2011 Book Log #44: Die in Plain Sight, by Elizabeth Lowell

Die in Plain Sight (Rarities Unlimited, #3)

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Die in Plain Sight is a bit of an odd duck in the run of Elizabeth Lowell novels, straddling as it does the line between her Donovan series and her Rarities Unlimited ones. Goodreads classifies it as a Rarities book, but the two series are set in the same universe–and since it provides major camera time to Susa Donovan, the matriarch of the Donovan clan, it’s hard not to call this a Donovan book.

Nonetheless the question is, how does this particular book stack up against either series? Our heroine is Lacey Quinn, granddaughter of a famous artist, who’s determined to find out whether the previously unknown works of his she has inherited are proof of murder. And our hero is Ian Lapstrake, employed by Rarities, and of whom we get brief glimpses in Moving Target and Running Scared. They’re both pretty standard, likeable lead characters. In Ian’s case, I didn’t necessarily find him as intense or as charismatic as some of the Donovans, but on the other hand, that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing; it also meant that there was a refreshing lack of what Romancelandia calls alphole-ness on his part.

As for Lacey, I rather liked her better. She’s an artist and therefore a creative type, and even if painting isn’t my particular art, I definitely sympathized with her attempts to pursue it and especially with her interactions with Susa, whose work she revered. In fact, in many ways I enjoyed the scenes with Lacey and Susa almost more than the ones with Lacey and Ian, just because the two women had strong chemistry as fellow artists pursuing art together. Susa is a lovely character, and it’s great to see this woman get serious camera time, since it helps flesh out the history of the Donovan family and shows where her children get a lot of the awesomeness.

Antagonist-wise, we’ve also got a fairly Lowell-typical screwed up rich family, across whose secrets our heroine has inadvertantly stumbled and who will do anything to keep those secrets secret. There aren’t any real deviations from the standard plot track there, though on the other hand, Lowell doesn’t get too over the top with the antagonists as she’s sometimes done in other books.

So all in all I’ll give this one a good strong three stars, on the strength of Susa.

2012 Book Log #6: Ganymede, by Cherie Priest

Ganymede (The Clockwork Century, #4)

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The fourth installment in Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century series, Ganymede is now finally getting into actual sequel territory. Like Clementine and Dreadnought, it’s a standalone story–but this time, one of the spotlight characters in fact someone who previously showed up in Boneshaker, and we’ve got clear followup to the events in that book. So if you want to jump in on this series–and if you like steampunk, zombies, and/or the Civil War era, you should–this is not the place to start.

New Orleans madam Josephine Early is spearheading a secret Confederate attempt to hand over the submersible Ganymede to the Union, in a desperate attempt to turn the tide of the ongoing war. But no one’s left alive who knows how to safely operate the machine, and so Josephine’s forced to call for help to an old flame. She’s fiercely hoping that the airship pilot Andan Cly will be able to use his skills to pilot a machine that goes underwater instead of through the air, and she’s desperate enough that she isn’t exactly ready to tell him that the machine’s drowned all its previous crews.

And without a doubt, the relationship and backstory between Josephine and Andan is one of the high points of the book. I’ve found Priest to always be excellent at what romantic notes she introduces into a story, and this one’s no exception; the prior state of this relationship is played off with the exact right understated note against the bigger picture of the current intrigues. Toss in some glimpses at New Orleans’ zombie problem AND the issue of how the problem’s spreading across the country, references back to characters in all three of the previous books, and a supporting cast of colorful characters (one of whom has a secret revealed that amusingly blows Andan’s mind) and there’s a whole lot to like here.

Bonus points as well for the amusing use of actual Civil War history. It was particularly amusing to me to see a news link going around about the restoration of the Hunley–the actual vehicle named for the man who’s referenced in this novel as the creator of the Ganymede.

All in all, great fun. Five stars.

2011 Book Log #43: Running Scared, by Elizabeth Lowell

Running Scared (Rarities Unlimited, #2)

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Running Scared is Book 2 of Elizabeth Lowell’s Rarities Unlimited series, but I was a bit disappointed to see that it didn’t quite live up to the enjoyment I got out of Book 1, Moving Target. This is not to say that Running Scared was bad, mind you–it’s just that this one didn’t tickle my fancy nearly as much as the first one did.

This time around we’ve got a heroine named Risa Sheridan, a gold appraiser in the employ of wealthy Vegas casino owner Shane Tanahill, who has a strict hands-off policy when it comes to his female employees. But a shiny new Celtic artifact has come to Shane’s attention, and so Risa’s been called upon to appraise it. But this being a suspense novel, the artifact is of course a Problem, with a nasty backstory of recent bloodshed and theft. Naturally, this leads to current bloodshed and theft, which drives much of the plot.

