Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Spy Wore Silk by Andrea Pickens

Once again, I bought a book based on the title. Now usually this gets me into trouble, but this time I was pleasantly surprised. I've a thing for spies- whether they be male or female! This work is the beginning of a series of spy novels by Andrea Pickens, and I will say she does write a good mystery. Don't let that sentence fool you, it's a romance too.

Our heroine, Siena, is one of "Merlin's Maidens" a highly trained all female force that fights with Britain against their most dangerous enemies. These women are taken in from the streets and educated as a well-bred lady would be, with the addition of learning how to defend themselves; receiving the same training as most soldiers. However, theirs is different in that they are taught to kill with finesse. A true spy. Siena is the top student at the academy and is the perfect choice to flush out a traitor.

One of the suspects is the Earl of Kirtland; a former army officer that has been disgraced because of his wish to spare is men certain death; going against the orders of ones superior is unheard of in the British cavalry. An academic with no taste for the life of the ton, or the marriage market, Kirtland is more interested in rare books than appearing at balls and soirees, where his reputation is bandied about like a compromised debutante. He and the members of the Gilded Page club- a society of gentlemen thirsting for rare works of art and books- become Siena's target in her search for the traitor. Her startling appearance at their meeting wearing nothing more than a fig leaf and an offer of her charms to the winner of her challenge gets the novel rolling quite nicely. The entire group, in pursuit of a rare collection of books by an eccentric Duke, settle in at the ducal estate for a fortnight of intellectual bartering with the reward being the rare works. Siena must eliminate the members of the Gilded Page Club in order to find her traitor, and in the process falls under the spell of the Earl, who is the most likely suspect. In Siena's quest, she must decide if her heart or her head is leading her investigation, as well as figuring out who she can trust. It's a dangerous game that gets out of hand before all is said and done.

The entire work is filled with intrigue, sexual tension and a light humor that brings the story together in a neat package. Siena's character is wonderfully written as one who goes from the horrors of life on the streets to parading around as a widow under the guise "The Black Dove". Pickens' writes so many interesting facets of her character that I immediately was cheering for her as she went about her dangerous tasks. The Earl of Kirtland is as sexy as he is dangerous, with a mysterious air about him that makes you want to learn more just for the thrill.

All in all, the book was fun to read. The next in the series "Seduced by a Spy" is already out and I think I might have to pick that one up as well, especially for the name!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Just Say Yes, by Phillipa Ashley

After much anticipation, my little package from arrived late last week. After a fun two to three day read, I've discovered a few things about Phillipa Ashley's writing. For one, her characters work in these great industries in some seriously fun locations. For another, it seems someone is always relocating, either to run away to or run from something. Unraveling the mystery of why they are running and then watching her characters try to figure out the backstories that make them so interesting is an integral part of her modus operandi. But this book goes a bit further, as it actually teaches a lesson on abusive relationships.

Lucy Gibson meets Nick (Bagel Boy) Laurentis, a would-be entrepreneur working in a sandwich shop (aptly named Love Bites). When Nick wins the top spot on an Apprentice like show (complete with a British Donald Trump look-a-like), Lucy's life is turned upside down, and the only one seeing what is truly happening is her author friend Fiona. Fiona tries to convince Lucy that Nick's treatment of her is controlling at best and abusive at worst. Lucy does not see it, but we do. And so will you. And when the final show-down (literally) occurs between Nick and Lucy, unlike tens of millions of viewers of Hot Shots, you'll be relieved. And that, without giving too much away, is the premise of this new novel.

Lucy is chased by the aftermath of her decision to Tresco Farms, a small holiday farm in Cornwall, where Fiona has a cottage. Assuming another identity so the paparazzi cannot find her, Lucy meets owner Josh Standring and his girlfriend Sara. (I must stop here and point out that fans of Richard Armitage will recognize a myriad of small references in this book that refer back to his acting career. They were fun to spot, and Josh's last name is the most obvious of those. But enough of Richard.) Lucy and Josh don't think much of each other at first, but that starts to change, and when Sara gets wind of it, she turns into pure evil, which is pure fun to watch.

Did I love the characters in this book? Yes and no. I absolutely loathe Nick, and Josh could stand to be a bit less morally upright, considering his background. I loved Lucy and Fiona, the latter because she sees things as they really are, and the former because even though she's caught up in something she can't control, she pulls herself out and makes something of her career and her life that she can be proud of.

There's a rather nice surprise at the end of this book that you won't see coming. I'll add two further observations without giving away the ending. When a guy tells you he doesn't like to be lied to, believe him. When he tells you there are no second chances, don't.

Phillipa Ashley's Just Say Yes follows in the footsteps of her earlier efforts. There's lovely bits of humor where you least expect them. It's also a page turner that leaves you with that feeling that you've spent some time with interesting people you would like to know yourself. I know that's exactly what I look forward to when I open a book.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Hearts and Minds by Rosy Thornton

Forrest Gump is my favorite movie. And you might well be thinking what does my favorite movie have anything to do with Rosy Thornton’s new novel, Hearts and Minds? Nothing really, except that I can’t help but think of that famous quote; you know, the one about life being like a box of chocolates. Before this book arrived in my mailbox, I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to get. But one week later, after devouring page after page, I can tell you that it was indeed a sweet surprise, eloquently written and beautifully told.

Hearts and Minds is a compelling story about the inside politics at a prestigious University steeped with history and tradition and, at times, crippled by both. The pivotal character is Dr. Martha Pierce, Senior Tutor at St. Radegund’s College, an all women’s institution, representative of one of the many separate colleges that comprise Cambridge University. Dr. Pierce is in many ways like many of us - a woman trying to find the elusive balance between work and home. While successful in her career, she is struggling with significant personal issues, including a clinically depressed teenage daughter, a severely underemployed spouse, and her own overwhelming sense of guilt. Professionally, she is a woman on the verge of enormous upheaval; her tenure as Senior Tutor has been extended temporarily beyond her third term in order to smooth the way for the new Head of House. But before this transition period is over, Martha will have to make some difficult decisions regarding her own career.

Just why would this transition require Martha to stay on past the end of her term? I’m very glad you asked. The answer would be James Rycarte, former BBC executive and first male Head of House. New to the world of academia, Rycarte stumbles through his first few months as Master of St. Radegund’s, dealing with an unfamiliar tangle of bureaucratic red tape and the blatantly open and sometimes hostile opposition to his presence at the college.

Throughout the book, Ms. Thornton paints these characters in perfect counterpoint. Rycarte is a man out of his element, stretching boundaries and his own personal limits while trying to win the respect of his colleagues, some of whom would very much like to see him pack up and leave. Martha, on the other hand, has been at St. Radegund’s for over twenty years. Confident and able, completely at ease in the institution, respected by all, Martha is the one faculty member Rycarte can turn to for support and guidance. Interestingly, just as James finally finds his footing, Martha’s own world seems to fall apart.

Ms. Thornton’s writing is eloquent and descriptive with intricately drawn images and richly expressive dialogue. As an American, I do admit to needing the first two chapters to find a rhythm, but then I was happily off and running, despite my own limited exposure to the Queen’s English. I also found the setting absolutely fascinating and Ms. Thornton’s descriptions of it prompted me to spend several contented evenings on my own discovering more about Cambridge.

So, life is indeed like a box of chocolates. And sometimes, just sometimes, you are lucky enough to open a box and find it has all of your very favorites.

Hearts and Minds is a must read.

Treat yourself.