Sunday, August 28, 2011

In the Arms of a Marquess, by Katherine Ashe

With more intrigue and emotion than I have experienced in a book in a very long time, Katherine Ashe gives us the story of Benjirou Doreรจ, half-Indian son of a English nobleman, and Octavia Pierce, a wayward and outspoken English girl, who, at 16, is sent to live in India with her aunt and uncle.  Upon her arrival in Madras, Ben saves Tavy from an attempted kidnapping, and the seeds are sown for an infatuation that lasts seven years. In those seven years, Ben and Tavy never forget each other, and on one occasion, that of her 18th birthday, they come perilously close to fulfilling their dream of being together.

Of course, this story would be short indeed if things ended happily ever after at this point. But we know that's not quite how novels go. After they are discovered together by her aunt, Octavia is taken north and Ben is sent away. He  returns to England at the death of his uncle and years later, becomes the Marquess after the deaths of his father and two older half brothers. With money, land and resources at his disposal, he involves himself in a lifelong quest to stop a common practice in the English maritime trades. While Ben quietly makes a name for himself, Octavia remains in India, unable to forget the dark eyed boy she loves. Returning to England, she finds the enigmatic man Ben has become very different from what she remembers, but the spark is still there. And what a spark it is. There is one scene, that of their first kiss upon being reunited, that fairly makes the page sizzle. And the only thing that happens is a kiss. It could end right there, and I'd be a happy reader.  Luckily, though, Ms. Ashe continues her story. Octavia and Ben fight their way through lies, innuendo, fake betrothals, murderous slavers and false friends to find their way back to each other. This time for good, we hope.

Katherine Ashe's In the Arms of a Marquess is filled with wonderful secondary characters that add to the fun. It's written in intelligent prose that flows effortlessly from one page to the next. It reaffirms both the belief in love at first sight, and love conquers all, a  tall order for a romance novel.  I loved it from beginning to end, and so will you. On sale September 1, 2011.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

A Night to Surrender, by Tessa Dare

When I know a new book is the first in a series, I play a game. As I read, I try to figure out which characters will be the next to have their own story. In Tessa Dare's new novel, A Night to Surrender, it's anyone's guess as the story is full of colorful secondary characters who would each be worthy of their own spin-off. But first, there's Susanna Finch, the daughter of a military inventor, and Lt. Col. Victor Bramwell, career soldier. These two meet up in a most unusual way. Let's just say the sparks fly quite literally from the beginning of their acquaintance and from then on, Bram, as he's known, earns the nickname, "sheep bomber." No animals are harmed in the telling of this story, however. It's just a novel way to get the main characters together in a hurry, and it's one that will leave you laughing, as you do throughout their story.

Bram meets Susanna on his way to beg her father a favor. He needs to use Sir Lewis Finch's persuasive powers to get his command back after he suffers a leg injury. What Bram gets instead is a title, that of Lord Rycroft  and a castle which has seen better days, about 500 years ago. He also gets an assignment to gather a militia in the town of Spindle Cove (also known as Spinster Cove for reasons which become readily apparent). Once that happens, he is told his command will be restored. Susanna is threatened by the presence of Bram and his men in her quaint town. Spindle Cove is a repository for young women with social problems; these women are  there because their families have no other idea what to do with them.  These women are also Susanna's friends, and the presence of virile, young officers (and two Lords in particular) begin to pose all kinds of problems.

Underlying this is the attraction between Bram and Susanna. While there is tension between the two of them, they quickly learn to work together, and they become so in tune that each knows what the other needs before they themselves figure it out. Their relationship is quite different than what I'm used to in this genre, in a good way.  Filled with humorous touches  (an example of which is the scene where Bram tries to ask Susanna's father for permission to marry), A Night to Surrender is a fast-paced love story that leaves you wanting more. And more is definitely what we will get with the two books to follow. My only question is this: Will we be seeing Colin Sandhurst, Lord Payne, fall under the spell of a certain eye-glass wearing rock collector, or will we see the taciturn Thorne loosen up a bit with the only musically inclined young lady in Spindle Cove? Or will it be Dr. Daniels who meets his match? Such fun trying to guess! And the best part is that we will get to revisit with Susanna and Bram again.  This book goes on sale, August 30, 2011.

Midnight's Wild Passion, by Anna Campbell

Anna Campbell always throws a monkey wrench into my belief that historical romances should revolve around an unrepentent good-natured rake and a smart heroine who sees through him to the good hiding inside.  In Midnight's Wild Passion, our rake, Nicholas Challoner, Marquess of Ranelaw, doesn't have any good inside. In fact, his heart is so black, so twisted with revenge brought on by the ruination of his favorite sister at the hands of a family friend (and a very bizarre upbringing as a child) that our skin crawls with revulsion whenever he appears. Ranelaw has masterminded a plan to exact revenge for his sister. He will ruin the daughter of the man who ruined her. What he doesn't count on is Antonia Smith, chaperone extraordinaire. She's wise to his rakish ways, if not the reason for them, because she's a ruined woman herself. Ten years ago, as Lady Antonia Hilliard, she followed her heart and was  betrayed first by the man she loved and then by her family. Her relative, Godfrey Demerest, takes her in, and the circle is complete because he is the man to whom Ranelaw has sworn revenge.

