Sunday, August 29, 2010

His at Night by Sherry Thomas

Book Description:
Elissande Edgerton is a desperate woman, a virtual prisoner in the home of her tyrannical uncle. Only through marriage can she claim the freedom she craves. But how to catch the perfect man?

Lord Vere is used to baiting irresistible traps. As a secret agent for the government, he’s tracked down some of the most devious criminals in London, all the while maintaining his cover as one of Society’s most harmless—and idiotic—bachelors. But nothing can prepare him for the scandal of being ensnared by Elissande.

Forced into a marriage of convenience, Elissande and Vere are each about to discover they’re not the only one with a hidden agenda. With seduction their only weapon against each other—and a dark secret from the past endangering both their lives—can they learn to trust each other even as they surrender to a passion that won’t be denied?

Another complex, thoughtful historical romance set in the late 1890's, only this time the hero is really a spy for the Crown posing as an aristocratic idiot.  The heroine is a desperate young woman who entraps him into marriage in order to get away from her horribly abusive uncle.  The book had a lightheartedness to it with a dark underbelly.  Overall, I liked it, but because both the hero and heroine are deceiving each other most of the time, their relationship took a long time to blossom since neither one of them trusted the other.

Elissande must deal with her horrid uncle that our hero, Vere, is trying to trap.  The uncle is suspected of forging diamonds and selling them on the market.  Elissande knows nothing about the diamonds.  All she's worried about is getting away from him and protecting her aunt who is in a constant laudanum induced trance; her escape from the perverse cruelty perpetrated by her husband. 

In order to set up the uncle, Vere and his fellow spies cook up a scheme in which one of them rents a nearby estate and has it infested with rats during a country estate party - uggh, I hate rats!  I have a particular aversion to anything related to rats.  The hostess of the country party (Vere's partner and ringleader of the group) goes to Elissande's nearby home while the uncle is away on a brief trip.  She begs her to allow her friends to stay with them until they can clear up the rat situation.  Elissande is hesitant at first but recognizes it as her only opportunity of escape!  It's her chance to meet someone and marry them in three days before her uncle gets back!  A long shot - but she goes for it!  Elissande is determined!

Vere's act throughout the book, which was used to discourage anyone from realizing that he's really a spy, calls for a real stretch of the imagination.  After a riding accident in his late teens, he pretends that the fall caused brain damage and he's been "a little simple" ever since.  Everyone likes him and puts up with him, because he can't help it.  He comes across as a big blundering, overgrown puppy while secretly collecting evidence for the Crown's spy ring. 

Now, I must admit, implausible as it was, I liked this farfetched storyline.  It came across as a screwball comedy.  His initial meeting of Elissande is very funny, for when she catches her first glimpse of him, she's instantly taken by his handsome good looks, immediately setting her sights on him as her ticket out of hell.  But  once she realizes his "infirmity" he annoys her to no end and she sets her sights on his brother instead.  It was amusing how the two of them wrangled with each other, she trying to avoid him while he is trying to keep her away from his too trusting brother, Freddie (from Thomas' first book, Private Arrangements).  Elissande nearly reaches her goal, only Vere foils the attempt.  In doing so, he winds up entangling himself  - literally - in front of  witnesses!  Well, that settles it.  Nearly choking on the irony of his predicament, he agrees to marry her.

Once they marry and Elissande has managed to escape from her uncle's clutches, the story becomes a bit more serious.  For one thing, Vere is extremely angry that he's been trapped into marriage, even though he's been drawn to her from the instant he first met her.  You see, upon his first meeting with Elissande he was nearly convinced that she was the dream girl he'd been imagining for years - until he realized she was nothing more than a vixen set on capturing his brother!  He'd gotten his hopes up over her and then was bitterly disappointed upon the realization that she was nothing more than a schemer.  Utter resentment sets in.  Of course, he has no idea of why she did it. 

Now married, he's in a predicament.  He doesn't want to bed her, but after drinking an entire bottle of brandy - well... bed her he does!  It doesn't help matters that she's throwing herself at him, bent on consummating the marriage to make sure her uncle can't have it annulled.  How can Vere resist her in his drunken state?  One little set back he didn't count on was that while drunk, he's himself, he's no longer Lord Vere, the idiot.  Elissande is three sheets to the wind herself and doesn't notice the difference in his behavior until a few days later when she realizes he's faking everything!  She questions him, but he just keeps playing dumb, keeping up the jovial act and helping her kindly with her hangover the next morning.  He doesn't remember what he said to her or the fact he blew his cover - some spy!

I had some trouble with this plot point.  It didn't sit well with me.  The fact they're both so crocked for their first time in bed together - to the point where neither one can barely remember anything about it?   Ummm, not good.  Still, he keeps up his act as the dopey Lord Vere, but his real self shows through, particularly when he stops her uncle from brutally accosting her.   Elissande sees the real side of him more and more.  He's continues to stay angry with her, but it doesn't stop him from making love to her again. He resists her as much as he can but it's useless. It bugged me that he wasn't more understanding once he found out why she was so desperate to get away from her uncle.  She wants him to tell her the truth about why he persists in the act, but he can't tell her because he's a spy!

Both are experts on acting - he as the idiot Lord Vere and she as the content and dutiful niece to her uncle and then as the happily married wife to Lord Vere.  Pasting smiles on their faces, no one realizes what's really happening to them in their brittle sham of a marriage.  It was a strange situation.   Eventually, as is the case in all Sherry Thomas books, they each go through a lot of soul searching, secrets are revealed and they finally see the light and realize they can't live without one another, fallin in love despite their mistrust.

Don't let me forget to mention the great side story going on between Vere's brother Freddie and long time friend, Angelica who asks him to paint her nude. What?  Yes... nude.  Angelica has known and loved Freddie forever, yet has never been able to convey her feelings to him .  She comes up with the posing nude idea in hopes it will spur Freddie into wanting her. I loved what happens between them!  One particular moment when Vere pays an unexpected visit to Freddie's house is priceless!

Another scene I loved was when Vere tells Freddie the truth and the way Freddie lashes into him - it nearly brought tears to my eyes.  I don't blame Freddie for being upset and it underlines how selfish Vere had been all those years making everyone think he was brain damaged.  It opened Vere's eyes up to a lot of things.

Sherry Thomas has worked her magic again, although this is a slight departure for her, compared to her previous books.   There's more humor and less anguish and no flashbacks.  Vere and his charade was very cleverly written, especially the way she made him say and do things as Vere the idiot. I loved the way Elissande watched him and caught on to his act and then tried it on him herself.  It was a turning point for them once he realized that he couldn't fool her anymore. Then they just had to work out the marriage business between them. Trust me, it all works out in the end! All in all, a great read all in one day, it was hard to put down!  Highly recommended!


A Summer to Remember by Mary Balogh

Book Description:
Kit Butler is cool, dangerous, one of London's most infamous bachelors - marriage is the last thing on his mind. But Kit's family has other plans. Desperate to thwart his father's matchmaking, Kit needs a bride . . . fast. Enter Miss Lauren Edgeworth.

A year after being abandoned at the altar, Lauren has determined that marriage is not for her. When these two fiercely independent souls meet, sparks fly-and a deal is hatched. Lauren will masquerade as Kit's intended if he agrees to provide a passionate, adventurous, unforgettable summer. When summer ends, she will break off the engagement, rendering herself unmarriageable and leaving them both free. Everything is going perfectly - until Kit does the unthinkable: He begins to fall in love. A summer to remember is not enough for him. But how can he convince Lauren to be his . . . for better, for worse, for the rest of their lives?

I really loved the prequel to this book, One Night for Love which I read about a year ago.  That was a story about the Earl of Kilbourne.  Right before he is about to marry his childhood friend, Lauren Edgeworth, he finds out his long lost love - the wife who he has believed to be dead - is alive!  The wedding is dramatically interrupted with her appearance and after much ado, they live happily ever after.

A Summer to Remember is the jilted Lauren's story.  A year after being left at the altar she meets up with Kit Butler a man about town.  Kit's complicated and has alot of family baggage to deal with.  Due to the unexpected death of his older brother, Kit is the heir to the family title and he's hiding a mountain of guilt and anguish beneath a carefree, rakish facade.  When we first see Kit he is bare chested, fighting with two rough and common men in the park.  This is a regency, so to say the least this is a pretty amazing sight in broad daylight.  The prim and proper Lauren Edgeworth witnesses the scene, but she is too ladylike to comment upon it, best to act as if she never saw anything.  Yet she can't forget his bare chest - or the way their eyes meet as he kisses a grateful milkmaid who thanks him for defending her - the reason for the brawl.

