Why would you apologize for what you read for pleasure? Every book read for pleasure should be celebrated. And novels that celebrate love, commitment, relationships, making relationships work -- why isn't that something to be respected? - Nora Roberts

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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Once Upon A Christmas, by Diane Farr (published in 2000) (Regency)

Been reading a lot of heavy-duty non-fiction, and the last romance novel I read, while very well done, had a fairly high angst:word ratio, a complex twisty-turny plot, and involved a lot of unhappy people. So I was ready for some, oh, not fluff, but something pleasant and not quite as complicated, with characters I could like right off the bat. I've read a couple of Ms. Farr's books, one of which was excellent, the others good, so I saw this Christmas story and bit.

(It's cold here, it's been cold and gloomy and extra windy for over a week, we have some snow on the ground and it keeps spitting little bits of snow at us daily. Reading a Christmas story is not outside of bounds of my reality just now.)

Celia, impoverished vicar's daughter, is subdued and dressed in mourning. She will need to vacate the vicarage very soon, taking with her only her personal belongings, because the new vicar is coming. She has no place to go, really. No family left. Oh, there are some distant cousins, a noble family who cut an ancestor off when he married beneath him for love, but she barely even knows their names.

However, the local doctor, aware of her plight but unable to help her himself, has written to that noble family, and one day in swoops the starchy and cold Duchess of Arnsford, who says she will take Celia in and provide for her in every way, at least until after the holidays, and then they will go from there. Celia can tell that there's something off-ish about this but - well, what are her choices, really. She jokes uneasily about working as a scullery maid. She finally agrees to visit.

It develops that the duchess ("Aunt Gladys"? That's what she insists that Celia call her.) plans for Celia to marry her only son, the heir, Jack. Jack's been down this road a time or two with his monster mother and he suspects what's up when he is summoned home. He's not having any of this, thank you, and decides that the best way to throw the plan off is to appear silly ass/"mad". Instead of being appalled and running in the opposite direction, the way Jack thought she would, Celia is compassionate and curious, and treats him gently and kindly.

Well, he wasn't expecting this at all. He was expecting something like his younger sisters, who are very superficial, artificial types, or the elder sister, who is disappointed in life and love and has patterned herself according to the duchess's cold social perfection with one focus: duty. 

The duchess is giving Celia lessons in how to be a duchess and run a large household. Man, she is a cold and calculating one, the duchess. I see her with cold little snake eyes. One suspects that she has never given any of her children a word of honest praise or a scrap of honest love. Celia, on the other hand, is all warmth, and no small amount of intelligence, and gradually we learn the depth and breadth of her recent loss.

Will Jack reveal his true self to Celia? Will Celia go along with the plot the duchess is hatching and somehow get Jack to marry her? Is Jack going to get hooked into this scheme with a fortune hunter? Is Celia falling for a "madman"? And what about Elizabeth, the oldest of the sisters, reunited (by the duchess) with her lost love, who is now widowed?

This was exactly what I needed. A sweet love story, not without its little twists and turns, but mostly straightforward and heartwarming. It takes place around Christmas and there are some Christmas traditions in the book, but no preaching, even from the vicar's daughter. It's very clean. There's character growth; even the duchess grows a teeny tiny little bit, and we learn why her plans have been made with such urgency, and we feel for her, even, a little bit. Well, not much, but a little bit.

I got sucked in to the story immediately and read it cover to cover in one sitting. It's only a little over 200 pages, so a nice weekend's read. There aren't a lot of characters, so it would be safe to put down and pick up -- if you can put it down, that is.

Oh, I almost forgot: there's a great cat. I loved that cat. He's a very cat-like cat, no super powers, doesn't speak perfect English iambic pentameters or perform miracles. He's just a big ol' cat who likes to be held and petted and loved and talked to, and he was a great device to get some storytelling and internal discussion done in an interesting manner. After all, you can tell a cat anything, can't you?

Kindle formatting fine. I did not notice any errors in grammar, and I know the author is careful about such things. No violence, although I did want to throw things at the duchess more than once. No sex whatsoever, very clean. Some may find the pace slow and the conflict limited, but for me, it was just perfect. No pirates, kidnappings, or housefires. Ending might have been a touch rushed. A gentle read. For the most part, a cast of characters all doing their best in accordance with how they see the best, which may not be how we see it. I admit that at the very end, my eyes burned with unshed tears, and I don't do that often.

Lovely Christmas book, currently $2.99 in the US for Kindle and at Smashwords, so also a bargain. 

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Secret Heart, by Erin Satie

Adam is an earl, heir to a duke, his father, with whom he has a really horrible relationship. Deep hatefulness reinforced by sad circumstances. Workaholic. Adam is built like a blacksmith and is quite secretive about how it happens that he has the occasional split lip or black eye. We learn his secret right away: he bare-knuckle fights under an assumed persona. He is not squeamish about hitting people (and there's more than a suspicion of his being punished for past deeds) and he loves the discipline training requires. Imposing discipline on his body, his mind. The bedrock of self-discipline. 

Caro Small, tiny and appearing fragile, also has a terrible family. My stars, selfish! I've never met people so habitually selfish to the point of being evil. She knows if she is going to have any kind of life whatsoever, if she isn't going to end up in a workhouse or out on the street, she must marry well and it needs to happen soon. Not only for herself, but for her cherished younger brother, the only person in her family who is visibly human. She also has a secret: she loves to dance - ballet. She loves the control it requires, the precision.

