Friday, March 28, 2008

Four in Hand, by Stephanie Laurens

What a cute book!

Cute usually isn't the adjective used to describe a Stephanie Lauren's book, but in this case, it fits. This is Lauren's second published book, and is rather tame compared to the others I've read.

You have to love a book that starts out with a Duke lying naked in bed (dark haired and blue-eyed to boot!).  Max, the new Duke of Twyford, is one of London's most notorious rakes, and enjoys his life of carefree ease immensely. Imagine his surprise when a young lady visits him, and informs him he is the ward of herself and her three sisters!  Max is immediately attracted to Caroline, the eldest Twinning sister, and wishes more than once that he was not her guardian. Or is he? Seeing the benefits of keeping the truth from Caro, Max leads her to believe he is her guardian, allowing him the opportunity to get to know her and sweep her off her feet, under the veil of propreity.  In fact, his guardianship ended with Caro's 25th birthday, but she doesn't know won't hurt her.

Burdened by four beautiful wards, Max does his duty and introduces them to the ton, and they are an instant success. A blend of innocence, beauty, wit, charm and breeding, the Twinning sisters are swarmed by suitors, and Max has a hard time keeping them all in line with the help if his aunt, and furthering his relationship with Caro.  All attract attention from the rakes of town, but they are well versed in the arts of handling them perfectly.  The three youngest are well schooled in the arts of flirting, and become involved in a wild scheme of disguise and matchmaking to help aid their new-found friends. Their suitors, intending to curb their hair-brained schemes, vow to take care things once and for all!

This was unlike any Stephanie Lauren's book I have read. It is definitely more tame, but as the story unfolds you get to know each of the characters in their own way.  Each sister is unique, and yet they share similar characteristics that bond them together seamlessly.  This is a light hearted romp through the balls of Regency London, and a love story where everyone ends up happy, with only a bit of angst along the way.  A nice way to spend an evening.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Essex Sisters Series, Eloisa James

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Anyone who knows me well will tell you that I am not one to gush, so please excuse this one uncharacteristic act. Here it comes. Wait for it.

Oh, how I loved these books!

It is also an established fact that for the most part, I do not re-read. Most of my favorites are tucked away someplace, should I decide, in a moment of rare spare time, to go back and revisit them. But I never do. Or didn't until now. I read this series and then re-read it because it is well worth it. And whatever I missed the first time around, I found the second and the experience just got better. Allow me to share.

Orphaned and homeless, the four Scottish Essex sisters - Tess, Annabel, Imogen and Josie - find themselves the wards of Rafe, the Duke of Holbrook. The Duke is expecting to foster young children, barely out of the nursery. He's quite surprised, to say the least, when four breathtakingly beautiful, impoverished young women descend upon his household. The girls' father squandered his fortune on his stables, but had the questionable foresight to arrange a dowry of a horse for each of the four girls. Normally, that would raise a few eyebrows, but not among Rafe's very eligible, very handsome friends who luckily have a keen appreciation for good horseflesh. It's just as well, for the four sisters are determined to have at least one in their ranks marry and marry well so that they will no longer be a burden.

While the premise sounds vaguely familiar, what follows is unique. For example, the Duke cares more about whiskey than himself. There is a tragic early death in which a main character is dispatched. Later, one of the sisters finds herself the object of cruel ridicule for carrying too much weight (albeit in all the right places) and then there is the journey to Scotland. This sojourn is so steeped in sexual tension that it actually sizzles.

Please read these four wonderfully written stories in the correct order. Tess is swept off her feet in "Much Ado About You." Annabel finds true love in "Kiss Me, Annabel." Imogen surprises us all in "The Taming of the Duke" and finally, Josie finds true happiness in "Pleasure for Pleasure." The four books are really one long continuing tale with overlapping story lines and extensive character development carried throughout. And I guarantee that you will have a warm feeling when you're done with the entire series, and not for the reason you might think. Although talented men abound, the main focus is not the hunks, but the strong, supportive relationship between the four sisters. And it is this theme that what will stay with you long after the marriage proposals are offered and accepted.

Please go read these books!

Excuse me again.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Claiming the Courtesan, by Anna Campbell

This author is amazing!

Campbell's second novel, Untouched, was reviewed by Donna a few weeks ago, which led me to this one, happily. A word of caution, however, this book contains some questionable, forceful scenes that some may not like (not to mention some bodice ripping). It's edgier than most romance novels, so keep that in mind while reading.

