Saturday, September 26, 2009

Memoirs of a Scandalous Red Dress

Memoirs of a Scandalous Red Dress by Elizabeth Boyle

This book is the sequel to "Confessions of a Little Black Gown" and begins by taking up 23 years after the end of the book to continue Philippa, Pippin, Knolles, and Captain Thomash, Dash, Dashwell's ill-fated romance. When we last left our fated lovers Pippin had just agreed to marry the Viscount Gossett after finding herself pregnant when he agrees to see to Dash's freedom. Dash was furious and convinced that Pippin had betrayed him and needless to say they didn't part on the best of terms. Twenty-three years later Pippin is a widow with two very proper English children, John and Ginger, who dreams of her pirate while Dash has lost command of his ship to his son, Nate, and roams around in a drunken stupor. Nate comes to Pippin believing she is the only one who can bring his father back and Dash and Pippin are both conflicted when they see each other again. They're excited, nervous, a little heartbroken, and both feel a little betrayed and guilty over what happened.

Nate has left a note for Pippin's children and friends claiming that she has been kidnapped (although I can't exactly remember why it was important they believe this), but when Pippin's friends reveal their past both children are shocked and immediately decide to go after her. Meanwhile Dash has decided to give up alcohol (and having never known/ seen anyone recovering from a 20 year addiction I can't say whether or not it's accurate but given the fact that it takes about a week I have to say it's not) and Pippin is determined to find the Dash she knew all those years ago and holds him to his promise to give her pirate lessons. Apparently in the midst of these pirate lessons she is able to let go of the propriety that has guided her life the last 23 years and nowhere does she feel more free than when she's with Dash. Unfortunately little secrets from his past, and her's could come back to haunt them (they do but only very briefly) and when Pippin's son shows up the two need to take a leap of faith for each other.

I try not to read other reviews before I write my own but in this case I made an exception and I am certainly glad. Many reviewers were, like me, conflicted over how to review this book. I, like many, had been very much looking forward to reading this follow up because the two seemed like such a fun romantic pair. But maybe it was the immense time elapse or I was just plain expecting to much, but the book didn't live up to my expectations. The first thing I noticed was the inordinate amount of flashbacks contained in this book. The first 200 pages seemed to be half flashbacks! While I understood that there were destined to be a lot of them because Pippin and Dash have a history I wanted more of the two of them re-falling in love now. The only good part of the flashbacks was it made it unnecessary for me to have read the other two books or to refer back to them. And I had a very difficult time trying to make alcoholism into a romantic notion; getting drunk for a night or two, maybe a week, because of a lost love makes sense, but for 23 years (ish)? No. Also those problems from their past (and in my opinion they're pretty big ones) were solved far too quickly.

In a way this book was more satisfying than "Confessions" because it didn't have that ENORMOUS and completely overwhelming sideplot, which funnily enough involves this books characters- almost like Pippin and Dash have two books. I enjoyed the fact that our protagonists were older than the usual romance novel fare (why do all heroines have to be 20?) I almost felt like the author herself was confused as to what to do with two mid-fortyish people. She seemed to make up for this by having a ton of flashbacks and shoving their one present-tense steamy scene into the way end of the book (word of warning: unfortunately that steamy scene includes a little interlude where Dash licks between her toes). I liked the historical references to the War of 1812 and how neither side was exactly "right" and to the ways Queen Victoria turned England into quite the puritanical society.

Rating: I give three hearts to those books I enjoyed and found at least entertaining and sweet but despite liking this more than "Confessions" I didn't really enjoy it.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Surrender to the Devil

Surrender to the Devil by Lorraine Heath

The third book in Heath's "Devil" series featuring the lovable reformed thieves of Feagan's gang of children features Frannie Darling, the only girl of the bunch and Sterling Mabry, the Duke of Greystone, the brother of Catherine who married Luke, the Earl of Claybourne in "In Bed with the Devil." The two meet at a party and have a damnable time keeping their eyes off each other until finally Sterling proposes the two become lovers. Luke, Jack, and Jim (the members of Feagan's gang) are instantly protective and try to warn off Sterling, but ultimately the decision is Frannie's. Frannie is opening an orphanage for the boys of the street and Sterling decides that a great way to get into her good graces is to help her out; monetarily and by not calling the constable when he is first pickpocketed by one of her orphans and then later after his house is burglarized. Frannie can't help but admire the changes that Sterling is undergoing as he begins to care for people other than himself.