Eventually, they meet again at a ball and Kit, who's in the market for a wife, sets his sights (due to a wager) on Lauren.  She is the epitome of the pure, demure and oh so respectable young lady - despite the embarrassment of her near-marriage the year before.  Lauren has her troubles as well, though it takes her a long time to realize them.  She and Kit become friends and there's an attraction there, both are handsome and beautiful people. They make a bargain to pretend they are getting married so that she can "break off" the engagement at the end of the summer and then go off and have a house of her own in Bath and he can appease his family for a while by appearing responsible by marrying a respectable girl of his own choosing, rather than an arranged marriage with the daughter of a neighboring estate.

Now, right off the bat, you know this is all going to lead to a lot of heartache and trouble.  Lauren wants to have a little excitement and passion in her life (which it has been sorely lacking in) and Kit is the man to help her do it.  It became extremely frustrating for the more time they spent together, the more Kit fell in love - and his family loved her too!  Yet despite all of this,  Lauren kept insisting that they should stick to their bargain and not marry - even after they've had sex!  How wanton! ;) What is she thinking?  She's under the wrong impression that he's still in love with the wild and charismatic daughter next door, Freyja Bedwyn, no matter how much Kit tries to prove otherwise.  She thinks they would be perfect together.  Coincidence how Freyja's name sounds like "Free", she represents all that Lauren wants to be - free.  I did not like Freyja at all by the way.

I wasn't overly won over by Lauren either, primarily because it bothered me that she insisted on not marrying Kit throughout the entire book, even though she had her reasons which were obviously misguided.  I understood where she was coming from, but it still irked me; frustrating.  She was somewhat of an ice queen that melts.  I loved Kit and Lauren's frolicking and romantic bantering together and Kit really works on bringing the real Lauren up to the surface.  He teaches her how to enjoy the simple things in life: swimming, riding, climbing trees - and making love.   Balogh is wonderful at this kind of writing, creating relationships and emotions, which made it all the more frustrating to me, for I really sided with Kit and felt like kicking Lauren for what she put him through!  Plus, I couldn't exactly condone the sexual relationship because I knew Lauren wouldn't marry him - I'm a stickler in that respect.

In addition to the up front romantic storyline between Kit and Lauren, there's also a nice symmetry to the book as both hero and heroine fight their own private demons and win.   Kit has his cathartic moment patching up the difficulties with his brother, Syd, and coming to terms with the loss of Syd's arm and almost dying.  Kit has been carrying around a huge burden of guilt needlessly for years feeling he was responsible for Syd's loss.  Finally, Kit can let go of it.   Lauren has her cathartic moment as well by finding out her mother did not abandon her as a child by just disappearing.  It turns out that it's an entirely different kind of story that brings closure to Lauren and her need for acceptance which was the reason for why she had always been such a good and perfect little girl and eventually - young lady.  Good but boring.  Each were instrumental in helping the other, it created a bond between them and it made their relationship more meaningful - yet still Lauren could not admit she wanted to marry Kit!  And still Kit could not tell her he loved her.  After all that!  They were both at fault here since they couldn't speak up and say how they felt!  Grr!  As it's mentioned in the book, communication is key and that is what eventually sets them "free."  It's a great moment when they finally get there!

It's a wonderful ending, though I did find it a bit jarring that they enacted almost the same exact scene between Lauren's ex-fiance Kilbourne and his wife, Lily that Lauren accidentally witnessed in the first book - a little weird. I would have preferred that they had their own new scenes. Same thing with Lauren and Kit's wedding at Newbury, the scene of her first "almost" wedding.   I know,  I know, banish those old bad memories with new good ones, but still!  I wanted Kit and Lauren to have their own fresh and different memories!

All in all, this was a good romance with a lot of emotional complexity and angst to it.  But, I felt the daring deeds that Lauren agrees to with Kit unrealistic, particularly in giving up her virginity to him with no intention of marrying him.  I see how it's all part of the way we see Lauren completely blossom in the story and by the end I liked her, but I still couldn't help holding it against her the way she wouldn't marry Kit after all they'd gone through together.  She just refused to believe he really wanted her and not Freyja!  Sometimes Lauren was so dense, plus she had almost no sense of humor.

This book sets the reader up for the Slightly Series which features the unusual Bedwyn family next door (and the awful Freyja!)  Also, one of Lauren's friends, Gwen, Lady Muir deserves a book of her own and I hear Ms. Balogh will be writing it soon - I'm so pleased to hear it! I really liked Gwen, I hope she winds up with that tall Viking of a Bedwyn - or at least one of them, yet I suspect it will be someone totally new!

To sum it up, it's not as good as the first book in the series, but it was an enjoyable read. It was frustrating that the heroine kept insisting on not marrying the hero, but it was a well thought out, beautiful story of how both come to terms with their painful family histories and how they help each other become whole again.


Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Vampire's Kiss by Cynthia Eden

Book Description:
An ancient evil. An unholy alliance. An eternal love. William Dark is a monster-a vampire who feeds on blood and fear. He is exactly what Savannah Daniels needs. A year ago, Savannah's twin brother and his wife were brutally murdered. Savannah swore a vow of vengeance against the man, the beast, that killed him. A beast that is now after her. Savannah needs William's help in order to keep her vow. She must convince him to transform her, to give her the kiss of the vampire, so that she will be strong enough to defeat the killer that is on her trail. Savannah and William enter into an unholy alliance: He will transform her and see that she receives her justice. In return, she must be his companion, his mate, for eternity. But Savannah soon realizes that there is more at stake than just her life. Because once she tastes William's kiss, she knows that she may be in jeopardy of losing her heart as well. And she will have to put all of her trust, all of her faith, into the hands of a man who lost his soul centuries ago.

I don't know what makes me read these vampire stories, ultimately I never like them very much.  But, when I read the description of it, I thought it sounded pretty good.  I had trouble with it, mainly because first, I bought it in ebook format.  I hate ebook format because it came in pdf and I have to read it on my laptop.  When I uploaded it to my PDF Reader on my iTouch, I had trouble with it, it was such a pain in the neck, so I then bought it twice in a different ebook format, so I wound up buying this stupid vampire book two times!  *bangs head* If it had been available on kindle I would have been fine, so live and learn, stupid me.

This is the story of Savannah who goes to William Dark who lives in this big house on a mountain somewhere in Georgia and is a vampire.  But, no one knows this except Savannah who has found his brother's diary - from 500 years ago!  William has been a vampire for over five hundred years and he has a complicated story, lousy childhood, brutal father, one good brother, one bad brother who turns out to be a psycho that turned into a vampire as well.  He wanted to be a vampire too!  Now he's a serial vampire killer on the loose who William has been trying to chase down for five hundred years - unsuccessfully.  He would always get to his brother too late - only to find the dead husk of a body that he's fed on and left dead.  What a life!

Savannah is dying of a brain tumor.  Her brother and his wife had been murdered by William's brother and she wants revenge.  The only way is for William to "turn" her into a vampire so she can be strong enough to kill his awful brother.  At first William tries to brush her off and scare her with his red eyes and long fangs, but it doesn't work.  Instead he's turned on by her, never in all the lonely years as a vampire has a woman made him feel the way Savannah makes him feel.  He must have her. 

He makes a bargain with her, if he turns her into a vampire (three bites in the neck and commingling of his mighty powerful vampire blood) then she must remain with him forever as his mate.  Forever.   Hmm, tough decision.  She has to take some time to think it over.  After one night, she agrees.  They have special vampire blood sucking sex and of course it's fantastic and soon he's teaching her the ins and out of being a vampire, but she's not completely a vampire yet.  She needs to be bitten by him three times.

But William's brother isn't waiting for Savannah to be ready, he's terrorizing more people, including her best friend Mary who is all the way in Seattle.  Savannah flies to Seattle to be with Mary in the hospital and almost gets killed by William's brother.  William flies (on his own power) there and saves her in time.   Just barely.  In the nick of time William turns her and together they battle his brother.

Now, I bet you're wondering whatever happened to the good brother?  Well, he died five hundred years ago and William has blamed himself for his death all these years.  Now, we find out that it was really William's bad brother who really killed him - all the more reason to hate this psycho.

Lots of revelations emerge about William, and he's really not as "dark" as we are to believe.  He's an anguished vampire who falls in love with Savannah, but he wants to do the noble thing and once his brother is finally dead and gone, he releases Savannah from their bargain.  He doesn't want to force her to stay with him, he wants her to stay because she wants to.  I wasn't surprised, but of course by this point (after a week) she loves him and she's already a vampire, so of course she'll stay with him!  How predictable.  One thing that puzzled me is we never find out what happened to this guy that went to Savannah's hotel room to tell her that she's in danger.  He thought William was the vampire that killed her brother.  William then scares him off and we find out that his brother is probably going to go after him.  Definitely a loose end!

