Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase

 This review contains spoilers!

In my opinion, this is one of the best stories ever written. Lord of Scoundrels is a story so well laid out and so beautifully told that it will forever hold a special place in my heart.

What do you get when an emotionally detached, 42 year old widower marries the 17 year old daughter of a French nobleman? A poor match, unhappy relationship, and a child who bears the brunt of it all.

Lucia was truly only a spoiled young woman herself when she gave birth to a son, Sebastian. He wasn’t an attractive child and his proud, Florentine nose which came from his mother’s side of the family was referred to as a beak by those who looked upon him. His own father considered him a punishment because of Lucia’s enjoyment of “lewd unnatural conjugal acts,” and after the birth of his son, never again went to her bed.

Eventually, Lucia went away with another man, leaving Sebastian in the care of his father. She thought she was doing the right thing by leaving him behind. It was left to his father to break the news gently to his son. He failed.

From the book:

His father called him into his study.

“You are to stop plaguing the servants about your mother,” his father told him. “You are not to speak of her again. She is an evil, godless creature.  Her name is Jezebel, and ‘The dogs shall eat Jezebel by the wall of Jezreel.’”

Somebody was screaming very loud in Sebastian’s head. So loudly that he could hardly hear his father. But his father didn’t seem to hear the screaming. He was looking down at the Bible.

“’For the lips of a strange woman drop as an honey-comb, and her mouth is smoother than oil,’” he read.

“’But her end is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword. Her feet go down on earth; her steps take hold on hell.’” He looked up. “I renounce her, and rejoice in my heart that the corruption has fled the house of my fathers. We will speak of it no more.”

I felt it important to include that snippet in this review, because it speaks volumes about what Sebastian's young life was like. While reading this, I cried. I can’t imagine how little Sebastian felt. He had spent most of his short life being ignored when all children should be loved and adored and worshipped as the gift they are. But Sebastian was given only the occasional attention by his mother, and none by his father. To hear these horrid things being said about his mother, the one person in his life who showed him any affection was devastating. This, along with a life filled with taunting and torment, created a bitter, ruthless man.

Now, let’s take a child raised in a home full of love, praise and support, encouraged to be all she could be. You have Jessica Trent who has grown into a capable young woman who is determined to save her brother from the now grown Sebastian’s evil influence. Now known as Lord Dain, he held quite a bit of influence over Bertie Trent, Jessica’s brother, and was driving him to ruin. Bertie’s determination to be just like Lord Dain was bankrupting him. Spending his money on women every night, drinking and gambling was what Dain enjoyed…and could easily afford. He seemed to take pleasure in watching those around him fail, though. It didn’t matter than Bertie was losing everything in his attempt to live the same self serving, self indulgent lifestyle that Dain did. This is where Jessica steps in and tries to save her brother, and in the process finds that there is much more to Lord Dain than meets the eye.

This novel takes ‘one-ups manship’ to a whole new level, and is so well written that nothing seemed absurd or unlikely. I loved these two, very well written characters who were both so strong and so set in their ways they could not, no matter how hard they tried, destroy each other. They were perfectly matched, each possessing a strength and a quality that the other did not.

I loved how Dain would figure things out in his mind. Having been so emotionally scarred, he always expected the worse from Jess. Always felt that there was some, underlying dark ulterior motive in the things she did. But her unfailing love and perseverance finally broke down the walls he had built around his heart and in the end, when it was all said and done and when it mattered the most, he accepted her love and gave her his own, freely.

I could go on and on and still not do this story justice, so I'll stop trying and instead I would just strongly encourage you to read the book. It is worth every page, every minute, every hour.

Again the Magic by Lisa Kleypas

Lisa Kleypas has done it again, and in a big way. Again the Magic is a wonderful story with so many dimensions and so much depth that I was up until the wee hours of the morning, unable to put it down. This story is actually a “prequel” to the Wallflowers series. While I’ve never seen it listed as a numbered book in the series, the characters in Again the Magic are featured heavily in It Happened One Autumn, book 2 of the Wallflowers,  as well as in the other Wallflower novels.

There are so many good things to say about this book that I don’t know where to start. As usual with Kleypas’ writing, we have characters who are so well developed that they cease to be words on a page and become living, breathing people. We can imagine them as friends, family, lovers and even enemies.

