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REVIEW:  Captive But Forbidden by Lynne Raye Harris

REVIEW: Captive But Forbidden by Lynne Raye Harris

Dear Ms. Harris,

In a recent comment thread about reading and writing multicultural characters, you talked about your latest Harlequin Presents release, which features a half-South Asian hero. I was intrigued and interested to read about someone who was neither a Maharajah nor a Bollywood star. My reaction to your story turned out to be quite mixed, but not in the ways I might have expected. There were aspects of the book I absolutely loved and there were others I found intensely frustrating.

Veronica St. Germaine is the beautiful, blonde, recently elected President of the economically disadvantaged country of Aliz. Aliz is located somewhere in Harlequin/Mills and Boon’s Europe, where the winters are warm, the beaches are unspoiled, and there are dozens of principalities to provide royal families and romance. Veronica, a former party girl, has turned over a new leaf to lead her country to democracy, prosperity, and the rule of law, but someone wants to stop her.

Enter Rajesh Vala, formerly with Special Forces, currently head of his own internationally successful security agency. As a favor to Veronica’s good friend Brady, Raj assumes the role of bodyguard and tries to determine who is threatening her. Unsurprisingly, these two gorgeous and sexy creatures are immediately hot for each other despite their mutual antipathy. But as they learn more about each other, their purely physical attraction deepens into an emotional connection.

Raj pulled off his glove and put his fingers against her cheek. She turned to him, her eyes filled with tears. His fingers were wet and his heart constricted at the pain on her face.

“I don’t want to talk about this with you,” she said, her voice barely more than a whisper.

“I’m sorry,” he said softly. He didn’t want to push her, and yet he had to know. “But it could be important.”

She closed her eyes, shook her head slightly. Her platinum hair gleamed in the dim light, and he thought of her last night, standing by her bed and calling for him. How vulnerable she’d looked, how innocent. Such a contrast with the woman he’d gotten acquainted with on paper.

Her chin dropped, as if she were surrendering. He found a box of tissues in a nearby compartment and handed them to her. She snatched a few into her hand and dabbed at her face.

“How can it be important?” she finally said. “No one really knows about it.”

“Someone does. Andre does.”

She sucked in a breath on a half sob. “Of course he knows. He was the father.”

The sexual and emotional tension in this book is absolutely gripping and reminds me exactly why I come back to the Presents line over and over. They are a terrific couple. Even when they’re at odds, they simmer. The scene where they both finally give in to their passions is moving and satisfying, and both characters’ feelings are depicted equally skilfully. I wondered if the payoff would live up to its promise, and it did. After that point, the external and internal conflicts are sufficient and credible enough that there’s no Big Mis or TSTL behavior needed to keep them apart until the last pages.

The characterizations, however, frustrated me repeatedly. Surprisingly, I found Veronica the most problematic. She’s supposed to be the president of her country, but she spends most of the time thinking about her personal issues, not the threats to her safety and her nation. I understand that this needs to be foregrounded, but I found her utterly unbelievable as a political figure. There’s nothing on the page to show me what her people saw in her. In recent history we’ve seen young, inexperienced women become heads of state because of their family bloodlines and then go on to surprise everyone. I would have liked to see this character reflect those experiences. As it was, she could have as easily been a famous person with a stalker. I found Veronica’s personal issues more believable and authentic, and when the focus was on those I was more wrapped up in the story.

Raj was a more credible character, both as a powerful security guard and as a man with a traumatic past. He didn’t seem particularly Indian, which is hardly surprising since he didn’t have any exposure to Indian culture and society until he was an adult. He was basically an American who eventually reconnected with his Indian heritage, although not with any of his Indian relatives. This is far more common in romance novels than in actuality, but that’s par for the course. It’s tough to have a lone wolf hero if he’s surrounded by Aunties telling him what to do. Raj was described a couple of times as wild and untameable, which I found odd, since he came across to me as someone who deliberately repressed emotions and was afraid of spontaneity.

I did flinch, more than once, at the use of the term “exotic” to describe Raj. It wasn’t enough to make me stop reading, but that word should be banned unless we’re talking about endangered species. A human being might be perceived that way on a first impression, but once you get to know someone, let alone fall in love with them, that word use can too often signal objectification and/or fetishization. It’s not a compliment. My complaint is not limited to this book, so please, authors and editors, do a search and replace and get rid of it.

