Monday, August 24, 2015

Heroes Are My Weakness, by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

This wonderfully quirky novel is the newest release by Susan Elizabeth Phillips. Mix a semi-gothic story line with slightly damaged, yet attractive protagonists (one of whom is a ventriloquist), an isolated island setting and hardy, resourceful islanders, and you have a recipe for a fun, fast, late summer read.

Annie Hewitt has come to Peregrine Island to preserve a bequest given to her mother by her ex-stepfather. Annie must occupy Moonraker Cottage, a small house located on the grounds of the much larger Harp House, for at least 60 days a year in order to keep it. Having no other visible means of support, except her puppets, and no place to live, she comes to the island following her mother's death. She never expects Theo Harp, a childhood nemesis and possible psychopath disguised as a Stephen King-type novelist, to be in residence in his family's home. As teens, Annie was convinced that Theo tried to kill her, and nothing since then has changed her mind. When she's again drawn into Theo's circle, she begins to question her past and when things start to take a sinister turn, she turns to first Theo, then another childhood friend, Jaycie, for answers.

The mystery of the story pulls you in, but it's the characters that keep you coming back for more. Annie and Theo are drawn perfectly as two people committed to finding the worst in each other. We are allowed to watch that all slowly change, as secrets from the past are revealed. Jaycie and her mute daughter Livia, along with the Peregrine islanders are all an important part of the narrative.

Ms. Phillips signature humor is definitely evident. There were some lines in this novel that actually made me laugh loud enough to be heard in the next room. You'll know them when you read them. If you're in the mood to end your summer on a highly suspenseful, romantic and funny note, this is your Labor Day gem. Highly highly recommend.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

A Memory of Violets: A Novel of London's Flower Sellers, by Hazel Gaynor

After reading The Girl Who Came Home, by the same author a year or so ago, I promised myself that if Ms. Gaynor wrote another historical fiction novel, I would run, not walk, to get my hands on it. A Memory of Violets is a worthy new addition to her repertoire.

The novel is the story of Matilda Harper, a young woman from the Lake District who has nothing to lose by leaving home in March of 1912 to take a position in London at Albert Shaw's Training Homes for Watercress and Flower Girls, also known as the Flower Homes. The Flower Homes are a group housing arrangement for poverty-stricken crippled and orphaned former flower sellers. The residents produce beautiful, life-like artificial flowers to sell for charitable causes. Tilly arrives and takes up her position as assistant house mother to twelve girls. Through a chance meeting on the train to London and a seemingly random room assignment, she is drawn into the mystery of two sisters, flower sellers both who were separated years ago. One made her home among the residents of the Flower Homes, while the other was presumably lost forever.

What transpires is the clever interweaving of historical fact and fiction (Albert Shaw's character is based on real-life British philanthropist John Groom). Tilly's character has a connection to the Flower Homes that she could not have possibly imagined. And the story of the two sisters becomes Tilly's story as well.

With clever dialogue, well-written prose, engaging characters, hints of supernatural intervention and many good and unpredictable twists and turns in this novel, Ms. Gaynor has presented her narrative in a heartfelt way. You can tell that this is a well-researched and well-loved topic for this author. The descriptive detail brings both the Victorian and Edwardian era to vibrant and fragrant life.    Released by William Morris in February of 2015. Highly recommend!

Saturday, June 20, 2015

The Tide Watchers, by Lisa Chaplin

After a career of writing contemporary romance novels under a pseudonym, Lisa Chaplin's debut historical novel under her own name is a gem. The Tide Watchers is a quasi-fictional exploration of Napoleon Bonaparte's long rumored attempt to invade England via the English channel in the late winter of 1803. Coming on the heels of the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, this story is especially timely and engaging. As a fan of this time period in British and Continental European history, I was thrilled when the opportunity to read and review this novel was presented to me.

Duncan Aylsham, Commander and King's Man (spy is an apt term), is sent on a mission to find the daughter of his mentor, Sir Edward Sunderland. Lisbeth Sunderland, in direct defiance of her father's plans to arrange a marriage to a baron's heir, hastily married Alain Delacorte and ran off to France with him. Not knowing Delacorte's true nature, origins and purpose, she is brutalized at his hands and is forced to live apart from him and their newborn son. Duncan tracks her down and in rescuing her, comes to respect her for her intelligence, cunning and capability in outsmarting her husband and her enemies. While fleeing France, the two are caught up in a dangerous and ingenious mission to save Britain from invasion.

Chaplin seamlessly injects real-life historical figures into the narrative. At times, I had trouble remembering who was fictional and who was not, and this is by no means a criticism. It made the book come alive for me. We are introduced to Bonaparte and his minions, all cogs in the wheel of the vast changes sweeping France and Europe at that time. There are various representatives of Whitehall in their official and unofficial capacities. We also meet Robert Fulton, the American inventor, as both he and his inventions become an integral part of the plot's narrative.

