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REVIEW:  The Master of All Desires by Judith Merkle Riley

REVIEW: The Master of All Desires by Judith Merkle Riley

In 1556 France, Queen Catherine de Medici spies on her husband, King Henri II, and his lover, Diane de Poitiers. Driven nearly mad by jealousy, the queen, who is “very fond of do-it-yourself magic,” is frustrated with her sycophantic, possibly duplicitous court astrologer’s ineffective powers, until he reveals his knowledge of the magical object called the Master of All Desires. This is a centuries-old box that contains the living head of Menander the Undying–a magus who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for eternal life. Anyone in possession of the sharp-tongued, mean-spirited and unpleasant head may have their wishes granted, but only by selling their own soul in the process.

Through a series of clever plot twists, Menander winds up in the hands of Sibille Artaud de La Roque, a gritty girl from the provinces, who refuses to make a wish, thereby halting Menander’s destructive path. Sibille and her aunt, the remarkable, independently wealthy Pauline Tournet, endeavor to rid themselves of Menander, with assistance from Nostradamus. With the queen in pursuit of Menander, and Nostradamus aiming to destroy it, can a national crisis be averted and true love prevail?

Dear Readers,

I’ve been rationing my Merkle Rileys but when I saw Sourcebooks was reissuing this title, I decided it was the time to read it. Having now finished this one, I’ve only got two more yet to read. Gulp. If anyone has any suggestions for “If you like Judith Merkle Riley” please let me know.

the-master-of-all-desires1After reading the back blurb, I wasn’t at all sure how this book would go. The reviews for it seemed generally positive but with a plot built around sorcery, prophecy, the occult, a living head in a box and Great People Who Wield Power and can have little people killed without blinking an eye, anything goes.

Merkle Riley manages to make the story funny, entertaining, and educational. But the main thing I took away from it is trepidation about having the means to have your wishes granted. True, there is no magical Menander the Mage who for a horrible price will grant exactly – and only – what you ask of him but I often wonder how the lives of the winners of these multimillion lotteries will emerge on the other side of cashing that check. “Master of All Desires” gives a heartbreaking look at the human cost of avariciousness, entitlement and greed.

The initial set-up takes a while to be fully established as there are numerous characters who must be introduced and relationships delineated. The book didn’t truly kick into gear for me until around chapter 8 when the young Sibille arrives in Orleans to try and save her father from being burned alive as a heretic. It’s not until then that she finally meets up with her auntie again after having encountered a pissy Nostradamus on the road. Until then, Sibille had – I’ll be frank – seemed a bit of a “full of herself” ninny. When rich, eccentric Auntie Pauline bursts into the narrative, it really picks up steam.

Very quickly, I realized that the younger set in this book were going to often be portrayed as nitwits, gobsmacked fools and lovesick moon calves. Fine with me as the elders were the ones who truly grabbed my attention and ran the show. Heck, even Menander had more sarcastic black humor and sly one liners than those caught up in Love’s Young Dream.

No, it’s Auntie Pauline – with her household of ghosts who haunt her due to her dead pirate husband’s actions, “Italian banker newly converted to Frenchman” Monsieur Montvert – who must juggle two lovesick and idiot children while financing the French King’s foreign wars, Queen Catherine – who loves DIY sorcery and has the cold nerves of steel to think she can manipulate history to suit her and – he’s my favorite – Michel de Nostradame who often seems little more than a crabby old man with a dislike of travel, dodgy inns, cheap wine and cheaper royalty – that is until he communes with the angel Anael and manages to save at least a few people from being trampled by the malignant forces let loose by greed.

I laughed a lot while reading this book but it’s definitely got a darker side to it as well. The characters are flawed – sometimes to the point of almost being unlikeable in the case of Diane de Poitiers, Queen Mary of Scotland and Menander – but interesting nonetheless. Before starting to read it, I would suggest referring to a reliable historical account of 16th century Europe to brush up on all the political maneuvering and players as it will help in understanding the plot and the importance of the various wishes made over the course of the story. While this isn’t the book I would suggest for Merkle Riley newbies to begin with – go with “The Oracle Glass” or “A Vision of Light” – it’s definitely worth eventually trying. B


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TRIPLE PLAY REVIEW: Donovan Brothers Brewery series by Victoria Dahl

TRIPLE PLAY REVIEW: Donovan Brothers Brewery series by Victoria Dahl

Dear Ms. Dahl:

I had been planning to review Good Girls Don’t, but by the time I got to it, Bad Boys Do was out and Real Men Will was imminent. So I figured I might as well review all three, since the trilogy’s release dates are so close together. I’m not a stickler for reading a series in order, and I don’t think the Donovan family series needs to be read that way, but I will say that reading it in order made a definite impact on how I experienced each book, sometimes for the better and sometimes not. In general I enjoyed each book, though, and am glad I read them together for the full Donovan experience.