They meet when Adam's (cousin, I think) invites Caro to the home place for a nice visit in the country. Caro has engineered this visit for the specific purpose of somehow trapping Adam into marriage. Adam is specifically not interested. But there is attraction. Both of them feel it, sometimes at differing times, and both of them fear it. Adam does not want to marry, certainly not Caro, and Caro does not want to love her husband. 

This sounds like a reasonably traditional early Victorian romance, doesn't it? Well, it is, mostly, but I'll tell you straight, reading this book was work. Work! These are not easy characters and the book is not written to be easy.

Here's the thing: I don't remember the last time I read a romance novel with so many downright unhappy and unpleasant characters. I don't have to like the characters in a book, I don't have to be able to relate to them, okay?, but I do have to be able to share brain space with them for half an hour or so at a time without feeling like hives are forming on my brain.

I almost gave up on the book half a dozen times. And that would have been my loss, because the more you read, the more you learn, and the more you learn, the more you begin to understand these people. It's like … uncovering fossils with nothing more than a soft brush and your own soft breath to blow away the protecting, defending, layers of soil to see the intricate patterns of a leaf. It's like an onion, layer on layer on layer, with the core stronger than the outside.

I'm not going to talk about the plot much. It's rather complicated with lots of twists and turns and I don't want to spoil the book for you. I'll just say that I was surprised more than once about where the author took me, and the way, toward the end of the book, I simply let her take my hand and lead me even though I wasn't certain exactly where we were going or how I was going to feel about it when we got there. 

I'm going to have to re-read this sometime this week, reading more slowly. I think I'll enjoy it more and understand it more now that I know the resolution. I reserve the right to return to this review and edit it or expand it and maybe be able to find words better. I know that a good chunk of this book flew right past me while I was trying to figure it out. I was not prepared for this complexity. 

Kindle formatting fine, grammar fine. I did not much care for the fight scenes, which were about a 3 or 4 on my ick scale, but they are necessary and well-written. You'll never understand Adam if you don't read the fight scenes and read the details of his training. Sometimes the checklist of the research showed, but was still interesting. Some sex, not a lot, but pretty explicit. Caro's father and older brothers were almost caricatures, almost too rude and selfish to be believed. They had no redeeming features whatsoever, and most people have one, so their appearance, while intended to reinforce for us the truly desperate situation Caro is in (and it does serve that purpose well), took me out of the story a bit. (So I guess I'm hard to please with respect to that.)

It was work to read this book. But it was worth it. Just understand going in that this is not fluff. 

Wrote the review, went looking for other reviews, can't find any yet. It hasn't been out very long. It's 99 cents in the US for Kindle. You're not gambling much. It's part of a 3 or 4 book series, but apparently they will all be stand-alones with some shared characters. There's no cliffhanger in this book. 

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Some Drive Through Reviews (mixed bag … very)

So I've been without internet access for a couple of days, and I flip the machine on this morning and - yay! - all your Web are belong to me. I wander over to the Smart Bitches website and what do I start my morning with but a review by Elyse of The Billionaire Dinosaur Forced Me Gay, by Hunter Fox.

I kid you not.

I took another bite of an Egg Beater omelet (yeah, well, I'm old and don't like oatmeal. Choices, my friends, choices.) and went over to Rosario's Reading Journal and saw a review of a Regency I had been looking at over at the library. Rosario describes plot points so stupidly impossible that she gave it a DNF.

So I'm in no damned mood today. We're going to get a snowstorm, not enough to really complain about, just enough to turn the streets to solid ice until next May Day. Here's what I've been reading, she snarled.

In Love with a Haunted House, by Kate Goldman. What can I tell you. It was free, it had 4.5 average stars with 144 reviews. I wanted to read a light contemporary. I bit. It didn't exactly bite back, more like being gummed. Mallory, an accountant, having had the worst day of her life (downsized, and then came home to find SO of 5 years all packed and ready to move out), moves back home with her mom somewhere (I thought maybe Colorado because the town's name is Golden, but then the author mentioned Spanish moss, so I adjusted my latitude southward and eastward significantly.) The house next door, until recently owned by a Miss Havisham type, is up for sale, the old lady having gone off to her reward. Or maybe she hasn't. Mallory has always lusted after the house, a Victorian, and thinks she can buy it with her little bit of savings. Also interested in the house is architect Blake, who has a background in old home restoration. The historical society and a developer also are interested in the house, so there's some conflict.

No real conflict with the romance. It's love at first sight. They know next to nothing about one another, but there are passionate kisses anyway. Mallory is, like, one week off a long-term relationship and should be up to her chin in empty Ben and Jerry's ice cream cartons and looping City of the Angels on Netflix, but no, she's all but saying I Do to a near stranger. Ah, but there's help in the form of the old lady's ghost.

That's about it for plot. There's a HEA with baby bump. The ghost has her HEA also. Nice little dumb story. But the writing, give me strength. It's written like those Scholastic novels they sold us for 25 cents when we were in fifth grade. Simple sentences. Simple concepts. Comma splices in every paragraph. Dialogue runs: Blade said, "blah blah." Mallory said, "blah blah." Blake asked, "blah, blah." Mallory said, "blah blah." There's a sentence that runs like, "Mallory's legs stuck out of the bottom of her shorts." ß aspirated my tea on that one. Flashbacks all over hell and gone, disjointed, not smooth. It's pretty clean. I'm the only person in the Western Hemisphere who didn't like it.

So next I read Alice's Diary: The Memoirs of a Cat, by Vernon Coleman. This is something of a classic in the UK, but only recently has become available here. It's a cat's diary over the course of a year, and it was sweet and cute. I guess I was expecting something more along the lines of the books written by Max, the Psychokitty, but this was just very sweet and nice. Takes place in England, I think, or somewhere else where they let cats roam more than we do here in the States. There is friendship and community among the cats, quite a bit about the art of hunting, and some fun little stories about the humans and their responses to gifts of mice and voles (Alice worries that her humans can't fend for themselves and keeps trying to teach them to hunt.)

