Sunday, January 24, 2016

Review: Mark of Blood and Alchemy by Evangeline Denmark

Mark of Blood and Alchemy (Curio #0.5)
By: Evangeline Denmark
Publisher: Blink


Olan Havardsson fled to the mountains when plague took his family and destroyed his village. Weak from the disease, he is saved from meeting his death by by a mysterious, secretive group whose healing elixirs bring him back from the brink of death. His mind clearer, he begins to suspect that his newfound friends are secret "magickers," but unwilling to believe that the beautiful and compassionate Auriana could be a witch, he accompanies them to their mountaintop, hospice haven. There he learns the history of the hospice, founded by the legendary Saint Gerodi, who sought through alchemical research to bring hope and healing to all he encountered.

But dissention runs deep among Gerodi's heirs, a line drawn between the brothers who welcomed him to their order and the Regians, who, in seeking to master the elements and discover the elixir of life, would claim mastery over others. When those who call the hospice home fall ill, Olan discovers that he, an outsider, may hold the key to bringing the balance to the order. For within his blood lies the key to continuing Gerodi's work -- the fusion of blood and alchemy.

Denmark's debut is an interesting slice of steampunk-driven fantasy, a unique and colorful entry in within Blink's publishing ranks. Denmark knows her creation, from the personality tics that maker her characters unique to the methodology of the alchemy that infuses every aspect of her steampunk-driven world. This is a welcome entry in inspy-flavored fiction (though the faith element is so faint here as to be non-existent, and as such should find a home on mainstream readers' shelves), but despite its unique premise and colorful execution, the result fell somewhat flat for me.

Denmark does a fantastic job dropping readers into the action of the story, but that said as a prequel, there is almost too much going on here for my tastes. The simmering conflict between the Regians and Gerodi's followers is so rich in history and so massive in portent for future volumes in the series that it felt a disservice to gloss over such a potentially rich slice of this world's history. I also had issues relating to Olan, the reader's gateway into the hospice's alchemic war. He's honorable to be sure, but his everyman quality is a little..bland?...particularly when he is revealed as the Great Nordic Savior..for no particular reason I could fathom other than he was simply too plainspoken and forthright to be duplicitous and thus compromised by the Regians' cause. (Side note: Until this book I've never come across the phrase "tea-stained lace" used to describe someone's complexion, and I hope I never do again. Also, this novella has the longest chapters of all time...when my Kindle tells me that chapter one is going to take me 40 minutes -- and I'm a fairly fast reader -- I kind of want to give up on life.)

The Mark of Blood and Alchemy is an action- and lore-packed introduction to Denmark's first full-length steampunk title, Curio. Denmark's absolute confidence in her characters and storytelling shine here -- this is an author who knows her world inside and out -- but ultimately there was a bit too much going on here, and too little compelling character development -- to leave me fully invested in this world. That said, there is a lot of potential within these pages and I look forward to seeing Denmark's imagination given free range within the parameters of a full-length novel.

About the book:

In this novella prequel to Evangeline Denmark's YA fantasy novel Curio, Olan Havardsson flees a devastating plague that took his family only to be saved by a mysterious group of "magickers" with healing powers. But as he accompanies his rescuers to their alpine enclave, mysteries arise surrounding their potions and powers of alchemy. Questions mount when Olan observes a deep division forming between those who seek to defend the purity of the healing alchemical work and those who would wield it as a powerful weapon.

Olan is thrust into the midst of this dissention after he discovers he is somehow special--chosen as a guardian like the enclave's founder. As he spends time with two of his rescuers--Auriana, a clever and captivating inventor, and Alaric, a brooding young man wrestling with his father's cruel beliefs--Olan realizes he may have the power to direct the course of blood and alchemy.

Introducing readers to the fantastical world of Curio, this novella is wrapped in adventure, romance, and intrigue.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Review: When He Was Wicked by Julia Quinn

When He Was Wicked (Bridgertons #6)
By: Julia Quinn
Publisher: Harper Collins


The first time Michael Stirling saw Francesca Bridgerton he fell deeply, irrevocably, in love. Which was dashed inconvenient as the setting marking this momentous occasion in his life was a supper celebrating her imminent engagement to his cousin John, the Earl of Kilmartin. As John is not only his cousin but his closest friend, more akin to the brother he never had than simply a cousin, Michael resigned himself to a life of abject misery and assured damnation. For while he'd had his share of dalliances with women in the past, to fall in love with his cousin's wife would assuredly prove to be his most fatal sin. For this affliction could never be cured, and so he resolved to never let John or Francesca suspect his true feelings, forever playing the role of dearest friend and confidante. When the unthinkable happens and Michael finds himself thrust into the wholly unexpected role of heir, his carefully-constructed facade of devil-may-care, happily aimless womanizer crumbles, the guilt of his closely-held but never acted upon love threatening to bury him under its overwhelming weight. Years pass and he settles into the role of earl, but just when he thinks he's come to terms with the cruel twist Fate played with his emotions, Francesca's undiminished hold on his heart may once again prove his undoing.

