Friday, December 31, 2010

The Accidental Wedding, by Anne Gracie

The Accidental Wedding is the fourth in the Devil Riders series by Anne Gracie.  This is the story of Nash Renfrew, diplomat for the English crown, and non-believer of love.  Nash has returned to England to look over his newly inherited property, and to ask his Aunt to find him a suitable wife.  None of these things happen as he thought they would.  Maddy Woodford is a gently born young woman, living in a two room cottage and taking care of her five half brothers and sisters.  Maddy has scrimped, saved, and grown what she could to keep her little family from starving, but the wolf is at the door in the form of an estate manager demanding money for rent.  When a stranger rides by and has an accident with his horse, Maddy takes him in and nurses him back to health, having no idea who he is or what he is doing in the area.  And neither does the stranger- he has lost his memory and has no idea who he is.  As the two avoid each other and passion they feel, evil forces are at work to drive Maddy from her quaint cottage and into the arms of an elderly, possessive man who wants to marry her.  When the stranger remembers himself as being Nash Renfrew, gentleman and Maddy's current landlord, the plot thickens as they try to unravel who is trying to scare them out of their home, and for what reasons.  

Maddy and Nash have an instant connection that only becomes stronger over the more time they spend together.    Neither planned on falling for each other, but when Maddy's reputation is called into question because of Nash's actions, he does the honorable thing and asks for her hand.  But Maddy has lived in the country all her life, and has no idea how to move about in the ton, or how to be a diplomat's wife.  With the help of Nash's family, Maddy makes the transformation and is determined to make him happy.

I've read this series out of order, as there are three other books before this one.  Gracie is a new author for me, recommended by a dear friend, and I am eternally grateful for the nod her in her direction.  Gracie's writing is smooth and witty, with emotion suffused into the characters and a well thought out plot.  All in all, it's a good read, and I would assume the others in the series are as well. 

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood

Allow me to preface this review by saying this was my first experience with a Margaret Atwood novel. I know...where have I been? Having read snippets of her work in various literature classes, I had yet to read a full length novel. I picked a good one to start with.

A novel within a novel, Atwood’s literary masterpiece about love, death, and war takes you places you’d rather not go alone, but will do because it’s Atwood leading you along. This isn’t a novel set only earth, but in faraway, dreamt lands, with spaceships and women made of peaches. The Blind Assassin is the story of the Chase and Griffen families; both have been affected by war and time in different ways. Captain Chase marries off his daughter, Iris, our narrator, in order to save his family inheritance, the Chase button factories, only to lose it all anyway when the unions come calling, and the rich Griffen renigs on his promise to save the factories. Iris is shuttled off to Toronto as a new bride and is placed into a social scene where she is inept, and a life where she is merely a piece of furniture in need of polishing.

Iris is the eldest Chase daughter, and the one responsible for Laura, her younger sister. Their mother dies when they are young, and they are virtually all but ignored by their father. Iris is the typical elder sister, but Laura is not a typical little sister. Laura is very literal and all must watch what they say lest she takes them seriously and actually does their meaning. Laura is frustratingly scatterbrained and dreamy, with no real sense of the world or its dangers. Iris, more responsible and level headed, but just as uneducated, is the pick to be married off to save the family business. She is taken away from her home into a cold world of money, power, and cruelty. With her new life come new clothes, new people, and a new family which sees her as a project. Iris all but loses her sense of self while under the thumb of her husband, until an old friend comes back into her life.  But who is the stranger, and is it Iris that is meeting with him?  The novel jumps back and forth between Iris, and two lovers.  We enter a third person point of view that would seem an abrupt change if it wasn’t for the difference in story. This way, we never know who the lovers are until the very end. However, you don’t lose the rich imagery with the point of view change, as we still get a sense of the squalor conditions the lovers must meet in. “There’s a small window, bars across it; the remains of a curtain. Rust-coloured light comes through it. They’ve propped a chair against the doorknob, a chair with most rungs missing, half matchwood already.” (Atwood 284)

Both Laura and Iris symbolize how little power women had in the time between WWI and WWII.  Atwood crafts both Laura and Iris alike enough to be sisters, but also with a separateness that makes them two completely different people. Richard Griffen is painted as an uncaring husband that humors his wife while lying directly to her face. We have no idea of Richard’s treachery until the very end, and it helps explain why Laura’s attitude was so harsh towards him. The dark forces you sense at work throughout the novel come to life as Iris learns the truth behind his actions and Laura's actions.

While reading this novel, it was quite easy to keep up with the two different stories and their time periods. Atwood masterfully blends the two plots and there are no issues of getting confused with what was going on with which character. The devastation of the depression and the return of soldiers after the war lend a desperate theme to the lives of Laura and Iris. The storyline would be completely different if not set in these times. Women had very little sway in the world, and were expected to keep to lunches, and organizing the home. Their intelligence wasn’t thought much of, and Atwood does a service to Iris making her seem intelligent, but not overstepping her role as wife to Mr. Richard Griffen, important businessman. While Iris chaffed at this, she kept in line and did what she was told. There was no other recourse for a woman with no money of her own. While Iris was a strong person, she didn’t stand up for herself until she learned the complete truth. She took a huge risk leaving her husband with her daughter and little money. Only the threat of blackmail is what saved her. It was her only means to get away and back into a more normal life, even it if meant losing her daughter.

At the end, Iris simply ran out of time, and perhaps that was the assassin in this book. Time ran out for Mrs. Chase, for Captain Chase, for Alex, for Laura, and finally for Iris. Iris does the only thing she can do, set the entire story down for her estranged granddaughter to read. “But I leave myself in your hands. What choice do I have? By the time you read this last page, that—if anywhere—is the only place I will be.” (Atwood 549) There were no choices for Iris; she lived with what she was given, and what she could make do with. This applies to her life as a young and respected Miss Chase, and an older, wiser, Mrs. Griffen, widow. Iris had very little control over her life, and when she did have some control, she used as best as she could. Iris’ life was sad, full of grief, loss, and loneliness, but it was also one of strength. Her longing for her granddaughter is evident at the end, with the hope she will come to her before she dies. Atwood leaves you with a sense of loss—for what Iris and Laura’s life could have been—and what it really was.  This was a deeply touching novel, and one every person should read, even if it's just for the women made of peaches.


Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Wedding of the Season: Abandoned at the Altar, by Laura Lee Guhrke

In a number of historical romance novels, the protagonists are more than likely kept apart until the very end by some seemingly trivial misunderstanding.  I kept waiting for that trick to expose itself in this new novel, the first in the new Abandoned at the Altar series by Laura Lee Guhrke. I soon realized, however, that Will Mallory, the Duke of Sunderland, and his once intended bride, Lady Beatrix Danbury had no such misunderstanding. Life simply took them down two separate roads six long years ago. One went to Egypt to follow his life’s dream while the other stayed home in England to follow hers.

Six years ago, Will and Beatrix, childhood sweethearts, were engaged to be married. In fact, they were two short weeks away from that walk down the aisle. Will receives a missive from a famous archaeologist inviting him to search for King Tut’s tomb in Egypt. He must leave straightaway, but tries to persuade Beatrix to come with him. Trix, as she’s known, is tied to England’s shores by her parents’ history. Her mother ran away when she was nine and her father fears losing his daughter to the same fate. Unhappy and feeling the pull of her family and her aristocratic responsibilities, she decides not to go with Will, and he, as heartbroken as she, leaves. The engagement is broken. It takes Trix five years to find someone to help her really begin life again (and that would be Aidan Carr, the Duke of Trathen, whose story is told in the next installment of the series, Scandal of the Year). While she doesn’t love Aiden the way she loved Will, Beatrix feels she’ll be content with him, and she begins to live her life again.

When Will unexpectedly comes back to England to beg for funds to continue his expedition, he and Beatrix are thrown together with disastrous results. Tempting fate, they feel the pull of  first love, and are caught in a compromising kiss. Aidan breaks off the engagement, leaving Trix on her own again. I began to worry at this point that this story may not have the happy ending I’ve come to expect from this genre. Perhaps this will be the one exception to that happily ever after rule that leaves me with that proverbial smile on my face and song in my heart, even if it is for fictional characters finding their destinies with each other.  It’s the reason why I keep reading these books. What this story actually comes down to is this; There is no “trick” as to why these two are not together. Sometimes love is just not enough.

To the author’s credit, I have never read a novel in this genre that is so rich on introspection and relatively light on dialog, at least in the first part of the book.  This is not a bad thing. Throughout the first two-thirds of the story, Beatrix and Will each have many moments of reliving their past. Ms. Guhrke mixes the present day with poignant childhood memories revisited by both and this makes the story a bit wistful and more than a tad melancholy in many places. Every memory is analyzed and hashed out until you are fully and totally vested in the couple and their history.  It is an amazing feat, really. By the time the novel ended, I felt I knew these two inside and out, and I felt badly for both of them in equal measure.

When certain confrontations force both Will and Beatrix to question themselves and their choices in the last third of the novel, we watch two people mature and finally come to terms with their childhood love and the separation that has colored everything since.

