elizabeth and only few pages into the novel, Geoffrey quickly arranges a marriage after he's recovered from his critical wounds. Elizabeth doesn't refuse, and she reasons that he wants to atone for what befell her family and protect her. A sensual night of passion where Geoffrey shows his gentle side soon follows.

From here on, Elizabeth challenging her new husband's thinking about a woman's place and other rigid rules really represent the highlights of the novel. Geoffrey isn't exactly easy to deal with and often times his anger and shock of Elizabeth's boldness in challenging his rules bring him to the brink of cruelty. Elizabeth's strength of character shines. Although other novels may try to paint a bad or harsh or tortured light on the hero, the said hero is usually a very tender and good guy at heart. But Geoffrey's anger and medieval way of thinking is palpably frightening and you really get a sense of what Elizabeth has to deal with in her hero. As much as her true nature wills it, Elizabeth can't constantly challenge and fight with Geoffrey, and she picks and chooses her battles wisely.

The plot dealing with the party responsible for the murder of Elizabeth's family comes to fruition and it contained some good intrigue. Though the identity of the ultimate culprit was unsurprising, it was good. I think there could have been more political intrigue though. Elizabeth's plight for revenge also takes a backseat to her loyalty and love for Geoffrey, which was interesting, but still unwarranted considering Geoffrey's hot/cold treatment of her.

Overall though, I enjoyed this one, and the novel obviously belonged to Elizabeth. I thought there should have been more scenes of Elizabeth breaking down Geoffrey's rigid demeanor and traditional way of thinking towards women.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Dragon and the Jewel, by Virginia Henley [2]

**/***** (2/5)

Wow, Virginia Henley sure seems intent on exploring a woman's fantasy with huge men and their proportionately gargantuan phallus in THE DRAGON AND THE JEWEL. Over half the novel seemed focused on Simon de Montfort's herculean physique; who knows, probably out of necessity since he towers over other men. I thought the love scenes featuring Simon's extraordinary size detracted from the passion and love (or overwhelmed it, depending on how you look at it!). The size factor and Henley's infatuation with her hero's huge size easily overshadowed the words of tenderness Simon bestows Eleanor after their first time (and many times thereafter).

As far as historical backdrops, plotting and settings go, I found Chadwick's LORDS OF THE WHITE CASTLE (***) superior, as far as tempestuous interactions go, I enjoyed Shannon Drake's COME THE MORNING (***) better, and as far as uninhibited passions go, Elizabeth Hoyt's ordinary-of-appearance characters in THE LEOPARD PRINCE (****) shared a heated passion and love far beyond that of our beautiful couple in Henley's THE DRAGON AND THE JEWEL. Finally as far as sensuality with beautiful characters go, Sylvia Day's ASK FOR IT (**) was better.

I thought the love between our Eleanor & Simon was fairly one-sided for the most part, both in the deeds of love and in words of love. Along with possessing an unmatched warrior's strength and ability, a cunning and observant mind, gargantuan proportions in size, a servicing lovemaking flair for his heroine, and a predilection to justice, Simon de Montfort also serenades our heroine with poetic words of tenderness (throughout). Yup, he's also a regular poet. Eleanor's scathing words (repeatedly) quickly got old while Simon is showering her with tender words and focusing on giving Eleanor pleasure in all the lovemaking. Simon is very gentle and tender with her, while Eleanor scratches, claws and bites Simon everywhere. In every way, the giving was all one-sided: Simon giving everything he is to Eleanor. I really didn't think Eleanor deserved Simon, but hey, it's Virginia Henley's story and Henley's characters. Eclipsing everything are these insistent and persistent references to Simon's enormous size! Also got old quickly, seemingly draining the resulting "love" and "romance." You immediately see the book for what it is: Virginia Henley's "passion" for ginormous-cock worship. ;> Shannon Drake's heroine in COME THE MORNING also seethed and lambasted her hero, but that was handled in a fun manner and turned into an all-consuming love on both of their parts.

Eleanor is one annoying, airhead of a heroine. I like a defiant, willful, badgering girl just as much as the next guy, but too many times, I wanted to slap her so she'd shut up, please don't talk, and please stop thinking ha! When she isn't railing against the hero for being a brute, oaf and a devil, she's enamored with jewels and costly gowns. She exacerbates poor Simon's debt 100-fold with lavish jewels, gowns and gifts. When Eleanor buys a costly gift for her brother King Henry's newborn prince, she pays little heed to Simon's enormous debt (only equaled by his gargantuan size!). Later, when Simon pleas with Eleanor about all her lavish tastes and to take it easy, she ignores him and fights with him instead. She fails to recognize any plots in her first husband's death, and she defends her capricious and feckless brother King Henry like an insipid dolt. She was endearing when she proved herself worthy of her first husband (though she enjoyed every liberty and freedom with her kind, first husband). Then with Simon, she's horrible. Though she was affectionate and caring with her late first husband William Marshal, she's not an affectionate person at heart, and she rails and rants at Simon constantly. When she's pregnant a second time, instead of being happy at the prospect of a second child, she's furious with Simon thinking he sidelined her to bed.

In fact, the love, trust and worship is so one-sided that when Eleanor overhears of a plot to trap and kill Simon, she again fails to return Simon's love, trust and loyalty. She's more concerned about the prospect of Simon's ambition for the English crown than about any danger to Simon. At one point in the novel, Eleanor accuses her sister (Holy Roman Empire's Empress) and sister-in-law (Richard's wife) of being materialistic. Ha, I love it! That's rich, considering her lavish tastes digging her husband deeper in debt. Then, when they gossip about Simon's first wife, again she doubts her husband. Despite Simon's constant worship of Eleanor, she never truly trusts him.

Then, in the Middle East, she ventures to a Sultan's palace, hoping to negotiate in earnest for Simon's captive brother. Whether in public matters of state or in private, Eleanor always gets her way with Simon despite Simon constantly telling her to learn her woman's place. So gaily, Eleanor assumes all men from the time period will honor and worship her esteemed status as Princess of England on a pedestal like her husband Simon does. Similar to most men during the time period, when the Sultan doesn't feel the same way as Simon, she's shocked. Well, duh! Her plight to free Simon's brother quickly turns ugly.

Eleanor may be passionate, but she's definitely not affectionate or understanding or smart.

The Story (briefly).

Ever since she was a small girl, Princess Eleanor Plantagenet, dreams of marrying her hero the marshal of England, William Marshal. Eleanor is willful and usually has the many men in her life wrapped around her finger and finally her brother the feckless King Henry arranges the marriage of 40+ year-old William Marshal to Eleanor when she's 9 years old. William is a kind and strong character, and Eleanor resolves to please him by subduing her will and passion and become the wife William wants. William honorably abstains from a sexual union with Eleanor until she's 16 and mature enough. Both Eleanor and William grow to love each fondly during the year before she turns 16, since Eleanor has grown into a beautiful woman and William lusts for her now.

I liked reading about a heroine's first love. Unlike Chadwick's LORDS OF THE WHITE CASTLE though, it was too idealistic and there's an instant attraction and love between Eleanor & William despite the vast age difference. LORDS OF THE WHITE CASTLE described the heroine's growing fondness and love for her old, first husband over time, which seemed more appropriate.

After a poisoning plot kills her husband William, Eleanor mourns and vows to remain chaste in widowhood before the Church. Enter Simon de Montfort close to 200 pages later, the "greatest warrior" of the time, a behemoth in proportions, honorable, shrewd, and a man who adopts and loves England as his own country. Simon of course pursues Eleanor relentlessly after their first meeting and finally Eleanor relents.

From the moment Simon enters the story, the book is more about Simon's enormous size than anything else, and the poisoning plot was dropped too conveniently later on. The "epic" feeling of the early pages quickly dissipates, and the love between Eleanor & Simon seemed a one-way street throughout with Simon giving all to Eleanor.

The prose is below-average, the plotting just average, the settings fairly nonexistent, the characterizations too childish (Eleanor) or too perfect (Simon), and the romance/love mostly dry.

I'm not giving up on Virginia Henley though, there's potential and I'm curious to see her more recent writing.

Friday, June 22, 2007

A Brother's Price, by Wen Spencer [1]

*/***** (1/5)

A thought experiment more or less, Wen Spencer stages an intriguing game of What-If and completely turns the tables on gender stereotypes in a Regency Romance. In my quest for a break in convention, Spencer's A BROTHER's PRICE certainly fits the bill as far as breaking from cliche goes. A BROTHER's PRICE is still cliche, but it's the opposite of everything you'd expect: a matriarchal society where women greatly outnumber men, where the women are amazon-like warriors protecting their menfolk and men are nurturing saplings. In fact, the male protagonist in A BROTHER's PRICE plays the meek heroine better than any heroines I can remember! Most heroines in historical romances usually exhibit a streak of defiance, at least some traces of a combative, truculent personality. A BROTHER's PRICE heroine -- err, I mean hero -- is as malleable, gentle and docile as they come; from beginning to end, he's a little mouse.

