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.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Carrie Goes Off The Map, by Phillipa Ashley

With a Phillipa Ashley novel, you know just what you're getting before you open the book to the first page. There are fascinating locales, endearing protagonists, quirky secondary characters, an amazing love story and a gloriously happy ending. Carrie Goes Off The Map follows this trail perfectly.

Carrie Brownhill and Huw Brigstocke have been together for ten years. Their lives are thoroughly interwoven at Huw's farm, where Carrie works (when she's not doing amateur theater) and where the two of them live. None of this prevents Huw from breaking off their engagement just two weeks before the scheduled wedding festivities. Carrie is left with a broken heart, no home and no job. When she hears (in a rather atypical way) four months later, that Huw is marrying someone else, she tries to show her indignation up close and personal. She's stopped on the church steps by Dr. Matt Landor, their friend from University who is home on leave from his stint as a charity doctor in Tuman.  Embarrassed by the emotional state she's been driven to, Carrie resolves to get over Huw once and for all and get on with her life. She and her friend Rowena plan a trip to the Continent to see a bit of the world before moving on to the next part of their lives. And Dolly, the so-named VW camper who plays a big and beloved part in the novel, is their vehicle of choice. When a last minute acting job prevents Rowena from going with Carrie, a substitution is made, and Matt takes her place.

The book really comes into its own as Matt and Carrie head, not for the Continent as Carrie had hoped,   but to Cornwall. As the destinations come and go, Matt and Carrie get closer, almost without realizing it. There's this slow dawning of understanding between the two that deepens as the miles pass. For Carrie, there's "something" about Matt. And for Matt, there's that same "something" about Carrie. And when they finally do realize that what they really want is each other, it's Matt, the serial commitment-phobe, who wants something more permanent. And Carrie, scarred from her experience with Huw and desperate not to lose her heart without an impossible guarantee, steps away.  Matt returns to Tuman, their relationship now reduced to email and Facebook posts.

It's at this point that I am so glad that Ms. Ashley doesn't get her inspiration from Nicholas Sparks, because if that were the case, this story would not have that hoped-for happy ending. There are some tense moments when we wonder if Carrie was not too hasty in sending the good doctor away the year before.  But Ms. Ashley doesn't leave us hanging in suspense too long, thankfully, and everything comes right in the end for a girl who had nothing left to her in the beginning.

Carrie Goes Off The Map is published by Sourcebooks, due out December 1, 2011. I'd love to see  this one into a made for TV movie. Any plans  for that, Phillipa?

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Rose Garden, by Susanna Kearsley

I've always used Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series as the yardstick with which to measure any book containing even a whiff of time travel. Up until Susanna Kearsley's novel,  A Winter Sea (reviewed here  in May, 2011) any and all have fallen short. With The Rose Garden, Ms. Kearsley's newest effort, I think even Ms. Gabaldon has met her match. The Rose Garden is a sumptuous love story, one which encompasses three centuries and will warm the coldest of the coming winter nights. I am not being flowery or overdramatic here. I mean it. It is that good. The writing is so descriptive and the characters so real, I could envision every paragraph of every page as if I were a part of the story too. That to me is the mark of a truly great book.

Eva Ellen Ward has recently lost her older sister Katrina, a celebrated movie actress, to an unnamed disease. Katrina's husband entrusts Eva to take his wife's ashes and spread them "where she was happiest." Eva, who worked public relations for her sister, knows just where that place is, and travels from Los Angeles to Cornwall and specifically to Trelowarth, the house and rose farm where the two girls spent many happy summers as guests of their late "Uncle"George and Claire Hallett, friends of their father's. Twenty years after she last stepped foot in the house she's welcomed back by Claire, as well as George's children Mark (Katrina's first love), and Susan, Eva's former playmate. When she starts to experience what she thinks are hallucinogenic episodes, she chalks it up to sleeping pills and grief over losing her sister. When the episodes become frighteningly real, Eva has to accept the fact that she is indeed straddling a time line that takes her in and out of the Trelowarth of 1715. She meets the then owners of the house, brothers Daniel and Jack Butler,  and their loyal friend Fergal. She is also a witness to the sowing of the seeds of the first Jacobite uprising, the plot to bring King James from France to assume his place on the British throne. What she doesn't anticipate are her feelings for Daniel Butler, who knows exactly what she is and not only accepts it, but returns those same feelings, seemingly tenfold. It is at this point in the novel where Ms. Kearsley infuses Daniel with a romanticism not often found in male protagonists, and allows Daniel to sum up their love with these words, "whatever time we have, will be time enough." Prosaic words for a man who falls in love with a time traveler with no control of her appearances and disappearances, except when she's away from Trelowarth itself.

While the notion of time travel can be a hard sell in a story, Ms. Kearsley makes Eva's experience entirely believable.  It fits so well and flows so naturally here, that this reader did not question it as far-fetched fantasy. I actually caught myself thinking that anything is possible, and who's to say that something like this could not in fact, actually happen? I would make a wager that this reaction is not uncommon when reading this novel. And that's certainly a tribute to Ms. Kearsley's story telling abilities.

Without getting into too much more detail because this is a story best read and savored (and believe me,  you don't want me to give this part away), there is one surprise toward the end of the book that will leave you so enthralled, you'll read it over and over, just to help you work out all the brilliant clues left that you may have missed beforehand. These clues are scattered like breadcrumbs on a trail helping you find your way back from whence you came. It's masterfully done and adds an additional dimension to what was already a brilliant story.

It seems I've gotten into the habit of saying this for this author's work; The Rose Garden, by Susanna Kearsley is a must read. And as they say, there's no time like the present....