It would be a good dentist office book, or waiting in line book, or chapter a day book. I read it in one go, and it got a little much that way, but it's sweet and nice, had one sad spot, and apparently has been very popular for a number of years. It's still free, if you're interested. Your great aunt Sally would love it, also safe to give to a cat-loving older child. Well written, clean, nothing offensive in it. Really a lovely little book.

I made the mistake of reading Joan Wolf's Lord Richard's Daughter directly after reading A London Season, and had what I think it's Willaful has referred to as a bit of an allergic reaction. I found this to be true of Baloghs, that I can't read one right after the other or the author's verbal tics and patterns start to get in my way. Again we have an unusual heroine, a young woman who followed her Cotton Mather-y missionary father through Africa, picking up some unusual skills along the way (she's a dead-eye shot with a firearm). Father died and an English ex-pat mercenary has brought her home to England, where Grandma is set on finding her a suitable husband.

Poor Julianne. She thinks she wants safety and comfort and "normal". She thinks she wants a kind and gentle husband, a nice house and gardens, and 2.5 children. She doesn't, but it takes her awhile to figure this out. Meanwhile, the mercenary, John, can't seem to stay away from her, can't stop thinking about her. When John unexpectedly becomes (an earl?) with property adjacent to that of Julianne's betrothed, and there's a house party, well, you can take it from there.

Nice little story. If I read any more of Ms. Wolf's books, and I probably will, I'll wait a bit.

Currently reading Censoring Queen Victoria: How Two Gentlemen Edited a Queen and Created an Icon, by Yvonne M. Ward. After Victoria died, two gentlemen were recruited to go over her hundreds of volumes of correspondence and whittle them down to publishable length … and content. Their version of Victoria is the one we've been buying for more than 100 years now, the one with all the passion and fun and humanity edited out. The author is describing the men, how they came to be chosen, and their backgrounds. Probably the author's dissertation, but it's been entertaining so far (I'm at the 25% spot) if fairly dense. Of course, promoting the politics of the day was a major goal, and protecting the current king, and - well, all sorts of agendas from all sorts of people involved. The author is making quite a bit of the fact that both men were gay, really pounding this in, and I'm thinking it's to show that they had very limited contact with women in general and really limited understanding of how women, wives, mothers, think. They were both academically based, surrounded by men, only men for friends and social contacts, really quite isolated, and that has to have influenced their choices. But I'm only 1/4 of the way in. It's worth continuing.

I have so many new books to read I hardly know where to start. All of a sudden all my library holds became available at once, so I have thirteen books to read in the next fourteen days. Life is good. Pity the vacuum cleaner is broken :-), guess I'll just have to read.

Personal note: Mr. Bat is doing well in cardiac rehab, showing some real gains. He can tell he is stronger, I can tell he is stronger. His appetite varies but I'll be making vegetable soup and corn bread with local honey tonight, and I know with the wind howling, he'll chow down on that. Doctors are pleased (flabbergasted) with his progress. While I'm still adjusting, I'm glad I retired. He is so much better since I retired. We had our last warm day this week and ran out and checked out the harvest again (all done in our neck of the woods), saw a whole bunch of geese going south, saw pheasants gleaning corn in the harvested fields, and had ice cream and basked in the sun. These are good days. 

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

A London Season, by Joan Wolf (Regency, 1981)

There's a place for these traditional Regencies, and it may be on a night when the temperature has dropped 40 degrees and the wind is howling from the northwest at 35-40 mph, and you're warm in bed next to your best beloved with the cat snoring softly. I had some hot vanilla in a thermos cup and a slice of lemon pound cake to nibble on, and it was about as close to heaven as you're going to get in Iowa in late fall. This is a 99-center at Amazon for Kindle and it finally floated to the top of TBR.

Lady Jane is just six years old when her parents die in an accident. Not that it matters, they didn't pay much attention to her anyway, deeply disappointed that she wasn't a boy. Her nurse has raised her to have good manners and there's privilege and power bred into her. She is completely horse-mad. She is sent off to live with a kindly young uncle who doesn't have clue one about raising a child. She flat-out refuses to have a governess and lets him know that he'll be sorry if he tries it. Fortunately, uncle owns a racing stable.

Working in that stable is David, age seven, born in France of French semi-nobility now deceased, brought to England by his aunt for safety when still a baby. David, despite his young age, is the best horseman Jane's uncle has ever seen as well as being a natural leader, and he is given more and more responsibility since the old head groom is nearing retirement age. David gets some instruction in Latin and other basics from the local vicar, and Jane trots right along with him for her education.

In fact, see Jane and see David. They bond instantly, first over horses, then generally. Jane is - if this book were being written now I'd wonder if the author intended to show someone on the spectrum - not comfortable in new situations, not comfortable with humans in general, but she and David are as close as siblings, closer. They love one another and are protective of one another. Jane's loyalty is impressive, especially for one of her age and background. David would take a bullet for her.

And so they grow up, and as they become nearly grown (ages 17 and 18), uncle marries and the wife, not a bad person at all, but more than a little bit nervous of Jane and her imperiousness, and more in tune with the ton, sees that it's time to put a little space between Jane and David. After all, at age 21, Jane will come in to 80 thousand pounds. David is a stable hand of no particular discernible breeding. Really, it won't do. Uncle cannot see his way to a marriage between these two. Especially because Jane has grown into a strikingly beautiful woman. It's time for her to have a season in London and get a husband in accordance with her status. Bye-bye, David.

