Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Trouble at the Wedding: Abandoned at the Altar by Laura Lee Guhrke

At the turn of the last century, it seemed American heiresses with money to burn and British peers with a burning need for that money, married. Ms. Annabel Wheaton, a Southern heiress whose fortune originated in her daddy's gold strikes, finds herself in this situation. But to her, marriage to a peer is a way to finally be accepted after a hardscrabble upbringing in the backwaters of Mississippi. As the novel opens, she is set to marry Bernard Alastair, the fourth Earl of Rumsford. But as fate (and historical romances) would have it, a monkey wrench in the form of Christian Du Quesne (pronounced DuCane, thank you very much), the Duke of Scarborough, appears. The ensuing love story is typical of Laura Lee Guhrke's writing. That is to say, it's full of romance, reforming rakes and hot nights in interesting locations. Trouble at the Wedding, another offering in the Abandoned at the Altar series, does not disappoint.

Christian, dead set against remarrying and a confirmed rake to boot, is asked by Annabel's Uncle Arthur to put a stop to her shipboard wedding to the Earl. Christian complies as a way to earn a good deal of money and assuage his guilty conscience over the death of his own American heiress wife 15 years before. The doubts Christian plants in Annabel's mind regarding life as a member of the British ton are  far-fetched, but they begin to take hold. Annabel starts to have serious doubts about her impending marriage. After a scene innocently reminiscent of that famous cargo hold scene in Titanic, The Movie, Christian stands up at Annabel's wedding and declares (loudly) that he knows why these two cannot be joined together. When the entire wedding guest list assumes Christian has compromised the bride before her wedding to another man, Annabel hatches a plot to save her reputation and to avoid marrying a very reluctant Christian. She appoints him to be one of her guardians and a trustee of her fortune, thereby explaining his performance at the wedding in an entirely different way.  The plot then moves to London, where the two of them become closer than any guardian and ward should be.

Trouble at the Wedding is a fun romp through Edwardian England seen through a Southern belle's eyes. The requisite rake is reformed and redeemed through an unexpected love, and a girl looking for acceptance finally finds it in the arms of a man who she never expected could love her back. All in all, like all of Laura Lee Guhrke's novels, it's a wonderful ending to an utterly endearing story. Due out on January 1, 2012.

How The Marquess Was Won, by Julie Anne Long

It makes sense that as a huge fan of historical romances, there are a few novelists I gravitate to naturally. But there are only two authors in that genre who I’m willing to bet will never disappoint.  One is Grace Burrowes and the other is Julie Anne Long. Ms. Long’s newest novel, How the Marquess Was Won: Pennyroyal Green Series, proves my point yet again. Her voice is unique, sophisticated and polished - consistently so. So when opportunity knocked, I answered with alacrity and found an advanced reader’s copy of Marquess in my hands.  Sometimes, things just cannot get any better.

Ms. Long starts the story almost at the end – an intriguing way to begin. We find Julian Spenser, Marquess Dryden, bleeding from a gunshot wound and professing a most uncharacteristic and unfortunately for him, unrequited love as Colin and Chase Eversea (of the infamous Eversea family, subjects of the author’s other Pennyroyal books) tend to his wound.  This scene does exactly what it is intended to do – we are now insatiably curious and want to know with whom Lord Ice (as this particular haughty member of the aristocracy is also known) has fallen in love and why he sounds as if his world has ended (bullet hole in his shoulder notwithstanding).  Chapter Two takes us to a time six weeks earlier, before he's even aware of the woman responsible for his current heartache.

But Phoebe Vale is certainly aware of him. Marquess Dryden is a frequent topic of the London broadsheets Phoebe devours when she isn’t teaching Latin, Greek and French history to potentially problematic young ladies in Miss Marietta Endicott’s Academy. Through the spectacular stories in the broadsheets, Phoebe knows Lord Ice is the current trendsetter – the man everyone emulates – a cool, calculating customer and a very wealthy member of the aristocracy. And it seems he is now in the market for a wife.  His life, and the comings and goings of others like him, fascinate Phoebe, but she understands her place in the world. Once a charity student at the academy, Phoebe is in an entirely different social sphere. She is also alone, but for Miss Endicott and her students, and has recently made a life changing decision that will take her far from Pennyroyal Green. 

