Wednesday, January 30, 2013

A Christmas Bride/Christmas Beau

A Christmas Bride/Christmas BeauA Christmas Bride/Christmas Beau by Mary Balogh
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It is not often that a novella--at least, not in the romance genre--delves into the darkness and pain of the human soul. Then again, both of these novellas are nearly full-length novels, and both are written by Mary Balogh, whose recent works have dealt increasingly with more complicated characters and situations than are the standard fare. It makes for a refreshing, absorbing change, albeit not quite the escapist literature I had thought I was checking out from the library.

In "A Christmas Bride," wealthy merchant Edgar Downes has promised his father he will, as the title suggests, find a bride by Christmas. Not just any bride though: a Lady, preferably with a title. This is no easy task, given the social stratification and attitudes of 19th century Britain. Still, his sister did marry a peer, so she can introduce him to eligible young ladies. The problem is, his attention is captured by a widow his own age, who on impulse takes him home with her for a one night stand, which both regret the next day. Lady Stapleton has spent the past dozen years or so frozen in an emotional prison, trapped by self-loathing stemming from a terrible mistake she made during her marriage. She lives her life in the shallows, convinced she does not deserve happiness. Fate and the magic of the Christmas season conspire to upend her orderly existence, however, and soon she finds herself unhappily betrothed and in the midst of a jolly Downes family gathering. Edgar's challenge is to break through Helena's defenses and discover what horrible secret has been haunting her all these years, lest her despair consume them both.

"Christmas Beau" opens with the return of Judith Easton to London society. Her year of mourning for her husband is officially over, and she's not eager to spend another Christmas with his family and their drunken card playing. She is intending instead to enjoy a quiet holiday with her two young children and her sister-in-law, Amy. Within days of her arrival, however, she finds herself the focus of the Marquess of Denbigh's attention. Eight years ago, Judith broke her engagement to the Marquess by eloping with another man, leaving her unhappy parents to break the news of her flight. Since she never knew he was in love with her, she had no idea how badly she crushed his heart. Now he is determined to exact revenge. She doesn't trust him, and never has, so he must be clever and deliberate if he is to convince her his intentions are actually honorable. Only some seismic shifts in perception will avert disaster and heartbreak for both.

These novellas were originally published in the 1990s--much to my astonishment, as very few romance novels/novellas written before the late '90s are any good, in my opinion. They tend to be cheesy and, well, I have a whole theory/rant about that, but anyway, these stories are actually good! All four main characters would have a LOT of work to do to maintain happy marriages, yet I feel like they might have the depth to pull it off.

For readers' advisors: character doorway is primary, story and setting secondary. There are a couple of sex scenes, but I don't remember any swearing.

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Friday, January 25, 2013

Notorious Nineteen

Notorious Nineteen (Stephanie Plum, #19)Notorious Nineteen by Janet Evanovich
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Explosions abound in the latest installment of The Adventures of Stephanie Plum. This time she's on the hunt for an embezzler who vanished from his hospital room without a trace in the middle of the night. She's dodging the attempts of a nutty homeless man to steal back the tiki statue he used as collateral for his bond. And Ranger has asked for her assistance in protecting the fiancee of a buddy of his from a crazed former Special Forces soldier they used to work with. Acres of pink taffeta are no match for the determination of a madman bent on exacting revenge, however, and Stephanie has some very close encounters of the lunatic kind.

There is still no character development, so don't expect anyone to make any declarations or commitments. But it's a fun, quick read. I read the first half in one lunch hour alone, thanks to the fast-paced, snappy dialogue that makes up probably 80% of the text.

For reader's advisors: story doorway. It's got a lot of funny bad language, as usual, and some sexual content, although nothing explicit.