This is a tough book for me to grade. I loved the romance. I thought the depictions of the characters’ pasts and emotional baggage was well done. But there were weaknesses that I couldn’t overlook. The grade splits the difference. Overall, I’m glad I read the book and I’ll be looking for more by this author.

Grade: C+

~ Sunita

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Bulk Review:  Bullet Catchers Trilogy by Roxanne St. Claire (First You Run, Then You Hide, Now You Die)

Bulk Review: Bullet Catchers Trilogy by Roxanne St. Claire (First...

Dear Ms. St. Claire:

141654906401lzzzzzzzI am a wary reader of Romantic Suspense, disappointed in either the romantic or suspense aspect of the story of too many books in the subgenre or frustrated by the amped up violence and gore that sometimes substitutes for suspense.   But when Jane gave the first book of your latest Bullet Catchers trilogy a favorable review, I put it on my TBR list.   And I am glad I did, because before I was halfway into the book I was over at Fictionwise looking for the rest of the series.

First You Run, Then You Hide, and Now You Die are a continuation of the Bullet Catcher series, featuring an organization highly trained private security and investigation specialists.   The books possess a unified story arc around a dying woman named Eileen Stafford, who has been languishing in prison for thirty years in payment for a murder she did not commit.   Now in need of a bone marrow transplant, the Bullet Catchers have been enlisted to find the triplets Eileen gave birth to in secret, three girls who were delivered and adopted as part of a large black market baby operation known as Sapphire Trail.   Although the three girls were tattooed for identity recognition, their exisstence remained a secret, because Eileen had grave fear of their father, who, she believes, is the one who framed her for the murder of a romantic rival.   Despite the farce of an investigation and trial, Eileen accepted the sentence, fearing for her daughters’ safety more than her own fate, until her cancer and the intervention of Bullet Catcher Jack Culver, who is not only convinced of Eileen’s innocence but is determined to locate her daughters in order to save her life and clear her name.   But all he has to go on is a list of Sapphire Trail babies and the unusual tattoos Eileen’s triplets supposedly bear.

First You Run is the story of Miranda Lang, an anthropologist and rising star at Berkeley, whose new book debunking the Maya doomsday prophecy has garnered a lot of attention, both positive and negative.   Bullet Catcher Adrien Fletcher (aka “Fletch”) has been dispatched to determine whether Miranda is one of Eileen’s triplets, but soon enough Fletch realizes that he has two bigger problems on his hands:   1) someone is sabotaging Miranda’s book tour and endangering her life, and 2) he’s powerfully attracted to Miranda.   While the latter motivates him to search for that mysterious tattoo, his growing respect and affection for Miranda spurs his conscience as much as other parts of him.

Miranda has no idea where this handsome Aussie stranger came from, but after the scare at her first book signing, the crazy wild-eyed man who threatened her, and the bloody, sacrificed quetzal left at her front door, Miranda is more than a little relieved to have Fletch’s protection, wanting to be strong against her detractors – who she assumes are among the cultish followers of the Maya doomsday prophecy – but feeling more than a little frightened.   But when Fletch accompanies her to an incredible reproduction of a famous Maya temple site, the woman who has invited Miranda, a professed Maya shaman, warns her that Fletch’s intentions are dark, to steal Miranda’s very soul, she insists.

So whom should Miranda trust, especially when so many strange things are happening to her? Who is behind the increasingly crazed violence aimed at Miranda and her book?   How will Fletch know if Miranda is Eileen Stafford’s daughter?   And if she isn’t – because Miranda has no idea she was adopted – how will Fletch be able to leave her to find the next woman on the list?     Will Eileen survive while the hunt for her triplet daughters proceeds?

First You Run is a very entertaining story with a strong suspense plot and romantic development.   While very sensual, the emotional bond between Adrien and Miranda is well-developed, allowing them room to grow as characters and connect as people, not merely as attractive bodies.   And the background story of Eileen Stafford, the overall goal of proving her innocence and saving her life, is well-established but not resolved in this novel, even though the romantic relationship finds closure.

