Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A Knight Well Spent by Jackie Ivie

Book Description:
Scotland, 1141. A Norman king's attempts to rule the Highland clans is making his favorite knight's job difficult, indeed - and that is before a woman of mystery lays siege to the warrior's heart...

She Lives To Heal... He's a giant of a man; what's more, he's the enemy. These truths should be enough to send Aislynn running far and fast from the wounded stranger in the woods. But he needs her help-and the reward he bestows changes her forever...

He Fights To Kill... Formidable knight Rhoenne Guy de Ramhurst has been "gifted" with a fiefdom - and the unenviable task of taming the rebellious Highlanders that populate it.  He also has a castle full of dissidents, led by his own half brother. Yet these challenges pale in comparison with attempts to forget the healer who saved his life and captured his heart...

And One Love Rules Them Both... Rhoenne believes a family curse places any woman he loves in mortal danger. When Aislynn is abducted by his profligate sibling, Rhoenne becomes her protector-even as he tries to resist her. But Aislynn has secrets of her own - and as deception and danger swirl ever closer around them, the truth may be their only salvation...

This has been on my TBR list for a long time and I'm sorry to say it was a big disappointment.  Normally, I love highlander romances, but this was a slog to get through.  I don't know why, but this was just a hard book to read.  Normally, I'm fine with dialects and Scottish accents, but here the speech of the medieval Norman English knights didn't flow easily.  While the author tried to make them sound authentic, it wound up sounding awkward and stilted.  The pacing of the storyline was hard to follow as well, not to mention the plot was a real downer - but at least I finished it.

The romance that develops between Rhoenne and Aislynn is full of pitfalls, misunderstandings and just plain bad advice.   Their relationship develops as a woodland lass, Aislynn who is a gifted healer comes across Rhoenne de Ramhurst who is injured but doesn't want anyone to know.  He's the leader of his soldiers (he's English) and must appear strong.  He bends over backwards to keep up the deception and "hires" Aislynn to come live at his castle and be his healer.  One thing leads to another and once he sees how beautiful and bewitching she is, she becomes his mistress as well, even though she's Scottish and he's English.  Their romance is overshadowed by the fact he cannot marry her because the King of England wants her to marry a woman of his choice, not some nobody healer with a dubious reputation - she's an orphan, so no one knows who her real parents are.

Furthermore, there is the worry that if she becomes pregnant with his child, she will die in childbirth from the family curse.  No woman seems to be able to survive the ordeal.  Ramhursts are big - in every way.  They carry on together, but Rhoenne's best friend, Sir Harold, is afraid that his lord will die in battle by risking everything for Aislynn.  (Harold also has his eye on Aislynn - a real ladies man).  Harold convinces Aislynn to run away from Rhoenne if she really loves him (to keep him safe.)  To make matters worse, the plan is to make it look like she's running away with Harold!  Bad idea! So, of course, there's the usual "big" misunderstanding in which Ramhurst after falling head over heals for Aislynn and risking war with the king to keep her, thinks she and his best friend are cheating on him!  No one tells him the truth and Ramhurst, hurt and feeling betrayed, casts them out and calls her a whore, blah, blah, blah and all before she can tell him she's carrying his babe!  Ugh!

This leads to the wilderness pages of the book in which Aislynn and Harold wander around for months and months in the north of Scotland and meet up with some Highlanders who think she is some kind of magical woman unique to their clan.  They "adopt" Harold as a member of their clan and he begins to wear something like a kilt.  (This felt like some kind of lead in for him for his own book in the future.)  But, eventually they realize they should return to Rhoenne and admit the truth and see if he'll take them back.  Fat chance.  (Plus, Harold is scared to death Aislynn is going to have the baby somewhere out in the woods and he won't be able to save either one!)

I won't tell you what happens, but a large part of this book was a bummer. Rhoenne, who is understandably upset by what he believes to have taken place between Harold and Aislynn winds up being a real jerk when they return.   Sir Harold just wants to die because he loves Rhoenne so much, and he feels terrible about deceiving him - but does he tell him why he did it?  No!  I felt like banging my head on the wall because NO ONE would tell Rhoenne the truth of why Aislynn and Harold ran off together in the first place!  It was so stupid and frustrating and went on for far too long!

I cannot recommend this romance, it was such a waste of my time and since I barely liked a single character in the book, I just couldn't get into the love story.  Everybody was so dense!  Think twice before reading it unless you really love bone headed, big, blond alphas with major stubborn streaks that can't see the truth if it's staring them right in the face.  I normally love alphas, but Rhoenne lost me when Aislynn returned to him. She was ridiculously naive for someone that is supposed to be so wise and those wilderness years months with Aislynn and Sir Harold squabbling and complaining was the final nail in the coffin, although it did have it's purpose because we find out who Aislynn really is.

Frankly, I just want to put this book behind me and move on.


P.S. The hot cover is misleading, our hero never wears a kilt - he's not even Scottish!  Maybe it's supposed to be Sir Harold on the cover!

Monday, September 26, 2011

Katherine by Anya Seton (audio)

Book Description:
This classic romance novel tells the true story of the love affair that changed history-that of Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, the ancestors of most of the British royal family. Set in the vibrant 14th century of Chaucer and the Black Death, the story features knights fighting in battle, serfs struggling in poverty, and the magnificent Plantagenets-Edward III, the Black Prince, and Richard II-who ruled despotically over a court rotten with intrigue. Within this era of danger and romance, John of Gaunt, the king's son, falls passionately in love with the already married Katherine. Their well-documented affair and love persist through decades of war, adultery, murder, loneliness, and redemption. This epic novel of conflict, cruelty, and untamable love has become a classic since its first publication in 1954.