It's not that easy to separate soul mates, as uncle and his wife see. So we watch these two very young people with a very old love find their way back to one another.

Possibly this is the way of traditionals, but I'm not sure I've read a book with so much telling. There is a boatload of telling here. The pace is slow, stately, and quite a bit of the book is spent on Jane's childhood - which is fine. Without the setup, there would be no payoff. Still, be warned about the telling. It didn't bother me in this book because it was as if someone was telling me a story, a fairy tale.

I wasn't sure what to make of Jane at first. She is totally, completely, inner directed, and doesn't understand small talk, or living a life that doesn't involve horses or David. VEry strong and forceful personality. She was charmed by and charming to a completely unsuitable old man - because he was a horse man. She is almost totally self-absorbed, said to be capable of tantrums when she doesn't get her way (we don't see this, we are told) but has compassion and loyalty for the staff and underlings (we are told). She observes, and learns, and when a suitable man begins to court her, she knows how to handle the situation to get what she wants.

Jane has a real talent for art. As a small child, she responds to color and texture, and as she grows, paints beautifully. This we are told, for the most part. For Jane, the best part of London is the art collections that her connections give her access to. She's very observant. (Later in the story, this matters.)

The writing is quite good. Not a scene is wasted. Jane and David came alive to me, and the secondary characters were also mostly well fleshed out. There's not excessive dialogue but what there is worked for me.

Kindle formatting fine except for a few stray extra hyphens. Grammar perfect. There's a little bit of sex, not much, no details, but just over the line to be able to call it clean mostly. David does have an affair with a married woman, not described much, with the woman the aggressor, and nothing out of the ordinary for the upper class of that time, as I understand it. I enjoyed watching the characters grow, grow into themselves, grow closer to one another, and truly become each other's mate for life. I appreciated that the uncle's wife was not a witch. The villain was not as well drawn as the rest, but well enough that we can see what he is, and not be astonished at the turn of events. No real violence, although there are murder attempts and a death. No housefires, pirates, or kidnappings.

All in all, a decent read for a darned cold and achy night. A different kind of heroine, even if the resolution was standard (but then, it's more than 30 years old). I don't know if I'll read it again, but I'm glad I read it once, and I'm pretty sure that Jane and David will stay with me for awhile.  

Monday, November 10, 2014

Veterans Day (not a review, personal)

Tuesday is Veterans Day in the US. We called it Armistice Day when I was a child, and up into my teen years everyone stopped what they were doing for two minutes (later one minute) of silence at 11:00 a.m. on November 11. To remember. When I was very little, church bells in my little town would ring briefly at one minute of, to remind you of the silence to come.

It was a very solemn thing, this silence. I remember my mother's hands on my shoulders, holding me quiet for the silence. My dad was a printer, and they would even shut down the presses (not a small gesture, took some work to stop and restart and usually spoiled some product).

Then it became Veterans Day, and the silence stopped for the most part, and they started doing pre-Christmas Veterans Day sales. After all, so many wars after the War to End All Wars.

My father was caught in the regionally famous 1940 Armistice Day Blizzard. There wasn't much in the way of weather forecasting in those days, and the people who did the forecast for our area were in Chicago (east of us, when weather comes to us here from the west - generally). It had been a lovely, warm autumn, and it was more than 60 degrees that day, which is very warm for November here.

In those days, at the tail end of the Depression, you could get off work on the opening of duck season if you were a hunter who provided meat for his family that way. It happened that duck season opened on November 11 that year. My dad and two of his buddies - all single at that time and living with their parents - took off work to go hunting. They carried only their firearms and were dressed in only their shirtsleeves, no coats, no hats, no gloves. My dad was hoping to bring back some ducks for his mother to prepare for supper that night, or barring that, maybe some rabbits. Meat wasn't a regular feature on their table, although there was often fish when Dad could get down to the river, and sometimes squirrel or rabbit. (My dad hated killing animals, even for food, and would not have done so except to feed his mother and little brother.)

The three young guys parked the car on a country lane and took off into the woods by the river. They walked for the best part of an hour in their shirtsleeves, sweating, wondering if they would spot a deer in this light woods, now bare of leaves, and looking for this one place that someone had said had a lot of ducks. Laughing and telling jokes.

Dad said that the wind freshened suddenly, and he looked at the sky, and in the time it is taking me to type this sentence, the sky went from clear to a dark gray-blue, just like that. He suggested turning around, at least getting out of the woods and closer to the car, and as he spoke, the freezing rain and sleet hit them.

They turned around and headed back for the car, as I said, a good hour away. The ground turned to icy mud and they fell and helped one another up. The temperature dropped something like 50 degrees in a couple of hours, a howling wind from the northwest - and they were having to walk into the wind.

One of his friends got his eyelids frozen shut by the sleet, so the three of them locked arms, the now-blinded one in the middle, and fought their way back to the car, down ravines and up stony hills, slipping and falling every few steps. After what seemed an eternity, they made it back to the lane. The car wasn't much, a Tin Lizzy with no heater, and holes in the floor, but it was at least out of the wind. They were so cold they had stopped shivering, and none of them was making much sense when they stumbled in to the car, doors on the north side frozen shut, but they managed to get the car running and drove back to town and somehow got to my dad's parents' place and more or less fell into the warm kitchen, where my grandmother had been wringing her hands, listening to the reports on the radio of hunters freezing to death. She took care of them and all three were fine the next day. Many places got upwards of two feet of snow that day on top of the freezing rain and sleet. More than 150 men died, most of them hunters.

