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Megan Hart – “Deeper”

23 Sep

GENRE: erotic novel
PUBLISHED:

WHY THIS NOVEL: Love Megan Hart’s stories and the way she tells them.

Twenty years ago she had her whole life spread out before her. She was Bess Walsh, a fresh-scrubbed, middle-class student ready to conquer the design world. And she was taken. Absolutely and completely.

But not by Andy, her well-groomed, intellectual boyfriend who had hinted more than once about a ring. No. During that hot summer as a waitress and living on the beach, she met Nick, the moody, dark-haired, local bad boy. He was, to put it mildly, not someone she could take home to Daddy.

Instead, Nick became her dirty little secret– a fervent sexual accomplice who knew how to ignite an all-consuming obsession she had no idea she carried deep within her.

Bess had always wondered what happened to Nick after that summer, after their promise to meet again. And now, back at the beach house and taking a break from responsibility, from marriage, from life, she discovers his heartbreaking fate–and why he never came back for her. Suddenly Nick’s name is on her lips…his hands on her thighs…dark hair and eyes called back from the swirling gray of purgatory’s depths.

Dead, alive, or something in between, they can’t stop their hunger.

She wouldn’t dare.

After twenty years, Bess returns to the beach house of her grandparents, the beach house that she now owns. It’s the place she fell in love with Nick, the bad boy of the town, twenty years ago and the place she spent a hot and glorious summer at his side. Back then, she had her life ahead of her and she was looking forward to it. True, she suspected her boyfriend, Andy, cheated on her but there was Nick, and Nick made her look at her idea of love anew. Now she feels like she isn’t ready for what lies ahead. She’s recently separated from Andy, her husband of nearly twenty years (who again cheated on her), and after coming back to the beach house she just discovered that Nick is dead.

Based on the summary quoted above, I had no clear idea of what to expect from this story. Would Deeper be a ghost story? Would it be a story about a woman who imagines things to better deal with her grief? I had no preference either way but after reading the first few chapters I was fairly sure what kind of story it was (a ghost story). So I also had a rather clear idea what to expect of the romance and the ending.

Deeper is about a love lost and getting over it and about a woman who goes from saying “…she wasn’t sure she was ready for what lay ahead” (7) to a woman saying “…though [she] wasn’t sure she was ready for that, she was no longer fighting to make sure she’d never be” (376). To better understand how Bess gets from feeling not ready for what comes to being more open (and leaving the past), Deeper is divided into two parts: the summer twenty years ago, titled “Then,” and the summer present time, titled “Now.”

The summer twenty years ago Bess was twenty and working as a waitress during summer. She suspected her boyfriend Andy of cheating on her and was attracted to the bad boy of the town, Nick. This attraction got stronger and stronger and became something more, especially after she more or less had proof of Andy’s cheating. At first, Bess and Nick tried to be friends because of Andy but it was clear that there was more between them. They got together and as great as being together was, they also realized that they had to face a few problems (and reality) if they wanted their relationship to last longer than the summer. The summer twenty years ago tells how they tried to accomplish that.

The summer present time Bess is just divorced from her husband Andy. She comes back to the beach house where she’d met Nick and fell in love with him. Now, twenty years later, she still thinks of Nick and suddenly, he’s there. Only problem: while she’s twenty years older, he still looks the same (sort of “older-woman-younger-man pairing). At first, they don’t question, they are just happy to be together again. But slowly problems emerge and they steadily lead to a confrontation with the fact that Nick’s a ghost and what that means for them as a couple and individual. The summer present time tells how they try to make it work as a couple this time.

I really enjoyed reading Deeper although that’s not much of a surprise because I really like Hart’s voice and the way she tells her stories. There are two reasons that kept Deeper from being a “perfect” read. First was my impression that the “explanation” of how Nick could come back wasn’t really part of the story. There were some allusions to ghosts and there was a Ouija board but that’s about it. So rather than make me believe in the possibility of Nick coming back it pointed me towards how huh? that is. I would have preferred either a thought-out explanation of how Nick could come back or nothing at all.

The second reason was that I couldn’t shake the feeling that Bess was responsible for her heart ache twenty years ago. Really, there was a time or two I thought “poor Nick!” In addition, her realization that she was rather weak then and for the following twenty years (= more or less let things just happen) isn’t a main focus of the story though at least at the end there are hints that she takes more responsibility. I understood why she acted the way she did but still…a bit more realization on her part now (or a bit more backbone then) and all would have been better IMO.

