Christmas With Her Boss, by Marion Lennox

>> Sunday, November 23, 2014

TITLE: Christmas With Her Boss
AUTHOR: Marion Lennox

PAGES: 192
PUBLISHER: Mills & Boon Cherish

SETTING: Contemporary Australia
TYPE: Category romance

Meg Jardine, personal assistant extraordinaire, is convinced she's about to lose her job. Her gorgeous, dark and deeply unimpressed boss, William McMaster, is stranded in Melbourne over Christmas - and it's all her fault! With her heart in her mouth, she invites the intimidating billionaire home for the holiday..

At Meg's chaotic, cozy family farm, William's cold reserve begins to melt away. Suddenly they're seeing each other in a whole new light, and country girl Meg has shot straight to the top of William's Christmas list!

This was a random pick from the depths of my TBR (literally random, as in choosing a number with an online generator and seeing what it corresponded to on Calibre).

It's (obviously) a Christmas story. Meg Jardine is billionaire William McMaster's Australian PA. She gets paid a really excellent (and much needed) salary for being completely at his beck and call and solving all his problems during the short periods when he's in Australia. The latest has fallen right before Christmas, and he's due to fly out to New York when disaster strikes. Air traffic controllers go on strike and there's no way to fly out. There are also no hotel rooms to be had in the whole city.

Even though none of this is her fault, Meg feels she must come through with a solution to have any hope of keeping her job. The best she can come up with is to invite her boss to stay with her family over Christmas. There's an en suite room he can stay in and internet for him to work, and she promises no one will bother him.

But all plans for a simple continuation of their 100% professional working relationship fall by the wayside almost immediately. The internet is down, Meg's grandmother refuses to countenance anyone referring to William as Mr. MacMaster and William finds himself learning more about Meg the woman and her family.

This is a nice enough story, but I'm afraid I got very bored after the first third or so. I've read this so many times before. The rigid person who deals with any feelings in a completely dysfunctional way thrust into a situation where others won't respect those boundaries and so our stuffed-shirt character must adapt. I don't like this story very much, I'm afraid. I keep wanting to shout at the presumptuous characters: respect others' wishes!! If someone honestly doesn't want to join in with the cheer, don't try to force them to. But of course, it always turns out to be exactly what they needed, etc., etc.

Plus, I'm SO over billionaire businessmen as romance heroes. Sorry, but no. Just no.



Gentle On My Mind, by Susan Fox

>> Friday, November 21, 2014

TITLE: Gentle On My Mind
AUTHOR: Susan Fox

PAGES: 385

SETTING: Contemporary Canada
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: 3rd in the Caribou Crossing series

In her latest contemporary romance, Susan Fox welcomes readers back to Caribou Crossing, the ruggedly sexy Western town that seems made for starting over...

Brooke Kincaid knows second chances don't come cheap. She's spent five years repairing past mistakes and making her life in Caribou Crossing steady and predictable. But now a stranger's Harley has shattered her fence and her peace of mind in one swoop. Brooke is drawn to everything about wounded undercover cop Jake Brannon--his raw masculinity, his tenderness, and the undisguised desire that makes her feel more alive than she's ever been.

By rights, Brooke should curse Jake for complicating her life. Instead she's offered him a place to heal and a cover story as he searches for a wanted man. Jake knows she's vulnerable, but she's also strong, kind, and hotter than hellfire. It's a combination that could make even a die-hard loner long to put up his boots and put down roots at last, and show her just how good a second chance can get...

I loved Susan Fox's Planes, Trains and Automobiles series so much that it placed her on my autobuy list. Her latest work is a small town/modern Western series, which is not usually what appeals to me, but her name on the covers made me pick up the books anyway. They'be been sat in my TBR for a while, until I read Wendy's really intriguing comments on Gentle On My Mind. It's the third book in the series, but why not?

As Wendy says, what's most interesting about this book is the heroine. You certainly don't get many heroines like Brooke in romance novels. She's 43, and as the book opens she's just found out she's going to be a grandmother. This is wonderful news to her, especially since just a few years earlier the idea of being involved in her son's life would have been beyond her wildest dreams.