And because Risa is a suspense novel heroine, she too has some angsty backstory in the person of her old friend Cherelle Faulkner. The two of them grew up in poverty together, and while Risa worked her way out of it, Cherelle has not been so lucky. Cherelle becomes involved in the fate of other artifacts from the same collection that Shane’s artifact originated from, and thus, she comes back across Risa’s radar after years of separation. How the two women deal with the way their lives have gone since their childhoods is actually some of the best stuff in the book, as it’s halfway decent character fodder even if you often want to smack Cherelle for her whining, and Risa for putting up with her. Their interactions stand out more clearly in my memory than the standard chemistry between the two leads.

So all in all an acceptable Lowell read. Not as awesome as its predecessor, but decent for a quick breeze-through. Three stars.

2012 Book Log #5: Unclaimed, by Courtney Milan

Unclaimed (Turner, #2)

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s a romance staple to do a series of interconnected books all featuring siblings in the same family, or employees of the same agency, or what have you. Courtney Milan’s Turner series is no exception. And happily, Unclaimed, the second book in the series, turned out to be just as much fun for me as the first.

Book 1 was the story of Ash, the oldest of the three brothers; Book 2 picks up with his younger brother Mark. Mark’s an example of Milan cheerfully subverting another romance trope–because here, it’s Mark, not the heroine of the novel, who’s the one without sexual experience. This is by no means not Mark’s only defining trait, but it’s an important one that sets the course for the entire plot.

Mr. Turner–or rather, I should say, Sir Mark Turner, because the Queen has knighted him for his service to the nation’s morality–has written a treatise, the Gentlemen’s Practical Guide to Chastity. In her intro to the novel, Milan talks about how she wanted to write about a character with a rock star’s level of fame, but since she’s a writer of historicals, she had to figure out how to work it into the book in a period-appropriate fashion. Hence, Sir Mark’s Guide!

Exactly how berserk England goes over his work is one of the somewhat sillier things about the novel, but in the context of the story I was willing to go along with it. Why Mark wrote it and how he reacts to the scores of young men (and older women towing their young daughters) who fawn over him are hugely important aspects of his character. And I’ve got to say, I found his resolve to remain chaste until he finds the exact right woman for him refreshing and charming, especially after all the reading of urban fantasy and paranormal romance I’ve done for the last several years.

Set off in strong contrast to Mark is our heroine, Jessica, a courtesan who’s been paid to seduce him and ruin him in the eyes of the public. And as with Book 1, Jessica finds out fast that she genuinely likes Mark, and it doesn’t take her long at all to back away hard from the idea of causing his public downfall.

There’s all sorts of stuff that could be said here about the roles of gender and sexuality in this situation. And the book does, in fact, say them. Happily, it does so in a way that came across to me as natural for the characters and their interactions, without ever getting preachy. Mark calls out the hypocrisy of society’s encouraging men to express their lusts, or at any rate not punishing them for it, while holding women to far stricter standards. An oh-so-modern and enlightened attitude for a man in the 1830’s? Sure. But as put forth by Mark, it’s sincere and believable. It helps a lot as well that Jessica has a great deal of agency as the plot progresses, especially in the final third of the story. And it helps, too, that there’s a reasonably small amount of angst and drama as Jessica’s initial goal is inevitably revealed.

As with Book 1, I had some minor quibbles with plausibility–but only minor ones. And I’m eagerly heading on to read Book 3! Four stars.

2011 Book Log #96: Unveiled, by Courtney Milan

Unveiled (Turner, #1)

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

(Note: I’m posting this review out of order because my next 2012 Book Log post is book 2 of this same series–and I didn’t want to post the review of the second before I posted the review of the first!)

I come to Courtney Milan courtesy of the fine ladies of Smart Bitches Trashy Books, and while I’m not always aligned with their tastes, I have got to back ’em up on Milan’s Turner series. Here’s the thing about my reading romance novels–there are certain tropes in them that drive me spare, and are among the main reasons I steer clear of most contemporaries. I favor historicals and romantic suspense, on the grounds that they’re less likely to display the tropes that drive me most spare, even as I’m very aware that those particular romance subgenres also have their own issues.

I’m not a history geek, so I couldn’t dissect for you whether Milan’s depiction of her chosen period is historically accurate. But I can tell you that she pulled off a story that, for me, beautifully balanced a historically accurate feel with character sensibilities more appealing to modern readers. In my reading experience to date, that’s hard. Better yet, she skillfully subverted two of the biggest tropes I hate in many romances: having such a huge deal made over the heroine being a virgin, and the Big Misunderstanding that far too often provides “conflict” between the leads, the sort of conflict that can be solved in five minutes if they just talk to each other like adults.

