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.