As a guy reading this, I couldn't get behind such a pitiful, blushing male character, completely dominated in every way possible. Maybe I'm a hypocrite, maybe I'm sexist, maybe I'm too prideful, who knows. In the world of A BROTHER's PRICE, the few men in the world are consorts shared by sisters to produce offspring, essentially a slave bartered and sold for procreation. The men have Seasons, they nurture children, they cook, clean, sew, and are regular housekeepers. They can't partake in any leadership decisions, seemingly forbidden from official court proceedings, they can't fight, can't ride horses, etc. (you get the idea). The men can be "ruined" if they dally before marriage and they're sluts if they sleep outside of marriage. Women go to "cribs" consisting of ruined men to service their desires and produce offspring if the women are unable to acquire a husband by marriage. The entire time, I got the feeling Wen Spencer was murmuring in my ear, "So how does it feel like, hmm?!?" Many times, the novel appeared an exercise in lessons on sexism.

The characters of pretty-boy hero Jerin Whistler and Princess Ren, the Eldest of 10 princess sisters, are drab and I found Jerin's characterization offensive. Spencer reverses the gender roles not only in matters of leadership and fighting, but also in matters of seduction. Princess Ren's romantic advances has our heroine Jerin -- dang, sorry I mean hero -- blushing profusely, and melting in Ren's bold arms. Towards the end, Jerin can't defend himself against the villainous women in the novel, essentially a weak babe. They ultimately capture him to set up a rescue attempt by Ren's sister Halley. Jerin is either afraid or queasy or blushing throughout. He lacks boldness, he lacks confidence, he lacks strength, and he's a certifiable wimp. I suppose that's my pride talking.

A BROTHER's PRICE intermingles a plotting related to stolen cannons the Princess Ren seeks. It isn't a bad plot, but it shared its pacing with Jerin's Season and Princess Ren's efforts to secure her sisters' marriage with Jerin.

As much as Wen Spencer delights in reversing the gender roles here, I was disappointed to see that she still stuck with convention in two other respects. One, the men are taught to pleasure and service the women. In most common Regency fares today, the libertine hero's entire purpose is to pleasure our virgin heroine and ignite her passion. This carries through in A BROTHER's PRICE, as Jerin having knowledge how to use his mouth to pleasure women represents a point in his marriageable favor. Secondly, the women aren't experienced rakes like the men in Regency romances are despite the existence of cribs in Spencer's world. If you're going to turn the tables so thoroughly, why not these two points? You can devise a way for the women not to get pregnant from the cribs if that's the concern, just make up something, this is more of a fantasy anyway.

The love is nonexistent; there can hardly be love with 5 women sharing 1 guy. It's a perfect world though as jealousy isn't factored in because that's the way of things in Spencer's world. Women conquer and enjoy their man.

All in all, an offensive thought experiment with no true romance or love, meager plotting and insulting characterizations.

Sword of Darkness, by Kinley MacGregor [1]

*/***** (1/5)

SWORD OF DARKNESS is so bad, it will make your head ache. I enjoyed MacGregor's light romantic flavor in DARK CHAMPION, but SWORD OF DARKNESS spouted garbage, a veritable hodgepodge of idiocy and cheeze. There's cheezy, and then there's cheezy. SWORD OF DARKNESS qualifies in the later category, it's that bad. Part magical fantasy, part Arthurian medieval history, part romance, part time travel, part vampire-like blood sucking, part comedy (or attempted comedy), SWORD OF DARKNESS' miserable efforts at satirical humor fail abysmally. How this novel was published, and how I actually read it, I'll never know. My plea to the author: please, for the love of god, quit the attempts at humor. Like most romance novels, there's little action in this novel, even the romance consists little more than pages of incoherent soliloquies from the hero thinking about the heroine or vice-versa. Mostly boring introspection from the hero Kerrigan's perspective though, since this book also plays out the obligatory Saving-the-Hero's-Tortured-Soul routine. Would it be a romance novel without it?

The Story, possible SPOILERS.

The story begins with a guild rejecting Seren of York's exquisite cloth as a token for acceptance into their guild. She's a peasant and labored over the cloth, often starving herself for the requisite material and bearing calloused fingers as proof of her diligence. The book painstakingly notes Seren's ordinary and under-average look at every turn. She has pale skin, paltry, diminutive breasts, fading blond hair and very ordinary face.

When Knights of Avalon arrive to protect Seren and the future unborn Penmerlin she will carry (the most powerful being of magic), she flees, believing them mad. She runs into the evil Kerrigan who offers to rescue her from the good knights of Avalon.

Our extremely handsome hero Kerrigan has had his fill of beautiful women and now finds himself drawn to Seren's virgin mediocrity (predictably). Kerrigan is the prince of darkness, dark hair, black eyes and ice-cold skin. He's supposed to be "King" of Camelot but he's little more than an evil woman's (Morgen's) figurehead. He carries Caliburn, a sword of darkness which grants Kerrigan all of his power.

There's plenty of black-and-white in MacGregor's less-than-adequate worldbuilding. Camelot, eternally dark, is the antithesis to a bright Avalon. Just as the evil bitch Morgen rules her domain in Camelot, so too does the good woman Merlin rule her domain in Avalon. The dark sword Caliburn is the opposite of Excalibur. Etc., etc., etc. Magic and beings of magic are employed liberally. Beings teleport to different locations and to different time periods (flashing), blasts of lightning and explosions are common, there's magical shields, there's gargoyles, mandrakes (man-changing-dragons), Adoni (elf-like creatures), ugly Adoni, knights, and powerful women wizards. It's as though Kinley MacGregor made a witch stew of everything she could possibly think of.

Kerrigan wisks Seren away to Camelot and to Morgen's domain, hoping to acquire a powerful magical artifact the round table in exchange for Seren. Seren has already divulged why the knights of Avalon wished to protect her (because she's to carry the next Penmerlin). Seren moons over Kerrigan's handsome face at every turn while "challenging" him with fearless words. Kerrigan is intrigued by Seren's audacity despite her average-to-bad looks. Any of this sounding familiar?

In case you're dying to know how the rest plays out...

Kerrigan and Morgen fight over Seren, Kerrigan takes Seren to Lancelot's old castle, Lancelot's ghost attempts to seduce Seren, Morgen attacks with an army of gargoyles, Kerrigan puts up a powerful shield, Kerrigan and Morgen share a night of passion, Kerrigan weakens from maintaining the shield, Kerrigan & Seren "flash" to a more modern time period in order to escape Morgen, Kerrigan gives up his sword and hence relinquishes his powers, Kerrigan sends Soren to Avalon to protect Seren and their unborn child, Morgen captures and tortures Kerrigan, and Seren arrives to save Kerrigan. All in all, a very amateur, poor fare, not the least bit bearable at the end.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Wicked Fantasy, by Nicole Jordan [1]

*/***** (1/5)

Well, one thing you can count on from Nicole Jordan, and that's repetition; repetition from novel to novel and repetition of words over and over in the same novel. Similar to her other two novels I've read, there's little substance to WICKED FANTASY other than the incessant, interminable and repetitive introspection/meanderings from the hero and heroine. And then there's the sensual coupling. WICKED FANTASY contains endless passages of the hero thinking about the heroine and/or the heroine thinking about the hero.

The beginning 30-40 pages were mildly interesting, the rest was a horrible blur. I kid you not. I still won't back down from thoroughly enjoying her novel THE WARRIOR, but lord almighty, Nicole Jordan has zero creativity, and THE WARRIOR is the best of the lot.

Trey Deverill, known to all as Deverill (pronunciation intentionally close to Devil), is the epitome of perfection. His towering presence, massive shoulders, heavily-muscled and chiseled frame (something Jordan diligently reminds us at every turn), handsome looks, considerate nature, and all-around good-guy personality lend credence to this embodiment of perfection. The book would have us believe that he challenges the heroine, but mostly I saw a conciliatory, placating and servile disposition towards his heroine. THE WARRIOR's hero Ranulf challenged his heroine, while WICKED FANTASY's hero Deverill is something of an abiding slave with the looks and frame of a Greek God. I can almost picture Deverill in the toga garb ready to service and pleasure his heroine Antonia at her behest. WICKED FANTASY would have us believe that Deverill "kidnapping" Antonia shows his "high-handedness." Hardly. Being the perfect good guy that he is, he refuses to force her to leave the danger, and he basically begs her to come. She follows willingly. He then plays the maid after her.

Towards the end, Deverill behaves like some impotent puppy dog without any will of his own, as Antonia saves him, then has him fall into the infamous jealousy trap. It's funny, I think a hundred people came out of the woodwork to help Deverill towards the end: the Guardians (exclusive club devoted to protection), titled members of Society, Bow Street runners, and our heroine Antonia. All of that against 1 villain, a villain he out-weighs and towers over. Too funny. And still Deverill needed Antonia to shoot the villain to save his life. [laughs] So what good is all that brawn if not for circumstances like the end of this novel? Apparently for the heroine to moon over -- repetitively.

I thought it was childish for a thrice-widowed Lady to encourage our heroine Antonia into an affair with Deverill, noting the rarity of passion and how Antonia should take advantage of such passion wherever she finds it. Antonia consents, resolving to keep love out of it. Uhuh, as if that's ever been possible for women experiencing impassioned lovemaking.

When she flaunts herself in the nude before Deverill, Deverill melts away, his decision to distance himself from Antonia long forgotten. Deverill tried to convince her to marry him before when he compromises her virginity, but that failed. As recompense for compromising her virginity and not allowing him to marry her, he distances himself emotionally and physically from Antonia, hoping to minimize the damage to her reputation. Only to have her seduce him. I thought he should have demanded marriage before he agreed to pleasure as she requested.

