Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Frog Prince, by Elle Lothlorien

My favorite type of escapist reading is a long, contemporary novel,  well-written and filled with laughable moments. Imagine my surprise when a free Kindle offering turned out to be just that. Elle Lothlorien has written a gem of a story, with bits and pieces taken from fairy tales and woven into a totally unbelievable but quite enchanting premise.

Leigh Fromm is an intelligent, well educated young woman who happens to work as a sex researcher. Her job thankfully, is really not the main focus of the story, but does allow for some humorous moments.  Ms. Lothlorien leaves that focus to the male protagonist, Roman Lorraine, also known as the "almost" King of Austria. Roman was born and raised in the United States, as part of the exiled royal family of Austria. Never thinking that his title would mean anything beyond some privileges in some higher circles, he makes a life for himself by building treehouses (and donating the profits to charity) and ballroom dancing.

He meets Leigh at her Great Aunt's funeral in Denver, Colorado, and they start on a lovely courtship. Leigh is a beautiful woman, but she constantly reminds us that she feels socially awkward, with a propensity for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. The first person narrative endears us to her, as she constantly wonders what Roman, tall, blue-eyed, rich and gorgeous, sees in her. She is by turns hysterically funny and unusually wise. Leigh's character, as written, is really what makes this book hum.

Halfway through their slow and steady courtship, the impossible happens. Leigh is thrust into the role of every girl's wildest dream, and Roman becomes the one thing he never thought he would be.  Their lives are turned upside down, and outside forces work to keep them apart.  Leigh and Roman try to find a way to live their own personal fairytale, with heart-melting results.

I admit, I am a sucker for a good love story, and this is one good love story. While totally implausible (or is it, really?) the author lets us imagine what it would be like to be live the life that very few people actually get to live. With more than a few laugh out loud moments, she makes it quite entertaining too. I highly recommend!

Friday, December 28, 2012

Deep Blue Sea, by Angela Francis

What a wonderful way to get back into the swing of reviewing with an amazing Regency romance!  Between new jobs, graduate school, and a toddler, my time to read what I want has been limited.  I hope to remedy this in the new year!

Now, enough of that.  Let's talk about Captain Thorne!  Deep Blue Sea is the story of Ian Thorne, captain of the Milton, a privateer guarding the seas, and Elinor Grey, a Regency miss who traveled to France with her parents to free her brother from a French prison.  Captain Thorne is instantly mesmerized by the lovely Miss Grey, but is turned off by her pert opinions and almost judgmental attitude towards privateering (pirating, in her eyes).  Their journey from France to Portsmouth is riddled with disagreements, and Captain Thorne's displeasure at Miss Grey making friends with members of his crew.  Once in Portsmouth, they Grey's are delayed by the illness of Mrs. Grey, which is heartbreaking in its finality.  Elinor, as strong as she is, has a difficult time hiding her emotions and working through her feelings for the brooding sea captain that infuriates and enchants her at the same time.  A series of grievous incidents, deaths, and a dash across the channel to free her brother lead to many, many misunderstandings, kidnapping by a real pirate, marriage ceremony on said pirate ship, and accusations of slave trading.

Captain Thorne is a very complex hero, one who is almost annoyingly self-depreciating (you will find yourself pulling your hair out over the dear Captain), handsome, devastatingly sexy, and kind at the same time.  Ian has lived a hard life of watching his father lose everything they own, and works tirelessly to restore his family's prestige.  His work with Mr. Hurst and the Milton is the path back to giving his mother and sister they life they deserve.  Ian is frustrating in his inability to actually hold a conversation with Elinor without it turning into a disagreement over something.  Elinor is not entirely without fault either.  She is a heroine who is strong, but exhibits immaturity at times when she disagrees with something that is obviously for her own safety.  Elinor is a wonderful character in that we watch her grow from a young lady who thinks she knows how the world should be, into a woman who is intelligent and strong, and uses her wealth to free Ian and his men.

Sometimes secondary characters are boring, annoying, or just plain in the way, but not in Deep Blue Sea.  The Grey's and Agnes, the maid. are very much a part of the story, as is Arthur, Elinor's brother and reason for the trip to France.  The crew of the Milton, the servants of the Hurst house, and the Thorne family all make up a wonderful cast of characters that adds much depth to the already amazing plot.  The best secondary character, however, is Doctor James Douglas.  I have it on good authority that his very own novel is underway, but until then, allow me to say that the devilishly handsome doctor has his own demons to fight.  His gentle care of Mrs Gray, his friendship to Ian, and his issues with dealing with the death aboard the Milton make him such a complex character that you want to know more of.

Deep Blue Sea is a wonderfully refreshing take on the typical Regency romance novel.  There are adult themes and darkness, and at times painful historical accuracy regarding the slave trade, but they are delightfully balanced with the heroic Captain Thorne, the willful and beautiful Miss Grey, and the dashing doctor.  A definite read for any Regency romance lover!

