Sunday, June 28, 2009

A Hint of Wicked

A Hint of Wicked by Jennifer Haymore

Our book opens as our heroine Sophie, the Duchess of Calton, discovers that her husband, Garrett, is missing and presumed dead. When we flash forward eight years later Sophie has given birth to her and Garrett's child, Matilda, while Tristan, the former Lord Westfield, has succeeded Garrett to the dukedom and married Sophie after his own wife died while giving birth to their son Gary. The two had only been married for a year but Tristan had been in love with Sophie his entire life, but had given her up when Garrett had declared his own intentions to marry her. Garrett chooses an amazingly inopportune time to stroll back into their lives as he interrupts them engaged in kinky sex play, Garrett proceeds to beat Tristan to a pulp and Sophie is left stunned and tied spread eagled on the bed. Sophie loved Garrett the entire time they were growing up and the entire time they were married but for eight years she has taken care of herself and has fallen passionately in love with Tristan. Garrett vows to have Tristan and Sophie's marriage annulled and wants to have his own life back exactly as it was. Tristan is furious, partly at Garrett, and partly at Sophie who finds herself in torn between two men, both of whom she loves.

But life is different for everyone. No longer are Tristan, Sophie, and Garrett the best of friends, doing and sharing everything together. Garrett has a relationship to develop with his wife and his daughter and Tristan takes his son Gary and leaves. Garrett had amnesia the 8 years he spent wandering around Belgium and it was only with his discovery by one of the men in his military unit during Waterloo that he re-discovers who he was. Garrett trusts this man, Fisk, implicitly and relies on him for everything; he hands power of attorney over the man and it doesn't take long before Fisk finds a doctor who declares that Garrett is going insane and will be completely mad fairly soon. Neither Sophie nor Tristan trust Fisk or this Doctor MacAllistor but Garrett will not be swayed. Unfortunately Garrett's young sister Rebecca is quite taken with Fisk and Sophie doesn't inform her of her concerns which proves to be a disastrous mistake. Tristan sets off to discover the truth behind Fisk and hires an investigator to research Dr MacAllistor but it is Rebecca's actions that force things to a head. In the aftermath of the struggle Sophie realizes that she has known all along who her heart belongs to, but was too scared to admit it.

The book presents the first steamy scene right at the beginning and it is certainly memorable. While I have nothing against light bondage and maybe a little submissive role play in romance novels, something about this scene squicked me out. Tristan was just a little too dominant and controlling for my tastes with his commands including this exchange:
"It's what you want, isn't it? To be bound to my bed, subjected to my will."
"What was that?"
"Yes, Tristan. It's what I need. What I want."
I expected her to say yes master in response and was inordinately glad when she didn't. Apparently before our book opened Sophie had revealed to Tristan that being tied up (and completely submissive?) was a fantasy of hers though, so that did mitigate my feelings for it somewhat. It was the only scene like that in the book, although there were several other steamy scenes that push the limits of romance novel sex including some stuff I hadn't ever dreamed of reading in one. Without going into details, as they're delightfully surprising I'll just say that this book is not for those who are easily offended by kinky sex in any capacity.

Haymore did an outstanding job of presenting all three character's points of view. Garrett, Tristan, and Sophie are easily relate-able, lovable, sympathetic, and flawed characters. Even the young children are portrayed well; Gary is an adorble little boy, and Miranda is the precocious young girl who is so attune to the feelings of those around her. I would have liked a longer, more detailed description of Garrett's first meeting with Miranda and what he was thinking/ feeling during their meeting. Obviously the situation provides amazing opportunities for angst and there is no shortage of it in the book although, like everything else in the book, it's done so well it's not at all overwhelming. I also liked how we could see why Sophie made her choice: the book does a great job of explaining her emotions and letting us know what she wants and why. There was a loose end the book didn't clear up- was Garrett's solicitor a part of the scam with Fisk? It was something I wondered about while reading and the possibility was briefly brought up, but never concluded.

Rating: An outstanding book on literally every level. A little interesting in the sex department, but that just adds to the sheer awesomeness of this book. And of course I am very much looking forward to reading the sequel featuring the man who didn't end up with Sophie. (no spoilers in that department)

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

To Beguile a Beast

To Beguile a Beast by Elizabeth Hoyt

Helen Fitzwilliam has been the Duke of Lister's mistress for 14 years, since she was 17, and has born him two children, yet when she realizes hse is nothing but a mere possession to him she takes the children and runs. With a note from her friend, Lady Vale (from "To Seduce a Sinner") she heads up to Sir Alistair Munroe's dreary Scottish castle to be his housekeeper. Alistair was left deeply scarred, including a missing eye and two missing fingers, after the French and Indian War, where he was taken prisoner after being betrayed at Spinner's Falls and tortured by the Indians. He is none too happy to have Helen, Abigail (9) and Jamie (5) join him in his self-imposed exile. Nevertheless he is enormously attracted to "Mrs. Halifax," Helen's assumed name, who is regarded as one of the most beautiful women in London. Helen, her children, and Alistair, really begin to bond when Alistair's long-time pet, Lady Grey, dies and Alistair gets a replacement puppy nicknamed "Puddles."

