Monday, April 30, 2012

Ruined by Rumor by Alyssa Everett (ARC)

Roxana has loved George Wyatt forever and she's waited five years for him to return home from the war so they could get married. She's imagined her life with George with giddy excitement -- eager for her fairy-tale happily-ever-after ending.

But reality is worlds away from her fantasy -- and suddenly Roxana has doubts about this man that she has loved from girlhood.

And reality slaps her in the face when, a few weeks from their wedding, George heartlessly jilts her.

What is a heartbroken girl to do?

Alex Winslow has loved Roxana forever and he's stayed away for five years -- afraid that she might see how devastated he was when she got engaged to George. He has saved his heart for Roxana even when he knows that her heart belongs to someone else.

He has returned to Broadslieve to care for his mother and seeing Roxana again has awakened long pent-up desires.

If people were drinks, then Roxana Langley could only be champagne -- sweet, bubbly, silver-blonde. And, unfortunately, she had the same way of going to Alex's head.
- p. 20

He is determined to be a friend to Roxana and he hides his agony behind a mask of civility and correctness.

Then the engagement is broken and Alex and Roxana find themselves the topic of a terrible rumor, which could ruin Roxana's reputation --

What is a proper gentleman to do?

Roxana is surprised when Alex proposes to her. She's never seen him as the passionate type and she knows he hates her and thinks that she's silly -- and what about the girl whom he loves but who doesn't return his affection?

Roxana knows marriage to Alex will not only save her reputation, but also provide her with position and wealth -- can she really allow Alex to make this sacrifice for her?

But is it really a sacrifice for Alex?

Ruined by Rumor is a wonderful novel that gives the readers an intimate view of country life and the social proprieties of Regency England. Everett deftly builds atmosphere and ambience -- her writing gave me a clear impression of the world our hero and heroine lived in -- it's a very palpable and very plausible world.

Silence stretched between them, though it was an imperfect silence. Somewhere in the farthest reaches of the house, a great distance away, Harry was calling out as part of some childish game. Birds sang to one another in the park outside the window. When George had proposed to her years before, Roxana had been deafened by the thudding of her heart, but in the long interval following Ayersley's offer she heard Harry, and the songbirds, and even Ayersley's own expectant breathing.
- p. 128

She also does a great job developing the relationship between Alex and Roxana. I love that the conflict between the characters is not from some sinister plot or grand conspiracy -- the author approaches her story and characters from an Austen-esque perspective -- showing us that society and the strict observation of social rules is just as perilous and catastrophic.

The author also provides a commentary on the appeal (and hazard) of gossip. I loved how she incorporated the theme into the layers of her storytelling: Miss Hammond and her "interesting" condition; Alex and Roxana; and Polly Whitehead.

Gossip had lent some much-needed excitement to her otherwise humdrum days. But now, such talk left Roxana more dismayed than diverted. Rumor and hearsay had driven Ayersley to propose, and rumor and hearsay had left her little choice but to accept.
- p. 232

I really, really, really enjoyed reading this book -- and I enjoyed being transported to Everett's Derbyshire.

Ruined by Rumor will be released on May 21, 2012.

To read more about the author, visit her website.

Final note: I love this line: "Blushes and sighs are all very pretty, but soft words butter no parsnips." - p. 331

Disclosure: I received an ARC through Netgalley. (Thank you to Carina Press for accepting my request.)
Sunday, April 29, 2012

How to Dance with a Duke by Manda Collins

Cecily Hurston needs to gain entry to the Egyptian Club for a very important reason: she wants to clear her father's name and to dispel the rumors of a curse that followed her father home from his latest expedition.

But to enter her father's very exclusive club, she needs to fulfill one important qualification: She must be married.

Lucas Dalton, the Duke of Winterson, needs to gain entry to the Egyptian Club as well. He needs to find out what happened to his younger brother, William -- who served as Lord Hurston's secretary and was with him during Hurston's last expedition to Egypt before he disappeared.

With Lord Hurston recovering from apoplexy, Lucas must rely on his own resources to investigate but his leads have all had no results.

Until he meets Cecily --

Cecily is unlike any other woman the Duke has met. For one, she isn't interested in his title or his name and isn't out to trap him into marriage. She just wants his help to recover her father's journals.

As the two work together, they discover that there's more to the mystery of Will Dalton's disappearance and greater danger than they could imagine. (And, as Lucas helps Cecily find a husband, he realizes that he just might want Cecily for himself.)

While reading Manda Collins' debut, it became clear to me what some of my preferences are in romance novels.

For one, I love reading about intelligent heroines and I loved Cecily Hurston. She's right up there with all the ladies in Cara Elliott's Circle of Sin, Lisa Kleypas's Amanda Briars, Lauren Royal's Violet Ashcroft and Laura Lee Guhrke's Emmaline Dove. (There are so many clever heroines! ^_^)

Cecily has a gift for code-breaking and has loved studying about Egyptian artifacts for as long as she can remember -- and she learned it all on her own because her father refused to encourage her bluestocking ways. When her father returns home stricken with apoplexy, and with rumors swirling of foul play involving her father's secretary, William Dalton, Cecily decides to take matters into her own hands and try to clear her father's name.

But each step she gains, she meets resistance -- she can't enter her father's club to search for his journals and people she tries to interview are reluctant to talk to her -- it seems her only recourse is to find Lucas Dalton, the Duke of Winterson -- and William's older brother.

Their first meeting is anything but impressive -- it involved Cecily being tossed out of the Egyptian Club. When Lucas discovers the identity of the lady kicking at the door of the club, his first reaction is to run. He suspects that Cecily's father was responsible for William's disappearance and he would be damned before he assisted the man's daughter.

But Cecily is persistent -- and her resolve is sincere. So Lucas decides to help Cecily, hoping to use what she knows but, as time passes, Lucas reluctantly admits that he is interested in Cecily -- and wants more from her.

Cecily doesn't want to fall in love with Lucas. She's fallen in love before and that had disastrous consequences -- she wants their relationship to be strictly professional -- but the heat from his hands, his body and his kisses are slowly melting away her defenses.

