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review 2015-02-15 16:22
A Rare Foray into Contemporary Romance
Kiss an Angel - Susan Elizabeth Phillips

Original Publication Year: 1996

Genre(s): Romance (Contemporary)

Series: None

Awards: None

Format: Audio (downloaded from library)

Narrated by: Anna Fields


I don’t read a lot of contemporary romance.  Heck I don’t read a lot of contemporary fiction period, preferring historicals, mysteries, SFF etc….  So this really was a stretch out of my normal reading rut and is precisely why I am participating in the Eclectic Reader Challenge.    For most of my life I hated beets and then one day 6 or so years ago a friend served me beets that were prepared just right and now they are one of my favorite foods.  I don’t want to be so biased in my reading choices that I miss out on gems or judge a whole genre based on the literary equivalent of pickled beets…. or something. 


I chose Kiss An Angel because it was near the top on a Goodreads list of Contemporary romance and had one of the highest average ratings.  While, this book has not won me over to the contemporary romance genre, I do understand why it is beloved. 


NOTE:  There will be a few mild spoilers below, nothing huge but I can’t really talk about the book properly without revealing some of it and it is revealed in the first 20 pages.


The set-up is this:  Daisy is a spoiled rich girl who has never had to work a day in her life and finds herself in deep financial troubles when her super model mother passes away.  Her disapproving father (parents were never married), an American diplomat to Russia, insists that in order for him to bail her out of her troubles, she must marry a man of his choosing and stay married for 6 months.  The man of his choosing is surly Alpha male Alex Markov who is, of all things, a manager of and performer in a second-rate traveling circus.  As you might imagine things are rough in the beginning but guess what?  Alex and Daisy find that they are a match made in heaven.


As you can probably guess, by the primary setting being a second-rate traveling circus, the characters and ambiance of the book is decidedly unique.  Both of the protagonists have Baggage with a capital ‘B’ in the form of crappy parents and the main conflict revolves around them overcoming their emotional dysfunction.  The second main conflict of the book is secrets – great big honking secrets that beyond just creating conflict, also provide a lot of forward momentum and drive to read.  Phillips takes her time and doesn’t take the easy way out in getting these two together which I appreciate.  She also does a good job of creating an extremely unlikely pair, even sans baggage, and illustrating why they are actually perfect for each other.  So for the big things, mission accomplished.


I still didn’t love it though and it wasn’t all to do with the contemporary setting.  I ended up liking Daisy all right but she is not the type of female character I really connect with and her transformation from spoiled rich girl to hard working, good-hearted animal whisperer frequently made me cringe.  I also never really warmed up to Alex not being able to get over his level of cruelty at the beginning, his lack of humor and the fact that for the first quarter of the book he calls Daisy "angel face" (NOTE:  Any guy calls me angel face he’ll have angels flying around his head after I punch him in his face). On a lighter note, this book is definitely a product of its age (pubbed in 1996) as Daisy has a fantasy about making out with a guy in a white limousine to the soothing sounds of Michael Bolton:0).


FINAL VERDICT:  While Kiss An Angel was not enough to convince me that I have been missing out all these years not reading contemporary romance, it was good enough for me to not dismiss the genre in the future. If you are already a fan of this genre you will probably like this one if you haven't already read it.


Do you have any really fantastic and perhaps out of the mold contemporary romances to recommend?  

Both the Read Harder and Eclectic Reader Challenges have romance categories.  For the Eclectic Reader Challenge it's specifically Contemporary romance and for the Read Harder challenge it is just romance. 

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review 2015-01-19 15:55
Great Mystery Series based on a TV Show!
Mr. Kiss and Tell - Jennifer Graham,Rob Thomas

Original Publication Year: 2015 (JANUARY 20!)

Genre(s): Mystery

Series: Veronica Mars #2

Awards: None

Format: eBook - Thanks to Knopf Doubleday for providing me with an advanced reader copy of this book (via NetGalley).  My review reflects my honest opinion of and experience with the book and was not influenced by receiving the book for free from the publisher. 

Narrated by: NA


Mr. Kiss and Tell begins a few months after the events of The Thousand Dollar Tan Line.  Keith Mars is back on his feet and Veronica has moved into her own place, which she is sharing with a certain gentleman named Logan.  (Gentleman you say?  Since when?  Since this book!  It's like he's a grown up or something.)   Her work on the case of the missing spring breakers in book one has earned her some elite friends  and leads to her being hired to investigate an accusation of rape, on the grounds of the Neptune Grand Hotel, against one of its employees.  The victim in this case is Grace Manning, Meg Manning's little sister who fans of the show will remember - she of the abusive religious zealot parents. The case turns out to be much larger in scope than it originally appears.  At the same time Keith and Cliff have teamed up with Weevil to sue the Neptune police department for corruption.