141655243x01lzzzzzzzThen You Hide, the second book in the trilogy, is focused on Vanessa Porter, a successful and driven Manhattan asset manager.   Vanessa is currently in the Caribbean searching for a colleague and friend who has dropped out of a successful career after an uncharacteristic vacation to the islands.   Vanessa suspects something darker, and her questions have piqued the interest of some powerful and threatening people.   Fortunately, Wade Cordell has reluctantly agreed to locate Vanessa, who has been positively identified as one of Eileen Stafford’s triplets, and bring her back to South Carolina to determine whether she’s a bone marrow match for her birth mother.   Unfortunately, Vanessa has no interest in her birth mother, whom she blames for her father’s carjacking and death after the one time he went to speak with Eileen in prison, and her interest in Wade is just about as limited.   The last thing Vanessa believes is that she needs any sort of protection from anyone, let alone a slow-talking, gun-toting former Marine like Wade.   Wade is less ambivalent about his attraction to this potty mouthed, hyper New Yorker, and he knows she is big trouble in little St. Kitts, making his supposedly breezy assignment something of a bait and switch.

Vanessa is anything but restful, and her unwillingness to return with Wade forces him to strike a deal with her:   he’ll help her find her friend, Clive Easterbrook, and then she’ll go to South Carolina for the marrow evaluation.   It is hardly a surprise that Wade and Vanessa get into more than they anticipated on Clive’s trail, which soon branches onto some dangerous paths involving several murders, a plethora of parties interested in Clive’s whereabouts, and a lot of wild goose chasing after bad leads.   And then there’s the incendiary but problematic attraction between Wade and Vanessa, which Vanessa believes imperils her hard-ass independence and Wade knows will generate more than a few personal and professional challenges.   All in all, there is a great deal to be worked out before Vanessa will even consider returning to the States, where Eileen Stafford lies in a coma, weakening by the moment.   Vanessa and Wade may find the answers to some questions – about Clive and their own relationship – but it takes one more book, Now You Die, to solve the larger mystery of the trilogy.

Saving Eileen’s life and clearing her name entails far more than a matching bone marrow donor.   It also requires the uncovering of Wanda Sloane’s real murderer, whose identity Eileen seems to know but will not reveal, because “he can do anything.”   Jack Culver is convinced that “he” is Justice Spessard B. Higgins, or “Higgie,” with whom both Eileen and Wanda worked in the state court as legal secretaries at the time when Eileen became pregnant and Wanda was shot, and who has recently been appointed to the US Supreme Court, making him one of the most powerful and influential men in the country.

But Lucy Sharpe, as head of the Bullet Catchers and an acquaintance of Higgie and his wife, Marilee, is not convinced of Higgie’s guilt.   She is, however, willing to launch an undercover investigation of the judge, even though it brings her into close working proximity to Jack, who was suspended from the Bullet Catchers after accidentally shooting Lucy’s closest friend and confidant, Dan Gallagher, followed by heavy boozing.   Jack and Lucy also have some personal history, namely one very hot night in the middle of a Malaysian jungle, a torrid mating brought on by mutual loneliness, grief, and a longtime attraction neither had been willing to act upon.   Complicating matters between them even further is Jack’s belief that Kristen Carpenter, the third Stafford triplet, did not die several months ago as records show, but is instead alive, in hiding, and gunning (literally) for Higgie.

141655244801lzzzzzzzUnlike the previous two books, the romance in Now You Die is not between one of Eileen’s daughters and a Bullet Catcher; this book is focused on Lucy and Jack’s relationship as it deepens during their investigation of Higgie’s involvement in Wanda Sloane’s murder and Eileen Stafford’s unwarranted conviction.   It is difficult to talk about the circumstances around these events without revealing substantial spoilers, so I will try to limit myself to Lucy and Jack’s relationship, which is clearly the most difficult and complicated in this trilogy.   Lucy bears the emotional scars of a dead child and husband, while Jack has his own childhood demons to keep at bay, which make him particularly invested in proving Eileen’s innocence.

Because these two – especially Lucy – have so much baggage, it is difficult to keep the balance between developing a strong emotional bond and keeping the suspense element alive.   In this book, the crackle of suspense edges out the romantic depth, although Jack and Lucy’s past enables a more rapid establishment of emotional intimacy that makes their relationship believable.   I still wished for a bit more exploration of the pain each of them worked to sublimate (both are insomniacs), since it appeared to drive them so powerfully.   There may be more in some of the earlier Bullet Catcher books, but I’m not sure even that would be enough to fill in some of those missing layers in Now You Die.