And happily, she does all this in a tasty little scenario of political and familial intrigue. Ash Turner, our hero, has proven that the Duke of Parford is a bigamist, therefore destroying the legitimacy of his heirs, and opening the way for himself to take over as the rightful heir to the dukedom. But the Duke and his sons are having NONE OF THIS, and they’ve set the ailing Duke’s daughter Margaret up to masquerade as his nurse–putting her into an excellent position to spy on the incoming new Duke and find anything, any flaw in his character or vulnerability in his history, that can ruin him in the eyes of Parliament so that they can take back their estate.

Naturally, our heroine finds Ash Turner dangerously appealing. And has to soon choose between him and her own family.

Margaret was awesome, and it is through her that Milan subverted those aforementioned tropes so beautifully. I’m not going to spell out how, so that I can avoid spoilers, but suffice to say that as aspects of her history were explored and Ash’s responses to them were shown, I liked both characters immensely.

Mad, mad props as well to the inevitable vulnerability that Margaret discovers in Ash, another thing I won’t spell out so as to avoid spoilers. But I will say that it’s an aspect of him that is a source of genuine past strife between him and his brothers, and which genuinely made my heart go out to the poor guy.

Last but not least, how the eventual resolution of Margaret having to choose between Ash and her father and brothers–and how Ash must choose between Margaret and his own desire for revenge against her father–worked out beautifully.

All in all, great fun. I had some minor questions of plausibility here and there, but nothing serious to get in the way of enjoying the story. Four stars.

2011 Book Log #42: Moving Target, by Elizabeth Lowell

Moving Target

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Moving Target, the first of her Rarities Unlimited series, is perhaps my favorite of all of Elizabeth Lowell’s books. Not because she does anything hugely different in this book that she does from the rest of them, mind you–but more because she happens in this one to mix all of her plot and character ingredients into the exact right recipe to suit my personal tastes.

Serena Charters inherits an ancient manuscript when her grandmother is murdered. Like you do in these sorts of plots, soon discovers that she’s the latest in a long descent of women, all of whom have the name Serena, charged to guard this manuscript and keep it safe and secret. And when there’s an ongoing plot to keep something secret, there are naturally those who are out to get their hands on it. In this case, there’s a wealthy patriarch desperate to lay his hands on the Book of the Learned, no matter what it takes.

Meanwhile Erik North, our hero, is a manuscript appraiser employed by Rarities Unlimited. Erik too has been seeking the Book of the Learned for his own reasons, and, again like you do in these sorts of plots, soon enough teams up with Serena to find and protect it.

And hands down, Serena and Erik are the two big draws for me in this book. I like the female-focused backstory for Serena’s family. I like her grandmother. I like the history of the original Serena, and the scrap of mysterious cloth that’s all that remains of a dress she wove, adding a very light hint of the paranormal to an otherwise prosaic romantic suspense setup. Just as importantly, I like Erik–he’s confident, competent, has his personal form of art he likes to express, and comes across very well as an equal to Serena rather than someone in a greater position of power than her. As for the other characters, the antagonists are suitably threatening without being ridiculous or over the top, while the supporting characters at Rarities are reasonably entertaining.

All in all a fun read. I’d definitely recommend this one as the first one to hit for anyone interested in reading an Elizabeth Lowell book. Four stars.

2011 Book Log #41: The Secret Sister, by Elizabeth Lowell

The Secret Sister

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Secret Sister, published under the name of Elizabeth Lowell, is a reworked version of a novel called The Secret Sisters, published under the name of Ann Maxwell. I haven’t read the original version, but I can safely say that the Lowell version is an acceptable little romantic suspense novel.

Our heroine du jour is Christy McKenna, a fashion writer, going about her fashion writer business in New York until she gets a call from her long-estranged sister Jo. Jo needs her help, and Christy wants absolutely none of this–until an assignment from her editor forces Christy to head west anyway. Her sister’s disappearance shoves her onto the trail of not only Jo, but a hidden cache of ancient Native American artifacts as well. And our obligatory brooding hero is Aaron Cain, an outlaw archaeologist, who’s a bit unusual for a Lowell hero in that he’s actually a convicted felon. (Yet, as he is in fact the Obligatory Brooding Hero, he was convicted for assault of an Obligatory Unsavory Person Who Actually Deserved It.)

As Lowell novels go this was perfectly readable, if not outstanding or unusual. The main things that appealed to me about it were the atmospheric descriptions of the Colorado terrain and Lowell’s general competence at chemistry between her lead characters, the latter of which is why I keep reading her. Three stars.

2012 Book Log #4: Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier


My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you’re a fan of old-school romantic suspense, then you cannot go wrong at all with Daphne du Maurier. Especially if you pick up Rebecca, which I was very pleased to finally do. Many of the elements in this book are classically Gothic: the innocent young new bride, the brooding husband, the dead first wife, the remote mansion, the creepy housekeeper, and such. They are in fact Gothic enough that it took me a bit to realize that the novel was in fact set in a modern (as of the time it was written) time frame! In that respect, du Maurier reads a lot like Mary Stewart, and if you like Stewart you’ll probably like du Maurier very much.

