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.