Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Happy Release Day! Gambled Away: A Historical Romance Anthology (ARC Review)


Click here to buy the book on Amazon

About the book:

Get revenge. Pay a debt. Save a soul. Lose your heart.

Spanning centuries and continents, five brand-new novellas from beloved historical romance authors tell the stories of men and women who find themselves wagered in a game of chance and are forced to play for the highest stakes of all: love.

“Gideon and the Den of Thieves” by Joanna Bourne

London, 1793 – Soldier of fortune Gideon Gage has come home from halfway around the world, fully prepared to face down a ruthless gang to save his sister. But there’s one member of the gang he could never have been prepared for: fascinating Aimée, driven from her own home by the French Revolution and desperately in need of his help.

“Raising The Stakes” by Isabel Cooper

California, 1938 — When the flute she won in last night’s poker game unexpectedly summons an elven warrior bound to her service, two-bit con artist Sam takes quick advantage. With Talathan’s fairy powers at her command, her shakedown of a crooked preacher is a sure thing ... but would she rather take a gamble on love?

“All or Nothing” by Rose Lerner

England, 1819 – Architect Simon Radcliffe-Gould needs someone to pose as his mistress so he can actually get some work done at a scandalous house party. Irrepressible gambling den hostess Maggie da Silva would rather be his mistress, but she’ll take what she can get ...

“The Liar’s Dice” by Jeannie Lin

Tang Dynasty China, 849 A.D. — Lady Bai’s first taste of freedom brings her face to face with murder. A dangerous and enigmatic stranger becomes her closest ally as she investigates the crime, but can she trust her heart or her instincts when everyone is playing a game of liar’s dice?

“Redeemed” by Molly O’Keefe

Denver, 1868 — After agonizing years in the Civil War’s surgical tents, Union doctor James Madison has nothing left to lose. But when beautiful, tortured Helen Winters is the prize in a high-stakes game of poker, he goes all in to save her -- and maybe his own soul.

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My Review:

When one of your favorite authors contact you about an anthology she is in, and mentions the names of more of your favorite authors, you drop everything and read it. Gambled Away features 5 brand-new short stories that all explore the theme of gambling.

In the first story, All or Nothing, Rose Lerner's Simon Radcliffe-Gould is drawn to Maggie da Silva, part owner of the gambling den he frequents. Simon believes he can take better care of Maggie -- every time he visits, he longs to talk to Maggie and ask her questions about herself and her life -- but, mainly, he wants to ask Maggie why she continues to stay and work in the gambling den and allow her business partner/friend/lover to use and objectify her.

When the opportunity finally arises, Simon is surprised by Maggie's frankness -- and discovers that he had been mistaken in his assumptions of her. Maggie doesn't need saving or taking care of. She's fine as she is, but, what she needs, at this moment, is a diversion.

Simon receives a commission from a former classmate, and he knows he must accept the job, even if it means revisiting awkward relationships from his past. Simon comes up with an arrangement with Maggie: pretend to be his mistress, and accompany him on this trip. Of course Maggie agrees to go -- curious to find out more about Simon. It's a business trip that becomes an occasion for self-discovery -- and Maggie and Simon explore the extent of their desire and sexuality.

I think Rose Lerner gambled on two levels when she wrote this story: for one, this is a story unlike any of her other stories. Her characters are uninhibited and very honest and open about their relationships. I love that both her hero and heroine are morally ... neutral. It allows her characters to move and speak outside the boundaries of politeness. It's a short story, yes, but it does not skimp on, what I consider, signature Rose Lerner: a thoughtful discussion and reflection. This time, she examines religion, gender roles, and sexual habits.

The Liar's Dice by Jeannie Lin takes you across the globe, and into the midst of a young woman about to break out of the confines of her sheltered life, and embark on an adventure. All Wei Wei wanted to do was visit a tea house -- something that she has read about in her studies. The experience proves to be as she had imagined ... and more: on her way home, she meets Gao, an enigmatic man (who is obviously not a scholar, but who knows her brother), and they both witness a murder.

I thought the author did a really great job crafting the mystery: Wu Kaifeng (from Lin's The Jade Temptress) is investigating the murder and asks for Wei Wei's assistance. Wei Wei wants to help, but, as the mystery unfolds, she discovers a connection between the victim and her brother. It becomes a difficult situation for Wei Wei -- if she continues to help Wu Kaifeng, she might be endangering her brother, his reputation and his career. The situation is made more uncomfortable by her growing attraction to Gao, who isn't of her world or rank.

What made this story enjoyable was the experience of the culture and observances of China -- at once different, but also the same. Wei Wei is bound by the rules of society, much like the ladies of our historical romances set in the West, and she faces the same dilemma: if she follows her heart, she turns her back on her family, but, if she chooses her family over Gao, she would be betraying her heart. I was also engrossed with the crime, the uncovering of the motive, and the subsequent resolution.