As Frannie and Sterling grow closer neither wants to admit that their future is already pre-determined as they both know that a Duke cannot marry a commoner, especially one who has lived on the streets as a thief. Nevertheless the two cannot bring themselves to call an end to the relationship and they both start to realize they are falling in love with the other. Frannie loves the way that Sterling desires her, understands her, and treats as a woman while Sterling loves Frannie's unselfishness and strength. Unfortunately not everyone is as excited about Frannie's orphanage as she and Sterling are and Bill Sykes, who operates his own gang of child thieves in the rookeries and whose children are very much in need of rescuing. He makes it clear to Frannie that if she doesn't stop her good works he is more than willing to take matters into his own hands. After all is said and done Sterling decides to end their relationship for Frannie's sake as he does not want to saddle her with a man who is going blind, but when they meet up again at a fundraiser for the orphanage both know that they can't end their relationship that easily.

Both the prologue and epilogue of the novel consist of a journal entry Frannie has written. Both are completely undisguised information dumbs and I was disappointed with the prologue as I didn't think that it was necessary. Heath has always done a great job of skillfully weaving any necessary backstory, as well as incorporating the happily ever afters of previous couples, into her novels. And indeed she did in this novel which makes it even more odd that their was a prologue as it seemed entirely unnecessary. Sterling is "haunted" to an unbelievably great extent, because of a disagreement with his father over his failing eyesight. While going blind was certainly a new thing for a romance novel and would undoubtedly be an awful experience it just seemed a little off that a family was torn apart and he was determined never to marry because of it. I will also say that I absolutely adore the cover. All the books in the series have similar covers with different colors (pink and white) and this one is purple which is my favorite color.

Heath did an amazing job of dealing with Frannie's past as a young rape victim. Granted the way she dealt with Frannie's fear, having had her watch Jim with a prostitute through a peephole as the "made love," was a little unorthodox but I like how Frannie has evolved from a victim to a woman who realizes that passion isn't limited to what had happened to her. Heath is not the steamiest of authors although she always does a great job of building up tension between her characters. The scenario behind their love isn't all that unusual; man becomes a better person as he begins to fall in love with a woman and thus she begins to fall in love with him. I had a problem with "Between..." because of the unequal power dynamic between the characters, but that is not a problem at all in this book, despite Sterling's title. Frannie is confident, loving, and giving from the very beginning and it is Sterling who changes in completely believable ways, which makes the growing romance between the two realistic and incredibly fun to read about.

Rating: I really enjoyed this book. It was very pleasant and certainly went by fast. While I don't critically think it deserves four hearts I enjoyed it so much I can't give it anything less.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Not Quite a Husband

Not Quite a Husband by Sherry Thomas

Byrony Asquith married the young, charming, beautiful, and exceedingly well-liked Leo Marsden, brother to the Earl of Wyden, when she was 28 and already well established as a pioneer as one of the first female doctors. Their marriage quickly went south and when a streak of white appeared in her hair Byrony realized the marriage was doomed and asked for an annulment. Once the procedure was completed Byrony ran away to various remote corners of India where she planned never to see her ex-husband again until he comes to fetch her. Her sister, Calista, informed him that their father is dieing and sent him off to fetch Byrony back to England. As a young boy, literally, Leo was infatuated by the cool, self-possessed, girl/ young-woman whom he occassionally saw. Her proposal to him was the happiest moment of his life and he dreamed of making her lose her famous control, of making her his, of finally making her feel something fall in love with him. He was never quite sure what went wrong in their marriage but even while Byrony was contemplating asking him for an annulment he was still attempting to find ways to make her happy in their marriage. Despite the three years since the annulment he has never quite forgotten her and has in fact been following her around to different countries across the globe in different teaching positions.