Can Will persuade Beatrix to let him make things right? Can he again persuade her  to marry him and go to Egypt with him six years after he originally asked? Can Beatrix make that leap of faith, leave her surroundings and her comfort zone, and finally, truly be with Will? Is there no compromise these two can make? Things were looking very dicey for a while.  But let me just say this. There is a meeting of the minds, and that is all I’m going to say about the ending of this wonderful love story by one of my very favorite authors. I finished the book days ago, and I’m still sitting here with a smile on my face, and that song in my heart. Ms. Gurhke once again delivers, and in extraordinary fashion. Bring on the sequels.

Whisper Falls, by Toni Blake

Destiny, Ohio is once again the place to be in my virtual literary world. That's because Whisper Falls is finally out on the shelves. Book number three in author Toni Blake's Destiny series, Whisper Falls is just as luscious as the first two installments (One Reckless Summer and Sugar Creek). But be prepared, my friends. Ms. Blake tees up one beautiful bad boy as this story's hero. If you thought Officer Mike Romo was something else, just wait 'til you meet his younger brother.

"Lucky" Romo, pegged as a trouble maker and town tough guy, never stood a chance at being understood. So he left without so much as a goodbye to anyone, including his family. And he stayed away for years until an unexpected obligation brings him back home. But Lucky's a man with secrets - dangerous secrets that seem to be catching up to him just when he thought his days of running from the past were over.  So what is he thinking, inviting the beautiful girl next door into the mess he calls his life? Apparently, he's not thinking at all ...

And Tessa Sheridan should know better. She has enough problems of her own trying to get traction under a failing business while dealing with a serious illness that frequently knocks her out of the box for days. It's just that the hunky biker next door is really not as scary as he looks. In fact, Lucky Romo makes Tessa forget herself almost completely and, given the sad state of her particular union - that's not necessarily a bad thing.

It's impossible not to fall in love with every one of Ms. Blake's well drawn, complex protagonists. You especially have to admire the beautiful bad boy, particularly while he teeters on the brink of redemption. However, Lucky is so much more. Misunderstood as a child, the reason for his rebellion is revealed in an amazingly touching scene, and damn if it didn't bring tears to my eyes.

Actually, there were many scenes to remember - one in particular reminded me of my first excursion on the back of a Honda Shadow:

"Um, what do I hold onto?" she asked loudly over his shoulder. He turned his head just enough so that she could see his eyes within the helmet.

And what follows is a perfect description of what it's like to fly down a country road perched on the back of a powerful machine with absolutely nothing to come between you and the glorious rush of the wind except the broad, leathered shoulders of the man you are clinging to. But I digress. . .

Please treat yourself to Whisper Falls. And if you haven't read the rest of Ms. Blake's wonderful Destiny series, now would be the time to rectify that shameful oversight. Great stories, fantastic characters, sexy situations and a whole lot of fun. Go on, then. It's a great ride...

Goodnight Tweetheart, Teresa Medeiros

When Abigail Donovan’s publicist creates her Twitter profile, it is with the intention of helping Abby reconnect with her diminishing fan base. And her fan base definitely needs replenishing because it’s been awhile since that first bestselling book made Oprah’s list. To make matters worse, Abby is struggling with a crippling case of writer’s block, and is perilously close to becoming another one-hit wonder of the literary world.

Abby’s very first tweet is answered by @MarkBaynard. Mark tells Abby he’s an English Lit professor on sabbatical and traveling the world as he writes his own novel. The two make a pact not to Google each other and their online relationship develops through prolific tweets of 140 characters or less.

Ms. Medeiros carefully constructs Abby and Mark’s relationship through short snippets of conversation that are so entertaining, they never seem to last long enough. She brilliantly illuminates the story with both characters’ intelligence, sense of humor and vulnerability. We are swept away, just like Abby, to the faraway locales Mark describes perfectly, albeit succinctly. And just like Abby, we begin to like Mark – really, really like him.  But when he balks at having a “real” conversation via cell phone,  she (and we) begin to suspect that perhaps things aren’t really as they seem.

Goodnight Tweetheart is not your typical romance. Most of the dialogue is written in tweets and, short of giving too much away, the ending is not what usually constitutes a happily ever after. That being said, it was one of the most emotionally engaging conclusions I’ve ever read.

I should mention that I met my husband online in the fledgling days of large public chat rooms, way before E-Harmony and We were “hanging out” in the same AOL chat and mutually decided, through instant messages, to meet the very next night (in a crowded, public place of course). Our first “in person” date lasted six hours – we closed the restaurant at 2 AM and got married a short year and a half later. That was twelve years ago. So needless to say, I am a true believer in the power of technology-inspired connections.

Read Goodnight Tweetheart and I promise you will be too.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Goddess Rules, by Clare Naylor. A Review by Debra

When I read contemporary fiction, I seem to gravitate toward novels that resemble Bridget Jones' Diary. I just love that British chick lit, where the heroine is a socially awkward, unlucky in love English twenty-something who gets everything she desires by the last paragraph.  And by the time I get to that last paragraph, I'm usually smiling from ear to ear. No wonder I keep coming back for more. This book, The Goddess Rules, by Clare Naylor (a new author for me) is no exception.

The Goddess Rules is the story of Kate Disney, a painter who does commissioned portraits of household pets.  Recently turned twenty-nine, she's mired in a relationship with Jake, her boyfriend of three years, who has yet to learn not to take Kate for granted. When Kate finally has enough and breaks up with him, he realizes, too late, in fact,  he can't live without her.  What he doesn't realize is that Kate has procured a new client, mentor and friend, sixty year old former French actress turned animal activist, Mirabelle Moncur. Mirri teaches Kate how to value herself and to live, just a little, outside her comfort zone.  The lessons work for a short while and Kate starts to see she deserves better than Jake.  When Louis Alcott, a contemporary artist and friend from college, confesses his long-hidden love for her, Kate begins to see him in a totally different light. Just when we think Kate has finally broken free, she's pulled back into old patterns and can't quite make the leap of faith that may lead her to the love of her life.  This theme is mirrored in Mirabelle's story, as she debates whether a first and only love from her past is worth revisiting.

Written with wry humor and a sense of nostalgia for the past,  Clare Naylor weaves a tale of first love and second chances. There were lines in this book that simply resonated with me, enough so that I was nodding my head enthusiastically when I read them.  I love when that happens! I'm looking forward to my next novel by this author.

That smile at the end of the last paragraph is quite addicting.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

His Christmas Pleasure, by Cathy Maxwell. A Review by Debra

Christmas-themed romance stories that come out this time of year are usually reminiscent of THAT Christmas tale.  You know, the one where this one sells his watch and that one cuts her hair and both sacrifice what they hold dear in order to give something to the other. His Christmas Pleasure, by Cathy Maxwell, is no exception. While this novel has that theme running through it as well, there is something quite refreshing about a historical romance where there is no rake; the male protagonist is reformed even before the heroine gets to  him, and in that, this story is different.

Andres Ramigio, Baròn de Vasconia of Spain, has a reputation, but it’s not self-inflicted. Women seem to fall into his path, quite literally, and the one woman he has the misfortune to fall in love with, spurns him quite publicly. Abigail Montross, niece of a duke and daughter of a banker, is in love with an Earl’s son who is looking for more than a tradesman’s daughter for a wife. Set up in an arranged marriage by her father, she has already been engaged to and jilted by  another man. When she seemingly rescues Andres from his own father’s fate, their two lives become entangled in ways neither one of them expect. And after Abby’s father proposes another arranged marriage, she desperately looks for a way to avoid it. The Baròn has already seen the good in Abby, and unwittingly provides her with an escape. When he talks to Abby about a solution to their problems (he needs funds, she needs a way out),  it’s already evident that he’s halfway in love with her, which in turn, makes us love him even more.

When Andres persuades Abby to marry him, he’s the one who wants a proper wedding and a blessing from her parents. She’s the one who convinces him to elope. When they reach Stonemoor, the property given to him in Northumberland in exchange for a promise never to return to London, Abby realizes her new husband is not quite what he seems, but our faith in Andres is confirmed when he confesses all.

When Abby receives disturbing news from home in the middle of major misunderstanding with her new husband, and then hightails it back to London, there is little question that Andres will follow her, even if it means losing his home and his new livelihood in the process.

There are some wonderfully written scenes in this book. The showdowns between Andres and Abby’s determined father, the confrontation between Andres and a cuckolded husband, the coach ride that Andres and Abby share, the proposal scene in a garden with a roomful of women watching through a window, and of course, the final scene in the book where everything all comes right again, in a very surprising way, all reflect Cathy Maxwell’s ability at story-telling. This is a fun, quick story that will no doubt get the reader into the holiday spirit.

It was my Christmas pleasure to read it.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Jane Austen Ruined My Life, By Beth Pattillo. A Review by Debra

Part fiction, part truth, Jane Austen Ruined My Life is the story of Emma Grant, a recently divorced Jane Austen scholar who makes a return visit to England after receiving an invitation by a woman claiming to have Jane Austen's long lost letters.