When Francesca married John Stirling, his cousin and closest friend quickly became her own friend and confidante, never suspecting that Michael's feelings for her were more than that of an older brother. Her comfortable existence is shattered with John's sudden death, sending her reeling into the arms of her best friend -- and unable to understand how John's death seems to have shattered her once close friendship with Michael. Years pass, and as distance dulls the pain of her profound loss, Francesca begins to think of marrying again. However, she never expected his reaction to her decision or her new, and profoundly unsettling reaction, to his once-familiar person.  But when lines are crossed and unspoken feelings are brought to light, can Francesca come to terms with the fact that her second chance at love may have been right in front of her all along?

When He Was Wicked is something of a departure from the frothy, breezy style of the previous five Bridgerton novels. Taking place concurrently with Romancing Mister Bridgerton and To Sir Phillip, With Love, Francesca's story is the first tale of second love to find a Bridgerton sibling. It's at once more somber in tone, facing the issue of grief head-on, running the gamut of emotions that come with loss from shock to anger and everything in between, as well as quite a there is a lot of repressed sexual tension within these pages. All of this repressed physical and emotional baggage, along with the requisite guilt, made this Bridgerton installment a slow go for me -- this reading is at least the third time I started the book in the last two years but the first time to finish it.

Generally I'm in favor of any romance that has a solid foundation of friendship and intellectual compatibility, but here Quinn takes the conceit a bit too far for my tastes -- friendship is the biggest barrier to Francesca and Michael's happy ending. I get that proximity blinds Francesca to romantic possibilities with Michael and the same makes acting on his long-hidden feelings an anathema to Michael, but one honest conversation could have avoided chapters (not to mention years) of guilty angst and self-loathing. It's a fine line to walk to be sure, but relying so heavily on avoidance of the issue at hand, the undeniable attraction and compatibility staring them blindingly in the face, led to a level of anger en route to the resolution of their issues that was uncomfortably out of step with the other Bridgerton books.

I'm really quite torn here, because since I discovered Quinn's writing and the inimitable Bridgertons, I've come to love each member of this quirky, warm-hearted family. And I really do like Michael and Francesca...but there is a point in the final quarter or so of the novel where their romance threatens to  turn ugly. Michael, freed from his guilt in regards to assuming John's place, single-mindedly, aggressively determines to seduce Francesca into marrying him. And while she's a willing participant, the manipulation that colors the dissolution of the unrequited tension between them sours an otherwise wholly compatible, sizzling romance between equals.

My favorite part of this novel involved the irrepressible Colin Bridgerton serving as a catalyst bringing the simmering romance between Michael and Francesca to fruition. Colin has been one of my favorite characters since the beginning of the series, full of wit and charm and here, on the cusp of his very one happily ever after. His carefree charm belies great depth of character and insight, and seeing him shock Michael out of his state of emotional stasis is a huge emotional payoff.

Much like its predecessor, To Sir Phillip, With Love, here Quinn grapples with issues of great emotional weight but with less deftness of hand. In the previous novel, issues of depression and suicide and the emotional ramifications on those left behind are handled with a raw frankness and depth that makes the tale all the more compelling for its emotional honesty. The pieces of a compelling emotional sequel are in place here, this time centered on the raw scar left by the sudden loss of a spouse and close friend, but the choice to dwell on guilt and avoidance, until honest passion is very nearly transformed into physical obsession threatens to cheapen Michael and Francesca's story.

There is the seed of a beautiful lesson here, a powerful reminder that hope and happiness are conscious, powerful choices that can shatter the stronghold of grief and loss. Living fully after loss, as Michael and Francesca finally realize, isn't a punishment, doesn't dismiss their loss, but rather can be a way in which they collectively honor John's memory. But for all the weight these heavy subjects warrant, the level of guilt and never-ending denial within these pages, however honest the intent, faintly sours an otherwise solid exploration of fresh chances and second love. While this is a weaker offering in the Bridgerton series, I'm not sorry I finally read it, and I look forward to reading the final siblings' stories soon!

