Best Laid Plants

So I had this great idea. I would start a book blog so that I could talk about the books I love, to press them into the world's hands, if you will, the way I do my friends'.

The punchline, perhaps predictably, is that since I started trying to write about books in a focused way, there haven't been all that many books that i've loved. Of the 25 or so books I've read in 2009 fewer than five have met my admittedly undefined shout it from the rooftops standard. This isn't to say that I haven't enjoyed the remainder of the reading - there has only been one DNF since January 1 - just that I'm becoming aware that I may have set my boundaries here a wee bit narrowly.

What's a reader to do? I have little interest in initiating a rating system that would result in more posts for the sake of discussing books I may not actually like let alone love. I don't know (or honestly care) about doings amongst the publishers and, even if I did, I doubt I could do a better job than Dear Author or Smart Bitches Trashy Books. Racy Romance Reviews and Teach Me Tonight offer interesting and intellectually challenging commentary on the social issues surrounding the genre(s) I adore. I possibly couldn't do that better.

I've decided to expand my self-defined mandate. In addition to recommending fantastic books, I've decided to explore some of the steam of consciousness things that run through my head as I read. Why all these green-eyed heroines? Could I get a moratorium on the phrase "long moments" (Karen Marie Moning, I'm looking at you)? Where did all the golden-skinned Highland warriors come from? (Every Scottish guy I've ever met has been on the more fair side). Would I rather, er, have a well-experienced (but disease-free) hero who's searched all over time and space just for me or a virginal hottie who magically knows just what I like? Is it wrong that the words "Nathan Kamp" reduce me to a quivering puddle of estrogen?

The little voice inside my head is looking forward to having its own forum. Since a great portion of the pleasure I get from reading is the mental calculus that fits the text into the ever-growing puzzle of my life's experiences, exploring that running internal commentary should be great fun. Plus, I get to be totally mercurial and call it all good in blog-land. Nice work if you can get it.

Times Two: Tempt the Devil and When the Duke Returns

Last week I started reading Eloisa James’ When the Duke Returns. I couldn’t get really into the story and struggled for days to engage in what seemed to me should be a very compelling character-driven account of a couple bound together in every way but emotionally, and comprised of two people who fight and claw against their mutual desire and perceptions of each other and their shared (or not) history. I was able to finish the book and found it enjoyable enough but nothing that I’d rush to recommend. I decided not to post about it because it just didn’t work for me for reasons I couldn’t adequately explain.

Yesterday I began reading Tempt the Devil by Anna Campbell. This story, too, is character-driven examination of a couple bound together solely emotionally and comprised of two people who fight and claw against their mutual….hmmm. Interesting.

Tempt the Devil engrossed me almost immediately. Olivia Raines is London’s most celebrated courtesan, renowned for her physical skills and striking beauty. Completing the package over which the ton’s men compete is her insistence on the same freedom and independence enjoyed by her patrons, titillating in its gender-busting. The Earl of Erith is her latest protector, a man who long ago gave up on personal intimacies after a devastating loss and who recognizes almost immediately a fellow lonely traveler (albeit one who claims to be totally otherwise). As a couple they alternately cling to and repel each other, running and chasing by turns as they ever-so-tentatively reach out of their respective shells. It’s a fascinating story of giving and receiving more than one thought possible.

Reading it made me curious to take another look at When the Duke Returns. Although When the Duke Return's Isadore and Simeon are, in paper (ha!), completely different from Olivia and Erith they actually share key commonalities. Married for years although separated just as long by Simeon’s gallivanting around Africa, they have no idea who or what the other party is underneath the claims of selflessness where the other is concerned. He returns to England to take up the reigns of his estate (finding chaos and debt) and decides that he can’t handle his spirited, smart, sensual not-so-young-anymore wife – he’d expected a docile needle pointer and she's Just Too Much. While he was gone she ran her own estates quite successfully and bristles at the notion that she should set it aside merely because he's decided to return to his own legacies. So maybe he’ll annul the marriage?

She wants nothing more than to be a proper Duchess and decides in advance to accept her husband however he might present himself – she’d anticipated someone more conventional than the non-wig wearing, short-pants-donning, tanned, virgin. Her husband’s plan to annul their union strikes her like a physical blow and she vows that an annulment will not happen. How can their individual searches for respectability result in the need to create scandal to be free? The result is a dance of intellectual will, sex, shame, regret and both romantic and familial love (mixed in with secondary stories I, frankly, did not understand at all and skipped).

Here’s the thing. I didn’t really get When the Duke Returns until I had read Tempt the Devil. Although I had enjoyed the former well enough it didn’t really speak to me. Reading Olivia and Erith’s story put me in a place where I could relish the pas-de-deux of a complex, maybe-I-want-you-maybe-I-don’t relationship, where the charge to the Happily Ever After involves chess-like moves right up to the last page. If I wouldn’t necessarily rush to push either book into a friend’s hands, I would certainly encourage the bundle of both together. Somehow these two couples - one outside the bounds of propriety, the other wrenchingly seeking it – and their journeys work better as a pair than individually.