But before Phoebe can pack her bags, a series of events throws her in the path of Lord Ice. This string of circumstance provides the framework for an enticing tug of war between a reluctant Phoebe and an extremely determined Julian.  Eventually, we are led to an astonishingly satisfying ending (the continuation of the first chapter). But I will leave the delicious particulars of this journey for you to discover for yourself.  As in What I Did for a Duke (reviewed February 22, 2011), Ms. Long infuses this solid story with crisp narrative, lovely dialog, subtle humor and plenty of heart. Her track record with me remains unbroken. How the Marquess Was Won is a clear winner.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Lily, by Patricia Gaffney

To say that I'm still shaking from this novel would be not be an understatement. In the best combination of dark, gothic story telling and heart lifting historical romance, Patricia Gaffney takes her characters (and readers) on a veritable roller coaster of emotions, from the deepest reaches of human despair to the totally euphoric feeling one gets when an outcome is exactly as one's heart would hope.

Lily Traherne, gently bred daughter of an inventor and sometimes drunk, finds herself with a new guardian after her father's death, one who sniffs out her inheritance and hatches a plot to gain control of it. When things go awry and Lily must flee Lyme Regis and run for her life, she finds herself in the far corner of Cornwall, at Darkstone Manor, ancestral home of Devon Darkwell, Viscount Sandown. Cynical and depressed, Darkwell suffers from a deep disappointment in his life, and when he meets Lily, who is posing as a servant in his household, he's after only one thing. When that one thing turns into an obsession for them both, the trouble begins. Just when we think things are beginning to go the way of all historical romance novels, Ms. Gaffney snatches defeat from the jaws of victory and plunges the characters back into situations that are untenable, and to some readers, including this one, even uncomfortable. We wonder at every turn how this story can ever, in any sense of the word, turn out happily. And we are left wondering right up until the very last. Like Lily, the reader is more than ready for something good to happen, for both Devon and Lily to come to their senses and face the inevitable. We are left waiting for a good, long time.

With engaging secondary characters, like Devon's brother Clay, and Lowdy and Galen, fellow servants at Darkstone, Ms. Gaffney succeeds in lightening the mood, at times. For the most part, the novel stays dark and like a storm blowing in off the ocean (and there are many in this book) wild and uncertain. I loved it. Uncertainty and historical romance make great bedfellows. I wish more authors in this genre would try it. Available from Open Road Publishers.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Blank Slate Kate by Heather Wardell

I finished reading Blank Slate Kate by Heather Wardell almost a week ago. Usually, when I offer my opinion of a book to our loyal following, I do it within minutes of turning the last page. This one, however, needed to marinate in my head; a long soak amid the gray matter before I felt I could articulate with any clarity how much I loved Ms. Wardell’s latest. I still don’t know if I can do that task justice, but I think I’m ready to try.

Imagine waking up naked in a stranger’s bed with no recollection of how you got there. And add to that the undeniable fact that you are in a thirty-two year old body with the thoughts of a seventeen year old and no memory of who you are, where you live and what you’ve been doing for the past fifteen years. This is exactly what happens to Kate Anderson as she abruptly discovers that the years between 1996 and 2011 are nothing more than a blank slate.  Terror, depression and acute frustration vie for top emotional billing as Kate (with help of Jake - the bighearted, gorgeous stranger) tries to find out who she really is.

This is not a flighty contemporary romance. Some heavy topics are tackled, including severe depression, teenage pregnancy, adultery and date rape. The sum of these rather grim parts could have easily swept me into a deep, black hole, but much to Ms. Wardell’s credit, they did not. Just the opposite, I think, as I found myself carefully examining my own life experiences during that same period of time and while I would clearly like to forget a few of them, unlike Kate, I have little to regret.  