My dad must have told me this story 100 times. He said he never felt so close to death, not even when he had his heart attack. He knew they were in trouble when they stopped shivering - because that means the body has given up trying to warm itself and death is near.

What he didn't ever tell me is that he carried his blinded friend all those miles into the wind, picked him up and carried him in his arms when his friend could no longer walk and no longer made sense. I did not hear that part of the story until my dad's funeral, when his friend, hands shaking with the palsy of the aged, took my hands and with tears streaming down his face, told me the story of how Dad saved his life.

Love you, Daddy. Miss you.

Rest in peace, all of you who raised your hand and swore to defend. (In the US, they swear to defend the Constitution.) 

Friday, November 7, 2014

What I Did For A Duke, by Julie Anne Long (Pennyroyal Green series)

Honest to goodness, I don't know what to say about this book (but I'm sure I'll think of something). I liked the story, but ach! the writing! In places so good. In places so bad.

Genevieve Eversea (apparently the fact that she's an Eversea matters), about twenty, grew up with and has been in love with Harry (heir to a viscount) for years and years. She and Harry and their mutual friend Millicent have been a trio forever. One day Harry, clearly nervous, asks Genevieve to walk with him alone for a change, and she of course thinks he's going to propose, when what does he do but tell her that he plans to propose all right - to Millicent. Millicent, the good natured, beautiful, bland, boring, even tempered artist who draws only kittens because, well, kittens.

Genevieve is shattered. Truly shattered. Crushed. She doesn't understand. She's happy for her friends, of course, but how can this be happening to her? Is this what she gets for being the "good" girl of the family all her life, acting shy and quiet and biddable, suppressing her passions and talents, hiding her cleverness and humor?

Meanwhile, Genevieve's brother Ian Eversea has been caught in bed with the fiancée of the Duke of Falconbridge (Alexander). His Grace, fortyish, has a reputation for never losing at cards, never losing a duel, and never forgetting to get his revenge for a slight - eventually. Oh, and he is said to have murdered his wife for her fortune, can't forget that part. The duke throws Ian naked out the window and breaks off the engagement. He is gentleman enough to allow it to be "by mutual consent." Thus demonstrating that he's not a complete monster. At least, Ian hopes he is not.

Oblivious to all this (and much else), Genevieve's parents arrange for a house party, and this includes Harry and Millicent, and the duke, among others. The duke sees this as an excellent opportunity for revenge, punishment fitting the crime. He will seduce and reject Genevieve while terrorizing Ian with significant looks and throwaway lines about duels and murders.

Now, because the duke is paying such close attention to Genevieve, plotting her seduction, he perceives that something is very wrong here, a fact that has sailed right past every other person in Genevieve's life. Against his will he is attracted to her, to her wit, to her good sense, to the little evidences of the passion within her. He finds that he likes her, likes spending time with her, feels alive and - what's this? happy? - when he's with her. And the duke, God love him, has not spent much of his life feeling alive or happy, certainly not lately. At the same time, Genevieve finds the duke strangely attractive but does not trust him (he speaks shockingly frankly with her), and taken all in all, she'd rather be left alone in her room to cover her head and cry over Harry. The duke keeps seeking her out, because after all, he has to seduce her to get his revenge. But he's feeling more and more of a rat for taking it out on Genevieve. He's feeling more and more protective of her.

Well, there are all kinds of complications, aren't there, and you wonder what on earth is going to happen with these four people, five if you count Ian. I loved some of the images in the book. One really caught my eye: everyone gives Genevieve white flowers, because that's what she likes, right? Wrong. She's doing some embroidery with brilliantly colored flowers, red and orange and bright yellow, and she even takes the bold step of having one of the flowers not in the vase, not carefully arranged. If anyone would actually look at her, they would see. But nobody looks. Except the duke. He gives her crimson roses. So much of what goes on in this book is that nothing and nobody are exactly what they seem.

Other images (these are so obvious even Ms. Oblivious here caught them) are references to the sky, to fire, to classic paintings, and to Venus and Mars as gods. (I have no background in art  - I can tell a Michelangelo from a Picasso, barely, on a good day - and spent a fair amount of time Googling paintings and artists in order to get the full flavor of the images - well worth the time and interruption.)

The thing is, when it works, it works, and when it doesn't, it's like someone should take away Ms. Long's thesaurus and cut down her word count by 15%. The writing is really purple in places, and with the errors in grammar (I know, I know, mine is far from perfect, but I don't write for a living!) and word choice … there were times when I was rolling my eyes so far back I could see the roots of my hair.

But I kept reading, because I loved the characters and the dialogue and the story. Loved them.  

Kindle formatting fine. Errors in grammar, mostly objective case pronouns and agreement of subject and verb, but other things also. Really flowery language at times, my heavenly days, all it needed was a 1940s radio soap opera organ as background music. Jeepers. No real violence. A couple of sex scenes, pretty standard for this type of novel. Some people may find the twenty-year age difference creepy. I don't, but then Mr. Bat is significantly older than I. At least the duke doesn't call her "brat" or something similarly offensive.

I don't know how to grade it. I liked the story and the characters, and some of the writing was brilliant. And some of it was just awful, really awful and like something from your 10th grade creative writing class with tortured similes and metaphors. Don't get me started on the way people in this book act a lot more Victorian than Regency. I guess I'll give it a C-plus: good story, worth reading, consider yourself warned about the writing. I'd like to rate it higher, but I can't. And then at the end, the author thanks her editor! Give me strength.