About the book:

In every life there is a turning point.

A moment so tremendous, so sharp and breathtaking, that one knows one's life will never be the same. For Michael Stirling, London's most infamous rake, that moment came the first time he laid eyes on Francesca Bridgerton.

After a lifetime of chasing women, of smiling slyly as they chased him, of allowing himself to be caught but never permitting his heart to become engaged, he took one look at Francesca Bridgerton and fell so fast and hard into love it was a wonder he managed to remain standing. Unfortunately for Michael, however, Francesca's surname was to remain Bridgerton for only a mere thirty-six hours longer -- the occasion of their meeting was, lamentably, a supper celebrating her imminent wedding to his cousin.

But that was then . . . Now Michael is the earl and Francesca is free, but still she thinks of him as nothing other than her dear friend and confidant. Michael dares not speak to her of his love . . . until one dangerous night, when she steps innocently into his arms, and passion proves stronger than even the most wicked of secrets . . .

Monday, January 18, 2016

Review: To Sir Phillip, With Love by Julia Quinn

To Sir Phillip, With Love (Bridgertons #5)
By: Julia Quinn
Publisher: Harper Collins
ASIN: B000FC1494


At twenty-eight and firmly "on the shelf," Eloise Bridgerton was content with her life as a spinster -- or so she thought. Within the arms of her eclectic family, she never felt pressured to marry, and so she held out for the right one, because she was not one to settle for second (or third or fourth) best. As the years since her debut passed, she became increasingly acclimated to the idea of the single life, especially with her best friend and confidante, Penelope at her side. But then Penelope went and married her brother, Colin (Colin!!), and while she was truly happy for two of the people she loved most in the world to find happiness together, she couldn't help feeling...stuck. And so when Sir Phillip Crane, the widowed husband of her cousin, Marina, and her secret correspondent of the last year, proposed marriage, she decided to accept. Seized with desperation to claim her chance at a life she thought had passed her by, Eloise flees London before she can lose her nerve...only she neglected apprise Sir Phillip of her impending arrival, and so she arrives at Romney Hall to set her plan in motion, only to be surprised by Phillip's two (unruly) children, no chaperone, and a man equal parts maddening and intoxicating, his manners making her temper flare while his smiles turned her knees to jelly. Is marriage to a man she barely knows her only hope of happiness? Or will her reckless gamble see her married to a man consumed by past demons, one she could never love?

Phillip Crane has spent much of the last decade living a life he'd never wanted. The second born, all Phillip ever wanted was to escape his abusive father's reach, losing himself in his studies at Cambridge where he earned a first in botany. But everything changed when Waterloo took his brother's life, and Phillip found himself the heir to his father's baronetcy. He'd hoped to find a measure of happiness with Marina, his brother's now-bereaved fiancee, but their marriage is doomed from the start, as Marina is crippled by depression. Left with two children he barely knows, and if he's honest, fears to raise -- fears seeing his father's temper rear its ugly head as a twisted, emotional inheritance -- Phillip is every bit as lost as his late wife. But a chance letter from Eloise, a woman he's never met, leads to an unlikely friendship, and gives birth to a desperate plan -- he'll marry the spinster, she'll take charge of his children, and his life will finally be normal. When Eloise arrives, she's nothing like he expected -- gorgeous, spirited, and independent, she's the answer to all of his prayers...if only he can convince her to stay. But when their hands are forced and marriage is no longer an option but a decree, will love have room to grow? Or will happiness remain a dream unfulfilled, forever out of reach?

To Sir Phillip, With Love marks a transition in the Bridgerton series, as with Eloise's story Quinn begins to tell the tales of the four younger siblings that make up this quirky, loving family. The older siblings are now well-established in their lives and families, and the younger are at last given the spotlight in which to shine. Eloise has long been a fixture of the series, for as Penelope's best friend and confidant she unknowingly played a critical role in the Lady Whistledown saga that ran through the first four books, tying them together with columnist's famously droll observations about the ton's eccentricities. This installment is a bit of a departure from the winning formula of its predecessors, as Eloise makes the conscious, shocking decision to flee the only life she's ever known, risking everything on the wild hope that she could love a man she's never met, and thrive in a life outside the close-knit confines of her family.

