What Janine is Reading: Early Spring 2016
I haven’t done a reading list post in forever, so this one is going to be long!
Seduction Game by Pamela Clare
I’ve read a few novels in Clare’s I-Team romantic suspense series and enjoyed aspects of them, but I’m not a diehard fan. I was intrigued, though, when I heard that this one would feature Holly Bradshaw.
Unlike the reporters in the newspaper’s investigative team, Holly, an entertainment writer for the same publication, was portrayed in the earlier books as flightier, less substantial, as well as unlucky in love due to poor taste in men. Here, however, we learn that all this is a mask for Holly’s other job. Holly is a CIA operative and dating bad guys is a means to an end. Early on in the book, for example, she is tasked with retrieving files from a Georgian arms dealer’s hotel safe.
Nick Andris is also a CIA operative—in his case, an assassin as well. An operation he was involved in went south, and he’s been told that Holly was responsible. Nick bugs Holly’s apartment and even sleeps with her, but at first, he thinks she is as flighty as she pretends to be. Once he realizes otherwise, he kidnaps her and even tortures her before he realizes she too is CIA and that he has been set up by his superior. After dealing with the fallout from Nick’s mistake, Holly and Nick join forces and work together to stay alive and identify the traitors.
My favorite thing about this book was Holly. She was good at her job and I loved that even her closest friends had no idea what she was doing. I enjoy books in which characters are taken at face value and underestimated, only to reveal a whole other side, so I ate this up.
One downside of that, though, was the way that Holly’s sexual past was dealt with. There was an undercurrent of “She wasn’t really a woman of easy virtue, she was a true patriot,” that I thought came across as judging women whose active sex lives aren’t motivated by patriotism.
Aside from that, the other issue I’ve had (and have had with the other two I-Team books I have read, too) was that I liked Holly but was less keen on Nick. I like it when the protagonists in a book get each other and admire one another, and I wanted Nick to reach this point earlier.
The suspense plot was pretty good but I’d like to see some characters from the former Soviet Union in romance novels who aren’t associated with criminal activities. C+/B-.
Diamond Bay by Linda Howard
Years ago, this classic category romance, originally published in 1987 as part of the Silhouette Intimate Moments line, was my favorite novel by Linda Howard. Recently I reread it to see how I like it now.
Kell Sabin was once a secret agent and is now a department chief, “the shadowy figure behind a group of crack agents.” Kell is a loner and even his ex-wife had no idea of his true profession until an attempt was made on his life. When the book begins, he is on vacation, sailing the waters of the Gulf of Mexico when he’s shot. Kell jumps into the water and applies a tourniquet to his wound, then tries to swim ashore. He passes out and is found by Rachel Jones, a widow who lives alone, with only her dog Joe for company.
With Joe’s help, Rachel drags Kell to her house and nurses him, even calling a veterinarian friend to dig the bullet out of his wound rather than alerting the hospital or the police to his shooting. Rachel’s late husband was a DEA agent and she herself was an investigative reporter earlier in life, so she is prepared for the possibility that Kell, whose absence and shooting have not been mentioned on the news, could be an agent and secrecy might be required.
Once Kell opens his eyes and begins the recovery process, Rachel falls hard for him. Kell’s tenacity, competence and determination, even his aloneness, all call to her. But Kell plans to leave her behind once he is well and has dealt with the people who are hunting throughout the coastline for him. Can Rachel bear such a loss?
The core of Diamond Bay is a very strong romance because Howard renders Rachel’s vulnerability to Kell so well, and self-contained, thoughtful Kell is quite likable. One gets a strong sense of Rachel’s peaceful life in Diamond Bay and how that peace is disrupted when she meets and falls in love with a man who doesn’t want to hurt her, but can’t easily change his integral independence, either.
This time around, though, I also noticed some weaknesses. There was a lot of telling in place of showing, and I was left with questions about aspects of the characters that were only described in very general terms, without specific details.
Also, there’s a scene in which Kell, before he and Rachel know each other well, decides it’s okay to walk around her house naked since she’s already seen him naked when he was unconscious. This read like it was there to create sexual tension but it just made me wonder what was wrong with him.
I appreciated how candid Rachel and Kell were with each other about where their romance stood. Rachel didn’t try to hide her feelings or play coy with Kell, and he was equally, sometimes even brutally, honest with her in return. The romantic conflict was lovely, even if the details around it were missing. B-.
Masks and Shadows by Stephanie Burgis
This novel was recommended to me by Donna Thorland, and it sounded like an intriguing blend of historical fantasy and romance. The setting is even more unusual—Esterhaza Palace in 1779 Hungary, where the composer Joseph Haydn resided as Kapellmeister.
