Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley

Book Description:
Carrie McClelland came to Scotland to research her next book. Renting a cottage in the same town where her story takes place, Carrie embarks not only on her novel, but on a romance with her landlord's handsome son, Graham Keith. When the boundary between past and present begins to blur, Carrie finds herself channeling memories not her own. Pulled deeper and deeper into the memories of the past, Carrie realizes these visions are more than the means to another bestselling novel, but also a way to right the wrongs of the past and create a future with the man whose love is her destiny.  

This really was a lovely book to read.  Recently reissued through Sourcebooks, I'd never heard of this author before.  I took my time with it.  It's a story within a story going back and forth between the past and present day Scotland in which an author, Carrie McClelland is drawn to the northeast coast of Scotland while writing about the Jacobite rising of 1708.  She visits the real life castle of Slains, inspiration for her latest novel.  Soon, much to her surprise, she appears to be channeling the events that happened to her ancestor Sophia Paterson who lived there at that time.   Carrie realizes, unaccountably, that she has complete memories of her g-g-g-grandmother and the events surrounding her life at Slains.

We become involved in Carrie's writing, reverting back to Sophia's story and her relationship with John Moray, a Jacobite sympathizer with a price on his head.  We are seduced by the evocative and rugged coastline of Scotland - and it's tragic and romantic history.  The Winter Sea is an unpretentious story, there is not a lot of adventure, the romance portions are oblique, yet they are powerful in their quiet simplicity.  Sophia and John fall in love, yet, as a reader I was not caught up in a tempestuous type of romance.  For the most part I felt at arms length in regard to them.   As much as we are aware of Sophia's thoughts and her trials and tribulations, I did not feel deeply for her until the second half of the book.  I had trouble connecting with her as a person, and it took me a while to warm up to her storyline and her love for John.  It was hard for me to get into her head and for most of the book, Sophia was stuck and at the mercy of all those around her.  She had no say in what happened to her, a complete inability to direct her own life.   As I read about the events that happen to Sophia as she tries to hold it together while her love is caught up in the Jacobite uprising, most of it was surprisingly unemotional for me, except for one instance when I had tears streaming down my cheeks during one particularly poignant moment.  Don't get me wrong, it was a great story and the ending was wonderful.  I loved the way it was all wrapped up and came together, I was pleasantly surprised.

The modern day part of the novel was good, but again, I had that 'one step removed from the action' feeling.  Carrie has a romance with one of two local brothers that are wooing her.  It's their little secret.  I enjoyed the playfulness and burgeoning romance that develops between them, but again, it was subtle and the ending seemed a bit anti-climatic in regard to what happens to them.  I guess it was more realistic that way, but I felt a bit let down.  I think I like a bit more drama and romance in my novels (surprise, surprise!)

Some of the more memorable features of the book were the side characters, whom I found engaging.  I liked Jimmy Keith (her lover's father and landlord), and John Moray's uncle who becomes a source of comfort for Sophia while John is away in France.  I appreciated the research by the author that must have been involved in the writing of this novel, it really set the scene and I often could imagine I was standing on a bluff looking out at the North Sea on a blustery wintry day. 

Despite the strange lack of depth and emotion I felt in regard to Sophia and Carrie as heroines, I consider this book to be somewhat of a gem.  The sad storyline, scenario of the book within a book and the background, genealogy and locale whet my appetite for more by this author.  My head is full of Scotland these days (I'm planning a trip to the Highlands this August), so I can't get enough of it!  I will definitely be paying a visit to Cruden Bay, where the ruins of New Slains Castle can be found!


Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Legend MacKinnon by Donna Kauffman

Book Description:
Three centuries ago in Scotland a curse was born of the long-standing feud between the Claren and the MacKinnon clans. Now, generations later, destiny has decreed that three women, the last of the Claren line, be granted one final chance to set things right. — Maggie, Cailean, and Delaney Claren are three cousins who grow up unaware of one another-until an inheritance brings them together. Now mysterious journals and the deed to an ancient Scottish castle will bring them face-to-face with the warriors at the heart of the MacKinnon family, three brothers sentenced to cruel fates by a terrible curse.

Duncan is trapped in the form of a ghost, Rory must live an immortal life alone, and Alexander has been wrenched by time from the past to the present, with no way back. Ferociously compelling, dangerously relentless, they are bound by no mortal laws-except desire for the three Claren women. The journals speak of one key that can break the powerful spell. And finding that key will plunge them all into a world of unforeseeable danger and tantalizing desire...

