THE HOT COUNTRY, by Robert Olen Butler

1/series. Alpha males don't come a whole lot more believably alpha than Christopher Marlowe Cobb, Chicago-based newspaper reporter and son of the famous classical actress Isabel Cobb (now possibly playing to low-end bubbas in New Orleans notorious Storyville). Cobb specializes in war reporting, and is covering America's wussy little invasion of Vera Cruz, Mexico (they invaded; they collected garbage and swept the streets; they left). Relaxing in the seedy little Gulfside city, Cobb meets the indefagitable urchin Diego, the sexy and sharp-shooting Luisa, and then a clutch of sinister Germans. Click for more...


IF WISHES WERE EARLS, by Elizabeth Boyle

4/series (Rhymes With Love). Miss Harriet "Harry" Hathaway's lineage may stretch to the Domesday Book, but thanks to improvident - and racy - forebears, her money won't stretch to a new gown. The sole female of five children, Harry learned early on to hold her own. But will being able to deliver a good "facer", as a punch to the nose is known in Georgian England, help her catch Lord Roxley, the man she loves? Dear, silly, playboy Roxley, whose lightweight facade hides a serious, even deadly, interior. Suddenly, Roxley is rolled up: financially ruined, as someone buys up all his debts. Roxley senses more at stake than is evident, and fears he is playing for the highest stakes. Which means, somehow, he's got to keep Harry out of all of this. With a mix of eccentric characters, amusing one-liners, plenty of action both expected and unexpected, and some deliciously steamy love scenes, any fan of Georgian romance will gobble this right up. It's a 4. The sex is a 3.



1/series. Meet Flavia deLuce, much-put-upon younger sister to two vicious harridans-in-the-making, and dutiful daughter to an indifferent if loving father. Flavia will become your most favorite sleuth, even if she is a brilliant, bloody-minded 11-year old with a penchant for blowing things up in her private laboratory. Her other, perhaps more endearing, quality is her fascination with death. With the naive insouciance of a smart but isolated girl, she inserts herself into a murder investigation: a body is found in her family's kitchen garden. Her father's the prime suspect, and Flavia pits herself against the honest but not-quite-up-to-her-speed Inspector Hewitt, with startling (and entertaining) results. The story, and its sequels, will whisk you back to your own pre-teen years, to the I-can-do-anything notions that life inevitably changes. A delicious series; a 5.
Originally envisioned as a six-book series, the novel won most major awards, including a Macavitty Sadly, after nine books, the series has ended. Hopefully, Bradley will come up with another compelling character to entice us. There is a Flavia deLuce Fan Club, by the way. And, best of all, you've got nine delicious, unexpected, heart-warming and -wrenching books to wallow in. Enjoy.

HIS ILLEGAL SELF, by Peter Carey

Book reviews ain't always easy. Sometimes the contrasts between one book and the next are so extreme they throw a perfectly competent novelist into near-disrepute because the other book is just so damn good. This is such a case: this is a 5+ and then some, by an author who has won two Booker Prizes. Chaotic, mysterious, raw, unexpected, much of it told from the viewpoint of an eight year-old American boy, you'll be captured at once. Discover the Vietnam-era life of Che Selkirk, son of SDS fugitives and grandson of obscene privilege and wealth. Impossible to give you any more clues about the actual plot because it starts so fast and then just keeps ratcheting up, and every single page hold a surprise, a pleasure, a laugh, a memory, a heartbreak. Plus, you know very well that spoilers are not done here. Read His Illegal Self. You will be rewarded far beyond any expectation.


KISS OF STEEL, by Bec McMaster

Wow! What a delightful surprise! I picked up this book, thinking I'd probably not get through the first chapter, and found myself actually reading it in almost one go. The set-up is outstanding; I was hooked in five pages. The story is compelling, the heroine is properly feisty and conflicted and loyal, the hero is NOT properly a hero (and I'll tell you no more so as to avoid the dreaded spoiler), the villains are really good villains, and the world created is unusual and very well done. London, late 1800's (?), a young woman, Honoria, has been cast from comfort into penury after her father's murder. She and her two siblings are forced to take refuge in the city's notorious rookeries. Predictable, right? Innocent heroine down on her luck, etc etc.? Not. This one's got two younger siblings, one of whom is gravely ill. The heroine comes to the attention of the master of Whitechapel. Really, I don't want to spoil your adventure. Read it. It's a 5. In the interest of full disclosure, this is a London steampunk romance. Don't let that put you off. The writing is outstanding, the story will grab you and not let go. Happily, it's the first of a series.


A series of loosely linked, long, short stories illuminating the many facets and wide-ranging definitions of love, loss, tragedy, joy, wierdness, and what passes for normalcy in most lives. Beautifully, tenderly written with straight-forward but lyrical prose. There's a couple of taboos addressed here, but only the terminally squeamish or deeply religious could object to their handling. Everything you'll ever find on the love/hate continuum is here, including one piece about a serial killer that will make almost anyone's skin crawl. In places, not for the tender-hearted, but always rewarding and illuminating. Not a word out of place. A 4, with a great deal of sex but not much of it explicit.