I found Antonia and her emotions too childish. The entire romance between our lead pair was gawd awful.

There's no plotting, no settings, no substantive characterizations, and the ending was terrible.

The Story (briefly).

The beautiful Miss Antonia Maitland is a skilled marksman, heiress to a vast fortune left by her late father, and predictably stubborn. After her late father dies, her housekeeper Mrs. Peake suspects her betrothed Lord Heward for poisoning him. Mrs. Peake also believes her father intended to break the engagement which ultimately prompted Heward to kill Antonia's father.

Mrs. Peake sends for her trusted friend Mr. Trey Deverill to help save Antonia, a reputed adventurer helping the government capture pirates and baddies. Deverill & Antonia reacquaint themselves after meeting briefly 4 years earlier and share an instant attraction. A quagmire of emotional musings and introspection ensues from both the hero and heroine. When the villain Heward frames Deverill for a murder he didn't commit, Deverill escapes imprisonment to entreat Antonia to come with him.

I'm really not sure the rest is even worth mentioning, it dissolves from there.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

The Reluctant Reformer, by Lynsay Sands [3]

***/***** (3/5)

Lynsay Sands' THE RELUCTANT REFORMER is a pleasant surprise, and the first novel I've really enjoyed since Hoyt's THE LEOPARD PRINCE. Carving her own mold in the congested realm that is Regency Romance, Sands' THE RELUCTANT REFORMER underscores the story of Lady Margaret "Maggie" Wentworth, prone to comical messes of her own making. The plotting and characterizations manage to strike a fresh appeal, slightly different from what I'm used to in romance novels.

After THE SEDUCER and A KISS TO REMEMBER, I was happy to read a plausible male characterization minus the over-the-top pining common to this genre. THE RELUCTANT REFORMER actually recognizes how stupid guys are in matters love. Often times, guys fail to comprehend the emotion themselves, much less admit to the heroine that they love her. That isn't to say THE RELUCTANT REFORMER's hero James Huttledon, Lord Ramsey, doesn't show emotion or a sensitivity, he does finally verbalize the words. But thankfully, his journey to arrive at that point doesn't emasculate him, and doesn't leave him as the lovesick feminine lapdog we find in Medeiros romances, for example.

The book's tone is often humorous, the romance passionate, and the plotting dealing with our heroine's career as a journalist uncovering scandals, and landing herself in the most compromising situations in the process, equal parts funny and interesting. Thankfully, the book doesn't feature interminable passages of introspection, either from the hero or heroine thinking of the other. Maggie's adventurous escapades reign supreme. The romance and Maggie's adventurous escapades seemed to mesh, which was good. The ending, thankfully, was nicely crafted and good.

There are two reasons I didn't rate this book higher. One, I found that the book dragged at places throughout. In the beginning, Maggie trying to escape the brothel was a bit protracted, without adding anything to the setting. But the events and plotting were fresh enough to keep me interested. Later, the book is especially stretched out when Maggie flees the Ramsey estate and rushes into the nearby forest only to be discovered by Lord Ramsey's neighbor and friend. Similarly, later parts of the novel seemed to drag without much really happening. Still, Sands maintains a humorous, fresh tone throughout. Secondly, similar to the beginning of Hoyt's THE RAVEN PRINCE, I thought the book could have done without the railing against men. Maggie and James' aunt bonded over the feminist topic.

The Story, possible SPOILERS.

The book primarily features Lady Margaret "Maggie" Wentworth's tendency to find herself in the most compromising, silly messes, usually messes of her own making. I'm reminded of actor Ben Stiller's MEET THE PARENTS where he has the worst kind of luck, trying to fix things but making the situation worse. Twenty-five year-old Lady Margaret finds herself alone in the world after her brother dies from the Napoleonic wars, and she's left to fend for herself and the servants she adores. She's very close with her servants, and doesn't want to sell her brother's beloved town home in London, albeit an affair one to run. She decides to continue her brother's clandestine yet profitable career as the journalist G.W. Clark writing for the Daily Express and uncovering major -- but dangerous -- scandals.

The story begins in a brothel where Maggie is interviewing prostitutes and the Madame of the establishment for a new article. Lord Ramsey, James Huttledon, fought in the war with Maggie's brother, and promises to look after Maggie after Maggie's brother dies saving James. James hires detectives and Bow Street runners to tail Maggie and figure out how she's able to stay afloat financially, running her expensive town home and its many servants. When the runner reports Maggie's last appearance at the brothel, James and the runner draw all the wrong conclusions, mistaking Maggie's profitable career as a prostitute.

James heads over to the brothel to find Maggie in sheer and scantily-clad clothing and kidnaps her from the licentious establishment. James imprisons Maggie at his country estate at Ramsey for safekeeping, hoping to convince Maggie of a change in career and prevent her from returning to a life in prostitution. Humorous exchanges ensue as James misinterprets Maggie's responses to his pointed questions ("You enjoy it?!" "Yes!"). Neither speak plainly about what career each has in mind and Maggie thinks James is asking about her employment as a journalist while James is actually inquiring about her career as a prostitute (which she's not, of course).

The halfway point of the novel clears up the misunderstanding, returning both Maggie and James to London. The second half of the novel finds Maggie as the target of many attempts on her life. It would appear Maggie requires a change of occupation after all, as her innocuous career uncovering scandals turns deadly. The plotting in the second half shares time between the mystery behind the attempts on Maggie's life and a flourishing romance/passion between Maggie & James. Both are related and interwoven nicely. As she continues to find herself in the worst situations, poor Maggie gets beat up and shot in the second half. James rehires the runners to protect and investigate who is behind all of this, but can't bring himself to abduct her again for her own safety. She's pretty mad at him to begin with.

The book concludes satisfactorily, and it looks like I'll have to check out other Lynsay Sands novels in the future.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

A Kiss to Remember, by Teresa Medeiros [1]

*/***** (1/5)

I really need to be careful how many books I check out from a single author at once. I was so confident in Medeiros' writing from CHARMING THE PRINCE, that I thought for sure I'd enjoy her other novels. Gaily, I went ahead and checked out three Medeiros novels at once. Little did I know I was in for a rude awakening. Can you believe this is my 4th Medeiros novel after CHARMING THE PRINCE (****), THE BRIDE AND THE BEAST (*), and AFTER MIDNIGHT (*)?! Wow, I'm a regular masochist!

Except for CHARMING THE PRINCE, I find that Medeiros novels are strictly for girls -- little girls at that. Similar to her other two novels I've read, the goal of this one: bending, breaking and grinding the hero to dust under a pretense of "saving-the-hero's-soul." The tortured history A KISS TO REMEMBER's hero agonizes over is pretty pathetic. Any self-respecting, mature 28 year-old guy would get over the grudge he holds over his dead mother for "abandoning" him to a duke when the mother only felt she was handing him over to a better life. When the heroine stomps and pouts and begrudges, it's usually justified in Medeiros' novels, when the hero does it as a little child after his parents agree to turn him over to the Duke, he needs to be taught a dire lesson.

I couldn't stand Medeiros' heroine in this one, it's tough to get behind her lying and manipulating and grinding the guy to her satisfaction. She doesn't feel any remorse or regret for lying her way to marry him under false pretenses, she's pretty much floating on clouds the entire time, satisfied she's molded him to her heart's content. I don't know, if I were getting someone to marry me knowing I've consistently lied to them about who they are, I'd feel something wasn't right at the altar, I'd feel a prick of conscience. Not our heroine Laura. Of course in the end, we're led to believe everything the heroine does was justified. That the lying, manipulating and grinding was doing our hero a huge favor. Including leaving him at the end when she was about to have his child. Funny, despite all the lying and manipulating, it's the heroine who's angry at the hero in the end, it's the heroine who receives the apology. The heroine is too proud to verbalize any formal apology. Of course.

With the exception of CHARMING THE PRINCE, Medeiros' heroes appear little more than playthangs for her heroines to mold and grind as they please. Very annoying to read actually. Medeiros' heroes are like the tar crushed by a roller for the pavement on a road. A KISS TO REMEMBER's Sterling Harlow represents a fine example to this proclivity. Whether the hero captures the heroine (THE BRIDE AND THE BEAST) or the heroine captures the hero (A KISS TO REMEMBER), it's always the heroes' ways that are in dire need of reforming and taming. Always. And of course Medeiros' heroes' volition and will are nothing in the face of her heroines' [will]. Grrr, I can't stomach Medeiros' heroes even in the least. They're a pitiful device to the will of her heroines and the larger fairytale she wishes to tell.

Predictably, all the male relatives (his father and uncle) in our hero Sterling's life are evil men marring his heart and soul. Also predictably, they're dead by the opening chapter. But the women are saints -- Sterling's mother and of course Sterling's cousin. I'd be remiss to forget our heroine Laura, the virtue of sainthood saving our hero's soul from the grudge he holds over his mother.

Speaking of Sterling's cousin Diana, I was more interested in Medeiros' secondary pairing: Diana & Thane than the main one between Laura & Sterling. Of course Medeiros always has more than one romantic pairing and A KISS TO REMEMBER is no different in this regard and many others.