It's hard to say too much about this book without spoiling a lot of the mystery but I'll give it a shot.  This book doesn't have as many twists and turns of the first book but the mystery is still engrossing. It deals with sexual assault and since Veronica herself was a victim of rape, she is at her most fierce and determined.  She finds herself wrestling with her code of honor and struggling to stay on the right side of the law.  In the end, the way the case is resolved is clever and very satisfying. 


The mystery is just one part of the book however.  A chunk of the narrative is devoted to the fight against the corruption in the Neptune police department; there are even a few scenes that are from Keith's perspective.  In the end there are some very interesting developments that should spice up future books.  Another upside of this storyline is that we get a little time with Weevil.


There is also some space devoted to Veronica and Logan so LoVe fans (as I am) will be happy but its not overwhelming so if your not a fan, it shouldn't detract.  Their interactions are very fun and the issues when they arise (as they ALWAYS do) are mature and make sense.  Interestingly, it is Veronica that is perhaps not being fair and not dealing well and I actually appreciated this approach.  She thinks little of her own safety in her impulsive rush for justice but she is fiercely protective of those she loves so her difficulty is understandable.


As hinted at above, the characterizations, the storytelling, the atmosphere continue to be spot on and fans of the show will undoubtedly enjoy this.  However, while I thought book one could have been interesting for someone who hasn't watched the show or movie, this second installment I don't think would work as well.  The Weevil storyline and the crusade against the police department, the victim being connected to Meg Manning, and all the history between Veronica and Logan all link back heavily to the show and movie - it's all explained but a non-fan would probably still feel they'd been dropped into the middle of something and miss some nuances.


FINAL VERDICT:  This continues the book series strongly. I devoured it and will be anxiously awaiting book three!

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review 2015-01-18 19:49
Need a Veronica Mars Fix? This'll do it!
The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line - Jennifer Graham,Rob Thomas

Original Publication Year: 2014

Genre(s): Mystery

Series: Veronica Mars #1

Awards: None

Format: Paperback

Narrated by: NA


This is the first in a series of novels based on the short-lived but very awesome TV show Veronica Mars created by Rob Thomas.  If you are unaware, the show which aired from 2004-2007 focused on a teenaged sleuth Veronica Mars, in a SoCal town (Neptune) sharply divided along economic lines.  While it might sound a little silly, it was actually smart, sharply witty and had that rare quality of making you laugh one minute and be genuinely moved the next.  The franchise saw a revival in 2014 with a new movie funded by Kickstarter and the start of this series of mystery novels.  The novel begins a few months after the movie ends  - Veronica is now in her late twenties and has a law degree but she gets sucked back into the PI business in her home town and she has decided to stay sucked in.


With that background, the framework of this story is the disappearance of a couple of teenaged girls during spring break in Neptune.  Veronica is hired by the Neptune Chamber of Commerce to find the girls because kidnappings are bad for business and the town Sheriff?  Is incompetent and corrupt.  Veronica’s investigation, with the help of her best friends Wallace and Mac will lead her into the shady world of Mexican Drug Cartels, reunite her with her estranged alcoholic mother Leanne and as always expose the shady underbelly of Neptune. 


For fans of the show and the Veronica Mars universe, I think you will in no way be disappointed.  The feel of the book, the voice of the characters, the humor, the relationships - they are all there intact and pretty near perfectly reproduced.  It feels like a quality Veronica Mars episode in book form.  The book is authored by Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham and I’d be interested to know what the roles were.  Did they actually co-author?  Did Jennifer Graham write and Rob Thomas approve?  It doesn’t really matter, I suppose. because however it was done it is spot on.


For folks who know nothing about the show and are just looking for a good mystery, I think you will also be entertained.  The case is convoluted and has plenty of twists and turns that kept me guessing.  Veronica is an engaging character whether you’ve met her before or not and I think the book on its own provides plenty of insight into her complicated relationships.  It’s these relationships and the character of Neptune itself that provides the solid mystery storyline with some greater interest.  The book also moves at a snappy pace and was a complete page turner for me. 


Final Verdict:  A nourish mystery that will satisfy all and completely captures the charm and excellence of the TV show it is based on. 