See, Brooke is a recovering alcoholic. She became an alcoholic while raising her son, Evan, whom she'd had at 15, and coping with a hard-drinking, violent, minor criminal of a husband. She would be the first to admit that she screwed up with Evan, and it wasn't a surprise to her that for many years he would want nothing to do with her.

But in events that happened in book 2 (I think!), Evan came back to Caribou Crossing and evidently reconciled with Brooke. By then Brooke had been sober for some 4 years, after landing in hospital after a car accident and being diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The treatment for that was very successful, and spurred her into giving up alcohol as well.

As this book starts, Brooke is almost at the 5 year mark in her sobriety and has put together a satisfying life designed to keep her condition under control. She has a routine she enjoys, which includes things like regular exercise, healthy meals and lots of quality time with her son and his new wife and step-daughter.

And then Jake Brannon crashes his motorcycle into her white picket fence. Jake is a policeman working undercover to expose a drug dealer and grower who's also a murderer. He has received information that the culprit is a pillar-of-society type in Caribou Crossing, where Brooke and her family live, and he's been looking around the area. The reason he crashed into Brooke's fence is that he was running away from bad guys who shot him when he found their marijuana-growing operation, and he lost control of his motorcycle due to the loss of blood.

Jake doesn't start with the right foot with Brooke, as the best approach he can come up with in his half-unconscious state is to threaten to kill her family if she doesn't keep him hidden. But that doesn't last long, and Jake soon takes Brooke into his confidence and reluctantly accepts her help in vouching for him as a long-lost cousin, so he can infiltrate the town properly.

The whole undercover operation plot works mainly as a way to explore the community of Caribou Crossing and Brooke's status in it. After so many years of living there as the town drunk, she still feels uncertain about interacting with people, even though she's been sober for quite a while. Jake, with his outsider's perspective, is able to make her see the respect and true friendship people are offering. I also loved seeing Brooke with her son and his family. She's a bit tentative with him, as well, but you get the feeling that they're going to be fine.

The romance is nice, if not particularly revolutionary. Jake is hot and a motorcycle-riding adrenalin junkie. He won't ever give up undercover work, he tells Brooke, and this makes it obvious to her that there's no future in their relationship. She knows herself, and knows that she wouldn't be able to cope with the fear of knowing he's constantly putting his life in danger. I particularly liked how Fox used the romance as a way of showing us how Brooke had got so much stronger than she'd been a few years earlier. After she and Jake begin their affair she starts worrying, because she mistrusts the strong emotions he's making her feel. She worries that it might be triggering the sort of maniacal states she felt when her bipolar disorder was out of control. So what does she do? Well, in a refreshingly sensible move, she talks to her doctor, who reassures her and helps her start to learn the difference between strong emotions that are healthy and what she was used to feeling when she was ill.

I also loved the way something was dealt with at the end of the book. It's very spoilerish, so all I'll say before the spoiler tags is that an issue comes up that is present in very few romances (even though it happens much more commonly than that in real life), and that I thought the characters' reactions and actions were great. So, moving into spoilers: [start spoiler]Brooke gets pregnant, even though they've been careful. There might be issues with her continuing with her usual lithium doses while pregnant, so she seriously considers having an abortion. Her fears are not portrayed as irrational, and no one assumes this would be the wrong choice for her. Her doctor sets out the options for her and they discuss the risks of each, and Brooke thinks about it. She does decide to continue with the pregnancy, but never thinks abortion would have been wrong, just not the right option for her in that situation. Jake is supportive, too. Brooke writes him a letter when she finds out about her pregnancy, in which she tells him what's happened and that's she's considering a termination. Jake is on an assignment when the letter arrives, so he doesn't get it until much later. He assumes she has now had an abortion and doesn't judge her at all. He goes to see her to give her his support, not to condemn her or to try and stop her in case she's still pregnant.[end spoiler]

A really good book, and I'll definitely be reading the first two soon.

MY GRADE: A strong B+.