When Nicholas sets his sites on Godfrey's daughter, Cassie, Antonia intervenes, only to fall under his spell herself. To Nicholas, however, what he feels for Antonia runs deeper than anything he's ever felt in his life.  His moral awakening is an integral part of the novel. His slow realization that he may be a better man than he thinks he is leads us to believe that we will get the rake to reform. But prior circumstances do not permit Antonia to believe in him. Her rejection sends him into a tailspin of epic proportions, and we watch his disintegration with a sinking heart. As he spirals downward, Antonia mourns the man she thought he could be. It's painful to read, but it will hopefully make the redemption, if it comes, that much sweeter.

Midnight's Wild Passion is a wild ride, indeed. Anna Campbell wrings every emotion out of her characters and her readers will feel the same.  Her gifted writing is sensual, emotional, and simply draws us into the characters' lives.  I was left drained and then exhilarated by the time the last page was turned. It's rare that a romance novel has this effect, but it's something I could definitely get used to.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Fever Cure, by Phillipa Ashley

I waited for this book. Patiently. And, coming to expect nothing less than brilliant from Phillipa Ashley, I was not disappointed. Fever Cure is just what the doctor ordered.

A wedding where the champagne flows freely, the music is dreamy and love is thick in the air. What better place to stage the first meeting of a hero and heroine? But when the future lovers find themselves trading smart, snarky dialogue over a tiny scrap of underwear, well, that’s a whole different category of original.

The Honourable Dr. Thomas Edmund Jasper Carew, besides being the best man, is home in England after two years volunteering in Papua, New Guinea. Tall, dark and divertingly handsome, Dr. Tom charms everyone he meets. This includes young children interested in his travels to young women interested in something else entirely. But the charismatic doctor is haunted by a tragedy for which he feels responsible and not even a growing attraction to the bride’s irresistible knockout of a friend will make his demons go away.  

Suburban grade school teacher Keira Grayson is fresh from a failed relationship. But that doesn’t make her immune to the charms of hunky Dr. Carew. There’s a definite attraction, but Keira can’t help wonder if it’s all one-sided. Especially since she discovers that the dashing doctor is heading back to New Guinea – very, very soon. Keira is definitely not into that. In her estimation, it’s better to take a pass than get involved in a relationship doomed from the start.

Ms. Ashley weaves a fine tale of start and stop, hook and cut bait, turn on and turn off.  The mercurial nature of our fair doctor has us all wondering just how deep his wounds really are, while Keira suffers the folly of eyes-wide-open falling for a man who isn’t going to stick around, no matter how much he may want to.  The very contrariness of Tom and Keira’s situation keeps the reader hanging on, waiting to see how it all turns out. 

Trust me - you’ll definitely feel the heat.  Fever Cure is a clever, well written remedy for whatever ails you.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

As a Northerner, I have to admit that I was resisting reading this book for the longest time. When I'm not reading romance novels and reviewing them here, I find my time divided by biographies and non-fiction subjects I can relate to. I didn't think I'd relate to this story of black, female house maids in the early years of the Civil Rights Movement (starting in 1962) and the white woman who brought them all together for a cause. I couldn't have been more wrong.

The Help, debut novel by Kathryn Stockett, is set in Jackson, Mississippi and is primarily the story of two maids, Aibileen and Minny, and a young, just out of college female journalist-to-be, Eugenia (nicknamed Skeeter), who sets out to write about the relationships between the "help" and the white Junior League women that employ them. Inherent in the narrative of this story are all the prejudices these women carry, as well as all the love and affection some of these women  and their children hold for their household servants (and that which the servants hold for some of them, in return). The symbiotic nature of the relationships is revealed by the author as well and to this Yankee I have to admit, it was a bit hard to comprehend. A friend, who grew up in the South in this time period, lived the story of some of these women and was able to explain to me the exalted position these servants held in their employers' households. They were honored guests at children's weddings, tended generations of the same families, and were considered beloved members of those families. That actually helped me to understand and appreciate this book more than I would have otherwise.

Underlying the entire plot line was the need for secrecy for both the maids and Skeeter. The author does an excellent job transmitting the fear of the housemaids as they tried to keep their endeavor secret. In today's world, it's doubtful what they were doing would raise an eyebrow. In fact, tell-all books thrive and our society, while far from perfect, is more colorblind now than it could ever have been then.  But in the early '60's, they were truly putting their livelihoods and indeed their lives, on the line to tell their stories. Relaying this point is Ms. Stockett's strength.  As a caveat, the housemaids' dialogue is regional dialect, and it takes a few paragraphs to understand it. Once you are into the story, however, you don't even notice.

The Help is filled with colorful period characters who are perfect in their depiction of those hard and strange times. Skeeter's own story adds credence to the risk all of these women were taking. While I enjoyed the book immensely, I was disappointed in the ending. It felt too abrupt, and while I would have liked it to go on a bit more and answer some unanswered questions I have about Aibileen, Skeeter and Minny's next steps in their lives,  the ending leaves some room for the imagination. I'd like to think that for all three women, happily ever after comes easy.  They deserve it.