He isn't happy to have been sent on this mission, but when a bout of malaria leaves them stranded for a week he takes the opportunity to discover what had gone wrong in the marriage. The two are both heartbroken to realize that neither was truly aware of the other's motives and at the realization that things might have been so different if either of them had bothered to truly talk to the other. Rumors are abounding that a mystic has been stirring an uprising in the countryside and on their journey they begin to run into large groups of people all dressed in white. When Leo wants the group to stop, Byrony insists that they carry on to the fort where it isn't long before the attack occurs. Since the fort is understaffed Byrony takes over as the surgeon and Leo takes up arms and in the heat of the fighting Leo and Byrony take immense comfort from each other and begin to rethink their annulment and the way things played out in their marriage. Byrony is the first to return to London where she is further forced to confront other demons for her past including her feelings for her father and how she has always blamed him for her unhappiness because of the way he left her with nannies when she was young. When Leo returns he finds a new and happier Byrony and both begin to realize that a new start is just what they need.

This book was just overwhelmingly bogged down in just "angsty" slightly melancholic emotions. There is no witty, fun banter until very near the end of the book and even the more loving feelings are tinted with the memories of what had gone wrong in the marriage and thus can't help but seem depressing. There was certainly plenty of angst on the part of both Byrony and Leo, especially during the beautiful scene where she reveals what she discovered about him before their marriage. At first the heavy emotions seemed to really hold back the book, but after awhile I got used to it and came to accept that it was just the way the characters really did live and feel their lives. Their wierdest part of this book involves the sex and the way that so much of it, including the sex that is referenced as having happened while the two were still married, begins while one of them is asleep. Leo started having sex with Byrony while she was asleep because when she was awake she wouldn't respond to him and then when the two reunite their are more scenes where it starts while one of them is asleep. Not exactly something I'm screaming about, but still rather odd to read about.

The author included quite a bit of historical detail in the book, and her note at the back points out that she did meticulous research so even some of the more bizarre stuff is apparently true, and it was definitely interesting to read a little bit of the British/ Indian history as a background to a story. What wasn't so interesting were the vast descriptions of Indian geography with seemingly endless lists of cities and mountain ranges and deserts that I promptly forget. The lists of ethnic/ religious groups was equally un-memorable although, I'm assuming, more important to the story than the geography, although I was able to enjoy the book without obsessing about who belonged to what group from what region. It was interesting to read about a female with a job, especially one so prestigious and unlikely for the time, and how accepting Leo is of his wife. Unfortunately neither of the characters is very well developed; Byrony seems mad at everyone from her past and Leo has apparently been "in love" with Byrony his whole life. Fortunately both undergo great amounts of introspection, confront their pasts and their feelings, and change for the better. I also liked how the book contained flashbacks to their marriage, both the happier and the sadder times and how Byrony is older (by 4 years) than Leo.

Rating: Although I did have problems with the book it was still enjoyable, not exactly fun, and a good read overall.

Friday, September 11, 2009

A Duke of Her Own

A Duke of Her Own by Eloisa James

When we last saw Leopold, the Duke of Villiers, he was valiantly trying to find each of his six illegitimate children and finding the task difficult as his corrupt solicitor had turned the children over to disreputable guardians and pocketed the money meant for the children, before running off. He had determined that he would need to marry in order to provide his children with a mother and determined to marry a high ranking lady to ensure that his children will not be completely shunned by society. Eleanor, the Duke of Montague's (!) daughter, had rashly pronounced that she would only marry a duke, several years earlier after being spurned by her lover Gideon, Duke of Astley, and thus has remained single. Villiers thinks Eleanor could be the answer to his prayers; she is a high-ranking lady who could ease his children into society, she doesn't seem to mind too much that he has illegitimate children, and he finds himself enormously attracted to her. However, there is the matter of Lisette, the Duke of Gilner's daughter, who, despite having never made an entrance into society, could, because of her rank, still make a passably good Duchess, so Villiers decides to head Knole House to investigate this possible spouse while at the same time checking a local orphanage for his missing twin daughters.