If you are into vampire books, you'll probably like this one.  Plenty of hot bloody vampire sex and if you're into that sort of thing, then this book's for you.  This was just not my thing. Was it because the characterizations were weak or because the plot was lacklustre?  There was just no energy to this book - boring.  I didn't care about anyone and couldn't wait to get it over with.  If I hadn't bought it - twice - I would have given up on it.  Thankfully, it was short.


Confessions of a Scoundrel by Karen Hawkins

Book Description:
Legend says that whomever possesses the St. John talisman ring will find their one true love. Now that the ring rests in the pocket of renowned scoundrel Brandon St. John, the dashing rake must decide whether it is a blessing ... or a curse.

Never has the irresistible rogue, Brandon St. John, pursued a woman with more fervor - but his ardent suit of Lady Verena Westforth has a different purpose. The delectable blond lovely is indeed enticing, but Brandon suspects her of hiding a valuable missive that he has sworn to recover. With a sensuous kiss and a passionate caress he intends to lower Verena's guard ... and then discover where she's hidden "the goods."

Without the missive, Verena stands to lose the one thing dearest to her heart. And now an extraordinary man has entered her life ... at the worst possible time! Vulnerable though she may be, Verena vows she will not be just another of Brandon's "conquests," even as she aches to melt in his arms. But is he a needed friend or a foe in alluring disguise ... and will she be able to prove to him that love is their true destiny?

I loved this romance! Original plot and terrific chemistry between the hero and heroine.  A perfect combo that made this a delightful read!   Handsome Regency man about town Brandon St. John finally meets his match, albeit reluctantly, in the form of Verena, Lady Wentworth, a widow of dubious reputation.  Brandon first meets Verena when he is instructed (by his brothers) to pay her a visit.  Their youngest brother has been involved with her and the rest of the St. Johns want her paid off to let him go.  Brandon is instantly smitten by her himself and she plays him like a violin.  But when he offers to pay her off, she tricks him and vows to make him regret he ever met her - brilliantly!  She resents the implication that she can be bought off and goes out of her way to humiliate him in front of the ton.  She's not the little minx he thinks she is, although she's probably more clever than he's comfortable with.  She's actually more honorable than most believe, she just needs to gamble (and cheat once in a while though she doesn't like to) to pay her bills.

Brandon tries to resist her feminine wiles and allurements, but it's a losing battle.  One thing leads to another and it turns out a murder has taken place, her brother is being blackmailed and while trying to resist their mutual attraction, Verena and Brandon team up to find a mysterious list that was lost somewhere in her house that belonged to the dead man before he was murdered. Danger, mystery and passion abound! I loved it!

As far as the title goes, I wondered "Who's the scoundrel here, Verena or Brandon?"  Verena's past catches up with her.  As she and Brandon get closer to who the murderer is and their passion heats up, she worries about what will Brandon think of her when he learns that her parents are con artists who pass themselves off as European royals?  She's tried to distance herself from that side of her childhood, but will Brandon think she's nothing more than a devious little con artist herself?  A scoundrel?  Or is he the scoundrel?

There are so many good parts to this book, the banter and playfulness between them is priceless, they're  good together!  One particularly funny moment is when Verena gets conked on the head after an intruder breaks into her London townhouse.  Fortunately, Brandon is close at hand to come to her rescue.  She's all woozy and drowsy from a laudanum induced daze and what does she crave?  Chocolate! Such a woman! :D  After the chocolate, it's Brandon she wants.  I loved it how in her wooziness she thinks Brandon is the most handsome man in the world!  I would too if I were in her place! 

This is a really fun romance, good plot, great dialogue and Verena and Brandon make a terrific team!  The side characters are fun too, including her brother who Brandon is jealous of at first, having no idea he's her brother and her over protective pickpocket butler.  You're rooting for everybody and can't wait to find out how it all turns out - a real keeper!  Second in the Talisman Ring series, I can't wait to read them all!

The Stone Maiden by Susan King

Book Description:
As the leader of her late-12th-century Highland clan, which has been decimated by war and illness since her father's death, Alainna MacLaren has no choice but to abide by the legend of the Stone Maiden in order to save her Scottish clan from oblivion: she must wed a man willing to adopt her clan name. Since each clan is fiercely protective of the lineage of its proud name, Alainna's mission seems futile. Sebastien de Bret, a Norman knight, who was a nameless infant foundling raised by monks, agrees to protect Alainna's clan in exchange for the land the king will give him. He will even marry Alainna in accord with the king's wishes, but he refuses to relinquish the name he has struggled so hard to establish for himself. King, whose research into the territory and time period is evident, strongly draws readers into the plot and her characters' lives. -- Publishers Weekly

First in the Maiden Trilogy, as Scottish medieval romances go this was a good story, but not your typical alpha male warrior with bulging muscles and caveman mentality à la Julie Garwood.  This is the tale of two strong and independent people that are thrown together against their will.  Spiritually, they're meant for each other and they can't evade the love that naturally occurs as they become closer and closer, yet they're torn because they must be true to their family heritage.  The romance has a slow, steady build up between the two. Sweet and poignant, but also a little bit dull.

Alainna is near her wit's end.  Now chief of the MacLaren's, a dying clan in the Scottish Highlands, she needs help.  With most of the MacLaren men killed due to the ongoing feud with the neighboring clan that is bent on wiping hers out, she prays for assistance from the "stone maiden", a stone idol whose legend has protected her clan for centuries.  Yet, according to legend, it's magic will end soon. Alainna has a mystical vision of a golden warrior that comes to help her.  Little does she know her vision will come true, only she doesn't recognize it when it does.

Desperate, she goes to the King of Scotland to ask for assistance.  His idea of assistance is to marry her off to one of his Norman knights, Sebastien de Bret who hails from Breton.  Sebastien is less than enthusiastic at the idea of marrying Alainna, not because he is not attracted to her (he is) but he has a young son he needs to return to in Breton.  A widower, Sebastien is only too well aware of his own orphaned childhood and wants to be a father to his boy - and not waste his time calming clannish feuds in the wilds of Scotland.  He has received word from the monks who care for his son that their monastery has burned down and he needs to get to his son soon - but the king wants him to marry Alainna and stay in Scotland until he can subdue the neighboring clans that threaten the MacLarens.  What can he do?

Obeying the king, he goes to Alainna and they have an uneasy courtship.  She insists that if he marries her, he takes on the name of MacLaren, or else her clan will die out. This is of the utmost importance to her.  She cannot let her clan end with her.  Sebastien won't agree and this is the huge obstacle that they must face no matter how much they are attracted to one another.  As they battle with their consciences over what is right and wrong, Sebastien's yearning for family and Alainna grows.  Her clan becomes a family to him, yet he still is duty bound to see that his son carries on his name - he cannot give it up for her!  They go back and forth on this issue interminably, there are some passionate kisses, soulful looks and a handfasting that takes place, but both are miserable over the conundrum each must face.   Can their love for one another trump their familial duty?

The gradual realization of love between the hero and heroine was bittersweet in this romance for both were so torn.  At times I was frustrated and found their constant "push me pull you" relationship tedious.  I just wanted to say "Get over it, one of you give in!"  They couldn't be completely happy and at times I wondered how this was all going to wind up, there was no easy answer to their problem.  But, as in all romances, they do get their happily ever after ending which was gratifying to read about after all the aggravation they went through to get to it.

There are some exciting battle scenes, the usual villainous neighboring clan leader that has his eye on Alainna, and Sebastien was the epitome of the noble, shining, honorable hero who comes to her rescue.  I did scratch my head over why it took Alainna so long to realize he was the man in her vision though.  I also had a hard time with Sebastien and his insistence of keeping his own name - it wasn't really his father's name, it was a made up name, so why not take on the name of MacLaren?  It certainly would have made things a lot easier on them all!  Although I had a hard time with the stubbornness of the hero and heroine, their characters were well drawn and I knew where they were coming from and what their motivation was.  I really felt sorry for both of them, but I can't say that I was riveted to the story.  I read on, but it just didn't grab me.  I rolled my eyes alot and huffed and puffed over what seemed so obvious to me.

The side story of a fugitive clansman returned from Ireland that Alainna was hiding from Sebastien was interesting, though I wish there had been more to that part of the story.  Sebastien was supposed to capture him and bring him back to the King.  Still, I was glad that when the truth was ultimately revealed to Sebastien about her deception, he didn't turn all emo on her!  It would have been one more thing to pile onto their woes!