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Miranda's Mount, by Phillipa Ashley

On the coast of Cornwall, St. Merryn's Mount stands as a family sentinel and a metaphor. When the tide is out, the home of the ancient St. Merryn family is connected to both the mainland and the people who live there. But when the
tide is in, the Mount stands apart, isolated and surrounded by currents and eddies that flow with the Atlantic Ocean's rhythms. Thus is the metaphor for Miranda's Mount, the story of Miranda Marshall, property manager of this heritage spot, and Jago St. Merryn, present Lord of the manor.  These two damaged souls are both, like the Mount, connected to this piece of land and each other, yet isolated by past circumstances neither one of them could control. 

When Miranda first meets Jago, he is in the armory, holding an ancient cutlass and looking for all the world like a pirate from a story book. According to Miranda, he looked like someone who had "seen and done and probably smoked or inhaled a lot of stuff." He also looks like "how D'Artagnan might have looked if Levis had been invented." Jago is the Earl of St. Merryn, returned home after ten years abroad. And while the staff is hoping he has decided to take on the responsibility of his heritage, Miranda soon finds out the truth. He is selling St.Merryn's Mount to a large leisure company, and getting out. His reasons at this point are unclear.  What is clear to Miranda is that at the very least, Jago is the enemy. At the most, she is already falling for him. And with her own damaged family background and what she knows about Jago's plans for the Mount, she must confront her past and her future and try to determine if the sale presents an opportunity for her to finally let go of her own safety net and move on with her life; a dilemma that becomes more complicated as despite his plans, she and Jago become closer. 

Miranda's Mount is so much more than a simple romantic, contemporary love story.

Ms. Ashley delves into both Jago and Miranda's pasts with obvious relish. There are reasons why these two cannot be together, why Jago feels it necessary to sell the Mount, and why Miranda is so afraid to move on.  With this heavy psychological load, you would think this novel would veer toward the dark and depressing. Nothing is further than the truth. There is humor and wit threaded throughout, a technique that allows for laughter despite the somewhat dark obstacles these two face.  There is one scene in particular that involves a rowboat, an incoming tide, some rocks, alcohol, and a very sexy Earl that will leave the reader laughing out loud. It's a talent that Ms. Ashley has that lightens up the mood of her novels and makes her characters so real to her readers. Speaking of all her characters, there are some wonderful secondary characters in this novel as well. There's Theo, a "pillar of the community and a serial hero," a man who has a definite problem with the St. Merryn family, and is a rival for Miranda's affections. There's  Ronnie, head of security at the Mount, Karen the local bartender and various other additions to this colorful cast of Cornish characters.

There's even a scene that Richard Armitage fans may relate to involving a baby
stroller and a body of water that most likely ended a bit less dramatically for
Richard than it did for the little boy living it in this story. But even this scene serves a purpose. Ms.Ashley is very adept at using every opportunity to get her story across

When Jago's feelings for Miranda get too strong, he confesses to her why he is
selling and why he will only break her heart. But as doubts on his chosen course beset him, Miranda reveals her family history, and she herself realizes why Jago's decision is so important to him and she stops fighting it. It's beginning to look a bit like a Gift of the Magi moment for these two with one exception. In the end, they both get what they really want without giving up what they already have.

I've read every one of Phillipa Ashley's novels and I have to say, this one is my favorite. Everything about it is pitch perfect and from beginning to end, the characters, the setting and the story itself ring true. Written with wit, feeling, intelligence and a good deal of the "hot" factor, Miranda's Mount is a must-read.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Unseen, by Katherine Webb

Downton Abbey has revived interest in the early 20th century, that time before the fabric of life in England was ripped apart by two world wars.  I usually don't read novels set in this time period, though I'm not sure why, but I'm glad I picked up Katherine Webb's latest endeavor.

The Unseen is the story of more than one main character, and more than one time period. Set a century apart, the two stories converge with one dead World War I soldier, found well preserved in the muck of Ypres.  Leah, a journalist, is called upon by her ex-boyfriend, Ryan, who works to identify war dead, to uncover the identity of this soldier, so next of kin can finally notified and the body returned home. What Leah finds 100 years after the fact is enough for her to get over her humiliation at the hands of her former boyfriend, write a book and find a new love of her own in Mark Canning, great-grandson of one of the main protaganists of the story.

If this sounds complicated, it's really not. What it really is, is a mystery.

Cat Morley is imprisoned in 1911, for the crime of being an "active duty suffragette." Caught with a rock intended for a milliner's window during a protest, she is sentenced to prison. Upon her release, she is sent to Cold Ash Holt, and the Rectory, to work as a housemaid and regain her strength. She meets Albert Canning, her new employer and the vicar of the parish, and his wife Hester.   Life is hard here, but good. She meets a man she falls in love with, and she also meets Robin Durrant, a self-proclaimed theosophist, who arrives when Albert claims he's seen fairies in the nearby water meadows.