Then there is the fact that the romantic relationship at the center of the story is between Charlotte von Steinbeck, a demure widow and sister to the mistress of Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy, and Carlo Morelli, a castrato singer.
Arriving in Esterhaza around the same time, the two meet. Charlotte’s first reaction is to view Carlo as other. She quickly realizes that he does not deserve this—or the objectification with which other aristocrats look at him.
Asked to accompany Carlo’s singing on the piano, Charlotte begins to feel attracted to him, just as he is to her. Carlo doesn’t realize she reciprocates his feelings, though, and feels that the gulf of class and background may be too wide to bridge.
Meanwhile, intrigue is brewing in the palace—and so is magic. Elemental spirits, a secret society, and two opera singers on the run who die a gruesome death all feature in the plot. There is also a subplot about Charlotte’s maid Anna, plucked from obscurity to replace one of the dead singers, and a man to whom she’s drawn.
There’s a lot to like in this book, like the lovely main characters and Anna, the subtlety with which the romance develops, the competent writing, and the subversiveness with which the author treats the romance, refusing to present Carlo in an ableist way.
There was, however, a horror-ish aspect to the fantastical goings on, and horror is a genre I have almost no tolerance for, since I hate feeling scared. Furthermore, Charlotte’s spoiled sister Sophie got on my last nerve, and I felt so sorry for her husband, not just because he was cuckolded by Sophie and the prince, but also because he was dragged into the nasty secret society with blackmail and threats.
I put this book aside at around the 60% mark, but I don’t feel that it’s bad, just that it’s not for me. I may still pick it up again, just to see Charlotte and Carlo get together.
Magic Rises by Ilona Andrews
Kate, Curran and some pack members travel to Europe in the hope of getting their hands on panacea with which to save Julie’s friend and other Pack children from going loup.
In Europe they have to babysit a pregnant European pack princess named Desandra who is carrying twins, each of which is fathered by a different man from different packs. Desandra is no longer involved with either guy, but the twin born first and its pack will inherit a valuable mountain pass and Curran and Kate’s job is to make sure neither of the children nor Desandra meets with foul play.
Meanwhile dangerous flying monsters appear in the castle where all the characters are staying, as do equally dangerous political undercurrents between the packs staying there. Furthermore, another pack princess, this one from Alaska, has her eye on Curran and wants Kate, whom she deems less important than a gnat, out of the way. And that’s before the owner of the castle appears, and decides he must have Kate, and that Curran is the one who is irrelevant.
SPOILERS AHOY! This is not among my favorite books in the series. Desandra acts like a spoiled and whiny asshat, and though this turns out to have been only an act, I found her incredibly irritating to read about in this book and she got a lot of page time. But the bigger problem for me with this book was that I found important parts of it unconvincing.
There’s a section in which it appears as though Curran is cheating on Kate and disrespecting her and their partnership, when in reality he is only pretending in order to save her life. Kate is so pissed off and hurt that she almost leaves him. I found this subplot ridiculously contrived.
First, before they leave Atlanta, Curran tells Kate that they’ll be eavesdropped on at the castle and will not be able to have an honest conversation there. Second, pack members tell Kate that Curran’s behavior has some reason behind it and isn’t what it looks like. Third, every time they do have a little privacy in which to be together unobserved, Curran shows no signs whatsoever of having lost any of his love or desire for Kate. And yet Kate still buys his whole “courting the other woman” shtick.
Frankly, I think Kate is smarter than this and should have known better. I as a reader certainly knew better. So while I had some sympathy for Kate’s feelings of hurt and betrayal, given that she was brought up not to trust anyone, I also had a lot of frustration with her, and even more so with the authors for writing such a contrived subplot for Curran and Kate when there are plenty of real things they could have fought over instead.
Later in the book, Aunt B dies. This was heartbreaking and I was so sorry to lose her since she was one of my favorite secondary characters in the series (I love the way the authors write tough older women). It was also a powerful scene, but it too was marred in that Kate was supposedly drained of power and could only watch as Aunt B was brutally killed by Hibla, yet when, shortly afterward, she spotted Hugh trying to kill Curran, she found reserves of strength. If she’d had these, shouldn’t she have pulled on them to try and save Aunt B, too?
I did like a few things about the book. In particular, I thought that Hugh, the big bad of this book, jumped off the page with his mesmerizing charm and vitality. He was evil, but his development here showed how evil can be seductive—and how Kate refused to be seduced.
There were also some lovely scenes between Kate, a small person, and a shepherd. I liked seeing Saiman aboard ship. It brought out a new, and far more appealing, facet of him. Christopher’s role at the end of the book was thrilling. Finally, I was glad when Doolittle’s real name was revealed to be something other than Doolittle (Truth to tell, I find the moniker Doolittle distracting since it makes me think of the 1970s TV cartoon series). C+/B- for Magic Rises.