That said, I found this Bullet Catchers trilogy to be compulsively readable and well-integrated, with relationship closure allowing for stand-alone Romances and an enmeshed suspense arc that works very well across the three books.   In fact, it was the strength and the cleverness of the suspense plot(s) that really kept my interest in the trilogy, because the Eileen Stafford story frames several smaller suspense plots throughout the trilogy.   That layering of mysteries helped sustain my interest over what turned out to be a simultaneously complicated and straightforward wrongful conviction plot, and also allowed the localized mysteries to help drive the romance itself.   In other words, I felt there was a very effective blending of romance and suspense, which is something I find lacking in so many books within this sub-genre.   The prose is serviceable, not at all overly-sentimental, and not standing out in any direction, but generally cogent and believable for its purpose.

For those who prefer romance to suspense, First You Run was the strongest for me in this regard, because the road trip element combined with Fletch’s guilt allows he and Miranda to build a friendship in tandem with a growing attraction.   Neither Miranda nor Vanessa ends up in bed quickly, creating another kind of romantic suspense in the books – the suspense of watching two people grow closer without the convenience of sex to bond them.   And in Lucy and Jack’s case, the sex actually complicates things, because they must build backwards, in a sense.   I appreciated that there was a separate and distinct focus on creating emotional intimacy and friendship between the romantic protagonists in this trilogy, because for all the love in Romance, I’m not always sure how much like there is between the many strong personalities that populate the genre.

There was also quite a bit of like between me and the heroines, especially Vanessa, whose serial swearing struck me as quite daring in a Romance heroine, especially since it grates so harshly on the drawling Southerner Wade.   All of these women are intelligent, even though Miranda and Vanessa have an annoying habit of ignoring signs of danger to satisfy their curiosity, a trait that would have signaled TSTL if they did not show clear reasoning skills the majority of the time.   Miranda, especially, seemed conflicted in her character, presenting as a sheltered young woman who is claustrophobic, terrified of flying, and prone to panic attacks, yet thinks nothing of following a complete stranger into the depths of a replica Maya tomb.   On the other hand, Lucy Sharpe, who could easily have become a caricatured ice queen, is both vulnerable and fallible, which makes her strengths as head of the Bullet Catchers seem more realistic.   That all the Bullet Catchers are susceptible to trickery and deceit made them more interesting for me.

There are a number of things I don’t know enough about to address as authentic or inauthentic, including the medical rights of prisoners, the South Carolina appeals courts, and the habits of alligators, but I was willing to go with most of it because I was entertained enough not to start consulting Google in the middle of the books.   I was even able to ignore all the legal stuff I knew was impossible and/or incorrect and focus on the other aspects of the stories, which is no small thing, since I generally have the attention span of a strung-out gnat, especially when distracted by frustration.

There is one thing that drove me absolutely crazy in all three books, but it is more of a pet peeve than a strike against the work itself:   no condoms.   Now I know that some feel that because Romance is a fantasy condoms aren’t part of the romantic fantasy, but in a contemporary, where I am supposed to respect these women as intelligent, independent, and self-sufficient, I just cannot take that leap when a heroine begs for the hero to “come inside me,” especially before any declaration of love or commitment.   I will refrain from further ranting on this subject here, but I do have to say that the way all three women seemed to relish the unprotected sex (although Lucy begs Jack to withdraw, which makes sense given her past) cut against the image of progressive womanhood I felt I was supposed to see in them.

If I had to grade these books individually, First You Run would get a B, Then You Hide a B/B-, and Now You Die a B-/C+, averaging out to a high B- for the trilogy .   The cleverness of the Maya plot in the first book, combined with the solid emotional development between Miranda and Fletch (as well as the dimensional portrayal of their characters) made that book the strongest for me, followed by Wade and Vanessa’s story, which was buoyed by the crisp banter and opposites attract energy of their relationship.   I got frustrated with Vanessa’s refusal to see what was so obviously a trap in numerous situations, but since her rashness was an overt point of tension between her and Wade, I was satisfied that it was an intentional character trait.   And while Lucy and Jack’s relationship was the most complex, it unfortunately suffered against an equally complex suspense climax and resolution, which was itself quite satisfying but could not completely eclipse the somewhat abrupt leap Jack and Lucy make to full devotion and commitment.

Overall, though, I would recommend any and all of these three books, which together proved to be a diverting and energizing read, perfect for a little post-holiday R&R.

~Janet

First You Run, Then You Hide, and Now You Die can be purchased in mass market or ebook format from the Sony Store and other etailers.