Our story is of Verity, and her alter ego, the alluring courtesan, Soraya, and begins in London, in bed with the Duke of Kylemore, her lover and paramour of one year. Kylemore, who was after her for five years, is a cold man with a tortured past (literally) and an unbearable mother. Despite all this, he is a respected member of society and the ton. He paid dearly for Soraya; a house in her name, clothes, jewelry...all the expenses of keeping a mistress well heeled and in the height of fashion. But, he knows nothing of her, except she is the most sought after courtesan in London; duels were fought in her name, many a man would die to win her favor. Theirs was a business agreement, with little emotion attached.

Verity is a former farm girl from Yorkshire, having lost her parents and becoming a servant, she is forced at the tender age of fifteen to become mistress to an older Lord for his protection and well-being of her brother and sister. He turns into the jewel she becomes, and parades her around London for all to see and envy, including Kylemore, whom she claims to have the slightest interest. Their one year agreement is satisfactory to both, until one day Verity decides it is time to leave and begin her life as a chaste widow elsewhere, away from London and her life as a courtesan. Leaving without warning is the only way she can, along with an uncharacteristic kiss to her lover as he departs, unknowingly for the final time.

And then, the story gets intense.

Kylemore is outraged at Soraya leaving without so much as a word in farewell. He spends three months combing the country looking for her, and finally finds her in the wilds of Yorkshire, where he abducts her to teach her a lesson. What follows is an emotional roller coaster, for characters and the reader. Kylemore was not prepared for the real Verity, the one that was kept hidden under the alluring mask of Soraya. His arrogance leads him to believe he can break her spirit by keeping her prisoner to his lust, but he is completely mistaken. What happens next is a heart-wrenching story of guilt, mistrust, anger and finally love. Both characters go through a painful transformation before coming to realize they are perfect for each other.

And that's all I'll say about the story without spoiling it completely! I want you to read it word for word like I did, and get lost in the emotions that Anna Campbell writes so well. I cried through several scenes of this book, my heart aching for Verity during her imprisonment, and for Kylemore, who has his own demons. It is beautifully written without a lot of descriptive narrative that tends to run amok in some romance novels. The passion between Verity and Kylemore is perfectly balanced with the fear they both experience for their own reasons. The story is full of raw emotion that will leave you drained, but satisfied in the end, I hope.

As a gothic novel lover, as well as a romance novel lover, I was very happy to see some dark aspects in this book, although not too dark for the faint at heart. (see the warning above) To me, this is a different breed of romance novel writing; it still has the dark hero and somewhat helpless heroine, but the story is intense and moving. This is the kind of book that I can go back and read again and again, never tiring of the story.

Friday, March 14, 2008

The Courtesan's Daughter, by Claudia Dain

If you are looking for a book that has lots of plot twists, a confused daughter, and a very very clever mother, then this is your read. If you are looking for something uncomplicated, then don't bother.

I for one like a challenge, so I read it an evening, when I returned home from the dentist after having a root canal! Glutton for punishment, maybe. Was it worth it? Definitely!!

Lady Caroline is the daughter of Sophia, London's most beautiful and sought after courtesan in her day, now a widowed Countess. Sophia is a member of the ton now, but her past still remains after twenty years, much to her daughter's dismay. They are not allowed into the elite circle of society, and Caro realizes that she will never have a marriage to a respectable man, until her mother purchases one for her! Caro refuses, despite never having met the gentleman; she refuses to be bought. She is often overlooked in the shadow of her mother, and her only option, in her naive mind, is to follow in her mother's footsteps and become a courtesan, as marriage is an unreachable prospect. Simple? Not when you really don't have a clue what all being a courtesan entails! Rather than trying to talk her out of her chosen path, Sophia presents another idea.

Lord Ashdon is a handsome young man (dark hair and blue eyes...hrm.) with an unfortunate habit of gambling and loosing badly. He is in debt, and Sophia has purchased his debt with the condition that he will marry her daughter. Ashdon, while reluctant for his own reasons, which are disclosed later, agrees to the plan. He becomes when angry when Caro refuses him without even meeting him first! Ashdon is infuriated when he learns Caro intends to become a courtesan, instead of his wife, and decides to give her a lesson of sorts. They continuously argue when in each other's company, but under their anger is a mutual desire for each other.

