Review: “Pillow Stalk” (Mad for Mod Mystery #1) by Diane Vallere

Pillow Stalk

47-year old interior decorator Madison Night has modeled her life after Doris Day because they share a birthdate and a passing resemblance. Having moved to Dallas after a breakup, she is rebuilding her life by running her mid-century design store, swimming every morning and petitioning the local film society to hold a Doris Day film festival. But when a woman resembling her is murdered, Madison finds herself entangled in a 20-year old murder mystery, with all fingers pointing to her new best friend as the prime suspect.

As the bodies start piling up, Madison is reluctantly paired up with the surly yet hot Lieutenant Tex Allen, who is hiding some secrets of his own. Always at odds with each other, they uncover an international conspiracy, a campaign to destroy all Doris Day movies and six minutes of film that change everything Madison thought she knew about her life.

While all of this sounds terribly dramatic and exciting, I found the story to be mostly mediocre. Having seen one Doris Day movie about ten years ago, my interest in the 1950s has been more of the Mad Men variety. Plus, I have zero interest in the life of a decorator, let alone one who has modeled herself on a seemingly goody-two-shoes actress. The “love triangle” is heavily hinted at throughout the story but amounts to nothing. While Ms. Vallere does occasionally manage to throw in some twists that surprised me, the denouement was so outlandish that it took away from whatever little I liked about the book, i.e. Madison Night’s Shih Tzu, Rocky.

Since it is the opening book in a series, I won’t judge it too harshly. Hopefully, things will pick up steam in the next couple of installments.

Review: “Left at the Altar” (A Match Made in Texas #1) by Margaret Brownley

Left at the Altar
Feuds don’t need no reason. Or at least none that matter.”
The year is 1880. The place, Two-Time, Texas, a town filled with gun-toting opinionated people with short fuses. In best-selling author Margaret Brownley’s opening book in her A Match Made in Texas series, Romeo and Juliet gets turned on its head and thoroughly (and delightfully) “western”-ized.
Meg Lockwood and Tommy Farrell have been friends all their life. Children of feuding jewelers who seek to control the town by imposing their own time zones, their wedding was supposed to broker a much sought temporal compromise that goes up in flames when Tommy jilts Meg at the altar.
The sole witness to her humiliation, Grant Garrison, an East Coast lawyer who has recently moved to Two-Time after the tragic death of his sister. Enchanted by Meg’s beauty and courage, Grant nonetheless agrees to represent Tommy in a breach of promise suit filed by meg’s furious father.
Despite their constant run-ins and instant mutual attraction, Grant stays away from Meg and is the perfect foil to the crazy Texans he’s surrounded by. Despite his staid demeanour, there are flashes of wit and a wicked sense of humour. Meg, on the other hand, was a romance heroine I had difficulty warming up to. At first, her thinking seemed provincial and mired in outdated societal mores like propriety and obedience. However, as the story progressed, however, and Meg herself started questioning the roles women are required to play throughout their lifetime (and the alternate ways they can wield power in the absence of political rights) gave the novel a much appreciated proto-feminist bent.
I haven’t read a lot of “clean” romances and it took me over 150 pages to realize that Left at the Altar was one of them. Ms Brownley managed to adequately convey the chemistry between the protagonists, though it is my personal belief that romance could have been developed a tad better. There were a lot of parallel story-lines which left little room for the romance to blossom independently.
The breach of promise suit proves to be a very interesting plot device and also ends up being quite educational through the nuanced arguments made in court and the author’s note at the end of the story. The feud angle felt a bit contrived to me in the beginning but the twisted revolution towards the end proved to be a satisfying explanation. Ms Brownley does a marvelous job of fleshing out her secondary characters and many remain memorable.
Ms Brownley’s Left at the Altar is a fun opener for her A Match Made in Texas series, incorporating socially conscious historical fiction with good, clean romance.   

Review: “The City of Mirrors” (The Passage #3) by Justin Cronin

City of Mirrors

The night is ours again. The vampire apocalypse is finally over. And I apologise in advance for all the lame vampire jokes I’m about to crack.