Emma is fleeing her ex-husband and her teaching assistant, who together engineer Emma's professional downfall while having an affair. After losing her position and tenure, the invitations from Mrs. Parrot dangling the long lost letters, is too much to resist. With no job or job prospects, no husband and no happy ending in sight, she takes off for London and the home of her cousin. There she meets Adam, her best friend from graduate school, who is in London and staying with Emma's cousin on pretenses of his own. When Emma meets Mrs. Parrot, she is given a series of tasks to perform involving visits to most of the sites of Jane Austen's life. We get to hear Emma read excerpts from the letters, and can almost imagine that they do, in fact exist.  At the end of this literary treasure hunt, she is promised that all of her questions about the lost letters will be answered, and she is faced with a moral dilemma of her own and a decision that may lead her to accept or reject the true love of her life.

Beth Pattillo takes us, along with Emma, on a discovery of the heart. When Emma is tempted to betray the trust of the holders of the letters and offer them up for publication, she discovers that Jane Austen's fiction may have been the catalyst for earlier mistakes and bad decisions, but they  are not what keeps Emma from now truly living her life and finding professional and personal fulfillment. Like the real Jane Austen,  Emma doesn't need to compromise her honor and her principles to prove her worth. While her decision at the end of the novel is probably not the same one I would have made, we see Emma's life as she begins to see it; as a process meant to be worked through and lived despite setbacks and betrayals, and despite an elusive happy ending.

This book is a quick, absorbing read. The trek through Austen country was informative to this uninitiated reader. The water spray at the Cobb, the writing desk in Chawton, all these places come alive for Emma and for us. If you are an Austenphile  (and who among us isn't) this is a book you will definitely enjoy.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Reckless Bride, by Stephanie Laurens. A Review by Angie

The final installment in Stephanie Laurens’ Black Cobra Trilogy is perhaps the most exciting of all.  The Reckless Bride follows the story of Rafe Carstairs, keeper of the original letter that will expose the identity of the Black Cobra.  His return to English soil is fraught with several distractions, not in the very least Lady Esme Congreve and her niece, Loretta Michelmarsh.  At the request of Esme for Rafe to act as their guide, he and Hasaan accompany the ladies back towards England.  A long journey up the rivers of Europe throws Rafe and Loretta closer together, coinciding with Esme’s match-making plans.  Their attraction is almost instant, but neither side is willing to admit to it.  When a murderous plot against Esme is discovered, explaining non-cultist attacks on them throughout Europe, she seeks sanctuary at a convent run by a friend while Loretta continues on with Rafe.  Left to their own devices, they realize they cannot hold back from each other, and finally succumb to their passions.  But, Rafe’s mission is the most dangerous of all, and Loretta is reckless enough to follow him until he sees it through. With the help of almost every single character in other Laurens’ novels, the Duke of Wolverstone gets his villain, and our four brave heroes get their happy endings.

As usual, Laurens delivers a flawless plot, keeping you in suspense until the surprising conclusion and discovery of the Black Cobra.  Add to this page after page of steamy, sexy love scenes between the drop dead gorgeous Rafe and the determined Loretta, and you won’t be able to put this book down.  Believe it or not, I found myself becoming impatient with Rafe and Loretta’s trysts, because I wanted to get back to the Black Cobra plot!  Another great series from Stephanie Laurens!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Passions of a Wicked Earl, by Lorraine Heath. A Review by Debra

Normally, when I read a romance novel, I naturally identify with the heroine, if rooting for her to get her man is akin to identification. While reading this novel, however, I found myself fascinated by the workings of the mind of the male protagonist and instead, cheered for him to overcome his childhood demons and get his happy ending. It’s as if Cinderella’s prince was the more important character in that particular story than Cinderella herself; a wonderful twist to be sure.

The first in the London’s Greatest Lovers series by Lorraine Heath introduces Morgan Lyons, the 8th Earl of Westcliffe. Damaged in his youth by the early death of his father, the bitterness of his mother and jealousy toward his younger brothers, both for what they have (a higher rank and money for one) and what they don’t (the lack of noble responsibilities, for the other), Morgan accepts his role in an arranged marriage to the much younger Claire, a childhood friend of his younger brother, Stephen.

On their wedding night, Stephen’s penchant for mischief and Claire’s fear of her older, serious husband results in a three year banishment to the country for her and a separation that Morgan uses to rake his way through London. When circumstances arise and Claire is forced back to town to bring her philandering husband to heel, the two begin where their truncated marriage left off; they come to know each other better and begin to fall in love.

When danger lurks from an unpredictable source and tragedy results, Morgan realizes that Claire’s love can be trusted and he in turn comes to admit his feelings, no longer worried about feeling the vulnerability and insecurity that has followed him his entire life.

Lorraine Heath introduces secondary characters in this novel that provide the basis for understanding Morgan’s rakishness, his unwillingness to fully trust his wife, and his belief that he can never fall in love or trust love in return. His relationships with his brothers, especially the younger Duke of Ainsley (I’m assuming he will have his own sequel one day soon) his mother, his deceased father, his former paramour, Anne, even his beloved dog Cooper who dies and leaves him fully alone, or so he believes, explain why he did not give Claire a second chance after their wedding. These relationships also let us see why he feels he cannot let himself need anyone, including his wife, for whom he has feelings he’s trying so very hard to excuse away. I don’t think I’ve ever read another novel in this genre that uses secondary characters to this extent. They should all endeavor to do so.  After all, we are all the sum of our past experiences, shaped and molded by circumstances and people early on. The author brings this out wonderfully in this book, and it’s why I sympathize so strongly with Morgan. He’s simply trying so hard to get past all of it, and when he does, it’s like the sun coming out from behind a thundercloud; almost blinding in its intensity. I cannot wait for the sequel, Pleasures of a Notorious Gentleman, the story of Morgan’s brother Stephen, which will be out December 1, 2010. This book makes its debut on November 1, 2010.

Ten Ways to Be Adored When Landing a Lord, by Sarah MacLean. A Review by Debra

"Oh, what a tangled web we weave..."

This was the first thought that crossed my mind when I put my Nook to sleep on this book for the last time.  All that angst, all that heartache could have been avoided and the happy ending gotten to so much sooner, if Lady Isabel Townsend and Lord Nicholas St. John didn't have major trust issues, brought on by unhappy pasts. His problem stems from his role as the Bulan, or the Hunter, assigned by the Crown to track fugitives, spies and missing persons of interest to the British Empire.  His last assignment landed him in prison because he fell in love and trusted the wrong person. Couple that with an unfaithful mother who deserted her family without a backwards glance and you can see where he's coming from.

Lady Isabel had a father who was known as the Wastreal, a man who gambled and played his way through life and his fortune, leaving his children  (in addition to Isabel there is her brother James, the ten year old heir) and his wife to fend for themselves in the Yorkshire countryside. Isabel is still reeling and trying desperately to raise her brother, keep Townsend Park intact and harbor runaway women at the same time. A tall order for any heroine, surely.  Bring these two damaged souls together and watch the angst and sparks fly. And fly they do.

Lord Nicholas longs to escape the marriage minded mamas of London after being awarded the accolade "Landable Lord" by a popular magazine. When the Duke of Leighton assigns him to a special project, he jumps at the chance to head north.  His arrival in Yorkshire is noted by Lady Isabel, who is aware of his new moniker but is more interested in getting Lord Nicholas, a noted antiquarian, to appraise her statutes than she is in getting him to the altar. Nicholas refrains from telling her the real reason for his visit to her home, and thus ensues a series of misunderstandings so convoluted,  it is a miracle that the two of them actually like each other enough to fall in love.

Sarah MacLean paints a wonderfully colorful portrait of her characters in this novel.  There are way too many stubborn moments for Isabel, and I began to think that Nicholas was a saint to still want her, but conflict does make a happy bedfellow, especially when there is an overabundance of make-up sex. These two, suffice it to say, do a lot of making-up.  You're just brought to the point where you are wondering how much more Nick can take when Isabel finally asks herself the same question and confesses to her love for him. But is it too late?

As an aside, I just need to mention that the best line of the book (and there were many good ones) and the one that embodies the very essence of the reformed rake, falls to Lord Gabriel St. John, Marquess of Ralston, Nick's twin brother. While trying to console Nicholas, he says, "You are laboring under the mistaken impression that their  job is to need us. In my experience, it is almost always the other way around." I love this line. It's the basis of why I love romance novels. And why I loved this one, too.

This book is a sequel to Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake (Gabriel's story) by the same author, and together they are both fun, lively reads. Each will have you heaving a satisfied sigh when you're done. There's nothing like a good story to make for a happy ending.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

A Hopeless Romantic, by Harriet Evans. A Review by Debra

There is a reason why all those Regency and Victorian romances sell so well. And there's a reason why Jane Austen novels have been adapted and re-adapted to TV and movies. And that same reason is why I absolutely loved A Hopeless Romantic, by one of my favorite contemporary romance authors, Harriet Evans.