Many arguments, a ball, a pair of pearl earrings, and three pearl necklaces later (all from three different men) the confusion and bouncing back and forth begins. She hates Ashdon, she loves him, she wants him... At times I couldn't keep track of whether or not Caro actually wants to be with Ashdon as his wife, or be a courtesan. Add in her mother scheming, and it makes for an interesting read, but only if you pay attention. Towards the end is a surprising twist about the Countess and her heritage, which I found odd, but intriguing. There are many characters that I suspect will make another appearance in the next one. The book is full of action, which the author writes well, and the passion between Ashdon and Caro is dynamic, if not a bit cold hearted on his side.

I had never heard of this author, and on a shopping trip with friends I picked up her book and decided to give her try. She might not have the descriptive writing of some, but she is forward and to the point. I will be reading the next installment!

A Dangerous Beauty, by Sophia Nash

I always read books out of their series order, it seems, and this one is no exception. In this case, however, it really made no difference. This book and the next one in this series, The Kiss, stand on their own (there's a Quickie posted for The Kiss). A Dangerous Beauty, by Sophia Nash, is the passionate (emphasis on the word passionate, although it takes a while to get there) story of Rosamunde Baird and Luc St. Aubyn, Duke of Helston.

Rosamunde, the daughter of an Earl, thinks herself in love with Henry, the heir to the Helston title, and Luc’s older brother. When she procures a kiss from him, witnesses report something a little more sordid to her father and it snowballs out of proportion. Henry is forced to propose, and Rosamunde refuses him, knowing he loves another. She is cast out of her home and makes a disastrous marriage that lasts eight long, hellish years, until she is widowed.

Taken under the wing of Ata St. Aubyn, the Dowager Duchess of Helston and Luc’s grandmother in an effort to right a long ago wrong by restoring Rosamunde's reputation, she falls in love with Luc when he offers to show her how exquisite the physical side of a relationship can be. Luc, whose take on marriage is not quite all wine and roses, feels honor bound to offer for Rosamunde when her reputation suffers a second time at the hands of a St.Aubyn. She loves him, and he loves her, in his own cynical and lyrical way (that’s a hint, folks, at Luc’s part-time occupation), but marriage between them seems an impossibility.

The one woman he wants has sworn not to remarry, and the one woman who wants him, Grace Sheffey (who by the way, gets shafted in this book and in The Kiss, when the men she falls in love with marry others) is unacceptable to him. What is a Duke to do?

There was one part in this book were I had to suspend reality briefly. You will probably know what I am talking about when you get to it, as a main character does something totally irrational, for which there is little explanation. But on the whole, this book is quite entertaining, romantic and, of course, formulaic. There is one scene in the later chapters that actually brought tears to my eyes, jaded soul that I am. You'll recognize that one, too.

At any rate, reputations are lost, and restored. Love is found, denied and finally accepted. We get to see another flawed, endearing rake fall head over heels in love with the not so perfect woman, but this love boat takes a long, sweet ride to the dock.

I recommend it and it’s successor, The Kiss, Georgiana Wilde’s story, highly. And I am hoping that poor Grace Sheffey will eventually get to keep her man in the sequel of the sequel.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Two Weeks With A Stranger, by Debra Mullins

I decided to give this author my own fair trial after reading a brief, intriguing synopsis of this book. And I have to say, I’m glad I did. It has everything a good historical romance should have; sex (lots of it), spying, conflict, a climactic resolution, and two people who misunderstand each other and then fall in love. Perfect!

Two Weeks With A Stranger is the story of the Earl of Devingham, Simon Severton, and his new wife, Lucy, the daughter of a local squire. Simon has decided that it is time to devote his attention to the continuation of his line, and he picks Lucy as his bride, not only because she is attractive, but because she’s a “country miss”, and less likely to interfere with his London activities. And what activities those are!

Leaving Lucy the day after their very passionate wedding night (which is in the prologue for all of you who like your passion up front), he travels to London for an assignation with an Italian beauty. But all is not as it seems. For Simon is not the callous Lord with a mistress. He’s a wily agent for the Crown with a unique assignment. But poor Lucy, left alone in the country without even a wedding trip to show for her marriage, indeed only 24 hours to show for it, has not a clue. But she does have a plan to get him back in her bed.

Rumors have circulated back to her in Devingham, and she treks to London, theoretically to fulfill her friend’s dying wish, but also to save her marriage from the Italian mystery woman.