Midwinterblood, by Marcus Sedgwick

>> Wednesday, November 19, 2014

TITLE: Midwinterblood
AUTHOR: Marcus Sedgwick

PAGES: 272

TYPE: Horror

Have you ever had the feeling that you've lived another life? Been somewhere that has felt totally familiar even when you've never been there before, or felt that you've known someone even though you are meeting them for the first time?
In a novel comprising seven short stories each of them influenced by a moon - flower moon, harvest moon, hunter's moon, blood moon - and travelling from 2073 back in time to the dark of the moon and the days of Viking saga, this is the story of Eric and Merle who have loved and lost one another and who have been searching for each other ever since. In the different stories the two appear as lovers, mother and son, brother and sister, artist and child as they come close to finding each other before facing the ultimate sacrifice.

Beautifully imagined, intricately and cleverly structured this is a heart-wrenching and breathtaking paranormal romance, but it also has the hallmark Sedgwick gothic touch with plenty of blood-spilling, a vampire and sacrifice.

Midwinterblood is made up of 7 stories, all set in the remote Northern island of Blessed. We start in 2073, when a journalist called Eric Seven travels there to investigate rumours that there's a flower that islanders cultivate and helps them live forever. There is talk that this is sold at a huge price to the richest people on the planet, very illegally.

One of the first people Eric meets is Merle, a young woman he feels he recognises even though he's never seen her before. The other people he meets are all very helpful in terms of finding him somewhere to stay in this island without hotels and getting him food, but not in terms of answering any questions. Not that Eric is, after a while drinking the islanders' special tea, particularly interested in asking any questions, or even remembering that he meant to ask some.

Things don't end well for Eric and Merle, and as we go back in time in the following stories, we realise their souls have met many times over the centuries, in all sorts of different circumstances. They've been brother and sister, mother and child, old man and young girl. Always on Blessed, always the powerful dragon-shaped flowers playing some sort of role.

I thought the idea of Midwinterblood sounded amazing, but the execution of it wasn't to my taste. None of the stories were particularly interesting of themselves, all having boring characters and plots that just didn't capture my attention. I hoped at least the connections between the stories would end up gelling into something that would make the whole thing worth it, but they didn't. You'd see some things recurring and echoing, but it was all a bit pedestrian.

And then there was the writing style. That didn't work for me at all. It's... well, the best way I can describe it is 'fairy-taleish' and sort of dream-like. It didn't engage me, and in fact, I felt it distanced me from the emotions that were supposed to be evoked by the story. This is supposed to be horror, but it wasn't scary in the least. It wasn't even creepy. You need to care about characters, at least to an extent, before you feel afraid for them, and the people and situations need to feel real before you are afraid for yourself.



Blackout, by Tim Curran

>> Monday, November 17, 2014

TITLE: Blackout
AUTHOR: Tim Curran

PAGES: 234

SETTING: Contemporary
TYPE: Horror

In the midst of a beautiful summer, in a perfectly American suburban middle-class neighborhood, a faraway evil is lurking, waiting to strike the unsuspecting residents.

First come the flashing lights, then the heavy rains, high winds, and finally a total blackout. But that's only the beginning...

When the whipping black tentacles fall from the sky and begin snatching people at random, the denizens of Piccamore Way must discover the terrifying truth of what these beings have planned for the human race.

I read this just after Hallowe'en, when I fancied reading something scary. Blackout started well on that front, but the scariness didn't carry all the way through.

Our narrator, Jon, and his wife live in a typical suburban American street. It's summer, and they and their neighbours have had a huge barbeque. Jon's had a bit too much to eat and drink, so he falls asleep on the sofa. When he wakes up everything is dark except for the strangely regular and much too frequent lightning, and his wife is not in the house. The neighbours are soon roused and helping with the search, until it becomes awfully clear that something big is going on. The tentacles falling from the sky and snatching people up are a bit of a clue.

Like I said, this started out great. The first part, with Jon and his neighbours not knowing what's going on and going round in the darkness, trying to get help and figure things out, worked perfectly for me. Curran creates a really effective creepy atmosphere and it felt believable. I had no problem buying that even if your gut is telling you that something is just WRONG, your response to your wife going missing is going to be to do what you're supposed to do: organise a search, try to get to the police, and so on.

Once it becomes clear(ish) that what's going on is an alien attack, however, things concentrate more on the action, and that's just a bit humdrum. I mean, there's a lot going on, a lot of excitement, but I found it hard to care much and I certainly didn't feel scared (even though I was reading this in a mountain lodge in the middle of nowhere). Maybe it was that the characters were too undeveloped for me to care what happened to them. We get to know Jon a bit, but after the first sections, I wasn't quite feeling his reactions. It all felt a bit cold an unemotional. The resolution was cool in an intellectual way, but I get the impression I should have been feeling horror and despair. I didn't. I just closed the book and went to sleep.