I simply loved this book!  Loved, loved, loved it!

I put off reading it for a long time, since I felt it was going to be a bit boring and dated (it was written in 1954) and the only other book I'd read by Seton didn't thrill me (Green Darkness).  How wrong could I be?  This was not dry or dull at all, and it was especially riveting on audio!  It's the real-life romantic story of Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt who was the Duke of Lancaster in the fourteenth century.  The two of them had a non-marital relationship for over 25 years before they finally married.

Handsome and dashing, John was married at the time he and Katherine first meet.  Katherine, convent schooled, is a young and naive girl, new to court.  There is much drama and excitement for Katherine upon first meeting John and his wife, Blanche at the king's court.  Her sister (who is married to Geoffrey Chaucer) is older and more experienced at court and is insistent that Katherine try to make a good marriage.  She winds up marrying a minor lord, Hugh Swynford, who falls for her beauty at first sight.  Theirs is not a particularly happy marriage, but they have two children and Katherine is a dutiful, albeit neglected wife.  Her husband is a knight and away fighting under the Duke for most of the time.   Hugh serves under the Duke of Lancaster and thus John and Katherine meet from time to time.  Though married, he has trouble handling the strong feelings that crop up whenever he is around the guileless Katherine.  There is a magnetism between the two that is hard to ignore. 

Eventually, John's duchess, Blanche, dies from the plague.  Katherine, married to Hugh, is still a temptation to him.  She is unaware of his feelings, but not for much longer.  He comes to her and makes it plain that he wants her, yet she makes it clear that it is impossible.  Katherine refuses to dishonor her husband, no matter how tempting John is.  She has feelings for him, but she will not betray her husband and father to her two children.

Irony of ironies, Katherine's husband dies unexpectedly from a stomach ailment (he is really poisoned by one of John's loyal retainers, though Katherine and John believe it to be from a sudden illness). John's longing for Katherine has never ceased.  He has continued to dream of her, worshiping her from afar.   Finally, now that she is a widow, he has his chance.  But he's betrothed to another!  Grr!  Because of his position as Duke of Lancaster, he is expected to make a great political match.  A betrothal to the Infanta Constance of Castile is arranged so that one day he will become the King of Castile.  This is no love match, it's strictly political.   Yes, despite his impending nuptials, John finds he cannot resist Katherine and her new found freedom.  Katherine is unaware of all of this.  She is too good, in fact, it's hard to believe she was such a saint.  She hasn't a selfish bone in her body and barely an ounce of vanity.  She is honest and true, which makes it all the more shocking and unlikely that she actually agrees to become the mistress of John of Gaunt!  How does this come about, you ask?

Before his wedding to Constance, John cannot resist the opportunity to carry Katherine off.  Declaring his love for her, she is stunned, joyous and overwhelmed, all at the same time.  Without much protestation, she submits to his desires and the two of them revel in their love for one another for several weeks.  They become true soul mates, despite the fact he goes ahead and marries Constance.  Katherine becomes his mistress for nearly 25 years and bears him several children.  I'm abbreviating what is a wonderful, dramatic and history filled narrative of their tempestuous relationship.  During this time, there is a rift between them and they are separated for several years.  Katherine has discovered the truth about how her husband Hugh died and blames herself.  She believes she is responsible for the death of her daughter as well (from Hugh) and repents by giving up the Duke.  Yet, their love never really dies.  Several years later, when John's wife dies, he returns to Katherine and will not take no for an answer.  They're both older and time is short.  He will not live without her any longer (how romantic!)  At last, he is able to marry her and make her his duchess.  The Pope legitimizes their children so they are no longer looked on as bastards (the first time this had ever happened in history!)  I wish Katherine and John had been able to have more than just four years together as man and wife before his death, but at least they had something.

One of the best treats about this book is the way we get inside both John and Katherine's heads.  Much of John's early life was marred by the suspicion that he was not truly his father's son.  His father was King Edward III of England and when John was a young boy, a slanderous rumor put the seed of doubt in his head that continues to haunt him as an adult.  This burden plays a large part in Katherine.  Katherine's story is bittersweet for the most part, living most of her life as John's mistress.  Yet I was swept up in the wonderful historical aspect of it as well as it's just a good story - and true!

On audio, this was a pleasure.  I highly recommend it.  Wanda McCaddon does a fabulous job as narrator.  I was already familiar with her voice from her narration of Mary, Queen of Scots by Margaret George (under the name of Donada Peters).  She is even better in Katherine.  I so identified with Katherine and her ups and downs.  It couldn't have been easy for her all those years as John's mistress.  But their love held them together.  The history that takes place is not a monumental time in the history books, but the plague that kills Blanche as well as the Peasant's Revolt in 1381 are both depicted in graphic detail.  Through the whole book you feel like "you are there."  The research is tops and I highly recommend that you read the complete forward by the author because it was very interesting and tells how she wrote this book and her thoughts on Katherine and John's relationship and the influences on both of them during this time in history.

A great read (or listen, in my case) and now I know why the story of Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt is listed as one of the all time great romances in history with a truly happy ever after ending.  A worthwhile book, don't miss it!


Friday, September 23, 2011

Goddess of Spring by P.C. Cast

Book Description:
To save her failing bakery, Lina trades souls with Persephone, the Goddess of Spring-and starts falling for hunky Hades.

And what a hunk he is!  Trust me, this Hades is not the Hades from Disney's Hercules, believe me!

I really enjoyed this story that plays on the mythological story of Persephone and Hades.  Never having read anything by this author before, I had heard good things about this book, which is part of her Goddess Series.  This is book #2, which I had heard was the best of the series.