Our story starts off with a young woman working as a companion in Monte Carlo to the odious Mrs. Van Hopper. She’s saved from exile to New York in Mrs. Van Hopper’s company by falling in love with an older man, Maxim de Winter, who is said to be haunted by the recent death of his first wife. To our heroine’s amazement, Maxim proposes to her, and she is whisked off to his mansion in Cornwall, Manderley, as the new Mrs. de Winter.

Once there, she discovers that Maxim, his housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, and the rest of the staff in the house are all still dominated by the memory of Rebecca, the first Mrs. de Winter–who, even after her death, is such a potent force that our shy young heroine is driven to despair. But as this is indeed a Gothic-style suspense novel, that is of course not all. For there are suspicious circumstances indeed about how Rebecca died!

It must be noted that our heroine is never actually given a name–which, it turns out, was a deliberate choice of the author. The edition I have includes a section at the end in which du Maurier explains to her readers that she never actually thought of a name for the character. It works wonderfully, though, as a symbol of how so thoroughly the second Mrs. de Winter is overwhelmed by the impact her predecessor had on Manderley even after her death.

There’s an original version of the book’s ending included with my edition, too, which is worth reading and comparing against the beginning of the finished story, since du Maurier moved a lot of that material into the initial chapter of the book. From a writer’s perspective it’s fun to see her explanations for why she did that, and from a reader’s perspective and a writer’s perspective alike, I can appreciate her choices. Without going into detail, I’ll say that for me as a reader, it seemed that du Maurier absolutely made the right choice, since her original ending was way too reminiscent of Jane Eyre.

I won’t say more for fear of spoilers, even though this novel’s old enough that many of you out there who are my age or older may have already read it, or may have seen the Hitchcock film that was based on this work. (And if you’re a Hitchcock fan, I can add too that I can absolutely see why Hitchcock made this into a movie; it’s very much right up his alley.) As with Mary Stewart, the pacing is slower than a modern reader may expect. But if you don’t mind taking your time, and in fact like to indulge in an author’s rich and slowly building prose, Rebecca will reward you. Five stars.

2012 Book Log #3: Dreadful Skin, by Cherie Priest

Dreadful Skin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If you like werewolves, and you like the Old West, then Cherie Priest’s short story collection Dreadful Skin is a decent way to spend your time. We’ve got three interconnected stories here, featuring the werewolf Jack Gabert and the woman who hunts him, Eileen Callaghan, an Irish ex-nun who’s tracked him all the way to America.

The characters are sketched in with Priest’s usual deft touch, though due to the length of each story and to the propensity to change points of view with each scene change, ‘sketched in’ was about all each tale had time for. I found this frustrating, for Priest’s skill with her prose did indeed mean that each story gave me pieces of a much bigger story, one that I quite wanted to experience in greater depth.

Still, this was a fun read, if quick. Fans of werewolf-based urban fantasy may find this a trifle disappointing in that the werewolves in these tales are, in fact, monsters. As such, they are not intended to be sympathetic. I myself found this a refreshing change of pace, and a nice palette cleanser after the heavy diet of urban fantasy I’ve had these last several years. Three stars.

2011 Book Log #40: Silver Phoenix, by Cindy Pon

Silver Phoenix

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I heard about Silver Phoenix as yet another example of a trend that bothers the hell out of me: putting white faces on the covers of books that are not about white people. Thus, I wanted to give this book a bit of support. But, given that Cindy Pon was an unfamiliar author, I opted to check the book out of the library first and see whether this was a story I’d want to own.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t. I’m writing this review several months after I actually read the book, and at this point, I have to admit that I have very little recollection of what it was about–this being a measure of how little it stayed with me. So I had to refresh my memory by reading other people’s reviews of the story, which got me three overall problems I have with the book.

One, I never found any of the characters particularly well-drawn. I often have this problem reading YA, but Silver Phoenix is worse than other YA I’ve written, since the characters were ephemeral enough that I didn’t retain them at all within months of readin the book.

Two, I specifically didn’t care for the heroine’s love interest, and how he was so dismissive of her after one scene where she is almost raped. (Which some might call a spoiler, but which I’m noting here as a potential trigger warning for those who might find that scene an issue.)

And three, the heroine Ai Ling is sadly pretty much a non-entity. I’m calling her out separately from the rest of the cast because, as the ostensible protagonist of the novel, she should have stood out for me far better than she actually did. Yet the book doesn’t give her nearly as much agency as it does her love interest, Chen Yong–and much of what I do remember about the book involves Ai Ling pining after Chen Yong. Which I can do without. One star.