So, I enjoyed it, but it wasn't great.



The Fall, by Kate Sherwood

>> Saturday, November 15, 2014

TITLE: The Fall
AUTHOR: Kate Sherwood

PAGES: 214
PUBLISHER: Dreamspinner Press

SETTING: Contemporary Canada
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: There's a follow-up

Every relationship leaves something behind. Dumped by his sugar daddy, part-time model Scott Mackenzie somehow ends up owning an abandoned church in rural Ontario. He dreams of using it for gay weddings, even if he’ll never have one of his own.

Joe Sutton is trying to keep his family together after his parents’ deaths. Between the family ranch, his brother’s construction company, and commitments around town, he doesn’t have time for a relationship. But Mackenzie is hard to ignore.

As both men fight their growing attraction, challenges to Mackenzie’s business threaten their relationship. If he can’t make it work, he’ll have to crawl back to the city in defeat. But the only solution involves risking the ranch Joe loves, and each man has to decide how much he’ll sacrifice for the other.

Mackenzie (his first name is Scott, but he goes by his last name) has spent the last few years in a relationship with an older, much richer man. In exchange for being the perfect boyfriend, always considerate of his man's needs and not of his own, always at his beck and call, Mackenzie got security and a very comfy lifestyle.

And then the older boyfriend decides Mackenzie's getting too old for a boy-toy, and should be replaced by a younger model. Now all Mackenzie has left is a small nest egg and a run-down, deconsecrated old church in rural Ontario. The plan when he bought it was to turn it into a venue for gay weddings, which with the ex's money and connections, would have been a nice hobby. Mackenzie is determined to make it work anyway.

Joe Sutton meets Mackenzie when he accompanies his twin brother Will to have a look around the church. Joe mainly takes care of the family ranch, but he sometimes helps Will in his contracting business. He finds Mackenzie really attractive (not that he shows it), but he has a lot on his plate. Work is really busy, but there are also loads of family responsibilities. He and Will raised their younger siblings after the death of their parents, and the whole family are now raising the 4-year-old son of the younger brother, who was too young to do it himself.

But of course, this wouldn't be a romance if temptation didn't get to be too much for Joe, and what starts as casual turns more serious as the two men start liking and depending on each other more and more.

I picked this one up after adoring Sherwood's Mark of Cain. While The Fall doesn't have the angsty plot of Mark of Cain, it has a lot of what I liked about it. There's the romance that is about much more than good sex, there's the sense of community and characters who are dealing with much more than what's going on in their love lives.

I'm a sucker for well-done, real-feeling family drama. I particularly like it when what we've got is real tensions and conflicts that arise in a loving family, who continue to love each other even when they are driving each other crazy and might momentarily not like each other very much. This is what we get here. It's people acting like real people, not like evil cartoonish villains, and the tension was much better for it. I loved all those scenes with Joe's family, and I loved seeing Mackenzie fitting in with them at the end. And I particularly loved little Austin, the 4-year-old nephew being brought up by the whole family. I haven't got a maternal bone in my body, but he is truly adorable. I don't know if he's realistic (I suspect not, he's always really good), but I don't care, because he's so sweet in a completely non-saccharine, non-sickening way.

I liked the romance. It wasn't perfect, mainly because Joe's issues behind his reluctance to get involved with Mackenzie don't feel as clearly understandable as they could have been, but that was a relatively small issue. What I loved best was Mackenzie's character arc. I loved that this was not about him finding another protector, but about him coming into his own and meeting the über-competent Joe on his own terms.

This was a really good one. There's apparently a sequel, continuing Joe and Mack's story, but I don't know if I'll go for it. I liked where this stopped. It felt like a wonderful ending to me, and I'm always reluctant to take the risk of ruining that. But then, that's how I felt about the In Death books (it took me years to go beyond Naked in Death), so I'm well aware the pay-off can be great.

MY GRADE: A strong B+.