Catalina aka Lina is a modern day, middle aged forty something owner of a baker.  She's an attractive divorced woman who has made a great success of her bakery in Oklahoma.  But, thanks to her incompetent accountant, she owes a ton to the IRS and realizes she must branch out and start inventing something new in the bakery to bring in more business.  She finds some old cookbooks and an old recipe for pizza.  Part of the recipe calls for her to pray to the gods and do a little dance around a tree, etc. etc.  She has some wine, does her little dance and hopes for the best.  Little does she know...

At the same time, on Mt. Olympus, where the gods dwell, Demeter, goddess of the harvest and the seasons wants her beautiful daughter, the goddess Persephone to grow up and become a bit more serious about her role as Goddess of Spring.  (Persephone is a bit flighty.)  Demeter becomes aware of Lina from her little prayer dance.  She listens to Lina's prayer and comes to Earth to make her a deal.  It's quite a whopper!
She asks Lina to trade places with Persephone and go to "hell" (literally) and live there with Hades for six months.  While there, she wants Lina (as Persephone) to help Hades and be a goddess to the dead souls living in the Underworld that are in need of the Goddess of Light and Spring.  Lina is skeptical, naturally.  But, she agrees to do it.  While Lina is gone, Persephone will step into her place and make the bakery a success.

As outlandish as it all sounds, it wound up being a really good story!  Lina is suddenly thrust into the beautiful body of Persephone and is soon face to face with the god, Hades.  Demeter had given Lina the impression that Hades was a dour recluse with no interest in women.  She was partly right, but she left out the part that he looks like a god (he is a god after all).  Muscular, dark and handsome, he has a brooding virility about him that proves to be irresistible to Lina, yet he has a vulnerability too.  (Lina thinks of him as Batman - the Val Kilmer version.)  We follow Lina as she gets to know Hades better and learns what it's like to be a goddess at the same time.  Not a bad life!  The Underworld isn't nearly as bad as she thought it would be, it's actually quite nice! En route to the Underworld, she meets a young soul who has recently died, Eurydice, who becomes her hand maiden and takes care of her.  (Eurydice has her own little side story as well, remember the myth of Morpheus and Eurydice?)

As Lina (as Persephone) and Hades inevitably fall in love, she is torn because she knows she must return to her real life in Oklahoma in six months.  She's convinced Hades only loves her for her gorgeous persona as Persephone.  Once he finds out she's a middle aged nobody he'll turn from her.  Plus, he hates lying women!   She sees no possible happy outcome, thus she leaves Hades of her own accord before he can dump her.  Hades has a major chip on his shoulder because he is the god of the dead.  The other gods on Mt. Olympus look down on him and mock him, so he's sensitive and has shunned the gods and goddesses.  Yet, he is drawn to Lina.  She's so different compared to the other goddesses he's known.  She's a breath of fresh air.  He loves her completely, but is worried she won't want to stay with him in the Underworld.

I felt sorry for Hades when he finds out the truth.  Before Lina can leave, he finds out about her real persona from Demeter who callously tells him that she's really a mortal middle aged woman posing as Persephone.  Hurt and confused, he bitterly casts Lina off, telling himself she had only been toying with him.  He hardens himself against her because he can't stand the thought she'd been lying to him all along, and he's convinced she never really felt anything real for him.  Both are so wrong about each other, yet afraid to seek out the truth for fear of betrayal.  Lina is desolate when she returns to her bakery. 

How can Hades and Lina return to one another and be happy forever?  It seems impossible, yet the author comes up with a great solution which also fits in with the whole Persephone/Hades mythological story.

I found the whole premise of the story fun and different.  I love mythology, so this book was right up my alley.  I will definitely read more of this series!  The side characters were good too!  Lina has a few friends who work for her at the bakery, Hades' right hand man was good too, who forms an attachment to Eurydice.  Eurydice was a bit too sweet and cloying - always wanting to please.  Persephone's story working at the bakery is touched on, but not much, but we get a good idea of what's been happening on her end and she comes through for Lina to tie up all the loose strings and make a happy ending possible.

There's lots of other parts of the book that gave the story more depth as well.  The characterizations make the people realistic and there's some humor involved (the obligatory gay co-worker that seems to be in every contemporary I read nowadays) and the fact Lina has a way with animals - they all love her, including Hades' terrifying horses that become pussycats around Lina.

I recommend this romance, especially if mythology is your thing.  It's a contemporary romance with a fantasy element to it, plus I like the fact the heroine is a middle aged forty something woman!  I can relate to that!  She doesn't have a perfect body (except as Persephone) and in the end, we find out it's not her body Hades was in love with, it was her soul.  Some hot moments between Lina and Hades, but most of all, it was a heartwarming story that I found had some realistic elements to it, despite it's fantastical premise.


Monday, September 19, 2011

Heartless by Gail Carriger

Book Description:
Lady Alexia Maccon, soulless, is at it again, only this time the trouble is not her fault. When a mad ghost threatens the queen, Alexia is on the case, following a trail that leads her deep into her husband's past. Top that off with a sister who has joined the suffragette movement (shocking!), Madame Lefoux's latest mechanical invention, and a plague of zombie porcupines and Alexia barely has time to remember she happens to be eight months pregnant.

Will Alexia manage to determine who is trying to kill Queen Victoria before it is too late? Is it the vampires again or is there a traitor lurking about in wolf's clothing? And what, exactly, has taken up residence in Lord Akeldama's second best closet?