But overall, these things bothered me only a little. Bess and Nick had good chemistry and I enjoyed their romance(s) a lot, the romance twenty years ago being my favorite (“good girl-bad boy” couple). I especially liked how the two summers and their stories paralleled each other and so enhanced the understanding. I found Deeper an interesting read because of its structure and an enjoyable read because of the romance(s). Like with the other novels I’ve read by her, I wasn’t disappointed by picking up a novel by Megan Hart.

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Jim Butcher – “Codex Alera” series, #1 – #4

18 Sep

I picked up the first book in this series by chance. I was looking for something fantasy to take with me on my vacation. I’d never heard of this series but I’d heard of Jim Butcher’s “Dresden Files” series and knew that many readers love it. So I thought “Why not?”

It was a good decision. Jim Butcher’s “Codex Alera” series looks to become one of my favorite fantasy series.

The Story

The story that connects the separate books in this series is that of an older (and weaker) getting High Lord (~ king) without an heir. A war of succession is looming and this situation causes two Lords in particular to think they should take a shot at establishing themselves as the next High Lord, preferable by not waiting for the High Lord to die of a natural cause.

That’s the background, and a boy, his uncle and aunt (they are brother and sister) are unwillingly drawn into this whole mess by the arrival of Amara, one of the High Lord’s agents who are called cursor, in their remote valley. Events are set in motion, other races, like the Marat and the Canim (I picture the Canims like this, a creature I first encountered in the PC game Baldur’s Gate) show up, and the series follows the boy and his uncle and his aunt as they have to leave their valley and struggle to do the right thing in a world that goes crazier and more dangerous with each year that passes.

All this is staged in a world with armies modeled after Roman Legions and a society that’s based partly on slavery, mostly in the south (rings any bells?). The magic in this world comes from furies, some kind of elemental beings. As people grow up, they show an affinity for certain elemental furies, usually one or maybe two, and kind of bond with one of those furies. Lords and Ladies can bond with stronger (and more) furies and the High Lord is overall the strongest fury crafter. Amara has a strong wind fury for example, and the aunt is a strong water crafter and the uncle strong in earth and flora crafting. Some crafters give names to their furies, and the kind of fury you bond with determines what you can do. A water crafter is a healer for example. A lot of things in this world rely on the ability to direct furies and a person without any furies at all is unheard of.

But one such person exists. It’s the young boy in the valley who’s fifteen at the start of the series and who’s called Tavi.

Furies of Calderon, Codex Alera #1

I actually wrote a short comment about this novel here so what follows is nothing new. This book sets the stage and introduces the characters. It’s also the book where the Marat first show up, a people similar in looks to the people who live in Alera except that they bond with animals and know nothing of fury crafting in the way the Alerans do. Plus the first hints at slavery and its problems show up.

I was really surprised by how much I liked this book. I went and bought the next in the series right away. The only “complaint” I had was that I thought the pace a bit too relentless: the characters stumble from one bad situation to a worse situation all the time.

Acedem’s Fury, Codex Alera #2

It’s about two years later. Tavi is in the capital at the Academy (think a bit Harry Potter), his uncle Bernard is heading the Garrison in the valley that’s guarding the way into Marat land, and Tavi’s aunt Isana is now a Steadholder in her own right, the only woman in that position in all Alera (a fact that makes her an important play ball in political matters).

At the start of the novel Bernard receives a warning from the Marat that an old enemy of the Marat has shown up, the Vord. The Vord come in different forms and sizes and are headed by a queen (think bees). There are spider-like creatures and there are small entities that can infiltrate another being and take over, making the infiltrated being a zombie-like creature (there are quite a few horror films based on that premise). And for some reason I picture some of the Vord creatures as looking like the aliens in the movie Alien.

So, the Vord are threatening Alera. They multiply at a rapid pace so time is of the essence, especially because fighting against them means HEAVY losses. The Marat took out one queen already but there are two queens remaining. Bernard sets out to destroy the one that hunkered down in the valley while Isana races to the capital to give warning, especially because it looks like the third queen is beelining for the capital itself.
So in Academ’s Fury, there’s the series’s ongoing political backstabbing for the position of the High Lord and there’s the thread of the Vord. Tavi, Isana and Bernard are drawn ever deeper into all this and on top of that all, the Canim come into play. They, of course, also pose a thread against the stability of the realm and mix things up.