I thought this sounded interesting and something I'd really like, but it turned out to be just a so-so time travel story set in contemporary Scotland.  Three cursed brothers from 300 years earlier meet the descendants of their clan's enemies: three women who are cousins, though they have never met.  Eventually the cousins all come together due to an inheritance they've been notified about.  All meet their match (and mate) in each brother while trying to figure out how to end this blasted curse.  This took me forever to get through, it just didn't pull me in or keep me interested.  It wasn't bad, but nothing compelling in it for me, when it should have been. 

The book is broken down into three parts.  We begin with the first cousin, a young woman who is fleeing from her ex-boyfriend who is now stalking her and trying to kill her.  This story has the most background and detail to it.  Maggie has just received communication about a ramshackle cabin she has inherited from some long lost relative in the back woods of Kentucky or Tennessee, maybe North Carolina (I can't remember) who has left it to her in his will.  This is her chance to get away from her crazy ex-boyfriend who'll never find her now.  When she arrives at the cabin she meets Duncan MacKinnon.  He is a ghost, but he doesn't seem like a ghost, he's very real and solid, and very much a Scottish Highlander in full regalia.  Neither one likes the other, but they form a truce of sorts and eventually develop feelings for one another.  Duncan pops in and out at will, he's gruff and doesn't trust Maggie because she's a Claren.  The Clarens are his worst enemies, never mind the feud was from 300 years ago.  Still, he had one very bad experience thanks to a Claren woman and because of it, Duncan is in a sort of after life "purgatory", cursed from long ago.  He is allowed to be human and live on earth once a year for a month - in the cabin.  Duncan is always angry, primarily because of this curse hanging over his head.  Can Maggie somehow help lift the curse?  Their relationship was only skin deep, not much to it and I felt like Maggie should have been a bit more freaked out over the fact that Duncan was really a ghost.  She just sort of seemed to take it in stride.  She didn't seem all that upset when her ex showed up and nearly killed her before Duncan killed him for her instead - blood spattering all over her to boot!  Again, she held it together pretty well...  An odd sort of love story between them.

Part two of the book is the story between Cailean and RoryCailean has sought out Maggie for help with this inheritance and family curse.  Cailean has "the sight" and is aware of the curse and the history of the two feuding clans.  By the time Maggie and Cailean meet, Maggie has already fallen in love with Duncan and doesn't want to leave him, refusing to join Cailean in Scotland.  Her time is short with Duncan, their time together is running out.  Maggie goes off to Scotland on her own to where their clans lived three hundred years earlier.  There she meets Duncan's younger brother Rory.  His curse is that he is immortal.  He is sort of a mysterious legend, known as a sheepherder.  As it turns out he's been living in the MacKinnon Castle all this time, it has been hidden underground and no one has ever discovered it (this called for a big stretch of the imagination - but let's face it, this whole story did!)  Soon Cailean and Rory have a torrid affair and can't keep their hands off one another, they seemed to have the most chemistry together and passion of the three couples, but still, nothing all that compelling, I just didn't care about them - or any of these people for that matter.  Still, I kept with it...

Next, along comes Delaney, who was some sort of covert operative for the government - until recently.  She's cute and feisty - just what the third brother, Alexander needs.  Alexander has time traveled from the past and has had no way to get back.  All three of the brothers have been unaware of what has happened to the other and by the time we get to Alexander and Delaney's story, Alexander, who is the eldest and laird of the family just bothered me more than anything else.  I didn't even like him!  By this point Maggie and Duncan have joined up with the others in Scotland and the brothers are reunited which was an emotional moment.  Yet Alexander wants them to go back in time with him to finish off the Clarens and regain their castle.  Never mind that Alexander has no idea how he can achieve this!  Meanwhile, he's been stockpiling guns and all kinds of weapons in the underground castle (amazing that he and Rory have never bumped into each other in over seven years!) so he can take them back to medieval Scotland and wipe out all the Clarens!  Duncan and Rory can't join him, nor do they want to.  The curse prevents them from it and they've fallen in love with their respective Claren cousin!  There's no way they're going to go back in time and wipe out their ancestors!  Plus, Alexander's plan is pretty far-fetched.  They manage to talk him out of it.  Alexander took the longest to come around to falling for Delaney who basically launched herself at him.  I didn't identify with either one for their characters were so undeveloped.  I barely knew them.  I felt like Delaney and Alexander got short shrift in this book, so much time was devoted to Maggie and Duncan, a little less with Cailean and Rory, and by the time Delaney and Alexander have their turn, it's in record time and only a few pages devoted to them!  But, they fall for each other eventually, as I knew they would.

