Sunday, April 27, 2008

Love Lessons, by Cheryl Holt

Love Lessons, by Cheryl Holt

I initially hadn’t held out much hope that this book would be anything special.  Most of the reviews were good, but there were several that were not.  Be forewarned, there is fairly explicit sex throughout, but, as I happily found out, beautifully written.  This book is most definitely a keeper.


The book opens with Lady Abigail Weston enlisting James Stevens’ assistance in teaching her about what occurs in the marriage bed so that Abigail may give her sister, who will likely receive a marriage proposal by the end of the season, an informed explanation before her nuptials.  Lady Abigail is a twenty-five year old spinster who was engaged when she was very young, but her fiancĂ© died before they could wed and she has remained unmarried.  James Stevens is a wealthy, handsome (black hair, blue eyes…need I say more?) owner of a gambling den.  Around London he is renowned for his prowess in bed.  James is also the bastard son of an Earl, which makes him a pariah in the eyes of the ton.  Any connection between the two would mean instant ruin for Abigail.


James Stevens in intrigued by Abigail, initially believing he can maintain a detached distance, but soon discovers that she ignites emotions he never thought he was capable of feeling.  Their first meetings are wrought with sexual tension, and passion that neither can ignore, and they are both willing to admit that they share the same inexplicable yearning for one another.  James’ tender feelings toward Abigail make him long to protect her from making any rash choices, especially the one she is most bent on - a sexual liaison with him.


James has been cast off by his father, the Earl of Spencer, and has been forced to make his way in a world that loathes his very existence.  He is damaged goods in so many ways, and Abigail is determined to help him conquer his demons.  He is desperate for love and acceptance from his father, who is unwilling to recognize James as his son in public.  In order to dull the pain and heartbreak, James has established himself as the quintessential libertine.  He has never in his life felt love for anyone, except for his mother and brother.  But what tortures James most is that he has no power to change his circumstance.  Instead he finds solace in torrid sexual encounters with fallen women of high society, but nothing has ever prepared him for the feelings Abigail stirs within.  He knows any real relationship between them is impossible, but he can’t stop himself from his self-destructive path of experiencing real love for the first time in his life.


This book has been described by some as erotica…and I suppose it is, but the love/sexual scenes were written in such a way that instead of feeling cheap or dirty, they are beautiful and passionate.  The author captured the tormented love between this unlikely pair so wonderfully, in my opinion, that it had me glued to every page until I finished.  The minor characters do their bit to drive the plot along and place obstacles in their way, but the majority of the action revolves around James and Abigail, right where it should be.  I’m looking forward to reading more of what this author has to offer.

A Hopeless Romantic, by Harriet Evans

I made my yearly trek to Arkansas last weekend to visit Sarah, a friend from HG and AHA that I keep in contact with most every day. We are both avid readers, so when I spied all the books on her shelves, we began talking about the ones she had read and loved. This book made it into my suitcase with the promise from Sarah "you will love her!". And of course, she was right! I'm not good at judging modern fiction, ie- I'll pick one and it's crap, so I scurry back to the period romances novels and my safe haven. This time, I trusted Sarah to know me well enough, and now I have another favorite author!

Laura is twenty-eight, and a hopeless romantic who accepted as she is by her friends and family. She lives for love and is swept off her feet quite easily. Her friends are used to this, and even tease her about it somewhat. Laura falls for Dan, a friend who she meets at the tube stop every morning. Dan has a girlfriend, but this doesn't stop him from spending more and more time with Laura. Laura falls for him, and it's easy to see why with Dan carrying on about how much he wants her, and for several months she becomes a different person. Her life revolves around Dan and when he can stop by to see her after being out at the pubs most of the night. This also affects her job and her friendships. She shares him with his girlfriend Amy, who is mostly out of the picture. Deep down Laura knows what she is doing is wrong, but Dan is so sweet to her, and tells her that he will end it with Amy as soon as he can, so she pushes her doubts aside. The shoe drops when Amy turns up pregnant, bringing their relationship to a screeching halt. Laura is devastated- not only is her personal life in shambles, she learns that she has been suspended from her job for her lack of performance- which is a direct result from her relationship with Dan. Laura makes a decision to turn her life around, and *gasp* throws out her romance movies and novels (including her Jane Austen collection, I had to stop reading for a moment to recover) intent on ending her wild romantic streak and becoming a responsible adult.