Lucas and Cecily's relationship starts off on rocky ground -- can they trust each other? It is interesting that they are both seeking answers to the same question: What happened to William Dalton? The tension mounts as clues are revealed: Was Cecily's father the villain? Or is William?

I loved that Lucas and Cecily were both clearheaded -- and rational. They wanted the truth, in whatever shape and form it took --

Even with their own relationship, I love that they approached it with the same sort of calmness and logic -- theirs was not a wild declaration of love -- but a quiet discussion of it. There's also a lot of humor between the two of them.

He snuffed the candle, leaned forward, and took her mouth in a searing, possessive kiss.

When Lucas kissed her, the lights went out.

Or so it seemed to Cecily ...
-p. 167

I also realized how much I enjoyed reading about Egyptian lore and expeditions -- and Manda Collins has done a wonderful job of portraying both sides of the race for relics during that time. Egyptian artifacts held the key to ancient science and art -- but they were also valuable in themselves. The rivalry between the British Museum and the Egyptian Club shows the terrible and dangerous lengths men would go to to gain the prestige that comes with finding these treasures.

(For more about Egypt, consider The Other Guy's Bride by Connie Brockway.)

This was a strong debut from Manda Collins. Her characters are lovable. Her storytelling is vibrant and has a nice mix of humor and light.

How to Dance with a Duke is the first book in Manda Collins' Ugly Ducklings series. The second book, How to Romance a Rake is due out this July 2012.
Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Seduction of Sebastian St. James by Rachel Van Dyken (e-book)

Sebastian St. James, the Duke of Tempest, has a spotless reputation and is known as the Angel Duke -- and he has the looks to go with the nickname. He is in town for the Season to do what most titled men of his rank and age need to do once in his life: to find a bride.

Emma Gates of Essex is also in town for the Season to find a husband. As the eldest in her family, her parents convinced her to go -- much to her younger sister's annoyance and to Emma's great reluctance.

Because Emma hides a tainted past -- and she is constantly waiting for the proverbial ax to fall, her secret revealed and her reputation ruined.

When she arrives at her cousin Sara's house, she is surprised to see that Sara and Nicholas have another house guest: the Angel Duke.

And the attraction is instant. But Emma knows the Angel Duke is not for someone like her --

Her secret was like a disease, making it impossible for her to keep anyone close no matter how badly she desired it.
- Location 494

Sebastian is also mesmerized when he first sees Emma. Actually, when he first hears Emma.

Slowly he turned to see what defiant creature belonged to such an irresistible voice.
- Location 364

But Sebastian knows that Emma is not for someone like him. She was too full of life, too wild, too vibrant -- he didn't want to be the one to pin down Emma's wings, even though it would mean making her the Duchess of Tempest.

The two find themselves in each other's way throughout the Season -- and a shared kiss ignites the beginnings of passion -- and the beginnings of a clever plan. They will pretend to be engaged, leaving them free to observe the lords and ladies around them -- but, if by the end of the Season, they could not find suitable spouses, they will continue with the engagement and marry each other.

This book has some very cleverly-written description and dialogue. I loved the idea of idea of an Angel Duke -- a man so untarnished and spotless that everyone considers him to be angelic. And I love the contrast of their public and private personas: Emma is, in reality, the pure and untarnished one. And it is Sebastian who is tarnished.

Oh he had done his fare share of taking mistresses and sowing wild outs [sic] across the continent, he was just remarkably talented at keeping people quiet...
- Location 294

I wished the author took more time to polish her work -- there are a lot of rough edges that derails a reader's progress. Some lines took me a while to understand.

Overindulging was always the first sign of debt, at least in Sebastian's eyes.
- Location 1720

Groaning, he only released his hold on her because he wasn't sure what he wanted more. To kiss the girl senseless or utterly ruin her for anyone else.
- Location 2902

There's also a lot of telling and not showing and many times when the author decodes the ideas for us through her character's thoughts.

There are also inconsistencies in the characters: Emma seemed to swing on extremes -- she's bold and brash, daring a duke to race her -- and then her light dims and she retreats to stiffness and silence.

There's another character, Phillip Rawlings -- I wasn't certain if they wanted him to be the villain -- but if he were the villain (and Emma indicates from the beginning that she doesn't like Rawlings), why do they consent to attend his house party?

I also did not see the hero and heroine fall in love. One minute they are convincing themselves of the other's unsuitability -- and then, the next minute, love.

This is the second book in Rachel Van Dyken's House of Renwick series -- I have not read the first book and, since the characters in the first book figure heavily in this one, I think it would be beneficial to have read Nicholas and Sara's story first. See: The Ugly Duckling Debutante)

Final note: Was it a practice for lords and ladies to attend a country house party during the London Season?

While I was looking for an answer to this question, I stumbled upon a really great blog: Everything of Interest to a Romance Writer

Disclosure: I won this copy in a giveaway.
Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Teach Me by Cassandra Dean (e-book)

Elizabeth has been married, widowed and has taken a lover -- but she's dissatisfied with what she knows of love and what goes on between a man and a woman and feels that there is something more. She brazenly seeks out the services of a brothel, hoping the Madame could instruct her.

But the Madame has something else in mind -- and she sends James, the Earl of Malvern to oversee the young viscountess's education.

James has seen and done it all -- and he's bored with his dissolute life. Elizabeth comes as a welcome and refreshing diversion for him. He expects to scandalize the plain mousy widow with crude language but Elizabeth is not at all what he expected her to be.

And so the lessons begin --

Every Tuesday and Thursday night, the Earl of Malvern flaunts his expertise on the subject matter with indifference and distance -- keeping Elizabeth at arms length.

This was another wonderful story from Cassandra Dean. Mastery is the predominant theme -- In the beginning, James is in control of the situation, leading where Elizabeth follows. He sets the guidelines and the curriculum, the time and the schedule -- but, gradually, we recognize a shift in power. We see the blossoming relationship between our hero and heroine -- and we read on, with bated breath, to see the outcome as each one wrestles with the inconvenient feelings that have developed between them.

Elizabeth was hovering on the edge of being too annoying with her lack of concentration and her too many questions. (It is forgivable, though, because her personality is consistent throughout the story.)