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Highland Storms, by Christina Courtenay

In the follow up to her novel Trade Winds, Christina Courtenay continues the story of the Kinross family, this time moving her characters from Sweden to their native homeland, the Scottish Highlands. Brice Kinross, son of Killian and Jess, the protagonists in Trade Winds, is bequeathed Rosyth House, the Kinross ancestral home, by his father as a consequence of the Jacobite uprising in 1745.  Living in Sweden with his family, Brice is betrayed in love by his brother and his brother's new wife, the girl he himself intended to marry. When his father suspects that things are not all what they seem at Rosyth, he encourages Brice to go to Scotland, take up the reins of his inheritance and put things to rights. With an eye toward a new beginning, he leaves Sweden and heads "home."

Marsaili Buchanan, Brice's deceased uncle's illegitimate daughter (more simply, his second cousin) acts as housekeeper at Rosyth. Instilled there by Brice's aunt and looked after by her half-sisters, Marsaili continuously butts heads with the estate manager, Colin Seton. He wants Marsaili for a wife, but she refuses him repeatedly. Seton is not what he appears to be, and only his son, Iain knows exactly what he's up to. However, Iain's loyalties are tested repeatedly as he loves Marsaili's half sister. When Brice shows up at Rosyth House and declares himself Laird, he begins to slowly win over his tenants by deed as well as character. At the same time, he makes some very powerful enemies. Faced with the ultimate threat to his plan, Seton begins to plot revenge and this revenge is what keeps the book moving through the final few pages.

On a personal level, Brice must overcome his reluctance to trust in love when he finds himself attracted to his beautiful cousin.  For her part, Marsaili has to make sure Brice's intentions are honorable before she reciprocates those feelings,  as she has a fear of becoming like her mother, a wanton who finally settled into marriage only to allow her husband to physically abuse her. But before this can happen, fate intervenes and puts them both into abject danger.

Set against the backdrop of the aftermath of Culloden and the dismantling of the clan system in the Highlands, Highland Storms evokes all the hardship and desolation faced and felt by the once proud inhabitants of that part of Scotland. Ms. Courtenay writes an engaging and fast moving story. The only problem I have with it is that a good deal of the dialogue and some of the action (for example, the characters, including the women, seem to like to punch each other in the arms a good deal to signify good humor) seemed a bit too contemporary for a novel set in the mid 18th century. It was a bit jarring and somewhat difficult to get past in spots, but I tried my best to put that aside, and once I did, it was easy to get lost in Brice and Marsaili's love story.  Just out now from Choc Lit publishers, Highland Storms is a fast moving, engaging, love trumps all tale definitely worth a read.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Holly Lane, by Toni Blake

It was the perfect marriage. They were the couple who had everything for as long as anyone could remember. But the rock solid marriage of Sue Ann and Jeff, a couple we've come to know in the previous Destiny novels, doesn't survive the first few pages of Holly Lane, Toni Blake's new offering in this incredible series.
     Fast forward six months. It's Thanksgiving weekend and Sue Ann, still struggling with Jeff's abandonment, books a cabin in the woods. A weekend away by herself may be just the thing to help her find some peace. But Sue Ann's attempt at tranquil solitude is interrupted by the sudden appearance of Jeff's best friend, her daughter's godfather and all around town "good guy," Adam Becker. However, Adam is anything but feeling good at the moment. His boys are spending the entire holiday season far away with his ex's family and he's grumpy and miserable - not at all his usual self. And now he's just plain annoyed because the plans for his very own solitary, brooding weekend are over. The lodge booked both of them into the same cabin and the unexpected snow storm forces the two to spend the night together. 
     And let's be clear....they spend the spend the night TOGETHER.  Thank you, Ms. Blake for not making us wait this one out. Friends for a long time, they know each other well and whether it's the coziness of a rustic cabin warmed by a roaring fire or the loneliness and frustration each one is feeling, or perhaps a little of both, within a few short pages we are treated to one of the most sizzling love scenes I've read since...well, since the last Destiny novel.
     The snow eventually stops and as Sue Ann and Adam part company, they decide their brief interlude must be just that - brief and over. However, as connoisseurs of the genre know, nothing is ever that simple and the two spend the rest of the novel unsuccessfully denying the inevitable attraction while trying to overcome their individual issues.  
     Ms. Blake takes a very creative approach and evokes Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, comparing Adam with Ebenezer Scrooge. Frankly, this surprised me. After all, Adam is not a bad person. He's just having a crap holiday season and spending it in a perpetual black mood. Overall, Adam's issues are mild compared to the heavy baggage carried around by some of the previous Destiny heroes. Mick Brody, for one, comes to mind. But the comparison really does work, as Adam, it turns out, is far from perfect himself. Eventually, he realizes the error of his ways (reminiscent of Scrooge) and does several things so wonderful, so impossibly heartwarming, all should be forgiven. 
     But Sue Ann can't seem to forgive Adam, nor can she forget him. Here Ms. Blake shines as she makes Sue Ann's confusion very real. After all, Sue Ann's concern for her daughter is first and foremost and she needs to make sense of her new status as single mother and sole provider. A new relationship is just too much to handle. And who can blame her for not trusting Adam, given his behavior in the context of her ex-husband's betrayal. But it's oh so gratifying to see Sue Ann grow from victim into victor - a woman who begins to take charge of her life by rebuilding it one day at a time and, in the process, finding the courage to embrace love again.
     Holly Lane is the kind of wonderful, complex romance we've come to expect from Ms. Blake. The characters are human, their flaws - open and raw - are mended by love. A perfect read for any time of year, may it find its way into your heart this holiday season.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Very Picture of You, by Isabel Wolff

At first glance, The Very Picture of You, by Isabel Wolff,  is the story of an artist's way of life. In reality, however, it's so much more. Ella Graham, a talented portrait artist, has quite a few commissions to finish. Each sitting to Ella is like a therapy session. In the course of conversation, her subjects slowly reveal themselves to her until who they truly are is what she portrays them to be. But there's more to this story than meets the eye, or canvas, as it were. The secondary characters in this novel, while at first seemingly unrelated, are in fact, woven together to present a common and recurrent element. Mike, a local politician, Iris, a pleasant elderly woman, Celine, a dissatisfied housewife, Grace, the one posthumous commission Ella takes on, Chloe, Ella's half sister, Sue, her mother, Roy, her step-father and lastly, Nate, Chloe's intended, are wrapped around the central themes of marriage, infidelity, abandonment and forgiveness. And it's written in such a way that you are seeing and feeling everything Ella does until you too, have a complete picture of each character, without ever actually seeing their portrait. It's probably about as fine an example of descriptive writing I have come across in a very long time.

