Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Kiss of the Highlander and The Dark Highlander, by Karen Marie Moning

I'm not shallow person, usually. But I have to confess that I'm very into kilts at the moment. So, while I was browsing in the Romance titles at Barnes and Noble last week, I was drawn to Karen Marie Moning's Highlander series. Add an element of time travel (on my mind a tad too much, recently), ancient Celtic fables, two gorgeous Druid brothers (twins, no less!) and some good old fashioned hot lovin' , and I was hooked like a Sheltie after a stray sheep. Did I really just write that?

I guess I did. Kiss of the Highlander and The Dark Highlander are the stories of Drustan and Dageus MacKeltar, respectively; two brothers who find themselves living in the present, but are really sons of the sixteenth century. Both stories are infused with ancient Celtic lore involving Druids as the gatekeepers between the human world and the immortal sphere of the Fae. But that's not all they're infused with. There's plenty more to tempt the adventurous reader.

Kiss of the Highlander is Drustan's story. Asleep for five centuries, hidden away in a cave by gypsies, Drustan is awakened accidentally when American Gwen Cassidy literally falls on top of him. A scientist by profession, an insurance clerk by choice, she is on holiday in the Scottish Highlands, trying to kick start her otherwise mundane existence. Fortunately for us, she finds more than she bargained for. What follows is a often comical description of Drustan's first look at the twenty-first century. Gwen is convinced that Drustan is a just a wee bit daft, but vows to stand by him (and who wouldn't, the man is gorgeous) to see that he gets whatever help he needs, the poor laddie. But the tables are soon turned as Gwen finds herself traveling back to the sixteenth century and discovers that time travel is not as easy as it looks. And Drustan, due to certain unavoidable circumstances, is of no particular help.

It's Dageus' turn to be a part of the here and now in The Dark Highlander. He has assumed the persona of a wealthy young man (what my grandmother would call 'quite a catch') living in an upper Manhattan Eastside penthouse chock full of ancient and priceless antiquities. However, Dageus is a man literally possessed by evil; in an effort to save his brother, he violates an age old compact between the Druids and the powerful Tuatha De' (fairy realm.) The only thing that soothes the evil within (and listen up here, ladies) is sex. Lot's of it. And, as we learn early on, he is well practiced in that particular art. Enter innocent Chloe Zanders, a well educated student of the antiquities from Kansas, with a specialty in Celtic artifacts. Well, Toto, she's not in Kansas anymore when Dageus finds her snooping around (under his bed, of all places) uninvited in his absolutely 'to die for' digs. Without much ceremony and with silk scarves no less, he decides to hold her captive; she has discovered that he is "borrowing" priceless ancient texts from various sources in an effort to solve his evil-possession issue. The two eventually travel together to Scotland where we witness a touching reunion between Dageus and Drustan and, not to miss out, a trip back in time for Chloe and Dageus as well.

Now, I know what you're thinking because I was thinking it too. These books require a complete suspension of your definition of reality. But, after putting aside my previously expressed (see the Outlander review) aversion to anything even remotely resembling science fiction, I did find myself getting lost in the stories. I was fascinated by the bits of Celtic lore. I was especially fascinated by Drustan and Dageus, two characters who are the epitome of the Alpha male. And in case you're wondering, Moning is a very descriptive writer and her love scenes, all of them...and there are many of them... literally burn.

I am embarrassed to say that it did take me until almost the end of the second book (The Dark Highlander) to fully understand the whys and hows of what was going on in terms of the Fae, MacKeltar Druids and the Draghar. (Not the smut scenes, though. I got those immediately.) But that's not to say that another reader won't catch on more quickly. In spite of my lack of immediate comprehension, I do recommend both books, although I wouldn't say that they are a must read. If you want to go further in the series, the next book, The Immortal Highlander, is a continuation of sorts and pushes the envelope even further.

Another confession. Even after reading these books, I have yet to get over my quest for kilts and, as I'm starting to realize, perhaps I never will.

But, then again, what's so bad about that?

Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Spice Trilogy by Gaelen Foley

And yet another bonus of having well-read friends....author recommendations! This author was brought up during a recent trip to Arkansas, where I was told I had to read her! So, I chose her most recent series, and I was not disappointed in the least! Of course, I read it out of order!

The Spice Trilogy is the story of the Knight family, Georgiana and brothers Derek and Gabriel. There is another series by Foley that tells the story of the rest of the Knight clan as well. These siblings were raised in India, at a time when the English sought to make their fortune from the bounty that India held. It was also was a place of much fighting between the Indian people and the British occupation.