Once the three brothers all admitted their love to their respective Claren woman - and said it aloud - voila!  Guess what happens?

I can't exactly pinpoint what went wrong with this book, it should have been so much better.  This is the second book I've read by Ms. Kauffman, and I'm afraid it's my last.  Her last one was only lukewarm as well.  I guess it was just simply dull in parts and there was a real lack of passion or emotion - not much action either (except when Duncan killed Maggie's boyfriend).  Too much talking and searching for this key that no one could find.  Lots of hand wringing by everyone, though I did feel sorry for Maggie and Duncan who had to say good bye to each other once Duncan's time was up after his month with her.  That was about the most emotion I sensed throughout the entire book!  The weak characterizations and lacklustre sex scenes didn't help.  Overall, a disappointing read for my last Time Travel Challenge book for 2010. 


Thursday, January 20, 2011

Replay by Ken Grimwood (audio)

Book Description:
Jeff Winston, forty-three, didn't know he was a replayer until he died and woke up twenty-five years younger in his college dorm room; he lived another life. And died again. And lived again and died again - in a continuous twenty-five-year cycle - each time starting from scratch at the age of eighteen to reclaim lost loves, remedy past mistakes, or make a fortune in the stock market. A novel of gripping adventure, romance, and fascinating speculation on the nature of time, Replay asks the question: "What if you could live your life over again?"

I really loved this audiobook, I was completely swept up in the story, though I didn't speed through it.  I savored it.  At times, I stopped listening for a while (X-mas holidays had me sidetracked), but when I returned to it, I was always glad to get back into the story of Jeff Winston and what he was going to do in his "current" life - for he has several.

Jeff is a 'replayer' a term he coins for this odd phenomenon that happens to him.  Dying from a sudden heart attack at his office while in his mid-40's in the late 1980's, Jeff doesn't die.  He inexplicably finds himself back in his old dorm room at Emory in Atlanta, early 1960's - he's 18 years old again.  Everything is just as it had been, same roommate, same girlfriend, same car, same everything.  Yet, he is not the same 18 year old.  This 18 year old remember what happens in life as the future unfolds.  He takes advantage of it, and bets everything on the Kentucky Derby - and wins.  He goes to Vegas and bets on something else - and wins.  He easily makes a fortune betting on sure things.  He tries to prevent the Kennedy assassination - but as it turns out, it wasn't just Lee Harvey Oswald - it was a conspiracy.  Jeff tries to stop Oswald, but someone else kills Kennedy instead, and Jack Ruby kills that person.  Some things Jeff can't change.   Eventually, he hooks up with a Vegas gold digger, Sharla, living the high life at age 18 - traveling and living in Paris, living in NYC, starting his own investment firm, he doesn't even bother with graduating from college - what's the point?  His life turns out completely different than his "first" life.  Successful, a millionaire, money is of no concern to Jeff now.  Married, with a daughter his life is going well.  Yet, when that fateful date comes around again, when he is 43 years old, no matter what he tries to do to prevent it's outcome, cardiologists, hospitals - he dies.  The same sudden heart attack. Where does he land? 

Atlanta.  Emory.  18 again.

And so it happens again and again.  Each life takes Jeff on a different journey.  Sometimes he tries to look up his first wife, Linda.  Another time, he marries his girlfriend from Emory.  Another time he meets another 'replayer,' Pamela, who becomes the love of his "lives."  Together they try to sort it out and find other "replayers" and figure out why this is happening to them.  They reunite a few times after they "die."  His relationship with Pamela is the one constant for him.  Yet, soon they realize that this 'replaying' is not going to go on indefinitely, there is an end eventually.  When they reach that point, the book is both fulfilling and bittersweet.

Does this sound bewildering?  Does it make your head hurt just trying to think about it?  Trust me, it's told so well, it's believable, it's poignant - stimulating.  I loved this book!  What a little gem I stumbled upon!  I identified with Jeff, felt his frustration and yet was enthralled by the way he lived each life - and how different they all were.  This is not another version of "Groundhog Day", it's much better, richer, detailed and "deeper."

If you like time travel or these kinds of stories, give it a try.  The setting for the most part was in the 1960's, one of my favorites.  A worthwhile read and the reader, William Dufris, who narrated this was wonderful as a Southern Jeff, with a bit of a Southern accent.  His girlfriends' voices (most of them Southern - with an irresistible lilt to them) were good too - I really enjoyed the whole thing, I was sorry when it ended!

Read this book - or listen to it, a real keeper!