The undercurrents in the household are strong. Things are not what they seem between the newly married vicar and his wife, and Robin throws the household into turmoil with his arrival and his hold over the vicar. When pictures are taken of a "elemental," or a fairy, in other words, things come to a dramatic conclusion for the Rectory's occupants.

Using two time periods works very well here. Leah meets a descendent of the Cannings, and together in 2011, they work toward solving the mystery of what happened in 1911. Once done, the identity of that soldier becomes clear, and the story ends happily for Leah. In that, we are reminded that 100 years before, the same cannot be said for the inhabitants of the Rectory.

The novel is extremely well-written, the characters fleshed out just enough for you to guess the truth about them, and there are many truths to ferret out. I love a novel that makes you think for yourself, and this is one of them. I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Overseas, by Beatriz Williams

Until I started reading Diana Gabaldon and Susanna Kearsley, time travel, as a plot device, never really did it for me. But now that I'm open to the concept, I'm finding that there are authors who use it and use it well. After reading Overseas, I think I've found one more author to add to that list.

Kate Wilson, neophyte investment banker, meets Julian Laurence, a billionaire hedge fund owner, when he visits her bank. As Kate passes Julian on her way out of a meeting, he instantly feels the connection between them. Kate takes a little longer to come around, but once with Julian, she realizes that "something" is there, and that something grows into a love so powerful and all encompassing, neither one of them can deny that there is more to it than meets the eye. There's also something old world about Julian, besides his Britishness, that attracts Kate. Confused at first by Julian's tendency to pull back from her, Kate is determined to find out his secrets. Aided by a simple history book, Kate discovers that Julian is more than what he seems, and while completely far-fetched, his story seems to this reader,  completely logical. And this is where the novel really takes off.

When I first started to read, I had the feeling that this story actually started out as Twilight fanfic, in the Fifty Shades vein. Julian Laurence is the same alpha-male type as Christian Grey and Edward Cullen. For all I know, it may very well be true. However, once I really got into it, that comparison faded away, and as engrossed in the story and plot device as I was, unlike with Fifty Shades, I didn't give those similarities another thought. By the way, while I am on the subject, make no mistake, this is not erotica. Love scenes are hinted at but we are spared the details which only adds to the romanticism of the novel. Sometimes less is indeed more.

Ms. Williams alternates eras to tell her story. In two different time periods and locales, (France in 1916 during WW I and then Manhattan during the financial crisis of 2008) it is first Kate who leads Julian, and then it is Julian who leads Kate. As the story progresses, this circle starts to close until the reader doesn't quite know where things begin and where they end. I found myself trying to guess exactly where in that circle the lovers' story would resolve; a page turning exercise if there ever was one.

Ms. Williams literally imbues Julian with a poet's heart that is just too lovely to resist. Kate is the more cynical being, and after awhile she actually started to annoy me.  I wanted her to let Julian take care of her, to take what he was offering without the constant questioning and battling. I was in love with Julian myself early on, so I couldn't quite see her problem. The author makes us feel his magnetism and romantic nature, and in the present-day chapters in the last half of the novel,  we begin to suspect what Kate cannot yet see. I can tell you that when the pieces of the story started to fit together for me, the book was impossible to put down. 

With a dose of suspense and betrayal thrown in for good measure, Beatriz William's debut novel combines the simple moral code of a time gone by with the complexity of modern day issues, all set against a beautiful love story. I highly, highly recommend it. 

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Ninepins, by Rosy Thornton

There are very few authors I've read that can write a compelling, reality-based account of life as well as Rosy Thornton. I'm happy to say that Ninepins, her newest effort, not only met my expectations produced by her previous works, but far, far exceeded them.

Ninepins is the name of Laura Blackwood's former toll-house home in the fens surrounding Cambridge. While named after a place which is beautifully described by Ms. Thornton, the book's emphasis is on the human element tied to the house and its surroundings. Laura is a university researcher, divorced from Simon, and mother to 12 year old Beth. Beth also suffers from periodic bouts of asthma. Near to Ninepins is a pumphouse that has been re-done over the years, and Laura has sublet it out (for extra income) to students in the past. When a man and a young girl come to look at the pumphouse, Laura assumes they are father and daughter. The truth is different however, and Willow, a seventeen year old just coming out of foster care, becomes Laura's new tenant.

There are so many threads and themes running through what seems at first to be a simple, mother-daughter story. There is the tension in Laura's relationship with her daughter, who is pulling against her traces and trying to stretch her independence to sometimes untenable positions. There is Laura's unwillingness to let her daughter spread her wings just a little, and in so doing, adds to Beth's tendency to revolt. There's the burgeoning relationship between Beth and Willow, as well as Beth's relationship to her friends at her new school (what we would call middle school here in the States).  There's the dichotomy between Laura and Beth's relationship and that of Willow's to Marianne, her own mother, which sometimes leads Willow to look at Beth as a spoiled princess of a child who doesn't quite know how lucky she is. There is Laura's relationship with Willow, one that is forced upon both of them when Willow must move into the main house. On top of all this, we have Vince, Willow's social worker. What do we think of him? Was he fair to Laura in bringing Willow into her home, knowing her history? How does Laura reconcile this at the end after everything that has happened? And ultimately, what really is the definition of "family?"