A Hopeless Romantic is the story of Laura Foster, a 28 year old London woman who lives her life wrapped up in romantic fantasies in her search for The One. After a devastating and humiliating break-up, she's brought back to earth with a definite thud. In the process, she loses her job, her friends and her self-esteem. And she decides to stop living with her head in a romantic cloud. It's time to be practical and turn over a new leaf. No more fantasizing about Mr. Right and jumping in with both feet. And first she has to get over Mr. Totally Wrong.

On a holiday with her parents in Norfolk and bored out of her mind, she agrees to visit a nearby estate called Chartley Hall (I kept reading this as Chatterly. I must have Sean Bean on the brain) which is open to the public for tours.  While there, she accidentally meets Nick Needham, who invites her for drinks at a local club. Despite her best intentions, she decides to take him up on the offer. We watch as Laura fights her attraction to Nick, and then just when she's ready to give in to it and possibly fall again, she finds out something about him that totally pulls her up short. While Laura's reasons for not pursuing her relationship with Nick are as bewildering to him as they are to me,  I came to understand that it's not really who Nick is that's keeping her from giving her heart. It's really who Laura has become. She can't trust herself enough to make the right decisions and she can't trust Nick enough to not get hurt again. She's afraid to make that leap of faith that used to come so easily to her.

A Hopeless Romantic is filled with wonderful secondary characters. Laura's relationship with her grandmother is especially poignant and her interaction with her roommate Yorkie, her friend Jo and Nick's best friend Charles, help us see different sides of Laura that may not otherwise be evident. I've noticed that Ms. Evans has a knack for using her secondary characters in this way.  They are by no means superfluous to the story, but are as important to it as the main characters.

Harriet Evans has written a wonderful  love story that basically combines the best of contemporary romance with a touch of what makes historical romances so alluring.   The hero truly loves the heroine, and best of all, he's a .... well, I won't give the rest away.

The reason why we love our historical romances? True love prevails;  the heroine gets the hero in the end of course, and he's usually titled, wealthy and extremely good looking.  And the reason why I love this present day romance so much? For the same reason and one more; if I were 25 years younger, single, living on the other side of the Atlantic, and looking for love, after reading this I could almost believe it could happen to me. A girl can dream, can't she?

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Dark Road to Darjeeling, by Deanna Raybourn. A Review by Angie

Before delving into Dark Road to Darjeeling, I didn't have a favorite Lady Julia Grey novel.  I loved each of them for their own story, and their own plots.  That was until the fourth novel in the series came along.  Now I have a favorite.

When we last left Brisbane and Julia, they were just beginning their new life together.  In Dark Road to Darjeeling, we catch up with the Brisbane's nine months into their marriage and subsequent trip to the Mediterranean.  They have traveled the world, seeing exotic places, eating exotic foods, and being newlyweds.  And then Julia's siblings, Portia and Plum, join them in Cairo with a request to accompany them to India to assist Jane, Portia's former flame, as she prepares for the birth of her child.  Jane's husband has died, and she is alone with his family while awaiting the birth.  Portia, still in love with her dear Jane, rushes to her aid, bringing along Plum at her father's insistence.  Portia harbors suspicion that everything is not as it seems with Jane in India, and asks the assistance of Julia and Brisbane.  She feels Jane's husband was murdered, and intends to find out the truth before the killer turns his eyes on Jane and her baby.  Never one to resist an investigation, Julia eagerly accepts, and Brisbane reluctantly agrees.

They are welcomed eagerly at the Peacocks, a tea plantation in the Himalayan mountains, by Jane, and her husband's family, Miss Cavendish, the spinster aunt, and Freddie Cavendish, cousin.  Everyone is a suspect to Julia, and she begins her investigation while Brisbane remains in Calcutta on business.  Being curious and forthright, Julia uses her charm and good breeding to seek the answers she needs to solve her puzzle, making friends and a few enemies unwittingly.   Everyone has a motive, or so it seems to Julia.  With the arrival of Brisbane, and his reluctance to allow her to assist him in finding the murderer, we see the side of their marriage that at times made me furious with the both of them, shouting "grow up" at my poor paperback book.  A few conversations with a child, and one man-eating tiger later, and we have one of the most shocking conclusions I have read in quite some time.  I never saw it coming, and I'm so glad!

A whirlwind of characters, old and new, and the lush descriptions of the Valley of Eden transport you to a time when the English ruled India and fabulously round characters take you on a journey through jealousy, murder, death, and finally peace.   Brisbane is dark and moody with a hint of danger, and Julia is curious and prone to get herself into trouble.  The plot is so full of twists that when at the end, you are not quite sure how you managed to get there, and can't quite believe the outcome.  Raybourn is truly a proficient at storytelling, for my pillow was soaked with tears at the end.  I sat staring at my book for a full minute, just letting the shocking facts sink in for a moment.

I always tell everyone Deanna Raybourn is an excellent teller of mysteries, but this one exceeded my expectations to the extreme.   Simply breathtaking!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Devil Wears Plaid, by Teresa Medeiros. A Review by Donna

"This is going to be good."

Six words always said just before a three day weekend, diving into a huge chunk of chocolate cake or reading a Teresa Medeiros novel. Those who know me well can only imagine how enthusiastically those words left my lips as my Kindle downloaded her latest historical romance, The Devil Wears Plaid. Who needs chocolate when there's a kilted Highlander nearby?

And what a kilt it is. Our hero makes his first appearance riding a black horse down the aisle of an abbey. Tall in the saddle, arrogant in demeanor, green-eyed Jamie Sinclair crashes the wedding of his sworn enemy - the aged laird of the Hepburns. Vowing revenge upon the man he claims took what was rightfully his, Jamie declares he's come for something other than jewels and points a pistol directly at the bride's heart.

Emmaline Marlowe should be terrified and she will be, eventually. But for just one instant, all she feels is a vague sense of relief. As the first of four girls born to a self-indulgent, impoverished baronet, she is forced to stand at the altar and pledge herself to a wizened, rotting old Earl a head shorter than she. That was the unfortunate plan until this magnificent stranger made his dramatic appearance just as she was gathering enough courage to speak her vows.

In one of the most vividly descriptive and exciting scenes I've read in a long time, Jamie literally sweeps the startled bride off her feet and absconds with her into the wilds of the Highlands. And so begins a life-changing adventure for both.

A universal truth - Ms. Medeiros does not disappoint. A skillful, even combination of romance and intrigue, the plot is liberally sprinkled with humor and lively descriptions. The supporting characters are granted wonderful dialogue and situations, in particular the charming Ian Hepburn, Jamie's old friend turned reluctant nemesis. The much anticipated, happily ever ending is almost too neat and tidy, but Ms. Medeiros surprises with Emma's final revenge on the old laird. It's a dark moment and unexpected enough to make you wince first and then cheer.

Make room on your bookshelves, people. This one tops a Monday off.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Sergeant's Lady, by Susanna Fraser. A Review by Debra

After watching the first nine episodes of the exploits of Maj. Richard Sharpe (based on the Bernard Cornwell novels) and starring Sean Bean, I've become partial to green jackets and the dashing Riflemen who wore them and served in the 95th Rifles in the Peninsular War against Napoleon, oh, about 200 years ago or so.  So imagine my surprise when I discovered that Sgt. Will Atkins, also of the 95th Rifles, and also wearing a green jacket, was the lead protagonist in this delightful novel by Susanna Fraser. The HUZZAH! could be heard from here to Brooklyn.

The Sergeant's Lady is the story of Anna Wright-Gordon Arrington, a woman following the drum and her husband in the battles against Napoleon. Only her husband, a Lieutenant in King's Army, turns out to be not quite an Officer and a Gentleman. When he's murdered by Spanish townspeople who take offense at his treatment of a relative, Anna is relieved to be in widow's weeds. She asks to return to Lisbon and then home to Scotland by the next convoy. That convoy is escorted by Sgt. Atkins, a career enlisted man who finds he is attracted to a woman he can never have due to their different stations in life.  A life-threatening situation causes the two of them to set out on their own, and Anna and Will discover a mutual common ground, quite literally, and fall in love, but must part for propriety's sake upon returning to the regiment. When Anna needs to leave the encampment post haste, she only has time to write Will a hasty note and then is gone from his life, seemingly forever.

The second part of the book follows the two on similar yet separate roads. The question remains, will those roads converge, and can they overcome the roadblocks of English society long enough to find happiness with each other?

Susanna Fraser writes an intriguing love story encompassing aspects of English societal rules as well as Army life during this period. We get an idea of just what it must be like to "follow the drum" and then return to England while the battles still rage on "over the hills and far away" (sorry, couldn't help but throw that in).  To be honest, I also could not help but envision Sean Bean as Atkins, and instead of a Midlands accent, broad Yorkshire kept bursting forth from the good Sergeant's mouth. Oh, well. In any event, I enjoyed Anna and Will's story immensely, with or without Mr. Bean looking over my shoulder.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Smooth Talking Stranger, by Lisa Kleypas. A Review by Debra

I've never realized before how simple and easy most historical romance novels are to get through.  There is no real modern angst; no modern psychodrama, no therapy. None of that.  Whatever twisted family history exists is part of the background, and while it may explain why characters act the way they do, the story doesn't revolve around it. It just is.  And in some ways, that leaves the reader free to explore only the fantasy side of the romance. There's the dashing hero, the beautiful heroine and their love story. So when it comes to reading Lisa Kleypas' contemporary fiction novels, set in Houston, it's a little hard to make the shift. There's definite effort involved, and the jury is still out on whether this is a good thing or not.