The first novel is Her Only Desire, the story of Georgiana Knight, a fearless woman who has lived all her life in India. She has grown to love the people and the culture.  Being English hasn't stopped her from being a proponent of the rights of the people, and the perfect example is our first glimpse of her, saving a friend from throwing herself into a ceremonial fire after her deceased husband. Georgiana is outspoken, a bit wild, fearless, and yet still has the innocence of a maiden. She longs to be in love, and refuses to settle for less. Enter Ian Prescott, the Marquess of Griffith- Ian is an ambassador for England and is sent in for negotiations with the powerful King Johar, whom is acquainted with Georgiana through one of his many wives. Viscious tribes threaten the area and King Johar's signature on a treaty is the only hope for peace.  Ian is entranced by Georgiana's freshness and vitality, and falls for her against his better judgement. The entire party is forced to flee when Georgiana is caught snooping in the Queen's personal room, attempting to help Ian with his treaty negotiation.  The brothers protect her and the trio is banished from the area.  Sent to England to live with relatives she's never met, Georgiana is met at the docks by Ian, and they make their union official.  He holds a horrible secret about his first wife that keeps him from forming an attachment with anyone-until he meets Georgiana.  They each bring out the best and worst in each other!

The second installment is Her Secret Fantasy, the story of Major Derek Knight, an Indian soldier with a flawless record, until he and his brother get into trouble protecting his sister during their escape from King Johar. Derek is sent to England to find out what happened to the money the Crown had promised the regiments in India. Not happy with the assignment, but determined to secure the money for his men, Derek goes on his errand, making several stops among the parties of the ton along the way, and earning a reputation as man who can please a woman. At one of these parties he meets Lily Balfour, an impoverished lady who has come to London marry a rich man and save her family's estate from ruin. Both Lily and Derek are immediately attracted to each other, but Lily is intended to another- a man who Derek has been working with to get the money to his men.  Derek's investigation of her intended prompts Lily to do her own searching, and she gets caught in the process by her suitor, who shows his menacing side as he threatens her.  With Derek in danger from him, Lily acts bravely to save Derek from a horrible fate.  The attraction between Lily and Derek is fierce and loyal, and they run into much danger while working out their feelings for each other.

The finale is Her Every Pleasure, the story of Major Gabriel Knight, a soldier like his brother, nicknamed the Iron Major. Gabriel should be dead- he receives a mortal wound while protecting his sister in India, and was in fact dead at one point, then brought back. That experience has changed his way of thinking, and he lays down is sword, swearing he will never again take anothers' life. He moves to a remote farmhouse in the countryside, lighting candles for those he has slain, and living a simpler life away from the ton. Then he finds Sophia asleep in his barn while feeding the resident kittens one day. Sophia is a Princess who's land has been torn apart by war, and she has lived most of her life in seclusion under the threat of death from her enemies. She is the last of her family to claim the throne, and with the help of the British government, she intends to claim her place. An attack on her party leads Sophia to run and take cover in the remote area, where she meets Gabriel and becomes his maid; her identity remaining a secret. They are instantly attracted to each other, however Sophia's curiosity about Gabriel, and his own issues make their short relationship volatile. Gabriel learns of her true identity after she leaves and Sophia requests him to lead her security detail, putting him in a position where he may have to kill again. However Gabriel realizes he can kill again, if it means protecting the woman he loves.

Each of these books has a different dramatic flair that moves in a continuing theme from story to story. Foley writes with such detail; the richness of the Indian culture is described beautifully, as is Princess Sophia's island nation, torn apart by war. The characters are well drawn out, each flawed and beautiful in their own way. These books are definitely worth a read!

Friday, May 23, 2008

The Boleyn Inheritance by Phillippa Gregory

Donna reviewed the prequel to The Other Boleyn Girl, The Constant Princess, so I've decided to review the sequel. I have to say that I think I liked this book as much or more than The Other Boleyn Girl. The chapters are short, and the book moves very quickly. Each chapter is narrated by one of three main characters, Lady Jane Rochford, Anne Boleyn's hated sister in law and wife of her brother George, Anne of Cleves, Henry VIII's fourth wife after the death in childbirth of Jane Seymour, and Katherine Howard, the very young (she's fourteen when she marries Henry) fifth wife of this hard to please King. How's that for an understatement?