Of the five stories, Isabel Cooper's Raising the Stakes, took on the greatest challenge: to build a world where elves and humans exist, and weave a romance (between an elf and a human) within this very short format. Sam is female, but this hasn't stopped her from trying to make money to help her family. I liked Sam: I liked how she really did everything she could to survive, and I liked that, despite the difficulties she faced, she never turned her back on her family.

She wins an antique flute in a card game, and it summons Talathan, an elven warrior, bound to the flute and to whoever owns the flute. Talathan is described as charismatic, very handsome (in an other-worldly way), and a fierce warrior. But I would've wanted to know more about Talathan, and about his world -- unfortunately, the author decided not to delve too deeply into it. Instead, she proceeds to lay out the details of Sam's scheme: with Talathan's help, Sam plans to con a conman -- a preacher who hasn't exactly been doing good works. I enjoyed reading about how Sam and Talathan carried out their plan, though, I have to admit to being confused at certain points in the story. (When the plan comes to fruition, I didn't feel the excitement or the characters' satisfaction over their success. It felt a bit "meh" -- and then the hero and heroine just moved on.)

Amidst the world-building and the confidence game, what suffered most in the story is the romance: from time to time, the author did well to hint at the attraction between Sam and Talathan, but I didn't really see any meaningful chemistry.

Where Isabel Cooper infuses fantasy into her story, Molly O'Keefe brings the dark, bleak, and dangerous world of drug addiction and PTSD. James Madison served as a doctor during the Civil War, and, while he was busy saving lives, he was also becoming addicted to chloroform. The addiction costed him his career, and his life -- and he now lives in a brothel, where he still battles the demons and nightmares from the war.

Helen is known as the Northern Spy, a brave woman who infiltrated the South during the war, gathered information and helped free slaves. Now, she is slave to Mr. Park, a cruel and vindictive Southerner, who intends to make Helen pay for her role in the South's defeat. Helen has been regularly given morphine and laudanum to control her spirit, and she's been put in a gilded cage to imprison her body. And, every so often, she is put up as the prize in a high-stakes poker game: win the game and win a night with the Northern Spy. But the game isn't really a game, because, no matter who wins, they eventually discover that they've lost. Helen in a cage, with no will or say of her own, is a difficult and painful thing to witness, but no one dares go against Mr. Park and his assistant, Guy.

There's a part of James that wants to help, but he knows that his days of being a hero are long passed. But you can see him struggling between self-preservation, and saving Helen. Throughout his life, James hadn't been very good with using his gifts -- despite his education, he had damned himself with his addiction. And, his gift with cards (and gambling) had damned him in the eyes of his family. We're told that no man is an island -- but James certainly lived like one. Cast far, far away from anyone or anything that would have reminded him of better times. But Helen comes along, and it stirs a determination inside James.

As I read Redeemed, I really thought Helen and James had no chance of escaping -- they were trapped in a brothel, and trapped by their own circumstances. Even if they managed to escape the brothel, they would have to contend with Helen's withdrawal from drugs -- while on the run. And who would they turn to for help? Because of James' addiction, he had been disowned by his family, and he has chosen to distance himself from the few friends he had left.

Despite the shortness of O'Keefe's story, it succeeds in twisting your insides in that uncomfortable, and excruciating way. You will really empathize for Helen and James, who are so, so broken, but who both so, so deserve to have a chance at life. The author's villain is truly one for the books -- it was skillful how the author presents the many sides and effects of war: James, Helen, Mr. Park and the other characters in the story came home from the war changed for good -- but, where James struggles to save himself (and to protect others from his addiction), Mr. Park has chosen to use his brokenness as an excuse to break others and make them as miserable as himself.

Joanna Bourne's Gideon and the Den of Thieves rounds out this collection of stories of strong, independent women. Aimee is French, and escaped during the French Revolution. She works as the appraiser in Lazarus's den of thieves. It is not a situation she was born into, but it's the situation she is in right now -- and she makes the best of it, rising through the ranks to become one of Lazarus's most trusted cohorts.

Gideon Gage is a wealthy man who willingly walks into the den with one goal in mind: to rescue his sister at all cost. He is armed and ready to fight for his sister's freedom, but he is unprepared for the complex and dangerous rules that Lazarus and his thieves live by. Our hero quickly discovers that Lazarus has kidnapped his sister for a reason, and Daphne would not be set free unless she paid the price.