Talk Me Down (Victoria Dahl)

I am in red-hot fiery love with Victoria Dahl after reading her first two books, the fabulous historicals A Rake's Guide to Pleasure and To Tempt a Scotsman. When I learned that her third book would be a contemporary I felt confident that he might just be the author to get me over my reluctance to embrace modern settings in my romance reading.

Talk Me Down fulfills every hope my frazzled mind generated. Beautifully constructed, populated by fully-realized characters and with generous doses of Dahl's spicy dialogue and trademark humor, the book was just the thing to ease me into straight contemporaries (that is, books set in the current day and age, with nary a vamp or shifter to be seen).

Molly Jennings has returned to her hometown of Tumbleweed, Colorado after inheriting an aunt's house. She's looking for a fresh start and the means to escape the clutches of both a bad boyfriend and writer's block. Soon after her arrival, she runs into a childhood crush, the all grown-up and very sexy town Sheriff, Ben Lawson. The youthful attraction they share flares back to life while each copes with ghosts of the love, loss and disappointment they've experienced since their last meeting. Alog the way Molly finds a place in the very small town.

The book's villianry has a few Snidely Whiplash moment that detract from its ability to have a significant presence. As a driver for Molly and Ben's relationship, though, it provides an effective mechanism to help the protagonists come to terms with what they are experiencing with each other.

Among the interesting criticisms I've read about the book concerned Molly's insistence on privacy with regards to her job and her past relationships. More than one review labeled her in the TSTL category, given the consequences of Molly's caginess where her livelihood and her ex are concerned. As a woman with very definite personal boundaries (my my other blogs notwithstanding) I had no trouble identifying with Molly's orientation on these subjects. In a culture that encourages us to be transparent with every thought, I suppose that a heroine with a none-of-your-nevermind attitue might be difficult to accept. Molly's boundaries, however, directly relate to her family history, sense of personal worth and goals for her future. In this context, the privacy issue makes perfect sense to me.

Talk Me Down was a wonderful initiation into the world of contemporary romance. Those new, as I, to the genre as well as more experience readers more experienced will enjoy a strong, unique voice.

Kiss of a Demon King (Kresley Cole)

I've anticipated few books the way I have Kresley Cole's latest Kiss of A Demon King, part of her Immortals After Dark series. The entire series has impressed me with its self-validated and very strong - in every sense - heroines, and heroes that would really like a shot with the cool girl while they're taking care of whatever business their positions in the Lore (Vamps, Demons, Lycae, et. al.) require. Through the loosely interrelated stories, each couple fights a its own unique battle and comes to its own terms for dealing with not only the Accession - a cyclical time of war designed to reduce the numbers of immortals - but also with the same kinds of familial and tribal conflicts not unknown to us regular old humans (inlaws/outlaws, problematic siblings, the fallout of parental choices, etc., etc.). Kiss delivers the same kind of rolicking fun and sexy good time as its predecessors.

Sabine is the Queen of Illusions, a beautiful and powerful sorceress who is fully aware of the physical and mental benefits she brings to those with whom she chooses to align herself. Rydstrom is the deposed King of the Rage Demons desperate to regain his throne and save his people from the the cruelties of the impossible-to-kill Omort, who assumed residency in both his kingdom and castle after Rydstrom's fall. The circumstances of their meeting aren't what you'd call ideal, particularly since only Sabine is privy to the prophesy of their mating. Rydstrom rallies quickly, though, and soon the couple engages in an epic quest to best not only each other but those who pull their respective strings in a story that is both plot- and relationship-driven.

I adored this book. Seriously. I adored that Sabine wasn't changed improved by the end. Sure, she ends up in love and perhaps a wee bit rescued but, to paraphrase the movie Pretty Woman, she saves the hero right back and remains in full possession of her personality and peccadilloes. She's not a particularly nice woman at the dawn of the story and she's not particularly nice at the end of it, either. Yay! I love a heroine who isn't seen as needing improvement in some way. And I adored that Rydstrom retains his full measure of responsibility and adherence to duty, finding a way to fit Sabine into both rather than abandon either (or her). For Sabine and Rydstrom, love isn't about finding a perfect match as much as it is finding someone whose apparent imperfections compensate for their own self-imposed restraints.

Technically, the book is very good. Cole's world building is about as consistent as it gets and even when there is a little misstep the reader doesn't mind because the rest is so darn fun. Although readers new to the series don't necessarily have to read all the books I recommend at least the most recent, Dark Desires After Dusk, covering Rydstrom's brother Cadeon and his mate Holly, for a bit more of the backstory on Omort and his anxieties where the Demon brothers are concerned. The entire series takes place within a span of a few months and the stories overlap slightly but Cole handles the necessary infodump so skillfully that it hardly feels dumpy at all. Kresley Cole has set a high bar for paranormal romance with this installment in the Immortals After Dark series.

Let's Get Going Then

Demons? Dukes? I'm in.

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