The two begin an intimate relationship and Alistair is desperate to keep Helen coming to her bed, but is convinced that she will eventually leave him because of his scars. Helen has been hoping that the Duke of Lister will be unable to find her away in Scotland, but Alistair's disgruntled ex-employee leads him straight to Helen. He kidnaps Abby and Jamie and Helen is forced to reveal the truth about her past to Alistair who is understandably horrified by her revelation. Nevertheless he agrees to help her regain her children and the two head back to London. Despite his anger he cannot keep his hands off of her and she beins to realize what a great man Alistair is. Unfortunately Lister is not willing to give the kids up unless Helen comes back to him, not because he loves her but because he regards her as his property and he does not want to lose her. Alistair is terrified she will choose the duke, but luckily, with the help of Vale he is able to ensure that Helen never have to worry about the Duke again. However, despite the seeming happy ending Alistair is still terrified to give his heart to Helen because he is convinced she will leave him eventually. It takes a visit from his sister to set him straight and ensure our HEV.

As with Hoyt's previous book this was is plenty steamy. Amazingly steamy really. And she certainly does not shy away from the less savory aspects of sex, including a graphic blow job scene, an interrupted masturbation scene and a hero who admits to being obsessed with her breasts. But what I found really intriguing was the use of a small lemon as birth control, as opposed the usual romance novel staple, the ever effective "pulling out." I found it odd that she had apparently never enjoyed sex with Lister. I thought that having a former mistress for a heroine would mean that she would at least not be innocent in that, but, despite knowledge in other areas, she is innocent in pleasure. And like Hoyt's previous book our hero apparently finds said pleasure hilarious as both Lady Vale and now Helen throw back their heads and laugh during orgasm. This confuses me and an adequate reason behind this odd behavior is not given. Pushing the envelope even further was an implied lesbian relationship between Alistair's sister Sophia and her compoanion Phoebe MacDonald. Although not explicitly stated, her speech to Alistair at the end makes it clear she is certainly not spending her life without love.

The mistress as heroine isn't precisely new and unusual, but it is not exactly common in historical romance novels, yet I still found it interesting to read about a woman who had taken control of her life and decided to start out completely on her own. Helen was a heroine I found incredibly easy to like as she managed to hold her family together and grapple with her own burgeoning emotions. Her children were realistic and perfectly written as well as being an asset to story and the romance between Alistair and Helen. Alistair was a great tortured hero who managed to be both angst-ridden and yet, despite his wishes, remains hopeful that he could make Helen love him. The book also had wonderful and brief little bits of humor as Helen attempts to put to right the drafty and long neglected castle which Hoyt writes wonderfully. I also like the brief, and not at all overwhelming, glimpses of the Vales', our heroes from "To Seduce a Sinner." Throughout the book we are given brief glimpses of Vale and Alistair's attempts to figure out who betrayed them at Spinner's Falls, but this is not explored all that much. I am sure this will be different in Hoyt's next book, "To Desire a Devil," which I am definitely looking forward to.

Rating: This is so much better than most of what I have read recently, but I feel like it is not quite as good as "To Seduce a Sinner." I would give it 4 1/2 hearts, but since I can't I will give it 4 to show that her previous book is better.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Seducing an Angel

Seducing an Angel by Mary Balogh

Seducing an Angel is the 4th and final installment in Balogh's Huxtable series and features Stephen Huxtable, the young Earl of Merton who came into his inheritance later in life- I believe he was ten or so. Because of this he differs from many of the young men of the ton and remembers what it is like to grow up with love as the only constant in life. Cassandra, Lady Paget, moves to London with her nurse Alice, who has stayed with her for nearly 30 years, her friend and cook, Mary and Mary's illegitimate child, Belinda. Cassandra is destitute, since her stepson took her jewels and refuses her her widow's portion, and decides the surest way to rectify this situation is by finding a wealthy protector who can provide for her and will require her sexual services. Unfortunately getting out into society will be difficult as rumors have surfaced in London that Cassandra had killed her husband, Lord Paget, with an axe to the head. Cassandra crashes Stephen's sister, the Countess of Sheringford's ball to find her protector and chooses Stephen because his youth and angelic good looks have lead her to believe he will be easy to control.