ETA: Okay, some examples:
·       …conversation was brief, every word of it a veritable pearl of innuendo in a lengthening strand of indiscretion. [Location 93-95]
·       …[removed] his clothes with the urgency of a man fighting off fire ants. [Location 933-934].
They aren't necessarily bad, but the cumulative weight of the similes and metaphors overwhelmed the prose at times.

Examples of grammar problems: …serendipitous for both Lady Abigail and I. [Location 2965-2968] … who danced with both Olivia and I [Location 3919-3920]

And don't get me started talking about his sinewy tongue. Ick! Yuck! 

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Satisfaction, by Sarah Mayberry (contemporary)

This is a pretty hot book, so if you don't like reading sex scenes, you might want to give this review a miss and come back another time. I have one friend who keeps pushing these erotic romance and romance with erotic elements and downright erotica at me, and I owe her a bunch for friendship over the years. I've enjoyed the one or two Sarah Mayberry novels I've read so far, even though they are contemporaries, so I bit.

Maggie has our dream job: she runs a successful independent bookstore. (Let us pause a moment to enjoy the fantasy.) She's pretty, she's nice, she's built, she's smart, she's brave, she has excellent friends, life is good. (Let us pause a moment to envy Maggie.) There's just one problem: she is anorgasmic. She cannot have an orgasm no matter what. She becomes aroused but just can't quite cross that line. She's resorted to faking it but, you know, that kind of lie has a way of biting you when you least expect it. Plus the pelvic congestion related to unrelieved arousal is uncomfortable. She knows she has control issues, at least partially related to her mother's long and ultimately successful battle with cancer starting when Maggie was a child.

She's about ready to seek professional help to see if there's something physically or psychologically wrong when a friend mentions a casual hookup with a local tattoo artist that short-circuited all her fuses and turned her hair white, so to speak. After much thought, most of it accompanied by blushes and curling toes, Maggie decides to go for it, and gets an appointment with Mr. Wonderful, ostensibly for a tattoo, but really to try for a hookup with - finally - a climax.

Things go off course - well, you knew they would, didn't you - and Maggie propositions and almost sexually assaults the wrong guy. (If that happened to me, I'd have them suture a bag over my head permanently. I mean, oh my goodness.) Wrong guy, Rafel, turns out to be intrigued by this interaction and seeks Maggie out. She's honest about the situation and he's even more intrigued. Well, some men like a challenge, and he's pretty secure about his skills. He cautions her, however, that he's still more than a little hung up on his significant other, Lena, who moved from Australia to NYC over a year ago. He's still carrying a bit of a torch - more like a big candle - for her.

Rafel embarks on a gradually escalating program of seduction for Maggie, trying to get her to turn off her mind and simply feel. It gradually becomes clear that this is turning into more, much more, but can Rafel leave the past behind and start over with Maggie?

I'll admit that I skimmed over some of the sex. The sex scenes were well-written, and the characters took such delight in what they were doing, that they were worth reading, however. I will say that it wasn't just one sex scene after another, but there's a lot of lusting in between. The sex is explicit but not overly clinical. It's well done.

I liked both Maggie and Rafel, and I liked the secondary characters as well. Even the villain is mildly sympathetic right at the end. Maggie and Rafel are smart, and they're honest about what they want and what they're feeling - when they can figure out what that is. They both grow up a bit during the book. The development of their relationship was a joy to read. I wasn't certain what would happen next. There were times when I thought perhaps Rafel might have had some control or dominance issues, but it was all part of the plan and Maggie felt perfectly free not to follow his dictates, and did a little dominance of her own. (No BDSM in this book, these are just my terms.)

I was worried that this might be some kind of tribute to the almighty magic penis, but it wasn't. Rafel knew, and Maggie knew, that her sexuality was her business, her problem to own and resolve or ignore, and Rafel gets only part of the credit when Maggie finally feels the earth move.

This is a smart, funny, sexy (oh my gosh has Raf got a sexy dirty mouth on him) fantasy, but it worked for me. The characters are real, the relationships are multi-dimensional, and it was a good read. There's a short conversation about Heyer novels that tickled me. I was just a trifle uncomfortable when Ms. Mayberry had Maggie throw out some recommended reading by current authors - felt a little bit too much like a shout-out, you know, but there wasn't a lot of it. The ending was not quite as graceful as the rest of the book, but again, it worked for me as fantasy. The relationship between Rafel and his brother was excellently drawn, some great dialogue there, and a lot of subtle love.

Kindle formatting fine, grammar fine. I liked the little bit of Australian culture that shone through - I always wish there were more of that. No violence. No baby in the epilogue. I may read it again but it's not quite enough for the nursing home shelf, and it's a B-plus. I would *love* to read a sequel featuring Rafel's twin brother. (Oh, and I see now by her website that there will be one! Yes!)

ETA: I've read some other reviews now and some folks are concerned about what they perceive to be over-emphasis on Maggie's pale, peaches and cream coloring and Rafel's medium skin tones (he is from Brazil). Honest to Pete, I didn't notice it, but this isn't something that I am particularly aware of. If you are, then please note that some folks have questioned this. The things that I tend to notice are things like references to being fat and lazy or fat with a disagreeable personality, or some types of rape, animal abuse, that kind of thing, 

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Bonfire Night, by Ros Clarke (contemporary, very short story)

Things you need to know: 1) I think Ms. Clarke is a great writer with a bright future. See previous reviews for reasons why. 2) I don't like short stories much. They never feel like enough. 3) Everything I know about Bonfire Night is based on a mystery I read decades ago - was it an Agatha Christie? - in which the perp was able to throw off the timeline for the murder by firing the gun during the fireworks on bonfire night.

