Friday, October 30, 2009

Cirque du Freak #1: A Living Nightmare

A Living Nightmare (Cirque Du Freak, #1) A Living Nightmare by Darren Shan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Warning: I am keeping this review on the vague side because Shan's books are more fun if you don't know what's going on before you read them.

Well, this was a very interesting book. I didn't really like the idea of the freak show, but I did think that it was a novel way to introduce this story, and a different sort of motif for a children's series. I've seen this series at the bookstore for years now, and waffled about reading it. The freak show concept turned me off. I am just not into it, I must admit. I don't even like circuses (I went to a few as young child, but they are scary and sad to me). For some reason, This kind of reminded me of The Traveling Vampire Show by Richard Laymon, but these stories unfold quite differently, and the latter is not a children's book by any stretch.

A Living Nightmare is definitely written for a target audience of older children and younger teens. At some times, the writing seemed a bit juvenile. I feel bad for saying that. I think it's because I read Lord Loss first, which was about a teenager, but I feel was written in a way that seemed more mature and advanced enough that an adult reader didn't even notice that it was for children. I can't blame Mr. Shan for targeting a younger audience, if I chose to read a children's book. So I am not trying to sound judgmental or snooty. It was merely an observation on my part.

The beginning is very sound, and sets you up to hold your breath to see how 'Darren Shan' manages to get on the path that he is walking in life (or afterlife I should say). The descriptions of the freak show are somewhat interesting, but it's not something I find that exciting. Yet there are eerie moments that caught my imagination as I waited to see what would happen next.

'Darren Shan,' which is a psuedonym, (Since this is written as a boy telling his story, there is a foreword that states that all the character's names are made up to protect the real life people) is a protagonist that you can feel for. He is just a boy, not evil, and not super-good either, and he makes some bad decisions that come back to haunt him. He doesn't always own up to his faults, but in the end, he makes a choice that I admired for its maturity. In fact, the repercussions of this choice actually made me cry. It just struck me as pretty awful what has to happen in order for things to work out for Darren's family. I was really impressed that Darren Shan (the author) was fearless enough to incorporate this aspect into a children's book.

The look at vampire lore had a life of its own. It had some familiar conventions, but the manner in which a person becomes a vampire was something I haven't read anything like before. That part was pretty cool, and some of the mechanism of vampirism and how they apply to Darren's situation specifically.

I thought Darren had a very good relationship with his family, and I really liked how he was so close and loving with his younger sister, Annie. It was sweet how they got along so well and loved and watched out for each other. Darren has a complicated relationship with his best friend, Steve, who is a very troubled boy, and a catalyst for the events that occur in this book. This relationship will continue in the later books with some twists that I look forward to reading.

I decided to give this book four stars because it's a good book and it was fun and involving. There were scenes where I gasped out loud. I was waiting for dinner and I actually groaned on a part that was pretty shocking and outrageous. The guy standing across the way from where I was sitting looked at me and smiled. I smiled back sheepishly before I was quickly immersed back into this story. That said, I must admit that, had read I this before Lord Loss, I would really be cheering. But Lord Loss set me up for higher standards that this one didn't quite meet. However, I can see children and some adults who like eerie, yet fun little vampire suspense tales targeted towards older children, really getting a kick out this story. I definitely want to continue the series to see what happens to Darren, because this story is just getting started.

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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Seduce Me at Sunrise by Lisa Kleypas

Seduce Me at Sunrise (The Hathaways, #2) Seduce Me at Sunrise by Lisa Kleypas

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Ms. Kleypas has managed to impress me yet again. She writes some of the most beautiful, most romantic love stories I've ever read. And this one is up there on my list of premier Lisa Kleypas novels. Seduce Me at Sunrise has one of those love affairs that is so intense and enduring, how could I possibly not love it? Kev Merripen fell in love with Win Hathaway even before he saw her. The Hathaways took him in when he was found badly injured and left for dead, despite him being a Gypsy. They nursed him back to health and treated him with a kindness that was foreign to him. And that is how he met Win. He felt her presence and it drew him to her. He willed her to come into his sickroom, and when she did, he grabbed her and didn't want to let her go. Over the years, not an ounce of his intense, violent love for her changed, even though Merripen did not think he was good enough for her. He was raised by his tribe to be the most ruthless, the most violent fighter. Gentleness was literally beaten out of him. But nothing could take away the love he had for Win.

Win loved Merripen at first sight as well. He was like a wild, beautiful creature that claimed her heart. When she fell ill with scarlet fever, for years she believed she could not possibly have a normal life. Yet the hope of being with Merripen in all the ways a woman can be with a man encouraged her to get her health improved. Two years later, she returns, hoping to get Merripen to see that they belong together. Yet he resists, even though the force of his love makes him want to kill any man that might claim her.

To be honest, Merripen was frustrating me. He was giving out some serious mixed signals. I felt bad for Win, because she decided to move on with her life, but he wouldn't let any man near her. And then he does something that was pretty wrong, in my opinion. I was holding my breath, hoping he'd come through and he didn't. I wanted to get out my shovel to hit him over the head then and there. But Ms. Kleypas allowed me to see the motivations and the anguish inside of Merripen. Why he would push away the thing he wanted/needed most in the whole world. Because he wanted what was best for her. And seeing Merripen's motivations coming out of love allowed me to forgive him.

This book was so beautiful in the intense love between this couple. I wanted to savor the scenes of them interacting, the words exchanged. Merripen might think he is a brute who is unworthy of Win, but his actions always spoke differently. There was no question he would die and go to Hell many times for Win. That kind of love cannot help but appeal to me, being the die-hard romantic that I am.

I liked both characters a lot. Even though some of their actions frustrated me, Merripen moreso. He was really a product of his terrible childhood, but he managed to rise above that, and become a good, productive, caring person (although he didn't see himself that way). Win had a sweetness about her. Her belief in the trueness of the love between her and Merripen was a guiding force. Her sweet, loving nature was a cornerstone in the Hathaway family. One of the things I love about the Hathaway series is how the brother and sisters are all shown to be so unique, and committed to each other, even if they don't always get along. Merripen and Cam fit in so perfectly, like the last two pieces of a puzzle (along with the intriguing Miss Marks, the governess who gets along with Leo Hathaway like cats and dogs. Hmm???? What's going on there??).