The heroine's younger siblings, again whom the heroine nurtures as a mother like other Medeiros books, are vicious. The 10 year-old little sister Lottie plots to murder our hero -- seriously, with poison. I'm sorry, but that isn't funny. I don't care how much jealousy the 10 year-old feels over losing her sister or how many murder mysteries she's read, that's pretty twisted. It's all a big joke though, as the statue she plots to fall on Sterling and kill him almost kills her sister instead. She's sick and twisted, and in serious need of psychiatric treatment.

The Story, possible SPOILERS again.

The story begins when 7 year-old Sterling Harlow's parents agree to hand him over the boy's uncle, the Duke of Devonbrooke, whose wife passes away without a male heir. In return for making Sterling the heir, Sterling's parents receive the small estate Arden Manor. Although Sterling's father is a horrible drunk and gambler, Sterling can't get over the fact that his mother would agree to hand him over and holds a huge grudge against her. Sterling pouts over being separated from his mother's love, since the duke of Devonbrooke is a horrible man caning little Sterling.

Twenty-one years later, the Devil of Devonbrook Sterling Harlow earns a reputation of notoriety as a libertine, continuing to hold a huge grudge over his mother which batters his soul. By this time, both his evil father and despicable uncle the former duke are dead. When Sterling's mother's caretaker, 20 year-old Miss Laura Fairleigh, writes to Sterling informing him of his mother's death and scolding him for not responding to his mother's pleas for reconciliation, Sterling decides to head over to Arden Manor.

Some convoluted plotting has our heroine Laura in dire need to marry before her 21st birthday; otherwise, Arden Manor which currently shelters her little brother and sister would be handed over to the Devil of Devonbrook Sterling Harlow. She's turned down many suits already but when she finds an unconscious Sterling in a wood near Arden Manor, she's captured by his beauty, and kisses him. He awakes from his slumber to discover he's lost his memory and doesn't recall who he is. Laura decides to use his memory loss to grind him in a mold of her ideal husband and consequently acquire Arden Manor.

The story continues insipidly as Laura concocts one lie after another, telling Sterling of his habits before his memory loss, habits which align perfectly with her ideal characteristics of a husband. Like wanting to be a rector, not drinking, adoring her twisted little sister, etc. I lost interest from the beginning when Sterling's battered soul really couldn't get over being separated from his mother and the grudge he harbors against her when anyone could clearly see she was doing what she thought was in her son's best interests, a life to be a duke.

Things deteriorate after Sterling regains his memory. He's a swell guy about Laura's manipulation, and his response involves seduction and marrying Laura. So horrible for Laura, to be a duchess and bask in the riches that go along with that. They return to London to live at Devonbrooke Hall, the Duke's lavish estate.

Sterling is the virtue of goodness in the second half. Sterling officially hands over Arden Manor in Laura's name, the very cause of her deceit. When he notices that Laura is lonely, he calls over her brother and sister and beloved servants from Arden Manor. When he learns of rumors in Society tainting Laura in a not-so-respectful light, he throws a ball at Devonbrooke Hall in Laura's honor.

I hated the ending. In spite of showering Laura, after Laura finds some locked-away letters from Sterling's mother, she becomes angry at him for not reading them. Even though she understands his tortured feelings on the matter by this point. Having little patience with Sterling, she leaves him the next morning with their unborn child. Sterling follows and apologizes to Laura, I can't remember exactly what for anymore.

And they live happily ever after.


Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Seducer, by Madeline Hunter [2]

**/***** (2/5)

THE SEDUCER is an out-and-out Heroine-Saving-the-Hero's-Soul routine, and I just don't enjoy those... even if it is written by my favorite author in this genre. Despite having just read Chadwick's LORDS OF THE WHITE CASTLE which had me screaming to its hero to let go of his rivalry, I wasn't convinced THE SEDUCER's hero Daniel letting go of his plot for revenge was entirely appropriate. I felt that Daniel St. John was way too pining, too unmanned by the end, and that's not something I'm used to from Hunter's heroes. The ultimatum our heroine Diane lays down to coerce Daniel into abandoning his plot for revenge as a price for her love came off avariciously, especially considering everything he's just shared about all the people that died -- including his mother -- mainly because of the villain.

THE SEDUCER goes to extraordinary lengths trying to paint Daniel St. John in a very evil, dark light. In the beginning, he's referred to as the Devil Man. I didn't really see it. Definitely, there are things Daniel does to ruin the men indirectly responsible for killing many people including his parents, and crippling his sister. The book and his sister Jeanette would have us believe the things he does to ruin the men eats away at Daniel's soul. Huh? It's not like Daniel killed anyone, he just ruined them -- and deservedly so! I didn't buy the Bad-Boy act, he's not really all that bad. Hypocritically, the qualities that make him dark, mysterious and attractive to our heroine in the beginning - his cold demeanor, eyes of fire, etc. -- are the very qualities which imbue him with a single-minded, soul-eating purpose for revenge. So the book's crux aims to erase the very qualities in Daniel which attract our heroine to him in the first place, mainly because those qualities supposedly strip him of his soul.

The ending transforms Daniel into a love-sick lapdop. Daniel chooses love and agrees to abandon a revenge plot which spins of its own accord at that point. Melodramatic nonsense I tell'ya! And not fun to read at all. After Daniel chooses our heroine, the book notes how he can't fight with swords anymore, how during the climactic duel with the villain his pistol wavers and cannot come to kill the man he's pursued all these years. During the climactic duel, Daniel resorts himself to death and he cannot call forth the cold hatred for the villain anymore. So basically, he's completely unmanned. Is this supposed to be romantic? Emasculating a hero so he cannot do what needs to be done during the critical moment? I mean Daniel already loves Diane beyond measure, why not just allow the hero to call forth that fury and hatred for the critical moment, the fury which gives him his strength? Not to be. I wonder why Jeanette didn't go to the first arranged duel which Daniel retreats from. All the characters arrive at the final, climactic duel to cheer on the hero who cannot shoot his pistol because he's floating on clouds for love of his heroine. The end inundates its readers with Daniel's love-sick, pining introspection.

Looking ahead for a future with love is all well and good, but there's also merit in repaying debts and addressing the past which always tends to catch up on you. Despite all the pining introspection Daniel spews at the end, I felt even if the villain Tyndale had let Daniel be after Daniel chooses love, the past would still hang over him like a dark cloud in some way. I don't think it's possible to purge a past such as Daniel's 100% as many saving-the-hero's-soul-from-revenge stories would have us believe. If for nothing else, wouldn't it be justified to bring down a villain with an unhealthy appetite to seduce and ruin virgins? Surely the heroine can't object to that! But alas, she does here...

Longer than most Hunter novels by sheer page count, this 419-page paperback spends an inordinate amount of time setting up characters for future books. Of those that we're introduced to, only Adrian seemed interesting. Dante is one character I don't want to read about, wonder if his book is any good.

The beginning was good, the humorous exchange between Diane & Daniel at Diane's school hooked me right away. The middle parts of the novel weren't bad, albeit much slower as we're slowly introduced to other characters and the main plot. The ending -- well didn't care for it much at all.

I'm reminded of other romances with heroines saving heroes from revenge plots and this book is better than Medeiros' THE BRIDE AND THE BEAST (*), but not as enjoyable as Foley's DEVIL TAKES A BRIDE (***).

The Story.

Thirty-two year-old tall, dark and "incredibly handsome" Daniel St. John is a shipper, a man of his own fortune bent on a plot for revenge. Although the majority of the book keeps its readers in the dark about the details of Daniel's multi-layered and mysterious past, it's clear he nourishes single-minded purpose for revenge from the onset. His sister Jeanette's crippled and untenable condition only confirm our suspicions regarding Daniel's goals and intentions.

"Lovely", dark-eyed twenty year-old Diane Albret seeks answers about who she is and where she came from. All she knows is that the Devil Man -- Daniel -- takes care of her finances so she may continue at the school in Rouen. She's plagued by fractured, splintered memories of a past which grows blurry.

For as clever and resourceful as Daniel is made out to be, I don't understand his plot to eliminate his ultimate nemesis and villain, famed gunshot Andrew Tyndale, a marquess' younger brother. Daniel's scheme is quite laughable actually. Idiotically, Daniel plans on using Diane's virginity as a means to lure Tyndale and then call out Tyndale in a duel. So you plan on placing an innocent girl in danger so you can honorably try to kill the best pistol around? Daniel claims he won't allow any harm come to Diane, but that's B.S., you can't control everything. The book painstakingly notes Tyndale's superior pistol abilities compared to Daniel so I was waiting for some contingency plan on Daniel's part when the duel he schemes to concoct actually takes place. Nope, no contingency plan. [laughs] Essentially, the scheme was to lure a superior gunshot like Tyndale into a duel so he can kill you. [more laughs] What am I missing here?

The romance was OK, but tainted by the ultimatum Diane lays down towards the end and Daniel's very emasculated status. For the first time in a Madeline Hunter novel, I actually skipped the love scene at the end following Daniel's capitulation to Diane's demands for being together. Just seemed empty by that point. Daniel squirms, pines and wilts too much at the end, mainly because of a drowning love. He couldn't just do what needed to be done. Diane makes Daniel promise to back down from the first duel. He happily obliges in return for sex. Even after learning how sadistic the villain Tyndale can be and of all the horrible things he's done to Daniel and his family, she makes him abandon his plight for justice as a price to be together. Daniel merrily consents.