Overarching these stories is Ella, herself a two-time victim of clandestine loves that if revealed, would destroy the relationships her family has worked so hard to build over the years. She's also presented with a life changing decision, a road that if taken could destroy her mother yet turn the page on an old hurt that has colored every part of her life since the age of 5. Will she reach out and grab the opportunities presented to her? Or will she decide that the rewards to be gained from love are not worth the price she will have to pay?

Ella is far from perfect, even though she is an extraordinary artist. She makes a few wild (and it turns out wrong) assumptions along the way. I was surprised actually, at her gullibility in certain situations and her tendency to believe the worst in people without giving them the benefit of the doubt. I soon realized, however, that this trait was important because it revealed a distinct inability to see the two sides that might exist to a story. This turns out to be a crucial factor in her relationship with her mother, the most important relationship Ella has in this novel until the very end of the  book, when the seemingly impossible resolutions to her dilemmas (happily for her) become reality.

Utilizing wonderful secondary characters, each with their own story to tell, including a family that, while not dysfunctional could certainly use some lessons in honesty and communication, Isabel Wolff has written a worthy follow-up to A Vintage Affair, also reviewed here at Bookishly Attentive. On sale in hardcover on October 4, The Very Picture of You is a must-read for anyone looking for a moving family story that paints a beautifully vivid picture with words.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Silk is for Seduction, by Loretta Chase

Let me start out by saying no betrothals were hurt in the writing of this novel. That said, Loretta Chase has written a gem in Silk is for Seduction.  The first in a series about the Noirot sisters (three women with a past that make convicted felons look good) brings together Marcelline Noirot and Gervaise Angier, 7th Duke of Clevedon in an attempt at seduction, but not the kind we are used to in this genre. What Marcelline wants is Clevedon's future wife. Marcelline and her sisters are modistes. Without a following in the upper reaches of the haut ton, they need an in, and the eldest Noirot travels to Paris to attract the Duke so she can literally make a pitch for his future business. The Duke is enjoying the final year of a swing through the Continent and must return to London to marry Lady Clara Fairfax, sister of his best friend, the Earl of Longmore. And it is that lady that Marcelline really has her eyes on.

What ensues seems to be the  typical boy meets girl plot, but with Marcelline's professional reputation at stake, and her unsuitable background to boot, Clevedon meets with a dead end in his quest to have her for his own. She won't give in and he won't give up, even to the detriment of his relationship with Lady Clara and her brother.

While all of this, on the surface, sounds like Marcelline is a home wrecker of the worst kind, nothing could be further from the truth. For while she does fall in love with Clevedon, she strongly encourages him to marry Clara. Neither her motives nor Clevedon's are honorable to begin with, and that's what makes this such a good love story. I've never read a novel where both protagonists are such driven (and in Clevedon's case, selfish) individuals, like-minded in their drive to get what they want, not realizing that what they want is the same thing. It's a brilliant plot and it works to keep the reader guessing up until the very end of the novel.

Sprinkled with small, hysterical one-liners (you'll know one when you read one),  Silk is for Seduction admirably serves its purpose of entertaining the reader and it sets up the next two books in this series perfectly. I can't wait to see how the girls adjust to the outcome of this story and go on to find loves of their own. And I'm wondering if Lady Clara's brother, the Earl of Longmore is somehow, some way involved.  I'll just throw that out there and see if Ms. Chase takes the hint.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Go Small or Go Home, by Heather Wardell

Go Small or Go Home, by Heather Wardell is currently a .99 Kindle download. To be honest, I never hold out much hope for .99 Kindle downloads. They are often either too short, too simple or too silly. In fact, I can count on my hand the number I thought worthy of even that small expenditure. But oh, what an absolutely brilliant bargain Go Small or Go Home is. Packed with some of the most wonderful dialogue I’ve read in quite awhile (which probably means I haven't read enough of Ms. Wardell's work) it challenges the old adage that you get only what you pay for.

Forrest Williams has finally fulfilled a life long dream by playing ice hockey for the Toronto Hogs, but playing is not what anyone would call it. Emotionally paralyzed by a horrific car accident that claimed the life of his fiancée, Forrest is ostracized by his teammates as a minor physical injury keeps him glued to the bench.  Survivor’s guilt shapes his actions and because of it, he’s on the fast track to an early retirement. But the pressure of a multimillion-dollar contract and the club owner’s wrath forces him to hire a private massage therapist in the hope of regaining his physical health. But no matter how much he wants to get back out there and play, his personal baggage is just too heavy to carry onto the ice.   

Tess Grayson is torn between a successful career as a massage therapist and her passion for making miniature pieces of three-dimensional art.  She would like nothing more than to turn that passion into a full time career and say goodbye to massage therapy forever. But a girl’s got to eat and Tess applies for the temporary stint as Forrest’s savior.  She immediately recognizes that his problems are centered more in his head and less in his leg and, in the same manner she does everything, applies herself whole-heartedly to healing him. But she soon realizes she’s in danger of losing that heart to a man who apparently has nothing left to give.