Joanna Bourne is an amazing, amazing storyteller -- and this short story packs as much punch as her longer novels. I loved seeing the young Adrian Hawkhurst, who provided moments of levity -- but also reflected just how deceptively dangerous the world is. He is very cavalier, but he is also always on guard. Aimee is beautiful, calm and elegant -- she stands with, but also stands apart from the rest of the thieves in Lazarus's employ. She serves as Gideon's guide through Lazarus' Lair -- much like Dante's Beatrice, and the den is Gideon's own inferno. The den of thieves is an intriguing character of its own. It is, literally, an underworld: existing in the dark corners and warrens of London. The idea of Honor Among Thieves is exemplified in how Lazarus governs over Aimee, Hawk, and everyone else. But, like anything created by humans, it is not absolute -- and there are some in the den who seek to usurp Lazarus's power.

Bourne piques your curiosity by hinting at undercurrents of tension and uneasiness -- why doesn't Daphne want to leave? Why is Aimee so worried? Even Lazarus is behaving strangely. Aimee heroically tries her best to protect everyone: Gideon, Lazarus, Hawk, Daphne, and herself. It takes a while for Gideon to figure things out, but, when he does, I admired how he was able to exercise restrain -- trusting Aimee to take the lead, but also being ready to step in if the situation needed it.

Lazarus is a character that previously appeared in Joanna Bourne's other books, but I loved him in this story. He's a figure that inspires fear, but also respect. He is, at once, seemingly invulnerable, and painfully human -- and at the heart of Lazarus is, surprisingly, a heart -- one that recognizes justice and fairness.

Overall, I thought this was a well-balanced anthology, and a great showcase of the five authors' unique styles and voices. I will say that the romances here aren't what one usually finds in longer novels, but, as with the theme, I'd like readers to take a chance and read this.

Disclosure: I received this ARC from Rose Lerner. Thank you to Rose, Joanna Bourne, Isabel Cooper, Jeannie Lin, and Molly O'Keefe for the opportunity. Yes, this is an honest review.

To find out more about this book, visit the website.

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About the authors:

Joanna Bourne

Joanna Bourne lives in the foothills of the Blue Ridge with her family, a medium-sized mutt and a faux Himalayan cat.

She writes Historical Romances set in England and France during the Napoleonic Wars. She’s fascinated by that time and place—such passionate conviction and burning idealism ... and really sexy clothes.

Website: http://joannabourne.com/

Isabel Cooper

Isabel Cooper spent a large part of her childhood in Southern California, but was more or less law-abiding at the time, and only learned how to gamble later. (Her sister always beat her at card games, too. Accusations of cheating were rampant. And loud.) After moving around a lot, she now lives in Boston, where she plays geeky games of all sorts, occasionally goes dancing, and sometimes attempts to cook. She may be the only person in the world who likes circus peanuts.

Website: https://isabelcooper.wordpress.com/

Rose Lerner

Rose Lerner discovered Georgette Heyer when she was thirteen, and wrote her first historical romance a few years later. Her writing has improved since then, but her fascination with all things Regency hasn’t changed. When not reading, writing, or researching, she enjoys cooking and watching TV. She lives in Seattle with her best friend.

Website: http://roselerner.com/

Jeannie Lin

Jeannie Lin started writing in 2005 while she was teaching high school. After a long journey through rejections and contests and revisions, her manuscript, Butterfly Swords, won the 2009 Golden Heart® award for historical romance. Her first two books have received starred reviews in Publishers Weekly and Library Journal and her second novel, The Dragon and the Pearl, was listed as one of Library Journal’s Best Romances of 2011.

Her stories are inspired by her love of adventure, history, and fantasy in both western and Asian traditions. From an early age she was fascinated by legends of King Arthur and the fantasy of Lord of the Rings as well as the Chinese wuxia (martial arts) fiction. As a result, she writes heroic characters in epic situations while interweaving a strong romance to make larger than life characters human.

Website: http://www.jeannielin.com/

Molly O’Keefe

Molly O’Keefe has always known she wanted to be a writer (except when she wanted to be a florist or a chef and the brief period of time when she considered being a cowgirl). And once she got her hands on some romances, she knew exactly what she wanted to write.

She published her first Harlequin romance at age 25 and hasn’t looked back. She loves exploring every character’s road towards happily ever after.

Originally from a small town outside of Chicago, she went to university in St. Louis where she met and fell in love with the editor of her school newspaper. They followed each other around the world for several years and finally got married and settled down in Toronto, Ontario. They welcomed their son into their family in 2006, and their daughter in 2008. When she’s not at the park or cleaning up the toy room, Molly is working hard on her next novel, trying to exercise, stalking Tina Fey on the internet and dreaming of the day she can finish a cup of coffee without interruption.

Dishing It Out, her last Harlequin Flipside, won the Romantic Times Reviewers Choice Award for best Flipside in 2005. Her Superromance Baby Makes Three won the RT Reviewer’s Choice for best Superromance in 2006. Her novella, “The Christmas Eve Promise” in The Night Before Christmas won the RITA in 2009. And her full length contemporary romance Crazy Thing Called Love won the RITA in 2013.

Website: http://www.molly-okeefe.com/

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