I also thought Bella (Elizabeth's sister) and her husband, the Earl of Burfield had an interesting story to tell. (Bits of it were revealed in the story -- but I'd love to read more. ^_^)
Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Revenge of Lord Eberlin by Julia London

Fifteen years ago, the lives of the residents of Hadley Green changed forever when an 8-year-old girl gives testimony about the Countess of Ashwood's missing jewels.

Lily Boudine's testimony sent a man to the gallows. Then her aunt drowns in the lake near the estate and her uncle goes missing. As the only living heir, Lily returns, as the new countess, to a crumbling estate and at the receiving end of a man's merciless revenge.

Tobin Scott could not erase the image of his father's dead body -- and he could never forget the girl he knows is responsible for what happened to his family. He has devoted his entire life planning for this moment when he would exact his vengeance on all the people who have wronged his family.

I have been waiting for this book to be published since I read The Year of Living Scandalously last year -- there was a long break in between the first book and this one because Julia London focused on her contemporary series. I am so, so very happy that this book (and book 3) are published close to each other.

Lily and Tobin are the central figures in this tragedy -- standing on opposite sides of the issue, the two finally meet face-to-face as they battle for their heritage. Tobin has been relentless in his intent to destroy Ashwood: he has stolen land, tenants ... and fish -- crippling Lily's estate and leaving her with no means to support herself or her people. And Lily has no resources -- after the debacle of her cousin's arrival in Hadley Green (read the first book), she has no friends and very little money to fight Tobin on equal grounds.

But she refuses to back down -- she knows she spoke the truth many years ago -- it was damning and destructive -- but she knows what she saw. After 15 years, returning to Hadley Green has unlocked pieces of Lily's memory and Lily is able to see the incident more clearly.

But for every answer discovered, more questions are uncovered: What was Joseph Scott doing riding away from Hadley Green that night? What is the meaning of the inscription on the piano stool? Where are the missing jewels?

Tobin and Lily are formidable characters and are very well-matched. Julia London reminds us of their friendship and the idyllic childhood they had before the incident and juxtaposes is to the present -- creating palpable tension between the two adversaries. Their relationship takes an interesting turn when Tobin scandalizes Lily with his most indecent proposal -- and Lily scandalizes Tobin when she accepts it.

Motives are questioned as kisses are exchanged -- Tobin is no longer sure what it is he wants from Lily. And Lily isn't certain what she feels for Tobin is purely enmity.

The word that comes to mind is cataclysmic: that which is destructive but becomes the impetus for drastic change. Lily and Tobin have led tumultuous lives -- not of their own making -- but it is admirable how they have risen up and pressed on (Tobin's motto) -- and love is the cataclysm that allows them to see Hadley Green and the history of their lives there from a different perspective. And love is the balm that heals their wounded souls.

Amazing how Julia London develops the story of our hero and heroine ... and the mystery of the missing jewels! I am itching to get my copy of the third book! >_<

This was an amazing story -- and was worth the wait!

The Revenge of Lord Eberlin is Book 2 in Julia London's Secrets of Hadley Green series. The third book, The Seduction of Lady X was released last March.
Saturday, April 21, 2012

Blame It On Bath by Caroline Linden

The Durham Dilemma continues to plague the three sons of the late Duke of Durham. In this installment, Gerard, the youngest of the brothers, is on his way to Bath to investigate the source of the blackmail letters.

But first, he must respond to a very interesting proposal:

Katherine Howe needs a husband who will safeguard her inheritance and to liberate her from her pitifully plain and austere life with her late husband's heir. Katherine sees this as her last chance at happiness and so she asks the man she loved twelve years ago.

Gerard doesn't know Katherine and is surprised at her offer so he can't readily say yes. But he can't say no, either -- with his future in peril, Katherine's money provides him with security and stability as he pursues the truth about his father.

Gerard and Katherine try to convince themselves that they are fine with their convenient arrangement: By day, Gerard scours through Bath for clues and Katherine busies herself with local Bath society but, at night, they cannot deny the passionate desire that sparks between them when they are together.

I really wanted to love this story and it starts off strong, but the story quickly loses steam as it loses focus and direction.

First, there is the blackmail story: Gerard has retraced the origins of the blackmail letters to Bath and has found some information about the sender.

There's an interesting bit on "code-breaking" where Gerard and the clerk from the post office examine the handwriting and uncover new clues about the letters.

And then there's the very tedious bit on searching where Gerard and his friend Daniel Carter are in a ramshackle barn. (Chapters 22 to 25)

Then there's Katherine's transformation story: Katherine has suffered from her mother's heartless attacks on her self-esteem. She is dowdy and plain-dressed. Her personality is just as severe and as tense. And she never smiles.

With Gerard's gentle encouragement, a new wardrobe -- and Bath -- Katherine blossoms beautifully. She finds her spine and her voice -- and the courage to tell Gerard how she really feels about him. I loved seeing the heroine come alive under such a nurturing environment. I loved it when she finally stood up to her mother.

Finally, there's the love story between Gerard and Katherine -- or the lack of one. I didn't really see their relationship deepen. They were apart for most of the day and only had time for dinner, parties and sex in the evenings. Gerard does undergo an epiphany when he realizes that he is treating Katherine more like a soldier than his wife, but I didn't really see the two of them fall in love with each other. Lust, yes. A lot of it. And it felt odd when Gerard used sex to coerce Kate into admitting something. (Chapter 20-21)

Caroline Linden is very good at moving the blackmail story forward. I'm glad to see Charlie, the current Duke of Durham, finally stepping in and taking charge. (Though the change in his character wasn't really explained.)

The ending was also flat -- there was nothing tumultuous to resolve and nothing overly chaotic to settle -- this story felt more like a transition (or filler episode) between Edward's story, One Night in London and Charlie's story, The Way to a Duke's Heart, which is due out in August 2012.