Smooth Talking Stranger is the third novel behind Sugar Daddy and Blue Eyed Devil, which feature the Travis clan of Houston; three brothers and a sister of privileged background and lots of money. This story is Jack's. He's the middle Travis son, with a reputation to live up to. He's slow to trust, but when he does, he expects loyalty from anyone for whom he feels something. But he hasn't felt anything until he meets Ella Varner, a love advice columnist from Austin who comes to Houston to care for her sister Tara's newborn baby, Luke. While Tara is away dealing with a nervous breakdown brought on by childhood abuse and a mother from hell,  Ella keeps Luke, leaving behind a comfortable relationship with a man to whom a baby is anathema. Ella  hunts down Jack who she thinks is Luke's father.  Jack quickly disabuses Ella of that notion, and just as quickly falls in love with her. Ella resists falling in love right back because, and cue the therapist here, every relationship she had as a child has ended in heartbreak, therefore, it's easier not to get involved to begin with. A near tragedy opens her eyes to Jack and she begins to see things his way.

The story is pretty formulaic. There were times when I absolutely loathed Ella, like when she made a further wrong assumption as to Luke's paternity,  and along with Jack, tried to strong-arm the hapless man into doing right by Tara without Tara's permission. That whole scenario just rubbed me the wrong way. The other problem with the novel is that it's told in the first person. For me, it reads more like a memoir than a fictional romantic story.  Something was lost for me by narrating it in this way. I can't put my finger on it, but it did not make me a happy camper.

Don't get me wrong. Smooth Talking Stranger is a nice modern love story. The hero is dashing and the heroine, beautiful. The proposal (and there is one) almost brought a tear to my eye, it was so romantic. I'm just not so sure I like Lisa's stories or cast of characters with a modern bent. I think they'd do much better for themselves  (and for me) back in the early 1800's.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Man Who Loved Jane Austen, by Sally Smith O'Rourke. A Review by Donna

I don't make a habit of reading Jane Austen fanfic, continuations, parallel stories, etc. But this title sold me - one click on the Kindle and there he was. Any man who appreciates Jane Austen is worth meeting, in my humble opinion, if only for his unique point of view regarding the classic stories I can quote by heart. Throw in charming, handsome, sensitive and rich and we have ourselves a ballgame. It took a couple of chapters before I realized that in this story, the man who "loved Jane Austen," really did.

Meet Fitzwilliam Darcy - yes, that's correct. Fitzwilliam Darcy. Charming, handsome, sensitive and rich, this modern day Virginian horse breeder owns a vast estate/ranch appropriately named Pemberley Farms. Mr. Darcy should be content with his life, but he is haunted by a strange event in his past. Three years in his past, to be exact, although to him it might as well be two hundred.

Eliza Knight is an artist residing in twenty-first century New York City - as far from Jane Austen's idyllic Hampshire as one can get. Eliza has a creative eye for unusual old furniture and one day purchases an antique vanity table. While examining her new piece, she stumbles upon a packet of vellum letters well hidden in the attached mirror. One of the letters is already open and while the meaning of the words are difficult to decipher, the signature is not - F. Darcy. The other letter is properly sealed (red wax and all) and Eliza believes it to be written by Jane Austen herself.

The letters are the key that bring Eliza and Fitz together at his Virginia homestead and this is where the man who loved Jane has the opportunity to tell his story. Suspend belief here folks and just go with it.

The story has potential, but fell short of my expectations. The author spends a good deal of energy shifting between present day Virginia (a setting with enormous romantic potential) and nineteenth century Regency England (where Jane Austen is fictionally portrayed). Although the latter is important in understanding this Darcy, the overwrought retelling of his experience diluted the other element (and to me, more real) part of the story - Eliza and Darcy's immediate attraction. I would have liked to see more development of the relationship between Eliza and Fitz. It seemed as though one moment they were adversaries, and the next, well not.  And unfortunately, "more" remained the watchword throughout. I wanted more of Fitz's thoughts, more of Eliza's thoughts, more description of the beautiful place that was Pemberley Farms, and much more romance. Curiosity aroused, I wanted heaps of everything and just didn't get it.

"The Man Who Loved Jane Austen" is best saved for light, rainy day reading when there is nothing else about. The premise is a good one, the title a clincher. The telling of story, however - not so much.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, by Stieg Larsson. A Review by Donna

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest is the third book in Stieg Larsson’s enormously popular Millennium Trilogy. I didn't think this installment would eclipse The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played with Fire in my rather narrow minded affections, but I am now thrilled to admit I was wrong.

In this culmination of the series, we find our unlikely computer hacker heroine Lisbeth Salander slowly recovering from the life threatening wounds inflicted by her Russian defector father (one incredibly nasty dude) and her overgrown, mentally underdeveloped murdering half-brother. Salander is also under arrest for various crimes – and as we know, committed in self-defense.  However, conviction on all counts or at the very least, another long stint on the psych ward is guaranteed as long as dark forces are allowed to labor behind the scenes.

Throughout the book, the author deliberately and in great detail, shines an unrelenting light on these forces. In the process, the reader learns a whole lot about Swedish secret police, ongoing criminal investigations, cut throat politics and investigative publishing. Mr. Larsson is a master at making this dissection breathe life with rich, easy to digest explanations and characters that literally leap off the page. It should be noted that this English translation is  done so well, nary a seam is visible.

Of course, crusading journalist and busy ladies’ man Mikael Blomkvist is back and plays an important role in the defense of Salander. But this story, as well as The Girl Who Played with Fire, belongs totally to Lisbeth.

If you haven’t read the trilogy, you absolutely should. No, make that you absolutely must. If you haven’t seen the Swedish version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, starring Michael Nyquist and Noomi Rapace, you should (must) do that too. Unfortunately, Mr. Larsson did not live to see the fruit of his efforts, but how lucky we are that he left such a brilliant legacy.

The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant. A Review by Angie

Dinah’s life was a mere footnote in the Bible, as most of the story was devoted to the slaughter of her husband by her brothers in order to “avenge her honor”.  We are never told of Dinah’s life, until now.  Anita Diamant has taken the little known character from the book of Genesis and given her a voice and a life.

Dinah was the only daughter of Leah and Jacob, raised by her mother and her three aunts, Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah. Mothers wish for daughters in order to pass down their stories, and the birth of one is cause for much celebration.  Dinah—being the only daughter of the tribe—was enfolded into their bond from an early age, and gained entrance to the red tent when other girls would know nothing of its secrets.  The red tent was a place where women gathered every cycle to worship the moon, and bond as women.  It was a place of birth and death, and sometimes resurrection.  Bright and curious, Dinah learned how to spin from her Aunt Bilhah, to be responsible and bake bread from her mother Leah, and how to be a midwife from her beautiful Aunt Rachel.  She hears things she is too young for while serving her mother and aunts in the red tent, things that prepare her for life to come.  She is present for births at a time when no unmarried women was allowed, and begins to pick up the skill of midwifery.  It is this skill that leads her to Shalem, son of king Hanor.  While there to help a beloved maid bear her first child, Dinah and Shalem fall in love and she is taken willingly as his bride. Taking the unfortunate advice of his greedy sons, Jacob places conditions on the union, only have his sons kill every man in the kingdom to avenge their sister’s honor.  Dinah curses her father and brothers, and flees back to the kingdom to die along with her love.  Her mother in law, the Queen Re-nefer, rescues Dinah and takes her to Egypt, where she bears a son, only to have him snatched away by his grandmother, so he may be raised as a prince of Egypt.  Living with Re-nefer’s family, she becomes a reputed midwife along with friend Meryt, and eventually finds love.

While this is the basic story, there is much more that makes it truly unforgettable.  The bonds of womanhood claim a major role in this novel, and Diamant paints the lives of women in ancient times vividly.  There are graphic depictions of childbirth, death and murder, alongside stories of happiness and triumph.  Dinah’s memories weigh heavily upon her as she moves through life trying to find happiness, a prisoner of her own past.  Only when she is briefly reunited with her family does she find peace, knowing her story, while watered down, has lived on.

I chose this book to read for my Women Writer’s class, and I’m so glad I did.  It’s been quite a while since I have read a book of such substance and beauty.  While not lighthearted by any means, The Red Tent will appeal to most every woman because of its emphasis on being a woman.  Do not pass up this thought-provoking read.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. A Review by Angie

 A little girl’s world is thrown upside down;  the sudden death of her brother and his snowy graveside set the scene for an act of thievery that will mark her new beginning.

Set in fictional Molching, Germany, The Book Thief follows the trials and tribulations of Liesel Meminger as she begins life anew with her foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann, while the Nazi idealism in Germany grows stronger.