Appointment With Death, by Agatha Christie

>> Thursday, November 13, 2014

TITLE: Appointment With Death
AUTHOR: Agatha Christie

PAGES: 256
PUBLISHER: William Morrow

SETTING: 1930s Jordan
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: An Hercule Poirot mystery

A tyrannical old martinet, a mental sadist and the incarnation of evil. These were only three of the character descriptions levelled at Mrs. Boynton, the matriarch who kept her family totally dependent on her. But did she really deserve to die on the excursion to beautiful Petra? Hercule Poirot hears about the murder and feels compelled to investigate-despite the family's request not to do so. Do they have something to hide and, if so, can they keep it hidden from this master sleuth?

I chose this one as my next Christie when I realised part of it is set in Jordan. After my visit last year, I find myself fascinated by the place.

The plot centres around a very disfunctional family, the Boyntons. Old Mr. Boynton passed away years ago and left control of the family finances to his second wife. Since then, she has kept an iron grip on both the finances and the family members themselves. There are two sons and a daughter from Mr. Boynton's first marriage, as well as a daughter of his and the second Mrs. Boynton. All four are seemingly in thrall to the woman and unable to break free of her domination. The eldest son is married, and his wife is desperate for them to move away from her influence, but he can't manage it.

And then, on a family trip to Petra, Mrs. Boynton dies. It looks like an accident, but Hercule Poirot is also on holiday in the area, and he suspects someone in her family finally had enough of her psychological torture. Because when he first met the Boyntons in Jerusalem, he overheard one of them say to another: “You see, don’t you, that she’s got to be killed?”.

I had a bit of an issue with this one, which I'm not sure I would have had if I'd read it at the time it came out. No matter how much I tried to rationalise it (it's the 1930s and the economy is awful, Mrs. Boynton made sure none of the children got a useful education, why should they walk away from the fortune that should belong to them by rights?), I just couldn't buy that these people would not have had enough long before. It would have been more believable if Christie had written them as brainwashed or otherwise psychologically damaged, but as soon as Mrs. Boynton dies, they're all perfectly fine. Plus, the old woman herself didn't seem to be as monstrous as we're told she is... as the blurb puts it: "a mental sadist and the incarnation of evil". She's pretty horrid, but in a much more normal way.

The mechanics of the plot are fun, though. There are some good red herrings, and Poirot is on form. Also, I particularly enjoyed the setting. It's not a travelogue, but quite a good picture emerges of what Jordan would have been like at the time.

Not Christie's best, but a good read, nonetheless.



Taken In Death, by JD Robb

>> Tuesday, November 11, 2014

TITLE: Taken In Death (originally in Mirror, Mirror anthology)

PAGES: 100

SETTING: Mid 21st century New York
TYPE: Mystery/suspense
SERIES: Part of the In Death series, comes after book #39, Thankless in Death

The evil witch killed Darcia. Henry knew it because he'd seen Darcia on the floor, and all the blood. Everything felt funny and sleepy and wrong. He knew he was under a spell. The evil witch's magic spell.'

When twins Henry and Gala are kidnapped and their nanny killed, Lieutenant Eve Dallas steps in to take control. But video footage shows what appears to be their mother arriving and leaving with the obviously drugged seven-year-olds. Something is wrong, and Eve, her husband Roarke and her brilliant team are ready to work round the clock to get the children back alive...

Lately, the In Death short stories have been published in anthologies following particular themes. This time it's fairy tales (as you might guess from the title). I'm quite intrigued by the idea of mystery/crime + fairy tales (in fact, I just bought a book that qualifies: Brother Grimm, by Craig Russell. Mixed reviews, but it's a Hamburg-set, fairy tale-themed police thriller. How could I resist?). However, I know I don't like the authors JD Robb is always packaged with, so I resisted the temptation in this case and read just the Robb story.

Robb picks an unexpected fairy tale to base her story on: Hansel and Gretel. Eve Dallas is called to the scene of a murder and kidnapping. A woman working as a nanny is dead, her two charges (twins) missing. The security video hasn't been tampered with and it's clear: it's the mother who took them. But when the mother and father come back from travelling, she has a reliable alibi. She also has an evil twin, one who's suposed to be locked up in a mental health ward in Sweden, but isn't.