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Thursday, January 24, 2013


Seraphina (Seraphina, #1)Seraphina by Rachel Hartman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

All her life, Seraphina has had to hide the truth about herself, believing she is a monster. Still, musical talent like hers cannot remain hidden forever, so eventually she takes a risk and applies for the job of assistant music mistress to the court composer. This role brings her to the attention of the royal family, including Prince Lucian Kiggs, Captain of the Queen's Guard. Against her will, Seraphina finds herself drawn into the spotlight as she helps Kiggs uncover the truth of his uncle's murder. Her connection to her Uncle Orma, a scholarly dragon living incognito in his saarantras (human body), gives her a unique perspective, as does her connection to the other half dragon/half humans she once thought were only visions in her mental garden. Seraphina fights to protect her secrets even as she races against the clock to thwart assassination attempts on the royal family and the Ardmagar, ruler of the dragons, on the 40th anniversary of the Treaty between the Goreddi people and dragonkind.

Hartman does an outstanding job of world-building. I do wish I'd realized sooner that there is a glossary at the end of the book. The vocabulary level is quite high and includes words Hartman invented, so there were many times when I discerned the meaning of a term purely through contextual clues. Ostensibly this is a young adult (i.e. teen) fantasy novel, but adult fantasy readers should enjoy it every bit as much, if not more than teens.

I will now be impatiently awaiting the next book in the series, Dracomachia, which is scheduled to come out some time later this year (nothing more specific than "2013" so far).

For readers' advisors: setting and story doorways are primary, although character and language are not far behind. All swearing is made up (St. Masha and St. Daan!), and there is no sex or nudity, just a couple of kisses.

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Friday, January 18, 2013

Keeping the Castle

Keeping the CastleKeeping the Castle by Patrice Kindl
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Keeping the Castle is rather like Jane Austen's Emma meets Cinderella but without any dead mothers. A beautiful but impoverished teenager makes naive, clueless attempts at matchmaking in an effort to save her family's crumbling home. Since her single-minded drive to keep poverty at bay has blinded her to the feelings and preferences of most of the parties involved, her machinations don't turn out quite as she'd planned. And thank goodness!

I enjoyed this light, frothy story. There is very little in the way of character development, but it's a quick read.

For readers' advisors: story doorway. There is no sex or language. Indeed, even a marriage proposal is accepted with a handshake!

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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Loving Miss Darcy book giveaway contest

My friend and fabulous author, Nancy Kelley, is giving away a copy of her new book, Loving Miss Darcy!  Enter to win here.  Hurry--the giveaway ends in 5 days, 22 hours...which equals approximately January 21, 2013, give or take a few hours.  This new book features Georgiana Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam of Pride & Prejudice fame.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Bedding Lord Ned

Bedding Lord Ned (Duchess of Love, #1)Bedding Lord Ned by Sally MacKenzie
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

3.5 stars, really, because I really liked the novella that came after the end of the novel.

Ellie Bowman has been pining for her neighbor and childhood friend, Lord Ned Valentine, for years, but he fell in love with and married her best friend instead. Four years after Cicely died in childbirth, Ned has decided it's time he found a new wife. Unfortunately for Ellie, it hasn't occurred to Ned that the perfect second wife is right in front of him, so Ellie resolves to look elsewhere, with the help of Ned's mother, the "Duchess of Love."

Given the genre, it should surprise no one that the Duchess is secretly plotting to bring her son and Ellie together, although outwardly she has invited two other eligible gentlemen to her annual matchmaking house party. Sir Reginald, the Duchess's thieving housecat, aids the plan by stealing the scandalous red drawers (a.k.a. underwear) Ellie brought with her by accident and repeatedly leaving the garment in Ned's bedroom. When Ned figures out they belong to sedate, frumpy Ellie, his mind suddenly starts picturing her in them, shaking the foundations of his image of her.

I actually thought the ice skating mishap was far more effective a device in opening Ned's eyes to the depth of his regard for Ellie. And I agree with other reviewers who have said that the ending was rushed, rendering it far less believable. If MacKenzie had taken a little more time developing the subplots and her character development, the book would have been much more satisfying. I read this one because it was on Random House's list of top romances for 2012, and I don't think it belonged there. I enjoyed it, but I wouldn't have included it on that list. Still, different things appeal to different people, and this one struck the right chords with the reviewers who made the list. I am more interested in the story behind Ned's brother Ash's estrangement from his wife!