There's other connections and characters which makes things vaguely interesting: the scientist Gustave, Diane's father and of course members of the Dueling Society like Adrian and Vergil (Adrian seems the most interesting from members of the club).

Overall, the most tiresome Madeline Hunter novel I've read to date.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Lords of the White Castle, by Elizabeth Chadwick [3]

***/***** (3/5)

Wow. Deep breath. And another.

Possible SPOILERS ahead.

Yup, I admit it: I'm a wimp. Sue me, but I hate sad, melancholy endings and unfortunately LORDS OF THE WHITE CASTLE features just such an ending. I was holding my breath for something terrible to happen in the middle portions; in fact, you could sense an impending doom in some of the imagery and words used to describe the nature of the love between our lead pair. For example, the night of Fulke's vigil to knighthood when he dreams of his birthright home and his heroine Maude in it; then suddenly Maude grows wings and flies away . . . Furthermore, LORDS OF THE WHITE CASTLE consistently describes Maude & Fulke's love as a fire: consuming, immolating.

Cruelly, LORDS OF THE WHITE CASTLE saved its worst until the very, very end in this 609-page magnum opus. It wasn't really a surprise when it hit, because you kept wondering what else there is to tell.

You know of romances about a heroine saving the hero's soul bent on revenge or a quest for something, right? In all the cases before I always sided on the hero's side because it would be more interesting to see the hero and heroine work together to complete the hero's quest for revenge or something else rather than have an uncompromising heroine make her hero choose between her and that other thing. Brutally and heart-breakingly, LORDS OF THE WHITE CASTLE really teaches the consequences of choosing a rivalry and a birthright over love. Never before was I screaming for our hero to simply let go, please just let go....

I thought the book was 109 pages too long, I totally could have done without the last 109 pages. I know I'm a wimp, but without the last 109 pages, this books gets 5 stars, but Chadwick mercilessly plows on to not only the end of the book, but the end of human lives. More than that though, the last 1o9 pages didn't have the impetus and drive as the earlier portions since it appeared to languish quite a bit compared to the beginning.

I laud and respect an author such as Elizabeth Chadwick. I hear Kathleen E. Woodiwiss writes in a similar vein: epic, romantic, melancholy. Laura Kinsale's SHADOWHEART is slightly different but similar in other ways, I didn't necessarily enjoy Kinsale's SHADOWHEART as a whole but at least it had a happy ending.

Despite my respect for Chadwick's writing and engrossing nature, I would only return to her work after a very long respite, if at all. For better or worse, LORDS THE WHITE CASTLE really chronicles the entire life of a person, from beginning to end, from good to bad, from rivalries to disputes, from loves lost to friendships gained, it's a complete biography.

Chadwick's settings are vivid and the historical backdrop meshed masterfully. She invites you to lose yourself in her world and indeed she had me hooked in the beginning. The history, the settings and romance seemed to go hand-in-hand, Chadwick deftly weaved them in a grand, epic fashion. After the 500-page count following the events in Ireland which has Jean safely married to Oonagh however, I thought the book precipitously meanders into various, hazy directions only to arrive at the brutal, inexorable ending.

The Story.

The hardcover's front cover heralds: A deadly rivalry. An ancient family dispute. An impossible love. All three plots are evident and weaved beautifully together in the backdrop of vivid settings and a captivating historical time in England. For all intents and purposes however, all three of these main plots are "resolved" by the 460-page count in this 609-page hardcover. At the 500-page count, you're still satisfied and left wondering what else there is to tell.

Chadwick's 2002 release LORDS OF THE WHITE CASTLE reads almost as a biography of Fulke FitzWarin, the eldest of 6 FitzWarin brothers bred and groomed to regain the family's birthright in an "ancient dispute": Wittington Castle. The title "Lords of the White Castle" specifically refers to the FitzWarin brothers and Whittington Castle. Along with Fulke, and then Maude soon after, you live through the good times and the bad, the highs and lows, the laughs and tears. The book begins early in Fulke's life, when he's young squire of 15, and then tells of certain events, fast forwards 1, 2, 5, 10 years, relays other events, fast forwards again etc.

The deadly rivalry between Fulke and the youngest son of King Henry, Prince John, begins the book with them playing a game of chess. A very prideful Fulke wouldn't allow a dishonest, corrupt bully like Prince John win the chess match and the resulting bout conflagrates a very deadly rivalry, each harboring and cajoling an enmity for the other beyond their control.

Fast forward 4 years to 12 year-old Maude le Vavasour entrance into the novel, a skinny kid with silky silver hair. She's feisty, headstrong and when 19 year-old Fulke first runs into her, he's struck by her will and determination. The prior King Henry has passed on, and all the barons have come to Westminster to swear fealty to the vivacious and crusading King Richard, Prince John's older brother. Fulke earns his spurs and becomes a full-fledged knight after Richard's coronation while Maude's stringent, over-bearing father arranges her betrothal to the kind and just Lord Theobald "Theo" Walter, a man more than thrice Maude's age. Fulke served as squire under Theo and knows Theobald to be a kind, generous man. Fulke serves as witness for his friend at Theo & Maude's betrothal.

Fast forward again 4 years to the wedding, and Chadwick is ruthless here, detailing what a harrowing, terrible experience the bedding ceremony can be for a 16 year-old virgin. Maude has grown into a beautiful woman, luscious and spirited. Even though he's thrice her age, Lord Theobald Walter represents Maude's comfort blanket, her father would have sold Maude to another horrible man if not Theo. Very strenuous, nerve-wracking and horrifying moments here at the bedding ceremony. Fulke arrives the first morning of Theo & Maude's marriage to find the stained bedsheets in the great hall, proving Maude's virginity. He's mesmerized by what the 12 year-old skinny girl has turned into: this absolutely lovely woman. Likewise, even though Maude & Theo has just consummated their marriage the night before, Maude is drawn to Fulke. Fulke respects his kind older friend Theo though and vows to keep his distance.

All during this time, Fulke's father has been trying to petition the King and his high-ranking advisers to return their FitzWarin birthright: Whittington, now in possession by their hated enemies the FitzRogers. After years and years of pleading and petitions and money, Fulke's father finally makes some headway only to see nothing become of it. He earns a writ of the royal crown's intention to return Whittington to the FitzWarins but for 3, 4 painful years, nothing happens since the FitzRogers still claim possession. Tragically, Fulke's father cannot take it anymore and dies after seeing his Whittington Castle one last time. Devastatingly, Fulke's mother follows shortly thereafter.

Circumstances place Prince John on the crown after all of his elder brothers die. When the FitzRogers bribe the now-King John to keep Whittington in FitzRoger hands, John accedes mainly to spite his hated rival Fulke. Fulke and his brothers turn rebel and outlaw and John & Fulke's childhood game of chess manifests into very detrimental and dangerous consequences.

Fast forward a few years again and finally Maude's security blanket, her husband Theobald who she's grown to love very fondly, finally passes away. King John and her father again look to sell her off to the highest bidder and King John has pernicious, lurid plans of his own for the enchanting beauty. After learning of Theo's demise, Fulke snatches Maude from under King John's nose, their rivalry growing even more deadly.

Maude and Fulke finally marry, and they share a heated passion, one Chadwick compares to an immolating fire. Even though both are together as rebels and outlaws, Chadwick impresses on her readers a sense of impending doom. I was constantly waiting for something to bad to happen during the middle portions. Nothing seriously horrible happens though, and Fulke regains his much coveted Whittington Castle as a Welsh prince's vassal instead of King John's.

Stubbornly, the story continues and hammers on fast forwarding to its aching conclusion.

Wow, I feel like I need a long vacation or something.

Monday, June 11, 2007

The Captain of all Pleasures, by Kresley Cole [3]

***/***** (3/5)

I'm almost finished with The Lords of the White Castle, and it feels like you've led a very long, exhausting life.

In the meantime, among the three Kresley Cole novels I've read, her debut effort THE CAPTAIN OF ALL PLEASURES is the only one I enjoyed. Here's the brief reaction/review:

The book had me smiling in the beginning, bored in the middle and anxious for an end towards the conclusion.

Nicole has to sail her father's ship the Bella Nicola after her father lands in jail for fighting with their strongest competition, our tortured hero, the Earl Derrick Sutherland. Tempers and passions flare between Nicole and Derrick as they vie for position and advantage in the boat race.

I found the beginning very fun, the middle sort of dragged after Derrick incarcerates Nicole, but Nicole is also at her best here, and very fun to read.

The conclusion - though happy - I thought could have been better crafted and not so blatantly set up for a sequel with Grant, which I already wanted to read about without the 2 chapters ending with a focus on Grant (but later, I sorely regretted wanting to read that sequel with Grant in THE PRICE OF PLEASURE).

I was surprised to see the hero and heroine on equal footing by the end of the novel. Usually one or the other sacrifices way too much to meet the other's demands for being together.

Overall, a fun romance with some heated passions.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Warlord, by Elizabeth Vaughan [1]

*/***** (1/5)

Series about Lara & Keir:
1. WARPRIZE (4 stars)
2. WARSWORN (2 stars)
3. WARLORD (1 star)

The final installment in Vaughan's Lara & Keir series ends on a bitter note, with so many dying from WARSWORN. I found the ending very unsatisfying and bitter (especially Keir's diminished status and the constant reminder of the dead), events at the Plains entirely boring and unimaginative (our destination for the better part of 2 and a half books), and the romance finally drying in this final book.