I thought this book better written than the first in terms of pacing and characters’ development but funny enough I enjoyed the first one a tiny bit more (probably because I was so happy to have found a new fantasy series I thought I could like).

Cursor’s Fury, Codex Alera #3

Again, it’s a few years later. Tavi is send to a newly formed Legion as a cursor together with his friend Max. One of the aspirants to the High Lord’s position makes his move, Bernard is on a mission together with Amara to rally support for the High Lord so that the High Lord can win against his opponent, Isana is drawn ever more into the political intrigues, the Canim attack and Tavi finds himself in the midst of that battle.

Of course, there’s again development on the personal level, this time mostly Tavi’s as this book mostly follows him. While interesting, that actually made the pacing a bit odd, IMO. Bernard’s story line for example is mentioned in the beginning and then again near the end. It made sense because it involved lots of traveling and why recount that in between? But it made the whole a bit less well-rounded. I think that’s what “bothering” me. But nevertheless, I enjoyed reading it quite a lot.

Captain’s Fury, Codex Alera, #4

Again, lots of things going on (the war against the Canim come to a head, for example) and of course it’s again a few years later. It’s also the first book I thought there wasn’t an ethical problem mixed into the story. Before, quite a lot of what happens and the actions of the characters could be viewed as part of an ethical problem. In this book it’s much more subtle although it’s nowhere near one of the main elements in the novels before either. But still, I missed it a bit. What this novel does have is a world-changing development for at least two characters and what was white now actually now longer looks quite so white for one of the characters.

Once more, I really liked the novel and I’m looking forward to reading the next.

What I like about this series

  • The premise of the series (High Lord without an heir) implies several ethical questions which I find quite interesting and which are more or less addressed in the novels. Questions like what are you willing to do for the good of the realm, for example.
  • The series itself feels like a potpourri of history and popular culture elements. While there is nothing original about the world, the story or the characters, I really like how Butcher manages to make the well-known elements his own and turn it into something interesting and new. Well, I find the mix rather enjoyable to read.
  • I like that the different races (Aleran, Marat, Canim) have different views of things, things like honor for example, and that these views are set against each other and question and illuminate each other.
  • I like that nearly nothing is mentioned without a reason. Something you find odd can be resolved a few paragraphs later (like Isana reminiscence about her past in the middle of an action sequence). Something you think fell down by the wayside can get picked up later in the novel/series again. And then there are the little details that add up to a larger picture in the end (like the meaning of rings in a certain context, for example).
  • Last, but certainly not least, I really enjoy the way Butcher handles political intrigue and battles. I think that’s something the series is really good at.
  • Oh, and I like the things Kitai, a Marat girl, says, especially when she wonders about the differences between her people and Alerans and think the Alerans act stupid.

What kept me reading

The Codex Alera series is clearly an action-driven story. Characters do change and develop, world views are shattered and there are probably no completely black and white characters, but overall it’s the action that sets the pacing and character development. So what kept me reading when I usually prefer character-driven stories?

  • Isana’s story. I wanted to find out about her past and I hope for a good future for her
  • the ethical questions
  • I plain think that the author is good at what he does

~ * * * ~

And OMG I just realized that my copies don’t look the same even though they are by the same publisher. I’d always thought the books felt different but I’d also thought I’d imagined things (“it’s the same publisher!”). But oh, their size is different…

Me don’t like.

Sophia James – “One Unashamed Night”

21 Aug

GENRE: Romance / Historical
PUBLISHED: Harlequin Historical, 2010

WHY THIS NOVEL: I wanted to see how the hero’s poor eyesight was handled.

“Living in a gray world of silhouette, Lord Taris Wellingham conceals his fading eyesight from society. He has long protected himself from any intimate relationships.

Plain twenty-eight-year-old Beatrice-Maude Bassingstoke does not expect to attract any man, especially not one as good-looking as her remote traveling companion.

Forced by a snowstorm to spend the night together, these two lonely people seek solace in each other’s arms. The passion they unleash surprises them both. Then a new day dawns….”