All in all, not a bad story, but there was almost no humor or playfulness in this romance, which is key to me.   My favorite romances always have that element.   Just this long suffering problem they had to overcome.  They had their tender moments together, but not much passion, I felt like this family issue was an albatross hanging around their neck.  If this is your cup of tea, familial anguish and honor vs. love, then you'll like this romance.  I did enjoy if for the most part, but I will not continue with the trilogy.


Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Perfect Waltz by Anne Gracie

Book Description:
Hope Merridew dreamed of dancing the perfect waltz with the perfect man — and he's not the tough, dark stranger who has come to London to court another woman. Only how can she resist him?

Sebastian has his own demons: a dark past to come to terms with and two desperately needy little sisters to care for. For their sake he must resist Miss Hope Merridew — but can he?

I loved this sweet regency romance, I thought it was even better than the first in the series! Sebastian Reyne is a great big bear of a man who tries to find a staid wife to help take care of his two younger sisters.   Instead, he meets and falls for the beautiful and vivacious Hope Merridew who surprises him with her sisterly know how.   This was a great story filled with emotion and poignancy, not to mention an adorable love story that develops between Sebastian and Hope.  Not a lot of sizzle between them, it's tame for a romance novel, but their relationship grows and grows with each meeting.  I loved him and the way he was so big and forbidding, yet such a sweetheart inside.

Sebastian lost his sisters years earlier which has greatly affected him as an adult.  Searching for them for years adds to his complicated background.  A widower and self made man who has a factory in the North (a la North and South), he comes from a good family, but his father ran into numerous debts when they were children and killed himself leaving his mother to manage for all of them.  The strain on her is too much and she dies, leaving a twelve year old Sebastian as man of the family.  He must work to put food on the table.  Too young to take care of his infant sisters, he pays for a woman to take care of them and visits them regularly.  But one day, they all disappear and he cannot find them for years and years.  Finally, as a grown man who is now a successful industrialist, Sebastian's detectives find the girls, but they are introverted and have seen a lot of the world, much of it scary and Sebastian blames himself for losing them, he fears they will be scarred for life for what they went through.  He's too scared to even ask them what happened, fearful for what he will learn.  All he knows is they don't trust him and it's going to be a long, hard road to get them to accept him as their brother.  Wracked with guilt, he is convinced he must marry the plain and sensible Lady Elinore who has an interest in running a orphanage for girls like his sisters based on the rules of "Rationality."  Her mother founded the orphanage and Sebastian thinks that if he marries the practical Elinore, his sisters will be in good hands.  How wrong he is, even though his heart is in the right place.

His plans go awry at a ball when he meets Hope Merridew.  Hope is a breath of fresh air and the most beautiful girl he's ever seen.  She's vivacious and naturally full of charm, guiless in every way.  She likes the way Sebastian looks at her too, yet he resists her at first until they waltz together at the end of the night, Hope's special last waltz that she reserves for only someone special.  Both are affected greatly by their dance and so begins the romance.  After that, they meet in the most unexpected places and they gradually fall for one another. Soon, Hope meets his two little sisters and is able to work her magic on them, for Hope has had a frightful childhood herself.  She knows what little girls need - much more than Lady Elinore and her school of Rationality!

Hope and Sebastian are drawn to one another, but he's torn for wanting the best for his sisters.  He's convinced Lady Elinore is the one he should marry - even though he's falling for Hope!  After some amusing episodes (one at a musicale that was especially funny) Sebastian succumbs to the siren song of Hope and sees for himself how right she is for him - and his sisters.  But there's also a lot of action and excitement before he reaches this conclusion for someone from his sisters' past is trying to kill them!  Hope and her equestrienne riding expertise saves the day! A daring rescue, some much needed soul searching and important secrets are all revealed to clear the path for happiness.

A short review, but take my word for it, this was an enjoyable story, more than just your typical romance.  The character development, writing and atmosphere were first rate.  Hope, the beautiful sister could have been just another pretty faced heroine, but she's so full or life and her riding antics bring personality to what could have been a boring heroine. I loved the side story of Lady Elinore and Sebastian's society friend, Giles.  Sebastian is a tortured hero, full of guilt over the loss of his sisters.  Hope is able to make him see that it wasn't his fault what happened to them and we have a happy ending for everyone.  I recommend this highly, mostly because I loved Sebastian.  He was such a great big lug with a kind heart and I loved the way he completely gave in to Hope's charms and finally saw what was best for his sisters - and himself.


Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters

Book Description:
In Victorian England, a woman wasn't supposed to be an archaeologist or a detective. Amelia Peabody was both. Thirty-one-year-old Victorian gentlewoman Amelia Peabody has inherited her father's strong will as well as his considerable fortune. On her way to Cairo to indulge her passion for Egyptology, she picks up Evelyn Barton-Forbes as a traveling companion. Evelyn has a tarnished past, but both she and Amelia believe that it won't come back to haunt her. That belief is shattered when Evelyn is attacked by a walking, homicidal mummy. Amelia enlists the aid of Radcliff Emerson, a prominent Egyptologist, to help unravel the plot against her friend and decipher the clues left by the mummy. Between grave digging and academic sparring, she manages to save his life. But with the threat of an ancient curse closing in, Amelia must resort to outrageous methods to prevent the mummy from making corpses of them all.
I loved, loved, loved this book!

The indomitable Amelia Peabody, Victorian spinster turned archeologist sleuth is an original - the original.  First in a long series of historical mystery novels starring Amelia, the series inception began with Crocodile on the Sandbank in 1975.   Since then, there are something like nineteen (!) books in the series, and Ms. Peters is still pumping them out! I can see why over the years, other authors have probably modeled their heroines after her, but they pale in comparison - no one is quite like Amelia!  She is irresistible! Having become a fan of this genre recently, I now recognize Amelia in several other historical mystery novels I've read lately. As much as I like these other female mystery solvers who also happen to be well-to-do Victorian ladies, none have been as deliciously fun to read as much as Amelia.  They don't even come close!

For one thing Amelia's dry wit and razor sharp tongue make the words leap off the pages.  She sparkles.  She's clever. She's rich.  She's blunt.  What a character, full of common sense and a strong dose of vinegar added for good measure.  She can match anyone. No one can up Ms. Peabody - well, maybe one person - a man whom she meets in Egypt on an archeological  dig ... but I get ahead of myself.  A self avowed spinster, she's proud of her status and is her own person.  Eager to travel and see the world, she befriends the destitute Evelyn Barton-Forbes, a young lady of aristocratic origin who has been cruelly duped into eloping with an Italian lothario who leaves her broke, ruined and unmarried.  Amelia, recognizing a kindred spirit in Evelyn, hires her on the spot to become her paid traveling companion.

The two travel from Rome to Egypt to sail along the Nile and see Egypt from the water (the only civilized way to see Egypt and the Pyramids).  Amelia is captivated by the country and it's antiquities and becomes an instant expert on all things Egyptian.  While in Cairo, they meet two brothers - one, a young, handsome and charmingly bashful gentleman who becomes instantly smitten with Evelyn and the other... well, let's just say Emerson isn't exactly like his brother. 

Emerson is a big bear of a man.  In Amelia's eyes he is just barely a gentlemen.  Dedicated to his archeological dig and abhorring the dirty dealings of antiquities dealers and their casual disregard for preservation, Emerson and Amelia come to loggerheads upon first meeting.  In her eyes, he is uncouth, lacking in the Victorian civilities she is accustomed to.  He criticizes everyone repeatedly and refers to her as "Peabody."  They are all thrown together while trying to solve the mystery of a mysterious mummy that is "haunting" Emerson's archeological site along the Nile.  Amelia, being the take charge kind of person that she is, commandeers the entire operation when Emerson falls ill and so begins our mystery.   Unbelieving in actual mummies, our archeological friends all try to capture the fake "mummy" and find out who is behind the deception that is scaring the superstitious workers off the site. 
As much as the mystery was fun to solve, it was also very funny!  The entire book is told as if Amelia is recounting the events at a later date and I loved it how she keeps referring to "her Critic" who seems to be looking over her shoulder as she writes.  Gee I wonder who it is? ;)  There are many funny little tidbits that cracked me up, particularly the asides she has in regard to Emerson or Lucas, a suitor of Evelyn's who is up to no good and most likely after her money. I had no idea this book would be such a riot!   I was giggling throughout - it was simply delightful!