Again the Magic actually tells 2 stories. There is the main hero/heroine theme revolving around Lady Aline and McKenna, and a secondary hero/heroine theme revolving around Lady Olivia Marsden, Aline’s younger sister, and Gideon Shaw, McKenna’s American business partner. However, I find it difficult to describe Olivia’s and Gideon’s part of the story as secondary because it was so full, so detailed, that it felt to me as though it were its own, singular novel. And that made me very happy!

I found Again the Magic to be refreshingly more honest than your usual fluffy historical romance novel. The reactions of the characters were more in keeping with what I would have expected given the depth of their feelings for one another and their lack of control over certain situations.

Anger and frustration are emotions that linger near the surface and are often the first emotions we feel when being faced with situations that are beyond our ability to change. Sometimes, for whatever reason, the people we love just can’t seem to trust us to love them enough to see past their flaws, be those flaws physical or emotional. Such is the case with Lady Aline and the scars she carries from an injury she received in a kitchen fire. I don’t want to go into detail here and give away too much of the story, but her shame over the deep, severe scars keeps her from accepting McKenna’s love. She just can’t seem to trust him to love her enough…

McKenna has no idea why Lady Aline keeps pushing him away, but finally he has had enough and is ready to return to America, alone, a heartbroken man. But through a unexpected intervention by an unlikely person, Aline is given the opportunity to finally unload her burden and tell McKenna the truth and I loved his reaction. He didn’t just pat her on the head and say “It’s going to be ok, love, I forgive you and we’ll get past this.” Nope, in fact, he let her have it with both barrels. He held nothing back when he described the hell she had put him through and this is the type of reaction I would have expected from a man so desperately in love. He made her listen as he poured out the anguish he had been feeling, and then he summed it all up in just a few simple words:

“My God.” The blood rose higher in his face. “What if the situation were reversed and I was the one who had been hurt? Would you have left me?”
“Then why did you expect anything less of me?” 

The entire exchange was so well written, so perfect and exactly the reaction I would have expected (and hoped for) from a man who thought he had forever lost the love of his life. I was cheering him on with every word he spoke, and when he finally took her to bed I loved how he wouldn’t allow her to hide her scars from him.

And again we see, between Olivia and Gideon, the same honest reaction from Olivia regarding Gideon’s drinking problem when he asked her to marry him and she turned him down. She didn’t sugar coat anything, nor did she give him an ultimatum, but told him, “…I won’t subject myself to the process of losing you little by little, until you’ve either killed yourself or become someone that I don’t recognize.” Again, this is the kind of reaction I hope for from my heroes and heroines. She wasn’t going to sit by and watch the man she was in love with slowly deteriorate by his own actions.

As I said, there are so many good things about this story that I really don’t know where to start or how to cover them all. Suffice it to say that Again the Magic has a charm, an honesty and a depth and breadth to it that has earned it a place on my list of all time favorite reads.

Whether you’re looking for an excellent stand alone novel or want a series to read, I highly recommend Again the Magic and the Wallflower series.

Reading Order:

Again the Magic - Prequel to the Wallflower series
1. Secrets of a Summer Night
2. It Happened One Autumn
3. Devil In Winter
4. Scandal In Spring
5. A Wallflower Christmas

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

For The Roses by Julie Garwood

Reading For the Roses has been a bittersweet experience. Sweet because I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, more than I have any other romance novel in a long, long time and bitter because now that I have read it, I don’t see how any other book will come close to capturing my attention and my heart the way this one did.
I’ve been so enthralled with Garwood’s historicals, especially her medievals, that I had put off reading For the Roses thinking that a 19th century Western Historical wouldn’t hold a candle to those wild Highlanders. I was sorely mistaken.

It’s 1860 in a New York City alley and we meet an unlikely band of castoffs: four boys who, for one reason or another, were discarded by their families or by society and left to fend for themselves. This particular alley is their home. Eating from garbage cans when they can’t steal what they need, these resourceful young men were doing what they had to do to survive when one night fate stepped in and changed their lives forever. It was Douglas’ turn to stand guard while his ‘brothers’ slept, and as he kept watch, something caught his attention: a basket was placed in the trash by a mysterious woman who then fled the scene. Douglas alerted the others and followed the woman to see what he could learn about her. The brothers were able to get to the basket before the rats had chewed their way through and imagine their astonishment to find a baby inside!
The dialogue between Adam, Cole, Douglas, and Travis as they try to decide what to do with their discovery is charming, innocent, na├»ve, and funny as all get out. Through their observations and ideas about what needs to be done with “Sidney,” we learn so much about the boys’ lives before they found each other as well as their lives together. They knew what it was like to be “thrown away” and uncared for and were not about to allow their new little charge to know those feelings. They decided to take little Sidney as their own and raise him as a brother. Only, as it turned out, Sidney wasn’t a Sidney at all, he was a little girl, and became Mary Rose.