Ms. Thornton has written a gem of a story. On its surface,  Ninepins is as calm as the water surrounding the actual house, but like the fens and the water running in the lode, it doesn't take much to stir up the bottom and turn the story into a floodwater of emotion, passion and substance. Ninepins is a must-read for any contemporary fiction fan. It is every day life but better; richer somehow owing to the author's wonderfully descriptive writing skills. These are life sized characters with life sized stories that somehow become larger than life. They will stay with you long past the turning of the last page. Rosy Thornton makes them entirely believable and truly unforgettable.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen

Even though I've never seen the movie, I had a hard time not picturing Robert Pattinson as Jacob Jankowski, Water for Elephants' male protagonist. Despite this, or because of it, I'm not quite sure which, I loved Sara Gruen's best-seller. Finally, months after the film was released, I got around to picking it up. And it was worth the wait.

The story opens in three different time periods almost simultaneously. The added benefit to this plot device is that I didn't have to sneak a peak at the last page to figure out how the book ends, a nasty little habit of mine. The author tells you right  up front and while some may find this ruins the book for them, it really does not detracts from the overall impact of the novel. So when you get to this point, keep reading!

The story follows Jacob, a 23 year old Cornell veterinary student through two consecutive tragedies that force a decision to leave Cornell before he can finish his final exams, and then to leave home altogether. Jacob finds himself attached to a "train" circus, and  he meets the performers, managers and workmen of this particular circus. He becomes interested in Marlena, the wife of August, the Equestrian and Menagerie Manager, a mecurial man who is, in fact, a paranoid schizophrenic. In Jacob's case, the paranoia is definitely warranted, as he and Marlena draw closer over their love for the circus animals (especially Rosie, the Polish-understanding elephant). Their mutual hatred of August and Uncle Al, the circus owner, who makes a habit of throwing workers off the circus train at night (a practice known as redlighting) draws them inevitably closer together.  When a major stampede occurs, things come to a head, literally, as Rosie takes action, and Marlena and Jacob have a decision to make.

The story takes place in 1931 with flash forwards to the present day, as Jacob retells the story of his life from his nursing home bed. These chapters tended to depress me just a bit, as the author really brings home the fact that we all grow older and sometimes change beyond our own recognition. The ending of the book redeemed itself in this regard, but I was still left looking in the mirror at my own tell-tale wrinkles and age spots.

Water for Elephants is, ultimately, an uplifting book where good (and circus animals) do triumph over evil. I'm still not sure I'd like to see the movie. Some things may be better left to the imagination.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Rainshadow Road, by Lisa Kleypas

I was hoping to break my review writing hiatus with something wonderful. And while Lisa Kleypas' newest foray into contemporary romance held a lot of promise, it fell just a tad short, not for what it didn't have, but for what it did.

The Friday Harbor series starts with the story of Mark Nolan, his niece Holly and his love interest Maggie, in the short story, Christmas at Friday Harbor. What I consider the second novel in the series, Rainshadow Road, is the story of Mark's younger brother, vineyard owner Sam, and Lucy Marinn, a local stained glass  artist. Lucy grows up with a sister who, having survived meningitis, is handed everything on a silver platter. Lucy is left with resentment and an inferiority complex. There are also hints of a special magical talent she has for turning glass into living objects. For me, the "jump the shark" moment comes early in this novel, and I tried very hard to get past it. There are more examples of these magical powers later on, and each time it happens, it just strikes a discordant tone in my head. But back to the story. When Kevin, Lucy's boyfriend of two years,  finds a new love in Lucy's aforementioned sister, Lucy swears off commitment to protect herself from hurt. 

Sam Nolan grows up as a child of alcoholic parents, and finds it easier to protect himself from hurt by running away from commitment. He too, seems to have some powers; plants turn green and flourish when he's around. His special talent, in my mind, also detracts from the story at times, but not as much as Lucy's. He meets Lucy after her break-up and we sense that something is possible between these two, but wonder if past experience with bad relationships and poor examples of parenthood are enough to keep them apart. Lucy decides to take the relationship at face value and to just have fun. But as we all know in a romance novel, that approach never quite works out as planned. 

I think Ms. Kleypas should have left well enough alone, to be honest. This could be a terrific love story, filled with wonderful characters and enough interesting familial situations that  should  carry the novel. No need, in my opinion, to throw "magic" into the mix. I believe this is worth a read, because after all, Lisa is the author of the Wallflower Series, some of my favorite books in the romance genre. As those prove (and without all the hocus pocus mind you) falling in love is magic enough.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Blame it on Bath: The Truth about the Duke

The second in Caroline Linden's new Truth about the Duke series, Blame it on Bath is the story of Lord Captain Gerard de Lacey, the youngest offspring of the late Duke of Durham. All three ducal sons  are entangled in what has come to be known as the Durham Dilemma, a situation which may find all three declared bastards and destitute. Each brother sets off on a mission to find and dismiss the rumor that their parents' marriage was illegal and their father was a bigamist.  Edward, the middle de Lacey, had his story told in the recently reviewed, One Night in London. 