We are therefore introduced to spies and counter-spies, double agents and other characters who are thrust into the roles necessary to protect their country and the people they love. Georgiana Gordon is one, as are Alec and Cal Stewart, Duncan's half brothers, forever coming to Duncan's rescue when he needs them the most, despite Duncan's repeated attempts at pushing them away.

Besides a great swashbuckling tale of intrigue, double crossing, military might and sheer courage, The Tide Watchers brings us gentler lessons in the importance of family, however one can define the term. Duncan's relationship with his brothers, his father's family, his perfidious adoptive father, and Eddie Sunderland, his mentor, are all examined. On Lisbeth's side, there is an exploration of her relationship with her parents, especially her father, away most of the time on King's business as she grew up. And yes, there is romance, but it is not the main emphasis of the story. All of this adds a nuanced level to this novel that would keep anyone turning the pages, even those of you who are hard-core romance readers. There is something for everyone here, and I guarantee no one will close the back cover disappointed.

My greatest find is a book that leads me to feel that I've learned something when I put it down for the last time. The Tide Watchers leaves me with that feeling. Pair intricate, intelligent prose with exceptional story-telling highlighting characters that are hard to forget, and you have a story more than worthy of your time.  I can hardly wait for Ms. Chaplin's next foray into historical fiction. There are several characters here more than capable of carrying their own stories and I look forward to reading them. Highly, highly recommend!

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Secrets of Sir Richard Kenworthy, by Julia Quinn

There are times when I'm swayed by popular opinion, when I feel that we should be moving this blog in a more literary direction. That the books of the genre that I most enjoy to read and review should be supplemented here by more "literary" works. And then I go and read a book like The Secrets of Sir Richard Kenworthy. And once again, I am reminded that historical romance is indeed, quite literary enough. 

Sir Richard Kenworthy travels to London to procure a wife. It's not for money, or for status and definitely not for love (at least not in the way we think) that he decides to do this. But we don't know that. And neither does Lady Iris Smythe-Smith. Yes, that's Iris of  the Smythe-Smith musicale fame. More on that later. 

Sir Richard begins a full court press to win Iris' hand after he spots her playing cello in the infamous annual musicale, and when he succeeds after one week and one compromising kiss, they marry by special license and make their way to Maycliff, his estate in Yorkshire. The reader is led to believe that the rush behind Sir Richard's courtship is brought on by his desire to save his estate. The truth, however, is much more insidious. And while Iris suspects that something is not quite as it seems, she at first puts aside her intuition and reservations. What neither Iris nor Richard count on becomes the one thing that may hold them together when the truth finally comes out. And when the truth does surface, in the best confrontational scene I've read in quite some time, be forewarned.  Sir Richard is not what he seems, and shows it in some shocking ways. The change in him catches Iris, and Ms. Quinn's audience by surprise. When he then asks Iris to make the ultimate selfless sacrifice for the sake of his family, we are left breathless. What will Iris do? And no, I'm not going to tell you. Not even a hint. The plot twists will be enough to keep you turning the pages until the only thing left is your sigh of satisfaction and the thought that you'd prefer this story to never end. 

Julia Quinn started using the annual musicales as a plot device in her earlier novels (the acclaimed Bridgerton series) but her quartet of books featuring the cousins of the Smythe-Smith family, and how they, one by one, have found love, are the best of her efforts in my opinion. And this book tops them all. Family loyalty, angst, betrayal, and ultimately, love, all wrapped up with the humor present in all of Ms. Quinn's novels, make The Secrets of Sir Richard Kenworthy quite worthy of your time. I loved this book and I highly, highly recommend it. It is definitely this genre at its best. 

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Christmas at Tiffany's, by Karen Swan

Christmas at Tiffany's is a novel of friendship, exploration and love. It's also the story of how one woman's search for herself  impacts others closest to her and, in some cases, forces them to question their life choices as well. 

Multifaceted and engaging, the novel begins with Cassie Fraser's heartache at discovering, at her tenth wedding anniversary, her husband's duplicity. Turning to her boarding school friends for an escape route, Kelly, Anouk and Suzy each decide to help Cassie rebuild her life from the ground up, in their three different cities, in their three totally different ways. 

Cassie spends time in New York, Paris and London and in each city, she finds a little more of herself. New York gives her the confidence to handle a new job (although with interesting results) and a new boyfriend. She makes new friends and experiences life in the fast lane. In Paris, Cassie befriends Claude, a Michelin rated chef with demons of his own. In Cassie, Claude finds someone to mentor, and Cassie believes she has found her new path in life until tragedy and then betrayal strike, and she's forced to re-evaluate what is really important to her. In London, and later at Suzy's family's country estate, she's finally forced to make a decision about her marriage.