This is Book 2 in Caroline Linden's The Truth About the Duke series.
Friday, April 20, 2012

Authors on Reviews: To Comment or Not to Comment (event hop)

The reading experience has taken an interesting public dimension in recent times. With the advent of websites like Goodreads, and with the rise of social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, readers are able to easily interact and communicate with other readers and authors. The reading community has expanded far beyond the local book clubs.

With thousands of books being published yearly in a variety of genre, the question: "What do I read next?" becomes harder and harder to answer. And websites like Goodreads and review blog sites have become helpful tools for readers. For the most part, the experience is positive: I've discovered new authors and new books through the recommendation of other readers.

Reviews have become an indispensable reference for readers -- and has also become an essential barometer of readers' taste for authors and publishers.

Which is why the question posed today is important:
Should Authors Comment On Reviews? Why?

The short answer is no.

One assumes that, once a book has been published, it has gone through the process of being read, edited, critiqued, read again, edited again, etc -- it is the completed product of the author and editor collaboration.

And then it becomes the reader's turn:

When I read a book, the farthest thing from my mind is to nitpick and hate it. I expect the reading experience to be enjoyable so, in the rare instance that I don't like the book (last year, it was 7 out of 137 books), I must explain to myself why.

I would like to believe that reviews are written with the best and most sincere intentions. That the reviewer has done his research and read the book thoroughly.

At the end of it all, when a review isn't what the author expected, he should remember that it is from someone's personal experience of the book -- and that ought to be respected.

To quote John Steinbeck:

A man who tells secrets or stories must think of who is hearing or reading, for a story has as many versions as it has readers. Everyone takes what he wants or can from it and thus changes it to his measure. Some pick out parts and reject the rest, some strain the story through their mesh of prejudice, some paint it with their own delight. A story must have some points of contact with the reader to make him feel at home in it. Only then can he accept wonders.

This hop is being hosted by Nat of Reading Romances. To go to the main page for this event hop, click here.

Thank you for stopping by!

To read other bloggers' thoughts on this subject, hop on!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Enslaved by Cassandra Dean (e-book)

I don't usually read stories written in the first-person POV --

I've had enough cringe-worthy reading experiences in the past to learn to avoid these kinds of stories --

But when I came across Cassandra Dean's debut novel, Enslaved, and read the summary, I knew I wanted to read it.

Yesterday morning, I woke up at 1 and couldn't fall back asleep -- so I decided to scan through the e-book. I didn't stop "scanning" until almost 4 a.m. -- by then, I had finished reading the book. And I was teary-eyed not from lack of sleep but from Marcus and Lucia and their story.

(And when I finished the book, I wanted to re-read it right then and there -- but I had a full day ahead of me -- so I decided to try to sleep.)

Lucia is the youngest daughter of an ambitious lanista (manager of gladiators) -- and her father has recently acquired Marcus, a Thracian, with commercial potential (read: will make them lots of money and gain their ludus fame).

Lucia is tasked by her father to teach Marcus about Roman Mythology because his new arena persona is Crassus, "born of gods and slayer of kings" (Location 279) --

As the lessons progress, Lucia's feelings for Marcus develop from fear to interest. But neither Marcus nor Lucia are free to express what they feel -- and so they hide their true feelings for each other and continue with the life they are consigned to live.

Cassandra Dean displays incredible focus as she takes us through the love story of Lucia and Marcus, a story which spans 10 years. Told through Lucia's eyes, we see the journey of a woman and a man who are both tragically bound by the rules of Roman society. Enslaved is an apt title and, while it initially applies to Marcus and his life as gladiator, we slowly see that Lucia is also "enslaved" by her father's wishes and her mother's ambitions.

I am impressed with how Dean handled narrative time -- her story moves from one day to one week and then to years -- and it is a fluid movement. By the end of the story, ten years have passed and we can see how the characters have developed. They are the same ... but they are different and we have seen the transformation unfold in Dean's gradual but deliberate storytelling.

Dean set out with an ambitious project: to tell a love story set in a not-so popular period (time of the Roman Empire) about two very dissimilar people (a gladiator and his domina) using a challenging point-of-view.

But Cassandra Dean's boldness is rewarded. She manages to make everything work. This is a keeper of a story and I am delighted to have read it.

Dean's second book, Teach Me is out now in e-format. (And, yes, I've bought my copy already. ^_^)

One small niggle: Why would Lucia's father have a gladiator study with his 16-year-old daughter unchaperoned?

Disclosure: I won this copy in a giveaway.
Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Silk is for Seduction by Loretta Chase

Reading Romances Challenge for April:
TOPICS: Alternate Realities Month!
1) Read a contemporary book where something is different in the world than what reality reflects. (vampires, magic etc)
2) Read a book set in the future or a historical with an alternative reality (i.e. steampunk).
3) Read one book that was nominated for the RITA or Golden Heart award!
4) Read an LGBT book, a book with at least 3 of the 7 colours of a rainbow (violet, indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange, red) on it’s cover, or a book with a title that includes the word: dream/s, wish/es, or rainbow.
5) Read a book with an accountant/book-keeper character, or due to a shortage of funds, read a free or borrowed (library, friend etc) book.

* * *

Marcelline Noirot's family history involves a lot of swindling, smooth talking, finding marks and taking their money. And she's no different. (Minus the swindling) -- She's a dressmaker with great ambition and she doesn't hesitate to do what she can to take her business to the next level.

And entry to that level involves being the exclusive dressmaker to the future Duchess of Clevedon. But clever Marcelline knows that the way to her success is through the Duke.

When Gervase Angiers, the Duke of Clevedon, sees a new face among the crowd in the Paris Opera House, a new face who has boldly positioned herself in his line of sight, he knows he needs to meet this woman.

And so begins the contest of wits and desires --

Marcelline struggles to maintain her professionalism as she tries to convince the duke of her skills and worthiness. She plays a dangerous game of cat and mouse with him as his interest in her grows.

But Gervase isn't just interested in Marcelline as a dressmaker, he's interested in her as a woman. A woman who has inflamed his senses and makes him defy convention.

This novel is about seeking our heart's desire. For Marcelline, she has focused her whole being on making sure her livelihood prospers. She has mouths to feed and a house to make a home. And she's done a good job of doing so -- until she meets the Duke. And Marcelline isn't sure if she loves him or hates him for letting her see that there's something more to life to aspire for.