The romantic in me loves a romance based on letters, and as such was thrilled with the premise behind Eloise and Phillip's connection, despite the decided lack of letters, romantic or otherwise, featured in the narrative. Rather than Whistledown excerpts, each chapter opens with an excerpt from Eloise's past correspondence with friends and family, revealing a glimpse of the woman she'd one day become, whose firmly-held views would undergo a trial by fire when she gambles her future on Phillip. Quinn's trademark warmth and humor are ever present throughout the story, if perhaps in a slightly muted form given the tragedy coloring the lives of the Crane family. I loved the impact of Phillip's "surprise" children on his attempts to court Eloise -- it reminded me a bit of The Brady Bunch, only twins Amanda and Oliver are first wholly opposed to the idea of welcoming Eloise in their lives. Pranks and tears ensue in turn en route to Phillip and Eloise's happily ever after, but Quinn imbues the journey with the warmth, sensitivity, and emotional depth I've come to appreciate as a hallmark of her fiction.

Eloise is a fascinating character, because up to this point she's been given an extraordinary amount of latitude in a culture that raised women to fulfill limited, specific roles. Her contentment with the concept of spinsterhood, and her family's support, enabling her to enjoy a measure of freedom not typically afforded to well-bred single women in her social sphere. But even a Bridgerton must pay the piper, as Eloise discovers to her mortification when her scandalous plans are uncovered, leading her four brothers to Phillip's door, where marriage, once just an option, becomes her future. I LOVED seeing all four of the Bridgerton brothers again, their typical easy-going camaraderie transformed into a formidable force when united in defense of their sister's honor, and the glimpse afforded into Benedict and Sophie's married life. And I loved that even in romantic, escapist fiction of this ilk, Eloise has to come to terms with the consequences of her choices.

Eloise and Phillip's love story is one of conscious choice, wherein the decision is made over and over to fight for the success of their unorthodox relationship. In many respects, these two couldn't be more different, their marriage a study in work and compromise. Quinn handles the impact of Marina's depression on her family with a compassionate touch, sketching the heartbreaking effect such an illness can have on those within its orbit. Therefore, Phillip's response to Eloise felt incredibly authentic, his relief at marrying a passionate, capable woman masking his reticence to deal with his own emotional issues. Once again Quinn crafts a romance that takes the relationship far beyond the physical, here delving into trickier emotional waters, forcing her leads to work through their respective fears and commit to each other and the health of their marriage.

Quinn has never been one to shy away from weightier issues in her romances (i.e., illegitimacy in An Offer From a Gentleman or parental death/mortality in The Viscount Who Loved Me), but this volume feels more somber in tone, perhaps due to circumstances surround Marina's death and Phillip's young children. Although less effortlessly humorous, less effervescent than its predecessors, Eloise's story stands out for its emotional resonance and the unorthodox origin of her love story. While the Bridgerton clan is largely absent from this tale, their presence is always felt, as Eloise discovers anew the import and gift that is her familial legacy as she scripts her own life story. The tale of a woman determined to live life on her own terms and a man broken by his past, To Sir Phillip, With Love, is a tribute to the dreamers and the risk-takers among us, those with the courage to seize their dreams and the passion to see them succeed, one of Quinn's best portraits of marriage and commitment.

About the book:

She wrote him a letter...and he stole her heart.

Sir Phillip knew that Eloise Bridgerton was a spinster, so he proposed, figuring that she'd be more than a little desperate for an offer of marriage. Except...she wasn't. The beautiful woman on his doorstep was anything but quiet, and when she stopped talking enough to close her mouth, all he wanted to do was kiss her...and more.

Did he think she was mad? Eloise Bridgerton couldn't marry a man she had never met! But then she started thinking...and wondering...and before she knew it, she was on her way to meet the man she hoped might be her perfect match. Except...he wasn't. Her perfect husband wouldn't be so moody and ill-mannered, totally unlike the London gentlemen vying for her hand. But when he smiled...and when he kissed her...the rest of the world simply fell away. Could this imperfect man be perfect for her?

Note: This is a (very slightly edited!) re-post of my review of To Sir Phillip, With Love from May 2014. As I've mentioned in my previous posts,  I'm determined that this shall be the year I finish the Bridgerton books, so next up is my review of the finally-read sixth installment of the series.