To start on her endeavor, she goes on holiday with her family to Norfolk for her grandmother's birthday. Laura's grandmother Mary is a spunky and elegant eighty-five year old with stories of her deceased husband and their exciting life. She is also very inquisitive when it comes to her granddaughter. Despite Laura swearing off men and romance, Mary always tells her to not give up completely. A trip to Chartley Hall changes things abruptly. Laura meets Nick, the estate manager, who just happens to be gorgeous and they hit it off. However, Laura is off romance, so she treads a little too carefully around Nick. Regardless of this, she begins to fall for him. Nick is not quite who he seems to be, and when Laura realizes who he is, she is convinced it could never work and runs. She spends several months pining away for Nick, doing exactly what she tried not to do. What she doesn't realize is that Nick is doing the same thing. Their lack of communication is frustrating at times!  At the risk of revealing everything, I will stop here.  All ends well, do not fret!

There are many characters in this book that make the story what it is- Yorky, her flatmate who is obsessed with the girl downstairs; Jo, her best friend who is happily married and can see right through her; Charles, Nick's friend and instigator; Simon, the traveling brother and her parents, along with several other family members and friends. They all play their own little part in getting Laura and Nick in together.

There were times as I was reading that I saw a little bit of Bridget Jones in Laura, and there is one scene near the end of the novel that resembles a scene from the movie. I absolutely loved the book, although the ending, while appropriate for Laura's story, left me wanting a bit more. I found myself laughing out loud at some parts and crying at others, which of course is why I would recommend this novel to everyone! Harriet Evans is a very real writer, and I could imagine all the scenes with clarity. You really get into the characters and their individual quirks, which made for a very enjoyable read!

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Silent in the Sanctuary, by Deanna Raybourn

Ah, I do love a good mystery! Add in England and the Victorian era, and I am in heaven! This author is new to me, but I am determined to read the rest of her works after reading this novel Of note, the first novel in this series is Silent in the Grave. Yes, I too tend to read series in the wrong order! But, after reading this novel, I've learned that it's okay to read them out of is truly alright!

Our story is through the eyes of Lady Julia Grey, our heroine. Julia is on an extended holiday in Italy with her brothers, recovering from the murder of her husband, the loss of her home, and nearly the loss of her own life. She has been traveling the country with her two brothers, one an artist, and one a musician. An angry summons from their father, the Earl March, prompts them to return home to England for Christmas. Julia is surprised to be reunited with Nicholas Brisbane, the agent in the investigation of her husband's murder. Brisbane has invaded her mind for months; ever since their passionate kiss several months ago. With no word from Brisbane since then, Julia is shocked to see him at her home for Christmas, and even more so to learn he is engaged. Although, things are not as they seem.

Putting background aside, now we start the mystery! No mystery is complete without lies, deceit, murder and of course, a tall, dark and handsome Lord leading the investigation with the help of a Lady. A murder has happened, and a guest confesses. However, the evidence points in the opposite direction, and what is unraveled is a tangled web of blackmail, jealousy and thievery, and not all necessarily connected! Brisbane and Julia work together, at the command of the Earl March, to figure out who the real killer is, and all the while denying what they truly feel for each other.

I will go no further into what happens, as I do not want to spoil it for anyone. This novel is written in such a way that the words jump off the page at you, sucking you in and making you shy away from the dark corners in your house. It is so very descriptive that it is easy to get lost in the story, as I did. The attraction between Brisbane and Julia is intense, so no description of their heated kiss is necessary, your imagination can do the work nicely.