As usual, Ms. Kleypas beautifully describes the scenery, the characters, and the settings. The luscious descriptions of everything makes me want to get sucked into the book so I can experience it all first hand. Her love scenes are so intense and descriptive in a way that is very sensual without being vulgar. They are earthy, yet elevated at the same time. You feel the love connection between the characters.

I liked how this story was very much a family story, in addition to being about the relationship between Merripen and Win. The Hathaways are such a fun, interesting family to read about. They seem to take everything in stride, and continue to add more people the fold without any fuss. I'm excited to read about Poppy, Beatrix, and Leo's happy endings. I must say I am overjoyed to see Leo starting to pick up the pieces of his life and moving on with some purpose. I think that Miss Marks will give him something to focus on, along with his renewed interest in architecture. In this story, we get to see the relationship between Leo and Merripen; how Leo is able to help Merripen see that giving up what he wants most in the world might be a foolish move on his part, because love is too precious to waste. If anyone knows what it's like to lose one's love, it's Leo. It was funny how the Hathaways treated Win and Merripen like they were a foregone conclusion, even thought Merripen is slow on the uptake about it.

It was also enjoyable to see the love affair/marriage of Cam and Amelia continue. What a great couple. They have the kind of marriage you wish for. Amelia is a singular woman, who I find strong but gentle at the same time. She's quite the mother hen, taking care of her brood, including husband, brother and sisters, and Merripen, who is like a brother to her. Cam is such an interesting character. I could vividly see him and picture the sometimes outrageous things he would say and think. It's very interesting to see how he and Merripen interact and what the repercussions are of their association.

Once again, I have read another Kleypas that I can easily give five stars. Her writing is always great, but she gets even better with each new book. I admire that she does her research to treat the historical Victorian setting with respect, and managed to weave in the fascinating Romany culture so well in this story. This might be a love story, but it is also a great fiction book with different nuances that make it enjoyable on many levels. But the one aspect that sent me to the moon when I was reading it, was the intense, enduring, burning-hot love between Merripen and Win. You know that fifty years from when this book ends, they will be just as much in love, if not moreso. That's romance to this reader.

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Monday, October 26, 2009

Dracula by Bram Stoker

Dracula (Puffin Classics) Dracula by Bram Stoker

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I highly recommend reading this to any fans of the vampire genre. It is a commitment and investment for the reader, but it is worthwhile. While Dracula is not the 1st vampire novel/story, it has firmly established many of the conventions of the vampire genre. I must say that no movie version I have watched does this justice. Bram Stoker's Dracula might have been a somewhat faithful rendition, but it took unforgivable liberties with the relationship between Mina and Dracula, and downplayed the deep, abiding love between Mina and Jonathan. In addition, it portrayed Dracula as a seductive, lovelorn and sympathetic character. He is none of these. Dracula is a complete and utter fiend. He is unrelenting evil, and I spent this whole book waiting for him to get what he deserved.

I love the use of letters and correspondence to tell the story. It was added an authenticity to this story by revealing the narrative through written details of events. One would think that this would create a distance between the reader and the story, but strangely it does not. Instead it infuses the story with a human element, as we see things unfold through the eyes of the humans who witnessed everything. In addition, the diary entries from Jonathan Harker, Mina Murray (soon to be Harker), Lucy Westenra, and John Seward show the emotional impact of the characters to the horror of Dracula.

Dracula is very much a Victorian work. It is clear what the mores were at that time in reading this story. It is also evident how society is changing as time speeds towards the 20th Century (this book was published in 1896). The attitudes towards women as sweet, beloved creatures who should be loved and adored is very much in evidence. However, Mr. Stoker took the time to show that Mina has a powerful role and usefulness beyond what was expected of her as a woman of her times. In fact, she plays a very pivotal role in this story. Because of the connection between Dracula and herself, she cannot be relegated to a second class citizen in this story. In addition, her view of the situation shows much about how Dracula managed to to wreak his reign of terror over poor Lucy and how devastated Jonathan was from his early encounter with Dracula. Mina turns out to be a real heroine in this story. She is very resourceful, and her methods are a great help in the process of understanding what Dracula is, and tracking him down. I felt for her when she was under his thrall, because her love for Jonathan was true, as well as her abhorrence of the evil of Dracula and how it had affected her. Those scenes added a psychological component to the horror element in this book.

This book is not a thrill a minute book. It might be a horror story, but it's also a crime novel, in that the group composed of Drs. Van Helsing and Seward, Jonathan and Mina Harker, Quincy Morris, and Arthur Holmwood spend much time trying to track and defeat their prey, Dracula. Readers should approach this story from with this in mind. There are some moments that are truly unnerving and scary, all the same, but they are used with good effect. I would be reading right along, and then something really scary would happen. When my heartrate went back to normal and I fell back into the procedural-type narrative, another creepy moment would occur. Thus, my investment of diligent reading paid off, for those scary moments were quite suspenseful.

Readers should also be aware that the characters tend to be along sentimental lines. They are good, decent people. They cry and feel sorrow. The men might be brave, but they are not afraid to break down and sob out their anguish. I admired each of the protagonists that I was supposed to admire: Mina, Jonathan, John/Jack Seward, Van Helsing, Arthur, Quincy, and the poor, unfortunate Lucy. Each of them invest their heart and life into tracking and destroying the beast. This might strike a modern reader as being too good to be true. But in the historical context, I didn't have trouble with it. I might expect different characterizations for a modern vampire novel.

I found that issues that I had with the recent movie adaptations of Dracula did not exist in this novel. Mina is not played as the good, innocent foil for the sexually adventurous and slightly wanton Lucy. Lucy is a sweet girl who was preyed on and destroyed by Dracula. Mina is not a fickle woman who would abandon her true love for the seductive wiles of the vampire Dracula. That always bothered me about the movies. I didn't see why poor Lucy was deserving of what happened to her. Even if she had been a wanton, she still wouldn't have deserved what happened to her. Reading about her demise was extremely difficult, not to mention the effect it had on the loved ones she left behind. Additionally, I dislike how throwaway the love that Mina had for Jonathan is portrayed in the movies. I'm glad it was not this way in the book.