As survivors know, the bloodletting started in 2010 with The Passage, an engorged thriller by Justin Cronin. A graduate of Harvard and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Cronin had published a couple of literary novels before going to the dark side and selling his projected vampire trilogy for over $3.5 million. Fox 2000 landed the first book — then half-written — for $1.75 million for Scott Free to produce. Originally developed as a feature, the producers eventually determined that the property would be better served as a TV series. Sophisticates may have sucked their fangs, but how electrifying it felt to have a fine writer spread his wings and swoop into this garlic-breath genre. With its blood-slick pacing and sympathetic heroes, The Passage was a killer antidote to the CrossFit vampires colonizing the twilight.

Yes, it’s true: Cronin’s story of a bat virus that destroys human civilization got a bit bogged down in the second volume, The Twelve. But those of us hypnotized by this tale were eagerly awaiting the finale. In The City of Mirrors, we finally find out what happens to the remnant of humanity that survived those decades of terror.

But beware all who enter. This is very much a sequel for the twice-bitten. The uninfected reader will wander around these dark passages entirely lost. The City of Mirrors opens a few years after the cataclysmic confrontation that ended The Twelve. So far as anyone can tell, the vampires were all destroyed. Our modest warrior-hero Peter Jaxon eventually assumes the presidency of a bustling settlement of a hundred thousand souls in Texas. There are now substantial settlements of beleaguered humans, and the real crisis is not shooting a “smoke” or “drac” or “flyer” in the chest, but creating a feasible tax regime. “People had begun to openly talk about moving outside the wall,” Cronin writes. “The age of the viral was over; humankind was finally on the upswing. A continent stood for the taking.”

The epic climax turns out to be bathetic, though the flashback to Patient Zero’s former life as Timothy Fanning is actually rather good. An inset novella, it tells of being a middle-class boy in a prestigious university, beguiled by wealth and crippled by self-doubt. In the intervening century, he’s devolved into some kind of vampiric Miss Havisham, determined to make the whole world pay for his broken heart. Fortunately, one of the emotionally wounded characters from the previous book has found a massive freighter in the Gulf of Mexico. He’s determined to turn it into a latter-day Noah’s Ark — an insurance policy just in case the vamps come leaping back.

The trilogy exemplifies Anthropocene masochism. When humanity has irreversibly changed the nature of the environment, the environment bites back – literally, in this case. Humanity’s ubiquity conjures fantasies of its own extinction. What survives of us is not, despite the book’s sentimentality, love; but bureaucracy. Throughout the trilogy, the central concerns are planning, management, pragmatism and resource allocation.

The Passage focused on the response to the cataclysm and the strict government of the survivors (for example, children are not allowed to know about the disaster until a certain age). The Twelve was less concerned with the serial killer vampires – most of whom were never even fleshed out – than with the totalitarian regime in Iowa that collaborated with them. The City of Mirrors is more thrilling when dealing with the relationship between the black market and the official economy than the boo-hooing of the principal villain. Even the vampires have to deal with a diminishing food supply and the results of their over-plundering. The monster in the first book tried factory farming humans; the Iowan quislings were very keen on biofuels in the second book, and now Zero himself embarks on a proactive rewilding strategy. In the earlier books, the walled townships could be seen as a prophetic parody of Donald Trump’s isolationism. The third book has everyone except the Americans dead, and they are thus charged with making humanity great again. Zero has a great affection for the poetry of T.S. Eliot and Hamlet; the courageous pioneers think Moby-Dick is too difficult, wondering if it is even written in English. The future is delightfully philistine.

Cronin picks open the wound with a few unnerving disappearances, but then once the lights go out, he launches breathtaking Homeric battles between viral hordes and soft-bellied humans. Back in New York, the conflict soars from one abandoned skyscraper to another — a spectacular clash that looks ready-made for Ridley Scott. And he’s even more frightening in crowded, locked rooms where sweaty survivors listen to the vamps sniffing under the door. The lucky ones are eaten alive; the others become blood brothers of the nastiest sort.

It’s all deliciously exciting — right up until the epilogue, which zooms ahead 900 years to a world that seems as alien as last Thursday. Inexplicably, the passing of a millennium and the murder of 7 billion people have given birth to a new civilization pretty much like ours. “History teaches us that there are no guarantees,” drones some professor at an academic conference around the year 3000. “We ignore the lessons of the Great Catastrophe at our peril,” he says, which suggests that platitudes, like cockroaches, will survive us all.