Gerard is home on bereavement leave from the Peninsula Wars, and is determined to use his time to track down the blackmailer threatening his family and his livelihood. He finds himself propositioned into marriage by the widow Lady Katherine Howe. A merchant's daughter who married a viscount, Katherine is starved for attention and affection and finds herself still in love with Gerard, years after a chance encounter on a rainy country road.  She needs this marriage in order to extricate herself from the expectation of a match to her dead husband's heir. Lacking any self-confidence, Kate sees Gerard as her ticket out of the quandary heavily promoted by her formidable mother. Fortunately for her, Gerard needs an heiress to marry in order to guarantee his income should the Durham Dilemma resolve itself against the De Lacey's. And so, after much thought, he agrees to the marriage.

I loved this book because Gerard himself is so very lovable. He's the quintessential romance hero. Despite an arranged marriage, he tries to make a go of it and when faced with Kate's insecurity complex, he takes his time to coax her (both in bed and out) from her shell. She begins to truly believe in herself for the first time in her life and in return, earns Gerard's love for herself as well.  The blackmail story becomes the backdrop for this beautiful love story set in Bath.

Blame it on Bath is out on February 28, 2011. I look forward to reading elder brother and heir, Charles' story. I've found that this novel is incrementally better than the previous one. If that continues to be the case,  the last in this series will surely not disappoint, especially since Charles has the furthest to go to redemption.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Mariana, by Susanna Kearsley

The lure of Susanna Kearsley's story telling in both The Winter Sea and The Rose Garden was just too much, so I couldn't resist reading Mariana. If you enjoy this author, resistance is futile. You won't be disappointed, as Mariana is more than up to the task of settling in right among those two wonderful novels.

Julia Beckett is drawn to one particular  farmhouse in Exbury. Known as Greywethers, and located adjacent to Crofton Hall, the seat of the de Mornay family, the 16th century house calls to her from childhood, and as an adult of 29, with a job as an illustrator for children's books, she has the wherewithal to purchase it. As she settles in, she becomes aware of coincidences and what can coyly be described as side effects, of living there. She sees a gray stallion with a mysterious rider, who seems to be watching her from a copse of trees. Then, she has what seem to be a series of hallucinations. She finds herself in the Greywethers of the 1660's, as Mariana Farr, a girl who has come to live with her devout uncle during the plague years in London. As she comes back to herself after each "episode," Julia realizes that these are not hallucinations, or the product of too little sleep, but something quite different, and she feels compelled to continue her journeys into the past in order to experience the love that Richard de Mornay had for Mariana, and by doing so, answer questions that pertain to her own life.

Ms. Kearsley's secondary characters which include Julia's vicar brother Tom,  Geoff de Mornay (the owner of Crofton Hall), her friend Vivian, Vivian's Aunt Freda and Geoff's friend Iain Sumner, pull the story together and add the puzzle pieces that completes the picture of both Julia and Mariana's lives. While Mariana's tale is a compelling, tragic, but somewhat predictable love story, Julia's happy ending comes in the form of a lovely surprise, one we may have suspected at first, but brushed aside for a different outcome. I was happy to see that my first impression was correct in this case.

Mariana, like all of Ms. Kearsley's novels, pushes the envelope of reality without actually breaking through the seal. The story telling is so good that we put aside our doubts and questions and truly believe that the basis of these stories are entirely plausible. As with the other two wonderful novels I reviewed here, I didn't want to turn the last page. It's hard to find an author so adept at suspending reality and taking her readers along for the ride. I'm grateful to have found this one.

Monday, January 30, 2012

She Tempts the Duke (The Lost Lords of Pembrook) by Lorraine Heath

They called them the Lost Lords of Pembrook.  They are in reality three young men, one meant to inherit a dukedom, who disappeared years ago only to reappear twelve years later to claim the inheritance their unscrupulous uncle wants to take from them. Sebastian, the 8th Duke of Keswick, was 14 when his father died and his uncle locked him, his twin brother Tristan, and his younger brother Rafe in the tower at their ancestral home of Pembrook.  Uncle David's intent was clear. He would murder the three as he had murdered his own brother and assume the title for himself in retribution for his brother marrying Sebastian's mother.

Lady Mary Wynne-Jones, 12 year old neighbor, best friend to Sebastian, and daughter to the Earl of Winslow, overhears David's plans and manages to free the young lords. The boys then disappear into the night, each to live the next 12 years in their own exiles of hell before they come back together in dramatic fashion in order to take back what's rightfully theirs. In the escape, they leave Mary behind. She in turn, suffers her own form of exile when her father finds out exactly what she did that night and why.