SPOILERS follow.

The 3 books really chronicle a unsatisfying symmetry: Lara's rise to esteemed Warprize status, finally being confirmed in WARLORD, while Keir's downfall from Warlord status, finally revoked in WARLORD. WARLORD also depicts a symmetry from one of the opening scenes in WARPRIZE; in WARLORD, it's Keir bowing and kneeling before his confirmed Warprize as Lara did before Keir in WARPRIZE.

On a positive note, the best scene was definitely Lara's return to the Heart of the Plains after she believes Keir dead. She demands Keir's body and vows never to speak or come before the Council of Elders ever again, only to find Keir is still alive. A very fun Lara there.

Unfortunately, this was another sore spot.

We find out that similar to Lara, Keir also thought Lara dead, but unlike Lara, Keir never attempted to find her body as confirmation. Who cares how vast the Plains is, if Keir actually loves Lara as much as he professes, why not at least attempt to scour the Plains in search of her body?!

Keir was starting to get annoying by the end of WARLORD, what with his (constant) girly need to be with Lara (much moreso than Lara). WARLORD alludes to Keir's "anger" over being separated from Lara, but of course he does nothing about it. Keir is "angry" over being demoted but of course takes it up the chin. Keir hates the warrior-priests and many times before he promises to kill them all. But alas, that promise is forgotten too. Keir's entire character dissipates into this subservient, useless warrior for Lara and his need to be with her.

Keir even has a lot of problems trying to ward off a crippled Iften at the end. Lara's horse saves Lara from Iften initially, and then kills another baddie, while Keir has everything he can handle from a crippled Iften!

There's hints of a plot regarding Warking which I was looking forward to, but of course its dropped just as quickly. Instead, WARLORD highlights the symmetry between the opposite directions in status Keir & Lara are heading towards by the end of WARLORD.

By the time you finish the book, we don't know what's going to happen to Lara's home when a new Warlord may attack the following summer, we don't ever find out what happened to the other half of Keir's army, and we really don't know how Keir is supposed to stave off an attack on Lara's home the following summer when he's not around to regain his status. I mean I know Marcus' bonded is supposed to help Keir so Keir & Lara can return to Lara's home for a year or more, but what if Marcus' bonded is unsuccessful? We also never find out anything about the bonding thing, which was a big deal in WARSWORN.

As you can tell, I found the ending very unsatisfying, jarred and lacking in any closure. Keir's characterization was pretty annoying and the romance fairly dry.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Warsworn, by Elizabeth Vaughan [2]

**/***** (2/5)

I'm absolutely lost in Chadwick's epic romance, Lords of the White Castle, and only 250 pages in on a 614-page hardcover. Not a light read by any stretch of the imagination, it's very melancholy and sad at times, and the epic nature of the book only magnifies these responses. Still, it's got me completely hooked and I often find myself pausing just for a breath of air to shake my head repeatedly, or simply rereading parts.

On to WARSWORN's (extremely brief) review though, the second installment in Elizabeth Vaughan's trilogy about a girl handed over to a barbarian warlord as a warprize...

Vaughan takes a decidedly dark turn with WARSWORN, and it just doesn't fit after a very endearing and entertaining WARPRIZE. I don't believe the novel successfully enmeshes the continued romance between Lara & Keir in the midst of a plague which kills thousands.

Also, the constant first-person vantage point started to wear in this novel. Just seems to limit the overall reading experience considerably, especially so in a dark novel like this one.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Warprize, by Elizabeth Vaughan [4]

****/***** (4/5)

Lords of the White Castle is something of an epic, and it looks like I'll be at that one for a while. In the meantime I'm cataloging reviews of other books I've read from the past.

Vaughan's WARPRIZE is a very endearing, enjoyable romance with an extremely satisfying ending. I found many parts of the novel funny as well, and the supporting cast of characters are all a delight to read. I'm looking forward to the sequels after this one.

Xylara (Lara) is our heroine, a very passionate healer, and Daughter of Xy. The Warlord and his barbarian host has been soundly defeating the Kingdom of Xy and the King of Xy (Xymund) acquiesces to the Warlord's demands for a "peace," one of the demands including a tribute to the Warlord, King Xymund's own half-sister Lara.

The book's heart rests with Lara and her struggle to balance her duties with her heart, which changes over the course of the novel.

I do have 2 complaints.

I find writing an entire novel in the first-person lazy. I thought Vaughn could have done a better job of building context, setting and history if the entire novel wasn't written in the first-person.

I thought the premise of the novel rested on Lara's trepidation to ask a simple question: what does being a Warprize mean? She finally asks Joden three-quarters of the way through and obviously, she is overjoyed.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

After Midnight, by Teresa Medeiros [1]

*/***** (1/5)

My 3rd Teresa Medeiros novel after CHARMING THE PRINCE and THE BRIDE AND THE BEAST, and now I'm finally seeing a clear pattern among them: a consistent play on appearances. Certainly, the heroine is always an average or less-than-average looking maiden who nurtures yet envies her beautiful, gorgeous sisters. Our average-looking maiden always lands her hunky, chiseled hero of course, while one or more of her gorgeous sisters pairs off with an Average-Joe in a secondary pairing. There's even an inelegant, stagnant pattern to the progression of the primary romance between our hero and heroine very much mirroring THE BRIDE AND THE BEAST. For a good 300 pages, our leading pair in AFTER MIDNIGHT share nothing but one kiss, all the while lusting after each other with second looks and ripples of shudders and tremors at slight touches and lascivious gazes. Weak.

Although I didn't find AFTER MIDNIGHT nearly as annoying or terrible as THE BRIDE AND THE BEAST, I found it just as boring if not moreso. AFTER MIDNIGHT is an extremely light paranormal romance set during the Regency period, we're completely spared of any blood-curling sucking throughout the novel. Vampires are monsters in Medeiros' paranormal, and the book reads more as an attempt at a humorous parody on paranormals. It wasn't all that funny to qualify as a satire, and not nearly dangerous/grave enough to take it seriously. I found the plotting a cure for insomniacs, the romance sapless and empty, and the ending worse with a flurry of villainous activity without reason and less sense. Thankfully, AFTER MIDNIGHT's hero Adrian isn't nearly as emasculated by the end as THE BRIDE AND THE BEAST's hero Bernard.

Still, similar to THE BRIDE AND THE BEAST, Medeiros has our hero again "tamed" by the end, choosing his love for the heroine over the chance to save his brother's soul, something he's been working towards for five long years. I suppose Medeiros finds it "romantic" to have the hero consistently choose the heroine over a cause he's been working at for years, nevermind if the cause is noble or not. I really don't see this as a taming or saving of the hero's soul; rather, it's best characterized by divesting the hero of his soul. Also similar to THE BRIDE AND THE BEAST, the hero balks at marriage and a happily-ever-after at the last second after witnessing the possible danger he could bring to his heroine. He doesn't hesitate for long though.

On the plus side, I found Portia's parts in the beginning very funny. The settings are fairly strong, just like Medeiros' other novels.

The Story, possible spoilers.

Our heroine's youngest sister Portia suspects Viscount Trevelyan, Adrian Kane, to be a vampire. Apparently, the viscount satisfies all the prerequisites: he doesn't go out in the sunlight, he shrouds his home in London, he sleeps during the day, etc. After learning that the viscount is courting their beautiful middle sister Vivienne, Portia entreats our heroine Miss Caroline Cabot to save Vivienne from the viscount's clutches. Portia's characterization is actually funny in the beginning, and pretty endearing throughout. The sequel to this novel in fact focuses on Portia.

At the viscount's invitation, Caroline and Portia travel to London to meet their sister's suitor for a midnight supper. The viscount and Caroline meet and they exchange some witty words. Our heroine Caroline discovers that the viscount paled when he saw her sister Vivienne for the first time and apparently Viv bares a strong resemblance to his last love. The viscount isn't really interested in Caroline's sister Viv though, and he plans on using Viv to draw out the evil vampire Duvalier who plagues the world. You see, the Adrian and Duvalier both vied for a woman's attentions years ago and Adrian won, but Duvalier killed the woman as retribution. Now Adrian wants to use Viv's resemblance to the woman to draw out Duvalier. This isn't a romantic notion, this is a ridiculously dumb plot device.

Adrian plans to host a grand masquerade at his country castle and invites the Cabot sisters, hoping to use Viv's resemblance to draw out his enemy Duvalier.

The novel bores and sags tremendously as the Cabot sisters travel to Adrian's castle a full week before the masquerade and stay there before the event. Nothing happens for 200 pages during this time before the actual masquerade. I mean nothing. It's so boring, Caroline spends her time exploring the castle for clues which would prove or disprove the rumors dealing with Adrian's vampire status. At one point, Caroline and Portia hunt the castle for mirrors, any mirrors, horrified they can't find any. Certainly, there's no romantic interaction between our lead pair during this time (unless you count "tremors" and "shivers" from touches and gazes).

Finally, Caroline discovers Adrian is a vampire hunter, his brother a vampire, and Adrian is using her sister Viv as bait for the evil vampire Duvalier to turn up. Apparently, Duvalier can return Adrian's brother's soul. The book doesn't say how, but it's possible. In order to divert danger from her sister, Caroline poses as Viv at the masquerade, capturing the attention of everyone there. An important moment for Caroline since she never had a Season and since she's widely considered the least pretty of the sisters. The finale follows the masquerade and we're treated to our first real love scene 300 pages into the novel. Funny, because by this point I was more interested in what was happening with a locked-up Portia.