What good is immortality, Count Dracula might wonder, if the distant future is so deadeningly familiar?

Review: “Blue-Eyed Devil” (Travises #2) by Lisa Kleypas

blue-eyed-devil

Haven Travis thought she was in love. Not even a passionate makeout session with a stranger in the wine cellar at her brother’s wedding could stop her from marrying Nick Tanner, the boyfriend her overprotective family strongly disapproved of. Two years later, after having endured the worst kind of hell in her abusive marriage, Haven returns to Houston to rebuild her life. As she tries to work in her brother’s property management company, start therapy and get a divorce, Haven runs right into Hardy Cates, her sister-in-law’s trailer park teenage crush and now a wealthy Houston oil tycoon. Her body still recovering from Nick’s last beating, Haven is still drawn to Hardy, just as she was when she kissed him two years ago.

Hardy, intent on pursuing Haven, has no idea about the trauma she has suffered. In fact, he still sees her as a spoiled college girl whose apparent liberalism was more intellectual snobbery than authentic sentiment. So when Haven tends to act a bit standoffish in response to his assertive, even aggressive pursuit, Hardy isn’t sure she’s merely skittish or a tease, and he tries even harder to win her over, purchasing a condo in the Travis building where Haven works, buying her a gift that brings back memories of Haven’s childhood, and inviting her to a dance with him in front of her family, who see him as a no good, lying jerk who will take advantage of Haven if given half a chance.

One complaint that I have with some romance novels is how some heroines who are recovering from abusive relationships somehow subconsciously recognize the hero as “safe” and have little to no compunction about jumping into a relationship–and in bed–with him. What I liked about Blue-Eyed Devil the most is that it did not follow this cliched path. From Sugar Daddy, we know that Hardy has a dark past, and Haven, who had no sexual experience before Nick, was at a double disadvantage, leading to some scenes where there is a realistic sense of conflict between the protagonists, showcasing their vulnerabilities. Hardy has his own demons from his trailer-park childhood, which makes his attraction to Haven very believable in a way that it wasn’t with Liberty, in the same way that Haven’s attraction to a man who reminds her of her approval-withholding father seems kind of logical. For many readers, this kind of psychological layering makes Blue-Eyed Devil an “issue book,” but for me, it’s really a book about people who have issues that make them good for each other but in ways that are really complicated and not instantly negotiable.

Still, the story is a romance at heart, and there is a certain amount of tension between the way the book tries to show Haven’s emotional journey in an authentic way and the almost fairy tale level of happiness we know Haven and Hardy will ultimately enjoy. On the one hand, I was really moved by Hardy’s reaction when he finally learns about Haven’s past and starts putting all the mixed signals in order. On the other hand, it is obvious that the scene was set up to push Hardy and Haven into physical intimacy so that their romance arc could progress. So, while we see Haven struggling to move forward from her abuse by dealing with a sociopathic boss and freaking out about Hardy in therapy, there is also a sense of her recovery being rushed so that Haven can have a healthy romantic relationship as soon as possible.

Plus, it’s not like Hardy is without his flaws, even though we know that he is supposed to be The One for Haven.But his missteps give his character some much-needed depth and let us see that this is a man who understands how vicious families can be, especially when he has his own self-destructive streak to manage. In Sugar Daddy, he was shown to be ruthless, selfish and willing to betray a trust to get what he wanted. But by Blue-Eyed Devil, we are supposed to be able to trust him as an appropriate partner for a largely fragile Haven, which means we have to believe he is fundamentally a decent guy. It might not be a problem for people who haven’t read  Sugar Daddy, but to me, his rehabilitation seemed quite artificial. It was a lot more believable to see what Haven gives to Hardy than to see Hardy as the guy who “saves” Haven.

In the end, though, Blue-Eyed Devil is as misleading a title for what was mainly Haven’s story as Sugar Daddy was for Liberty’s story. It’s not that the romance was an unimportant or peripheral aspect, or that the men were forgettable characters, but that the plot had a lot more substance by being about a woman’s journey to being able to trust and accept herself again. Overall, it was an engaging, emotionally fulfilling and psychologically satisfying read despite its many flaws and inconsistencies.