Tomorrow I'll post my review of Mr. Kiss and Tell the second in the Veronica Mars series which is being release on Tuesday January 20th!

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review 2015-01-07 23:09
Sherlock Holmes Like You've (probably) Never Seen Him Before
The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Stephen Baxter,Stephen King,Neil Gaiman,Sharyn McCrumb,Rob Rogers,Tony Pi,John Joseph Adams,H.Paul Jeffers,Mary Robinette Kowal,Chris Roberson,Dominic Green,Barbara Roden,Amy Myers,Mark Valentine,Bradley H. Sinor,Geoffrey A. Landis,Robert J. Sawyer,Vonda

The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes edited by John Joseph Adams

Original Publication Year: 2009

Genre(s): Anthology, Mystery, Speculative

Series: NA

Awards: None

Format: eBook

Narrated by: NA


This was the last book I finished in 2014 and it fulfilled one of the categories in the Eclectic Reader Challenge (ERC).  It is a good argument for participating in a challenge that is meant to push one out of normal reading ruts because this was fun and I can’t remember the last time I read an Anthology.  Figuring out how to review it may be a challenge all in itself!


As the title suggests, the anthology is a collection of short stories by many different authors but all featuring the Sherlock Holmes “mythos”.  Some of the stories are straight up mysteries that stay faithful to Conan Doyle’s vision, some stretch the boundaries and bring in speculative elements.  It contains 28 different stories edited and compiled from various sources by John Joseph Adams who seems to have made a living curating various interesting looking anthologies (the link on the title will take you to his website).  Some of the most notable authors (for me) with stories in the anthology include: Stephen King, Anne Perry, Mary Robinette Kowal, Laurie R. King, Sharyn McCrumb, Michael Moorcock, Barbara Hambly, Naomi Novik, Tanith Lee and Neil Gaiman.


I really enjoyed the collection as a whole.  There was only one story (The Adventure of The Lost World by Dominic Green – yes it involves dinosaurs) that I didn’t like that much.  Several of the stories shared a Lovecraftian influence but otherwise there was little to tie them together besides the characters and concepts of Conan Doyle’s creation.  A couple of them feature different narrators besides Watson which was interesting.


A few highlights for me were:


Stephen King’s The Doctor’s Case – A locked room mystery where Watson gets to solve the crime!


Sharyn McCrumb’s Vale of the White Horse – Told from the perspective of a village healing or wise woman in rural England.  It is short but complete and features a case where folk legend plays a surprising role.  I really liked the unique voice and it made me want to pick up some of McCrumb’s novels.


Naomi Novik’s Common Places – A very different and more personal story set during the years that Holmes was missing presumed dead.  Explores Holmes’ relationship with Watson and Irene Adler.  Told from Adler’s POV.


Rob Roger’s The Adventures of the Pirates of Devil’s Cape – A rather unlikely but really fun and swashbuckling adventure that involves Pirates!!! (I like pirates.)  The deductions in this one were  particularly creative.


Tanith Lee The Human Mystery – Holmes miscalculates because his understanding of the fairer sex is not always spot on.  Very atmospheric with a twist.


Other favorites include: Michael Moorcock’s The Adventure of the Dorset Street Lodger, Vonda McIntyre’s The Adventure of Field Theorems, Barbara Roden’s The Things that Shall Come Upon Them, and Barbara Hambly’s The Adventure of the Antiquarian’s Niece.


Final Verdict: If you enjoy Sherlock Holmes and you don’t mind having him played with a little I think you will find at least a few stories in this collection that will make you happy. 3 out of 5 stars ✪✪✪

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review 2014-12-27 03:05
A Page-turner of a Gothic Mystery
The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins,Matthew Sweet

Original Publication Year: 1860

Genre(s): Fiction, Gothic Mystery

Series: NA

Awards: None

Format: Audio

Narrated by: Ian Holm


There are two sisters (half-sisters really), one is beautiful, sweet and rich and the other is ugly, smart and poor.  They are devoted to each other and they are mostly on their own in the world since their uncle/guardian is quite useless and self-absorbed.  Enter a handsome young drawing master, hired to instruct the young ladies.  Inevitably, the young drawing master (Walter Hartwright) falls in love with the pretty, sweet sister (Laura Fairlie) and she with him but alas, they are of different social classes and she is already engaged to the dashing older Sir Perceval Glyde.  Unfortunately, while Sir Glyde is doting and charming, a strange letter arrives that hints at hidden and unpleasant depths to his character which produces foreboding amongst all who care for Miss Fairlie.  Oh, the foreboding. 