Renfield is a character who has been played for laughs in many of the Dracula adaptations and knockoffs. In the original novel, he is a character to be pitied. He was seduced by Dracula, subsequently losing his reason. There are glimpses of his formerly formidable intellect and sanity, as well as a sense of right and wrong that shone through, causing me to feel sorry for him. Particularly when he warns Seward not to keep him in the Asylum. If only Seward had listened.

Drs. Seward and Van Helsing are physicians and men of science with profound respect for each other, but who tend to look at situations differently. Dr. Seward is very much a rationalist. He tries to approach Lucy's strange illness from a completely scientific perspective, yet Dr. Van Helsing is a learned man who is trained in modern medical science (as well as a pioneer in medicine), but gives credence toward the ancient beliefs, and whose knowledge is shored up by his faith in God. The struggle that Seward faces in having to accept that Lucy's demise is due to a powerful supernatural entity is evident as we read his journal entries. Van Helsing is seen through the descriptions of the diary entries of Mina, Jonathan, and Seward. I found Van Helsing quite the character. Without at doubt, he's my favorite in this book, although I found some of his lines hard to read because of the fact that it is written as though English was his second language (which it was). He is a man of compassion, although with a tendency towards bluntness. I like that he's able to think his way out of difficult situations, but also relies on faith against his demonic enemy.

The movies tend to emasculate Jonathan, but he is a very strong character to have survived his imprisionment in Dracula's castle, with his body and his sanity intact. His conviction to protect Mina at all costs, despite knowing the depths of the power of his enemy speaks to me. He might not be a he-man, but he is definitely a worthy man mate for Mina.

Arthur Holmwood is a noble, yet he is not protrayed as a prig. He is very down to earth, and willing to do his part to destroy Dracula and to see justice done for his beloved Lucy. I admit I tended to picture Cary Elwes (an old crush of mine who played Holmwood in Bram Stoker's Dracula about 50% of the time). He definitely rose to the occasion, despite the seemingly insane ravings of Van Helsing about Un-dead creatures, and the need to drive a stake through the heart and cut off the head of his beloved.

Quincy Morris embodies the Texan spirit in the very best of ways. His devotion to Lucy and later Mina causes him to risk his life in the struggle against Dracula.

Don't look for a sexy creature of the night in this book. Dracula is a horrid, evil beast. When he meets his demise, I didn't feel one iota of sympathy. I was cheering instead. It's refreshing to read about evil vamps without any charisma for once (and this from a paranormal romance fanatic).

This book is a delicious work to have read. I'm glad I attempted it when I could fully appreciate its genius. I freely admit when I read it in high school, I wasn't ready for it. It took me the better part of the week, but I found myself eager to keep reading, despite the somewhat antiquated language. I wanted to see how things would unfold. You might think, "Well Dracula is old hat. I've seen many vampire movies. It's all the same." I'd tell you, not so. You should read this book if you're a vampire fan. You will find a resonance that is lacking in most of the modern vampire fare, with its classic setting, genuine characters, and the tangible essence of the unearthly evil of the vampire. And to think that Stoker wasn't quite as glutted on the rich milk of the vampire legends as us modern vamp fans are. Maybe that's why this book felt so authentic to me.

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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror by Chris Priestley

Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror by Chris Priestley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror turned out to be a good choice to read for my 2nd Annual October Scare Fest. It's a creepy and unsettling book that features a story within a story narrative.

Uncle Montague tells his young nephew (more like great, great nephew) chilling tales based on knick-knacks and artwork the old gentleman has in his creepy house. These stories are short and edgy, with endings that are quite disturbing (for a children's book). In short, horrible things happen to some of these kids in these stories, or they do horrible things. For that reason, I wouldn't suggest this for a child under ten (hopefully a mature ten). These stories that Uncle Montague tells are very much morality tales, in which bad children get punished and people pay for their sins. A couple don't fall into this framework, but all have pretty unsettling endings. There is one story that I found very dark indeed, and I don't think I read anything that dark when I was a kid. I don't want to spoil anyone, but let's just say that paying attention to these stories is important, because it ties into the main frame story with Uncle Montague and his young nephew.

I thought Mr. Priestley did a very good job with his descriptions of the settings in which this story takes place. They add to the eerie feel of the narrative.

Enthusiasts of Victorian/Edwardian periods will enjoy this book, because it definitely has that gothic, 19th to early 20th century appeal. The supernatural elements are prominent in these stories, making it an ideal read for this time of year, and for fans of supernatural fiction who want a shorter book to enjoy.

One detracting element for me was how abrupt most of the stories ended. Perhaps this was the writer's way of lessening the brutality and disturbing aspects of the story. However, I wish that there were smoother transitions at the ends of each story.

Because this story succeeded in providing a few hours of chills and thrills, and had very good ambience, with lots of creepy moments, shadows, and menacing elements make this a successfully atmospheric read, I give it four stars. I should warn an older reader who is very seasoned in horror that he or she might not find these stories very scary. They would classify more as a lighter read for a person who has cut his/her teeth on dark fare. However, this book strikes me as a very effective scary book for younger or light horror readers. This might even be a good book for a Halloween party for older kids, reading by flashlight, candlelight, or the fireside. And the boys and girls with a tendency to be 'bad' should pay very close attention to avoid the mistakes of the unfortunate children in these stories!

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Friday, October 16, 2009

BRPD #4: The Dead by Mike Mignola, John Arcudi, Guy Davis

B.P.R.D.: The Dead (Volume 4) B.P.R.D.: The Dead by Mike Mignola

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I am so glad I chanced upon this graphic novel at Half Price Books, even though it's out of order. It didn't affect my understanding or enjoyment in the slightest. I have enjoyed the Hellboy movies, which inspired me to read the Hellboy comics and graphic novels, which in turn gave me the encouragement to read the BPRD spinoff. I am now hooked on this series.

I enjoyed the artwork and the writing. I was laughing out loud like a crazy girl, and I was gasping with unease on some parts. This was a fun ride. Sign me up for more. If you like anything with an occult detective feel, have a yen for folklore (such as homunculi--Roger is a BRPD team member who doesn't like to wear pants and happens to be one), have an interest in history with an arcane leaning (such as Nazi occult dabblings to win the war), you will love Hellboy and the BRPD.

Now go out and pick up this graphic novel series. I know I definitely need to get the others to read.