I'm leaving tons out for I don't want to spoil the surprises, but trust me this is a priceless little gem.  I loved every word of it.  Amelia and Emerson's jabs at each other were hilarious, their little war, of course, turns into love and it was a joy to see how the whole mystery unfolds in the midst of Amelia's and Emerson's barbs towards each other and the mysterious shenanigans that take place in the desert while trying to nab the mummy!  I was riveted to the mummy mystery, I had an idea of who was all behind it, but was curious to see how it played out.  Plus, I had to keep reading to find out if the beautiful Evelyn, Amelia's companion, finds true love and if her reputation is regained.  I liked Evelyn a lot, I had a great deal of sympathy for her, she's been treated badly, yet she's strong as well.  She doesn't just roll over and play dead.   I hope we see more of her in future books!  Amelia's love story was great as well - a real hoot!  What a pair!!

Do yourself a big favor, read this book if you like historical mysteries with a strong and captivating heroine.  Long live Amelia! I'm eager to see just how the rest of this series plays out, much of which I'll listen to on audiobook in the future - a real treat!


Friday, August 13, 2010

Not Quite a Husband by Sherry Thomas

Book Description:
Their marriage lasted only slightly longer than the honeymoon - to no one’'s surprise, not even Bryony Asquith's. A man as talented, handsome, and sought after by society as Leo Marsden couldn't possibly want to spend his entire life with a woman who rebelled against propriety by becoming a doctor. Why, then, three years after their annulment and half a world away, does he track her down at her clinic in the remotest corner of India?
 Leo has no reason to think Bryony could ever forgive him for the way he treated her, but he won't rest until he’s delivered an urgent message from her sister - —and fulfilled his duty by escorting her safely back to England. But as they risk their lives for each other on the journey home, will the biggest danger be the treacherous war around them - or their rekindling passion?

Another fab Sherry Thomas romance, but I'm afraid  this one didn't thrill me quite as much as her first two.  It was great, but it was darker than her previous two, plus the plot was difficult to follow because the story jumped around a lot, although that's not uncommon for her books.  But the kicker was, I had a hard time warming up to the heroine.

It's the story of a young Victorian couple, Bryony and Leo, who had once been married for a short period of time and then the marriage was annulled.  When we come into the story, it has been three years since their marriage dissolved in the year 1897.  Leo has come looking for his intrepid physician wife in the wilds of Northern India to bring her back to England because her father is dying.  With oblique flashbacks, we learn about what happened to their marriage and what went wrong while the two of them are dealing with each other in the present.  Is there still hope for their marriage and do they still love each other?  There is a lot we don't know about what caused their break up in the first place.  What went wrong with their marriage and what started it all?  It all gradually unfolds as the story develops and they deal with the crisis at hand of being in the middle of the Indian Mutiny in the Swat River Valley.   The descriptions were harrowing and in this sense it reminded me of another book, Duke of Shadows by Meredith Duran that features another Indian Mutiny. Both great storytelling, but different in many ways.  

As I mentioned above, the plot was initially hard to follow because of the jumping around in time.  For the longest time we are not privy to why Bryony insisted on the annulment and her reasons for wanting nothing more to do with her husband.   Why did she marry him?  She was the one that proposed in the first place!  Bryony came across as cold and unfeeling which detracted from my giving this five stars.  She remains that way for the first half of the book, an enigma, and it was hard for me to really like her. Not until the second half does she finally warm up when the story pretty much stays in present time and the action heats up with the mutiny.  I found it hard to believe her adoring Leo loved her so madly and for so long when she treated him so coldly.  He was great, and I loved his character.  He was my favorite, I loved it how he wouldn't give up on them for the longest time.  I felt sorry for him that she dropped him shortly after their honeymoon with no reason. She was cold in bed, seeming to dislike making love. He was perplexed at her behavior, thinking he could change her,  almost like a beloved puppy dog that keeps coming back for more no matter how much it's maltreated.  In his early days, he's young and handsome.  Charming.  Three years later, he's weather worn, hardened and weary.  He's seen a lot and yet he still loves Bryony, trekking miles and miles to go to her.  When he learns the truth of what happened and why Bryony turned away from him shortly after their marriage, I felt just terrible for him. Poor Leo! What guilt he must have felt! I really cared for his feelings. 

As much as the book was a slight let down for me compared to her first two, I did love how they come together and love each other while in the middle of this nail biting rebellion, trapped in this fort, worried they may not make it out alive. They are living their days and nights together as if they are their last, making up for their lost three years. The lovemaking is passionate, sweet, tender and desperate at times, it was wonderful.  Sherry Thomas has a style to her writing that conveys much emotion without being overly graphic or explicit. 

I've already read two of her other books and simply loved, loved, loved them, I will definitely read anything Thomas writes, even if this one wasn't a home run for me. It was hard for me to get into the plot and figure out what was really happening and where it was going to go and whether I even liked Bryony or not.  Through much of it I needed to know what was her motivation. Thomas' first two books were unique and marvelous, though they too had intricate plots that were hard to follow at first, but at least I liked the heroines!  If there was one way to make Not Quite a Husband better, she could have made Bryony more likable.  I know, I know, we're supposed to be surprised at why Bryony is cold and implacable, but it took away from the story, for liking the heroine, in addition to the hero, is key to me. I just couldn't get around her until I found out what her problem was.  By the end, I loved them together and their married couple playfulness, surprising the rest of his family with this new and different Bryony.  I loved it how they're all so amazed the way they keep acting like this they've been married for years, as if there had never been an annulment!

As a rule, I love Thomas' plot lines, which are intricate, often with flashbacks about a poignant lost love and getting it back some years later. Thomas has strong heroines with minds of their own. They've made big mistakes in their pasts, but they don't waste time feeling sorry for themselves, they get on with their lives. The men who love them are usually the ones that suffer the most because of it. I'm more sympathetic with what they go through than her heroines.  These kind of plot lines make her happily ever after endings all the more blissful and worthwhile because the hero and heroine have both been through wringer.  If there's one thing I can say about Sherry Thomas' books, they all have strong finishes!

Overall I consider this book a winner, but I was spoiled by the greatness of her first two books.  In any case, Not Quite a Husband won the 2010 RITA award for Best Historical Romance and I congratulate Ms. Thomas on her win! 



Wednesday, August 11, 2010

I won!

Over at Lauren Willig's blog, author of the The Pink Carnation Series, she's had this cover contest going on for who comes up with the best cover for her upcoming book, The Orchid Affair.  The cover has already been designed by the publisher, and it's a departure from her past books, totally different and a lot of fans were a bit outspoken and disgruntled over it (I personally like it).  Anyway, Lauren decided to have a contest for who could design their own cover and have a vote on it.

Well, I submitted my entry and designed it in keeping with her former style of cover - and it won!  And not just by a few votes  - I ran away with it!  I was over 40 votes ahead of the person next in line.  I was flabbergasted by it - but also secretly delighted!  Still, the voting and contest itself had loads of drama!  Stacked votes and before the contest started, Lauren posted some of the entries for people to ooh and ah at;  If you look carefully, the winner who won 3rd prize decided to help herself to my cover - you'll see what I mean.  What do they say, "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery?"  Hmmph!  Anyway, it was fun to win and I get an advance copy of the book and maybe a limited edition dust cover of the book itself!  That would be very cool!

Here is my winning entry, it's of a portrait by Ingres that hangs at the Frick Collection in NYC, one of my favorite museums.  I worked my Photoshop magic on it and voila! Apparently there is a book out there about Mozart that has a very similar cover, but I'd never seen it or heard of it until one commenter decided to point it out to all with a link during the voting (really, did she have to do that, it only made her look meanspirited).  Anyway, check it out!  I was #5.  I got something like 99 votes!

If you haven't read Lauren Willig's Pink Carnation series, give it a try, it's one of my favorites, and I had the pleasure of meeting and hanging out with Lauren this past June at a book conference in Phoenix.  She's delightful and I look forward to meeting her again some day, she's only across the Hudson River from me after all! :)

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Paul Is Undead by Alan Goldsher (audio)

Book Description:
Ladies and gentlemen, it's time to really meet the Beatles. This is a delightfully gory retelling of the Beatles' U.S. tour that reimagines the Liverpool foursome as bloodthirsty zombies who take over the world. . . literally!

For John Lennon, a young, idealistic zombie guitarist with dreams of global domination, Liverpool seems the ideal place to form a band that could take over the world. In an inspired act, Lennon kills and reanimates local rocker Paul McCartney, kicking off an unstoppable partnership. With the addition of newly zombified guitarist George Harrison and drummer/Seventh Level Ninja Lord Ringo Starr, the Beatles soon cut a swath of bloody good music and bloody violent mayhem across Europe, America, and the entire planet.

