Phantom Pleasures
by Julie Leto, paranormal (2008)
Signet, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-451-22365-4


Phantom Pleasures leaves me feeling rather conflicted. You see, this story is actually two interwoven romantic paranormal stories as the "secondary romance" gets as much attention as the "main romance". I like the designated secondary romance while the supposed main romance bores me silly. Therefore, this is a 50-50 thing for me.

Alexa Chandler inherited her father's hotel empire after surviving an accident that killed him and her stepmother. Since then, she has worked hard to demonstrate that she's not your typical dim-witted society bimbo. When the story opens, she visits the mysterious island off the coast of St Augustine that her father had willed to her. There is an castle on that island that is said to be haunted. The island isn't called Isla de Fantasmas by the locals in that area for no reason. When Alexa enters the castle, she ends up releasing Damon Forsyth, a man who until then was trapped in a painting for a reason that even he is not entirely certain of. All he knows is that on the night in 1747 when he was trapped in that painting, he wanted to kill a sorcerer whom he believed had absconded with his sister.

Meanwhile, Alexa's friend Catalina Reyes is a psychic. Since Alexa has inherited an island that is supposed to be haunted and Cat has made a career out of dealing with the spooky stuff, Alexa asks Cat to investigate the mystery of the island with her. Alexa's father wrote down a word, "Valoren", in the will where he left the island to Alexa. Cat has determined so far that Valoren was the name of a Gypsy enclave that might have existed somewhere in Europe once upon a time. While locating a professor in Texas who can help her figure out the mystery of Valoren, Cat encounters Ben Rousseau, the son of the professor. And Ben is not a happy man because his father has gone MIA. Aha, so the mystery deepens.

Throw in some sabotage attempts on Alexa's hotels as well as two cults determined to gain mastery of dark arts and there you go - Phantom Pleasures.

If that synopsis makes you think that this story seems very busy indeed, well, yes it is, but don't worry, Ms Leto is in top form here as she strikes the perfect balance between moving the story along and filling the reader in on details. The story is crystal clear despite the sometimes tortuous twists and turns that are present, and there are no boring moments where the characters seem to be lecturing each other for the sake of the readers.

I like the mystery, which is interesting. I also enjoy reading about Ben and Cat because we have two well-matched characters here who work and love well together. Cat is a smart heroine who can hold her own while Ben is a cute hero who is a nice mix of jock and nerd traits. I especially like Ben because he has a sense of humor, which makes him a much more interesting character than Damon.

Oh, Damon. From his name to the perpetual scowl on his face, this guy comes off more like a caricature of the alpha male with a permanent erection. He has no sense of humor, only mildly asshole-type attitude. If he's not shagging the heroine, he is trying to convince me that he is Edward Cullen, only with a bigger pee-pee. As for Alexa, she is actually a pretty decent non-annoying heroine, but eh, girlfriend here has issues if you ask me. She is shagging a ghost within minutes of encountering that thing, and if you ask me, any woman who does this with relish must have some serious issues indeed. I'm also convinced that a shrink will have a field day with Alexa, given that her fantasy man is one that is bound to one place and therefore cannot get away from her even if he wants to.

Alexa and Damon's romance bores me silly mostly because the relationship is a clunky by-the-numbers attempt to mimic a standard alpha-male-and-sex romance. The fact that Damon is such a cliché doesn't help matters. On the other hand, Ben and Cat are fun to read about. I end up having lots of fun following Ben and Cat while I view Damon and Alexa as boring twits whose story I have to sit through like an interminable commercial break before I get back to the good stuff. It is a good thing, therefore, that I feel at the end of the day that the good stuff in this story outweighs the boring stuff by a good measure - good enough to leave me with a favorable impression of this book.

Rating: 83


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