As you accompany the narrator, Death, from Liesel’s arrival on Himmel Street through the next five years, you will experience the ups and downs of adolescence, the courage to stand up for what you believe in, and the utter tragedies of war. You root for Liesel as she learns to read and develops a profound love for books, especially those which are stolen. You go along as she and her best friend Rudy Steiner commit various acts of ‘teenage-ism’. You sit on pins and needles as Liesel and her family risks everything by hiding a Jew in their basement. And one of the most intriguing aspects of the journey is the insights Death gives you into his perspective of war along the way.

Prepare to be pulled into the chaotic world of a little girl who is growing up in Nazi Germany. Don’t think it’s another German-Holocaust-Anne Frank like book. Don’t be put off by the fact it’s listed under Young Adult (which I completely disagree with). And think about picking up this book and enjoying one of the most brilliantly written, enduring stories of our time.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

I Remember You, by Harriet Evans. A Review by Debra

My first experience with a Harriet Evans novel reminds me of my first taste of Entenmann's  Marshamallow Iced Devils' Food cake. For those of you unfamiliar with this indescribable treat, suffice it to say that eating it is something you'll remember long after the last bit is gone. It's sweet, it's textured, the icing is an extra added bonus,  and it gives a heck of a lot of pleasure. And there is not a crumb left when you are done.  Enough said.

I Remember You is the story of two people and a town. Yes, the town of Langford figures as prominently in this novel as the two protagonists, Tess Tennant and Adam Smith, thirty-somethings who grew up there together as best friends and playmates, and for one painful summer, something quite a bit more. After that summer, Tess leaves Langford and Adam behind and escapes to University in London, where she becomes a classics teacher and tries to start a new life. Twelve years later, she finds herself made redundant in her old job and, back in Langford, takes up a position teaching classics to adults. Adam is still there, still mourning the death of his mother and living a life no one expected of him a decade earlier.

When circumstances force Tess and Adam to confront their past, Tess realizes that she really doesn't know her best friend at all, or perhaps she knows him too well, and resolves to finally move on from their complicated past. On a trip to Rome, she meets someone else who makes her question her quiet country existence, and almost simultaneously discovers the secrets of Adam's past, which puts him in a new light in her eyes and the eyes of the town they grew up in.

Harriet Evans writes with an almost lilting air. Her prose is sharp, her descriptions of places and people clear and full. Her secondary characters, in fact, all the townspeople of Langford, figure prominently in making the reader see and understand Tess and Adam's long history. A lesson in conservation is cleverly tucked into the story, as a water meadow development figures prominently in the plot, but not to the point where it gets preachy and tiresome.

Like my Entenmann's cake, the ending is sweet, and it lingers on your tongue for awhile. I'm already looking for another Harriet Evans novel to devour.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks

You have emergency plans for fires, earthquakes, and various other natural disasters. But have you thought about what you will do when the zombies attack? That’s right, when the living dead are roaming the land, do you know what to do? Have you a plan of action? If not, The Zombie Survival Guide is what you need to read, for it is a “complete protection from the living dead” guide. It isn’t a matter of if but a matter of when, as to the timing of the next rise of the living dead. And when that happens you have to be sure you are ready to survive.

The Zombie Survival Guide reveals everything you need know in order to live to tell the tale of the zombie outbreak. Breaking down the myths and realities of the undead is your first step in survival; from the origins of the zombie, to the physical abilities and behaviors exhibited by one, and finally the different levels of outbreaks. Detection is first key survival.

Once you’ve identified a true outbreak, you must know how to protect yourself by using the appropriate weapons and combat techniques. Now, you must defend yourself, whether it is at your home or another public arena, or on the run in different types of terrain. When defending isn’t enough, or you’re fed up with running, attacking is your only option. The guide will give you general rules and strategies of attack, to hopefully be victorious and not one more of the undead horde. Finally, if the unthinkable happens, you have to learn how to live in the undead world. Endurance and isolation will be the name of the game when the living become nearly extinct.

So read the guide, head to the nearest supply store to begin your stockpile of supplies, and be ever vigilant. You won’t know when the dead will rise, but you will be ready, for you are now a professional zombie hunter!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, A Review by Lindsey

Darkly whimsical perfectly describes the mood set in this book, especially when you are crossing the line between the real world and the shadow world lying beneath the surface.

If you’ve ever been to London, or any major city for that fact, you’ve more than likely traveled in that city’s underground.  But what if there was a world, a very real world, underneath that. The true “Underground.” A world completely unlike the one you know, where the rules of physics and biology don’t necessarily apply.

Richard Mayhew is young man living an ordinary life, with a good job, a “good” girlfriend, and a good heart. It is his good heart that drives him to help a bloody, strange and oddly regal girl named Door. By helping Door, Richard finds himself unknowingly entering the Underground, where their  allies are the marquis de Carabas and Hunter and their enemies are Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar, two of the most ghastly and other-worldly villains in that world.

Soon, Richard’s life as he knows it doesn’t exist anymore.  He walks among the world, completely unseen by those around him. Knowing he must find Door, Richard makes his way literally into Underground, into a world he still doesn’t fully believe exist. Trials and tribulations abound as he accompanies Door on her mission to find who murdered her family, all so he can return to the world he left behind. From the Rat-Speakers to a manor where tragedy occurred, to floating markets and finding the Blackfriars, and from an angelic home to a hellish cavernous maze (to name a few). Friends come and go, heroes are made and broken, and answers are found.

Go along for the journey as you fall through the cracks into a horridly fantastic dark world where you never know what is around the next shadowy corner...

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Love in the Afternoon, by Lisa Kleypas. A Review by Angie

My general reaction at the end of a Lisa Kleypas novel is usually a contented sigh of happiness, and this book was no exception.  The only difference in this case was I also needed a fan to cool myself with!  There is one brooding, sexy hero in this book!

Love in the Afternoon is the final book in the Hathaway series, and for me, the most anticipated.  It is the story of Beatrix, the lovable youngest sister whose fondness for injured creatures easily made her my favorite of all the Hathaway brood.  Young Beatrix is now twenty-three, and a beauty in her own right.  She is admired by the gentlemen, but never, ever courted because of her unconventional ways.  When her friend Prudence catches the eye of Captain Christopher Phelan, local golden boy, she reads the letter Pru has received from the gentleman.  Beatrix is adamant her callous friend answers the letter, especially in regards to the dog Captain Phelan is having behavior problems with.  The letter is also full of stories from Crimea and his battles, and how he is handling them.  It's very personal and heartfelt,  but Pru is not interested.  Beatrix is appalled and takes on the task herself.  What commences is a letter writing campaign where both Christopher and Beatrix, under the guise of Prudence, share their deepest feelings about life and war, while falling in love with each other thousands of miles apart.  Beatrix knows it is wrong to continue the correspondence, and ends it abruptly in an attempt to save herself from bitter disappointment.

Christopher is a society darling, handsome and witty, always a favorite with the ladies.  Beatrix does not think much of him, especially after his overheard comment about her and how she would be better off in the stables.  Her prejudice wanes however, when she reads his letters.  Christopher is a brave soldier, but is having problems dealing with the death that surrounds him.  He returns to Stoney Cross to find his brother has died, his mother resents him for being alive, his sister-in-law, Audrey, is not being truthful with him, and the woman he has fallen in love with through letters bears almost no resemblance to the woman he knows as Prudence.  The letters and her image helped him through his darkest hours, and he is disappointed to find her lacking in person.  His chance meeting with Beatrix and a few slips about the letters she should know nothing about make him question just who the lady was he fell in love with.  Christopher knows he should not even consider Beatrix because of her eccentric family, but finds himself unable to turn away.  Her boldness with him, and her lack of propriety, not to mention wearing breeches to train a horse, all should send him running in the other direction, but her sweetness and caring manner draw him in.  Despite his feelings, however, he still cannot trust himself around her, as he is tormented by images of the war that he cannot control.

I can't even begin to describe how wonderful this book is, and how much I enjoyed reading it.  This is by far my favorite of the Hathaway series.  The Hathaway's never disappoint, and with the addition of some minor characters in their world it makes for a delicious novel.  (Some of which I hope get a series of their own.)  The passion between Christopher and Beatrix is undeniable, and their love for each other is practically perfect.  Once again, Kleypas transports us to a place where dreams become reality and the most unlikely of matches finds love.  This is a must read for any fan of romance.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. A Review by Debra

I've resisted opening this book for months even though it called to me from my bookshelf. I could hear it saying, day in and day out, "Everyone is reading me! Come on then, open the cover. I'm really quite good."  I thought I'd pick it up when I had a break from reading my usual fare. After all, suspense is not my favorite genre, and industrial intrigue falls quite a distance behind even that. So with much hesitation, I read the first paragraph, and as usually happens to me when I open a book, I was hooked.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is, on the surface, the story of a journalist, Mikael Blomkqvist, the publisher of the magazine known as Millennium ( hence the term The Millennium Trilogy for Larsson's three book series of which this is the first). Mikael is set up by a corrupt industrialist to take a huge fall, and is tried and convicted of libel. This is the background to the entire story. It explains Blomkqvist's motivation for the rest of the novel  and once you get past this first 125 pages of back story explaining how Blomkqvist wound up with a conviction and a prison term,  you get to a family saga, years in the making. This is the part of the book I enjoyed the most.  The Vangers, an old Norrland industrial family, have enough egocentrics, twisted personalities and downright nasty individuals  to make this book interesting if it were just written about them.  But wait, there's more. When old Henrik Vanger convinces Mikael to take on the family chronicles and search for his niece who has been missing for over 30 years,  he promises in return, that he will hand Mikael enough information to bring his court nemesis to his knees. Mikael takes the bait. During a year long exile to the north of Sweden, and along with Lisbeth Salander (I could write paragraph upon paragraph about this character, but you'll have to read the book), a young and very talented private investigator, for want of a better description,  Mikael uncovers the family skeletons, with almost fatal results.