Lorraine Heath's characters are horribly scarred psychologically by their ordeal. Sebastian even carries these scars as a physical manifestation, which adds to the dark undertones running rampant through this ultimately wonderful love story. The entire second half of the book is devoted to what we hope will be Sebastian's ultimate redemption, and the beating back of his demons and his unnatural need for retribution. Mary tries to break through the wall that surrounds this damaged grown up little boy, but it's only when Sebastian realizes what truly matters, that she succeeds. But will that realization come too late?

In the first of  a series of three novels, Ms. Heath takes us to the darkest reaches of despair and makes us wonder if perhaps this is the first time we will read a novel in this genre where a main character is so far  beyond all repair.  And seeing how this novel turned out, I can't help but hope that Tristan and Rafe's stories will follow in very short order. Published February 1, 2012.

The Capture of the Earl of Glencrae by Stephanie Laurens

Congratulations are in order. I am the owner of a brand new Kindle Touch. And to christen my latest bundle of technological joy, I immediately downloaded an advanced readers’ copy of Stephanie Laurens’ The Capture of the Earl of Glencrae. This is the third novel in the Cynster Sisters Triology and, as usual, Ms. Laurens delivers. Get ready, romance lovers. We have another winner.

The fun begins at a ton ball where a split second decision to act by the desperate Dominic Lachlan Guisachan, eighth Earl of Glencrae, changes the course of Angelica Cynster’s privileged, if somewhat mundane life. But the Scottish earl’s reputation as a dastardly villain does not accurately reflect this gentleman’s true nature; there is more to the story than meets the eye, for Angelica’s mother and Dominic’s father share a history – a history that the current Countess of Glencrae is none too happy about.  Irrationally jealous, Dominic’s mother steals a precious artifact – a goblet earmarked to be the financial salvation of the clan – and sets a ransom for its return. Dominic must deliver to her a Cynster, specifically a ruined Cynster. Then and only then will she hand over the goblet.  Dominic’s first two attempts at abduction (In Pursuit of Eliza Cynster and Viscount Breckenridge to the Rescue) end in failure, but the third is the charm as Angelica turns out to be more cooperative than Dominic could have hoped. But Angelica has her own motives for assisting. She’s convinced Dominic is her hero, her one and only true love, and it’s just a matter of time before he reciprocates in kind.

Every book in Ms. Laurens’ Cynster series is well written with engaging protagonists in truly sigh-worthy romances.  The Capture of the Earl of Glencrae, the latest and perhaps my favorite of all, does the franchise proud.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Bond Girl, by Erin Duffy

In this stellar debut novel, Erin Duffy proves that "write what you know" is great advice indeed. Ms. Duffy, who spent years in the financial industry, spins the story of UVA alum Alex Garrett who, fresh from graduation, begins work at the Wall Street trading firm Cromwell, Pierce. Alex has known all her life that the financial industry is where she wants to make her mark. In a brilliant and almost too precocious light bulb moment at age eight, after visits to her father's place of work, Alex realizes that everything she's told not to do and everything she is undervalued for as a child, is actually permissible and admired on a trading floor.

At twenty-two, Alex arrives at Cromwell and meets her boss "Chick" Ciccone, and her assorted group of co-workers, all male, all older and all anxious to show the new "girlie" where she belongs on the office totem pole. What Alex does is turn her role as resident gopher into a chance to prove to herself and to them that she belongs, and over time she does just that. Some of the mistakes she makes on her way up her learning curve are quite hysterical, and her boss's punishments don't quite fit the "crimes" but we laugh at them anyway. Alex is faced with some challenges in the form of a duplicitous office love interest, a client who shows a bit too much enthusiasm for Alex's spare time, and the financial crisis of 2008. In true chic lit fashion, she overcomes it all, and comes out of it way ahead of the game.

For a debut novel, Ms. Duffy does an excellent job in serving up a fast-paced, absorbing page turner. Alex's embarrassment, trials and triumphs are all experienced first and center by the reader and by the end of the novel, we're ready to cheer her on to the next great thing she undertakes. It's an engaging story, very well-written, although the subject matter once again reminds me why I didn't study finance in graduate school. While it's a complicated subject to master, it's a heck of a lot of fun to read about. Highly recommend, and out on February 1, 2012. Published by William Morrow.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Until There Was You by Kristan Higgins

You never know what lurks in the shadows of an e-reader. Apparently a little while ago, I downloaded Until There Was You by Kristan Higgins, one of my favorite contemporary romance authors. I guess real life got in the way at the time and I didn’t get to it. Let me assure you, folks, had I known what I was missing, I would have cracked it open the minute it landed on my Kindle.