Our heroine walks the fine line between professionalism and impropriety. It's terrifying seeing her teeter over the edge of either side -- does she cut ties with the duke and dress only his duchess? or does she surrender to what her heart tells her to do?

For Gervase, he is content to give his heart to Clara's keeping. He's known her and loved her all his life. He knows what to expect from her and knows that she will not disappoint him. But he cannot make sense of what he feels for Marcelline. Is it a passing fancy? Or something more?

It's hard for me to describe how much I enjoyed this book. Loretta Chase has created very unforgettable characters: Marcelline, Gervase, and Clara. Usually, in love triangles, one party is always the weaker side -- but Clara is amazing. A force to be reckoned with. As a reader, I could not decide between Clara and Marcelline -- because they are both exceptional women. (I hope Clara gets her own book!)

This is my first Loretta Chase book, but it won't be my last. (She's now part of my auto-buy list.)

I especially loved this line:

It was no surrender, but a slap in the face of a kiss.
- p. 60

This is the first book in Chase's new series about the Noirot sisters. The second book, Scandal Wears Satin, features Sophy and is due out this July 2012.
Monday, April 16, 2012

A Secret in Her Kiss by Anna Randol

The greatest draw for Anna Randol's debut novel is her setting -- yes, it's a Regency piece but it's a Regency piece that is set in the Ottoman Empire.

Major Bennett Prescott has completed another tour of duty and is set to go home to England to take care of some unfinished business there -- but that business will remain unfinished as he is called by the British Empire to do a most uncustomary service: protect a half-British artist who is completing some surveillance drawings for the Crown. And the artist happens to be female.

Bennett is caught in a quandary: he will delay going home and saving his sister from an abusive relationship in order to save another woman from being discovered as a spy.

But, ever the soldier, and trained to do as he is ordered, Bennett Prescott accepts the mission.

Mari Sinclair has also had an unusual training -- she can recreate rooms and spaces from memory and is able to embed such information into her intricate and vibrant art. She is valuable to the British because of her talent -- but she feels no loyalty towards them.

Duty and loyalty are tested and questioned as secrets are revealed and trust is betrayed -- and in the midst of all the lies and deception, Bennett and Mari learn love and passion.

Plus (+) points:
1. The setting and the time: I wonder if it was the author's intention to have Mari and Bennett's relationship flourish in contrast to the decline of the Ottoman Empire. It made the lovers' relationship more meaningful. Things around them were falling apart and they struggled to determine who to trust, but, in spite of this, their love for one another was growing.

The setting also contributed much to Randol's story about intrigue: it made the danger for Mari and Bennett very real. The Ottoman Empire, at its height, was the most fearsome and powerful empire in the world -- it conquered and expanded ruthlessly. It also maintained control within its territories with the same ruthlessness -- and I could imagine the dread Mari and Bennett felt as they lay their lives on the line for their own country.

2. The characters: Major Bennett Prescott is all about rules and following orders. He is content just following where others lead and he sees things as black and white, right and wrong with no middle ground. It makes for an uncomplicated life -- which I can understand, considering the complication that he left in England, involving his sister Sophia and her unhappy marriage.

Being with Mari is a challenge for Bennett. She is like the butterflies that she studies and draws -- she is British but hasn't been back home in a long time. She lives in Turkey but sees Turkey as the enemy of her mother's home country. But she also has very strong convictions and fights (in her own way) to help Greece gain its freedom. She is also fiercely protective of the people she loves and sacrifices herself to make sure they aren't hurt.

What I love about Mari is that she embraces her sexuality completely -- she isn't prudish about it or hypocritical about it. She knows she is attracted to Bennett and she isn't ashamed about it.

"Prude or wanton, you would undoubtedly slap me when I lowered my lips to your breasts." His finger traced the edge of her bodice but made no move to follow through with his threat.

"What if I begged you instead?"
- p. 86

3. The politics: A huge chunk of the novel exposes the inner-goings of diplomacy and politics -- the British government is on "friendly" terms with the Turks, but they also maintain a small cell of agents who are doing intelligence work within the Empire.

But the British also have agents who are working towards their own agenda: Mari and Nathan are examples. Mari has never been to Greece but she is relentless in her pursuit for Greek freedom. But she also has loyalties to the Turks -- Esad Pasha, is like a father to her and she would die first before she would let anything happen to him.

It is a complicated layering of deals, duplicity, money and loyalty -- truly a tangled web woven out of deceit --

Which leads me the the minus (-) point for this novel:

It is a convoluted web of relationships and one would need to write down a map/chart in order to sort out who is friends with who. Even the term "friend" would be problematic since, like in real-life politics, there are no permanent friends or allies, only permanent interests.

Therefore I say that it is a narrow policy to suppose that this country or that is to be marked out as the eternal ally or the perpetual enemy of England. We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.
(See Lord Palmerston.)

Randol takes a lot of time developing the spy aspect of her story, pitting people against each other that I don't feel she really developed the love story between Mari and Bennett. The two lovers are playful about their love -- but it becomes a bit too jarring in the context of all the intrigue.

For example:
Chapter 13 (the interaction between Mari and Bennett after Mari's visit to Esad Pasha)
Chapter 29 (the conversation between Mari and Achilla)

The story is too dense in the last third of the book -- which causes a bit of an imbalance in the story. As late a Chapter 33 (the story is 35 chapters total), the author presents more twists and complications in the story -- so that, when the story finally ends, the resolution dips too sharply and too abruptly.

This was okay for a debut novel -- and the story was good enough for me to be curious about Anna Randol's next book.

She has an e-novella coming out in June (about Bennett's sister) and a novel coming out in August. See author's website.
Friday, April 13, 2012

Passion Wears Pearls by Renee Bernard

Their story begins in gradual, but deliberate, steps -- like the painting Josiah Hastings is seeking to complete.

First the rough sketch:

Josiah and Eleanor try to lay out the boundaries and rules of their association. Eleanor has grown up learning how to be a proper lady and she is wary of Josiah's attention and interest. She is always mindful of the rules of society and of her reputation. Josiah doesn't really care much about the rules but he desperately wants Eleanor to pose for him and so he agrees. He can look but cannot touch.