In this searing oral history, discover how the Fab Four climbed to the Toppermost of the Poppermost while stealing the hearts, ears, and brains of smitten teenage girls. Learn the tale behind a spiritual journey that resulted in the dismemberment of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Marvel at the seemingly indestructible quartet's survival of a fierce attack by Eighth Level Ninja Lord Yoko Ono. And find out how the boys escaped eternal death at the hands of England's greatest zombie hunter, Mick Jagger.

Through all this, one mystery remains: Can the Beatles sublimate their hunger for gray matter, remain on top of the charts, and stay together for all eternity? After all, three of the Fab Four are zombies, and zombies live forever.
Up until now, I have resisted  the current zombie craze that has been hitting the literary world. I've refused to give in - no Seth Graham-Smith and his ilk for me.  I've abhorred the cashing in on the greatness of Jane Austen and Abraham Lincoln.  But when I saw this book - on audio no less - narrated by my idol and favorite male audio narrator, Simon Vance - I had to give in.  I'm somewhat of a Beatle afficianado, having two older sisters that were bona fide Beatlemaniacs in the '60's and then becoming a die hard Beatles fan myself at the age of six, this was irresistible.  I had to have it.
I loved it. I laughed, I giggled, I couldn't get enough of it.  It made me giddy, the voices, the accents, the total irreverence and sheer audacity of it - a tour de force! Simon Vance outdid himself on this audiobook.  He became John, Paul, George and Ringo.  Not to say that he did perfect imitations of the Fab Four ... but close.  Not only the Beatles themselves, but all the voices and accents of a myriad of interviewees that make up this mock biography of the making of the Beatles - as zombies. We meet George Martin, Mick Jagger, Rod Argent (of The Zombies the rock 'n roll group) and many, many more characters - it's a who's who of the rock scene and history of the Beatles from their beginnings in Liverpool to present day.  I can't even begin to extol the cleverness and sheer madness of this book - anyone who knows anything about the real story of the Beatles will appreciate this satiric look at the four Liverpudlians that took over the world - or tried to at least as zombies.  Their goal to reach the toppermost of the poppermost, John's magic litany that transfixes audiences and turns the Shea Stadium Concert into a riot - the ultimate be all end all.
We follow the journey of the Beatles through the eyes of a Chicago writer who has taken it upon himself to thoroughly research the Beatles and he's the one conducting all the interviews.  It begins with John's childhood and how he is turned into a zombie as a baby.   The charisma and sheer magnetism of John is the dominant force in the book, he is the leader of the band.  He makes the major decisions that will affect the Beatles forever.  Ruthless, honest, full of bravado, he kills, he dismembers, reanimates and kills again.  Never one for regrets, when asked why he created riots and killed so many fans and innocents, the most you'll get out of him that's even close to an apology is "It's my zombie nature."

As soon as John meets Paul, he recognizes talent and it's a done deal.  He must kill him, reanimate him as a zombie and together - forever - they will be a band and write songs together and take over the world - the toppermost of the poppermost (whatever that means.)  Paul is not a happy zombie at first, but he gets used to it soon enough.  Fingers fall off haphazardly (not easy if you're a guitarist) as well as other body parts that are easily sewn back on.  Soon George joins the band.  Paul turns George into a zombie (John wouldn't do it since he felt George was too young) and the band gels.  Now to find that elusive drummer...  Before then, we follow the lads in their early days to Hamburg and onto the Cavern Club in London.  Finally Ringo joins the group and we have - the zombie Beatles!   We follow them through the making of A Hard Days Night and Help!  John's weight gain, their introduction to Bob Dylan and marijuana, the London scene, their intro to the psychedelic drugs like the dreaded lycergic (Brian Epstein's own LSD concoction) and it's many side effects.  We get the inside scoop and inspiration of some of their song writing - the macabre background on "Dear Prudence" in particular.
I'm leaving a ton out - mainly what being a zombie Beatle is all about - the stench, the gray color of their skin, the postules and open sores, the fact their semen is in powder form - yet they can create sex slaves all they want.  Did they?  Who knows, no one is admitting to anything.  The entire book is built on a series of interviews: the Beatles themselves, Beatles experts, fans, colleagues, rival bands - you name it.  Anyone that came into contact with them - and it was all so hilarious!  My hats off to Goldsher for pulling this off.  The crazy plotlines, Mick Jagger as a zombie killer, Ringo as a seventh ninja lord, Rod Argent, founder of the Zombies who resents the fact that the Beatles came along as a zombie band stealing his band's thunder - there are so many ridiculous and funny sequences in this book, I can't even begin to itemize them.   We follow the Beatles origins all the way up to their break up - Yoko's role in it is priceless.  No other mentions of  wives or girlfriends, natch. I marveled at how clever this all was, only a real Beatles lover will get into this, for the more you know about their true lives, the more you'll nod and laugh and laugh again. 
If you happen to be into the Beatles and know their history - or even care about their history - check this audio book out.  I stress, listen to it rather than read it for the voice and accent of Simon Vance is superb.  He must have had a ball recording it!   The only thing missing is the actual music, but since I know all their songs by heart anyway, it wasn't too much of a stretch to imagine the music.  Throughout the book there is plenty of gore and killing, yet I took it all in with the spirit of a parody.  After the first couple of battles and reanimations you get over the fact these Beatles are killers, thus taking it all in stride - they're zombies afterall.  The language is often crude and full of swear words galore, but the Beatles were no saints, so to me it sounds authentic.
Do yourself a favor and get this, listen to it and enjoy - it was brilliant and a real scream - no pun intended!

Yeah, yeah, yeah!


Friday, August 6, 2010

Knight of Pleasure by Margaret Mallory

Book Description:

Lady Isobel Hume is an expert swordswoman who knows how to choose her battles. When the king asks her to wed a French nobleman to form a political alliance, she agrees. But that's before the devilishly charming Sir Stephen Carleton captures her heart-and tempts her to betray her betrothed, her king, and her country.


Sir Stephen Carleton enjoys his many female admirers-until he dedicates himself to winning the lovely Isobel. So when a threat against the king leads Isobel into mortal danger, Stephen has a chance to prove that he is more than a knight of pleasure...and that love can conquer all.

I'm really falling behind in my reviews, so this is short and to the point.

I really loved Mallory's last book, Knight of Desire, and it took me a while to get around to reading this one.  Pleasure didn't have the same amount of heightened drama and poignancy as her first effort, though I did appreciate the research that went into writing this medieval romance.  The writing itself was great, it was seamless and flowed well, but the actual plotline was frustrating to me between the hero and heroine.  They meet, there's an attraction, they give into it, but then she won't trust him.  It's almost a reversal of her first book in which the hero wouldn't trust the heroine.  Isobel, the heroine, was kind of a medieval tomboy, playing swords as a young teen who then gets married off to an elderly lecher.  She can't forgive her father for doing this to her, having been the apple of his eye. The theme of women and their utter helplessness while at the mercy of men in the medieval ages is strong throughout the story, as it was in her first book.  Despite Isobel's talent with a sword, she was still a woman that had no say in her future. 

Some years go by,  Isobel is a young widow, eager to inherit her dead husband's estate, having paid her dues over the years.  Only now she finds out that she's going to be married off again to someone not of her choosing.   She seeks help from the King (of England) who decides to marry her off to a French nobleman to try and make peace in that part of France by marrying a Frenchman to an English noblewoman.  Isobel isn't crazy about the idea, but what can she do?  While waiting for her betrothed to show up, she meets - and likes - Stephen Carleton who is a handsome young knight in the king's service.  We've met Stephen before in Knight of Desire.  He is the younger half brother of William, the hero from the last book.  Stephen is now grown and quite the ladies' man.   He has an eye for Isobel at once and the two of them develop "a thing" for each other - yet, she is betrothed to another - and Stephen's not a marrying kind of man.

This thing leads to another, and they can't deny their mutual attraction for each other which they can't stop.    They keep bumping into each other - alone - in the oddest places.  They have some clandestine up close and personal moments, yet Stephen resists bedding her, knowing it is unworthy of Isobel without marriage.  Yet, ironically, she wants to bed him before she marries her French nobleman, which he does and then he becomes the noble knight and asks her to marry him instead.   She won't, for she thinks he is unable to be faithful to her (knowing what a ladies man he is) and she doesn't want him to marry her strictly out of honor.  She hurts him by rejecting his offer - and coincidentally her French bridegroom shows up around the same time.  Due to some really lousy timing, Isobel must leave with her fiance right away to Rouen, leaving Stephen out in the rain and cold - literally.  He is crushed and goes to drown his sorrows.