Fast forward to chapter one which takes us to Montana Territory, 1879. What? Nineteen years?!?  I was immediately heartbroken. I wanted to know what happened to the children during those years as they made their way west! I was, however, quickly relieved of my torment when I discovered that each chapter begins with a letter that one of the boys had written to Mama Rose, filling her in on their adventures, or misadventures as the case may be, along their journey. We see them all growing up, and eventually little Mary Rose begins her own letter writing. It’s adorable to read her tattlings and pleadings that Mama Rose to see things her way and set her brothers straight.

There are so many things to love about this book. Each and every character was so fully developed that I didn’t feel like this story revolved around just the hero and heroine. I was every bit as much in love with the brothers, as well as Hanging Judge Burns, Blue Belle and especially Crazy Corrie.

This story had me smiling and laughing constantly, as well as shedding a few tears of joy and even those of sadness. This has become my all time favorite feel good romance novel, so much so that I considered changing all my other ratings down one star so that For the Roses would hold a 5 star place of honor. Then I came to my senses and realized the amount of work that would entail and decided instead to just spread the word to anyone who would listen to my rantings that they just MUST read this book.

The Raven Prince by Elizabeth Hoyt

The Raven Prince is the first book in the Prince’s Trilogy and my first read by author Elizabeth Hoyt, and I must say, I was pleasantly surprised! I enjoyed the uniqueness of this story in that neither of the characters could be considered even remotely conventional, and this in a time when being anything less was nigh unto blasphemous! Also, there was a Beauty and the Beast fairytalesque feel to it that was done so well one could easily believe in this story and its wonderful characters.

A widow of six years, Anna Wren knew that, as the cover blurb explains, there comes a time in a woman's life when she must do the unthinkable - and find employment and like it or not,  her time had come. Her husband had left them a small sum to get by on, but it was quickly running out and she needed to do something about it. Plain of face and slightly plump, she was considered rather ordinary of person. However, she was quite smart for a woman, able to read, write and do sums, but the problem was, not only did she live in a smaller village where there little  demand for her skills, and even worse, she was a woman, the poor dear!

Edward de Raaf, the Earl of Swartingham was most unfortunate when it came to finding and keeping secretaries.  It might have been his horrid disposition, his demanding schedule or his pox scarred face, but whatever the reason, he’d just lost another one and at a most inopportune time.  Edward is in dire need of a secretary and has given his estate manager, Felix Hopple, one day to find a replacement or find a new employer.

Well, as luck would have it, Mrs. Wren, whilst out pounding the pavement road, looking for employment, ran into (almost literally) Mr. Hopple. They spent some time conversing and Anna became aware of Mr. Hopple’s desperate search for a secretary and after some deliberating – and fretting and sweating on Hopple’s part – she was hired. And thus begins the tale of how a rather unremarkable widow comes to be in the employ of an unhandsome, overbearing Earl and how the two learn to work together and come to terms with their feelings for one another.

One small thing I want to mention, and explain why The Raven Prince did not get a 5 star rating from me, is that in places I felt the writing was… choppy. It didn’t flow well. What I noticed were sentences that seemed to end abruptly or times when a conversation would start out one way, for example; happy, playful, teasing – and then end up terse, angry or upset… and there was no way to tell from the actual dialog the direction the conversation was taking until it was over and someone just wasn’t happy. If the author had hinted at the emotions of the speakers, that would have helped the flow. I’m chalking this up to being a debut novel, and while I did have to go back and re-read parts to see what I had missed and found that the problem was the writing itself and not me, it didn’t detract from my overall joy of the story.