Then the filling in of the colors:

For a man whose eyesight has been limited by his stay in the prisons of India, Eleanor's colors is like water in the desert, manna from heaven -- and Eleanor's presence is a bright light in Josiah's ever-darkening world.

... he turned back to her -- and London fell away.

Because there was no gray. In a world of fog and fleeting shadows that haunted his vision, she was color. A living breathing pillar of all that his senses had longed for -- a muse of beauty that defied science and logic. Her hair was copper bright, with thick, luxurious corkscrew curls. ... She was a flash of fire and color that had him hypnotized.

- p. 27

And, Eleanor, who has only known shame about the indecency of her bright red hair and her too-green eyes, realizes what it means to be beautiful in the eyes of this particular beholder.

He sat at my feet and I was transformed somehow.

- p. 108

As Josiah paints on layer upon layer of paint on canvas, his relationship with Eleanor deepens as they discover more of each other. While there are still secrets in the shadows, they know enough of each other to spark a burning passion --

Finally, when the painting is complete:

Josiah and Eleanor have fought to contain their yearning for each other -- but it grows with each day and with each night. When they finally surrender to it, the moment is magical.

"I've never been kissed before. I don't want to be impolite, Mr. Hastings, so I shall use the word please and trust that you'll oblige me."

- p. 141

In the gray and smoke of London, Eleanor and Josiah have found salvation in each other.

I read this book in one sitting -- yes, it is that compelling -- with each book in her Jaded Gentleman series, Renee Bernard has introduced us to a set of heroes who are as multifaceted and as mystifying as the jewels they found in India. I love that each gentleman has a unique personality and a unique story --

(Rowan is still my favorite but Josiah, brilliant and artistic, Josiah is a close second.)

The next book is Obsession Wears Opals, which features Darius Thorne.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Tattooed Duke by Maya Rodale

Maya Rodale's latest installment in her Writing Girls series features Eliza Fielding, daughter of a playwright and an actress, in who is in danger of losing her position at The London Weekly -- unless she comes up with a good story.

And the most intriguing story in London is Sebastian Digby, the Duke of Wycliff, newly returned from traveling around the world. He's the latest in a long line of Wicked Wycliffs and everyone wants to know just how wild, wicked and scandalous this particular Wycliff is.

Eliza manages to secure a position as housemaid in the duke's household and gains exclusive (and intimate) access to Sebastian's secrets.

As Eliza's writing career flourishes, Sebastian's reputation suffers terribly -- and Eliza now has to make a difficult decision -- her career or Sebastian? And what about her heart and his?

Reasons why I enjoyed reading The Tattooed Duke:
1. Sebastian is an unconventional hero.

The tattoo is the most obvious and obvert example -- he isn't a perfectly pristine duke who wields power and authority -- in fact, Sebastian is a sort of anti-duke. Society hasn't accepted him and he's having a hard time gaining appreciation from people who should, typically, be falling all over themselves in respect for his title.

Sebastian also has an amazingly clear sense of himself. He admits to his wildness but also knows that he is capable of doing good and honest work. He isn't ashamed to approach the Royal Society to seek their help in funding his next expedition. He also isn't worried about getting his hands dirty -- in fact, when not in society, readers will find Sebastian cataloging dead insects or planting seeds.

2. Eliza is an intrepid heroine.

Eliza is a working girl and is practical to the core. It is for practical reasons that Eliza starts working as a housemaid for the Duke of Wycliff.

When she realizes that she is falling in love with Sebastian (and that Sebastian is attracted to her), she doesn't use this to further her writing career -- and Eliza is a very good writer! She is able to filter out what is relevant information and what isn't and her articles are about the Tattooed Duke are succinctly written.

And I loved that Eliza is able to face up to the challenge that is Sebastian Digby. (Read Chapter 18.)

3. Lots of twists in the story.

Maya Rodale knows how to keep the story interesting and has impeccable timing when she does the "reveals" -- and the reveals are something else! (Rodale leaves hints in the story -- but I did not expect some of them, especially about Eliza!)

4. Sebastian vs Eliza -- whose dreams are more important?

It is a unique situation -- we usually find the pair either working towards the same goal or competing for the same thing -- but Maya Rodale presents us with parallel goals that have an unfortunately direct correlation: the success of one means the failure of the other --

The way the author presents Sebastian and Eliza and their individual ambitions leaves the reader with having to choose -- whose side are you on? And it is an impossible choice to make -- Sebastian's goal to reach Timbuktu (and his reasons for doing so) are just as urgent as Eliza's need to keep her job.

How does the story end? Happily, of course -- but how exactly? Quite cleverly, actually -- but you have to read The Tattooed Duke to find out. ;-)

One tiny postscript: The story starts out slow and is episodic -- but it does gain momentum towards the middle.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Mistress by Marriage by Maggie Robinson

What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?

That seems to be the case between Edward and Caroline Christie -- after one mad moment of attraction and a whirlwind wedding, they find themselves having to deal with a lifetime of resentment and discord.

They are the embodiment of opposites attract: Edward Christie comes from a long line of barons who have upheld the Christie reputation for immaculate propriety. His life is a series of schedules and organization and he wants everything to be just so -- walking through life without ruffling feathers or stirring up dust.

Caroline Parker's past, in contrast, is mottled and stained. She has no money and no connections and her brother died under the most dissolute circumstance.

The story begins five years after they got married and got separated. Caroline Christie has been installed on Jane Street, (in)famous for the occupants on that row, and has made a name for herself writing romance novels and a reputation for hosting a weekly tea for the Janes (read: mistresses).

Caroline and Edward have an interesting arrangement: she stays on Jane Street and out of his life for 364 days and for 1 night a year, on the anniversary of their separation, they come together.

Robinson showcases her technical skills as a writer in this series -- and she utilizes the POV to show the bittersweet situation our hero and heroine find themselves in. Because what neither one knows is how much the other looks forward to that one night a year. How much they wait in anticipation for that one single night. And how neither one can seem to express, in precise terms, why they are attracted to one another.