More drama ensues as we find out that Isobel's fiance is up to no good and she is at his mercy when she arrives at his home in Rouen.  She's more like a prisoner than a soon to be bride and our suspicions about the intentions of her Frenchman are justified.  Luckily, Stephen ultimately follows her in the guise of diplomacy (it turns out he's really a spy for the king and he hasn't given up completely on her) and there's the usual danger and rescue at the end which is exciting and everything works out for Isobel and Stephen.   As much as the plot was well thought out and all made sense, I didn't find it compelling, although it wasn't boring either, it was just kind of ... nice.  I saw the pitfalls before they came and expected the eventual outcome.  Stephen was okay, but didn't have the charisma to hold my interest.  His rakish charms and good looks were worthy of a romantic hero, but I couldn't shake the idea that he was William's younger brother, and to me, William was the better man and Stephen was a bad boy. I just wasn't in the mood to read about a bad boy medieval rake who changes his ways over a tomboyish widow who turns him down when he asks her to marry him.  It just sounds like he was hung up on something he couldn't have and she should have trusted him more and given him the benefit of the doubt - easier said than done.

There were some very good scenes in the book, yet, ironically, they were not scenes between Isobel and Stephen.  My favorite moment was when Isobel and Stephen's older brother William are ambushed together and she must protect him from further violence.  William is hurt and Isobel almost single handedly saves him.  I found this part gripping and I suspect it's because I liked William so much in the last book, I was anxious for him, I still love his character.  I was glad to see his wife Catherine made a few appearances in this book as well, and she was able to talk some sense into Isobel about Stephen in the end.

All in all, it was a pretty good medieval but I had trouble with the actual love story between the hero and heroine.  I wasn't overly sympathetic with either one.  Isobel should have agreed to marry Stephen early on, taking a leap of faith, particularly when she had the King's blessing to do so and Stephen should have shown some more good sense in flirting with her in the first place.   But then we wouldn't have had the angst and worry and hand wringing that goes on in most romances.  I think I'm getting a little jaded of these type of plotlines and need a break for a while.


Disclaimer:  This book was sent to me by the publisher after winning it in a giveaway..

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Shanghai Girls by Lisa See (audio)

Book Description:
May and Pearl, two sisters living in Shanghai in the mid-1930s, are beautiful, sophisticated, and well-educated, but their family is on the verge of bankruptcy. Hoping to improve their social standing, May and Pearl's parents arrange for their daughters to marry "Gold Mountain men" who have come from Los Angeles to find brides.

But when the sisters leave China and arrive at Angel's Island (the Ellis Island of the West)--where they are detained, interrogated, and humiliated for months--they feel the harsh reality of leaving home. And when May discovers she's pregnant the situation becomes even more desperate. The sisters make a pact that no one can ever know.
 A novel about two sisters, two cultures, and the struggle to find a new life in America while bound to the old, Shanghai Girls is a fresh, fascinating adventure from beloved and bestselling author Lisa See.
I wasn't bowled over by this novel, but I did like it.  It's my first novel by Lisa See, and it wasn't until only after I finished Shanghai Girls that I heard it had mixed reviews and her previous novels were better.   Bearing that in mind, I felt that much of this book was flat, it didn't help that Janet Song's narration sounded that way as well.   Not much emotion at all.  Many of the characters were superficially developed, in my opinion.  Enough to know why they did certain things, but nothing more than skin deep.  The novel begins in Shanghai, China and follows the course of two sisters who flee China at the onset of WWII and immigrate to Los Angeles, making a life for themselves there with their arranged marriages.  It spans the period from the late 1930's to the late 1950's.  The book wasn't bad, but I had trouble with the two heroines, neither one of which I liked very much.  One came across as selfish and spoiled and the other just seemed stuck and didn't have the gumption to get herself "unstuck."  I was frustrated with her because of it.  I kept wanting to slap her and tell her to be smart and use her head!  Instead she felt sorry for herself and took what was given to her.  She just went along with everything.  Maybe that's just how things were for women back then, especially Chinese women.  In any case, I found much of the book plodding and frustrating - what else is going to happen to this family and how much more can they take?  It was depressing in many ways.

The story is about two sisters, May and Pearl.  May is the "pretty" one and Pearl is attractive but always feels she is overshadowed by her younger sister.  She always feels second best in her parent's eyes.  May gets to do whatever she wants whereas Pearl is the smart one, the one who went to college, the responsible one, the dutiful daughter.  Although Pearl feels resentful towards May, she is still devoted to her little sister and throughout the book you see how Pearl takes care of May, but May also looks out for Pearl, though since the story is all from Pearl's POV, we don't catch on to this until the final showdown between the two sisters at the end of book.

May and Pearl are "beautiful girls" in 1937 Shanghai.  They are models who pose for paintings that are then reproduced for advertisements and calenders throughout China before WWII and the coming of Communism and Mao.  Shanghai is a glamorous international city.  May and Pearl are living the high life until their world comes to a screetching halt when they find out their father has arranged marriages for them with "Gold Mountain Men" and they are to go and live in Los Angeles with them.  Both girls reject the idea, but it turns out their father has lost all his money from gambling debts and this is the bargain he has made - otherwise he will be killed.  Naturally, the girls are devastated and don't understand the full extent of the consequences.  They go through with the marriages, and Pearl and her new husband, Sam, consummate theirs on their wedding night, though May does not because her husband, Vern (Sam's younger brother) is young and "not right."  On the surface, obeying their parents, May and Pearl have no intention of going to California with their new husbands, who have gone on ahead to Hong Kong to await their brides before the final voyage to California.  May and Pearl ditch their husbands at the same time the Japanese attack Shanghai and all hell breaks loose!

From here the plotline changes to one of desperation.  We see how devastating the fall of Shanghai is, and Pearl and May must escape with their mother.  It is assumed their father has perished, never to return.  The three women make it out of Shanghai only to be trapped in a little shack in the countryside, where their mother and Pearl sacrifice themselves to Japanese soldiers in order to protect May who is hiding in the next room.  This was the first instance when Pearl aggravated the hell out of me.  Her mother was trying to save them both from being raped, but Pearl felt she must join her mother!  Come on!  Their mother dies and Pearl nearly perishes as well, but May gets Pearl to safety and eventually they board a ship to California.  With nowhere else to go, no money and the Japanese at hand, this is their only recourse - they must find their husbands in Los Angeles.  But, still they think they can eventually get away from their husband, they just need them to be able to get into the United States.

They arrive in San Francisco and wait on Angel's Island for months and months.  Angel's Island is the stopping point for all immigrants to go through.  It's not easy to just be accepted into the United States.  They must pass all sorts of questions and examinations and during this time, May informs Pearl she is pregnant from someone she knew in Shanghai.  I knew instantly who it was, but Pearl is clueless and the two sisters make a pact that Pearl will pretend she is pregnant and pass the new baby off as hers and Sam's, conceived on the one night they slept together on their wedding night.  The baby is born a girl.  They name her Joy and eventually they get off Angel's Island, live with their husbands in LA and life is not what it was promised to be like.  They all live together in this tiny apartment in Chinatown with Sam and Vern's horrible father and Pearl becomes a drudge of a Chinese housewife learning how to keep house from her drudge mother-in-law.  Learning to cook and clean and work in the various family businesses, Pearl resents the fact that May gets to be off and about, eventually working in Hollywood as an extra.  May's life seems glamorous and interesting, yet Pearl's is nothing but work.  It's as if May is not even married, for Vern never quite grows up, he is somehow retarded.  May seems free as a bird to Pearl and the resentment grows. 

The rest of the book tracks their life in Los Angeles, the racism they face as Chinese in the United States and their goal to try and live the American Dream. Eventually Pearl and Sam grow to love one another, but there is always the risk of discovery that Sam is a "Paper Son" immigrant - which is illegal.  If he is found out, they can be deported, this always hangs over their heads.  With the end of the war and the red scare of Communism and China rampant in the United States in the 1950's, Pearl and Sam must face many obstacles, some that become too great to withstand.  During this period, May and Pearl remain close, sisters until the end, but their relationship is now strained.   Joy is the focal point to them all as she grows up and the climax of the book involves Joy and the secrets that have surrounded her since her birth. 