As much I liked Portia's character, I seriously doubt I'll be reading another of her paranormals.

Teresa Medeiros is on her last straw with me, A KISS TO REMEMBER looms dangerously :O) I had such high hopes for her writing after CHARMING THE PRINCE. But I guess CHARMING THE PRINCE was an anomaly.

A Dark Champion, by Kinley MacGregor [3]

***/***** (3/5)

Read this a while ago, adding the review now though --

Very enjoyable at times, but I thought the plotting suffered from the frequent shifts between: the Brotherhood history/Brotherhood background, the who-done-it assassinations, the tournaments, and the actual romance, all very jarring. I felt the novel lacked a seamless integration of so many of these plot threads, and it seemed like one plot thread was dropped and instantly resolved for another with little sense or logic.

The most entertaining portions of the novel involve Rowena & Stryder's belligerent interaction early on and then sprinkles of their growing love until the end. I really liked both lead characters, and fortunately enough, I didn't find the heroine to be this uncompromising, stubborn girl who will only accept her man on all of her terms or none at all, forcing him to give up everything he is or ever wanted to be -- plotting we find all too often in romance novels towards the end.

The blurbs are a good place to gauge the general story, but again, I felt there were too many other weak and insubstantial plot threads intermingled with the romance, handicapping the entire reading experience. Still I had too much fun with the romance to find too much fault with the novel as a whole, and I would definitely recommend this one.

The Story (briefly).

Beautiful Lady Rowena is an extremely gifted singer, and the heiress to rich and strategic lands for the King of England. Rowena spurns warriors, finding them little more than oafish barbarians. She resolves to marry someone of her own choosing, and never to marry a warrior. Rowena has lost her warrior father to a war and abhors fighting in general.

The King's champion Stryder is such a warrior, tall, dark and handsome of course. Stryder and Rowena meet at a tournament for troubadours and warriors and after discovering each other's identity, they hate each other. It was refreshing to read about a lead pair going at each other rather than just the heroine insulting and jabbing at the hero. Usually it's the heroine who puts the hero in his place verbally, while the hero is "intrigued," and counters with seduction. Not so in this case. Both verbally spar with each other and equally hate each other.

The King and Queen however hatch a devious scheme to marry Rowena with their champion Stryder. The King will allow her choice to marry only if she's able to teach and train Stryder the finer arts of entertainment. If Stryder is able to win the troubadour tournament under Rowena's tutelage, the King will grant Rowena's wish to marry whomever she wishes. Otherwise, the King will implant someone he trusts as Rowena's husband and gatekeeper of her rich lands. Either way, the King and Queen believe they win.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

How to Seduce a Duke, by Kathryn Caskie [1]

*/***** (1/5)

Your typical, juvenile Regency romance fare. Must. Stop. Reading. These! When will I learn?

Although the book features a very juvenile romance story, the characterizations thankfully aren't as childish as I've grown to expect from such common Regency romances. I would rank Caskie's HOW TO SEDUCE A DUKE a slight cut above Julia Quinn's THE DUKE AND I, Kresley Cole's THE PRICE OF PLEASURE, Medeiros' THE BRIDE AND THE BEAST, and Paula Quinn's LORD OF DESIRE, all of which I consider as weak, boring and annoying in the worst ways; worst in terms of: romance, characters, plotting, settings.

HOW TO SEDUCE A DUKE contains two distinctly disparate plots, both mired by sluggish pacing and uninteresting events. One, that of the romance between our tall, dark and handsome Duke of Blackstone Rogan Wetherly and the beautiful Miss Mary Royle. And two, the setup of all three Royle sisters (Mary, Anne and Elizabeth), the Old Rakes Gentlemen's Club, and their combined investigation into the Royle sisters mysterious parentage. The Royle sisters have some clues from a box their alleged father left them, and Anne is already convinced they're all princesses. The book works its way through a couple threads in the later parentage plot, but the parentage is never completely resolved at the end of this book, and supposedly later books address that subject further. I for one didn't care for these random and ambiguous plot threads dealing with their parentage; I mean it's clear they're princesses, it's only a matter of proving it to the rest of Society I suppose. Certainly, this book didn't make me want to read more books in the Royle sisters line to find out what happens in that regard, or any regard for that matter.

The Story.

The beautiful Miss Mary Royle (intentional play on words) has her sights set on marrying the handsome and honorable Viscount Quinn Wetherly, the Duke of Blackstone's younger brother. For the upcoming Season, Mary is prepared to press her cause. In fact, she's already begun to do so by batting shy eye lashes at the Viscount at a certain time of day their paths cross every day. Mary is one who gets what she wants, but unfortunately, the Duke of Blackstone gets in the way.

Tall, dark and handsome Rogan Weatherly, Duke of Blackstone, is a rogue, scoundrel and your common flavor of Regency rake. He has some issues about trusting women and vows to protect his younger brother Quinn from money-grubbing women. When he discovers that Mary targets his younger brother, Rogan intercepts Mary at every turn, thinking to protect Quinn from what he believes another money-grubbing miss in Mary. Mary however is just very frugal, not the devious, greedy woman Rogan unfairly judges her to be.

When Mary realizes Rogan is keeping her from Quinn, she plays a dangerous game of dare hoping to send Rogan running with her virgin wiles of seduction. Both dare each other to go to the next level in their dangerous game which ends in a night of passion.

The rest of the story is a bit of blur as the story seems to ping-pong between the quest for the Royle sisters' true parents and a dry game of dare between Rogan & Mary. Both plots are equally unimaginative and uninteresting. Still, the characters aren't as immature as I often find in such stories, so that was nice. Our lead pair seemed to confide in each other at the right time.

The ending isn't anything special at all, and very dry. Seemed like the book was reaching to concoct something in the romance as Mary leaves Rogan just when both are about to marry. The ending actually spent more time trying to set up the parentage plot for the next book. I really didn't care.

Monday, June 4, 2007

The Leopard Prince, by Elizabeth Hoyt [4]

****/***** (4/5)

Elizabeth Hoyt's stories are quickly becoming a delight to read, and THE LEOPARD PRINCE follows THE RAVEN PRINCE very satisfactorily, albeit just a notch below THE RAVEN PRINCE. Hoyt sprinkles the right touches of a heart-felt romance, humorous wit (real wit), frenzied passion, a relatively engaging plot and unconventional, well-developed characterizations. Settings are stronger in this book, with the rain, the smells, and the lavish estates. Unlike THE RAVEN PRINCE, I thought THE LEOPARD PRINCE dragged a bit in the second half though, especially after Harry Pye's recuperation from the beating. Still, the ending was grand; unique, hilarious and pleasantly trite all at the same time. Like Julia Quinn's endorsement on the front cover, I really didn't want THE LEOPARD PRINCE to end.

I found the combination of an ordinary, average-of-height hero finding love with a spinster, a wealthy heroine very refreshing to read about. Our 30 year-old hero is a lowly but street-smart land steward while our 28 year-old heroine is an earl's sister but the head of her family's finances, the lone benefactor of a wealthy aunt's bequeathed vast fortune and estates. The obstacles our leading pair must surmount to be together is greater than most; the hero is not only much poorer (though he's done well for himself), but also from a lower class.

Similar to the slight discourse on feminism in the beginning of THE RAVEN PRINCE, I thought the brief railing against hierarchal society detracted from hero's strength of character and the story in general suffered because of it. I didn't think hero Harry Pye as one to mope around over the unfairness of life and aristocracy. Thankfully the book doesn't dwell on the subject.

I thoroughly enjoyed the way Hoyt weaved the story of the The Leopard Prince as the story within the story, very much akin to her previous novel.

The Story, possible SPOILERS.

Twenty-eight year-old Lady Georgina "George" Maitland, an earl's sister and the sole benefactor of vast fortunes and estates, exhibits a sparkling wit, and a hilarious innocence. She's on her way to her estate at Woldsly Manor as per her 15 year-old sister Violet's request. The book describes George's striking ginger hair at length, but she isn't a stunning beauty by any stretch of the imagination.

I loved the way Hoyt relates our heroine George's innocence in matters of passion and love in the beginning. I found George's wit and humor over her innocence regarding matters of lovemaking very refreshing and, ironically enough, mature. The satirical humor lent the whole virgin experience in a very humorous yet passionate light. Of course George exhibits a very witty humor in general, one I suspect stems from Elizabeth Hoyt.

George's land steward Mr. Harry Pye accompanies George to her estate, a wound-up man, reticent in manner and speech, not to mention all too proper. George pokes some fun in her musings to herself at Harry's very phlegmatic demeanor, Harry the unknown recipient of George's humorous gibes. Harry returns her carefree fun with some straight-faced sarcasm of his own. Harry Pye is average all around, both in looks and height. However, he possesses a hidden, overpowering physical strength and absolutely devastating emerald eyes.

On their way to George's estate, the carriage overturns in the midst of a torrential downpour and Harry & George spend the night at a dilapidated cottage nearby, hailing the onset of a very passionate yet funny romance.