There are so many secondary characters worth mentioning,  and the book is so full of intrigue, relationship twist and turns, history and an abject lesson in sexual abuse, that if I wrote about it all, there would be no reason to pick it up. And you should pick it up. Mr. Larsson did not live to see the success of his trilogy, which is unfortunate, because I'm sure this book, along with the next two in the trilogy, were only his warm-up to a brilliant career.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Too Wicked to Kiss, by Erica Ridley. A Review by Angie

The allure of a Regency Gothic romance was too delicious to ignore, and so I gave in to Erica Ridley’s debut novel readily.  Full of danger, intrigue and sensuous private liaisons, Too Wicked to Kiss is quite wicked indeed.

After losing her mother, Evangeline flees from her abusive stepfather to the protection of Lady Stanton, a friend of her mother.  The Lady and her daughter Susan are planning a scheme to trap Gavin Lioncroft, known as ‘Lionkiller’, into marriage with Susan.  To assure her continued protection from her stepfather, Evangeline reluctantly agrees to assist in their plans.  The moment they arrive at Blackberry Manor Evangeline knows they are unwelcome by the fierce and intimidating manor of their host.  Despite his obvious desire to see them gone; Evangeline is drawn to him while being slightly frightened at the same time.

Gavin has never refuted the rumors that he killed his parents- it made for a much wanted solitary life.  Having been shunned by his family, his sister showing up on his doorstep with his nieces spikes his curiosity as well as his ire.  A house party is the last thing he wants, and he resents the intrusion on his privacy just for matching his eldest niece with an elderly rich gentleman who can’t stay awake during dinner.  To the others, Gavin is a dangerous killer who would just as soon murder them all as to dine with them, but a noticeable change happens when it becomes evident his sister is being abused by her husband.  The evidence is on her face, and while all believe Gavin struck his own sister in a rage, Rose, Lady Hetherington, sets them straight on the true culprit.  When that person is found dead the next morning, all eyes look to Gavin as the murderer.  Only Evangeline’s gift can prove his innocence, or so they believe.  However, her stepfather has other plans for her.

Gavin and Evangeline are a very passionate pair.  Gavin is the typical brooding, dark, Gothic hero- edgy and dangerous, but with a softer interior.  Evangeline is the quintessential heroine, getting herself into trouble while trying to prove Gavin’s innocence.  Betrayal abounds in this story of death, regret, murder and sizzling kisses between Gavin and Evangeline.  This review really doesn’t do the book justice, so you’ll have to read it for yourself to see just how wicked this gothic romance truly is.

A Kiss at Midnight, by Eloisa James. A Review by Donna

When my daughter was very small, I amassed quite a huge collection of VHS tapes that kept her glued to the television and thus entertained and out of my hair for hours. Some of her favorites included the Disney adaptations of classic fairy tales like Snow White, Peter Pan and of course, Cinderella. As a matter of fact, if I close my eyes now, I can still hear those mice singing as they industriously sewed a ball gown from scratch.

A Kiss at Midnight, Eloisa James' new regency romance, does not have singing mice. Or mice of any sort. But there is a castle and a godmother. And of course, a handsome prince.

Prince Gabriel Albrecht-Frederick William Von Aschenberg of Warl-Marburg-Baalsfeld, to be exact, who is devilishly adorable, as all princes should be. He is also an exile who, along with assorted relatives and an impressive menagerie of exotic animals, has been banished to a remote castle in England. Gabriel, as is expected of a prince, also has a strong sense of duty. In order to maintain his castle and competently support his people, he must marry for money. And soon. How fortunate that his older brother, the Duke, has arranged such a marriage, finding him a wealthy Russian princess to be his bride.

And of course, what would a Cinderella story be without a Cinderella? When Kate Daltry's father died, his new wife, the wicked stepmother, relegated Kate to attic rooms. Treated no better than a servant, Kate struggled for years to make sure her father's estate survived by working closely with his tenants and shielding them from her stepmother's harsh treatment. Now, she must save the vicar's widow from eviction. With little choice, Kate agrees to masquerade as her injured half sister Victoria and accompany eighteen year-old Algie, her future brother-in-law, to Pomeroy Castle. Algie must secure approval of his hasty marriage from Uncle Gabriel, the prince, before Victoria's indiscretion becomes obvious.

Gabriel, in the meantime, has resigned himself to marry the Russian princess sight unseen. That is until he meets "Victoria," his nephew's intended. Mesmerized by her looks, challenged by her bold mouth and intrigued by her reluctance to fall for his charm, Gabriel finds himself enamored with the wig-wearing beauty and it isn't long before he discovers her real identity. Kate, likewise, is irrevocably drawn to the enigmatic prince, but always remembers he is betrothed to another - a real princess with enough money to help Gabriel fulfill his duty to his family, tenants and castle.

The witty, honest dialogue between Kate and Gabriel drives this story and Ms. James' treatment of a progressively dismal situation is both sensitive and sensuous. I felt deeply for both of these characters, but more so for Kate who, with little control of the situation, refuses to fade away because of a badly broken heart. There is also a worthy cast of entertaining minor characters who lend support to both sides. Particularly worth a mention is Gabriel's half brother Wick, whose loyalty to Gabriel and honest assessment of the situation earned him a secure place in my heart (and hopefully in a sequel).

Of course, a romance by definition provides a happy ending. As do most fairy tales. A Kiss at Midnight is no exception, but we must wait for it. I assure you, though, when this story's happily ever after makes an appearance, it will leave you positively cheering. Forget about the singing mice and add this one to your must-read Regency romance list.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

A Vintage Affair, by Isabel Wolff. A Review by Angie

Every once in a while you find a book that really moves you, and in this case, this book moved me to tears.  A Vintage Affair is the story of Phoebe Swift, an ex-Sotheby’s employee who decides to open a vintage clothing shop called Village Vintage.  Fashion lovers will delight in this name dropping feast of designers and designs from the 1920’s and forward.  The clothes are a large part of the story, but not in the ways you would imagine.

After the death of her best friend, Emma, Phoebe keeps herself busy with her new shop while trying to ignore the guilt that’s eating away at her.  Phoebe is a complex character; one who is very mature and composed, but riddled with conflicting emotions inside.  The story starts off with the evening she met Guy, her ex-fiancé, who at the time was seeing Emma, her now deceased best friend.  Phoebe and Guy hit it off, and while she feels the guilt of falling for a guy Emma likes, Guy assures her he never pursued a romantic relationship with Emma.  Phoebe and Emma grow apart, mostly because of Emma’s inability to handle the relationship her friend has with Guy.  Phoebe, not wanting to ruin the romantic evening Guy had planned for them on Valentine’s Day, promises a very ill Emma she will come and check on her the next morning.  Emma is dead before Phoebe arrives, and she spends the next year blaming Guy for persuading her to put Emma off so they can enjoy their evening, or so she remembers.

As a vintage shop owner, Phoebe finds herself in the company of many interesting people wanting to sell their expensive designer clothing.  She also wonders about the clothes she buys, and what stories they could tell.  Phoebe makes the acquaintance of Mrs. Bell, an eighty year old French woman who is very ill and wanting to sell some of her elegant designer clothes.  Over time and a few visits, Phoebe and Mrs. Bell become confidants; Phoebe relating her guilt at Emma’s death, and Mrs. Bell telling her the story of her childhood in Avignon, France, and her friend Monique, who was taken by the German police to Auschwitz.  Mrs. Bell tells the heartbreaking story of Monique hiding from the Germans in an abandoned barn while she brought food to her as often as she could.  The two share guilt as Mrs. Bell relates her sorrow at not making it out to the barn with her blue coat for Monique before the police find her.  Phoebe has the overwhelming desire to find out what happened to Monique, despite Mrs. Bell's indication she has searched in the past.  A surprising clue finds Phoebe through her shop, and points her in the right direction to find the long lost friend of Mrs. Bell.