Saturday, January 8, 2011

Intimate Enemies by Shana Abé

Book Description:
An exquisitely emotional, beautifully written novel about two warring clans on a Scottish isle united by a fragile pact... and the hearts of two unforgettable lovers.  Lauren MacRae is only a woman. But her father's death has left her the leader of the Clan MacRae. Now it is up to her to defend her beloved Isle of Shot from the invading Northmen, even if it means going to her clan's sworn enemy, the powerful English overlord, Arion du Morgan, for help. But Arion's raven hair, green eyes, and smoldering sensuality soon make Lauren forget just why she turned to him - as he awakens within her a wayward desire....

Like Lauren, Arion risks the mutiny of his soldiers by forming this risky alliance. But he was brought up to believe that the Isle of Shot belongs not to the Clan MacRae, but to England - and he will defend it to his dying breath. Once, when they were children, Arion saved Lauren from a tortuous fate. Now, the copper-haired beauty has somehow found a way to banish the emptiness in his soul. And as they join forces to fight for the land they both love, he will risk everything - even his very life - to claim what is his.

I'm afraid this medieval romance hardly did anything for me, although the premise was interesting.  Two warring factions share a small island off the coast of Scotland.  Technically, it belongs to England (under the rule of Henry II) but for all intents and purposes it's Scottish.   The Clan MacRae is currently led by the daughter of it's recently slain laird.  Lauren is fearless and resourceful - but a woman.  During these dangerous times with Vikings storming and raiding her island, there is only so much she can do.  And do she must or else all will perish in the next Viking raid.  What a coincidence that this is the second Scottish medieval I've read in less than a month that deals with Vikings and their deadly raids!  Unfortunately, this one wasn't nearly as good as On a Highland Shore.

In order to defeat the Vikings and withstand their attacks, the plan is to join forces with the English side of the island, led by Arion du Morgan.  Together, the two sides that have been bitter enemies for ages, can defeat the Vikings, divided they will fail.   Lauren wants to save her beloved Island of Shot, but will her clan go along with the idea?  Or will their pride insure their death?

Lauren and Arion share a past together.  Once, long ago, he rescued her from certain death at the hands of his uncle who was holding her hostage as a little girl.  Arion freed her from his uncle's dungeon and allowed her to return to her home in safety.  Now, thrown together under these dire circumstances due to the Viking threat, Lauren and Arion find they are tantalizingly attracted to one another as well.  With a Romeo and Juliet theme to the story, they know nothing good can come of it - their backgrounds do not mix.  Lauren is betrothed to another allied laird, she must fulfil her late father's wish of joining their two clans together with a marriage.  Yet, she longs for the arms and kisses of Arion - an Englishman, anathema to her clan.  It doesn't help that when she finally meets her betrothed, he turns out to be a worse than she ever imagined.  A villain in disguise.  She is torn, go with her heart to Arion and lose all that she knows, her friends and family - or marry for her clan's sake and be unhappy for the rest of her life?

I won't spoil the ending, but there was lots of action, battle scenes and some tender moments between Lauren and Arion.  But for the most part, I found the their actual relationship went only skin deep.  I didn't particularly like or care much about Lauren, I found there seemed to be a surprising lack of depth and emotion about her.  Arion seemed to be better drawn, I was more sympathetic towards him.  Despite these flaws, I thought the battle scenes were well done.  Still, this is supposed to be a romance, isn't it? 

Btw, this was my final book in my 2010 TBR Challenge!


Lion in the Valley by Elizabeth Peters (audio)

Book Description:
The 1895-96 season promises to be an exceptional one for Amelia Peabody, her dashing Egyptologist husband, Emerson, and their wild and precocious eight-year-old son, Ramses. The much-coveted burial chamber of the Black Pyramid in Dahshur is theirs for the digging. But there is a great evil in the wind that roils the hot sands sweeping through the bustling streets and marketplaces of Cairo.

The brazen moonlight abduction of Ramses and an expedition subsequently cursed by misfortune and death have alerted Amelia to the likely presence of her arch nemesis, the Master Criminal, notorious looter of the living and the dead. But it is far more than ill-gotten riches that motivate the evil genius this time around. For now the most valuable and elusive prize of all is nearly in his grasp: the meddling lady archaeologist who has sworn to deliver him to justice...Amelia Peabody!

Fourth in the Amelia Peabody Victorian mystery series, this time around, Amelia comes face to face in Cairo with the MC (Master Criminal) himself, who seems to have developed a tendre for her.  Hilarious, involving the usual shenanigans, the loquacious Ramses, the irascible and magnificent Emerson and a crop of characters which include a pair of young lovers Amelia takes under her wing.  It all continues to insure the success of this delightful series. On Audio, it's even better, made possible by the remarkable Barbara Rosenblat.