Now, that said, there were so many things to love about this book, but what stands out in my mind is Edward’s confidence. As a young man he lost his entire family to the pox. Although he lived, he was left severely scarred and this had such an impact on him. I mean, he functioned well, was smart, successful, and seemed well adjusted and all, but every time there was any question about his relationship with a woman, his pox scars were his first concern. While he understood others’ reaction to them, he also accepted that they were part of him and made allowances for those around him. I can only imagine how severe the scarring was for it to have played such a big part of the story, but despite that, he kept on keeping on. He lived, did the things that needed to be done, didn’t lock himself away in his home, and yet… my heart broke for him because of the fact that he had to be at all concerned that someone would find him repulsive. It gave him a vulnerability that I wouldn’t have expected, but one I couldn’t ignore.

Anna was such a joy to read about. I loved her for all the things she risked, all the things she did, to be with the man she had come to care about. And my heart broke for her as her husband’s infidelities while he was alive come back to haunt her even in his death.

Ok, one of my favorite characters was Mr. Davis, Edward’s valet/butler. What a hoot this man was! He suffered from a malady known as Selective Hearing Loss. It’s a wide spread, yet little understood illness, usually found in teenagers. In fact, all three of my own children became afflicted with this illness somewhere around the age of 13. I found it quite endearing in Mr. Davis. Not so much in my own children.

Another delightful part of this novel was the fairytale within the story, which was so beautiful in its telling, that I had thought it surely written hundreds of years ago by a master storyteller. But the truth is that it was also written by Elizabeth Hoyt. What a talent she has! I’m looking forward to continuing the Prince’s Trilogy and seeing what’s in store for Harry Pye in The Leopard Prince.

I think it best if I end my review here, because if I keep going I’ll give away far too much and I want to leave the treasures of this story for you to find on your own.

The Leopard Prince by Elizabeth Hoyt

Once again, Elizabeth Hoyt has given us unconventional characters in extraordinary circumstances, brought together in a truly lovely story.

Goats are dropping like flies all over Lord Silas Granville’s lands. Tempers are flaring, accusations being cast and Harry Pye is at the center of it all. He knows he’s being framed for the deaths and is determined to find out who the culprit is before Granville, who is also the Magistrate and long time enemy of the Pye family, can see him hanged. Harry is honorable, hard working, smart and sensible and everyone who knows him well knows he is not morally capable of the killings taking place, but money is influence and Silas Granville has plenty of both. And what does Harry have? Big problems. 

Georgina Maitland, also known as George, is young, single and wealthy. She’s savvy, independent and definitely a free thinker. She is also Harry Pye’s employer. She’s got her eye on her low-of-birth land manager, and not because of the rumors. Indeed, she’s got a case of the hots for Harry—and I can’t say as I blame her!

I really enjoyed the suspenseful storyline, the interrogation of suspects, the study of evidence and the way the whole thing played out. One again we’re given wonderful secondary characters who don’t bog down the story but rather, enhance it. As it was with the first book, Ms. Hoyt has included a fairytale, The Leopard Prince, which ties in beautifully with our story, and was every bit as entertaining. The sexual tension was very well done – not too much, not too little – and the scenes themselves were deliciously hot!

So why not 5 stars? Well, everything was going along great, having all of the makings of a 5 star read right up to near the end when things took a wrong turn and I was left wondering, what just happened? I don’t want to give away too much so I’ll only say that all through the book Harry was steady, consistent, reliable, dependable. And so was George—until she made a decision that was so far out in left field that I wondered if I was reading the same book, or if George had been kidnapped and replaced with some flighty little chit from another historical romance novel. And wow, I just don’t do well when that happens! I mean, I know it’s just a book, but I had become totally invested in the characters and with the stroke of a pen I went from cheering them on, hoping for their happily ever after,  to fervently hoping Harry would decide that maybe she wasn’t the woman for him after all. I mean, I could have accepted her action wholeheartedly had that been in keeping with her character, but as I said, right up until that moment she’d been savvy, dependable, intelligent, stable, grounded… and then, she simply was not. That aside, this was truly a wonderful read and I’m looking forward to not only wrapping up this trilogy with a read of The Serpent Prince but I can’t wait to dive into Elizabeth Hoyt’s The Legend of the Four Soldiers series.

The Serpent Prince by Elizabeth Hoyt

What a thrilling, romantic, sexy, and emotionally compelling conclusion – albeit a bloody one – to the Prince’s Trilogy!