What got off to a somewhat sluggish start turned into a great read, with a satisfying finish that made my head spin!  I loved this latest installment in the Parasol Protectorate series, I think it's the best to date!  Alexia is a pip and nothing can stop her.  Now very pregnant, she is constantly on the go - running here, running there, trying to find out who is trying to kill Queen Victoria.  The plot itself, interspersed with wisps of dreamlike prose from an incoherent ghost, was a bit hard to follow in the beginning, but that was beside the point.  By the end of the book it all made sense.  Aside from that, the best part of this book was the humorous quips and asides that are constant throughout.  Add to that the fantastic cast of characters and paranormal "world" Carriger creates.  All combined, it makes the Parasol Protectorate an original and endearing series. 

Author, Gail Carriger is a true wit.  Her humor, dry and worthy of the Victorian period she depicts, flows seamlessly in and out of the story.  The plot line abounds with understated observations that are just so funny!  Alexia, happily married to her alpha werewolf, Lord Maccon (who I love!) is nearly at her wits end.  About to give birth, she is indomitable.  An inconvenience such as being eight months pregnant does not keep her down! I kept thinking of the phrase, "If you want something done right, do it yourself."  Alexia epitomizes that phrase.  So much needs to be done throughout this book, and the only one that can do it is - Alexia!  (though she is wise to leave certain things to her staff and Lord Akeldama's minions, who really do know best!)

There is so much going on this book, I can't even begin to outline it all.  Pardon me if my review is all over the place. There are loads of revelations coming out of the woodwork!  One of the biggest surprises was in regard to the unflappable Professor Lyall and his past with Alexia's father!  I feel this is definitely setting the stage for a future between Lyall and Biffy who is not a happy werewolf!  All the characterizations of the side characters in this story are great.  Lord Akeldama has always been an amusing side character, not uncommon with gay characterizations.  But in Heartless, he's become a very interesting gay vampire. I love his character and everything about him, he steals every scene he's in, btw.  I find his love for Biffy touching and the fact that they can no longer "be" because Biffy is now a werewolf.  This is, in of itself, a very interesting twist, the unfortunate Biffy must deal with being a werewolf against his will.  It adds another dimension to Carriger's entire paranormal world, which is very well done.  She could have just left it that Biffy is now a werewolf, but instead she's exploring all the sides to his furry dilemma and unhappiness at losing Lord Akeldama.

I personally enjoy the paranormal aspect to these books much more than the steampunk side, which seems to get more attention when the books are talked up.  In the previous books of the series, pages and pages of Madame Lefoux's mechanical inventions led to my eyes glazing over.  (Though, in Heartless, her octomaton is anything but boring!)  I prefer Carriger's world of werewolves and vampires over gadgetry, especially the vampire queen and her hive - and what it means to swarm!  I also like the political rivalry between the queen's and Lord Akedama's vampires. It's all so different and clever!

Getting back to Madame Lefoux, she rubs me the wrong way.  I found her plot line and desire to retrieve her son, a bit over the top.  But it did make for fun reading as a very pregnant Alexia had to avoid Madame Lefoux's giant octomaton throughout the back streets of London before catching a ride on Lord A's flying "gondola" (or whatever it was).  It rescued her in the nick of time!  The imagery of her getting in an out of it was hilarious!  But the whole ghost thing with Madame Lefoux's aunt lost me. 

Overall, I really loved this book.  Although there wasn't much lovin' between Alexia and Conall as some of the other books have had (she is eight months pregnant after all!), their marriage is secure, which is a vast improvement from the last book!  They have many loving moments together, including a familiarity that is evident from being married.  (I love it how he walks around so unabashedly in the nude. *sigh*)  Did I mention how much I adored Conall?  When he and his pack come to rescue Alexia from the octomaton?  Great, great!  (I love it when he's all protective of Alexia.)  

Speaking of the pack, some odd developments occur in Heartless that lead to a major change for the Woolsey Pack, such as it's location and name.  In addition, I wonder what will come of Major Channing Channing.  I like him and want to know more about his past.  I wonder just what's in store for Alexia's incorrigible sister, who deserves a real set down after her latest!  I'm hoping Channing will play a role there.  I'd love to see them wind up together!  She needs someone who can control her and he might just be the werewolf to do it!

A great addition to the series, and I highly recommend it!


P.S.  Does anyone else agree with me that this is a really unattractive cover?  The first time I saw it, I thought it was a joke and that someone had photoshopped a fake cover as a goof!

P.P.S.  Does anyone know how to pronounce Maccon?  Does it rhyme with bacon?  It's driving me crazy!  Maybe someone who has listened to these books on audio can tell me?

Love Only Once by Johanna Lindsey

Book Description:
The Malorys - A family of dashing rogues and rakehell adventurers - and ladies of uncommon beauty and incomparable spirit - their amorous exploits are spoken of in envious whispers from Regency London to America′s shores.

Love Only Once - The exquisite niece of Lord Edward and Lady Charlotte Malory, Regina Ashton is abducted by Nicholas Eden - an arrogant seducer hardened by a painful secret from his past.  Reggie has vowed to marry the golden-haired rogue who has besmirched her good name - and who arouses her womanly desires to an unendurable level.  But her beauty only stirs Nicholas′s passion - giving rise to dangerous misunderstandings. . . and a love that can live only once in a lifetime.

This is the first time I've read anything by this author.  I've heard great things about The Malory's and was looking forward to starting this series which begins with Love Only Once.  What got off to a good start fizzled as the story progressed. 