One Unashamed Night begins with a carriage ride. It’s a public coach, it’s winter, it’s night, and one carriage wheel creaks more and more. Taris, the hero in this story, is the only one who notices because his fading eyesight has sharpened his hearing. Before he’s made up his mind if the creaks mean the wheel will break, it’s too late: the wheel breaks; one man is dead and the driver is badly injured. Taris and one of the two women in the carriage (of course that’s the heroine, Beatrice-Maude) go for help because at night, with the bad weather, it’s unlikely that help will come to them.

But on their way to the next village, Taris and Bea actually meet a rescue party. They tell Taris and Bea that there’s a barn nearby and they should seek shelter there while they go on to look after the other passengers. And so it comes to the night that gives this story its title.

Bea is a recently widowed woman of twenty-eight years. She was married with her husband for twelve years and is now on her way to London to start a new life. Her marriage was bad. Her husband drank, was a righteous prick and if Bea made so much as the wrong (in his opinion of course) squeak, he beat her. The last few years of his life he was seriously ill and Bea had to care for him. So now all Bea wants is to enjoy her freedom and finally live the life she dreamed of. After reaching the barn, she is mightily tempted to do more with Taris than just try to get warm again after being out in the freezing cold. He’s the most handsome man she’s ever seen while she considers herself plain, and who would know? Maybe there is more to love-making than she experienced in her marriage (which is nil).

Taris lives in a world of shadows. He knows that soon he will see not even them anymore. His poor eyesight is a secret only very few people know and he intends to keep it that way. He also likes to push himself, doing things like riding a public coach just to prove to himself that he’s not useless yet. The carriage accident is a disaster, of course, but because it’s night his handicap doesn’t show (too much) and he’s able to be useful for once. When later there’s the opportunity to spend the night with a woman who knows nothing about him and won’t see him again and realize his damage, he doesn’t say no.

Or course, fate (and Taris relatives) have other plans and Taris and Bea meet again. It’s a few months later and Bea established herself well in London. Her salon, rife with discussions about controversy subjects, is talked about in all of London and well received. She meets Taris again and although she thinks he sees herself beneath his notice (added along by his near blindness and the way he acted after their night in the barn), she’s still attracted to him. Taris couldn’t forget Bea either. The romantic conflict in large parts revolves around the idea that each thinks him/herself not good enough for the other.

Taris fears to be a burden to other people and even more so to Bea who nursed her sick husband for years and now yearns to live her life like she wants. Bea thinks there can’t be a future for them because of their different positions in society. Or course, it takes Taris some time to find out the truth about Bea’s marriage as it does Bea to find out what’s behind Taris’s lack of eye contact, for example, and the general air of arrogance that surrounds him. The romance itself seemed a bit bland to me.

There’s at least one situation when I didn’t quite get the motivation of the characters and there’s a mystery subplot that feels a bit unconnected and seems just to be there to get Taris to act at the end. Also, there are a few “fluffy” and tired romance elements like Bea dressing in colors and suddenly not looking so plain anymore (at least, it’s not as bas as every man who catches sight of her falls for her) or her becoming such a success so fast after living for more than ten years as a country bumpkin and beaten wife. So I half-expected the miraculous cure for Taris problem to show up at the end, too, but no.

On the plus side, these romance elements are tempered by darker tones when the story touches upon the rights (or non-rights) of women at that time or when Taris struggles to find a new sense of his identity in a life without sight. I also really enjoyed the way Taris fading eyesight was shown in the text, like here:

When he neither reached for it nor shook his head, she left it on her lap, the cap screwed back on with as much force as she could manage so that not a drop would be wasted. He had much on his mind, which explained his indifference, she decided, the flask and its whereabouts the least of all his worries. (17)

and what Bea made of his behavior.

Overall, I thought One unashamed Night a nice enough read although I wasn’t really captured by the story and the characters. So it’s very likely that I won’t read this one again but I can certainly see myself reading another novel by Sophia James.

Anne Stuart – “Fire And Ice”

10 Jul

TALK ABOUT LOST IN TRANSLATION…

In the wake of a failed love affair, brainy beauty Jilly Lovitz takes off for Tokyo. She’s expecting to cry on her sister Summer’s shoulder, then spend a couple months blowing off steam in Japan. Instead, she’s snatched away on the back of a motorcycle, narrowly avoiding a grisly execution attempt meant for her sister and brother-in-law.