When they come together, it is incendiary -- a year's worth of pent-up emotion combusts in that one moment.

But it has been 5 years, and Caroline and Edward are uncertain about what they want. They are both tired of their arrangement but neither one is ready to let the other go. They have talked of divorce and legal separation -- but something prevents them from going through with it.

Mistress by Marriage is a dissection of love and how it comes to be. Most people are fortunate for love happen so apparently that they can express it with eloquence and clarity, but that is not the case for Edward and Caroline -- who fight as often as they love. And love each other as much as they hate being with each other.

"You're ruining my garden."

"You're ruining my life!" Edward snapped.

"Good, because you've ruined mine. you odious, impossible, horrible" -- she paused -- "man!"
- p. 166

So, what does happen when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? This paradox has been studied and answered in many way -- but I like Grant Morrison's answer best (from All-Star Superman): They surrender.

This is a story unlike any other that I have read -- and I am delighted to have read it.

Mistress by Marriage is part of the Courtesan Court series by Maggie Robinson.

Btw, I wordled this blog post and this is what it looks like:

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Clockwork Captive by Anh Leod (e-novella)

Brace is not a man of leisure or means -- but he finds himself at Mrs. Teagarden's Gentlemen's Club and finds himself captivated by the portrait of one woman.

Her name is Liza. And she's working at Mrs. Teagarden's for three years to pay off her father's debts. She is bound to the brothel and Mrs. Teagarden through a clockwork medallion that is pierced through her skin -- and keeps time while she services her customers.

After their first encounter, Brace discovers their shared past and is determined to rescue her from captivity.

But there is the clockwork device that needs to be dealt with first.

This is my first steampunk historical romance -- and I now understand the popularity of this genre. When done right, it provides a startling contrast between the silks and feathers and gilt and the metal cogs and grime. It adds a very rugged dimension to the setting and story.

As an e-novella, the author was wise in choosing to focus on the action -- and the incorporation of steampunk elements was seamless. (Though I did not really care for the vibrating bit at the end of the story.)

The story is linear and I wished the Leod spent a few more pages developing the depth of the characters -- but, as it is, it was a good exercise on steampunk romance. (I would also have loved to see more of the alternate-ness of this world -- but, again, constraints of the length of the story, etc.)

Short and pleasant -- for readers who want to try out a new sub-genre in historical romances, this is a good story to start with.
Thursday, April 5, 2012

Mistress by Midnight by Maggie Robinson

Desmond Ryland, Marquess of Conover, has lived as his uncle's pawn and was at the mercy of his wife's money for 11 years. Finally, he has made his own fortune and has returned to England to to live the life he has dreamed of -- with the woman who has owned his heart forever, Laurette Vincent.

Except, Laurette doesn't want him and has refused his proposal.

Con embarks on a merciless campaign to win Laurie's heart, exchanging payment for her brother's debts with 6 months of her in his bed as his mistress.

Laurette has no choice but the accept and she knows she isn't all that reluctant or unwilling. Laurette has loved Con forever. But 11 years have passed and so many secrets stand between them.

When Con discovers the one devastating secret Laurie has kept from him all these years, he becomes even more relentless and will stop at nothing to get what he has always wanted: Laurie as his wife.

This is a story about second chances -- of getting things right the next time. Con and Laurie have been given an opportunity to complete the love affair they started long ago. Love is not the issue for these two lovers. It is there. It has always been there --

There really isn't anything standing in their way -- except themselves. (Laurie, especially.)

Con is willing to give it another try but Laurie is not. Unlike Con, she has learned the lessons from their youthful indiscretion -- and continues to be burdened by the consequences.

It was wonderful reading about these two weathered lovers navigate through the murky waters of their past as they set a course for their future.

The characters were all very endearing. I especially loved Marianne, Con's wife (who is dead in the story) but whose character is revealed in the flashbacks and through the conversations between Laurette and Con. She was an amazingly realistic woman -- who knew that her husband did not love her but loved him anyway. Who knew about "the other woman" and made friends with her anyway. But she wasn't a saint -- she also had her imperfections.

Maggie Robinson shows us that romance and "happily ever after" isn't just for young love or first love -- but it is also for those who have loved, lost and loved again.

I really enjoyed reading this book and I'm currently reading Mistress by Marriage.

Mistress by Midnight is part of Maggie Robinson's Courtesan Court series.
Tuesday, April 3, 2012

My Wicked Little Lies by Victoria Alexander

The story begins with Eve's letter to Sir, in which she tenders her resignation from the Department of Domestic and International Affairs. It has been five years since Eve started working as an agent for the Department and she feels it is time for her to leave behind her life as a spy and to begin a new one --

The letter (and subsequent replies) reveal a tension between Eve and Sir as they explore their "what might have been" -- but they wisely decide to let their curiosity rest.

It is two years later and we discover that Eve is Lady Evelyn Hadley-Atwater, happily married to Lord Adrian. But the Department and its secrets are in danger of exposure -- and only Eve can be trusted to recover the missing documents. Eve is reluctant to return. It is only when she is reminded that Sir's identity and life are also in peril that she agrees to take the mission.

What begins as a spy story suddenly changes into a comedy of errors (except it wasn't satirical or humorous) when we discover that Sir is actually Lord Adrian Hadley-Atwater. And Adrian complicates matters (and convolutes the story) by deciding to test Evelyn's love and loyalty by playing Sir against himself.

The story loses its focus and Eve's mission seems to have been forgotten.

There are family dinners, balls and masquerades -- and we slowly see the unravelling of Evelyn and Adrian's marriage as distrust and untruth (and a fake kidnapping) come between them.

At this point, I wasn't certain how Victoria Alexander would resolve the story but she does manage to tie everything together.

I had such great expectations after reading the premise and loved the idea of two characters (already married) and reading about what happens to them next but I did not enjoy the changes in the storyline -- the central conflict changed completely as did the style.

What I did enjoy was the secondary story between Sir Max and Celeste. I actually felt they had a better, more planned, more developed story to tell (and felt they got better scenes than the main characters).