Cordelia Osterhagen, known to all as Posey, runs a salvage company, lives in an old church, owns three cats, a Great Dane and has been in love with one person since freshman year in high school. While her looks may have set her apart from her unusual but loving adoptive parents, her childhood was relatively normal and happy. That is until high school. Scrawny awkwardness doesn’t win teen popularity contests and Posey, given a choice between being the cool kids’ running joke or becoming invisible, chooses the latter and hopes no one notices.  Her plan to stay firmly on the fringe stays on course, even when the new, cool, straight out of juvenile detention kid in school takes a part time job in her parent’s kitschy German themed restaurant. Liam Declan Murphy is distant but cordial to Posey and this small amount of neutral attention thrown her way develops into a powerful one-sided teenaged crush. Posey painstakingly nurses her devotion to Liam – in fact, her entire existence revolves around him, even after he falls hard for another girl. But when Liam acts the bad boy toward Posey, proving he’s no different than any of the others at school, she is devastated. But she picks herself up and moves on, a little older in spirit and perhaps now a little wiser …

The decision to return to Bellsford, New Hampshire from San Diego isn’t an easy one for Liam, but as a widower, it seems the right decision to make for his teenaged daughter. The move will give her the chance to be closer to his late wife’s family. And being back will hopefully help him move past the painful, sometimes debilitating memories of his high school sweetheart’s death.  Liam is not surprised to find things haven’t changed very much. Guten Tag, the Osterhagen’s restaurant where he worked as a kid, is pretty much the same as is Cordelia (as he always called her). She’s still skinny, and still quirky. But as the weeks go by, he finds himself spending more and more time in her company – and surprisingly, enjoying it just a little too much… 

I’m a huge fan of all of Ms. Higgins’ work, but it’s the characters in this story that make it my favorite of hers. Both Posey and Liam are very unusual, Posey more for her looks than anything else. She is by far not a beauty, as the physical comparisons between her and her robust adoptive mother and cousin make obvious. But Posey’s personality is what makes her beautiful. At first Ms. Higgins administers only small doses of her character’s potential. But the fun is in watching Posey grow into herself, to finally fit into her huge personality – to be comfortable in her own skin.  Liam captured me in an entirely different way.  Appalled by his actions as a teen-aged boy, I was completely captivated by his behavior as a man. The author gives Liam touching humanity as the single father of a fifteen-year old daughter. The irony of this responsibility should not be lost on the reader as it is definitely not lost on Liam. And his struggles with OCD, panic attacks and general anxiety regarding his daughter's well being make this former bad boy motorcycle mechanic one of my favorite male protagonists.

As usual, Ms. Higgins scores huge. Until There Was You is most assuredly different and definitely divine. It's also very highly recommended. 

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

An Amber Heart: The Archetypal Journey of the Heroine, A Memoir by Susan Tossman Blue

When a friend of mine asked me to take a look at this book and possibly review it here, I was skeptical for a couple of reasons, not least of which was because it's a memoir. My review would be read by the person who actually lived the story, not by an author who created the characters just for his/her reader's enjoyment. That particular fear was put aside the moment I read the first paragraph. Susan Tossman Blue has written a gem; a memoir that serves to grip and teach at the same time. It's her life story, yes, but it's so well-written and the story so enlightening and yes, I'll even use the term "uplifting," that you can't help but come away at the last page questioning  the path of your own personal journey through life.

The novel starts with the author finding an antique amber heart. The heart, she believes is a metaphor for her own, locked and unmoving, held in place by past experience and early life trauma. Coupled with her affinity for a stand of trees on her grandfather's farm, the only place where she found acceptance and love in her strict, religious upbringing, she uses these two "tools" as a way to get past that childhood and come to terms and love the person she has become.

The book is divided into four parts, each serving its own purpose, and each builds upon the previous section to reveal a story sometimes too painful to read. Ms. Blue is coy about revealing too much too early, and this works very well. We come to wonder about her physical breakdown, the scars on her lower body, her previously broken jaw and nose. What happened? Where did these come from? Until the second part of the book, we don't know, but we have clues. And those clues keep us turning the pages.

On her trip home, in the section entitled Awareness, we get the background we were waiting for. Revelations come fast and furious, and her childhood of parental abuse, denigration and repression, all in the name of God and mental illness and family dysfunction are revealed to us. Instead of recoiling in horror at the past the author has endured, we become wrapped up in the thought that this is a survivor, and we, as readers, come to understand why she is the way she is, and begin to acknowledge that  we want her to let go, forgive herself for what she shouldn't have been blamed for in the first place and reach that place of acceptance and love that anyone would hope to find in their own life.

There are some wonderful secondary characters who Susan brings to life for us. The first is her husband Jack, who adds some wonderful commentary to the telling of this story. My favorite quote of his is this one, which is said to Susan in relation to her family, "the fact that you might love yourself is a threat." In addition to Jack, there are Susan's paternal grandparents, on whose farm she finds such peace, and her maternal grandmother. There's her therapist Nicole and her doctors, Simon and Dennis, and Dr. Valentine, who help her to recover physically so that she can pursue the emotional side of her journey. And her "wondercat," Tybee, also plays an intricate role in her recovery.