Written in Tess’ voice, the narrative shines with insightful humor and touching sadness. Tess struggles to find herself at the same time she fights Forrest’s demons and the emotional toll these battles take on her is staggering. Every page in this book packs a punch and I found myself immediately lost in Tess' world. Of course, Forrest’s thoughts are closed to the reader, just as they are closed to Tess. Only once does he open up enough to let her (and us) in, and the price of admission would destroy a woman weaker than Tess. But despite Forrest's hot and cold temperament, she continues to root for him and for herself, and I found myself squarely behind her, although holding out less and less hope for him. 

The supporting characters are wonderful in their own right, particularly Tess’ best friend Jen and Forrest’s gallery owning mother, Jayne.  Magnus, the Hog’s team captain earned my eternal admiration and even Tess’ alcoholic twin sister Pam gained my support in the end.

I loved everything about this book, including the ending. Especially the ending.  Don’t hesitate to spend the buck, if you’re lucky enough to get it for that price. But, even at ten times the price, it would still be a bargain. Trust me on this.  

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Persuade Me, by Juliet Archer

Persuasion is my favorite Jane Austen novel. How many times have I re-read Frederick Wentworth's letter to Anne Elliot? How many times have I thought that if Anne and Frederick would just TALK to each other, everything would turn out just fine?  In Persuade Me, Juliet Archer's wonderful modern adaptation of the novel that defined first love and missed opportunities, the story is brought up to date and the result is a thoroughly enjoyable read that can stand on its own merits, even for someone who has never read a word of the original.

Dr. Rick Wentworth, an English expert in marine biology based in Melbourne, Australia, has written a book and is in England to promote it. A Steve Irwin-type adventurer (with much more sex appeal), Rick finds the time to visit his sister and her husband and is drawn into the drama of the families surrounding Kellynch, the seat of the 8th Baron of Kellynch, Walter Elliot.  Anna Elliot, a lecturer in Russian literature and Walter's semi-estranged daughter presently living in Bath, has reason to follow Rick's career.  Anna and Rick share a past. Ten years prior, at eighteen, Anna fell in love with Rick, but when he asked her to go with him to Australia, she was persuaded by her godmother Lady Russell and her father, to give Rick up.

All of our favorite Austenite characters grace this adaptation. There's the Musgrove sisters, one of whom Rick seems to favor, Mrs. Smith (now Anna's landlady and best friend), Sir Walter and his daughters Mona and Lisa (love those names), Lady Russell, William Elliot-Dunne (still as slick and smarmy as his Regency predecessor), two Mrs. Clay characters, Lady Dalrymple, Ben Harville and even James Benwick. They are all transported seamlessly into the modern world.

The main premise of the entire story, the Elliot family's role in Rick and Anna's original breakup, translates very well and is just as believable in a modern context, as in the original.  In the original, Wentworth's lack of money and position led to her family's stance. In this adaptation, it's Anna's youth, and the thought, hammered home by Lady Russell,  that her mother (had she lived) would have wanted Anna to wait, to go to University and make something of herself first, before she committed to a serious relationship. All powerful means of persuasion for a young, sensitive teenager living in the 21st century.

There are some things that don't translate as well at first glance, however. The dysfunctional nature of Anna's relationship with her family is a bit harder to understand when put in the modern day context. Why does Anna put up with Mona, her younger sister? Why does she even talk to her father let alone run to him when he snaps his conceited and self-important fingers? Why does she let Lisa, her elder sister and Walter's pet, run roughshod over her feelings?  In the original, I really had not given this much thought, except to say, it was her duty as a daughter and sister to put up with her family's baggage. In modern times I'm asking why Anna feels the need to be a doormat. I just want to shake her! But that really makes her awakening at the end of the book so much better. You can feel Anna coming into her own, just as she finally realizes that her future can be as bright as her past.  She finally pushes back at her family, and is rewarded with what she's wanted for ten long years and was afraid she'd never have. So in the end, even these issues do not matter. That's how good this book is.

Juliet Archer has written a gem that even non-Austen fans would love. The fact that I spent the entire book comparing it to the original and wondering at the ingenious way the author turned Regency situations into contemporary ones, speaks to the creativity involved in writing it. From the foreword (written by one, Will Darcy) to Rick's heartfelt, beautiful love letter to Anna, Persuade Me is an Austen adaptation worth writing home about. Persuade Me is the second in Ms. Archer's Darcy and Friends adaptations. On sale September 15th and published by Choc Lit, it's a must-read for fans of either Jane Austen, contemporary romance or both.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Before I Go to Sleep, by S.J. Watson

What if you woke up every morning, thinking you were twenty-five, and then looked in the mirror and saw a forty-something?  What if you discovered you were in bed with a man every morning that you didn't know, in a room that was unfamiliar?  This is the life of Christine, a writer, who suffers from amnesia.  Christine cannot retain memories after she falls asleep at night.  In the morning, she wakes to thinking she is twenty-five, with her entire life ahead of her.  Every morning, her husband, Ben, tells her who she is, and who he is, and then leaves for work for the day.  Christine is left alone in a house she doesn't know.  Then at the same time every morning, a cell phone rings, and a Dr. Nash tells her to go to her closet, in the shoebox, and read her journal.  She reads about what she's done previously, with no memory of the events.

Then one day, after appointments with Dr. Nash that Ben doesn't know about, she goes to find her journal without being told to.  Bits and pieces of her memory begin to return, but they do not correlate with what Ben has told her of their lives together.  She remembers a son, but Ben told her they had no children.  Christine remembers Claire, her best friend from college, but Ben tells her she's moved away.  Bit by bit, with Dr. Nash's help, Christine begins to remember more and more, but what remembers isn't what it seems.