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Born of Night by Sherrilyn Kenyon

Born of Night (The League, #1) Born of Night by Sherrilyn Kenyon

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Okay, I think I am an official futuristic/space romance convert now. I loved what Ms. Kenyon did with this concept. I thought she did a very good job with the world-building, but I caught a couple of 'slips' where she would describe things that I really had trouble believing they would have in a futuristic setting on another planet. But then I have no creativity when it comes to making up technological devices and futuristic settings, so I can hardly judge her. Overall, I was happy and I didn't find those rare instances jarring. I think she did a great job coming up with the different cultures and races. It wasn't to the degree that I got bored, and neither was the technological references. I don't like my sci-fi to be top heavy with this kind of stuff. Just enough to make me believe the setting, thanks very much.

Some of the aspects with the League of Assassins Academy and the political structure aspects reminded me vaguely of Star Trek, but this book is not very much in that vein at all. If anything it is more like Firefly. Sigh. Yes, I definitely had happy reminders of the short-lived but brilliant show Firefly with this book. The characters aren't that similar but some of the aspects of the universe and the social/political structures are. There is the whole fancy politically-structured universe paired to the backwater planets theme that is prevalent in the Firefly universe. Also the group of smugglers and outlaws that Nykyrian associates with reminds me of heavily of the crew and passengers of Serenity, and some of the folks they encounter in the various episodes. That's where the similarity ends, because this story is Classic Sherrilyn Kenyon. Sorry, Malcolm Reynolds lovers. There is no Mal character in this book. But we have Nykyrian, and he rules this book.

A newbie to tortured heroes? Meet Nykyrian Quikiades. This man takes the cake for this hero archetype. Was that a bad thing for this reader? Certainly not. I love tortured heroes. Nykyrian earns his spot on my hero to die for list. I found myself rooting for him, crushing on him, and almost crying for him, and deeply feeling for him. That's a good sign.

And Ms. Kenyon reaffirms to me why I love her books with this novel. She writes romance novels that read like my favorite action/adventure movies (with the amped up romance that is usually missing from some of my cinematic fare of my choice). I know I talk about movies a lot when I review books. I can't help it. I am a Movie Buff and a Bookworm. Those areas often overlap for me. Anyhoo, there is a bit of Cleric John Preston in fair Nykyrian. Oh, yes. That is a good thing, since Cleric John Preston from Equilibrium is a Certified, Grade A Badass. So is Nykyrian. He is absolutely lethal and he doesn't have to concentrate to be that way. His lethality is actually hard for Kiara to deal with after he goes futuristic/medieval on some badguys who were trying to kill her. I had a little bit of a "I want to slap the heroine of this book really hard" moment when she treats him like garbage afterwords. I told myself to calm down and remember what she went through. She had been kidnapped and was tortured, had to watch her mother be tortured and killed, was almost murdered herself, and had survived several other attempts on her life. I could understand her dislike of violent people. However, there are some instances where violence is the answer for other violence. In other words, she lives in a shades of gray universe, not a black and white one. She should have been more conscious of that before she started condemning Nyk and his colleagues. There are many instances of violence towards her and the other characters, that really did demand a response in kind.

I was really glad that Nykyrian's friend Syn told her off. She needed to hear that because she had badly misjudged Nyk. I a not a fan of cruel bullies and conscienceless murderers (despite my love of antiheroes and assassins). It was clear to me early own that this was so not Nykyrian. I think that Kiara really needed a reality check on Nyk. She has a couple of moments where she shows some emotional immaturity that irked me, but overall, she really comes through for Nyk. So I guess she can have him (even though I want him all to myself).

He's got so much damage and pain in his past, present, and future. Ms. Kenyon says in the introduction that she added back the parts that the publisher would not allow in the first publication since they were too intense. Yup, they were intense. She definitely didn't pull her punches with this one. I haven't read Acheron yet, so I don't know if Ash had it worse, but gosh I don't know if I'll be able to stand it if he did. Nykyrian really had a crap life. Some really awful things happen to him, so the reader should be warned that some of this is not pretty at all. But it really helped me to understand the person that he is. No wonder he doesn't trust anyone and is cold, isolated, and lethal, or maintains a facade to this effect.

Kiara was a good heroine. She had her moments where she annoyed me, but she turns out to be the right woman for Nyk. Ms. Kenyon doesn't seem to do tormented heroines, and Kiara isn't exactly one. But she's had some bad stuff happen in her past that flavors her and gives her added depth. I liked the aspects of her career as a dancer. I think Ms. Kenyon must have known a dancer or have been a dancer, because this felt very authentic.

The love scenes are very light, so don't read this expecting a lot of steam. But I didn't mind that at all. I liked them, because they showed the tenderness and the connection between Nykyrian and Kiara.

I'm loving Nyk's friends and sidekicks. They were all very interesting, adding to the flavor of this book. The dialog between them was great. Kenyon certainly knows how to turn on the snark and have you laughing. My favorite secondary character was Syn. I'm excited to read Syn's story. He's funny and interesting, and he's got a lot of anguish that should make for an interesting journey in his novel. I also really liked Darling. I hope he gets his happy ending (although it wouldn't be the traditional boy/girl kind of romance).

I don't want to give spoilers, but readers will find that Nyk's past intersects very heavily with his future, giving him closure and opens a door for new beginnings. I must say I enjoyed that aspect of this story.

I'm very glad that this League series came back into print. I love the setting and the characters, and it meets my sci-fi-loving needs, with some great romance and action in a wonderful combination. I look forward to reading the rest of the books in the series.

FYI: The short story in the Man of My Dreams anthology is about Nykyrian and Kiara's son. It's awesome.

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Millionaire's Calculated Baby Bid by Laura Wright

Millionaire's Calculated Baby Bid (Silhouette Desire) Millionaire's Calculated Baby Bid by Laura Wright

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This was a pretty good book. I think Ms. Wright has a way with words. However, I did have some issues reading this book that knocked the rating down quite a bit.

The big lie that Mary told was NOT OKAY. I know that technically Ethan was in the wrong, but it was vicious and wrong how she lied. She was very underhanded in what she did and she hurt him pretty bad. I can understand to a certain degree why she did it, but I didn't like this decision that she made, and how she dragged it out until she had to come clean. Yes, he blackmailed her, but she had a choice to say yes or no. And he was upfront about what he was doing. I think any moral high ground Mary had was lost with the lie that she told.