This is one of my favorite marriage proposals ever:

"I want you in my bed every night and every morning ... I want to introduce you to my family, my friends. I want to dance with you at grand balls and picnic with you in public parks. And I want you by my side on the day I breathe my last. ... I want you to be the mother of my children. ... And I want to be the father to your children."

- Sir Max to Celeste, p. 219

Victoria Alexander also does a good job of elaborating on the theme of secrets -- how each person, titled or not, rich or poor, has something they hide. (Not for any nefarious purposes -- but just because. ^_^)

Alexander has a wonderful gift for writing humor and light-heartedness -- and her talent shines through in this novel.

In the end, it becomes a case of all's well that ends well: Victoria Alexander is able to save the story with her witty dialogue and her memorable characters. (And she does manage to resolve all the loose ends nicely.)

My Wicked Little Lies is part of her Sinful Family Secrets (Hadley-Atwater Family) series.
Monday, April 2, 2012

She Tempts the Duke by Lorraine Heath

The young Easton brothers, heirs of the Duke of Keswick, escaped from their uncle and certain death with the help of Lady Mary Wynne-Jones, their neighbor and good friend.

Twelve years later, the three men come together in order to regain their heritage and to exact their revenge on Lord David Easton, the man who strove to steal their father's legacy.

But the twelve years have done much to change the three men. Sebastian, the Duke of Keswick, became a soldier in Her Majesty's army, and has come home scarred -- inside and out. His twin, Tristan, hides his demons with his easy and carefree nature. And Rafe, their youngest brother, still refuses to say how he came to own a den of vice and what happened to him in the streets of London all those years ago.

It is a heartbreaking realization for these three men when they achieve what they have dreamed of for so long -- but the victory was not as sweet as they had imagined it. Instead, the path they take as they make their way back to society is filled with vicious gossip and lies -- and threats to their lives.

Even more heartbreaking when they discover that it is not only their lives that were altered irrevocably all those years ago --

After the incident, Lady Mary was sent by her father to live in the nunnery. And the years of obedience and service has changed Mary. She is no longer the brave, confident girl that they knew -- but one who is always painfully aware of what is proper and good. But the reappearance of Sebastian and his brothers has awakened something in Mary -- and she risks her reputation and her future in order to help them once more.

It is interesting to note that this is Lorraine Heath's second foray into writing about lost lords. There is an undeniable appeal having lost lords as heroes -- here we have men born to a title and a way of life but, due to circumstances, lose their place in society. One wonders about the missing years and how that has shaped these men. And it is compelling to read how they reclaim what is rightfully theirs but, at the same time, skirt the fine line between civility/nobility and wildness.

Sebastian, particularly, embodies this -- he is half-blind and half of his body carries the scars of war. He has forged on, believing that Pembrook and the title would be his end goal. But it is only the beginning for Sebastian: Mary's presence in his life is one side of the scale and his heritage is on the other -- and he must make a choice.

There are some parts of the story that were glossed over that I wished Heath took more time to develop: Lord David Easton's sinister side, for example. There are glimpses of it in the novel -- and the way Heath ultimately resolves this was a little too ... quick and easy.

But there are also parts of this story that were done wonderfully -- I love the play on Sebastian's half-blind state and Mary's insistence that she only sees the good in Sebastian, which shows that she's half-blind, too! (In a sense.) I love the tension between the three brothers -- they were not only lost to society but to each other -- and they have to deal with the painful process of sharing each other's pasts.

Lastly, I like the reflection on lost and found -- in Sebastian's case -- he realizes what it was he lost long ago (and has found once again). (And, no, it's not his dukedom. ^_^)

She Tempts the Duke is the first book in Lorraine Heath's Lost Lords of Pembrook. The second book, Lord of Temptation, is (I hope) due out later this year. ^_^
Sunday, April 1, 2012

Sweet Enemy by Heather Snow

Liliana lives a very quiet and studious life as a chemist and healer. Her ambition is to join the Royal Society and have her work recognized, but a break-in and attack in her house forces Liliana to reexamine her father's death 10 years ago and she realizes that this was not random or coincidence.

Liliana's investigation leads her to Geoffrey Wentworth, the current Earl of Stratford whom she believes is somehow involved in her father's murder. She finds a way to get invited to a house party at the Earl's estate, hoping to discover more information.

When Liliana meets Geoffrey Wentworth for the first time, she doesn't know what to think. She feels an instant attraction to him, but she needs to remind herself that this man might be her enemy.

Geoffrey is wary of Liliana and all the other ladies attending the house party. His mother planned the whole event, hoping he would select a bride from one of the ladies present. He is guarded and indifferent and is quick to dodge any scheme thrown his way.

But he is unprepared for Liliana. Who, frank and honest as she is, tells him upfront that she is not interested in him or in marriage.

It's her disinterest that initially interests him.

As he spends more time with Liliana, Geoffrey has grown to appreciate her mind and her intelligence. He knows she is a woman who would be a true partner and helpmeet. And Liliana is also not immune to Geoffrey's sincerity. For the first time in her life, she realizes she wants more for herself than what her experiments and studies have given her.

I love the title that Heather Snow chose -- the contradictory terms show the quandary our hero and heroine find themselves in -- especially when it is discovered what Liliana's true intention was when she came to the house party. When the mystery is unraveled, Geoffrey and Liliana have to determine whether their love is stronger than the betrayal and distrust that surrounds them. But the theme of betrayal and love go far beyond the two lovers -- as Liliana pursues her investigation, she discovers things which changes her (and Geoffrey's) past, present and future.

There's a lot of wonderful elements in Heather Snow's debut. I especially love the code-cracking scene near the end of the book (and I wish there was more of it to read!) -- the secondary characters were amazing and I am very excited to read Aveline's story (which is coming this August! Sweet Deception).

The interaction between Geoffrey and Liliana really show the gradual development of their relationship: from wary, to combative, to spark, to full flame. Much like a chemical reaction, hero and heroine undergo a change when love as a catalyst is introduced.

This was a solid debut novel and I really enjoyed reading it. I look forward to more from Heather Snow.


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