THE KING'S GOLD, by Arturo Perez-Reverte

 4/series, translated from the Spanish. Few historical novels have a more evocative tone than this series by Arturo Perez-Reverte. Set in 17th century Spain, at the height of its New World gold-fueled powers, just before it began that long, slow slide into obscurity. That is was its own fault made it all the more compelling: you could safely say that the concentration of wealth and power, fueled by short-sighted greed, vicious fanaticism, and a ruling class oblivious to the effects of its own avarice, ruined Spain. Captain Alatriste, soldier and swordsman, has returned with his young servant Inigo from the endless, bloody war in Flanders, and in short order is inveigled into leading an assault on a ship from the annual plate fleet which brings literally mountains of gold from the New World. The story is not the novel; in this case, it's how the story is written, the recounting of it in the words of the young Inigo, the poetry of Spain, the character of Spain, all in a seamless whole. A 5. You could teach writing from this book alone. Do yourself a favor, and read them all in order, and try this author's stand-alones, both historical and contemporary.


4/series. Anyone who loves quirky British mysteries with unusual detectives (forget Miss Marple and Agatha Raisin, this book's got the real deal) will find 11-year old Flavia de Luce the perfect sleuth. Persecuted by her two older sisters, benignly neglected by her philatelist father, bolstered by a survivor of World War One's horrific trench warfare, Flavia survives life at Buckshaw, the ancestral pile, by hanging out in her inherited Victorian-era laboratory. Where she reads her Uncle Tarquin's notes and makes poisons, among other things. In this novel, she makes birdlime to test whether or not Santa Claus is real. Humiliating though it is, the deLuce's are dead broke and in order to keep the roof over their heads, a movie crew arrives. As does a blizzard. And most of the nearby village. And murder. Another 5, full of surprises, chock full of moments from harrowing to precious to heart-breaking.


THE BORDER HOSTAGE, by Virginia Henley

The prolific author of steamy Scottish historical romances brings us another sparks-fly pairing: the impetuous (not to say at times foolhardy) Raven Carleton, whose love of all things not feminine is the despair of her mother. Out for a morning gallop on her favorite horse, she comes upon a handsome stranger (who has just, by the way, spent the night in a river after being nearly drowned by enemies) and orders him off the property. Landless, penniless Heath Kennedy, tainted by bastardy and gypsy blood, is at once captured by Raven's beauty and fire. When he discovers she may be destined to wed his most vicious enemy, Heath decides to make her his. Nothing along the volatile English/Scottish border is simple, nor is this plot, with feuding clans and families, kings to be kidnapped, scores to be paid and paid again, wrongs to be righted, and women to be wooed whether they like it or not. Henley has got the story nailed, right down to the many and varied erotically-charges scenes you'd expect. It's a 5. Put on your asbestos gloves, because the sex is pretty explicit: a 4.

BLOOD SINISTER, by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

8/series. The prolific author of a multitude of historical novels has switched to contemporary police procedurals and she has nailed it. If you're nuts about British crime series - think Martha Grimes or Michael Robotham - add this one to your list. Full of wisecracks and Cockney slang, it is also a solidly-presented murder mystery with a fabulous array of quirky but not over-the-top characters. Detective Inspector Bill Slider and his team must investigate the murder of a very liberal reporter, found strangled in her apartment. From the start, witnesses and "persons of interest" have an infuriating habit of telling creative truths and outright lies. Slider and his team sift through the evidence while Slider's boss, the malaprop champion of the planet, watch his back to prevent attacks from the vested interests of influential politicians. No spoilers. Read, and enjoy. It's a 4.


MORTAL BONDS, by Michael Sears

Following up on his debut novel  Black Fridays, Sears has proved with this new release that he's not a one-book wonder. This one, again starring Jason Stafford, takes us deeper into the world of
financial arcana, and is equally as tense and captivating as the first. Even better, the harrowing life of the parent of an autistic son - AKA The Kid - is woven through the novel with seamless attention to emotion and detail. The story centers around the legacy of the late William von Becker, who ran one of the largest private banking firms in the country, giving investors returns on their money that should have sent warning signals to even the greediest. When the Ponzi scheme blew up, von Becker went to jail.


RIVER ROAD, by Jayne Ann Krentz

This woman must write in her sleep. Here's another inimitable Krentz romance, complete with feisty heroine Lucy Sheridan and steely-eyed Mason Fletcher, who saved Lucy from sexual assault back when they were teens. Now they're both grown up and returned to Summer River, where Lucy is sorting out her beloved aunt's estate. Mason has returned as well, and when he goes to the aunt's Craftsman cottage to give his views on a proposed renovation, he uncovers a grisly, long-held secret. From then on, events spiral out of control, placing Lucy in danger. In typical Krentz style, the pair are drawn to each other despite serious doubts and roadblocks. Sex is steamy and explicit. And the outcome is not completely predictable. It's a 4, a fun summer read. Sex is a 3+.