That lie really bothered me, but I suppose I could have gotten past that, but what started as a compelling book, sort of changed into a run of the mill modern relationship drama. Nothing wrong with those, but generally they don't interest me the way the blackmail, revenge, enemies to lovers themes interest me. I read romance to get away from the mundane. And frankly, relationship drama is very mundane to me.

I thought the love scenes were well-done, and there was intense chemistry between the characters. Mary was a little cold and detached for my tastes, although that didn't seem to extend into the bedroom. A cold heroine doesn't bother me most of the time, but the execution makes the difference for me. Even though the author planted seeds about Mary being a caring person and putting others first, I didn't really see her as being that warm and caring, although she did show some warmth with her father. I liked Ethan. He definitely had issues, but I found him compelling and interesting. It was clear that he was a decent human being, although Mary didn't seem to think so at first, and maybe he didn't want the world to see him that way.

I had issues with the fact that Ethan seemed to do a lot more grovelling than Mary did. He apologized and made amends for the blackmail attempt, and was upfront about his issues with being born on the wrong side of the tracks. But I'm not sure that Mary really met him halfway. I would have liked to see her open up more and admit to her issues, and apologize more for the lie she told. The unequal feelings and emotional vulnerability level between the hero and heroine is a big sticking point for me. I don't like to see one person eating their heart out, while the other just selfishly sucks up the affection and love vibes. I got a bit of that from this book.

All in all, a decent read, but this book wasn't a keeper for me. Maybe if it had proceeded in the intriguing way it started, I might have felt differently. This is more of a 2.5/5.0 star read, but I'll bump it up to 3 stars.

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Saturday, October 10, 2009

Strange Adventure by Sara Craven

Strange Adventure by Sara Craven

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is the third time I've tried to write this review. I don't know if it's because my brain is fried after this week, or because I want to say good things about this book and just had trouble saying the right way.

I love the old school Harlequin Presents, and this book reminds me why. What has became cliched about my favorite (other than the Harlequin Historicals) Harlequin/Silhouette series, was authentic and fulfilling in the older books. I happens that this was the first book that Sara Craven (who is one of my favorite authors in this series) wrote for Harlequin Presents, and it's from 1977. It was her second book (her first is a Harlequin Romance that I have put on my to buy list), and it's very well-written.

The narrative is such that you don't lose interest. In fact, I put this book down last night because I was tired, not out of boredom. I picked it up first thing when I woke this morning and quickly finished it.

The heroine is very young, seventeen, when this story begins. She's convent-educated, and innocent, but she's not too stupid to live. In fact, she seems more mature than some of the newer, older and experienced heroines that are written about in this series nowadays. I don't mean to put down the newer Harlequin Presents so much. They just disappoint me because I know how good this line used to be. So, I am sorry if I sound so disparaging of the current Harlequin Presents. She makes some choices that are not ideal, but her reasons are justified by her innocence and by the information she has to work with. The hero is also a character that you can visualize as a credible, three-dimensional person, and not a caricature of a virile, Mediterrean hero that is seen so much in the current Harlequin Presents books. He's not over-sexed, with a bevy of past and current mistresses, and he's not a jerk, but he is a hero that you hope the heroine chooses. Yes, he does the kissing to punish the heroine, but he leaves it at that. In fact, he turns out to be a very good, decent person, even if Lacey believes the worse of him from the beginning.

There are the classic elements of this series: the evil stepmother (which can be interchanged with an ex-mistress, sister, scorned suitor, etc), and the arranged marriage. But these elements are utilized beautifully to tell an interesting story that is not built around semi-meaningless sexual encounters set in a upscale, jet-setting environment. This is a fully-realized romance in which the sensual moments are implied rather than detailed. Yet there is a current of attraction that I felt was intense enough to make this book exciting to read. The English countryside and the Greek island where this book is set are secondary characters that are beautifully-described (probably a large reason why I enjoy the Harlequin Presents, armchair traveler that I am). And Troy (the hero)'s young half-sister has a pivotal role in this story that I feel compliments the narrative, instead of detracting from the romance.

You have to dig these kinds of books to enjoy Strange Adventure. But if you do indeed enjoy stories about the growing love between a young woman and an exciting man of the world, and the intrigue related to the secrets between them threatening to tear them apart, I think you'll like this story too.

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Friday, October 09, 2009

Lord Loss (The Demonata #1) by Darren Shan

Lord Loss (The Demonata, #1) Lord Loss by Darren Shan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
In writing this review, I shall have to be very careful not to spoil this book. In a word, this was fantastic. I truly enjoyed reading it. I had no idea what to expect and that's part of the fun, so I won't enlighten you about what this book is about.

Go into reading this book as an adventure. The beginning is shocking, to say the least. But don't give up. Keep reading. Accompany Grubbs on his journey. Watch the mundane slide into the nightmare dimensions that we hope not to encounter in this life. Have fun doing it. You certainly will.

Darren Shan is one heck of a writer. There is a beauty in how he takes such a grim subject and makes it interesting, and in some moments, laugh out loud funny. I'm in awe. I have not read very many books that are written in the present tense, so it was a little different at first. But I must say that doing so really kept me in the moment and part of the action. You really are right there with Grubbs when his life implodes, for lack of a better word. In my opinion, Mr. Shan has taken a little bit of that Lovecraft and Barker vibe and made it more fun, accessible and palatable for this reader. Yet there is no doubt that he has established his own voice that will keep me coming back for more of his books.

The storyline is such that you wonder how things will connect together. Be patient. All will be revealed. And I was very impressed with the result. I think I should take up chess. Just in case it comes in handy.

I will say no more. Read this book, if you're brave enough. I would advise against reading at night and while you're alone. I read it during the day and I was by myself, and I did okay (no nightmares/trouble sleeping). And I don't think I'd let a child under a mature for his/her age 12 (and that's being generous) read this book. It contains some, not too many, gruesome scenes and violence, and dark subject matter.

