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!