For Americans: Bonfire Night, or Guy Fawkes Day, is celebrated in the UK (primarily England?) on November 5. It commemorates a 1605 treason plot in which explosives had been taken in to the areas under the House of Lords, with an eye toward assassinating King James I, hoping to put a Catholic king on the throne. One of the conspirators, Guy Fawkes, got caught guarding the explosives, and he was arrested, and from there things get very ugly because it was, after all, treason. Let the gentle hand of time obscure the rest of the details, lest we all lose our lunches. If you have the stomach for it, and the head for detail. Antonia Fraser has written Faith and Treason: The Story of the Gunpowder Plot. In any event, the day has been celebrated since then with something like July 4th festivals with bonfires, fireworks, the burning of an effigy (called a "guy" - a term Americans have adapted to mean a man, any man) and what we would think of as fairs with activities for the kidlets and food. Hotdogs, for example, which apparently are eaten with ketchup and fried onions: man, you talk about treason!

Ms. Clarke has set her story in England in the autumn. Holly has been looking after her dear grandfather's garden plot in a neighborhood allotment since he broke his hip and then had a stroke. She's a pharmacy tech, single, not terrifically social, and probably satisfied enough with the rut she has worn in her life. Greg is a widower with three little kids, oldest age seven I think. They have just obtained a garden plot as a family do-together project. He's self-employed and successful, still grieving the fairly sudden and early death of his best beloved. Holly and Greg meet in the garden plots. There is attraction, initially as simple friendliness.

The story is so short I don't want to tell you much more about what happens. Let's leave it at this: Greg begins to see that there may be life on the other side of this river of grief he has been fording. Holly begins to see that there may be life outside of her comfortable little box.

Kindle formatting fine, although there was one repeated consonant at the beginning of one sentence. Didn't take me out of the story. It's very clean. The characters were nice people, people you would like to get to know. Ordinary, decent folks doing their best in this ever-changing and often confusing and lonely world. The children are neither monsters nor angels - just children, sweet and funny and a boatload of responsibility every second of every day.

I'm not crazy about short stories, and this one is short indeed, 10,000 words it says. It shouldn't take you long to read it. Not one word is wasted. It's sweet, it's clean, and it made me feel good. I don't know whether Holly and Greg will end up dating and have their HEA with one another or not, but I think both of them will enjoy breaking through the bonds that are holding them to the past and that they will find new life, good life, in the future. The story is free right now through tomorrow, I believe, and it's well worth your coffee break time or short lunch break time or that time just before you shut off the light when you want something pleasant to dream about. It's a B. Dang, I wish it were a book, or even a novella, but we take these bits of grace where we can find them, and it made me smile. 

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Witness, by Nora Roberts (contemporary, romantic suspense) (long review)

While I'm a big fan of the In Death series - I think the first three books of that series will long outlast any anachronistic problems there may be on down the road - I'm less a fan of Ms. Roberts's standalones and I mostly don't care for her trilogies. Although I haven't read them all; I mean, the woman has published, what, 200 books? Oh my gosh, I loved this book. I loved it. I got sucked in right away. I'm going to gush like Sally Fields on Oscar night.

Elizabeth, age 16, is the product of a cold, robotic, totally self-centered and narcissistic woman who selected a sperm donor based on the donor's health, appearance, and intelligence in order to produce a perfect child = someone just like her. She turned the baby over to a nurse and resumed her career as a neurosurgeon, apparently having minimal contact with Elizabeth except to order her life right down to the minute, the calorie, the thread. Elizabeth has just graduated from Harvard and is bound for med school [does anyone remember Spike Jones's I Was A Teenage Brain Surgeon? I'd make you a YouTube link but I'm out of internet … again. Sometimes I go days without internet service here. Apparently the retrofitting into this old building didn't go well.] This poor child has never made a decision in her life, has never eaten a McDonald's hamburger, never been on a date, never gone to the mall with a pack of girls, never - lived. My heart went out to this poor abused child immediately, IQ of 210 or not. Because that is abuse.

One day, Elizabeth rebels. She had already had a taste of rebellion, sneaking off to buy a pair of jeans and eat some fries. Mother Dearest had promised her the summer off - she's never had one - but has now changed her mind and has enrolled her in a summer program to help her get a leg up in med school.

Nobody has ever asked Elizabeth what she wants to be when she grows up. She's never even been asked what she wants for supper.

Elizabeth throws the whole thing over and does a couple of really stupid things - heavens, she's only 16 and socially is about 2 due to lack of social interactions with others and the almost (but not quite) unbelievably over-controlling mother. The end result of her impulsive decisions is that she is a witness to some murders by the Russian mafia, and barely escapes with her life. Put into witness protection (mother walks away, just like that), she bonds with the law enforcement officers for what was probably the best 3 months of her life, allowed to read whatever she wanted, watch TV, eat pizza, and to learn to handle firearms and do some self defense. When the protection goes pear-shaped due to corruption from within law enforcement, once again she is on the run, shocked to her toes but able to use her considerable computer skills and intelligence to carve out a life for herself.

Skip ahead 12 years. Elizabeth, now calling herself Abigail, moves to small town Arkansas and buys a little acreage just outside of town. She lives like a hermit - a well-armed hermit - making careful runs into town for whatever food she can't grow and other necessities, and having at least one weapon on her at all times. Plus all the security a security systems specialist (how she makes a living) could possibly dream up. Plus a wonderful bull mastiff who speaks (responds to commands) multiple languages and is super protective of her as well as being probably the only thing in the world that has ever loved her. (It's okay to buy into the dog - he's still there at the end.) (Well, this stuff always worries me, so maybe it worries you, too, and if so, well, don't.)