Viscount Simon Iddesleigh is a man hell bent on avenging his brother’s murder and nothing and no one can keep him from his mission. Using whatever means he can, he hunts them down, calls them out, and then dispenses with them. The truth? Can’t say as I blame him, but the men responsible know what he’s about and they disagree with me. They’ve decided to stop waiting around to be killed. They’re turning the tables and the hunter has become the hunted.

Country bred miss, Lucinda Craddock-Hayes, happens upon a dead man – a naked dead man – lying in the road and rather than just leave him there, she insists on taking the body with her so she can make sure he gets a proper burial. Much to her surprise, however, the dead body moaned, thus dispelling her notion that it was dead at all and instead of seeing to a burial, Miss Craddock-Hayes takes this stranger home with her and much to her father’s consternation, takes on the responsibility of nursing him back to health. When he regains consciousness a couple of days later, Simon is shocked to find himself in Maiden Hill, so far from London and in Lucy’s care, but remembers exactly how he was injured, and who is responsible – and  that only makes him more determined to get to “them” before “they” get to him.

I enjoyed both Simon and Lucy and thought they balanced each other perfectly.  Simon’s eccentric nature in both dress and behavior was very different from any other character I’ve ever read about, and I really liked that about him. Who knows for certain why he chose to dress the way he did, but it’s one of the things I found most endearing about him because deep down, I believe he wore his laced shirts and red heels as an armor of sorts.  You see, as a youth he was delegated to the role of the “bad boy,” and given little attention. So, as a grown man, dressing in the more flamboyant garb drew attention to himself, still remembering the boy who was otherwise ignored. Now, that said, we get a candid glimpse of the Viscount in an interview he did with the author, Elizabeth Hoyt. Here is a snippet of said interview:

Q: My Lord, you have been described as a rakehell without any redeeming qualities. How do you answer such an accusation?
Simon:  It’s always so hard to reply to compliments of this kind. One finds oneself stammering and overcome with pretty blushes.

As I said, this was just a snippet of the interview, but it’s is just one example of how Simon armors himself against society’s less than flattering opinions of him – with humor. The full interview can be found beginning on page 367 of The Serpent Prince. 

Lucy had such a good, good soul. I don’t think anyone else could have gotten past Simon’s defenses the way she could. Caring, unobtrusive, intelligent, wise... she really was his other half.

Once again we’re given secondary characters who were a delight to get to know. I don’t think I’ve had this much fun with non-hero and heroine people in any other series, ever. In this case, I adored Lucy’s father, Captain Craddock-Hayes , her “man”, Hedge, the housekeeper, Mrs. Brodie, and Christopher Fletcher, Simon’s best friend. Here we have all of these people and they weren’t just there as filler! Their personalities shined through and if any one of them had their own story, I’d be reading it! The conversations, or shall I say, banters, were well written, easy to follow and made me laugh more than once! I loved the relationship between Lucy and her father, and cheered him on when, towards the end of the book, he revealed a rather personal, painful experience in order to help Lucy work her way through her own uncertain emotions. Despite his gruff attitude throughout the book, his love for her was always apparent. And dear Rosalind’s story broke my heart, but we weren’t left wondering what was to become of her… we were given a small  glimpse into what the future held for her and Pocket.

Something I want to point out and that I found very fascinating was the insight we’re given into exactly what went into “calling someone out.” I was fascinated to watch as Simon hunted his enemies, and then manipulated them into actions that would allow him to challenge them to a duel and legally kill them. I know it sounds horrid, but it’s a part of history and something we frequently hear about in historical romance novels, but not with this level of detail. And then the actual duels themselves? Painful, bloody and deadly! I didn’t actually love the gore, but I appreciated the mood that was set, feeling the angst, the horror these men felt as they realized they would die… this was a horrible business, death… so I was … happy? to see it depicted with the seriousness this deserved.

For the trilogy as a whole, I’m having a tough time choosing my favorite book. I think it’s a tie between the Raven Prince and the Serpent Prince, because both stories were emotionally compelling and I adored the hero and heroine in both of those, while George bothered me with a completely out of character moment in the Leopard Prince. Choosing a hero, however, is impossible because the 3 men had such completely different personalities but were all truly amazing men.

So, as this trilogy comes to an end, I must say that I’m so very happy to have finally read these stories by Elizabeth Hoyt, and look forward to reading much more from her in the future.