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Thursday, October 08, 2009

Face in the Frost by John Bellairs

The Face in the Frost The Face in the Frost by John Bellairs

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
What an unusual book. Although this book is only 174 pages, it took me a long time to read it. So much going on. There is no real way to say what time period this book is set in. It seems to be that generic medieval-esque period of historical fantasy, yet the narrative is overflowing with anachronisms. This is a story that it is helpful to read while a web browser is open to

At times a little dry and in other times really unsettling, and quite humorous in parts, this fantasy is about a smackdown between master wizards. And what a meandering journey it takes to get to the final confrontation, which really doesn't last that long. I don't know if this was ever made into a movie, but I think it would make a very cool movie, live action, or animated. The urge would be to make it a kid's movie, but this is too dark for the average child. Maybe a young teen or preteen.

On the cover of my edition (which appears to be from 1969 since this book has a cover price of $1.75), a quote from Ursula K. LeGuin says this book is "Aunthentic fantasy by a writer who knows what wizardry is all about." I'd have to agree with that quote. This is a book for fans of wizards and magic. Although it was a chore to read (likely the small print, dense narrative, and crazy and hard to follow plot), I don't regret reading this one. I'm glad I did.

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Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Winter Roses by Diana Palmer

Winter Roses (Long, Tall Texans) (Harlequin Romance #3985) Winter Roses by Diana Palmer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Reading Diana Palmer is very much a comforting experience for me. She's like a favorite aunt who I can sit down with, sharing some time, and listen to her tell me an engaging story that will take my mind off the troubles in the world.

She did this with Winter Roses. It's a combination of something old and something new. Similar type of hero and heroine, but there is something in the story that does make it a unique read at the same time.

Ivy has a sister who is fairly malevolent. This is a new thing for Diana Palmer. I've seen the scenario with the less than ideal parent, or sibling. But for the sister to be straight-up evil was a different touch. Ivy's sister Rachel did everything she could to make Ivy's life a living hell. She discredited her to everyone she could, spreading stories about Ivy being promiscuous. She lied to Ivy's father and had him believing that Ivy wasn't even his own daughter. She exploited their father's drinking and told him lies about Ivy that lead to her being beaten and abused by the father. And she engineered things so that when the father died, he left nothing to Ivy. If she could have, she would have left Ivy destitute, were it not for a small bequest made to Ivy by her aunt. Rachel was also a drug addict and a drug seller. I think she is one of the few genuinely evil female characters I've encountered in a Diana Palmer book. That was definitely something new for me.

Ms. Palmer continues the ongoing storyline of the drug cartel that is trying to take over Jacobsville. Old favorites from her books unite to help to take down key players in the drug business. Fans of Cash Grier will be happy to read this book, as he has a pretty good cameo in Winter Roses.

One thing I enjoyed about this story was catching up with old characters from the Long, Tall Texan series, as well as the Mercenary series. Jacobsville is a town I wish really existed. I am so familiar with most of its inhabitants, I feel the urge to wave at them as they walk down the streets and stop and say hi. It must be hard to keep up with all of these past characters, but Ms. Palmer does a good job of it. Since there doesn't seem to be any Black people in Jacobsville, I volunteer to move there and be the first Black citizen in this fine little town (big smile).

Now some readers have issue with the age difference between the hero and heroine. It's about twelve years. Stuart is about 31 in this book, and Ivy is 19 when this book starts. But Stuart is hyper-aware of the fact that Ivy is too young for him, and he gives her a couple more years to grow up. When they get together, Ivy is 21, and an independent businesswoman who I feel is more than mature enough to handle a relationship with a man of Stuart's age. Although she is pretty innocent, you don't feel that Stuart takes advantage of her. He is quite chivalrous and respectful of her, and really steps in to care for her in more than one situation, showing his love through his actions. Readers who weary of the cruel heroes present in some, not all of Diana Palmer's books would find a respite in this story, since Stuart is really rather kind. There is one encounter towards the beginning of the book where he comes on a little strong, but he quickly backs off when he realizes he misjudged Ivy and the situation.

If you don't like a sweet and forebearing heroine, don't read this book. Ivy is both. She is very kind-natured and not what I'd call a fighter, but she does endure under some very tough circumstances. To me that is another form of strength. But she is no alpha heroine. Yet there is not a big contrast between her and Stuart because he is pertty gentle with her. Their relationship preceeds on very well except a small misunderstanding which is dealt with without a lot of hoopla.

The sensuality is light, but there are some passionate moments, fairly characteristic for Diana Palmer's Silhouette Romances. The focus is on the love relationship between Stuart and Ivy, and to me, that's not a bad thing.

So I do have to say that I liked this book a lot, enough for it to rate four stars. It kept my interest, but then I'm a huge fan of this author. I think she's a fine storyteller, combining passion, angst, people you care about, and humor to write a story that will help you to escape for a few hours into a world with decent people who find the love they need and deserve in life.

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Monday, October 05, 2009

Dark Delicacies III: Haunted, Edited by Dell Howison and Jeff Gelb

Dark Delicacies III (paperback): Haunted Dark Delicacies III (paperback): Haunted by Del Howison

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Dark Delicacies III: Haunted is a hard book for me to review. It was very well done technically, but I did not enjoy as many of the stories as I hoped I would. Fundamentally, this is because I don't really care for type of horror showcased in a good number of these stories. In fact, I felt a mild sense of frustration as I read these stories, digging deep to find how the concept of 'haunted' applied to some of the tales. I think that afterword by Mr. Howison probably should have been at the beginning of this book. In this afterward, called "One Last Bother," Mr. Howison goes into the rational for choosing the stories in Haunted. He implies that meaning for haunted as applied to this stories is the concept of an event staying on your mind, or memories or visions coming back to 'seek vengeance.' In light of this interpretation, I supposed I can give some slack and accept that this could apply loosely to some of the stories.

My lack of enjoyment relates to the fact that many of the commonly used tropes of modern horror do not appeal to me. In fact some of these stories hit my two of my top three no-no's when it comes to horror: 1)serial killer aka human monsters, and 2)cannibalism. I liked to formally add 'body horror' to that list. I really dislike stories with mutilation of the body, whether it's self-inflicted or done by someone else. I can't even say which is worse for me.

I dislike stories about psychopathic killers wreaking havoc on their victims. Yes, this is horror. However, it's not the kind of horror I prefer. I also don't care for stories with mentally ill people performing horrible acts on their person. This is a type of 'body horror,' which gives me the creeps. And last but not least, cannibalism is one of the aspects of horror guaranteed to make me more disgusted than afraid.