Amelia and her archaeologist husband, Emerson are at it again in Egypt.  No sooner do they get there but murder and intrigue stalks them.  This time around two younger characters join their camp, both carrying secrets of their own.  Nemo, a red headed drifter who is addicted to opium is employed to watch Ramses - not an easy task.  Nemo is obviously from the ruling class - a Scot most likely, but his background remains to be seen.  Amelia is eager to uncover the truth about him whilst reforming him of his dissolute ways.  She sums him up easily - there must have been a women that led to his self-destruction.  She is determined to get to the bottom of it.  Coincidentally, a pretty young woman, Enid joins them as well.  Enid is hiding out with the Emersons to avoid being arrested for murder in Cairo.  Who really murdered her supposed lover and what brought her to Cairo in the first place?  Do she and Nemo know one another from another time?  And where did he get this Nemo name from anyway?  His name is really Donald - or was it Ronald?  In any event, he's a Fraser.  Red hair with a last name of Fraser?  A Scot too?  I like him already!

Loads of uproarious moments throughout the novel.  One particularly funny moment was the predicament of explaining to Ramses the facts of life.  Amelia tactfully leaves this momentous occasion to Emerson who harrumphs and coughs his way through it as Ramses asks question after question.  It was really quite funny.  I find as Ramses is getting older, he's not quite as adorable as he used to be, but his moments in the novel are the highlights as are the private moments between Amelia and Emerson.

The crowning point in the novel is when Amelia is kidnapped by the Master Criminal and he explains his motives to her - much to her horror and complete surprise.  I must admit, it's hard to get Amelia flustered, but in this case, she came pretty close - and was indeed, quite flattered by the attentions of Sethos (as the Master Criminal calls himself) nearly overcome by the moment and caught up in his ... how shall we say... charms?  Fortunately, Emerson rescued her just in the nick of time.  Sethos escaped (a master of disguise and magical chicanery) after an impromptu duel over harem clad Amelia (though not without her underclothes!)  Emerson did take note of her outfit later and was able to put it to good use before the authorities came. ;)

I'm leaving tons out, but as usual, this was a superb and very, very funny installment in the adventures of Amelia Peabody!


Saturday, January 1, 2011

2010 100+ Reading Book Challenge Wrap Up - Happy New Year!

Happy New Year everyone!

I had a stellar year for reading!  It's now official: I am a romance junkie.  I can't believe what great books and authors I've discovered this year!  I easily surpassed the 100 books reading requirement and read 117 new books, not including the five re-reads on audio.  Historical romance dominated the list but some bestsellers and other genres popped up from time to time as well.  Books such as The Help, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo books, Keith Richards autobiography, and Paul is Undead, a sensational parody on zombies and the Beatles.  I discovered and loved some old classics like Forever Amber and A Town Like Alice

I had many favorites which I've posted below.  I discovered some new authors (to me) that I simply loved, such as Sherry Thomas, Karen Hawkins, Elizabeth Peters and Jennifer Ashley.  Although I enjoyed this challenge immensely, I've decided not to do it again for 2011, since I found myself getting a little too frantic in keeping pace, and I was speeding through some books that I should have given more time to.  Plus, I was getting behind in reviews and they were starting to feel more like a chore than something fun to do.  This year I'm going to relax and luxuriate in my reading and not worry about the challenge.

Below are my favorites, which I've separated by genre.  Links to the reviews can be found by searching through my tags, but all the books below I've rated 4.5 stars and up.

Historical Romance

1. Private Arrangements by Sherry Thomas
2. Delicious  by Sherry Thomas
3. Seduce Me at Sunrise  by Lisa Kleypas
4. Flowers from the Storm by Laura Kinsale
5. Stolen Charms  by Adele Ashworth
6. Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor
7. How to Marry a Marquis by Julia Quinn
8. Whitney, My Love by Judith McNaught
9. Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake by Sarah Maclean
10.  The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie by Jennifer Ashley
11.  The Forbidden Lord by Sabrina Jeffries
12. Confessions of a Scoundrel by Karen Hawkins
13. The Last Hellion by Loretta Chase

Contemporary Romance

14. Something About You by Julie James
15. Mr. Perfect by Linda Howard

Historical Fiction

16. The Help by Kathryn Stockett
17. A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute
18. Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters
19. The House at Riverton: A Novel by Kate Morton


20. Paul Is Undead: The British Zombie Invasion by Alan Goldsher
21. Life: Keith Richards by Keith Richards

Popular Current Bestseller

22. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
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