Review: “Sugar Daddy” (Travises #1) by Lisa Kleypas

sugar-daddy

I’ve never written a review of a romance novel I have such mixed feelings about. From what I gather, Lisa Kleypas is a legend in the ‘historical romance’ genre, and this is her first attempt at in the ‘contemporary’ genre so I’m willing to be a little forgiving. But there are several things in this book that made absolutely no sense to me.

When the story begins, Liberty Jones is a shy girl growing up in a trailer park in Welcome, Texas with her mother and the mother’s loser boyfriend. At this point, we’re told that Liberty’s father was Mexican and she has faced some backlash for not resembling her caucasian mother. Her mixed race heritage is brought up repeatedly throughout the book but never dealt with.

Liberty falls for bad boy Hardy Cates, who is driven by his desire to get the hell out of Welcome ASAP, even though he and Liberty have undeniable chemistry. She is heartbroken but her problems multiply thousandfold when her mother suddenly dies in a car accident and leaves her to take care of her 2-year old half-sister, Carrington. Why anyone would name a kid Carrington escapes me, but I’m going to chalk it down to a ‘Texan thing’ like the author has to excuse a lot of erratic behaviour by different people throughout the story.

At some point, I started to wonder why the series was called “Travises” considering nobody named Travis had appeared so far. But then we see Liberty move to Houston after she hustles for a couple of years and becomes a cosmetologist. Working at a top-notch salon, she meets old multimillionaire Churchill Travis, who takes a shine to her. She convinces him to get manicures and they become good friends. All this time, I’m really hoping that they don’t sleep together primarily because I’m still convinced Hardy is the hero of this tale. Liberty says he is The One enough times.

But, wait. Churchill breaks his leg and asks Liberty to become his live-in nurse. That’s when we meet Churchill’s disapproving oldest son, Gage Travis. He is the typical alpha male who charms the damsel by giving her a glimpse of his many, many flaws. He enters the story so late that for a while I was really doubtful if he was the hero. (His name’s not even mentioned in the blurb!) However, sparks fly and now Liberty and Gage enter into a romantic relationship and my dubious HEA seems within grasp.

With some 60-odd pages left in the story, Hardy reappears and Liberty’s reaction to him is so powerful, I am surprised he was not the one she ended up with. But then, there was a painfully bad industrial espionage scene and Liberty sees how Hardy has grown up to be a ruthless money-grubber. So she goes back to Gage, who was having her followed without her knowledge and who pins her down and has sex with her when she tells him that she needs a break from him. That she liked it and he apologized for it afterward, does not take away from the fact that it was rape and Gage is a stalker.

Romance is hands down my favourite genre. But justifying disturbing, violent and abusive behaviour in the name of love is not romantic. Stalking is not romantic. Sex with questionable consent is not romantic. A heartfelt apology after the fact is not a cure-all. I haven’t read any of Lisa Kleypas’ other books so I won’t make it personal, but I’d like to appeal to romance authors out there and say that love is one of the most powerful emotions a human being can experience, but it is meaningless without consent. Please keep that in mind.

The book has many other flaws and some redeeming chapters but since the aforementioned issue is so important, I will not be dealing with the rest in this post. Hopefully, Ms Kleypas’ other books are not this sickening.

P.S. If anyone figures out why, in the name of God, was this book titled Sugar Daddy, please let me know. Thanks.

Review: “Perfect” (Second Opportunities #2) by Judith McNaught

Perfect.jpg

Anyone who knows my taste in men knows that I am a sucker for doomed love :p So, any book where the protagonists face seemingly insurmountable obstacles, whose time together is limited, whose love is forbidden by law or society will always tug at my heartstrings. Buoyed by the euphoria I experienced after rediscovering Judith McNaught’s Paradise, I was all set to fall in love all over again with its sequel, Perfect. Needless to say, I was not disappointed.