Eleanor's mother decides to call in a long-standing acquaintance with Lisette's diceased mother to invite herself, Eleanor, and Eleanor's nearly married sister, Anne, to Knoll House as well. The entire family is aware of Lisette's penchant for "madness," but her spells are interspersed with long bouts of lucidity and she can be quite charming at times, which makes it possible for Villiers to disregard rumours of her insanity. Instead he is charmed by the way she completely disregards society's rules and the way she makes nice with his orphaned children who were discovered being mistreated by a completely awful orphanage headmistress, whom Eleanor wasted no time firing. Eleanor announces her engagement to Villiers to head off her mother's discomfort with the situation and although he is surprised he certainly enjoys the benefits that come with it. He has an incredibly difficult time keeping his hands off Eleanor, a feeling that is definitely returned, but things are thrown into turmoil when Gideon arrives with the news that his wife has died and he wants to marry Eleanor. Villiers quickly turns to Lisette, but neither Eleanor nor Villiers can manage to stay away from each other. By the time Villier's realizes he has made an enormous mistake it may be too late as Eleanor is determined she will only marry a man who is desperately in love with her- forcing Villier's to do something he has never done before; lay his heart on the line for the woman he loves.

One probably notices how little resemblance this plot summary has to what one might have expected if someone had read the back of the book. I too, spent 50 pages rather puzzled with what was going on, as, after reading the back blurb, I assumed that Eleanor would be the uptight, propriety-driven young miss who would make a great Duchess, while Lisette is the free-spirit who Villiers desperately wanted despite knowing that she isn't what society believes would make a good Duchess. So, after realizing that that wasn't what I was supposed to expect from the book, I settled in rather nicely and certainly enjoyed Eleanor who proved to be my favorite of all of Eloisa's Duchesses. She wasn't overly whiny, she wasn't overly prone to angst or depressions, she didn't pine, and while eschewing society to some extent she hasn't completely thrown out all of society's mores. I had, of course, been looking forward to reading about Villiers immensely, especially about how James' would manage to turn him from the completely cold and uncaring man into a proper hero who could fall in love and be fallen in love with. The answer is that she does it splendidly and readers of the series will realize that his transformation starts earlier in the series and comes full circle with the addition of his children and then later being forced to confront his true feelings for Eleanor.

In fact all the characters are well written. Villier's children are cute, un-precocious, realistic, and fun. Lisette is the perfect understated villian- she isn't evil and is in fact quite likable in many scenes, yet she hides her true self from Villiers to get him to marry her. Gideon is a wonderful "villian" as well as he gives into the fight against his lustful urges and tries to turn them around to blame Eleanor for them. Her mother and sister are also fun, easy, and contribute to some great scenes in the novel. There is a wonderful bit of angst at the end as Eleanor believes that all she has ever been wanted for is her body and as Villiers thinks he really is going to lose her- first because he chooses Lisette and then because of his own stupidity. Eleanor is also interesting because of her views on sex: she is not a virgin, but the man she lost her virginity to made her feel as if her desires were unladylike and while she still enjoys it she can't help but think that a gentleman would be turned off by her experience, knowledge, and wants. This lead to some really great angst as well as to some interesting steamy scenes which, although they don't start into well into the book, are amazing and lead up to quite nicely with lots of longing, desire, and plenty of kissing. Furthermore I enjoyed how former Duchesses only make very brief appearances and how there is no chess playing, both things that have riddled the previous books in the series.

Rating: By far my favorite book in the Desperate Duchesses series this book is funny, great characters, and a little bit of everything that makes a romance novel great.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Sleepless in Scotland

Sleepless in Scotland by Karen Hawkins

Catriona Hurst has always been the responsible one in her family so when she hears that her twin sister Caitlyn is trying to trap Lord Alexander MacLean into marriage she immediately rushes down to London to try to stop her. Learning that Caitlyn plans to stow away in Alexander's carriage and hide until she is ruined, forcing him to offer for her, Catriona follows the carriage and at the first opportunity tries to find her sister. Unfortunately her sister is nowhere to be found and Catriona finds herself escorted off in the MacLean carriage with the wrong MacLean. Hugh MacLean had also been made aware of Caitlyn's plans and had decided the best way to deal with it would be to scare her, but because of the poor lighting in the carriage he can't tell that the woman he has kidnapped isn't Caitlyn. When the Hurst family finally catches up with the carriage there is nothing left for Hugh to do but offer for Catriona and while neither of them like being forced into marriage both agree that they would rather have a quick, private ceremony than a big production. After the quicky marriage the two head up to Hugh's estate in Scotland where the first thing they do is realize that they are incredibly compatible in the bedroom. Despite this Hugh is determined to maintain some distance between them and they "agree" that Catriona will only stay in Scotland for a couple of months until the scandal dies down.

