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!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Between the Devil and Ian Eversea, by Julie Anne Long

Julie Anne Long's Pennyroyal Green series continues with this lovely romance. This latest effort,  Between the Devil and Ian Eversea, will continue to enthrall fans with a wonderful, damaged male protagonist in the title character, Captain Eversea. In previous novels, Eversea brothers Chase and Colin have already met the loves of their lives. Now it's Ian's turn. Tansy Danforth, late of America, comes home to England and her guardian of sorts, Genevieve Eversea's husband, the Duke of Falconbridge who is charged with her care. The Duke's one goal is to see Tansy married and married well. With a tragic history and issues of her own, Tansy proceeds to enthrall the male population of Pennyroyal Green. Ian, however, sees right through that act, as Tansy sees through his. The eventual awakening between these two is bound to happen, but Ms. Long puts that off for as long as possible, and in the meantime, takes us for a wild, intimate ride.

Like all the books to date in the series, this one shines with love and humor. There is one pivotal scene in a ballroom that had me laughing out loud in its hilarity, and when I picture Ian and remember this book, that scene always comes to mind. You'll know it when you read it.

Highly recommended and a treat for Ms. Long's fan base, Between the Devil and Ian Eversea may be the means to convert quite a few new members to the fold. And after a little tease, I'm on tenterhooks waiting for Olivia Eversea's story, which seems to be next. I'm sure that will be quite the culmination to this well-loved series. 

Monday, December 30, 2013

Somewhere in France, by Jennifer Robson

I've had good luck these past few months with some wonderful debut novels by some very promising authors.  Jennifer Robson's first novel, Somewhere in France, keeps that streak alive and well. It is being touted in the promotional material as a book fans of Downton Abbey will love. I find that characterization a bit limiting. If you like good historical fiction with strong, able characters and an exciting, perilous setting with a believable love story thrown in for good measure, you will love Somewhere in France, even if you have yet to watch an episode of Downton. The only similarities between this novel and that series are the general time period, the Great War (which lasted less than a season in Downton time), and one character from an aristocratic background who yearns to make a contribution and decides to move beyond the role to which society has assigned her. That would be about it. Yes, the Downton allure may be a strong one, but this novel can stand (and sell) all on its own.

Lady Elizabeth Neville-Ashford has always felt like there should be more to her life than a debutante season and marriage shortly thereafter.  As a young girl, she meets her brother Edward's school friend, Robbie Fraser, and she first reveals to him her desire for a stronger education.  Robbie encourages her to pursue her dream.  Years later, as war bears down on them, they meet again at a ton ball. Attracted to the woman Lilly has become, Robbie, now an accomplished surgeon, once again encourages her to follow her aspirations to do something worthwhile with her life.

What Robbie doesn't expect is for Lilly to volunteer as an ambulance driver and plunge herself into the turmoil and peril that is France and the Western Front during the Great War. Finding themselves in close proximity at the same Casualty Clearing Station,  Robbie, now a field surgeon, must set aside his feelings and fear for Lilly if he is to do his job without distraction. Lilly, angry and confused, and constrained by the strict rules against fraternization, has no choice but to try to forget Robbie;  ignore him as he has chosen to ignore her. Until the horrors of war touch them both, and everything changes.

Somewhere in France is a story as much or more about relationships and loyalty as it is about the changing mores of the time period in which it is written; Lilly and Edward; Edward and Robbie, Robbie and Lilly, their lives all circle around each other, against the ever present backdrop and horrors of war. Ms. Robson's secondary characters add a dimension to the story that reveals just how far Lilly has traveled from the persona of an earl's cossetted daughter. It's quite a transformation, and it's only one facet of the novel that grabs the reader's interest and doesn't let go.

I really hope the wait will not be long until Ms. Robson's second effort. Intelligently written, beautifully descriptive and fast-paced, Somewhere in France will appeal to Downton fans, but everyone who reads it, Downton fan or not, will love it. Highly recommend.