The Book of True Desires (2006)

By Betina Krahn

From the back cover:
Cordelia O'Keefe Blackburn strikes a deal with her crusty old tycoon of a grandfather to fund an expedition that will make her name as an explorer. But first, he requires she prove herself by locating three Mayan stone carvings and something known as 'the Gift of the Jaguar.'

To make matters worse, he insists on sending along someone--his arrogant butler!--to authenticate her findings, and it becomes clear that a powerful and ruthless third party is set on finding the fabled stones and treasure first.

As the trail leads them across the Caribbean and into Mexico, Cordelia learns that tall, sardonic Hartford Goodnight is far more than just a butler. And Goodnight learns that beautiful, provocative Cordelia is as tough as she is tempting. Soon, the pair is hip deep in danger and desire, racing the competition to the prize-- and trying to keep the sparks between them from setting the rain forest ablaze!
In July, this novel won the Rita for Best Short Historical, and I was cheering loudly. A book set in Mexico! Yay! I think every one of its competitors was an Avon single-title Regency, which may have tipped opinion in its favor. Regency fatigue strikes!

Naturally, then, I was curious about it. Blame it on my continuing interest in Unusual Historicals. And while I enjoyed aspects of the story and even the journal device Krahn used, I had real difficulty connecting with the romance. And the headhopping. OH, the headhopping. While she retained some semblance of "one POV per scene," she also jumped from person to person at will, apparently to add more depth. But it came across as confusing and sloppy. (Now, of course, I can't find the paragraph I wanted to quote. *sighs*)

The convenience plot devices were everywhere. A Mexican witch who suddenly, for a moment of paranormal, can speak English. A crate of rifles and ammo still work after a huge, huge flood. Cordelia confronts a jaguar, but just happens to have left her pistol in the tent--the pistol she wore everywhere. All of them stuck out. "Well, I wouldn't have thought those rifles would be useful, but whadoyaknow? They are!" No subtlety. And what happened to the lone trail guide the badguy threatened into leading him into the jungle? He was afraid for the safety of his family and agreed to the deed, but then we never hear from him again.

The characters were so busy being fiercely independent that the romance felt forced. The primary means Hart used to indicate his feelings, despite our being in his POV for about one out of every three scenes, was his journal entries. "Interesting: Yazkuz under misapprehension that O'Keefe is my woman. Hell. The only place she's mine is in my dreams." No wonder I loved the journal entries; they provided the only genuine tingly feelings in the book. But it's the ultimate telling. Instead of showing these two fall in love, we get to read about it in a book. In a book.

And the lone sex scene, which is fairly unheard of these days, may as well have been a fade-to-black.
She saw and felt him move inside her and made a sound she hadn't known herself capable of--somewhere between a sigh and a growl--then responded with a movement of her own that wrenched a similar sound from him.
Awkward. Not at all sexy. The final chapter with the pain-in-the-ass grandfather (whose heart grew three sizes that day) and the epilogue, complete with two standard-issue happy ending children, completely detracted from the climactic "ahhhhh" romance moment. A 30-page slow fade to the end.

As for the Mexican setting, I was all excited! But this read more like a generic jungle narrative, where describing the atmosphere and setting strayed near list-making. Lists of animals. Lists of plants. It would have been ok if it stayed within Hart's POV, because he was a scientist, but as I already said--headhopping. And for all the attention paid to the setting , no one in copyediting paid a whit of attention to vague attempts at Spanish. Bruja rojo? Les muchachos? Senor--without the tilde? What the hell! And I was taught that foreign words are italicized--ya know, because they're foreign. Not so, according to Jove.

Overall, all the adventuring was weighed down by uneven plotting and an emphasis on too much jungle detail, and generally lacked the sweet good stuff. I loved Hart's transformation from a stuffy butler into a jungle manstud, but he was not strong enough to make the reading experience a truly satisfying one.

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