For me, the greatest strength of the story is the inherent unpredictability of the plot. For two-thirds of the book, I leaned heavily in one direction and then the fragility of Kate’s new discoveries pulled me down an entirely different path. I loved that I needed to be coaxed and persuaded, just like Kate, to discover, embrace and savor what seemed familiar, yet was still completely unknown. And, as is usual for Ms. Wardell, the secondary characters are well written, playing their supporting roles perfectly. One character in particular (and I can't mention the name without spoiling Kate's journey for you) is ripe for a book of his own. I'm still a little in love with him, so I'm keeping my fingers crossed.  

Much in the same vein as Goodnight Tweetheart by Teresa Medeiros, Blank Slate Kate is an unexpectedly uplifting, surprisingly unconventional and deeply touching story.  It’s definitely worth the emotional investment. A must read. 

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson

I was returning from a vacation in London and happened to have some time to kill in the departure lounge at Heathrow.  Steve Jobs had passed away just two weeks prior and this new biography by Walter Isaacson had just been published. I couldn't resist the half-price sticker on this huge 571 page book so I bought it, not stopping to figure that with the conversion it cost more in London than it would have at  home, even at half price. Not only that, but I now had to carry this huge thing onto the plane and through immigration and customs when I could have just as easily bought the e-book. No matter. It was worth every pound/dollar and  inconvenience it caused. This book is a must read, and once I started it, I could not put it down.

Walter Isaacson paints a brutally honest picture of the late Mr. Jobs. No holds are barred and no stone is left unturned in the journey through a life that started with birth parents giving their son up for adoption, then later marrying each other and having another child. The author goes on to paint a picture of a  childhood filled with curiosity, spunk and inquisitiveness. There's one particular story of a young Steve, perhaps in the 8th or 9th grade, who was working on a science project for school. When faced with the need for a certain part for what he was building, he wrote Mr. Hewlett, of Hewlett-Packard, directly and requested it. Not only was the part sent, but it garnered him a summer job at a local HP plant, a harbinger for things to come.  Mr. Isaacson relates the birth of Apple Computers in Jobs' parents' garage and describes not only the timeline of his subject's life, but the relationships between Mr. Jobs and his contemporaries that developed along the way. I was endlessly fascinated with the stories of Jobs' relationship with Bill Gates, for example. There are hundreds of such stories scattered throughout the book. Mr. Jobs was not known for his diplomacy as a boss or even as a human being and Mr. Isaacson does an excellent job of putting the reader in the place of the hapless employees or acquaintances (and there were many) who somehow managed to incur Steve Jobs' wrath and ridicule. All the better for understanding that while Steve Jobs was an innovative genius who guided Apple and Pixar to unbelievable success, he happened to have a problem dealing with those who did not live up to his standards, or those whom he thought betrayed him in some way. He was also emotional, crying when things didn't quite go his way, and was known to hold a grudge when the situation warranted it. And sometimes when it didn't.

Mr. Isaacson describes Jobs' eight year fight against pancreatic cancer in candid detail, and his audience feels his family's horror as Steve decides to forgo what his doctors felt may have been successful treatment by surgery for experiments with herbs and diet for 9 months before finally assenting to the procedure. By then, the cancer had spread, and the rest is now, thanks to the author, well-documented history.

Isaacson had Jobs' full cooperation in the writing of this book, and it shows. Nothing is white-washed, and it comes across as an honest and thoroughly open account of this amazing man. For the first 200 pages, this reader couldn't stop wondering at how Jobs' got away with some of the things he did. For want of a better word, the man was truly an ass. But then, something happens and by the 300th page and beyond, I couldn't help smiling in places at his antics, because, say what  you will about Apple and Steve Jobs, the man knew his business. He knew how to get the best out of his employees and knew exactly what his consumers wanted before they knew themselves. And that is the mark of a true business genius. It's no wonder that with every public appearance that revealed him as a sick man, Apple stock would fall. When you read this book, whether you own any Apple products or not, you realize just how much of Steve Jobs went into everything and anything that company has produced. The next time you're in an Apple Store, look down at the floor. If it's blue tile, Steve Jobs picked it out. His hand was in everything, and undoubtedly, he will be sorely missed. Just how much is made clear in this wonderful, fast-paced biography. I highly recommend it.