It was unfortunate that I never cared for or liked the tortured hero, Nicholas Eden.  Nicholas has vowed to never marry because he has a deep dark secret.  He is illegitimate.  He has carried this burden for years, and despite the fact his father is dead, his "mother" (his father's wife) knows the truth and has threatened to make it public.  He will not marry and risk exposing a wife to the scandal and ignominy that would ensue once the secret is out.  So, what does he do instead?  He creates his own scandals by being a rake about town, deflowering virgins (but only with their permission) and having affairs with bored wives of the elite.  This suits Nicholas well until he meets Regina Ashton.  When he meets Regina he doesn't realize who she is or what family she comes from - The Malory's.

Due to a series of events, Regina is accidentally abducted by Nicholas  from a ball.  He locks her up in a room in his London townhouse until he realizes his terrible mistake!  How could Nicholas not have realized he had the wrong woman?  You think he'd recognize his own mistress?  It was beyond belief.   Despite efforts to hush hush the whole mix-up, his discarded mistress spreads the word to the ton of what happened and Regina's Malory uncles, who are nothing to sneeze at, require Nicholas marry their beloved niece to save her reputation.  Nicholas is adamant.  He will not marry her!  Yes, I know he doesn't want to subject her to the inevitable scandal of his illegitimacy, but I thought this was a terribly slim premise for his refusal.  I had no sympathy for him, and actually, I rather disliked him.  Would it have killed him to at least explain to the uncles why he wouldn't marry her - that it was to protect her?  Instead it looked like he was just a cad.  But, with some property he's had his eye on to sweeten the deal (that conveniently abuts his own), Nicholas is convinced, he agrees to marry Regina.  But he is a very reluctant bride groom - until he is overcome by Regina's charm and beauty.  Anticipating their wedding vows, Regina allows him to seduce her outside in a gazebo, no less!  Once is enough in romance novels.  Another virgin deflowered - and pregnant.

What does Regina think of all of this?  She was smitten by Nicholas the minute she met him, so she was petitioning for the marriage from the start.  Her uncles were already eager to marry her off, and Nicholas suited her purposes.  It would solve the problem of marrying and she was attracted to him as well!  But, things don't go so well.  Nicholas decides to be a real jerk, and as soon as they marry, he deposits her off at his estate with his awful "mother" and he leaves the country for the Indies.  No wedding night, no tender words, no apologies, no nothing.  And worst of all - Regina never gets to tell Nicholas she is carrying their child - from that one night.

I really detested him!  And despite his treatment to her, he's supposed to be falling in love with her!  Aaargh!

So, for the rest of the book, Regina is on her own, getting bigger and bigger while Nicholas is off somewhere in the West Indies feeling sorry for himself and gnashing his teeth over how stupid he is!  Frankly, I had zero tolerance for his behavior and didn't see what Regina saw in him!   He has no idea his wife is pregnant or that she has been kidnapped (!) by a pirate who just so happens to be be her uncle!   I felt like throwing the book at the wall (but I was trapped on an airplane flying to Scotland, so I had nothing else to do but read on).
Finally, Nicholas decides to return to his wife and admit what a fool he was to leave her.  He'll tell her how much he loves her, and plead for her forgiveness.  It doesn't exactly happen that way, but in the end all is forgiven and it turns out that Regina knew all about his illegitimacy as soon as he left and it didn't bother her one bit! (His "mother" told her as soon as she was left at his estate with her.)  So, she was left alone for her entire pregnancy for no reason at all!  Lah-dee-da!  But she loves him anyway! *rolls eyes*

I just don't get the rave reviews over this book.  Apart from the "she's pregnant but won't tell the father until she's had the baby!" plot line which I couldn't stand, it was tedious in parts and the hero and heroine were annoying together as well as apart.  I hate these kind of stories, I sure hope the rest of the series isn't like this one!

You're probably wondering why am I going to read the next in the series. I'm not sure.  It's gotten such good comments and reviews, I have to see if the next book is better.  If it turns out to be another disappointment? That's it.  It's over.


Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Exploring Jamie and Claire Land or Five Days in Loch Ness: Culloden

The driving force behind my trip to Scotland was my love for all things Outlander.  That's no surprise.  Having read and listened to the books umpteen times I wanted to see the area first hand where Claire and Jamie are supposed to fall in love and where Lallybroch would most likely be situated.  I knew the general area was around Inverness which was the determining reason why I chose to stay in the Loch Ness area for five nights.  Loch Ness is beautiful.  Don't let anyone dissuade from you going there, in fact I thought it was much nicer than the much touted Loch Lomond.

For one thing, Loch Ness had a mystery to it.  Yes, I mean the monster - or Nessie as she's affectionately known.  There are many interesting things about the Loch I didn't know.  It's very deep and large.  The amount of water that Loch Ness holds is more than all the other lochs in England, Scotland and Wales combined.  Pretty amazing stats.  It's long and narrow in comparison to some other lochs we drove by.  At one end of Loch Ness is Inverness (Inver means mouth of) and the other end is Fort Augustus, which is a charming little town that we visited for dinner one night.

Map courtesy of Evergreen (click on pics for larger images)
We were staying in a Bed & Breakfast, called Evergreen that is located on the quiet side of Loch Ness in Inverfarigaig.  Inverfarigaig is as big as a minute.  The quiet side is the south shore of Loch Ness, away from the touristy Nessy attractions and traffic.  There's no town or village, it's basically an area of road between Dores and Foyers on the B852, which is also known as General Wade's Military Road.  General Wade's Road was built in the 1700's so that British troops would have a good road to go back and forth on from Fort Augustus to Inverness or Nairn, somewhere thereabouts.