I liked this one a lot. It's not really a whodunnit; rather, it's focused on the hunt for a known culprit, and it's really well done. Given the short space available, concentrating on one particular element works best. And it's really clever, with some really cool moments and even some truly frightening and tense ones. If you can't deal with 'children in peril' plots, then this one's probably not for you.

I particularly liked that there was a genuine fairy-tale feel to the story, even though it still fit perfectly in the usual In Death universe. I've criticised previous short stories in this series for going too far out in the paranormal element, but this was not like that at all.

My only issue with this one was: did Robb really need to make the Hansel and Gretel connection explicit? We’re not stupid!



After the Scandal, by Elizabeth Essex

>> Sunday, November 09, 2014

TITLE: After the Scandal
AUTHOR: Elizabeth Essex

PAGES: 400
PUBLISHER: St. Martin's

SETTING: 19th century England
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: 4th in the Reckless Brides series


When Lady Claire Jellicoe agreed to a walk in the moonlight, she never imagined her titled companion might have brutal motives. Nor could she have dreamed up such a brave rescue by the most unexpected savior of all: an inscrutable nobleman with a daring plan of escape—and a deliciously tempting embrace…


Timothy Evans, the Duke of Fenmore, has palmed more treasures than he can count. Even for a man who grew up thieving in London’s stews, a stolen bride should be beyond the pale. But Fenmore won’t let scandal ruin the spirited beauty’s reputation. And now that she’s stolen his heart, how can he ever let her go...?

I've mentioned a few times that I'm on a bit of a quest to find a few new historical romance authors, as I've kind of been left only with a small number of authors I know I like. I've heard good things about Elizabeth Essex, so I thought I'd try one of hers. Unfortunately, this turned out to be exactly the sort of historical romance that I avoid: one full of characters behaving in preposterous ways and with no regard for history.

At first, I liked it well enough. As the book starts, Tanner notices Lady Claire Jellicoe being led out into the gardens by a man he knows is a rapist (it is not clear why he hasn't already had him kicked out of the party, which is at his grandmother's house, especially since the man came without an invitation). Tanner follows them out and stops the man in the nick of time. Claire is shaken, so instead of returning to the house just yet, Tanner suggests they go for a row on the river for a little while. Tanner has long been in love with Claire from afar, but has never dared approach her (in the part I read, it's not clear why he, a duke, would not have done so). He's trying to help, but he's also deviously thinking that she'll probably end up compromised, and they'll have to get married. Claire agrees to get on the rowboat. Okay, so far, so good. I buy everyone's reactions. Claire is taking a bit of a risk with her reputation by not immediately going back to her parents, but I understand completely why she'd do that. She's pretty upset. And Tanner's manipulation of the circumstances is not beyond the pale for me.

But almost straight away, things started getting iffy. As they're about to turn round to go back, the rowboat hits something. It's a dead body, and when Tanner hauls it up, Claire realises it's her lady's maid. She's been raped and murdered. Tanner is quite comfortable sharing this information with Claire, and she's unfazed.

Tanner suggests instead of going back to Richmond it would be better to go a bit further down the river into Chelsea, where he's got friends in a hospital and they can examine the body. He's determined to get justice for the young woman, he tells Claire, and he asks her if she'll help. She agrees, and they go on to the hospital. No problem at all, Claire blithely says, she'll send her parents a message saying she's gone back to London. She's 20 and unmarried, not an independent widow, or anything like that, but the narrative indicates that this should be fine and dandy.

Tanner has all sorts of low contacts from growing up on the streets before he discovered he was heir to the dukedom, so he feels well qualified to go make enquiries in the slums where the maid grew up (not clear why he'd want to start there rather than in Richmond, at the place where she was actually killed). Claire is insistent that she will come with him and help. She's a gently bred young lady with no experience of anything beyond balls and walks in the park. I think what the author is trying to convey here is that Tanner's good for Claire because he's someone who will help her do things, but Claire comes across as silly, rather than brave and resourceful.

And at this point, I was rolling my eyes so hard I almost passed out. The lapses in logic, the behaviour that no one seems to think is risky in any way, the poor motivations. Not for me.