New York, 1910. Coney Island and the tenements of the Lower East Side, to be exact. The concrete behemoth we are all familiar with did not exist, the endless arteries of transportation only beginning to be built. Coney Island was where "common" New York went to play. The country was still gripped by the upper/lower class reality, fueled in part by the waves of immigrants who would take any job, no matter how demeaning. Wealth (as always) was built by "us" denying "them" a fair share. Workers were not regarded as human, and were often locked in to prevent theft or malingering. The stage was set for the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. Coralie Sardi, kept sequestered by her domineering father, is turned into a "mermaid" for his Coney Island attraction, The Museum of Extraordinary Things. Trained for years to endure excruciating cold, Coralie flips around in a tank, giving visitors a thrill as they watch her and other "freaks of nature". Click for more...but no spoilers.


THE VILLA, by Nora Roberts

A classic glamorous family saga by the New York Times best-selling mistress of the genre.
In this case, we have two families, the first, the Giambellis, have been winemakers for generations, is based both in northern Italy and Napa Valley, California. Led by the unnaturally proud, inflexible and autocratic La Signora, matriarch and undisputed ruler of both family and business, Giambelli has allied themselves with the all-male  MacMillan family of winemakers. La Signora is married to Eli MacMillan, whose son Tyler is the winemaker and ruler of the vineyards. La Signora's grand-daughter, Sophia, is Giambelli's head of publicity, a hard-charging powerhouse of a woman who takes no prisoners either professionally or personally. Click for more, but no spoilers...

THE STAR OF ISTANBUL, by Robert Olen Butler

2/series. This is as close to literary fiction as I need a thriller to be. Fabulous, intricate, subtle. Action-packed, with a strong thread of sensuality and sex running through it almost from the first page. Christopher "Kit" Marlowe Cobb, a Chicago newspaperman, is sent to Europe by his paper, with the blessings of the American secret service. He's on the Lusitania (World War One history buffs will immediately say, "Uh oh."), on the trail of a German-American suspected of spying for the Germans. Kit Cobb sees the German contact the beautiful Selene Bourgani, an internationally-known movie star. Click for more...



25/series. Three cheers for two decades of Agatha Raisin! Once a high-powered ad exec in London, Agatha's oversize personality is having trouble adjusting to the more modest lifestyles of rural England. The now middle-aged steamroller/private detective is sleuthing her way through the Cotswolds again, this time investigating a series of elderberry wine poisonings. As always, Agatha's beady eyes are looking for romance as well as murderers, and her long-suffering employees trail in her wake trying valiantly to pick up the pieces. This time she's up against a clever and ruthless killer who's hiding behind more than one victim. While not the most sophisticated of styles, and in the end there's a clear feeling of oh-what-the-hell-let's-tie-this-up, Agatha (ever searching for that elusive romantic connection while suffering a variety of ungracious and ungrateful males) has a huge following of devoted readers. If you gobble up British cozies, and enjoy a sometimes awkward and ungracious main character, this is the book for you.
It's a 3.

WILDEST HEARTS, by Jayne Anne Krentz

Issued in the 90's, this book manages to stay topical. After all, romance never goes out of style. Particularly romance between a desperate young woman and an enigmatic over-achiever, "the richest man in the Pacific Northwest": Oliver Rain. Why is Annie Lyncroft desperate? Her brother, Danny, has vanished after his plane crashed in the islands north of Seattle. Danny, a genius, owns a cutting-edge electronics company with a soon-to-be-released innovation that will turns the electronics world upside-down. But creditors, knowing Danny is the company, don't want Annie at the helm. What's a girl to do? Of course: propose marriage to the one man that could save the company. The perfect weekend read, a delicious combination of tension, glamor, sex and danger. It's a 4. This may be a bit less formulaic than some of her other books. Check other books by this ultra-prolific author at www.nuts4books.com where you get no spoilers.


CREOLE BELL, by James Lee Burke

19/series. The unique team of Dave Robichaux and Clete Purcel are at it again, this time on the track of Tee Jolie Melton,  a young woman who appears to Dave in a morphine-addled dream. He later learns she was kidnapped and her sister, Blue, subsequently vanishes. As with all Burke’s novels, the violence and gore is copious, the one-liners bitingly funny, the plot subtle and the characters unique and fascinating. I know I shouldn't, as an unpublished writer, grouse about the writing style or technique of a Pulitzer Prize winner (among many other awards). This author has impeccable chops, he's even got a Pulitzer Prize (among many, many others), and I admire not only his body of work but his amazing work ethic. But the pontificating is starting to get to me and no author ought to pause at the beginning of a fight scene to muse for paragraphs, for Pete’s sake, upon the state of the world, no matter how dire, depressing, and accurate that musing is. A 4.

THE HOT FLASH CLUB, by Nancy Thayer

The first in a heart-warming, light-hearted-but-serious series that spawned a gazillion support groups! Four independent women, in that stage of life, meet at a party for a retiring acquaintance. Faye, Shirley, Alice and Marilyn, all over the hill by most standards, and all managing to abandon dreams they once had in favor of either getting by or the not-exactly-comfortable status quo. Ranging from dead broke to comfortable to wealthy, their serendipitous meeting results in the Hot Flash Club, a mutual-aid society that brings their abandoned dreams to life. A feelgood novel of friendship and making dreams come true. A 4.