Despite knowing that Cassandra set out to seduce him Stephen is shocked when, after the deed is done, Cassandra confronts him and basically demands that he pay her and keep her as his mistress. He agrees to her terms, and offers an extravagant salary, but is none to happy about it and insists that the money he pay her have nothing to do with her ability to "satisfy" him. At the ball, Cassandra had endeared herself to Stephen's family members and they invite her along with them to plays, on picnics, to parties, etc... and Stephen decides to "court" Cassandra despite her resistance. She is determined never to marry again after enduring physical abuse from her previous husband, but Stephen is equally determined to change her mind when he realizes how she has been wronged by her husband, her husband's family and her own brother. When the two are caught at a ball in a compromising position Stephen announces their betrothal, but Cassandra is determined that she will eventually break the betrothal. When Cassandra finally decides to stake out on her own and demand what she is owed from her dead husband's estate, her stepson races down to London and the truth about her husbands death and her own life are revealed. This causes her to confront what is currently happening around her and evaluate her feelings toward Stephen and her towards him.

This was a nice change from the first three books in the Huxtable series which, to be honest, all seemed remarkably similar- thus why I only refrained from reviewing the third one. Almost everything I said about the first two could have been transferred to the the third as well. Balogh also, for the most part, avoided the pitfall that befalls many in her other series; the showcasing of happy endings. While we do get to see Vanessa, Katherine, and Margaret's happily-ever-after's, it is not shoved down our throats in the manner of "Simply Love." There are two wonderful side plots in the novel, one between Alice and a gentleman who is absolutely perfect for her and it is so heartwarming to read. The other centers around Mary, as a man from her (and Cassandra's) past reappears to whisk her and Belinda away to a happy life. William is Cassandra's stepson and it was his announcement that he married Mary that caused his father to go into a drinking spell and in the ensuing struggle he ended up dead. I can not entirely get behind this plot though as William did proceed to abandon Mary and Belinda, not to mention Cassandra, leaving them to deal with the consequences of death and illegitimacy.

As in many Balogh novels the steam is subdued, to say the least, but I found myself genuinely confused while reading the two sex scenes in this book. While Cassandra enjoys them both there is no mention of, and no reference (i.e. convulsion, earthquake, stars, etc...) to her actually having an orgasm. This is especially confusing as Stephen definitely does so it's not like Balogh just glossed over both of their enjoyment. Balogh novels seem to have an overall feeling of calm and serenity over them, even when the characters get angry or argue. Feelings seemed drawn out and are described in, oftentimes, excrutiating detail. Even the angst is drawn out to the point where it's scarcely angst. My main problem with this was the way that Cassandra has, despite all evidence to the contrary and testimony from other people, decided that her husband's death is her own fault. She basically plays the martyr the whole time and uses it as an excuse to avoid future happiness with Stephen. Even after the truth is revealed she has a hard time admitting that she can be happy. But I was happy that she stood up for herself when she demanded what was due her from her stepson and did not back down and that the book did NOT end in a happily ever after with everyone, even those who didn't deserve it, being forgiven (i.e. "Simply Love").

Rating: A nice change from the other Huxtable novels and a great idea to have the woman take control and be the seductress. I would have liked to have had her for sure enjoy the sex and not be quite so martyr-ish. It was sweet, but really not much more than average, especially when compared with her other novels.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Don't Bargain with the Devil

Don't Bargain with the Devil by Sabrina Jeffries

Lucinda "Lucy" Seton heads off to teach at Mrs. Harris' Finishing School after her life long sweetheart dumps her for a "proper lady" and calls her a hotblooded hoyden. She is distraught but her father, Colonel Seton, and his new wife abide by her wishes and leave her at the school. However when Diego Montalvo threatens to buy the property next door and turn it into a pleasure garden everyone at the school is furious that this could potentially ruin the school. Diego is a world renowned magician who has an ulterior motive: he has been sent by Lucy's "real" grandfather, a Spanish marquess, to find her and bring her back in order to win back his family estate. Her grandfather told Diego that Lucy had been kidnapped by her mother's nurse and her lover and Lucy's adopted father helped them and then adopted Lucy when the nurse and her lover died. Lucy had been told by her father, the Colonel, that he had adopted her after her parents died. The first time Lucy and Diego meet neither knows who the other is and he discovers her asprawl on the ground outside. He uses the threat of exposing her immodest behavior to blackmail him into spending time with him.