I'm glossing over tons of events, and I'm trying to avoid spoilers, but the long and short of it is, this is a book that focuses primarily on the struggle of living in the US during this time as a Chinese immigrant and the racism they had to face every day that prevented them from achieving their goals.  It's amazing that anyone who was Chinese was able to get ahead back then!  Yet, many did, many persevered and survived.  Yet with Pearl's story, we see how she was strong, but could not deal with a lot that life threw her way.  She tried her best, but much of her was always still in Shanghai and the Chinese way.  I'm not saying she should have disregarded her memories and customs but it held her back from getting ahead and on with her life.
For much of the book, I didn't like May.  But by the very end, I realized I'd been wrong, as Pearl had been for so long too.  May was the realist in the family once they are in the US.  Embracing her new culture, getting ahead, getting work, making the most of her life.  I had a hard time with Pearl because whereas she was considerd the smart one, she was often stupid in the US, it's as if she was a fish out of water and was in shock.   May made something for herself, but Pearl and Sam ignored the writing on the wall when things were getting dicey with the US government, asking all sort of questions.  They kept to their Chinese ways, refusing to open bank accounts, Sam didn't learn English and Pearl was almost afraid to venture out of Chinatown at first.  So many mistakes were made by them that kept coming back to haunt them.  These small mistakes and errors utimately lead to a dramatic ending in which Pearl must examine her life and May helps open her eyes. 

Overall, the book wasn't bad, but I couldn't wait to finish it and get it over with.  The ending is so up in the air with a cliffhanger, I said to myself, "This is it?  This is how it ends?!" I was terribly disappointed with it.  I guess we're supposed to assume Pearl finally pulls herself together and gets some self-confidence and May stays home in LA and takes care of Vern?   I found the settings and theme of racism and discrimination of the Chinese interesting and enlightening and enjoyed that aspect of the book, but the story itself between these two sisters was a bit cliché - the pretty one, the not so pretty one, the big lie May reveals at the end - well, I saw it coming way, way back so it was no great revelation to me.    If this is a period of history you're interested in, I recommend it, from an historical fiction aspect, it's good. The research is well done, but I didn't get an overall feeling of being there as I have with other books.  I preferred the parts that were still in China and will definitely read See's previous books that take place there.

 I feel like this could have been better, but can't quite put my finger on why, but my gut tells me it needed more depth in the two sisters and not such a one sided perspective from Pearl. 


Delicious by Sherry Thomas

Book Description:
Famous in Paris, infamous in London, Verity Durant is as well-known for her mouthwatering cuisine as for her scandalous love life. But that's the least of the surprises awaiting her new employer when he arrives at the estate of Fairleigh Park following the unexpected death of his brother.

Lawyer Stuart Somerset worked himself up from the slums of Manchester to become one of the rising political stars of England's Parliament. To him, Verity Durant is just a name and food is just food until her first dish touches his lips. Only one other time has he felt such pure arousal—a dangerous night of passion with a stranger, a young woman who disappeared at dawn. Ten years is a long time to wait for the main course, but when Verity Durant arrives at his table, there's only one thing that will satisfy Stuart's appetite for more. But is his hunger for lust, revenge—or that rarest of delicacies, love? For Verity's past has a secret that could devour them both even as they reach for the most delicious fruit of all...


Another fantastic romance,  I had to get her next one right away!  I found Delicious a bit complicated to get into at first, I'm realizing that Thomas' novels go back and forth in time.  Usually, the hero and heroine have met previously, years go by and we switch back and forth to the "before" and the "now" time periods.  This is fine with me, I love these types of story lines, but it's confusing when you're still waiting for the story to "gel" in your mind.  The story is intricate in of itself and it took me a while to understand all the ins and out of what was going on, but once I did I couldn't put this down - it was so good!

Verity is a cook at a grand estate, Fairleigh Park.  The owner of the estate, a single, middle aged man has just dropped dead.   We soon learn that Verity had a torrid affair with him ten years earlier yet still remained as his cook afterwards, though at the time she was notorious, for he almost married her.  Huh?  An aristocrat marry his own cook?  Scandalous!  She must be pretty good at what she does!   Verity, now in her early thirties or so, awaits the new owner of Fairleigh Park, the half brother of the deceased, Stuart Somerset.  Stuart Somerset, recently engaged, is an up and coming MP and hopes to be Prime Minister some day.  He's also a bastard son who has overcome his humble beginnings and made the most of his life.  He's looking forward to marrying, settling down with a respectable woman and furthering his career.

Verity outdoes herself with his first meal at Fairleigh Park.  Unfortunately, he is not that interested in food and barely eats anything, but what he does eat is fabulous, a sensual feast of the senses - unforgettably delicious!  Verity is one of the best cooks in England and she has a reason for why she wants to impress Somerset, but we, as the reader, are still unsure what her motive is.  She plans on seducing Somerset with food at first and then herself - why? 

Stuart learns soon enough about his notorious cook, but they've never met face to face.  One day, they do meet under the strangest, most erotic circumstances.  It's really quite amazing, and I won't spoil it, but it's one of my favorite parts, and one of my favorite lines, here's a clue with one of his frantic thoughts:

Why, oh why had he never installed a chandelier directly over the tub?

I laughed out loud, he is so flummoxed by her!  Afterwards he cannot forget her, though he has yet to see her face.  This is key.  They ultimately begin a mysterious and erotic fling, though he keeps telling himself he must stop since he's engaged to be married and he is the upright Stuart Somerset, MP - a dignified gentleman who can't afford any scandals in his life.  Yet the pull of Verity - and her food - turns his staid and predictable world upside down!

Ah, but soon the reader finds out that Stuart did once have a certain someone in his life, he's not the invincible man he liked everyone to think he is.   As it turns out, Verity and Stuart had met years before and had one night of passion.  He didn't know her name and thinks of her only as "Cinderella."  He proposed marriage to Verity that night, but she turned him down, knowing there was no possible way she could accept, she was his brother's cook and their affair had just ended!  It's very complicated, but this is why Verity can't show Stuart her face for fear he'll recognize her - or not recognize her!  She has loved him ever since, as has he, but he never had any way to find her or find out who she was.

We also learn that Verity is not really who she seems to be.  Who is her family, and why can't she return to them?   Can her past catch up with her - and will she reveal who she really is eventually?

I loved Verity and Stuart, they had such charisma together, I was caught up in their story and couldn't wait to find out how it all turned out.  Both characters are well drawn, fully developed, not easy to do, for the plot was tough to manoeuvre around, but Thomas manages it perfectly all the way to the very end - amazing!  Another favorite scene of mine is emotional and poignant, when Stuart finally faces Verity once he knows the truth of who she is that she could have come to him for ten long years and never did.  He is torn, angry and heartbroken, but inside glad to have found her and know she is alive,

"Ten years I squandered on you, ten years of faithful devotion. I spent money I swore I'd never touch on three sets of detectives, looking for you. I could have married, I could have had children. I needed not to have worshipped your sham idol, but I did, because you never had the decency to let me go. You let me cling to false memories and false hopes."

I nearly cried at this point. I loved it how he was able to face her and tell her how he felt, as awful as it was for both of them! Such emotion, it broke my heart!

The thing I love about Thomas' plotlines is that they are so involved, deep and complex.  This is not your usual hero meets heroine, they fall in love, have sex and then some calamity happens and he must rescue her to prove his love for her and they live happily ever after.  Thomas' heroines have made mistakes, they've usually wished things had gone differently, but they've picked up the pieces and gone on, they're strong, independent women.  The heroes are real men, flawed and full of emotion and normal every day fears, hopes and dreams (they also happen to be handsome and rich).  They are looking for their one true love, a woman they can trust,  and usually, they've been burned too - either by the woman they love, or someone else.  We follow the transformation of both the hero and heroine and the journey to find that elusive thing called love.  It's magic and an amazing tale to get there. 

Delicious follows this trail.  It's sensuous, erotic, poignant and hard to put down, the whole food sensuality thing was fantastic and added an entirely new dimension to the novel!  I don't know if it's intentional or not, but there is one scene in the book that is very reminiscent of Pride and Prejudice and Lady Catherine de Bourgh.  Verity thinks at one point if she'll ever have her Mr. Darcy and  by the end, in an astounding speech that left me with tears in my eyes, Stuart does become her Darcy and announces to her aunt that he will love Verity forever and nothing will stand in his way to keep her.  Sigh, it was wonderful!   There are so many wonderful moments in this book, but I think the best are saved for the ending.

I'm leaving a lot out of this review, but take my word for it, Sherry Thomas' books are special.  Her side characters are great too.  Will Marsden, Somerset's secretary was great as well as Lizzie, Somerset's erstwhile fiancee, who's not all she seems to be.  Their story was fantastic as well!  I loved it and I hope you will too!  Sherry Thomas is an auto buy for me from now on!

Also, congratulations to Sherry for winning best historical 2010 RITA last night in Orlando for Not Quite a Husband, which I just finished myself yesterday - I'm not surprised at all that you won!  I loved it as well!  Look for my review of it coming up!

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