There were some very creative stories in this volume, in fact, most of the stories were well-written and creative. But few of them were enjoyable to read. You may ask how one can enjoy reading horror. Well I enjoy getting a thrill, the suspense of wondering what is going to happen next. Holding my breath and hoping that the hero makes it out alive. Reading about supernatural occurences that take me outside of my everyday norm. That is great fun for me. The above. Not Fun!

So these are the stories I liked (without giving too much away):

Mist on the Bayou by Heather Graham
--Great story, although there were some pacing issues.
A Haunting by John Connolly
--Not scary, just sad. But beautiful.
A Nasty Way to Go by Ardath Mayhar
--A traditional ghost story, just the way I like them.
The Flinch by Michael Boatman
--Insanely entertaining and horrific at the same time. I want to read more of his stories.
Do Sunflowers Have a Fragrance by Del James
--Very interesting look at a woman being stalked
The Wandering Unholy by Victor Salva
--Just deserts comes to mind.
Man with a Canvas Bag by Gary A. Braunbeck
--Very sad, but compelling twist on a ghost story
The Architecture of Snow by David Morrell
--Takes a while for the resolution, but a must read for those who are interested in publishing and the literary fiction world.

The other stories weren't to my taste or I didn't like the way things unfolded. Be warned because some of these stories are quite disturbing. Not to the degree that I skipped parts, but not for a sensitive reader.

I can't say I wasted my money. The fact that I finished this volume in about 48 hours speaks for itself. The writers are all very talented and do know horror. Unfortunately some of them pushed my unhappy horror buttons, so I guess it's more me than them. So if you don't have as stringent tastes for your horror, I imagine you will have a lot of fun with these stories.

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Friday, October 02, 2009

October 2009 Scary Reading Goals

October Reading Goals

Okay, every year around this time, I break out the scary books to read. Since I am an anthology/short story freak, I will definitely be reading at least one (hopefully more) of those. Also I am aiming to read some young adult horror. Most likely I will sneak in some paranormal romance, and because I crave variety, I'll be reading some non-horror/Halloween-oriented books.

Here are some of the books I will try to read in the Month of October:

1. Dark Delicacies III Haunted Edited by Del Howison & Jeff Gelb
2. Lord Loss (Book 1 in the Demonata Series) by Darren Shan
3. The Devouring by Simon Holt
4. Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror by Chris Priestley
5. Working for the Devil by Lilith Saintcrow
6. Dracula by Bram Stoker

And I will finish Face in the Frost by John Bellairs, which is actually fantasy, but it's got a high creep factor so far.

I may also sneak in a couple of stories from The Mammoth Book of Modern Ghost Stories Edited by Peter Haining

I will post my reviews as I go (of course I have to read Covet by JR Ward, which I don't think is going to be scary, but it's got fallen angels, demons, and black magic. :)

Be Mine Tonight by Kathryn Smith

Be Mine Tonight  (The Brotherhood of Blood, Book 1) Be Mine Tonight by Kathryn Smith

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This book made me cry like a baby towards the end. It reminded me of what it was like to lose my father to cancer. It reminded me of the vicious hatred I have for that disease, and the message of this book hit home with increased potency because of seeing my father succumb to this disease, and how Pru suffered in this way.

Yet it was a wonderful book to read. It had the elements of a traditional vampire story that I love. Good versus evil is a part of this story, but Ms. Smith poses a question that gave me food for thought. Was Chapel evil merely because he was a vampire? Was he a monster and an abomination just because he had to take the blood of humans to live? Or, like Professor Broome asks in Hellboy, 'What is the measure of a man?' Like Hellboy, Chapel is a creature of the night, born from what is considered evil. But fundamentally, like Hellboy, he makes a choice not to be evil. And this defines who he is ultimately.

This story has a lot of lessons for me. It also speaks of living one's life to the fullest, a lesson I still need to work on. Through the eyes of Pru, a woman doomed to die young by her disease, I was shown to see that life is so precious that it is important to grab at every experience of value to us with both hands.

She was tough on Chapel for what she considered him wasting hundreds of years brooding and feeling sorry for himself. It seemed harsh, but she was right. He was tormenting himself for his part in his love Marie's suicide. Tormenting himself wrongly, I believe. His past love had made a choice. We all make choices. And it's not fair for us to hold ourselves accontable for the choices that others make. I love the scene where she calls Marie, Chapel's long deceased love, a 'cow.' That was classic and really true. Pru knew that a woman in love should look past the surface and to the man beneath, although Marie could only see the beast. Granted Marie lived in a time where the church had a stranglehold over reason and a strict and narrow view of black and white. Yet, Marie didn't try at all to see what Chapel was, her beloved.

Chapel could not see the goodness inside of himself, and from the beginning, it is clear that Chapel is a very good man. I am a lover of antiheroes and dark heroes, and there is no darkness in this hero. He might be a vampire. He might have killed in the past. He might have a raving thirst that he has to control, but in his heart, this man made a choice to do right, and he didn't stray from that path. Simply put, I loved Chapel. He frustrated me in his insistence not to change Pru into a vampire, but I could understand from his frame of reference (of many years indoctrinated by the church) that he was an abomination likely damned to hell. He loved Pru far too much to allow that to happen to her. I never, ever doubted his love for Pru.

Chapel had to go on a journey of enlightment and although Pru, his friend and companion priest Molyneux, Marcus, the young archaeologist looking for the Holy Grail to save Pru's life, and her father Thomas, urged him along to see himself clearly, he had to learn to look inside his heart and see the truth for himself. I liked the message about faith, and how what we believe personally, and how we know God intimately is much more important than what a group or a church might have us believe. And lastly, the messages about forgiving oneself and accepting that God's gifts may come in a different form than what we are expecting.

This book broke my heart reading about Pru's progression in her cancer, but I truly enjoyed the beautiful relationship between her and Chapel. There is a little bit of adventure, but the true joy of this story is the blossoming love betwee Pru and Chapel, and its power to save them both.

This is going in my top favorites from the delightful Kathryn Smith. She is an authoress who knows how to write a beautiful and poignant love story. I really appreciate how she took the vampire myth and gave it so much life and skillfully interwined it with a moving and delectable romance.