The story is set three years after the execution of Anne Boleyn. The year is 1539 and an alliance is made between the German speaking country of Cleves, by marrying Anne of Cleves to King Henry of England. At this point, Henry is 48 years old, obese and suffering from an open wound on his leg-not a very attractive thing to the 24 year old Anne, who despite the age difference, wants to make the best of the situation. Lady Jane is up to her old tricks of manipulation and doing her Uncle the Lord of Norfolk's will, by trying to secure the best possible outcome for the Howard family. She is asked to spy on the new Queen, and when Katherine Howard, a 14 year old lady in waiting, is noticed by the King, Jane and her Uncle see another opportunity to put a Howard girl on the throne and extend their influence and power.

From here on, we watch as King Henry takes the law of God and matrimony unto himself again with disastrous results for the new Queens and Lady Jane.

It is hard to imagine what life at court and in England must have been like during the reign of Henry VIII, but this book, as well as its two predecessors, give us an excellent idea of the fear and betrayal that gripped England in those times. This is an unbelievably true story of human nature at its worst. Read this book. By the end, you will be shaking your head trying to figure out how Henry got away with everything he did for as long as he did. And you will wonder, as I do, what the repercussions were for the years following his reign.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

To Taste Temptation by Elizabeth Hoyt

I waited anxiously for this book- I had enjoyed her others so much that I wrote the release date on my calendar so as not to forget! I was not disappointed. Elizabeth Hoyt's novels always have snippets of fairy-tales and children's stories at the beginning of each chapter, as shown in the Prince trilogy, and this is no exception. Here we learn the story of Iron Heart, which is more than just a bedtime story.

Lady Emeline Gordon, widow with a young son, is a high society fixture, known for her proper manners and excellent chaperonage of the younger beauties of the ton. She is well known to have the ability to craft a girl into the model of propriety, and ending with an excellent marriage. To have the patronage of Lady Emeline was something. Emeline is quickly introduced to her new neighbor, Samuel Hartley, and instant flames come to life. Sam is a wealthy American, with Native roots as shown by his odd stockings and the moccasins he wears proudly wherever he goes. He also has a sister, Rebecca, that he wishes to have Emeline sponsor while he is off gathering his information on a long ago battle where Emeline's brother lost his own life. Emeline, intrigued by the savage, yet gentlemanly man, agrees, despite her anger of his lack of propriety towards society.

Sam has a haunted past; being used as a tracker for the British during the French and Indian War (put your history caps on kids!) he was witness to an ambush where several soldiers, including Emeline's brother, lost their lives. He has traveled to London to investigate those officers who escaped death, trying to learn if the horrifying ambush was planned by a rogue officer. Sam has a stake in this as well; having left the scene of the ambush to get help, he was branded a coward, when in reality he was running to fetch help. Sam knows Emeline does not know the truth of her brother's death, and finds an unlikely ally in the Lady. She is interested in finding out what happened to her brother and his regiment as well.

Their attraction is immediate, but Emeline is not free; she is engaged to a man whom Sam fought with in America. That however does not stop the two of them from coming together, in more ways than one. Bring on the bodice ripping- literally! These two fight at every opportunity, but they are drawn to each other despite their differences. They both need each other; Emeline needs someone like Sam, who loves her completely with wild abandon, and not the casual friendly relationship she has with her fiance; Sam just needs Emeline. She is a part of him, and he can't live without her. Even Emeline's young son, Daniel, loves Samuel. The consequences of Sam's investigation into the ambush lead a dangerous man to come calling at the Hartley house, and Sam's love for Emeline is proven by force, and an engagement is broken.

This was such a good book, and there's so much more to it than what I wrote about here. I just love Elizabeth Hoyt's style of writing- she draws the characters out so well, and you can feel their emotions coming off the page. However, at the same time, she is wickedly funny and that humor makes the book very enjoyable. Definitely worth a read!

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Constant Princess, by Phillippa Gregory

It's back to Tudor England for me and Phillippa Gregory's The Constant Princess, a prequel of sorts to The Other Boleyn Girl. This historical novel is based on the life of Catalina, Infanta of Spain, youngest daughter of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, two of the most powerful (and devout) monarchs in Europe. Catalina is also the promised wife of Arthur, heir to the English throne. Styled "Princess of Wales" at age three, she is destined to unite Spain and England through marriage.

To many, Queen Katherine (as she was later known) is best remembered as the wife Henry VIII discarded (right along with Catholicism) for the young usurper, Anne Boleyn. (Enter The Other Boleyn Girl.) In this novel, however, Ms. Gregory introduces us to Catalina as a young child, on crusade with her parents and then later, ensconced peacefully in the beautiful Alhambra. The story then continues with the Infanta as a young adult, on the precipice of what she considers her destiny. I think the reader will grow to admire Catalina and understand her actions as she struggles to become Queen.