Throw in a mysterious and somewhat mentally unstable doppelganger for Miss Fairlie who always wears white and you have the beginnings of a dramatic and rollicking tale.  I was not expecting this book to be such a page turner but it had pretty constant drama and action.  There are several mysteries that drive the plot forward at a cracking pace.  It definitely doesn’t feel like a 672 page book except when I reflect on all that happens it is not surprising it is on the longer side.  The narrative moves around through several different perspectives with Walter Hartwright’s being the primary one but also contributing are Marian, the Fairlie’s solicitor, and the young ladies’ invalid uncle.


Collins’ characters are also pretty amazing. The invalid uncle is a indulgent, narcissistic hypochondriac to beat all others.  My favorite characters were undoubtedly Marian Holcombe (the ugly, smart sister) and I somewhat more controversially love Count Fosco (not least of which because he is the only man in the story to have the good sense to fall head over heels in love with Marian). More on Marian later but Fosco is a larger than life character; an intelligent and charismatic villain.  He is much more menacing then Percival Glyde and some of his monologues are epic.  


Another thing I wasn’t expecting to see strongly messaged throughout the book was some pretty serious mid-nineteenth century feminism.  There seem to be a lot of messages here about the inequality between men and women in society and marriage.  Count Fosco even states in his ultimate letter confessing his dastardly deeds…


“What is the secret of Madame Fosco’s unhesitating devotion of herself to the fulfillment of my boldest wishes, to the furtherance of my deepest plans? I might answer this by simply referring to my own character, and by asking, in my turn, Where, in the history of the world, has a man of my order ever been found without a woman in the background self-immolated on the altar of his life? But I remember that I am writing in England, I remember that I was married in England, and I ask if a woman’s marriage obligations in this country provide for her private opinion of her husband’s principles? No! They charge her unreservedly to love, honour, and obey him. That is exactly what my wife has done. I stand here on a supreme moral elevation, and I loftily assert her accurate performance of her conjugal duties. Silence, Calumny! Your sympathy, Wives of England, for Madame Fosco!”


And then there is Marian who continually says things implying the weakness of women but then proving in her actions and her intellect that she is the equal if not the superior of most men.  And she also has some things to say about marriage:


“No man under heaven deserves these sacrifices from us women. Men! They are the enemies of our innocence and our peace - they drag us away from our parents' love and our sisters' friendship - they take us body and soul to themselves, and fasten our helpless lives to theirs as they chain up a dog to his kennel. And what does the best of them give us in return?”


I vividly felt, as Marian and Laura’s position in Sir Glyde’s household became clear, the fear and helplessness they must experience as women of that era.  Powerless and at the mercy of the men in their lives. 


As a cherry on top, Ian Holm’s narration of the book was perfect in every way.  He expertly captured the different voices as well as the exaggerated drama and foreboding that I think firmly makes this a Gothic novel. 


It missed getting five stars because sometimes the manipulation of the reader was a little too blatant.  I’m not sure this was a fault of the author but is probably just a characteristic of Gothic literature but I sometimes was imagining a tiny orchestra in my head going “Dun, dun DUN!”  Also, I have to say I was a little put out that Marian’s prescribed life and path is as her sister’s companion and doting Aunty to Laura and Walter’s children.  She says this is what she wants and we must take her at her word but I don’t quite believe it.  For all the feminism run rampant in the novel, of COURSE Walter chooses the pretty, sweet one over the super duper awesome smart but ugly one.  She has to settle for Fosco’s admiration.


And finally the BIG question!! Collins or Dickens? I feel like I’ve heard a few people of late claim that Dickens has wrongly been exalted as grand English literature while Collins has wallowed in the background.  They claim that Collins is in fact the better writer.  I have to say The Woman in White was a pretty serious page turner of a book and while I love many of Dickens’ books, I wouldn’t say they are always page turners.  However, they do feel a bit more substantive, perhaps.  I see why the two writers would be compared – writing at the same time and they each employ satire, especially in the form of some of their characters, to poke fun at institutions and certain types of people they despise.  However, I don’t know that it’s fair to compare them.  Dickens to me has more of a distinctive style but maybe that’s just because I have read way more of his books?  Regardless, the jury is still out as far as I am concerned and may forever be out.  Where do you come down on the matter?


Final Verdict:  A page turner of a mystery with an interesting cast of characters and suitably Gothic storytelling.  4 out of 5 Stars!   ✪✪✪✪



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