During all this Phoebe politely turns down the attentions of Dan, a friendly reporter for the local paper, while in a relationship with Miles, a much older retired solicitor.  The two meet at Christie’s while bidding on a vintage gown, Phoebe for her shop, and Miles for his spoiled daughter. The relationship with Miles is as frustrating as it is sweet, as Phoebe withstands the full force of a sixteen year old daughters’ hostility for her Dad’s much younger girlfriend.  Miles learns too late his darling daughter has serious entitlement issues, and Phoebe finally stands up to him about his blindness when her grandmother’s ring disappears. Dan then becomes a more interesting prospect, one that’s been there all along, she realizes.

I cannot even begin to explain how moved I was by this book.  The emotional rollercoaster Phoebe is subjected to is intense at times, but she handles it with much grace.  There is much, much more to the story than what I’ve written, as well as a large cast of secondary characters and other plot lines that add so much to the book.  In addition to relationship issues, Phoebe must deal with her parent’s separation and her father becoming a daddy again at age sixty-two.  The village is full of interesting characters that are only slightly delved into, but make excellent additions to the story.  Wolff’s writing is perfection; the blending of Phoebe and the other characters creates a truly well-written novel.  A story of love, betrayal, guilt and finally peace, A Vintage Affair is definitely one to pick up.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Wicked Intentions, by Elizabeth Hoyt. A Review by Angie

As a self-proclaimed gothic novel enthusiast, I immediately planned a trip to the bookstore when I learned of Wicked Intentions.  Set in 1737, a wee bit before my comfortable Regency England, Wicked Intentions is the story of Temperance Dews, a widow helping her brother run the Home for Unfortunate Infants and Foundling Children.  Located in St. Giles, where the poorest of the poor of London live, the book opens with Temperance and the maid Nell ushering home a few days old infant through the dark and dangerous streets.  St. Giles is bad enough during the day, at night however, only the desperate, murderous, or stupid venture out after the sun sets.  Throwing caution to the wind, Temperance sets out for the small infant, knowing by morning she will be gone.

In their rush through the dirty streets, they come across a man with long silver hair, standing over what looks to be a dead man.  Remembering Nell's story of the ghost of St. Giles, and his method of murder, they both hurry on to the relative safety of the home.  Seeing the infant to bed, and thinking she is alone for the night, she discovers a man sitting in her small parlour.  A man with long silver hair.

Lord Caire is a man with a purpose, and Temperance Dews is the person he requires to assist him.  Caire propositions Temperance to help him find the murderer of his mistress, while helping her find a patron for the broke home.  Feeling as if she is making a deal with the devil himself, she agrees against her better judgement.  Their search takes them into the darkest corners of St. Giles, where some things are best left unknown and unseen.

What follows is nothing short of gothic novel and romance greatness.  Caire and Temperance are drawn to each other, and while she tries to fight it, he embraces the attraction.  Temperance is hiding a dark secret that causes her extreme guilt, but the temptation of Lord Caire and his questionable bedroom antics lures her like no other.  The unassuming manner of Temperance, and her ability to see him as a man, and not a fortune, appeal to Caire, and he begins to care for her, an emotion long-lost to him.  As their investigation continues to dig deeper, the threat gets closer to them, and they only realize it just before it's too late.

Be warned in advance, this IS a gothic novel, and some parts are very dark, and delve into some questionable subject matter.  This is no light-hearted romp through the ton, but a picture of the poorer side of London.  Hoyt writes each scene with such vivid descriptions that you easily find yourself in St. Giles street, running from the ghost.  Definitely one to pick up if you enjoy the darker side of romance.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Tapestry of Love, by Rosy Thornton. A Review by Debra

There are very few times I can remember where I've actively prolonged reading a book by putting it down at intervals and resorting to other things, just to make it last. I couldn't help myself with The Tapestry of Love, a new book by author Rosy Thornton.  I sincerely tried to draw the experience out for as long as I could, but alas, all wonderful reads must come to an end.

The Tapestry of Love is Catherine Parkstone's story. An Englishwoman set to begin her life anew in the Cevannes region of France,  Catherine finds herself in the middle of her new town's autumn transhumance, the moving of sheep from their summer grazing ground back to their home farms and enclosures; the exact opposite direction in which she is figuratively traveling. Leaving England behind, along with her son, daughter, ex-husband and her mother who is afflicted with dementia, Catherine moves to Le Grelaudière, and her new home, Les Fenils, set back in a rocky outcrop with few of the conveniences she's left behind.

Usually, the lead protagonists in a novel are the main focus, but here, they share top billing with the house, the gardens, the weather, the woods, farms and animals and even the mountains themselves.  I could perfectly envision Catherine's new surroundings as if I had moved into Les Fenils as well,  working beside Catherine in her new garden or handing her the thread and needles as she tries to establish her new business.

The secondary characters in the guise of neighbors add a whole different dimension to the story. We get to know each family's back story as any new neighbor would; over time and over tea (and this being France, a little wine as well). Among these neighbors is Patrick Castagnol, with whom Catherine thinks she may have found a good friend and perhaps something more, until her sister Bryony comes to stay.  This is the only point in the novel where I had some trouble understanding Catherine. She closes her eyes to  the relationship between Bryony and Patrick, and she does not ask because she fears the answers. Why did she not fight for Patrick?  What is it about her relationship with her sister that causes her to back off? When Patrick makes clear to Bryony that there are things in his life that he will not share, she goes back to England, leaving the way clear for Catherine and Patrick to find each other again, or not.

The story is ultimately about one woman's growth in mid-life, a time when some women are settled, and all they are is all they will ever be. We read about Catherine's struggles with a new country, a different language, customs and regulations, including a light-hearted tutorial on French bureaucracy and the problem of dealing with the establishment of a non-agricultural business in a National Park and the effects on that park's population (which I found personally fascinating). The twice yearly transhumance is a metaphor for Catherine's new life, as is her decision to take on the restoration of a medieval tapestry. She takes on this challenge as she has almost every challenge since her move to France, and masters it as she does her new environment, creating something worthwhile where before there was nothing.  It's positively inspiring as Catherine overcomes political and practical obstacles to complete her own transhumance.

Beautifully written, Rosy Thornton again delivers a story rich in detail, not only in its character development, but in setting as well. I was caught up in Catherine's world, enough so that I too caught a whiff of jasmine on that hillside.

The Tapestry of Love is highly recommended.  It is exactly what my father meant when he told me years ago, that reading a good book transports you  to anywhere in the world. I did not want to come home.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Seven Secrets of Seduction, by Anne Mallory. A Review by Debra

I can honestly say that in all my reading of romance novels over the years, I have never been totally and truly seduced by a fictitious character until I picked up this novel. It's always fun to watch a rake reform, but in this case, the author puts forth a seduction so all-encompassing and emotional, that you spend the entire book envying Miranda Chase, "lowly" shopgirl and correspondent to not one, but two literary figures, who becomes the recipient of Maximillian, Lord Downing's attentions.

Miranda, like all of London, is enamored of a new book entitled "The Seven Secrets of Seduction," written by the author who calls himself Eleutherios. She strikes up a correspondence with the author himself, while at the same time, defends him to a Mr. Pitts, a critic who seems to have a reason to hate Eleutherios and his work. Miranda becomes the central focus of this triangle, writing to both men for a period of time, and receiving life advice from Mr. Pitts and reading material and romantic prose from Eleutherios. She then finds herself the recipient of Maximillian's singular interest.

Maxim seeks Miranda out in her uncle's bookshop and at first we are convinced that this is a random meeting. We are as stunned as Miranda when Maxim seeks her out for special attention, even engineering an excuse to have her work in his library. We watch Miranda fall prey to what we think is a practiced and random seduction. And we are terrified that she will succumb to this seemingly cynical and jaded rake. Miranda even recites a mantra when she is with him: Flame, Moth, Danger. She knows how much trouble she is in around Maxim, but she can't help it. His seduction is so perfect and so complete, that she has no choice in the matter.

When the author switches the story's point of view to Maxim's, things become almost painful for the reader, but not in the way you would expect. We see the spider caught in his own web, as helpless to escape his feelings as his prey. Maxim is more than what he seems. Much more to Miranda in fact, and once she pieces the parts of the puzzle together, she can't help but make a decision that will change the course of her life forever.

And damaged by his parents' relationship, Maxim swears he will never marry for love, but with Miranda, he finds that a loveless marriage combined with a mistress he loves results in an untenable situation.

Anne Mallory writes with a distinct descriptive flair. There are numerous instances where we are given a description of the tactile things these two do... a swipe of a hand down a silk dress, the motion of restless fingers over a desk or a quill.  All these things, plus a powerful and emotional story line, put this reader right in the story. I wanted to be Miranda. What woman (or man) wouldn't want to be the subject of such abject love and devotion?  And it works both ways.  Miranda says that Maxim is "just like a walking addiction." Maxim realizes that he cannot let Miranda be hurt, but he cannot let her go, and that he needs her more than she needs him. It's a painful revelation to a man obligated by duty and family history to reject the obvious course of action.

Seven Secrets of Seduction is just out in paperback. It brings back memories of how it feels to begin a new relationship, and to  fall in love.... that agonizing and exhilarating phase of life where feelings can't be taken for granted and nothing is ever easy, but the rewards are beyond wonderful. You'll experience it again as you read this book.