The writing itself is fast paced, the story hums along nicely and in a relative straight line - easy to follow, easy to understand. Perhaps a bit too easy. I was expecting more of the breathless complexity of The Other Boleyn Girl, where characters buzzed in and out and the level of suspense and intrigue ran continuously high. That's not to say that this isn't an enjoyable and informative read. It's well worth the time, even if only to properly round out the back story of Henry VIII.

I wouldn't want to leave you with the impression that this novel is boring. It is not. There is plenty to consider, most importantly the author's premise that Catalina's motivation behind her ambition was based on a deathbed promise made to her first husband. I'll leave it to you to decide if that's a worthy assertion. But beyond that, I was left wondering...is that all there is?

Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Marcelli Sisters of Pleasure Road by Susan Mallery


I stumbled across Susan Mallery while browsing through my local library's shelves and I picked up the first of the Marcelli sisters series.  I was hooked and sped through the book, returning to the library only a few days later to pick up the remaining four books.  While each book can stand on its own, I suggest that you read them in order since the series spans a number of years.

This series consists of five books:  A trilogy about the oldest three sisters of the Marcelli family (The Sparkling One, The Sassy One, The Seductive One) and two companion books (The Marcelli Bride, The Marcelli Princess).  They all take place in and around the family-owned vineyard, Marcelli Winery, located in California.

Book One (The Sparkling One) introduces you to the Marcelli family and concentrates on the oldest sister, Katie.  Her family has begun to dispair that she will ever marry since the family tradition is to marry at 18 and she's reached the ripe old age of 28 without a prospect in sight.  Katie owns a small but successful party planning business and is waiting for her big break.  It comes in the form of Zach Striker, a high-powered, high-priced divorce lawyer who hires her to plan the annual fund-raising party for his law firm.  He's not only highly successful and the youngest partner in the largest law firm in Los Angeles, but he's also gorgeous and has a reputation of being a heartbreaker.  Their initial meeting makes Katie's heart flutter and other body parts react as well.  Little does she know that Zach has an ulterior motive for hiring her for the job. 

After leaving the meeting, she travels to the winery for a family dinner and is immediately accosted by the Grands, her Italian grandmother, Grandma Tessa and her Irish grandmother, Grammy M.  She's barely through the door before she's being interrogated about her lovelife and in desperation, she mentions that she's met a very handsome lawyer.  The Grands take the news and run with it, already planning the wedding and reception, despite Katie's attempts to downplay the whole thing.  Luckily, her youngest sister, 18 year-old Mia makes an announcement that quickly puts Katie's 'new love' on the back burner.  Mia has just become engaged to 18 year-old David, a fellow UCLA student and the Grands are ecstatic.  David and his father have been invited to join the family for dinner and wedding planning.

Things only become more embarrassing for Katie when she discovers that David's father is Zach Striker and the Grands start matchmaking.  Zach is adamantly opposed to the marriage, believing David and Mia are too young.  He knows first-hand how difficult marriage can be at such a young age because he was married and a father at 17.  When his wife left him shortly after David's birth, he put himself through college and law school while raising David as a single parent.  His own experience with marriage and his career as a successful divorce attorney make him too cynical to believe that David and Mia can make a go of it.  While Katie doesn't realize it at first, Zach hired her for the party planning, hoping he could get her on his side and convince his son and her sister to wait before marrying.

Since I don't want to give too much away, I'll simply tell you that everything works out to everyone's satisfaction in the end.

Book Two in the series (The Sassy One) focuses on Francesca Marcelli.  Francesca followed the family tradition and married at 18 in a double ceremony with her fraternal twin sister, Brenna.  Five years into her marriage, she is widowed and since then she's struggled to put herself through school, finally nearing the end of her Ph.D. program in psychology at the age of 27.  During one of her 'research experiments' in which she's disguised as an unattractive, very pregnant lady, she meets Sam Reese, the CEO of a very successful security company who also happens to be devastatingly handsome.  After Francesca nearly faints because her blood sugar is low, Sam insists that she relax and eat something.  During the course of their conversation, Francesca is forced to confess that she's in disguise and is doing research for her Ph.D.  Sam then invites her to dinner and she accepts because she's very attracted to him and she hasn't had a date in a very long time.