Good Girls Don’t

Good Girls Don't Victoria DahlDespite being the youngest of the Donovan siblings, Tessa carries the weight of the family’s coherence like an increasingly heavy burden. When the Donovan Brothers Brewery is burgled, and it turns out that older brother (and reputed reprobate) Jamie was spending the night with the daughter of a potential corporate client, Tessa senses that her burden is starting to overbalance, threatening to topple and break what’s left of the family. With their parents now dead for almost fifteen years, the three Donovan siblings are all that’s left, and Tessa has been doing quite a dance to ensure they all remain on relatively good terms and dedicated to the family business.

When older brother Eric finds out about Jamie, he will think the worst of Jamie – again – and this time he may be right, since the big wig client with whom oldest brother Eric was negotiating a big wig deal to provide Donovan brew on their family-run airline was ready to call the deal off after seeing Jamie with his daughter the morning after. Tessa is used to stretching the truth when the ends justify it, and this incident is no exception; whatever she has to do to salvage this deal she will do before Eric finds out the truth, especially when he already doubts Jamie properly secured the Brewery the night of the burglary.

When Luke Asher and his partner, Simone, are called to the Brewery to investigate yet another theft of computers, payroll records, and credit card numbers, he’s surprised by the force of his attraction to Tessa but intrigued that she seems to return his interest. Jamie, though, who partied hard with Luke in college, definitely plans to stand in the way of any potential relationship, believing, like the rest of the town, that Luke both impregnated his partner and left his ex-wife back in California while she was sick with cancer. One dog can instinctively scent another, after all. Fortunately or unfortunately at that point, Tessa takes one look at the 6’2” Detective Asher and decides she needs some under-the-covers fun with a guy like him.

Luke and Tessa make an interesting pair. Luke is sort of a protective OCD-type, the kind of guy who secretly reads baby books so he can be there for Simone when she has the baby, even though she refuses to disclose the father or even talk about the impending birth with former best friend Luke. And to protect Simone’s reputation, he hasn’t disputed the common accusation of paternity, which creates a bit of conflict in his budding relationship with Tessa. It’s not so much that Tessa believes he’s lying to her when he tells her he’s not the father; it’s the fear that she might be “that stupid girl who falls for someone awful.” And because Luke may be the very first man she hasn’t been able to manipulate in exactly the way she wants, she can’t break through his reticence in confessing the truth behind the most scandalous stories that follow him through life in Boulder.

For me, Good Girls Don’t was a pleasant read that served primarily as background and set-up for the next two books. The conflict between Tessa and Luke seemed a bit overblown on both sides, and while I enjoyed Luke’s almost obsessive gallantry where Simone was concerned, at times I felt he was more emotionally invested in his relationship with her than with Tessa. Learning the secret of his past might have created a stronger bond of understanding earlier for me with Luke, too. Also, Tessa’s manipulative inclinations, which made her somewhat unique to me, don’t really survive the book, a surprising (to me) disappointment, since I liked the idea of those qualities being a central part of her personality and not an insecure coping mechanism she seems to shed by the end. B-

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Bad Boys Do

Bad Boys Do Victoria DahlJamie Donovan is used to his bad boy reputation, even as he chafes beneath its limitations. As the “face” of the Brewery, he’s used to all the crazy stunts Tessa puts out on Twitter under his name, and while he doesn’t mind wearing the kilt and keeping the female customers happy, he’s also read to show both his siblings that he has more to offer the Brewery. In particular he has an idea to expand the business to include a limited food menu, and his determination to present a convincing plan to Eric leads him to a no-credit business course at the local college.

Olivia Bishop cannot believe that the handsome bartender from Donovan Brothers who flirted with her is a student in her class. The 35-year old adjunct faculty ex-wife of a tenured professor who cheated on her with students and told her she was “no fun,” Olivia is just starting to break out of her good girl shell, which is particularly disconcerting to ex-husband Victor, who simply cannot understand why Olivia divorced him. And Jamie’s expressed interest disconcerts Olivia, not only because he’s clearly younger than she, but also because he’s a sort-of student and totally hot. Too hot for a conservative, sheltered woman life Olivia, who is afraid that Victor was right when he called her “boring.”

Still, the idea of going to a faculty party alone is too much for Olivia, and when she asks Jamie to accompany her, the mutual attraction is undeniable despite Olivia’s concern that she’s too old and too boring for someone like Jamie. So they strike a deal of sorts: Olivia will help Jamie with his business plan (she has always secretly wanted to start her own consulting business) and he will help her learn to have fun, some of which will occur sans clothing.