I highly recommend Evergreen, it's almost right on the Loch with views that are beautiful.  We saw deer and red squirrels in the neighboring woods, it's very quiet and peaceful.  There are only two guest rooms at Evergreen and we had them both, so the place was basically ours.  It was very comfortable and  I thought of it as our home away from home.  Our hosts, Graeme and Fiona were wonderful.  Full of knowledge, interesting and fun to talk to.  Fiona cooked us up big Scottish breakfasts each morning, always beginning with porridge and fruit and yogurt.  Then it was usually some kind of eggs dish, whether an omelet or fried eggs, whatever we wanted, she'd make - it was great!  (I was too chicken to try the haggis, though.)

The nice thing about Evergreen was it had a great central location to the places I wanted to visit.  I had an agenda as far as Outlander locations:  Culloden, Clava Cairns, Cawdor Castle and Inverness itself.  All of these places were located on the same side of the Loch as we were, so it was really an easy drive to get to our first stop in the morning: Culloden Battlefield.

Culloden is the site of the last great battle between Scotland and England.  The battle took place on April 16 of 1745 in which 1,250 Scottish Jacobites were killed.  It was a slaughter and changed the Scots forever.  Today there is a really well done visitor center that describes all the events leading up to Culloden with Bonnie Prince Charlie and a very good "battle immersion film" that really gives you an idea of what it must have been like to have been right there on that day.  Beside the visitor center is Culloden itself.  The actual battlefield has been restored to how they believe it must have looked on that day.  When you go out walking to the field, there are many clan stones, signifying the clan that died there that day.  
notice the heather someone put there in front
The main one I was interested in seeing was the Clan Fraser stone.  It's easy to spot, for it's right near a great cairn that was built in memory of the soldiers that died there.

When I first saw the Fraser marker, I noticed there was a woman standing before it, taking a picture of it.  I knew what she was doing there.  I walked up to her and said aloud, "Outlander?"  She turned to me and laughed, "Yes, Outlander!"  A kindred spirit.  She was German and a fan like me.  We talked a bit about the books and eventually went our separate ways, we were both there for the same reason.
Cairn across from the Fraser stone
Inscription on the large cairn
Old Leanach cottage
The battlefield itself is enormous and I'm afraid I just did not have the energy to walk all over it.  I found what I wanted and then headed to a small cottage on the side of the field that was there in 1745 and survived the battle.  It's been reconstructed to look as it would have then.  Maybe this is where some of the wounded remained after the battle.  Anyone who has read Voyager will know what I'm talking about.  A nice gentleman (German, I think) took our picture in front of it.

For anyone going to the Loch Ness area, this is a must see and a moving visit.  We also saw some Highland Cows while we were there, they're so cuuuute! (But, apparently mean as hell if you bother them!)

I took some shots of the views of the countryside while I was standing on Culloden Moor.  It's very moving to think this is where the battle took place amidst this beautiful countryside.  The purple heather was everywhere in the Highlands!

Clava Cairns was our next stop, plus it's right next to Culloden. These are ancient cairns that are thousands of years old, but my particular interest in them was that there are standing stones as well.   There's even a cleft in one of them, I had to get a gratuitous shot!

Julie having her "Claire" moment!

There is a definite chilliness about the place, a little eerie, so we didn't stay long, I just wanted to have my Claire moment.  It was back in the car and on the road for more sightseeing!

Next stop: a cruise on Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle...

The Wild Rose by Jennifer Donnelly

Book Description:
The vast multi-generational epic that began with The Tea Rose and continued with The Winter Rose now reaches its dramatic conclusion in The Wild Rose. 

London, 1914. World War I is looming on the horizon, women are fighting for the right to vote, and global explorers are pushing the limits of endurance at the Poles and in the deserts. Into this volatile time, Jennifer Donnelly places her vivid and memorable characters:

- Willa Alden, a passionate mountain climber who lost her leg while climbing Kilimanjaro with Seamus Finnegan, and who will never forgive him for saving her life.

- Seamus Finnegan, a polar explorer who tries to forget Willa as he marries a beautiful young woman back home in England.

- Max von Brandt, a handsome sophisticate who courts high society women, but who has a secret agenda as a German spy;

- and many others.

At last, the great conclusion to the Tea Rose Series!  I found it riveting, melancholy and hard to stop thinking about. I'm truly sad it's all over for this was a great series.  I didn't think I was going to be crazy about this book, for Willa Alden, the obstreperous heroine, is hard to like at first.  We first get to know her in the previous book, The Winter Rose and she rubbed me the wrong way.  Stubborn, impetuous and annoying, she acted like a spoiled brat who always had to get her way.  Not in a ritzy, pampered spoiled kind of way.  She's a rough and tumble tomboy.  A mountain climber with an intense drive to get to the top first - in whatever she does.  She is described at one point in The Wild Rose as someone who steps all over other people that get in her way, regardless of their feelings and desires.  As much as Willa bugged me at first, I wound up loving her in this book.  We really get inside her head and her many adventures are full of surprises!

Willa is loved by Seamus Finnegan, and vice versa, yet because of a harrowing fall on Mt. Kilimanjaro, Willa lost a leg.  Seamus was with her and had to make the choice of either having her leg amputated or let her die.  Of course, he chose the leg and because climbing was her life she couldn't deal with it and turned away from him to venture out on her own.  The Wild Rose picks up several years later.  Willa is living at the foot of Mt. Everest, a photographer - and addicted to opium.  The drug eases her pain for her lost leg - and her lost love: Seamie.  Despite her addiction, the still beautiful Willa is hardy and brave while living alone at the end of the world.  Her fierce independence, combined with an underlying vulnerability prove irresistible to most men who have a tendency to fall in love with her. She has a certain je ne sais quoi.  She is memorable. 