Diego has no intention of opening a pleasure garden but it creates a great means of getting Lucy's attention and their are definite sparks between the two of them. From garden trysts to steamy scenes behind the curtain before one of his shows these two have difficulties keeping their hands off each other. But when Lucy hears of Diego's less than savory past as a camp follower/ thief/ cardsharp she refuses to have anything to do with him until once again he (essentially) blackmails her. This time he lays out what he knows about her being kidnapped as a child and then kidnaps her himself when she wants to talk to her father and find out the truth. On the ship she is of course furious, especially when she comes to believe her grandfather only wants her for a broodmare and so she throws herself at Diego in order to lose her virginity and her viability as a wife to a Spanish nobleman. Lucy realizes she's in love but believes Diego only wants her to assuage his sense of honor and does not want to risk him losing his estate. In Spain only a short while, Lucy's father joins them and the 3 men are forced to come together over their differences and sort out the truth of Lucy's past and Diego and Lucy deal with their own feelings towards each other.

On about the 20th page our protagonists meet and we discover that Diego has a mustache- a thin mustache. I told myself to just ignore this and pretend I hadn't read it, but I was unable to do this. Everytime he was mentioned I just pictured the bad guy from the movie "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" (with Dick van Dyck) and numerous other villians with similarly awful thin mustaches. However it was kind of interesting to read about a hero with facial hair as they don't often appear in romance novels; unfortunately I would have preferred anything other than a thin dark mustache. The other jarring instance in this book came at the way end when 20 year-old Lucy calls her stepmother of one year "mother" after just learning the truth about her parentage. Who would do this? The little speech by her stepmother was also rather jarring as she claimed that nothing the Colonel said could make her not love him. This was a ridiculous thing to say after just learning your husband has lied to his daughter her entire life, not to mention, being in the army, I'm sure he could say some awful things. I guess one jarring thing at the beginning and one at the end just kind of adds sour bookends to the whole book.

The steamy scenes are certainly steamy and there's enough lead up to keep anybody happy- I always like it when lead in scenes include the guy getting (or at least almost getting) some action as well as the lady. I would probably give this book 3 1/2 kisses for steam (out of 5 of course) as there isn't very much variety and is full of "Dios Mios"- as is the rest of the book. The kidnapping plot/s worked very well in book- indeed there would not have been a book without it/ them and played well with the romance which was, fortunately and appropriately, the center of the story. I am also very much looking forward to reading Mrs. Harris's own romance with "Cousin Michael" next month so the author did a fabulous job setting that up. However, the book did get dragged down several times when Lucy believed that Diego loved her and then something (sometimes something ridiculous) and she would completely doubt him. It got a little old by the 3rd time that happened.

Rating: When rethinking this book I thought of so many things I disliked, however while reading it I did enjoy the book from the plot, to the characters who were well-developed and had a great relationship with each other, to the steam.

Monday, June 8, 2009

The Bride Price

The Bride Price by Anne Mallory

When a contest to earn a viscount-cy is announced all the natural (bastard) and 3 and 4th sons of the aristocracy immediately rush to enter. Sebastian Deville, natural son of the Duke is encouraged to enter when his father makes Sebastian's dead mother's estate part of the prize. Also part of the prize is winning the hand of Lady Sarah whose father, an Earl, is hosting the events. Caroline Martin is determined that her kind, gentle, some would say meek, cousin will not be thrown to the wolves who will misuse her as Sarah's own father misused her mother. She is dependent upon her uncle's generosity so she if forced to help set up the games and ensure things run smoothly, but she is determined to do everything she can to keep Sarah away from the degenerates. And then she meets Sebastian and the two do not hit it off to say the least. He insults her drawing ability and nearly seduces her right there in the bushes. This will be a recurring theme in their relationship.

Deville is determined to win the contest, especially when his half brother, the Duke's legitimate son Benedict enters and is widely regarded as his toughest competition. Events include a game of cards, a horse race, a modified horse race where the opponents try to catch rings, archery, and gun play. Caroline is working behind the scenes to try to sabotage everyone's chance of winning the competition (although her attempts are laughable) and Deville is working hard to win in order to finally prove that he deserves his father's respect (although he'd never admit it). As the book draws closer to the end Caroline becomes more and more worried that Deville will win and choose her cousin while Deville begins to wonder if winning is worth the cost to his pride that dancing at his father's command will entail. To complicate matters further is a potential suitor for Sarah, and both the Duke and Earl trying to warn Caroline off Sebastian for very different reasons. But Caroline is the sort to make up her own mind and one can definitely see the progression Sebastian makes from jaded bastard to the sort of man Caroline can love.