And then Hugh abruptly introduces Catriona to his three daughters, Christina, Devon, and Aggie. Part of Hugh's desire to keep Catriona at arms length is because he his daughters were gravely hurt by their mother's treatment and subsequent abandonment and he does not want them to get attached and then hurt when she leaves. Catriona quickly realizes that the only thing Hugh actually does want her to be involved in in his life is bedplay and this is far from the way she wants it. The girls fear that Catriona will steal their father's affection from them and, led by Devon, the slowly sabotage her attempts to get closer to Hugh, although Catriona gets her own back by playing nasty tricks on them as well. When Hugh learns what the girls have been doing it prompts Catriona to ask to be a larger part of their lives and his life and a huge argument ensues where he unleashes the power of the MacLean curse via a frightening windstorm. When Catriona's grandmother, Mam the white witch, comes to visit she lets Catriona know that sometimes to make a marriage work there needs to be arguments and Catriona realizes that all the compromising in the relationship has been one way. She knows that she need to get Hugh to accept her as an important and necessary part of his life and the lives of his daughters.

The book, as promised, was fast and fun, as all the books in the series have been; they're easiliy digestible and easy to read in one sitting. Fortunately the characters weren't forced to resort to witty banter to make the book so lively as Hawkins let the reader know that these two were compatible by showing us more "true" talk. Hugh and Catriona talk a lot, and have a lot of internal dialogue going on, and Hawkin's does a great job with all of it. My favorite scene was the argument scene because Hawkin's did such a great job writing about what both Hugh and Catriona were feeling throughout the fight. She got into both their heads and was able to make the reader really feel the fear, anger, love, and hurt that both were too scared to admit to and that was driving them apart. Throughout the whole book Hawkins did an excellent job of telling the story from the two different points of view of Hugh and Catriona and both were very well developed characters whom a reader could easily identify/ sympathize with. There were also some brief periods where the story was told from the point of view of one of Hugh's daughters and these were very well done as well as it was important for the reader to know why the girls were being so horrid to Catriona and why they feared her entrance into their lives.

There was minimal angst in this book, and the whole mean stepdaughters thing could have created some excellent angst, but Catriona was really a happy, intelligent woman who was able to hold her own and so there really was no call for any angst. Unfortunately there was very little actual bedroom description, only one slightly steamy scene and one that wasn't even finished. While we are told numerous times that Hugh and Catriona are enormously hot for each other and do it 2-3 times a night or morning only a (very) little bit of description is thrown in as a character is remembering what had happened in the past. All in all I felt like not much actually happened in the book, there were no villain or side-plot- all there was was two people having to overcome one's fear of intimacy. I thought for sure the girls mother would come and try to take them away, and indeed reference was made to this possibly happening, but this was a no go. Our "climax" scene involved one of the girls running away and Catriona (rather foolishly as she had only been riding for 2 weeks) galloping after her in a storm. A heroine that has been level headed and intelligent the whole book doing something like this seemed out of character and I almost had to categorize her as TSTL- too stupid to live (almost).

Rating: The book was better than both of the other MacLean books I have read (To Scotland, with Love and How to Abduct a Highland Lord) it suffered from some of the same setbacks as the other two even while it excelled in other areas. It was between a 3 and a 4 and once again I will let the lack of steam drag it down to 3.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Highland Scandal