At the age of eighteen, Zachary Benedict was shut out of his life of wealth and privilege by his unforgiving grandmother, who wanted to teach him a lesson. With nothing but the clothes on his back and barely a penny to his name, Zack hitched a ride all the way to Hollywood, where he took a job working on the docks. Soon he was discovered by a producer and embarked on an acting career that turned him into a household name. Despite winning multiple Oscars and marrying a famous actress, he was never entirely happy with his life. His marriage was on the rocks, and as he was about to wrap the production of his latest film in which his wife was also starring, he found her in flagrante delicto with one of their co-stars. The next day, she was shot dead on the movie set. Seemingly the only person with a motive to kill her, Zack was charged with and later, convicted of her murder. After unjustly spending five years in prison, Zack hatches a daring escape plan. Everything is going perfectly till his getaway car is towed. Desperate to get away as fast as he can, he tricks a young woman into giving him a ride. However, as soon as she realizes what’s going on, Zack is forced to make her his hostage.

Julie Mathison was abandoned as a baby and grew up in a string of foster homes and on the streets, until a kind and loving family finally adopted her when she was eleven. Their faith in her never wavered, something she’d never experienced in her life, so she, in turn, promised to be a “perfect” person they could be proud of. She’s made a life for herself as a well-respected school teacher, runs an adult literacy program, and volunteers for many community activities. As she’s returning from a brief trip to solicit funds for her adult reading class, she chances to meet a man whom she thinks is a kind stranger. He turns out to be a wanted fugitive. At first fearing for her life, Julie complies with his wishes, but she also bravely does everything she can think of to try to get away from Zack. When she finally has the perfect opportunity to escape, a moment of unexpected vulnerability on Zack’s part makes her hesitate. Soon she finds herself ensconced with the handsome actor in a luxury mountaintop cabin in the middle of a snowstorm. As Julie spends time in Zack’s company and gets to know him, she slowly comes to believe that he is indeed innocent of the charges against him.

To Zack, Julie is a breath of fresh air. She’s kind, sweet, and genuine with the heart of a lion, nothing at all like his former wife or the other starlets he used to date. Romance and passion blossom between the pair, but Zack knows he must soon leave Julie behind in order to flee the country. Even though he’s grown to love her in a way he never thought possible, it wouldn’t be fair to her to take her with him, when he has nothing to offer but a dangerous life on the run. Instead, Zack sends Julie back to the safety of her hometown, with a good cover story that he hopes will save her reputation, intending to never see her again. But the love between them is stronger than he realized. Being without Julie is torturous, and when he believes she might be pregnant with his child, he risks everything to be with her again, only to be led to believe she betrayed him in the cruelest possible way. If Zack’s innocence can ever be proven, will he be able to find it in his heart to forgive Julie, or will they be doomed to live separate lives?

Matt and Meredith, the hero and heroine of Paradise, appear several times as secondary characters. Matt is Zack’s best and really his only true friend, and he and Meredith are the only ones who never lose faith in Zack’s innocence. In fact, Matt moves heaven and earth to prove it. We also get to see more of Matt’s amusing bodyguard/chauffeur, Joe O’Hara, who appears in another of Ms. McNaught’s books, Someone to Watch Over Me. We also meet FBI agent, Paul Richardson, who seems like a good guy but who kind of gets left out in the cold when Julie and Zack reunite. He shows up again in book three of the series, Night Whispers.

This story took me on an emotional roller coaster that left me breathless at every page. I got to witness the long path of growth the characters have to go through and how it impacts their first impressions, their struggles, their expectations. And then there were Ms. McNaught’s trademark sizzling sex scenes.

But this is not a book only about love. Forgiveness and hope also play an instrumental role in the story and readers will ask themselves whether it’s possible to rebuild those bridges that have been burnt, once there’s the will to do so. And the characters’ journey shows that maybe we can launch ourselves into a new life and build our future if we face up to our past first and heal those wounds that plague us.

The first time I read this book, I was obsessed with it. I was concerned when I opened the book recently to do this review that some of the magic may have faded. While the book as a whole might not have been quite flawless for me, it did contain one of the most perfect love scenes I’ve ever read in a romance novel. Once Zack and Julie finally start talking and getting to know one another on a more personal level, it builds a strong sense of intimacy and connection that makes their first love scene utterly beautiful. It’s filled with the tenderness, love and passion I crave in a romance. Even though I saw flaws in it I didn’t notice before, it still captures all the elements of an exceptional love story: chemistry, conflict, and good characterization. Perfect will always have a special place in my heart.