Her rescuer is Reno, the Committee’s most unpredictable agent. They’d met once before and the attraction was odd– tattooed Yakuza punk meets leggy California egghead–but electric. Now Reno and Jilly are pawns in a deadly tangle of assassination attempts, kidnappings and prisoner swaps that could put their steamy partnership on ice.

Fire and Ice is the fifth book in the “Ice” series and it’s the story of Jilly and Reno. They met for the first time about two years (I think) before the start of Ice and Fire in Ice Blue, the story of Jilly’s sister Summer and Reno’s cousin Takashi. It was just a short meeting, more a glimpse, but they were both equally fascinated by each other, as unlikely as that seemed based on their outward appearance and their differences in background. Then Reno also was present in Ice Storm, the story before this one, and Fire and Ice starts where Ice Storm ends: with someone after the agents of the Committee. And that’s why Takashi and Summer are not where Jilly expects them to be when she drops by for an unscheduled visit* and why it’s up to Reno to see that nothing happens to Jilly.

I thought Fire and Ice could be interesting with the pairing of the carefree, no rules apply Reno and the brainy, unsure of her appeal Jilly. And it worked for some time for me. But not enough to make me not realize that Fire and Ice is basically a damsel-in-distress story. That’s what keeps the story together because otherwise, the plot is all over the place. First Jilly and Reno run from someone who works against the Committee, then there’s trouble within the organization of Reno’s grandpa, and then there is last part that happens in the US and that feels like it’s an afterthought to make the story longer based on a rather flimsy connection to what happened before. Hmm.

Sidenote: Jilly is supposed to be incredible brainy but other than telling that it is so, there was no evidence of it. This is no dig at the damsel-in-distress slant of the story: Jilly’s clearly out of her depth in nearly all situations and besides the kind of smarts needed there is a different kind of smarts than she’s supposed to have I think, so I didn’t mind that most of the time. I just would have preferred more than the mere mentioning of degrees or field of studies to show that Jilly is indeed an egghead (especially because there are times she could have acted a bit smarter; see below).

As for the romance, amidst all that running, Jilly and Reno are afraid to admit they are attracted to each other. Jilly thinks she’s unattractive – tall for a woman and a kind of recluse thanks to her being so smart she always was years ahead in school compared to kids her age. Reno is a firm believer in “sex, not love” and fears Jilly is different and not just because of the dire warning from his cousin, the husband of Jilly’s sister, to stay the hell away from Jilly. And even if Reno respects nothing, he at least respects family. Which means his cold behavior feeds Jilly’s insecurities about herself even more. Much angst ensues.

But yes, amidst all that running, Jilly and Reno fall in love. At least the novel’s end says so. I have to admit, I don’t know why. As I said, I enjoyed their “romance” (and the angst) in the beginning but no matter how much they worried about the futility of their attraction, it didn’t show me when or why their fascination with their differences turned into love so uhm…at the end of the novel, Jilly and Reno’s romance still only was a strong fascination with each other’s differences in my eyes.

And yet oddly enough, I liked this novel better than Ice Storm despite Ice Storm having the more convincing romance and the tighter plot and Fire and Ice having a heroine who throws the gun at the villain instead of firing it.

On its plus side for me: the angst-ing in the beginning, the Japanese background and setting, and – I suspect – the fact that Reno is based on a character from Final Fantasy: Advent Children, a movie which in turn is based on Final Fantasy VII a video game for the PlayStation (see more here – link to “The Final Fantasy Wiki”). If I should name one thing that shaped my love for games it would have to be Final Fantasy, Final Fantasy VIII to be precise (more on that in a later post perhaps). So that’s why I suspect that I’m a bit forgiving for Fire and Ice‘s shaky plot and romance: Fire and Ice gets a (major) point for “coolness” from me.

* Funny: In Ice Storm the reason why Reno shows up in London is that Jilly is coming to Japan to visit her sister for some time. The story in Ice Storm covers only a few days and Reno leaves at the end of it to look after Jilly in Japan, but in Fire and Ice Jilly’s visit to her sister is unplanned?

~ * * * ~

I think I’m done with novels by Anne Stuart. The only problem is, I loved Black Ice, the first novel in this series, and now I’m afraid to read it again and find it lacking.