I tried not to let the fact that this competition was utterly unrealistic get in the way of my enjoyment of it, but it was rather difficult even though I am almost never a stickler for historical accuracy and tend to hate those who are. But the whole competition was just a little pathetic- card games and horse racing; it just seemed too simple as if the aristocracy was admitting that they were all stupid and useless at anything worthwhile. My major complaint is with the way the two protagonists behave towards each other- especially the way Sebastian treats Caroline. At first he believes she is a scullery maid so he treats her poorly (not that it's excused even then) but when he discovers her true identity he still spends far too much time insulting her, being jaded around her and rather harshly trying to seduce her. As a reviewer on amazon puts it: he pursues her the same way he pursues the tournament, as if it/ she is something to conquer and own. Literally.

And that feeling spills out into the sex which is super hot and there's certainly plenty of lead up. It was definitely interesting to read about a hero who actively admits to self-pleasuring and engages in it with the heroine. One particularly steamy scene was a little disconcerting; although they were both enjoying it there seemed to be too much "tell me I own you," and basically mental control on his part. I assume we're supposed to see how his barriers are collapsing as well. And there is certainly plenty of angst- although it seems a little too depressed to call angst at times- as she believes she is falling for a man who is just like her former husband and a man who will choose her cousin over her. While he believes he could lose the icy control he has needed to survive his father and half-brother and the lordship he has always wanted.

Rating: It was one of the more interesting novels I've read recently but instead of giving it 4 stars to show that it was better, I just knocked down some 3's to 2's so that one can adequatelky understand that this was better, but not that much better.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

To Scotland with Love

To Scotland with Love by Karen Hawkins

Venetia Oglivie comes from a family of over-actors yet has managed to retain her position as the reasonable one; until she runs away with the young Blake Ravenscroft. He lured her away under the guise of visiting her sick mother when in fact her plans to elope to Gretna Green and head immediately for the continent in order to avoid a duel. She discovers her deception through Gregor MacLean, who has been her friend- and only her friend- for 29 years. They're such good friends that apparently neither of them has ever looked at the other sexually even though they eventually reaize that they're each other's ideal types. When Gregor finds out she's been kidnapped he races off to save her. And... apparently an old family curse has left the remaining members of his family with the ability to control the weather through their moods and Gregor's foul mood has caused quite the nasty snow storm

Venetia and her kidnapper overturn and seek shelter at an inn where Gregor finds them and confronts Ravenscrof with what's happened. Venetia is upset but because of the storm they're stranded for days. Gregor and Venetia suddently find themselves desperately attracted to each other but both fight it off resolutely. They are convinced they can wait everything out until a fight between them leads to another snow storm and two more days of being stranded which assures that Venetia will never make it back to town before Venetia's reputation is ruined. His proposal is bungled and a crazy cast of side chacters create an expectedly crazy side plots including an overbearing blind matron, a spoiled 17 year old who falls in love with every man, and a timid yet incredibly rude companion. When everyone can finally leave our two protagonists leave with heavy hearts until a very large reunion featuring almost every family member and every side character and then some leads to a real proposal which results in much different results from the first.

I felt like this book started in the middle. It was great to see two fast friends, people who had a solid foundation and respect for each other, develop a tendre for each other. However, I realized while reading this that one of my favorite parts of romance novels is reading about the characters meeting and getting to know each other. And like I said: here we started in the middle and skipped all that part. I presume I was supposed to feel like they were getting to know a whole new side, a much more intimate side, of each other, but... the big introductions were missing and it made the romance novel lack. It also just seemed so out of sorts that Gregor had never before noticed her body- just because he was her friend does not mean he didn't notice her physical attributes especially when they're so plentiful and just up his alley. The same goes vice versa as well with her not noticing his rugged manly good looks which even her mother noticed.

Our lovable cast of side characters include Ms. Flatt the put upone companion who still manages to belittle everyone around and believes Ravenscroft is in love with her. And Elizabeth Higginbotham the beautiful 17 year old ninny in love with a vicar or a farmer whose father is rushing her away from a bad match. They provide the backround for a great scene between Gregor and Venetia over her need to fix everyone's lives and his seeming inability to care about other people. It isn't resolved very well, but it was the best scene we really had between the two. I believe that's an unfortunate circumstance as it lasts 3 pages and occurs 20 pages from the end. More like it should have been spread throughout. There also should have been quite a bit more steamy scenes especially considering how much these two enjoyed staring at each other's physical attributes.

Rating: Half a romance novel with unmemorable characters. Still it was fun and fast and hopefully the equels featuring his brother are more palatable. I want to give it 2 1/2 stars so I'll just let the lacking sex scenes drag it down.