The Dark Winter, by David Mark

>> Friday, November 07, 2014

TITLE: The Dark Winter
AUTHOR: David Mark

PAGES: 400

SETTING: Contemporary England
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: Starts a series

Hull, northern England. Two weeks before Christmas. Three bodies in the morgue.

The victims - each a sole survivor of a past tragedy - killed in the manner they once cheated death.

Somebody is playing God. And it falls to DS Aector McAvoy to stop their deadly game..

It's coming up to Christmas in Hull, in the Northeast of England, and Detective Sergeant Aector McAvoy is chilling in a city centre café with his young son. When he hears screams coming from the Cathedral just across the square, he immediately runs there to help, but is knocked over by a man in a balaclava running out of the building. Turns out a young girl has been killed, hacked to death with a machete by the very man who crashed into McAvoy. The victim had been adopted from Sierra Leone, and McAvoy soon finds out that she had escaped an eerily similar fate some years earlier, when her entire family had been killed by machete-wielding rebels while taking refuge in a church.

Within a few days, McAvoy has made the connection between her and a couple of other cases, all of which involve people who were the sole survivors of a tragedy and have now been killed in circumstances suspiciously similar to those they escaped. But while his colleagues accept his conclusions, some of them go for the easy arrest, in a direction McAvoy is convinced is the wrong one.

I thought this one was pretty great, with a really interesting plot and memorable characters.

Most memorable of all is our protagonist, DS Aector McAvoy. Mark has avoided the cliché of the dysfunctional cop with the screwed up/nonexistent private life, but succeeded in making his well-adjusted, pretty normal protagonist more than interesting enough. McAvoy is a giant Scotsman who looks like he should be a thug, but is actually really sweet. He's the type of person who gets really excited about creating a database to ensure all witness statements are cross-referenced (which makes him a man after my own heart).He is married to a woman he adores and who loves him right back, and he's the father of a cute little boy, with another on the way. He also a very decent guy who genuinely likes and respects women, which made it a pleasure to see the world through his eyes.

Work is a bit more unsettled. McAvoy's joined the Hull police force after an episode which saw him expose corruption amongst senior police officers. The unit he's joined is in the middle of a bit of a power struggle itself, with a new female boss recently appointed (only to show the public that this is not the old corrupt police, some suspect), and who's having to deal with the old-fashioned elements still in the ranks. McAvoy, with his past and his personality, is seen to be on the side of the modernisers, so he faces some of the same backlash as well, and this becomes really relevant during the investigation.

The suspense/mystery element is very well-done, too. It's a really intriguing setup, and I thought the pacing was great. I only figured things out half a step ahead of McAvoy, which is exactly as it should be. There were a couple of instances where I felt the police weren't really taking all the obvious steps (or, to put it another way, this isn't quite how Eve Dallas would have ran the investigation), but then, this might be because McAvoy is a relatively junior policeman and he's not in charge of running the whole thing. There could well have been all sorts of lines of investigation he wouldn't have been more than vaguely aware of.

Something I particularly liked was how the victims were humanised. Mark takes the trouble to make them more than pieces in a puzzle. That is especially the case for the young girl killed in the church and for a person McAvoy figures out is a potential target. You really feel the horror of what has happened, and I felt this added to the quality of the book.

In fact, the book is full of vivid and distinct secondary characters, not just the victims. From McAvoy's boss, a completely in-your-face woman I'd love to see more of, to Russ, the Scouse writer in rehab, they all come alive. There were only a couple of exceptions. One is the loutish good-old-boy inept cop who represents all that is wrong with the police and that McAvoy's boss is there to change. He would have been ok in most books, but compared to the subtlety with which the other secondary characters were drawn, he felt a bit cartoonish. The other is, surprisingly, McAvoy's wife Róisín. There's clearly a lot more to her and to her relationship with McAvoy than we're told about here, so she remains a bit of an enigma. That feels intentional, though, like Mark is saving the good stuff for future books. I'm looking forward to that!

Finally, I liked very much how Mark created the setting. Hull is portrayed with real fondness, but with no rose-tinted specs. From the author's bio, he's lived there, and it shows. I get really annoyed when people make a joke out of places like this, where post-industrial decline has created deprivation. Hull is a common punchline... what will £250K buy you? A bedsit in central London, a small house in the London suburbs, or the whole of Hull. Oh, how funny. You don't get that sort of feeling here at all, and that's great.