Highland Scandal by Julia London

Jack, the Earl of Lambourne, is on the run from the Prince of Wales over an alleged affair with Princess Caroling and attempts to escape to the Scottish Highlands. Instead he is found by Laird Carson Beal who makes him a deal; agree to an old-fashioned handfasting where the couple agrees to live together as man and wife for a year and a day, or be turned over to the authorities. Fearing the worst Jack agrees to the handfasting and while pleasantly surprised by his new bride's beauty he is horrified at her temper. Lizzie Beal is equally horrified that her uncle Carson has kidnapped her from her home at Thorntree and forced her into a marriage with a rake. She cannot understand why her uncle is so set against her marriage to Mr. Gordon, a neighbor she has "an agreement" with, all because of an ancient family feud. Neither Lizzie or Jack are thrilled with the illegal marriage but Jack has no other choice (excpet be handed over for a hanging) and with her uncle and his guards all around her she has no choice but to wait for Mr. Gordon to come rescue her. When Jack and Lizzie move to Thorntree, Jack too begins to wonder quite why Carson is reluctant to let Thorntree go to a Gordon.

As the two begin to spend more and more time at Thorntree Lizzie is forced to admit that Jack may not be quite the wastrel she has believed him to be as he fixes the roof, works in the hothouse and generally helps out around the house. And Jack realizes exactly why Lizzie had been so angry and unappealing as he discovers the massive responsibilities she shoulders running an estate that has no source of income and takes care of a sister who was left crippled in a horse-riding accident. They have a very difficult time ignoring the attraction they feel for each other; Jack fights it at first because he does not want to be stuck in the handfasting and later because he does not want to limit Lizzie's future and Lizzie because she can never believe that Jack will ever truly love her. When Gordon shows up he is furious over the handfasting but believes that Lizzie is truthful when she claims nothing has happened between them. When Gordon, Jack, and Lizzie pore over Lizzie's father's documents they discover the possibility that Carson wants Thorntree to stay in the family because of an old slate mine that he has been poaching from. Jack determines that the only way to ensure Lizzie is free from her controlling uncle is to enlist the hope of the king and so the three journey to London despite the threat to Jack's freedom. He is determined to save the woman he has grown to love even if that means giving her up and she is terrified that the man she has grown to love might hang because of her.

I liked the way London brought the whole "Why does Carson want Throntree/ slate mine" mystery kind of came out of nowhere. It wasn't a huge part of the story and it was a surprise from the very beginning and I wasn't really expecting anything more to come from it than that Carson just didn't like the Gordon's. So she did a great job with the small/ easily palatable side plot. One of my favorite parts of the novel and one of my biggest complaints was the side romance between Newton, the guard Carson set up at Thorntree, and Charlotte, Lizzie's sister. It was super sweet as Newton showed Charlotte that her life hasn't ended just because she's in a wheelchair. Unfortunately it took up far too little of the book- there was enough there for us to fall in love with it and want it, but it probably took up less than 7 pages all told and I could definitely have used more. There was an odd bit of angst in the book as neither of them wants to admit that they love the other, Lizzie because she thinks Jack is a rake that will never love her, but Jack because he is worried that he will turn out to be just like his cruel father and end up hurting Lizzie. I'm not really a big fan of the heroe's with cruel father's they are terrified of turning into. If a grown man hasn't realized that he is not his father than that's just a little sad.

The sex between Lizzie and Jack wasn't exactly what I would call HOT, but it was seductive- if saying such a thing makes sense. It was often long and drawn up, but definitely sexy and is best illustrated during the scene where Jack teaches Lizzie the waltz and the two proceed to waltz in front of the other inhabitants of Thorntree. It's romantic, sexy, seductive, and sedate at the same time. It did turn into a funny moment though when it was revealed that the waltz apparently reignited the passion between Mr. and Mrs. Kincaid, the two elderly, and rather austere, servants of Thorntree. Another interesting aspect of the story was how such a large portion of it was told from Jack's point of view. The first half seems to be more from his point of view than hers and while London does an excellent job of it, and I know that I have often complained of author's not given enough time to the male perspective, it did get a little odd and I wanted more from Lizzie. The end result was that Jack seemed a more well developed character than Lizzie- although that is not to say that Lizzie wasn't an entirely likable and sympathetic character. It was especially amazing as she was obviously so strong and independent, and not in the heroine way of being strong but really really needing a man to make everything all better.

Rating: London did a great job with the arranged marriage plot by bringing in two completely different protagonists who have excellent chemistry and are just a ton of fun to read about.