In each of Cassie's stops along her year-long tour of self-discovery, Suzy's explorer brother, Henry, leaves a list of must-sees and small gifts for Cassie. At times, he personally acts as her tour guide. And while she's amused and at the same time, confused by these gestures, she follows along in order to humor him, all the while missing out on the message he was really trying to deliver. 

Karen Swan writes with clarity and purpose. Her prose is straight-forward and tells the story so well, you feel you know every one of the characters. While Cassie is the catalyst and the main protagonist, each of the characters is really front and center along with her. The reader gets to know all of them very well, and their stories become just as important as Cassie's. Juggling so many balls in the air at once is an amazing accomplishment. And in this book, Ms. Swan lets none of them hit the floor. 

Highly, highly recommend. 

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Oxford Blue Series, by Pippa Croft (The First Time We Met, The Second Time I Saw You, Third Time Lucky)

I usually don't review an entire series at once, but The Oxford Blue Series, 
   by Pippa Croft (pen name for Phillipa Ashley) has me making an exception.   

The Oxford Blue Series is Pippa's debut into the New Adult scene, and it's a brilliant one at that. The series follows Lauren Cusack, daughter of a US Senator, while she endeavors to master the hallowed halls of Oxford University in search of a Masters in Art History. Told from Lauren's particular point of view as an American in an environment somewhat alien from her stateside collegiate experience, Pippa takes us along for a wild ride. From practically the moment Lauren arrives in Oxford, she's thrown into the exclusive world of
Alexander Hunt, son of a marquess and the object of everyone's curiosity at the college. Inexplicably attracted to the dangerous and handsome soldier/aristocrat, Lauren finds herself at the center of a relationship fraught with sexual attraction and deception. For every step forward in their relationship, Lauren and Alexander take two steps back, experiencing the heartache of family interference, betrayal, and class distinction.

As Lauren experiences her push and pull relationship with Alexander, we do the same. She has no idea whether to love him or despise him, trust him and feel sorry for him, or run from him as far and as fast as she can. We feel the same. While readers may want what's best for Lauren, she's young enough not to know what's best for herself. And the author does a wonderful job in conveying Lauren's confusion over the situation she has found herself in.

The first two books set the stage of their ongoing relationship and the second one, in particular, defines the parameters of Alexander's need for Lauren. It ends on a great cliffhanger. Luckily, the third in the series, Third Time Lucky, was released the same day I finished The Second Time I Saw You, so I didn't have to wait long to see what happens.

A warning to the retiring reader; the sex is HOT and PLENTIFUL.  That's all I'm going to say on the subject. When I say Lauren and Alexander are attracted to each other, I'm being a little coy. Their relationship is smoking, and the author does not hold back in this regard.  There, I've done my civic duty in letting you all know. At first it seems that this is the only glue that is holding these two together. But as the series moves on and we get to the final book, Alexander starts to open up a bit more, and we begin to see a side of him that up until this point has been well hidden. We begin to suspect that there is more to what he feels for Lauren then we've been privy to, and ultimately we come around to seeing in him what she sees. But not without quite a bit of angst and hand wringing first. And the question remains; is it too little too late?

Secondary characters add depth and conflict to Lauren's experience. They are just colorful and malicious enough to add all the necessary drama. I especially loved Lauren's involvement with Scott. Their relationship had me guessing to the very last page.

The Oxford Blue series is well-written and flows very quickly from page to page, and book to book. And in the spirit of full disclosure, I am mentioned in the acknowledgements for my slight and relatively small contribution to the author's hard work.

Well done, Ms. Croft. Highly recommend.


Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Big Little Lies, by Liane Moriarty

Liane Moriarty's latest stab at writing is as good or better than her last, The Husband's Secret, which I previously reviewed on this blog. She has become one of my new favorite contemporary authors.

Big Little Lies is a masterful showcasing of 21st century relationships between spouses, parents and children, and parents and grandparents. The author keeps those pages turning by using police interviews at the beginning of each chapter which hint at a  future, devastating occurrence at a Trivia Night at the local elementary school. Concurrently,  the reader becomes invested in the lives of the main characters.

Jane and her 5 year old son Ziggy move to Pirriwee Peninsula near Sydney to make a fresh start. Through Ziggy's kindergarten class, she meets Celeste, mother of twin boys Josh and Max. She also meets Madeline, whose daughter Chloe is also in Ziggy's class. The three mothers form an unlikely friendship as do their children. When Ziggy is accused of bullying another girl in the class, things start to quickly go downhill as marriages unravel, personalities are dissected, life choices are questioned, and new found relationships are ultimately tested.

Written from differing points of view, Big Little Lies is, at the same time, an indictment and a tribute to parenting in the present age. But it's not just for parents. Social mores, charitable endeavors and societal taboos are also covered, but the reader never feels overwhelmed. The story is utterly believable; as believable as real life.

Recommend highly!