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The Hand-Me Down Family

The Hand-Me-Down Family (Love Inspired Historical #28) The Hand-Me-Down Family by Winnie Griggs

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
The Hand-Me Down Family was my first foray into Christian romance in a long time. I was excited to read this one, because I've enjoyed books by Winnie Griggs in the past. In addition, I am a big enthusiast of marriage of convenience storylines.

All and all, this was a pleasant read. I did have some moments where I felt like things were moving at a sluggish pace. Also I had issues with how the spiritual messages seemed to be somewhat cut and pasted in. What I mean by this is, I felt like Ms. Griggs was motivated to stick in passages where the characters were praying or recalling Bible scriptures. This could be due to my time away from Christian romance, and being unused to this motive of including spiritual content into the message.

I am not a big fan of overt preachiness or what I call PSA's (Public Service Announcements) in a fictional story. I think that the moral and a message should be neatly integrated into the story, and spread throughout, much like one would put a small amount of salt in cookie dough to give it that piquancy to balance out the sugar. The reader can then ponder the story and delve through to get the message out as they enjoy the narrative.

In this story, I felt that the spiritual aspects might have been a little too blatant. Again, I have to admit that this is coming from a person who reads very little Christian fiction (although I would like to read more that is good and entertaining and has a good underlying message). Thus, I can't judge Ms. Griggs, and probably need to read more of the Love Inspired and other Christian romances in my tbr pile to get a feel for how this is done.

My disappointment with the lack of subtlety in the spiritual aspects was balanced out by my interest and attraction to the characters and the sense of inadequacy that they struggle with. Callie has a disfiguring mark on her cheek, a port-wine birthmark. She is very self-conscious about it, and wears bonnets all the time to keep it concealed. My heart went out to her. It is very difficult to be different, especially if your differences are overt and obvious. In my opinion, she seems to overcompensate by trying to be a good Christian and to be perfect in every other way. Her marrying Leland and taking on his young daughter is part of her do-good complex. At some points, it made her come off as being self-righteous. As a committed Christian, it is a tough road to walk, because you do have to hold yourself to a different standard, and your choices reflect your beliefs. Callie definitely showed a deep faith in God, but she seemed to spend time trying to get Jack to do things to express his faith for the benefit of the children they were raising together. I found this frustrating. Everyone's walk is different, and it bothered me on a personal level that she was somehow forcing her beliefs on how a Christian should act on Jack. I do agree that the parents serve as spiritual role models for kids, but it seemed kind of hypocritical to force Jack to act in a way that wasn't true to who he was. I think all of us believers have been in situations where we were the 'less spiritual' person and we've been nudged and lectured by the 'more spiritual' people in the church or group. It's not a good feeling, and it can cause people to stay away from the church or groups to avoid that feeling of pressure and inadequacy. Which brings me to Jack.

Jack has always lived in his older, 'better' brother's shadow. He got all of Leland's hand-me downs, and now it looks like he'll have to take on Leland's responsibilities by marrying his by-proxy wife and taking care of his young daughter, along with the two children of his sister and her husband, since all three adults perished in the same fire. He wants to do right by the children, but at the same time, he regrets having to leave behind the independent life he has made for himself, with his own business and a good name unassociated with his family. He is very insecure about his place in the world in comparision to his brother, and it manifests in his behavior. I had trouble with this part, but his feelings of coming short and his resentment about it, combined with his feelings that God didn't answer his prayers to help him to matter as much as his brother, cause him to turn his back on his faith. He doesn't stop believing, but he has a very separate relationship to God. He adopts a 'God helps those who help themselves philosophy' and doesn't pray or go to church. I struggled with this concept, but then I came to the realization that believers can tend to blame God for not coming through in ways that we may think He should, but with maturity, we realize that God was listening, but He just knew better than us, and that's why He didn't give us what we wanted. And eventually we come to thank Him for how He does answer our prayers.

I liked the aspect of this book in which Jack's feeling of not measuring up enables him to see and to understand Callie's insecurity about her birthmark. From the beginning, he shows that her birthmark doesn't bother him and encourages her to show her true face to the world. He was withdrawn in some ways, because of his fears of not measuring up and wanting to stay uninvolved, but at the same time, he was a very sensitive and caring person, and showed very good fatherly traits in how he interacted with the kids.

Some of the parts in which Callie is treated less than kindly because of her birthmark just about broke my heart. The intolerance that people can show is very sad. Even Simon, who is one of the orphaned children, says some pretty ugly things about her birthmark and makes Callie cry in a scene that is very heart-wrenching. I liked how Jack supported her and stood up for her and always made her feel beautiful and worthy.

There is also a retired schoolteacher, Mrs. Mayweather, who serves as a source of strength to the floundering couple. It is her suggestion that they marry to take care of the children, and she gives encourages them to get past their issues in ways that are sometimes on the underhanded side. For instance, she makes Callie have to take her bonnet off in front of all the women to put on a strand of pearls that she gives the bride to wear on her wedding day. At first, I thought that was pretty mean, but I could see why she did that. She didn't want Callie to be ashamed for what she couldn't change about herself, and to hide it from the town so that they would accept and like her. That made a lot of sense to both Callie and myself after the fact. She also tells Jack some things he needs to hear and gives him nudges when necessary. She really ends up being a very important character in this story in the way she aids both Callie and Jack in their emotional growth and their coming together as a couple.

I feel that the romance part could have been a little more developed. As a Christian romance, I didn't expect any lovemaking or sensuality, but I was surprised that the only interaction that we get to see is a brief kiss that is barely described. I was thinking that more could be shown and not stray from being a sweet romance. I am a big believer that chemistry in a romance novel doesn't have to be tied to the bedroom. There can be a strong attraction shown in every interaction between the couple. I didn't really feel that big of an attraction between Jack and Callie, other than their respect and caring for each other. Although we do get to see Callie and Jack spending time together, more of the time is devoted to discussing the kids and issues with the family, and less getting to know each other on a personal level.

I was glad I got the opportunity to read this book, and it was a moving read for me. I had a few issues that I felt kept it from being a favorite of mine, but I would consider it a keeper for the good message, the well-drawn characters, and the poignancy of seeing Jack and Callie deal with their issues of lack of self-worth and worthiness in the world. It was definitely a worthwhile read.

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