What follows is Simon trying to accomplish his mission of seducing Isabella for her secrets, while desperate to contain his feelings for his wife, who correctly surmises that there is more to Simon’s interest in Isabella than an affair. His friend, John Fox, and her friend, Virginia (Gin) Matthews, an American girl who is a loose cannon, add to the delightful mix of characters. The best part of this book is watching Simon try to compartmentalize these two parts of his life when Lucy refuses to follow the game plan and return to the country. And when he finally decides to come clean about his activities, Lucy is incognito, conducting her own undercover operation.

The book is also study in ton relationships and various social issues of the day. There is some interesting information on coal mining abuses and women’s suffrage in America, which is Gin’s passion and the reason she was banished to England to seek a spouse. There is murder, intrigue and a fascinating study of a man falling in love with his wife while realizing that putting England first is not all that it’s cracked up to be.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

An Affair Before Christmas, by Eloisa James

In the second book of the Duchess series, Eloisa James continues on with her world of Georgian England with the story of Fletcher and Poppy, the Duke and Duchess of Fletcher. Under the rule of a proper Englishwoman (her mother) Poppy enters her marriage with Fletcher as a girl in love and sure of herself in all things that a proper Englishwoman would not do, in or out of the bedchamber. Fletcher though, is of a different mind; his time spent in Paris has taught him the ultimate pleasure, that of giving pleasure. He enters his marriage confident that Poppy will enjoy their activities in the bedchamber as much as he will, but things go wrong quickly, and Fletcher learns that the woman he fell in love with neither desires him, or his touch. She only tolerates his advances, much to Fletch's sadness. A continuing character in the Duchess series, Jemma, the Duchess of Beaumont, allows Poppy to move in with her while she sorts out her marriage. Jemma is no proper English lady and encourages Poppy freedoms that she never dared while with her mother, or with her husband, although he never denied her anything. The two eventually find love again, after a series of interesting mishaps, including tar and a few feathers!

In the middle of all this, the chess match of the century is brewing between Jemma and The Duke of Villiers, another carry over character from "Desperate Duchesses" and a rake to boot. The ever important Elijah, The Duke of Beaumont, seeing his old childhood friend intruding on his scandal-free life, makes his own chess challenge to his wife. Jemma and Elijah are not the main characters in this novel, but they are certainly the most interesting.

Once again, Eloisa James has created a world of characters enriched by their individual personalities and the glamour of the ton. This book spans the lives of several characters, so pay attention! This series is not complete, so you will waiting until July to find out who she writes about next (I am hoping for Jemma and Elijah!). With her switch to the Georgian era, James has created another captivating series that keeps you on the edge of your seat while you wait for the next one. This series is definitely worth the wait!

Sunday, March 9, 2008

The Other Boleyn Girl, By Philippa Gregory


Five simple words for you regarding The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory.

You Must Read This Book.

This is what I have been telling everyone since picking it up last Thursday night and finishing it by candlelight three days later in a power outage. I could not put this book down. And it is an ambitious read, even with electricity, 661 pages long.

The historical content is well known; read anything regarding Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn and you will immediately know how the story ends. However, the actual events of the day merely serve as a backdrop to the wonderfully written, richly detailed human story of two sisters trying to survive in a world not kind to women.

As the tale begins, we are introduced to three young courtiers in the grand and opulent world of King Henry VIII - siblings George, Anne and Mary Boleyn. Their family connections are impressive and "The Three Boleyns" are considered favorites of the royal couple. When the king takes a special interest in Mary, things really start happening for the entire family, which includes a ruthless uncle, a cold as ice mother and a heartless father. At the tender age of 14, Mary, pushed by her family's lust for power and position, becomes mistress to the king. Life is good for the Boleyns and maternal Howards, but their prospects brighten immeasurably when Henry grows tired of Mary and begins to favor Anne. The eldest Boleyn girl has enough ambition for the entire clan and she carries the family standard as she plots and plans to become Queen.

Beware that what follows is an irresistible, addictive mix of intrigue, romance and betrayal. Adding to the pleasure is a detailed, descriptive narrative written in the first person. From the first page, I was instantly transported to that time and place. I have heard that the movie did not fare well in the eyes of the critics, but please do not let that deter you from reading this book. Clear your calendar, find a quiet nook and enjoy. Candles are optional.