Watson was a new author for me, and this book was chosen for my book club with fellow reviewer Lindsey.  You really get into the mind of Christine and her daily struggles to remember her life.  The last 100 pages or so are so full of new revelations and action, that I could not stop reading- even if the house were on fire!  The twists in the plot are so subtle, you don't realize what's going on until Christine does.  A nail-biting story that will leave you feeling a bit unsettled.

Friday, September 2, 2011

One Night in London: The Truth About the Duke by Caroline Linden

The first in a series, One Night in London: The Truth About the Duke is the story of Edward de Lacey, one of three sons of the Duke of Durham, and their combined fight to refute a claim by their father on his deathbed that he was married twice, quite possibly committing bigamy. This confession basically negates the de Lacey sons' claim on the dukedom, leaving Charles Lord Gresham and heir, Edward, the spare and manager of the estates, and Gerard, the youngest who is in the military, illegitimate.

Edward de Lacey has a reputation for being cold and efficient. He begins the search for an attorney who will contest any and all claims to the dukedom in court and in so doing, snatches the best one from the hands of Lady Francesca Gordon, a widow with legal problems of her own concerning the custody of her niece. When faced with what she feels is the attorney's perfidy in dropping her case, she takes it out on Edward, and the sparks immediately fly. Edward, an engaged man, is nevertheless fascinated by Francesca. His engagement is soon over, however, when he's faced with his intended's disloyalty in the form of a scathing story in a gossip rag. When Francesca tells him she can get a retraction, Edward agrees to help her find her niece and a bargain is struck.

The story line is wonderful, and fully engages the interest of the reader. Edward's troubles are real and complicated, but the best part of this book is watching Edward deny his attraction to Francesca in too many ways to count. She's the exact opposite of what he would look for in a relationship, and he cannot believe he is attracted to her, but when he finally realizes that he's in too deep, the romance blooms and we see the kind of man he really is.  Francesca, for her part, fights the attraction on the basis that Edward is well above her own station. I would have liked to see a better explanation of her first husband's demise, however. There are some questions remaining about that and I'm not sure those will be answered in the remainder of the series, which is too bad. Something is just not right there, and we are left hanging for the answer.

There are some other interesting points the novel brings out. We see examples of the treatment of women by professional men of that era when Francesca endeavors to hire an attorney. And even with Edward's help, the discrimination is blatant. We are also treated to an explanation of primogeniture as the de Lacey's struggle to hold on to their inheritance. But with all this, One Night in London is a romantic romp  and the ending, while tying Edward and Francesca's love story up neatly, leaves the main problem that brought them together, still unresolved. Will Charles, Duke of Durham pick up the reins? And just what trouble has Gerard got himself into? Luckily,  I suspect we will find out soon enough.

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 Doreè, 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.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Any Man of Mine by Rachel Gibson

This installment of Rachel Gibson's hockey players of the fictional NHL Seattle Chinooks series focuses on long time player (in more than one sense of the word) Sam LeClaire. As the book starts we find him attending the wedding of Ty and Faith, two characters from a previous book in the series. His ex-wife, Autumn Haven, is the wedding planner which takes him by surprise since they haven't seen each other in over two years. They share a five year old son, Connor, and to spare him the baby mama drama of which they have a great deal, they agree to pass him back and forth through Sam's assistant.

To have a good romance one must have believable conflict. Autumn and Sam have believable conflict in spades. Sam is quite possibly one of the most unlikeable Heros in any romance I have ever read. The couple got married in Vegas after knowing each other for five days. Autumn has fallen head over heals for the hottie hockey player but after their drunken Elvis impersonator wedding and unfortunate name tattoos (tattoo shops really should have Breathalyzers) he splits in the morning without a word and starts divorce proceedings. When she tells him she is pregnant, through his lawyer since he won't give her his cell number, he demands a paternity test before he will take any responsibility or even see the baby. Yeah, he's a real winner and only goes downhill from there. He likes his hockey rough, his women brainless, big boobed and undemanding, and to see his son only when it is convenient which isn't very often. He supports Connor financially but sees him rarely often canceling on him at the last minute. So it is no mystery why Sam is not Autumn's favorite person. He wasn't mine either.

If one is going The Reformed Rake route the reformation must be believable and credible. Did Sam get there? Maybe. In the beginning he has the maturity and self-awareness of a three year old. Gibson gives him a painful back story to try give us a reason for his bad behavior and soften his toolishness but for his amount of narcissism and selfishness it falls a bit short. He finally decides that maybe Autumn is right and he has been a pretty uninvolved father and his son is getting old enough to notice. He decides that he will change his ways and spend more time with Connor and thus spend more time with Autumn. As his priorities change so do his feelings about Autumn.

I really liked Autumn. She was strong and capable and very protective of her son. She had to be. She always tried to keep the drama of his parent's relationship away from Connor after a particularly bad fight that he witnessed when he was three. She never ran Sam down to Connor and tried to make credible excuses for him when he would cancel at the last minute. She put Connor ahead of her own feelings and anger which scores major points with me. What I didn't understand was why she would go down the relationship road with Sam again. He didn't have to do too much to earn a second chance either when this is one Hero who should have been put through a wringer twice to get his second chance. That is why I'm not sure if he is completely reformed. He didn't have to work very hard for it. I might trust him again after two years but not two months. This is one book where I thought that if he became a good father and lived his life in a more responsible manner and Autumn found a different man who was worthy of becoming part of Autumn and Connor's family, I would have considered it a happy ending.

I have liked all of Rachel Gibson's books including this one, and even though I found Sam pretty self-absorbed and not worth Autumn's emotional energy through most of the book I couldn't put it down. There were moments of levity too. On Halloween Autumn wears Sydney Crosby's hockey sweater because she thinks the penguin is cute. The effect this has on Sam is hilarious. Connor is also written very well without being too cutsie or precocious. I hope they live happily ever after, but I kind of think they may be happy for right now. It would be great if Rachel Gibson writes a book in the series that gives us a glimpse of them in the future and they are happy.