For readers' advisors: story doorway is primary, setting is secondary (19th century England), and character is trailing along behind. There is a sex scene, and some mild historical-style swearing.

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Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Lady Most Willing...: A Novel in Three Parts

The Lady Most Willing...: A Novel in Three PartsThe Lady Most Willing...: A Novel in Three Parts by Julia Quinn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The second collaboration of authors Julia Quinn, Eloisa James, and Connie Brockway was as delightful as the first. They have again nearly seamlessly woven together three novellas into one novel. It's not spelled out whose story is first, second, and third, but my favorite was the first, and Quinn's name is first on the cover, so perhaps she wrote it?

The premise is that a drunken Scottish laird and his equally drunken "men" decide to find brides for his bachelor nephews so as to ensure the continuation of the laird's bloodlines and an unbroken succession to inherit the castle and its responsibilities. Accordingly, they crash a party and snatch four young ladies of sufficient wealth and breeding. Er...well, or three heiresses and the daughter of a local squire...and a duke who happened to be sleeping in the carriage (his) they used to abduct the women. Whoops. Now everyone is trapped in the drafty castle until the storm blows over and the passes can be cleared of snow. The pairings don't go quite as Taran had planned, but all's well that ends well, right?

For readers' advisors: character and story doorways, setting is secondary (1819 Scotland). Mild historic swearing, one sex scene, and some steamy make-out sessions.

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Thursday, January 3, 2013

A Lady Never Lies

A Lady Never Lies (Affairs by Moonlight, #1)A Lady Never Lies by Juliana Gray
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I came across this title on a list of best romance novels of 2012 (and have since then seen it on a second list), and it sounded interesting, so I put it on hold and forgot about it. Once it arrived, I discovered it's the first in a trilogy that has a slight paranormal/magical overtone--i.e. there is some sort of mysterious curse on the Italian castle the main characters rent for the year. I am hoping the author lets us in on exactly what this curse is in later books, because she doesn't say much in this one.

I enjoyed reading this story over my Christmas vacation week, but I can't say that I would have put it on any Top Books of 2012 list. It's good; it's not outstanding.

The premise of this series is that in 1890, three British ladies in financial distress (and who've fled one's abusive husband) discover they have rented the same decrepit castle in Italy as three British gentlemen who have pledged to swear off women for the year. The focus of book one is Lady Morely, a young widow, and Mr. Phineas Burke, wealthy inventor who is working on designing an electric motorcar. Despite betting that whoever succumbs to temptation/seduction must leave the castle permanently, electricity is in the air. Literally. Alexandra decides to help Finn with his automobile to see if she can glean any information that might revive her fortune which was unwisely invested for her in a failing motorworks company.

For readers' advisors: story and character doorways. Some fairly explicit sex scenes. Mild swearing (i.e. such as "...the damned tea...").

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Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Hour of Peril: the secret plot to murder Lincoln before the Civil War

The Hour of Peril: The Secret Plot to Murder Lincoln Before the Civil WarThe Hour of Peril: The Secret Plot to Murder Lincoln Before the Civil War by Daniel Stashower
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is no mystery how this book will end: Lincoln survives his journey and is inaugurated as President of the United States. And yet somehow Daniel Stashower has turned historical fact into a nail-biting thriller. I was expecting essentially a biography of Lincoln's time leading up to his presidency, but the whole first third or so of the book is really a biography of Allen Pinkerton, the man who created the profession of private investigators. It's fascinating! I cannot wait to give this book to my history buff father-in-law.

The only thing which keeps me from rating it 5 stars is that there were so many names that sometimes I lost track and would have really appreciated some sort of glossary and/or chronological timeline as an appendix that I could refer to occasionally. Otherwise, though, it was outstanding!

I received an advance copy from the publisher through, but the book is scheduled to be published next month (February 2013), so it's not too long of a wait.

For readers' advisors: story doorway is primary, character & setting secondary. No sex or onscreen violence (just the plotting thereof).

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