While riding the following day, George & Harry observe some dead sheep from poisoning on a neighboring estate owned by Lord Granville, our proverbial villain. Once at Woldsly Manor, George's sister Violet reveals rumors implicating Harry Pye in the sheep poisonings. More details surface of a mutual enmity between Lord Granville, whose lands currently suffer from the sheep deaths, and Harry Pye. I found this plotting with the sheep poisoning a weak backdrop to our story, though curious enough to hold my interest. For all of Harry's investigation over the poisoning conspiracy, it didn't seem like he got anywhere until they spoke to the wizened Granville nanny, Mistress Humboldt. The entire investigation was boring not to mention unproductive.

The investigation did provide an excuse for our leading pair to spend more time together though, and George's claim to Harry's "maleness" was funny, not to mention very passionate. At one point, George blurts out she'd like to see a naked man once.

I didn't mind the torture scene after Granville captures Harry. I thought that was very empowering to read about -- Harry enduring the beatings showed much more strength than a heavily-muscled, chiseled hero from common romance novels.

THE LEOPARD PRINCE belonged to...? I'd say both George and Harry equally share possession of the novel, and though Harry had more of a mysterious background, George had more flair, more panache. I really liked the ending, and it didn't seem to unman our hero as other romance novels often do; ironically enough, our lowly, average steward seemed much stronger in character and spirit than most tall, dark and handsome heroes which pine and wilt before the heroine and her whims in so many romance novels.

Another very fun, enjoyable novel and wow, Elizabeth Hoyt is on fire!

Sunday, June 3, 2007

The Protector, by Madeline Hunter [3]

***/***** (3/5)

Another stellar Madeline Hunter novel with mature and poignant characterizations in the midst of a captivating historical backdrop. I enjoyed the beginning and ending, pleasantly surprised by the action therein. I found the middle portions involving the travel to Windsor and stay at Windsor to see the English King however fairly dry and boring. The negotiation and counter negotiations for marriage were very fun, especially Morvan's counter. After the consummation back in Brittany, the book seemed to relapse a bit again until the finale. Who was the real protector in THE PROTECTOR, our hero or our heroine? I found the ambiguity of this question very intriguing, since even though the hero swears the oath, it's our heroine who does most of the protecting and saving.

I'm not exactly sure what it was but something was missing from the romance. It seemed a bit flat. The middle portions didn't help. The historical backdrop of this novel is probably the strongest of any Madeline Hunter novels I've read so far though. Times of chaos (the plague, war, France, England, etc.) help from a storyline point-of-view, for sure.

I was looking forward to seeing the duel between Morvan and John in the beginning, and later, between Morvan and our villain Gurwant. Unfortunately, Hunter skips relaying both duels and we're just told later on that Morvan won. Very anticlimactic. I guess Anna did all the important stuff in hatching the plans and the rest is rudimentary. Besides playing the domineering lord, Morvan has little to do and I'm not convinced of his prowess with the sword as I was with Addiss in BY POSSESSION.

The Story, possible spoilers.

Tall and lovely Lady Anna de Leon of La Roche de Roald is something of a tomboy, and finds herself heiress to rich and vast lands in Brittany during a time of turmoil and chaos. Both France and England lay claims to Brittany and the young 10 year-old duke of Brittany fosters under the English king's care while chaos ensues in Brittany. Anna however has no desire to inherit her rich lands and even less desires to marry, she's returned home to fulfill her duty until her younger sister marries, and to care for the sick when the black plague runs rampant across Europe.

Anna is probably the strongest of Madeline Hunter's heroines I've read so far, at least from an athletic, warrior standpoint. She's deadly with the crossbow and arrow, a decent sword, tall, lean and finely-toned, and of course, an heiress to rich lands. She isn't one to sit around and wait for the hero to do things, she takes charge, admirably and plausibly. She's also one of the more passionate heroines, abandoning all and giving everything during the scattered but few love scenes with Morvan.

Lowly English knight Sir Morvan Fitzwaryn finds himself in Anna's care at her home in La Roche de Roald after he's contracted the plague. Morvan lost his family's ancestral home in England to the Scots, and now he awaits the King's aid and the chance to reclaim it. The books describes Morvan as incredibly handsome, and only slightly taller than our relatively tall Anna. Morvan suffers from the plague when he first meets Anna, and like other Madeline Hunter novels, Morvan and Anna share an instant spiritual connection from Anna's "deathwatch." After Anna nurses Morvan back to full health, Morvan vows to protect Anna.

When Anna's snubbed former betrothed Gurwant arrives with an army to conquer La Roche de Roald, she devises a genius plan to repel the attack. Of course, Anna implants herself in the thick of the battle and when Morvan returns her to the castle, it's Anna who prevents the inevitable confrontation between Morvan and Gurwant by shooting Gurwant's upper arm. There's some foreshadowing here as Morvan comments that maybe Gurwant lives because he's meant to kill Gurwant. Unfortunately, THE PROTECTOR entirely skips the part at the end which has them squaring off one-on-one. Booo, and very anticlimactic.

Later, Anna & Morvan travel to England to petition the King: Anna wants to join the convent and to pass off La Roche de Roald to Anna's sister to inherit. King Edward however has very different plans for Anna and her lands whose people favor England. Very fun negotiations of marriage ensue reminding me of THE RULES OF SEDUCTION, Morvan getting the better of those dealings. Anna has the last laugh though, making things very difficult for Morvan back at La Roche de Roald when she smiles sweetly and plays the docile, demure lady of the keep -- and fails miserably (knowingly). After a vassal's betrayal, Gurwant captures Morvan, and again it's Anna who comes to the rescue with a brilliant plan of her own. I thought it worked out too nicely without a single drop of blood except for the villain's.

Some additional musings and comments...

In the beginning Anna waves off Morvan's romantic advances as a means to an end, since she's an heiress to rich lands. Later during a moment of heated passion, Morvan stops himself before going further, and Anna believes he was pretending to desire her, that she isn't very attractive to men in general because of her height and tomboy nature. I had to smile, because basically, he's damned if he does, damned if he doesn't. Unlike other adolescent heroine characterizations from other authors however, I understood her reactions and they seemed believable from a passionate virgin. Further, the book adequately addresses her ambivalent and confused reactions.

As much as I find Madeline Hunter's analogies and imagery as a means to impart something deeper, too abstract sometimes, I did feel one particular imagery from this novel squarely hit the mark. It was Morvan's first night at Anna's castle at La Roche de Roald when Morvan faces sure death from the black plague. He looks on a gorgeous sunset and feels an impending dark isolation. Morvan then stretches on a large rock overlooking the sea and feels another profound human spirit touching his "invisible self", his soul. At the same time high up on the castle's gallery, Anna notices a solitary figure on a rock and her heart wrenches with "astounding empathy," empathy and compassion for the isolation and impending death that figure faces. There's rumors of her being saint and having angelic powers, and I thought this was a beautiful connection, and a beautiful way to describe it.

Again, quality material and something I've come to expect from Madeline Hunter. If not for the rather boring middle parts and being deprived of the final duel between Morvan and Gurwant, I'd warm up to this novel a bit more. As it stands, it seemed like something was missing overall, including in the romance.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Causing Havoc, by Lori Foster [2]

**/***** (2/5)

Welcome to Lori Foster's world of larger-than-life heroes and social drama. You can't fault Lori Foster for weak heroes, not even the slightest. CAUSING HAVOC's Dean Conor, Gregor and Simon are ripped mammoths, 6-foot-5+ "hunks" through and through. Strong of conviction, tough, imposing in size and strength and rich, Dean Conor is a man's man. He doesn't cower and submit to everything in the end, and that in and of itself was nice to read after THE BRIDE AND THE BEAST. This contemporary romance offers little else though, and besides the hero's endearing efforts to help his estranged sisters and reluctantly implant himself as part of their lives, the book was mostly boring. It took a while to read, and I finished 3 other books while trying to finish this one.

The Story.

Dean "Havoc" Conor receives a letter from his estranged sister, a plea asking him to return home to Harmony, Kentucky, and try to be a family again. Dean Conor is hard-pressed to return to a home he was kicked out of 20 years ago, and return to sisters he believes has long forgotten him. He's wary of his sister's motivation asking him to return home. Despite his reservations, famed SBC fighter Dean Conor returns to a home he longs to forget and sisters he wishes didn't exist.

Once in Harmony, KY, he meets his sister's gorgeous best friend Eve Lavon and their mutual attraction draws them together.

The rest of the novel tells of Dean's insuppressible love for his sisters and the passions he shares with Eve, eventually blossoming into a love. There's a plot dealing with the history of Dean and his sisters' parents, dead 20 years ago after an accident ended their lives. Their parents didn't share a loving relationship, and we find out more about the siblings' mother's love affair with another man. They weren't the most caring, loving parents either, as the father left them to their own devices while the mother was happier in her affair. After their deaths, an uncle takes Dean away from Harmony, KY, while his two sisters grow up under their Aunt Lorna's care.

I actually found myself more interested in Roger's character than Dean's though. Roger was very interesting as the suspicious man who claims to love the eldest sister, Cam. I also thought Cam had more depth than the other two women in the novel, Cam's sister Jacki and our heroine Eve Lavon.

The ending isn't bad and concludes in a true romance-genre fashion. The story is really about a long-estranged brother finding his place amongst his family again and discovering true love on the side.