Bad Boys Do is my favorite of the Donovan books. Olivia is likeable and her insecurities and sheltered personality understandable. The academic politics are rendered believably, even though I found Victor a bit extreme in his characterization. My one issue with Olivia is that she skewed over 40 for me, and while this wasn’t a problem with the relationship, I kind of wish she had been identified as a few years older. Jamie, whose charisma is palpably rendered in his characterization, is appealing and sympathetic, especially when he starts to take control of his own reputation, wresting the Twitter account away from Tessa and carrying on a surprisingly mature relationship with Olivia.

My primary issue with Jamie was that his reformation, which was the nominal subject of the book, seemed to take place off-page between this book and the first. In some ways he seems more committed to the relationship than Olivia, who is understandably insecure about both her feelings and Jamie’s, given the fact that until Jamie she only slept with one man who then proceeded to tell her in myriad way that she wasn’t enough for him. So all of the angst around how Jamie would be able to convince Eric, especially, of his willingness to take on more responsibility, seems manufactured. Either we have to see Eric as monumentally blind and unreasonable or ignore Jamie’s consistently mature behavior throughout the book. There is also some important information on the source of Jamie’s past recklessness that would have had far more impact on me if it had been revealed much earlier. Still Olivia’s character growth was sufficiently compelling for me to find the book a solid B read.

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Real Men Will

Real Men Will	Victoria DahlEric Donovan has carried the responsibilities of a father and a business owner since he was 24, when his parents died in a car crash, leaving him two substantially younger siblings and a family business to manage. His feelings of obligation to Michael Donovan go beyond the typical father-son bond, and Eric still operates from a sense of gratitude and self-expectation that is exacting, if not downright exhausting. Still, Eric has a secret, a sexy little secret he has spent months trying to forget, until the evening she walks into the Brewery asking for Jamie Donovan.

Beth Cantrell manages The White Orchid, the local shop supplying everything from the sexiest lingerie to the latest in self-pleasuring toys. But despite the reputation of the shop, which extends by association to her, Beth views herself as stubbornly vanilla in her tastes, happy to be an advocate for others who want to get their freak on but quite certain her own inner freak is on permanent strike. Another character in the series with a secret past shame (that, like the others, is revealed far too late in the story to have sufficient emotional or dramatic impact), Beth has a more recent secret she’s been trying to forget – a one-night stand with an incredibly sexy man named Jamie Donovan whom she met at a local business expo.

Except, of course, Beth’s Jamie Donovan is really Eric Donovan, and once the hypocrisy is publicly revealed, Eric finds himself in trouble with Beth, Jamie, and Tessa, none of whom can believe the selfish, insensitive lie. Beth, especially, is humiliated, and even worse, still attracted to the deceitful Eric, who had given her a sexual thrill beyond anything she had anticipated or experienced before. And Eric, who had always been in control, had “lost his hold” on his life. Everything he’s worked for now bores him and despite his shameful actions toward Beth, he cannot get the memory of her out of his head – or other parts of his anatomy.

Eric turned out to be my favorite hero of the series, in large part because his conflict was the most interesting to me. The combination of shame, desire, and hypocrisy worked well with his backstory and as a nice contrast to his sibling’s stories. Beth was a tougher sell for me. I liked the idea that she was being written against type – the manager of a sex shop who wasn’t hyper-sexualized. However, that portrayal also set her up to be the somewhat undersexed heroine who finally finds her sexual freedom with the book’s hero – which is essentially what happens to her. Further, her own shameful secret (which, when revealed late in the book, was way tamer than I had imagined) is supposed to be bad enough to make her father call her teenaged self all sorts of horrible names, and yet the man is presented in the novel as a loving, devoted father who is proud of his daughter for running a lingerie store, the lie she tells him to ward off his disapproval. It was difficult for me to see a man proud of his daughter for managing an underwear store as so disapproving of her as to warrant the fearfully perpetuated lie.

This untruth plays a large part in the story’s conflict via the Donovan Brewery burglary subplot that commenced in the first book, and it exemplifies a persistent issue I had with Beth’s character, namely that she was walking a line between being sexually open and confident but not too open and confident. I had this line-walking issue with several of the series protagonists, in fact, a sense that the envelope was simultaneously being pushed open and pulled slightly shut. Shame is a clear theme in all the books, and there were moments I felt that each book held back a little where it could have absolutely soared in its exploration of this provocative and multi-faceted theme. The series as a whole contemplates the process of overcoming shame and finding happiness in one’s own skin, and I appreciated the attempts to play the characters against type, even though I don’t think it always worked.

Reading the books in one shot probably exacerbated my response, and had I read Real Men Will without the other books, I would not have noticed Jamie’s regression nor been so shocked by information revealed about Eric’s past that would have helped clarify a lot in the first two books. And in the same way that Good Girls Don’t read stronger to me as part of the series, Real Men Will suffered a little bit, resolving into a B- read for me. Olivia and Jamie’s book turned out to be my favorite, but I am glad I read the series as a whole, and while I don’t think the books need to be read in order, I do think they are each enriched by the whole.

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~ Janet