I am off to purchase Silent in the Grave, and anxiously await the next book in the series- Silent on the Moor.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

I received this book as a birthday gift, wrapped in brightly colored tissue paper presented with a flourish inside a beautiful little gift bag. The bearer of this gift is a coworker – a woman of sharp intellect and a keen eye for good literature. After I enthusiastically thanked her for her thoughtfulness (after all, what avid reader doesn’t appreciate a book as a gift – or at the very least, a gift card to Barnes & Noble), she told me that this particular book meant a lot to her; it had kick started her interest in all things Scottish. And knowing my inclination to admire anything associated with Great Britain, particularly novels set there, she thought I would appreciate the first book in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. Courtesies exchanged and volume in hand, I walked back to my desk and flipped the enormous paperback over. The sheer weight of the book might be intimidating to some; the lack of creative cover art to others. But when I read the description on the back cover of the book, I was quite certain that it was not going to appeal to me either. I’m not a fan of science fiction, nor do I especially like books about time travel. But in the interest of work place harmony, I decided the least I could do was start it. The option to put it down permanently would always be there. I started it at lunch that day. I finished it today, four days later. What happened in between is difficult to describe, but suffice it to say that the first word that came to mind as I closed the cover on page 850 was, “Wow.”

The story begins in a straightforward fashion. It is 1945, the end of the Second World War and Claire and Frank Randall, married eight years prior and separated soon after by service to Great Britain, are reunited and taking a much anticipated second honeymoon in the Scottish Highlands. Claire spent the war years as an army nurse; tried and tested in field hospitals treating injured Allied soldiers. Frank, a teaching historian, served his country in the Intelligence Unit of the MI6, but now that the war is over, has accepted a position at Oxford. After their brief romantic sojourn, the couple intends to resume civilian life there. Or at least that’s the plan.

Their reunion seems to be going well and we are treated to a glimpse of their normal, if not boring, relationship. I like Frank. And I like Claire and Frank as a couple. I think you will too. But please don’t get too attached; their story together does not last long. There’s no violence, no untimely deaths, at least not yet. Not in relatively idyllic 1945 Scotland. But hold on folks, because the night is long and the ride is just beginning. This would be a good time for a drink.

As an amateur botanist, Claire decides to revisit a Stonehenge-like site just outside of the little village where they are staying. She approaches a particular stone cropping in an attempt to gather samples and, during her collecting efforts, touches a stone. Apparently this is not just any ordinary rock, because the result is immediate and “verra” strange. In dizzying fashion, we are carried along with Claire to Scotland of 1743. This is a very different Scotland from the one she has left behind, but Claire is still the same - a very modern woman dumped unexpectedly into a very primitive world. And although Claire is understandably confused, she is not necessarily frightened, and for this we like her all the more. Her battlefield experience is put almost immediately to the test as she meets her new and unsettling circumstances head on.

This was the proverbial fork in the road for me. Suffice it to say that I am not a big fan of Dr. Who. But I thought of us as readers and how, in a loose interpretation, we all become time travelers as we flip the pages. Besides, I told myself, it was possible that Claire merely fell and bumped her head, ala Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, and might return to her former life sooner rather than later. So, in the interest of expanding a horizon or two, I convinced myself to put aside my prejudices. The truth of it is, after another few pages, I couldn’t even remember Claire's former life because what followed is absolutely magnificent in detail, challenging in scope and completely absorbing.

There is so much to give away here but I will not spoil the experience for you. I can tell you that we watch Claire struggle not only with her place in this strange world, but with her growing attraction to a young Scottish laird, James MacKenzie Fraser. Jamie is the quintessential hero. The relationship that develops between these characters is absolutely brilliant and, lucky us, we are allowed to watch it develop into an astonishing love story. There is a good deal of sexual chemistry, and while we are invited to witness the results on several occasions, the author is reserved in her descriptions, leaving us to use our imagination. This is very effective and I found myself spending more time than I should have at this pursuit - I have a very vivid imagination.