MY GRADE: A very strong B+.


Love in the Afternoon, by Alison Packard

>> Wednesday, November 05, 2014

TITLE: Love in the Afternoon
AUTHOR: Alison Packard

PAGES: 364
PUBLISHER: Carina Press

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: Starts a series

Kayla Maxwell is eager to shed her slasher-flick bimbo image—and she plans to do just that in her new role on daytime's most popular soap. With a chance to showcase her dramatic range, Kayla will be able to wash away the lingering betrayal and public humiliation left by her controlling, philandering ex-boyfriend.

Sean Barrett, the son of an influential, award-winning actor, is the hottest soap star in the country. Paired on-screen with the talented and beautiful Kayla Maxwell, Sean is determined to keep her at arm's length, burned before by fame-seeking actresses who had no qualms about using him to get to his famous father.

But when Kayla receives threatening letters, her past as a scream queen seems to be coming back to haunt her. Succumbing to an attraction neither one of them can deny, Sean and Kayla must face down her stalker and their own personal demons before trusting what they both feel—a love that lasts long after the cameras stop rolling.

When Kayla Maxwell finds out her character in the most popular daytime soap of the moment is pregnant, she assumes that means her role is about to be downgraded. It isn't; in fact, the writers are looking to pair her up with Sean Barrett's character... if the chemistry is right. It is and Kayla suddenly starts spending a lot more time with Sean, the soap's top actor. Turns out they not only have chemistry, they also like each other, so their relationship quickly turns into one of more than colleagues.

Love in the Afternoon was a quick, pleasant read, but I had too many issues with it to properly recommend it.

For starters, I found the conflict a bit contrived and romance-novely:
- He: "I once dated an actress who was only interested in me as a means to access my world-famous director father. I will therefore never date an actress ever again, even if all indications are that she's a nice, genuine person who's not a user".
- She: "I once dated an actor who tore me down constantly and made me question my acting ability. I will therefore never date an actor again, even if all indications are that he's a nice, caring man who appreciates my talent".

After the first half it felt like this conflict was done and dusted, but it reared its head in a pretty ugly way near the end, when the author felt she needed to split up our characters for a bit. The reason I say it reappeared in an ugly way is because it involves Sean acting like an idiot and accusing Kayla of all sorts of things, including (yes, he went there) of sleeping with him to advance her career and of planning to sleep with his father, too. The worst part is that this all felt completely out of character. He'd been otherwise portrayed as a pretty rational and intelligent guy who honestly liked and respected Kayla.

I also didn't think the suspense sublot was very good. It was a very half-baked and pointless stalker plot. Yawn. First: do all stories need to have a suspense subplot, and second: does the suspense subplot in every story about characters who are famous have to involve stalkers? It really didn't add anything to the story, other than a pretty bizarre ending.

I wasn't crazy about the characters, either. I mean, Kayla and Sean are both really nice people (well, except when Sean is going off on one). Kayla, particularly, is nice, cheerful, well-adjusted, has a great relationship with her family and is drop-dead gorgeous. Oh, and she knows all about cars and baseball. She has no flaws. It was pleasant to spend time with her, and I liked her well enough, but I didn't find her particularly interesting. Sean is slightly more intriguing as a character, mainly because of his estrangement from his father, but he didn't grip me, either. And just like the characters, the romance was never more than mildly pleasant. I felt there were way too many sex scenes, but that's probably just me. As I've mentioned before, I'm in a place right now where I find most romance novel love scenes tedious.

Finally, I got a bit annoyed by the abundance of sequel-baiting. I could have done with a lot less of Sean's friend Matt, a baseball player undergoing a very public meltdown. He's actually an interesting character, and Sean's frustration when he can't reach him is interesting, but his story could have been set up a lot more subtly.

It sounds like I hated this one, but I didn't. Packard has a really smooth, involving writing style, and even though this is a first book, it flowed really well. I also loved all the stuff about working in a soap opera. I don't watch soaps, and not because I don't have time, either. I actively don't like them. And yet I ate this stuff up in this book.

I think the plotting and character development issues I had might be just about this being a first book. For all its flaws, I felt Packard's writing showed enough promise that I'm planning to read another of her books.



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