And what about Seamie?  He has become a famous explorer, but he has never stopped thinking of Willa and wondering about her.  He has remained unmarried, she is the love of his life.  But he meets a young woman, the daughter of a vicar while in London and due to a series of events, they marry.  She's a nice young girl, but their marriage is built on a web of lies.  The story becomes more and more complex.  As WWI is looming, we get to know Max von Brandt, a spy for the Germans who has a knack of invading London's social circles.  He's very charming and also very good at blackmail.  I really liked his character, even though he's a "bad guy."  Or is he?

I'm leaving tons out, but this is a great book.  It's sprawling adventure is captivating!  Willa, Seamus and Max's lives are all tangled up together from London to the Sahara.  Fiona and Joe are still around from the previous books, and we even see a bit of Charlie and India from The Winter Rose.  The most wonderful part of this book is the love between Seamie and Willa, who never stop loving one another, despite what happens to them.  I found it hard to put this book down it was so good - exhausting too!

I highly recommend this entire series, it's hard for me to say which one of the books is my favorite, but I think it's this one, The Wild Rose.  A great and fitting finale to one of my favorite historical fiction series.  It's full of emotion, adventure, interesting locales and the writing and research that goes into the plot lines is first rate.  It fits the bill with a romantic edge to it as well.  You won't be sorry!


Overall Series: 5/5

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Passing Places and Rumble Strips - Reflections on Driving in the Scottish Highlands

I've decided to post several different posts on our Scotland trip, rather than one big one.  I'll post about certain things, reflections or adventures of what happened over the course of our time there.  Here's my first post on driving... 

One of the most unexpectedly delightful - and harrowing - things we came across in our travels were the driving customs which are different from the ones we're used to in the U.S.  While we were driving in our rental throughout the Scottish Highlands for over a week, many of the roads are "single track" meaning only one car can fit on it.  So, if another is coming, you have to pull over to a "passing place" which is a spot carved out beside the road that allows room for one car to pull over while the oncoming car passes you (a friendly wave is de rigueur.)  This was all new to us coming from New Jersey!  There doesn't seem to be any set rule about who pulls over first, it's all very casual and civilized, after a while you get used to it and know what to do.  We became experts after a week.  The passing places are frequent and each one has a sign that says "passing place", so it's hardly ever an issue to find one.  In fact, I preferred the single track roads after a while, compared to the single carriageway roads since many drivers drive very fast on the lonely back roads and come barreling along in the opposite direction towards you.  Many of the single carriageways are narrow as well, and I'd often cringe when we'd pass an oncoming car at top speed - especially on a typically twisty, turny road with blind spots around every bend or summit.  Still, the panoramic views that accompany these kinds of roads were well worth it!  Below is a photo I took while driving through Glen Coe which is a stunning area of Scotland.  Pictures cannot do it justice, it's like the Grand Canyon or Sedona as far as immensity.  The green mountains surrounding the area are majestic and beautiful.   The second pic is of my husband viewing another part of Glen Coe.  As I said, pictures just cannot properly convey how huge this area is and the grandeur of the scenery.  Some parts have a preternatural feel to them, it was simply awesome with purple heather everywhere. (click on the photos for larger versions)

Glen Coe

My husband at Glen Coe

Another charming thing we noticed that was new to us while driving was a particular road sign - and I don't mean a billboard sign.  (As far as I know, they don't exist in Scotland, I never saw a single one.  Nice.)  The sign I'm talking about indicates "rumble strips."  What's a "rumble strip?"  They're a series of speed bumps designed to slow you down or keep you alert.  When you drive over them, there's a growly rumbly noise on the wheels  - hence their name!  
Another thing we loved was the speed limit signs that register how fast you're going.  They have them in the U.S. too, but the ones in Scotland have smiley faces and sad faces that indicate if you're obeying the speed limit or not!  When you come across a speed limit sign that tells you how fast your speed is, if you're within the limit, a happy face pops up, if you're going too fast, a sad face shows up instead.  Believe me, it works!  Whenever we saw the sad face, we slowed down right away - who wants to see a sad face?  I admire the psychology in these signs, they should do this in the U.S. too!  

Roundabouts.  The dreaded roundabouts in the U.K. I'm sure you've all heard of them.  In the Highlands there are virtually no stop lights, it's all roundabouts (traffic circles) to keep the traffic moving.  At first we were completely flummoxed by them, but then after you get used to driving on the left and jumping in and exiting, they make perfect sense!  The only time I saw stop lights were in the cities like Inverness and Edinburgh.  By the time we got to Edinburgh at the end of our trip, we got rid of the rental, since parking is impossible in town.  It's not needed or worth to it to have one.  Taxis and walking are the way to go.

I recommend hiring a car if you go to Scotland.  It's a great way to see the country.  I loved driving around the Highlands, I'm so glad we started our trip that way and had our own dear Mercedes which we really put through it's paces (more on that in a later post).  I hired an automatic.  I figured driving a manual and shifting with the left hand - and driving on the left - was pushing it.  Upon our arrival in Scotland we picked up our car and drove from Edinburgh Airport straight up to the Highlands.  We drove up the A9 and stopped at a great little inn with a tea room that served food and drinks in Pitlochry for a late lunch (great Cullen Skink - a chowder type Scottish specialty made with smoked haddock and potatoes).  I forget the name of the place, I'm afraid, but it was a little inn on the main drag.  That first day was a bit of a blur.  Pitlochry is a nice little town, sort of touristy but it's right on the A9 and it was a good stopping point for us to get a bite and go to an ATM machine.  It was then on to Loch an Eilean as I mentioned in my earlier post. 

After leaving Loch an Eilean, we headed on to our B&B on the quiet side of Loch Ness which was about another hour away.  Loch Ness - our home base for the next five nights.  

More tomorrow... maybe.