But while the centerpiece of the story is the relationship between Claire and Jamie, the swirl of events that takes place around them is perhaps even more exciting. I must warn you, the events in the book can be very disturbing. There are vivid accounts of the conditions during that time and Ms. Gabaldon does not hold back in painting an accurate picture of the sicknesses and injuries that were commonplace in a very primitive 1700’s Scotland. There is also torture and human cruelty, described with an unsettling clarity. There are a several scenes that are particularly unsettling and when you reach them, you will know. But don’t let this deter you from enjoying one of the best books I have read in a very long time. It is not easy leaving this book behind and I’m not yet ready to move on to the next in the series - I am still feeling the intensity of Outlander. But I will.

Some birthday presents are indeed priceless.

The Dangerous Gentleman, by Julia London

The first book in the Rogues of Regent Street series is the story of Adrian Spence, Earl of Albright, one of three titled men, best friends since Eton. The story starts with quite a bang as Adrian, fed up with his antics, accuses his cousin Philip of cheating at cards. Phillip calls him out and proceeds to commit suicide by duel by firing at Adrian after Adrian’s delopement, causing Adrian to fire again. Adrian is devastated and wracked by guilt at Phillips’ death by his hand, no matter that it was in self-defense.

Adrian’s woes started long before that fateful morning. His father hates him, had horribly abused his mother, and inexplicably adores his second son. After the duel, he is disinherited in favor of that second son, his brother, Benedict. All he has left is his title. He decides to foil his father and Benedict in one masterful stroke by stealing Benedict’s would-be fiance out from under him.

Lady Lilliana Dashell has had a crush on Adrian since she was a girl. When the opportunity presents itself to marry him, she’s absolutely stunned. And she’s right to be surprised, but she’s blinded by the opportunity that has presented itself, and she accepts his offer with enthusiasm.

I have to say right here, that I don’t much like Adrian at this point, and my opinion of him changes little through most of this story. As a flawed hero, Adrian is pitch perfect, but highly contemptible. For example, Adrian relays his thoughts about his new wife in some pretty degrading terms, calling her, among other things, a magpie and a chatterbox. a country bumpkin, and an alien. He likens his marriage to the biggest mistake of his life, and calls it a move of terrifying consequence. He treats Lilliana with horrible indifference after promising her everything. The term, “act in haste, repent at leisure” has never been truer than in Adrian’s case. And he feels abject remorse and guilt over Benedict’s loss of Lilliana, over Philip’s death and over ruining Lilliana’s life. He is in deep trouble.

Lilliana’s happiness at the marriage, on the other hand, is so complete, that you know she is going to fall hard when the truth about Adrian’s feelings for her comes out. And Adrian’s misery and disinterest in this marriage is so palpable that she cannot hide from that truth for very long. Adrian's physical hunger for his wife, on the other hand, does not suffer at all, which makes for a steamy read in places. However, the big question remains. Can these two meet somewhere in the middle and make a life out of a marriage started in revenge? Lilliana decides to take matters into her own hands. And the results of this are hilarious, for a short time.

The writing is witty, and you really want to laugh at some of the antics Lilliana pulls to get a response, any response, out of Adrian. Perhaps all would have been well if it weren’t for Benedict, with an agenda of his own, who stirs up such delicious trouble between Adrian and Lilliana that you just want to run him through with the nearest sharp object.

There is a wonderful cast of characters in this book in the form of Adrian’s servants. Adrian’s butler, Max, is a terrific foil to Lilliana’s antics. The author uses him, in part, as pseudo-narrator, and thus gives us another insight into the main character’s thoughts and actions. It’s an effective and endearing plot device. I’d like to hire Max away from Adrian, myself. I could use a good, sensitive butler around the house.

When a tragic, misconstrued accident occurs and Adrian’s long-standing feud with his father and brother comes to a head, will it be enough to bring these two together? Will Adrian finally let Lilliana in? Well, yes and no. And for the rest, you’ll just have to read on. Because I promise you, just when you think it’s over, it most certainly is not.

Well written and fast paced, this book is dark and wrenching in places and surprisingly upbeat in others. Once again, Julia London writes romantic fiction that is top notch. I recommend this book highly, and will be reading the other two Rogues of Regent Street books shortly.