I'm a hockey fan (Go Stars!) but you don't have to be to read this series. Sam does have some pretty strong opinions about Sydney Crosby so Pittsburg fans have been warned. I took my lumps when John from Simply Irresistible expressed some not so kind opinions about Mike Modano.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Dark Enquiry, by Deanna Raybourn

It's always a good day when a Lady Julia book lands on my front porch.  When author Deanna Raybourn caught my attention with Silent in the Grave, I hadn't expected to discover a series where each book is just as good as the last, if not better, and the storyline of Lady Julia and Nicholas Brisbane constantly evolves into something more and more exciting.  Now that we are at Lady Julia book #5, I've been thinking back to the previous novels and analyzing my reactions to each.  The first 3 were filled with such intensity between Lady Julia and Brisbane, and you were hanging on the edge for them to get together.  My sigh of relief at the end of Silent on the Moor could probably be heard for miles!  Dark Road to Darjeeling began the journey into the married life of Lady Julia and Brisbane, and therefore an additional mystery.  I've spoken to several readers about Dark Road to Darjeeling, and their reactions to the way Raybourn wrote the now married detectives.  I'll admit in my review of the book, I never touched on this aspect of the story, as I was drawn into the suspenseful plot and didn't give much thought to their marriage.  Other more astute readers did not, however, and I've heard some relate they were not happy with the way the couple treated each other, and that it wasn't what they thought the marriage would be.  I've given it some thought since my last discussion with dear friend and fellow reviewer KristinH, and I've come to the realization that I expected more from their marriage.  The Dark Enquiry is what I was looking for.

Lady Julia and Brisbane have taken up residence in London, and we get a glimpse into what life is like for residents as Lady Julia is working on yet another recipe for black powder, after several failed batches.  Aquinas cannot keep staff because of the strange comings and goings, and Lady Julia is still trying to work her way into Brisbane's life by being his partner in investigations.  Lady Julia's enthusiasm for all things related to Brisbane's business leads her to worm her way into cases by means of not telling her husband until she is need of rescue.  In fact, the entire book is full of Brisbane trying to keep Lady Julia out of harms way while she is assisting him with a case involving a medium with possible links to espionage.  As the novel unravels, you see a different side of the Brisbane's; the side that shows just how devoted they truly are to each other.  Brisbane cannot live without Lady Julia, and his visions begin early on with a sensation of being suffocated, which comes to shocking reality towards the end.  His visions are connected to his emotions towards his wife, and these visions he is unable to fight and numb with medicines.  Lady Julia is just as devoted, and her entrance into her husband's investigation stems from her worry that he is in trouble.  All this not love, however, as Brisbane shows his anger more than once at Lady Julia's actions and puts his foot down.  There is still the tug of war about Lady Julia's place in his investigations and her safety, but the passion they have for each other is proudly displayed even if it's not written in detail.  Their love for each other can be felt.

The story itself involves espionage and a cast of secondary characters that as always in a Raybourn novel, have interesting back stories and complete the plot.  I was very happy to have more Plum in this book, for he is my favorite brother, and of course, Lady Portia and her new addition are present.  This book will lead you through a roller coaster of emotions, and I went from sitting on the edge of my seat, to laughing, to having to set the book down and cry my eyes out. (you'll know when you get to that part)  If you are a fan of mystery/suspense, and like it with a dose of Victorianism, you will want to pick up this book regardless if you've read the entire series.  Oh, and it's a must have for fans.  Brisbane only gets more swoon worthy as the series goes on, and this book is no exception.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Brief Encounters, by Phillipa Ashley, Nell Dixon, and Elizabeth Hanbury

What a great way to get back into the swing of things!  I've been bombarded with reading all things homework related since January, so for such a perfect combination of short stories to fall on us here at Bookishly right as I am getting set to read what I want to read makes me very happy!

Brief Encounters is a collection of stories by the above named authors.  There is mix of modern and historical, so all should love these witty works.  The collection starts off with a modern and fun story called Plus One Guest by Nell Dixon.  Lucy is invited to her ex's wedding, and it's the day before and she has not found her "plus one guest".  Not willing to attend the wedding alone, she is somewhat tricked by her coworker Diana into allowing her boss, Harry of the fraying cuffs, to escort her.  The more time Lucy and Harry are together, the more Lucy realizes she rather likes her boss, and he is more than fond of her.  A sweet and funny story that made me smile with every word.  Dixon's next contribution, A Weekend in Venice, is the rather sad story of Kay and her attempt to regain a little of her life back after a tragic accident that took the life of her fiancé.  After becoming lost, she enters a shop where she meets Roberto, a rather gorgeous Italian, and she learns she can heal and live again.  A sad, yet sweet tale that makes you believe in happy endings.  

Author Elizabeth Hanbury is no stranger to Bookishly, and she is a favorite of mine.  Hanbury's first contribution to Brief Encounters is the historical Miss Pattingham Requests, the story of Gyles Beaufort, a leader in the ton, and his brief engagement to Miss Merryn Ward.  After a whirlwind romance, Gyles receives a letter one day, indicating Miss Ward has left for parts unknown and without giving a reason.  Despite his search, Gyles cannot find his fiancée and is devastated.  When a letter from his former governess arrives with a request to visit her, he resists going, but in the end relents.  Imagine his surprise when he enters and sees Miss Ward is a guest as well!  A lovely short about love gone awry, only to come back again.  Hanbury's second contribution is The Virtuous Courtesan, A Midsummer Eve at Rookery End story.  For those of you unfamiliar with the Rookery End stories please see my review here.  This is the story of Leonora and Marcus, the gracious hosts of the previous stories.  The story begins with Leonora breaking into Rookery End, the seat of the Earl of Allingham, to steal a portrait her father sold.  A portrait that was not an original, but a copy.  She is caught, not by a servant, but by the Earl himself- a much younger version than what she expected!  Sparks fly in this sweet tail about housebreaking, and love at first sight.