She doesn't talk to the locals. In the first place, she needs to hide in plain sight, and in the second, well, it could be dangerous for anyone to form a relationship with her. Because of her serious hacking skills, she knows that the mafia types are still looking for her, and as far as that goes, the police are also because the corrupt cops have accused her of setting up the situation in protective custody that resulted in the death of two cops. So. She keeps a low profile.

Brooks, named after a baseball star, is the chief of police of this town. He is a 30-ish thoroughly nice guy who grew up in this town and has returned after some years on the Little Rock PD. He likes the people and the pace of the town. Product of parents who loved one another and him, he is easy going but can be firm when needed, but you can see that he's not quite fulfilled with his life yet. The old patterns don't fit him anymore. There's some restlessness underlying his conversations.

If I tell you that Abigail and Brooks meet and sparks fly, you can write the rest of the book yourself, right?

And that's where you would be wrong, darlings. Ms. Roberts takes us on a ride with unexpected plot developments and an ending that actually took this ancient mystery and thriller reader by surprise. Happy surprise. She did not take the easy way out. I thought it was ingenious.

I'm not going to spoil it for you. You'll just have to read it yourself. (You probably already have since this was published in 2012.) I've left out serious amounts of plot detail but the book is almost 500 pages and really, not a scene is wasted. Even the sex scenes give us progression of the plot.

Kindle formatting fine, no howling errors in grammar that I caught, and thank the heavens, nobody in this book has "long eyes." There are the typical NR sex scenes, not many and not a lot of extraneous detail. There's some violence but it's not described to speak of and would be, at most, a 2 on the ick scale. The characterization was excellent, some of the best I've seen from this author. Watching Brooks and especially Abigail grow - oh, it was wonderful. The plot was pretty doggone good, but I tell you straight, as long as Ms. Roberts worked out a HEA for these two people, I wouldn't have cared if the plot was full of holes. Dialogue up to her usual high standards, and I do like her sibling relationships and depictions of warm, caring parents (=the Miras from the In Death series if Mira were a hippie artist instead of a psychiatrist). I was happy and satisfied with the development of the plots and subplots, and happy with the ending, and I'm just happy.

Elizabeth/Abigail may take a bit of getting used to. She is very, very literal and does not understand jokes or teasing, does not understand human relationships except clinically. I'd almost think she's somewhere on the spectrum, but I do think her way of communicating is more related to her limited social interactions, her isolation from the day she was born, and her intense shielding. The poor woman had to Google to find out what correct behavior is for a backyard barbecue - she'd never been to one. (Her reaction reminded me some of Eve Dallas when she goes off on the Rules of Relationships - both funny and touching.) She's very complex, and I liked her a lot. Brooks was nice, too, a real sweetie, the ideal boyfriend and potential father of your children, but I've met his character before. Abigail is someone special, unique.

I save the A shelf for things that I think I would take with me to the nursing home, where there's a three-foot shelf to hold your stuff. Did I like this enough to take it with me to the nursing home? No, which makes it a B-plus. Will Elizabeth/Abigail stay with me awhile? Yes. Does this book do what it set out to do, and is it an exceptionally good example of its type of book? Yes. That makes it an A-minus. It was a very good read for me, and came to me when I was just about ready to give up on romance as a genre.

There are good books out there. There are. It's just a matter of finding them, finding the one that speaks to your heart. It's nice when you don't have to leave your brain at the door when you read them, too. This book warmed my heart and did not insult my intelligence (well, not a lot, at least :-) Grade B+/A-.

Personal note: Mr. Bat is tolerating cardiac rehab, although he's not making much progress. Still, it's early days yet. He's no quitter, my guy. One side benefit of the extra exercise is a good appetite, and I've been cooking up a storm. 

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Boo! (personal, not a review)

For the first time since I was, oh, four years old, I won't be participating in Beggars' Night tonight. Beggars' (or Beggar's - opinions vary) Night is a local thing, only in parts of Iowa and the Midwest as far as I can tell. It was proposed and implemented in the middle 1940s as a way to let little kids trick-or-treat without running into gangs of older kids bent on mischief. It is celebrated, even if it falls on a Sunday, on October 30.

We moved to senior housing in a secure complex last November. I asked, and no, local groups do not bring in children to trick-or-treat here.

So for the first time since Truman was president, I will not be passing out treats or receiving them tonight. Won't be encouraging shy little ones to tell me their riddle or do a somersault on my living room rug. Won't have to pretend not to recognize that neighboring first grader under the cat makeup. Won't be listening to young mothers - gawd, they get younger every year, I swear - nudging toddlers with, "Now, what do you say to the nice lady who gave you the candy bar?" Won't be pulling cats out from under the sofa when it's all over, or putting hot packs on my knees from all that squatting down to talk with the under-four-foot set. Won't be torn between taking leftover candy to work vs. eating it ourselves.

Did I buy candy? Why, of course I bought candy! I may be a bit (a lot) to the left politically but I'm a red-blooded American and of course I bought over-priced, already stale, darned near impossible to open with arthritic fingers, single-bite chocolate (hah! a drop of chocolate in a pound of wax and fat, call that chocolate?) candy in convenient pound bags at my local grocery. (Criminy, at our local Walgreen's a week ago, they were already moving out the Halloween candy to display the Christmas candy.) I'd like to say that I buy candy I don't like so I'm not tempted, but I like all of it. Even the molasses-peanut butter toffee that will pull out every filling you own, although I do draw the line at black licorice.

Oh, well. More for me, I guess.

Meanwhile: What did the skeleton order for supper? Spare ribs!


[Reading NR's The Witness. Good book! Unless she lets me down in the last quarter, may be the best book of hers I've read. Review coming.]