The Many Sins of Lord Cameron by Jennifer Ashley

Book Description:
A renowned rake, Cameron Mackenzie doesn't care if Ainsley Douglas has a virtuous excuse for sneaking around his bedchamber. He only cares that she's at his mercy. One kiss at a time, he plans to seduce her. But what starts out as a lusty diversion may break Cam's own rules. 

So far I've loved this series about four Mackenzie brothers in Victorian London and Scotland.  I love Jennifer Ashley as an author too.  But what can I say, I was let down by The Many Sins of Lord Cameron.  I wasn't really crazy about the plot line itself and that was my main problem with the book.  Yes, yes, I understand, it's the story of a tortured hero who has been abused in the past and finds love to help him overcome his deep set insecurities from a dysfunctional marriage and tyrannical father - but it still didn't sway me.

Cameron is an over the top bad boy.  Yet beneath the rakish facade, he's a good man begging to be recognized as a father who loves his son.  A man with a talent with horses and someone who can love and be loved in return, in a happy, normal relationship.  But, because of the abuse he suffered as a boy growing up, thanks to his father, and his mistake of a marriage with a sadistic crazy woman, Cameron is afraid of failure.  Thus, he sets himself up as a dissolute ne'er do well whom no one will take seriously, despite the fact his teenage son needs and loves him no matter who or what he is.  Yet Cameron doesn't see this.  He's too blind with self loathing to see beyond his nose.  I just wanted to slap him upside the head and tell him to get over it!  

Third in the Mackenzie brothers series, the story got off to a good start as we learn of Cameron and Ainsley's previous history together.   Several years earlier, Cameron and Ainsley met under unorthodox circumstances.  She was married and faithful to her older husband at the time, but an unexpected encounter with Cameron in his bedroom led to a few memorable and mad, passionate kisses.    Now several years later, they meet again under very similar circumstances.  Ainsley is now a widow in the service of Queen Victoria.  She is trying to retrieve some embarrassing and damaging letters the Queen wrote to her well known Scottish servant, Mr. Brown.   Annoyed that she tricked him last time, Cameron thinks Ainsley is a scheming vixen, unaware of her true motives in searching his room.  He is angry with her, yet attracted to her nonetheless.  It's all a big mix up, but soon the two of them cannot deny or resist the attraction to one another.  But Cameron has this terrible reputation as a bad boy and Ainsley has a very respectable position in the Queen's household.  Plus, he's got this major complex to deal with regarding love and women and relationships!  However can they manage this conundrum? 

Cameron was not nearly as appealing a character to me as his brothers Ian or Mac from the previous books. All the Mackenzies have their problems, but I just wasn't as sympathetic towards Cameron as I was with his brothers.  Maybe it's because the background is a bit weak on him.  We never quite get a good enough reason of why he married his dead wife in the first place.  She is the bane of most of his problems later in life due to the trauma she caused him - and why did he let her?  I guess I'm just not a big fan of tortured  heroes with masochistic tendencies (except when it comes to Jamie Fraser).  Overall the book was pretty good, for I did like Ainsley, the woman who manages to rid Cameron of his inner demons, albeit she causes a scandal and risks her reputation in doing so. 

Overall, the story is well written and I enjoyed the setting and it kept my interest up to a point.   Once the hero and heroine married, the plot line fizzled.  Although the sex scenes were steamy and plentiful (perhaps a bit too plentiful), the plot slowed down half way through the book and lost it's momentum.  It just kind of meandered around with no real climax in the storyline.  

Still, I love the cover -wowza!  I'm also very eager to read the next in the series about the eldest of the Mackenzie's, Hart!  I can't wait until it comes out!


Friday, September 9, 2011

I'm back from Scotland and Book 8 has a title - Written in My Own Heart's Blood

So much news!  Yes, Outlander fans, Book 8 has a title!  With some tweaking and a few changes, Diana Gabaldon has settled on the title for her next book in the Outlander Series.  Most likely it will be published sometime in 2013.  I like the title a lot.  It goes without saying, I'm looking forward to it, now more than ever since I just got back from my dream vacation in the Scottish Highlands!  (And yes, I took this picture of the Clan Fraser stone while visiting the battlefield of Culloden.)

I apologize about the lack of posts lately. I have a bunch of books waiting to be reviewed which I will tackle soon, but I've been so busy, first in Scotland and now just trying to catch up on things here at home and work.  Plus, I'm so tired!   Please be patient, I hope to post a recap of my trip soon with pics - it was awesome!!  Scotland is breathtaking! 

Here's a brief peek of what's to come...

Above is a picture of the first place I went to upon my arrival in Scotland.  For those of you that are familiar with Ciji Ware's Island of the Swans, this is Lady Jane Maxwell's island in the novel, which is one of my favorite books.  Loch an Eilean Castle is near Aviemore and it is a beautiful romantic ruin that sits on a small island in the middle of the Loch.  There is no bridge to the island, the ruin sits peacefully alone, lending a quiet grace to the area.

Lining the banks of Loch an Eilean is a small forest of ancient Caledonian pine trees, which were once found all over the Highlands, but now sadly, only a few forests of the great pines remain today.  Their pungent smell was wonderful and fresh as I stood there among the trees, taking it in.  It was cool and damp in their shade and even though I'd just flown six and a half hours across the Atlantic on the red eye the night before - and then another three plus hours driving up from Edinburgh to Aviemore - I wasn't tired - I was exhilarated!  At last I was able to see Lady Jane's castle, patiently waiting for me in it's hidden and out of the way setting.  Breathing in the fresh air I had to pinch myself as I whispered aloud  "I made it! I'm here!"
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