The final works in this delightful collection are by author Phillipa Ashley, another favorite of mine. (do you see a pattern here?)  Ashley contributes two sweet stories to this collection, starting off with the Feast of Stefan.  And before I go on, you will want to feast on Stefan before you come to the conclusion of this tale!  Nick has had his eyes on Sarah for awhile, but was afraid to ask her out because of the death of her husband.  Then along comes Stefan from Slovakia, tall, handsome, and witty to boot.  Stefan is there for work, which just so happens to be the same place Nick works, and they get to know each other over time.  Everyone in the village loves Stefan, especially after his first gesture is buying the entire pub a round!  Nick’s feelings for Sarah are strong, but he wonders of Stefan and they way they talk to each other.  Sure that Sarah has eyes for Stefan; he slowly resigns himself to losing Sarah.  It’s only after a freak snowstorm and hitting his head do these two come together in what is a very sweet story.  The final story of the collection is A Bolt From the Blue, the story of Lisa and her quest to get over the betrayal of her fiancé.  A weekend of camping and hiking with a friend turns into a mountain rescue as her friend is injured, and Lisa is led back down the mountain by Hagar as they jokingly call him.  Lisa comes face to face with a Viking God or the equivalent in this case, which will set your heart pounding.  After packing up their equipment, Lisa sets off to thank the rescue team and meets up with Hagar again, and this time sparks fly.  We never do learn his name, but it’s not really necessary, and I’m sure you will agree.  I do always love Phillipa’s leading men.

Brief Encounters is a must read, and its size makes it the perfect evening getaway.  Be sure to download this as quickly as you can!  It can be found at all online bookstores, and according to author blogs, the print version will be out in September.  Well done, ladies!

Monday, June 6, 2011

Just Like Heaven, by Julia Quinn

If you are familiar with Julia Quinn's series on the alphabetically named Bridgerton offspring, you are familiar with the infamous and dreaded Smythe-Smith musicales.  I always wondered at the women who comprised the Smythe-Smith quartet. Why would they subject themselves and their audience to those dreaded performances?  We get our answers in this new series.

The first is the story of Honoria Smythe-Smith, a daughter of the Earl of Winstead, a member of the quartet and most definitely not a virtuoso on the violin. She and her brother, Daniel, (now the Earl of Winstead after the passing of his father) have been life-long friends of Marcus Holroyd, the Earl of Chatteris. Marcus grew up motherless and alone, with an absent parent for a father.  Shy and friendless, Marcus is sent to Eton and, with no family to call his own, starts to spend holidays with the Smythe-Smiths, and Daniel, his new best friend. Honoria, the youngest sibling of the prolific Smythe-Smith family, tags along on all their adventures to Daniel's embarrassment and Marcus' amusement. As the trio grows older,  they each go their separate ways.  Marcus and Honoria's paths cross in London numerous times and when Daniel is forced to leave the country, he asks Marcus to watch over Honoria.

Honoria is entering her second year on the marriage mart and is desperate to get married and leave the quartet behind her. When she sets up a situation for a Bridgerton to notice her, what she gets is Marcus instead. And when his life is threatened by her actions, they both realize that they are far more to each other than life-long friends.

It was nice to revisit with some of my favorite characters from the Bridgerton series. We also get an explanation for how the musicales started and why the girls in the quartet stick with it, even though they know they should give it up for the good of the ton.

With no real purpose in mind except the enjoyment of the reader, Just Like Heaven fits the bill for a fun historical romance romp. Unlike the Smythe-Smith musicales, this book is by no means a hardship to get through.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Winter Sea, by Susanna Kearsley

I know some wonderful authors. When I ask them how they know what to write, they all tell me that their characters "talk" to them; that their protagonists are the conduit through which they, as artists, express themselves and in so doing, produce the story they want to tell. But what if there was more to it than just having a creative imagination and a will to tell a story?

Carrie McClelland is an author, in Scotland to visit her agent and do research on her book about Captain Nathaniel Hooke, an 18th century Jacobite intent on returning King James to the throne of Scotland in 1708. Her agent suggests that she write the book through the eyes of someone other than Hooke, that perhaps a woman as a narrator can get the story moving along at a faster clip. Carrie takes up residence in a cottage by the sea, near a castle called Slains, the ancestral home of the Earl of Erroll. The castle seems to call to her in some way that she finds hard to ignore. And when Carrie takes Jane's suggestion, the story does indeed start to write itself, and so easily that she's is a bit frightened by just how well Sophia Paterson, her narrator, tells it. Effortlessly, Carrie writes about a life lived 300 years earlier, checking actual history against what she has written and starting to realize that coincidence has nothing to do with the fact that she's no longer writing historical fiction, but historical fact.

While you might think that this is a bit gimmicky, or that it's another wonderful time travel story (the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon comes to mind), this is neither. It's an engrossing, at times heart- wrenching love story that's carried on two distinct parallel planes. The first story, that of Sophia and John Moray, comes to life with some of the most romantic lines I've ever read. The description of their wedding night and subsequent parting on the eve of John's exile to France to serve Young King James, is some of the best writing I've come across in a long time. At the same time that we live through Sophia's era, Carrie, in the present day and in her own personal life, helps draw the two parallel lines closer together. It's fascinating reading the history of these turbulent times and at the same time feeling Carrie's sense of confusion and then acceptance over what seems to be to happening to her in writing Sophia's story. To be honest, there were more than a few times, while reading this book, that a chill ran through me, probably not unlike what Carrie feels when she thinks that her surroundings (or a pair of  gray eyes) seems a bit too familiar.