I highlighted many passages from this book in the course of my reading it, and intend to go back and re-read when I have the chance. While my life experiences do not compare with the author's, there are enough lessons for the reader to take away and apply. And days later, I'm still thinking about all of them.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The American Heiress, by Daisy Goodwin

Just before the beginning of the 20th century- The Gilded Age-when machines were installed into cotton mills, and the railroads made a trip take a quarter of the time it would have in a horse-drawn carriage, American heiresses were sought after by the English aristocracy to shore up their long suffering estates.  The American Heiress is the story of Cora Cash, daughter of a multi-millionaire, whose mother has but one goal in mind- a title for her daughter.  Cora was raised surrounded by the finer things in life, and with the knowledge that her mother would stop at nothing to gain the social standing she craved.  After a fiery spectacle at Cora's coming out ball in New York, she and her mother make the trip across the Atlantic on their own steamer to find Cora a husband.  Mrs. Cash, relentless in her pursuit, but knowing no one in England, pays for the services of a well to do woman to introduce them into ton society.

Cora is not the typical heiress; for while being raised in luxury, the one thing she wants the most is to be out from under her mother's rule.  An accomplished horsewoman, Cora is riding the hunt with her host and becomes lost in the woods.  After a run in with a branch, where she is knocked unconscious, our heroine is rescued by Ivo, the Duke of Wareham.  For her mother, a more perfect suitor could not be found, and within two days of her stay at Lulworth, Cora is engaged to Ivo.  It's no secret the Wareham dukedom is in need of funds, as the run down state of Lulworth suggests.  Old English aristocracy and new American money collide as Ivo and his mother (a double duchess to boot) make the trip to New York for the wedding.  Ivo is repulsed by everything in American society: the vulgarity, the money, the excesses that define American society during the latter 1800's.  Upon Cora and Ivo's return to England, Cora, the novice of ton society, is basically left to the wolves to fend for herself.  Ivo, while loving, is preoccupied with taking his seat in the Lords, and fighting off a lover from his past.  Cora's missteps are celebrated by her mother-in-law, and instead of helping, Ivo and his mother make matters worse for Cora.  Banished to Lulworth due to her pregnancy, Cora spends months and months alone at an estate she does not truly have control over, while Ivo is off accompanying Prince Eddy in India, and shaking off his embarrassment caused by his wife.

Ivo is not a hero that is easy to like, and indeed, I hated him at many points in the book.  On the surface, Cora seems to be a spoiled heiress, but you quickly realize there is more to her than money.  She married Ivo for love, and despite his faults, in the end, he becomes likable.  The entire book is a wonderful example of the Gilded Age, where excess was the way of society in America.  Goodwin does an excellent job at getting each and every detail of this excess perfect, and you get a true feel for what it must have been like during this time in American history.  A wonderful read about a time long past.

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Duke is Mine, by Eloisa James

I love books that take their cues from fairy tales, and The Duke is Mine is one of those novels.  Using the idea of the Princess and the Pea, Eloisa James has created her own entertaining version of the classic fairy tale, with an additional twist here and there.

Olivia Lytton has been betrothed to Rupert, the future Duke of Canterwick since before she was born.  All her life has been dedicated to molding her and her twin sister Georgiana, into the perfect and proper duchess.  The problem, however, is that Olivia is witty, smart, and loves a good vulgar joke, while Georgiana is the epitome of virtue and propriety; better duchess material.  It is well known throughout the ton that dear Rupert is mostly addle brained, having stopped breathing at birth.  But before she can come to terms with being a duchess, Rupert decides he needs to bring glory to the Canterwick name on the battlefield, and leaves for France.  Olivia, though having spent most of her life ridiculing Rupert for his short-comings, becomes painfully aware of just how special Rupert is when they are forced together in order to ensure the future of the dukedom, or so their parents believe.  A chance invitation to the estate of the Duke of Sconce, issued by the dowager duchess in order to find her son a proper wife.  Georgiana, to be specific.

Quin, the Duke of Sconce lost his first wife and son while she was fleeing England with her lover.  Since then, Quin has sworn off all emotion, choosing to allow his life to revolve around mathematics (ick) and letting his mother choose his bride.  All was going as planned until Olivia arrives at the manor late at night, after their carriage turns over in the rain.  Immediate sparks fly when the two meet, and Olivia tries desperately not to succumb to her feelings for the man that is for all intents and purposes meant for her sister.  The dowager duchess takes an immediate dislike to Olivia, and instantly chooses Georgiana for her son's bride.  But who does Quin choose for himself?  A rendezvous in a tree house, and a trip across the channel to France to rescue a wounded war hero allow Quin to realize that the wall around his heart that went up with the betrayal of his first wife and death of his son was slowly crumbling as he battled his demons in order to have Olivia.

It's been awhile since I've been able to read anything for my own enjoyment, and not something on a syllabus, and I'm so glad I started with Eloisa James.  Time after time, she has proved her uncanny ability to create characters that you can relate with and cheer on until the very end.  Even her most despicable characters end up being likable (for the most part) at the end.  The Duke is Mine is a hilarious, sometimes bawdy, fresh take on the beloved story of the Princess and the Pea, and one you should pick up as soon as possible!