Life takes an unexpected turn for Sam when a 12 year-old girl shows up on his doorstep claiming to be his daughter.  Sam was divorced years ago and, unbeknownst to him, his ex-wife was pregnant when she left him and never told him.  Now she's remarrying and has sent their daughter to live with him.  Over the course of the book, Francesca helps Sam cope with his newfound daughter and responsibilities but they break up over a terrible misunderstanding.

Once again, I don't want to give away the entire book but of course there's a happy ending.

Book Three (The Seductive One) is about Brenna, the other twin.  After being married for nearly ten years and working two jobs to put her husband through medical school, Brenna finds herself dumped for a younger woman and she struggles to rebuild her life.  She's the only one of the Marcelli children who's shown interest in the winery and she begins running the operation.  Unfortunately, Grandpa Lorenzo is adamant that she'll never inherit the family business.  Brenna decides that she'll start her own winery and, after trying to get a million-dollar loan from the local banks, she turns to Nicholas Giovanni, the Marcelli's next-door neighbor and owner of the Wild Sea Vineyards.  Brenna and Nic had fallen in love before Brenna's marriage but a family feud, dating back 60 years interfered with the two lovers.  Nic has never forgotten Brenna but he has also vowed revenge against her and her family for hurting him.  When Brenna asks for a loan, he sees another way to further his plan of buying Marcelli Winery and finally getting his revenge.

The story ends happily and the secret of the long-ago family feud is solved along with another secret being revealed. 

The Marcelli Bride follows The Seductive One and tells the love story between the younger daughter of the President of the United States and a Navy SEAL.  I can't say more without giving away the story.  The Marcelli Princess is the youngest sister, Mia's story.

I liked every one of these books and enjoyed reading about the large, loving Marcelli family with all their quirks and interesting family traditions.  If you're looking for a fun series of books, I can definitely recommend these.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The Paradise Will, by Elizabeth Hanbury

I am always on the hunt for a new author, as most of you well know. This one just happened to come along via C19, much to my excitement. Elizabeth Hanbury is one that I will be reading for quite some time to come.

The Paradise Will is exactly that- the will of General Paradise, Uncle to Miss Alyssa Paradise, our witty heroine. Alyssa learns, with great shock, that her Uncle's estate- Hawkscote- has been left to her instead of her male cousin, the anticipated heir. Before Alyssa can take this in, she learns of the unusual clauses of her Uncle's will, the most notable the requirement to dine with Sir Giles Maxton, a neighbor, once a week- completely alone! Having been known as a man of great humor and mischief, General Paradise's will is full of strange little quirks, but none so extraordinary as the weekly dinner with Sir Giles. Alyssa and Sir Giles meet at the reading of the will, and he is just as shocked as she seems to be. They do not get off to a great start, hardly surprising with such a requirement looming over them. The terms of the will are accepted by both parties, and the fun begins.

Alyssa arrives at Hawkscote with her ward and Charles, her possible fiance, who is set against the terms of the will. Charles is a cold fish, in my opinion, and somewhat pompous and assuming. Alyssa is glad to see him leave after his strained encounter with Sir Giles. They aren't the best matched couple, and Alyssa is starting to see the light. Alyssa and Letty begin to make Hawkscote their home, with Alyssa learning about managing the estate, with Giles' help, as per the stipulations of the will. Alyssa is a mischievous person, and during a visit from Caroline Nash and her mother; Miss Nash believing she is going to marry Sir Giles, creates a story about a scandalous part of her past, solely for her own amusement. Miss Nash and her mother are social conscious ladies of the neighborhood, and their haughty attitudes towards Alyssa ruffles her feathers and induces her to put them in their place, humorously of course.

All is not well, of course- there are issues with the estate, and Alyssa herself becomes ill from tending to a sick child of one of her tenants. In the middle of all this, Sir Giles and Alyssa realize their growing feelings for each other, but are both honor bound to another before announcing their attachment to each other. Much amusement follows, as well as danger.

I am purposely leaving some of the story out, because I want you to read it for yourself! There are too many hilarious situations for me write about in a single review!

I laughed aloud several times while reading this book. The main characters are both witty and intelligent, which make for a very humorous story. Add to this Letty, Alyssa's ward and friend, Piers, the male cousin who was stilted by his uncle, and you will find yourself laughing at their antics. This was such a fun read, not only is it well written and flows beautifully, the characters are well developed and their own individual personalities shine through. Elizabeth Hanbury's writing is wonderful, a nice change from the formula romances that we see so much of. I loved this book, now go out and buy it!!