I don't want to give too much away. There are plot twists that are just too exquisite and can only be appreciated by reading the book yourself. While the premise may seem confusing, it's impossible to mistake what century you are in, or from whose perspective the story is being told. From start to finish,  I actually had to force myself to put it down. I didn't want it to end.  If you read one book this year, read The Winter Sea. Historical romance it may be, but it's not like anything you've read before. At least I haven't. It will stay with you long after you're done, and, like Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series, will have you asking, as I've been asking myself, "What if...?"

Thursday, April 28, 2011

And Only To Deceive by Tasha Alexander

And Only To Deceive is Alexander's first book in the Lady Emily series. The series focuses on our heroine, Lady Emily Ashton, who is a young, rich widow living in Victorian England. She was married only a short time to a man she knew almost nothing about and had very little interest in changing that fact once she was married. She married only to escape her nightmare of a mother (think Mrs. Bennet on steroids with bit more public decorum). The book's main focus is following Emily on her journey to know, understand and truly mourn her stranger of a husband, Philip, while at the same time coming into her own as an independent woman. After coming out of full mourning and beginning to re-enter society, she finds the social strictures as confining as the blasted corsets and unpalatable as the sherry.

As she learns more about her late husband she begins to take an interest in his passions. She begins to learn Greek, read Homer (Lord, deliver me from ever having to pick Homer up again), and develop an interest in Greek antiquities. Through this she finds that her husband had been caught up in a mystery which leads her to question his integrity. She, of course, along with her two friends simply must get to the bottom of things. I must admit that this part did get a bit Nancy Drew and her BFFs, George and Bess, for me but I could fight through it.
Enter the love interests, Colin, her late husband's nearest and dearest and Andrew, another friend of Philip's. The reader is supposed to be far more swoony for Colin even though his unknown part in the mystery makes him seem a bit shady. I'll give him some swoon, but he's no Mr. Darcy or Captain Wentworth or even Brisbane if you read Deanna Raybourn. I have a feeling his swoon factor will improve in the next books.

I liked this book very much. I enjoyed Tasha Alexander's voice and characters. Emily, who I did not care for much at the beginning of the book, grew on me as she continued to evolve and mature. She had her moments of knuckleheadedness but overall she was likable, and I cared about what happened to her. One of the strongest parts of the writing was the excerpts from Philip's journal. It really let the reader get to know him. It felt like we were sharing Emily's journey of discovery along with her. I look forward to reading the next book in the series.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Where Shadows Dance by C.S. Harris

OH MY GOSH! This book was soooooooooooooooooooooooooo good. For those you not in the club of awesomeness known as the St. Cyr Society of Adoration or Team Hero....then you need to get on board!

The St. Cyr mystery series is set in Regency England. The books follow the path of Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin. A tortured and wounded soul that upon his return from the battlefields of Spain, begins solving murders in London. Due to his unique position as a one of the ton, he can go to and ask questions of those that otherwise would be protected from the insult of even being considered as a culprit for murder, much less investigated.

This newest book follows the intrigue surrounding the death of Alexander Ross, a member of the Foreign Office. What is first believed to be a natural death is soon proved to be murder. Devlin is asked by his close friend, Dr. Paul Gibson, to investigate the murder. The trail leads Devlin all over London, into the spy networks maintained by France, Russia, and England, the office of the Foreign Office, and Devlin's archenemy Jarvis. The story is further enriched by the continuing drama between Devlin and Hero Jarvis.

What I love about this series is that while Harris pays attention to the details of the day (dress, decorations, etc) that normally take up chapters of a regency romance or mystery but she doesn't let it rule her writing. Each plot is so intricately woven that it's VERY rare when I actually figure out the identity of the killer before I'm supposed to. She also weaves the politics of the day into her stories and being a bit of a history nut, I love the series even more

This latest book (the 6th in the series) was worth the almost 2 year wait...yes...it was torture for me because I'm a crazy fan like that. It's my favorite so far. My only complaint is that it was too short but that's my normal issue with books when I read them in a day; which was the case here.

So if you like mysteries, Regency, troubled heroes, quirky characters, intrigue, and FANTASTIC writing then give these books a shot! I recommend that you start at the beginning of the series. Each one is WAY too good to miss!!!

Monday, April 4, 2011

Marrying the Captain, by Carla Kelly

The first is a series of three books following the illegitimate offspring of a none too heroic naval officer, Marrying the Captain is the story of Eleanor Massie, also known as Nana.  When her father decides to sell her to the highest bidder to pay his gambling debts, Nana runs from his influence and the school for girls he sent her to. Finding sanctuary with her grandmother in her hometown of Plymouth, she tries her hardest to keep the Mulberry, the boarding house she and her grandmother run, from closing down. Living in a navy town, Nana is reminded time and again of her mother's fall from grace and the circumstances of her birth and swears she will not be persuaded to meet the same end.

Naval Captain Oliver Worthy is given what at first looks like an innocuous assignment by his commanding officer (Nana's father) to find her and keep an eye on her while he is in Plymouth. His ship, the Tireless, is in dry dock for repairs to damage done in a skirmish with the French. As part of the blockade of the French coast, Oliver cannot wait to get back to sea. And as a life-long navy man, he has seen too many comrades die in battle and leave families behind to grieve. He swears that he will never marry and put someone through the pain of waiting for him to come home. Well, you know what they say about good intentions.

Oliver takes up residence at the Mulberry and predictably, he and Nana fall in love. What's not predictable are the obstacles thrown in their path; French spies, kidnapping and cowardly Admirals among them. The ending, when it comes, is a satisfying conclusion to a story whose outcome is not guaranteed.

This is the first Carla Kelly book I've read, and it won't be the last. I have the two sequels on order, and look forward to re-visiting with Nana and Oliver in those.  For a quick read, almost innocent in its story-telling and characterizations, Marrying the Captain is a sweet diversion.