Review: Romancing Mister Bridgerton by Julia Quinn

Romancing Mister Bridgerton (Bridgertons #4)
By: Julia Quinn
Publisher: Harper Collins


Exactly two days before her sixteenth birthday, Miss Penelope Featherington fell desperately, irrevocably in love with Colin Bridgerton. The shy, quiet, awkward, and plump Penelope fell and fell hard for the dashing, devil-may-care brother of her best friend Eloise -- a love that was destined to remain unrequited (and undiminished) for the next twelve years. Never considered a social success (the infamous Lady Whistledown once memorably described a younger Penelope as resembling an "overripe citrus fruit"), and now rapidly approaching her twenty-eight birthday, Penelope has resigned herself to being considered firmly "on the shelf." She's embraced her impending, perpetual spinsterhood with a great deal of equanimity -- or so she thinks, until Colin returns from his latest round of travels and the gossip begins to swirl once again around the Bridgerton family's most eligible -- and determined to remain so -- bachelor. When she stumbles upon Colin's dearest secret, she begins to wonder if she's ever really known the man she's loved for nearly half her life -- and if she can trust him with a secret of her own.

Colin Bridgerton leads a charmed life and he knows it -- but that is precisely what irks him most. A popular mainstay in Whistledown's columns, Colin is renowned for his easy-going nature and perpetual good humor, but he's desperate for something more substantial than the social regard of the ton. As the third Bridgerton son, he finds himself well provided for but lacking purpose, a void he despairs of ever filling until his little sister's best friend stumbles upon his travel journals. Her passion for his writing -- and his surprising passion for her approval -- awakens within him an awareness of Penelope as an individual, a woman whose quick wit, intelligence, and compassion he finds himself craving like never before. But the unassuming Penelope harbors a secret of her own, one that Colin fears could destroy her in the eyes of the ton -- a fate from which he's determined to save her. For the confirmed bachelor and traveler has discovered the rarest of jewels in his very own backyard, one he's determined to make his own -- a gorgeous, blossoming wallflower.

Since first discovering Julia Quinn's superb -- and highly addictive -- Bridgerton series earlier this year, I've attempted to make my first read-through of the series last as long as possible in order to prolong the enjoyment of discovery. But I'm quickly discovering that is a losing battle, because the more I read Quinn's writing the more I crave, and when I finished the the third Bridgerton novel -- An Offer From a Gentleman -- and realized that Colin's story was next, I dived into it immediately. Colin fast became a favorite character of mine from the moment of his first introduction in The Duke and I, with his irrepressible good humor and penchant for (lovingly) needling his siblings, particularly brothers Anthony and Benedict. While each Bridgerton book can stand alone, as far as reading these novels as a series goes Romancing Mister Bridgerton offers readers a huge pay-off, a love letter to anyone who has ever felt overlooked, undervalued, and dared to love impossibly.

Quinn is a master at developing a heart-stopping romance that develops out of friendship and mutual interest. The Bridgerton books are smart romances, where that elusive spark of intellect and delight in one another's companionship play just as much a role -- usually more so -- than simple physical attraction (which, never fear, Colin and Penelope share in spades regardless). Penelope is a heroine for anyone who has ever been a wallflower, who has ever struggled to shine in company and whose greatest desire is to be known and loved for oneself above all. Quinn has touched on this issue to some degree in each of the previous Bridgerton books -- after all, being "recognized" and claimed by one's true love is a mainstay trope of the romance genre -- but here she delves into her deepest exploration yet of the facades one constructs in order to protect one's heart, whether perennially popular like Colin or painfully shy like Penelope. I particularly loved how Colin had to work through a sense of shame in admitting his dissatisfaction with his (admittedly) blessed life. In lesser hands he would have easily come off as a petulant child instead of a swoon-worthy hero, but Quinn's deft characterization results in an honest exploration of the depths of his struggle to find personal fulfillment and purpose.

In addition to her superb character and relationship development, Quinn positively excels at peppering her novels with with a host of delightful supporting players, from detestable villains like Penelope's arch-nemesis Cressida Twombley to the warmth and individuality of the Bridgerton siblings. But here she brings fearsome society matriarch Lady Danbury to the fore, with her audacious bet offering a thousand pounds to the member of the ton that uncovers Lady Whistledown's true identity. That bet serves as the spark that ignites an unlikely -- and utterly delightful -- friendship between Lady Danbury and Penelope, one in which the older woman's strength and no-nonsense wisdom gives a late blooming wallflower the boldness and confidence to shine.

Woven throughout Colin and Penelope's story is the search for Lady Whistledown's true identity, and an examination of that columnist's impact on their lives and more importantly, their perceptions of each other. As I mentioned earlier, this novel offers a huge pay-off for series fans in that regard -- but as a culmination, if you will, of the previous three books, there is a great deal of recapping that occasionally slows the pace of this otherwise effervescent tale. That very slight issue aside, Romancing Mister Bridgerton is Quinn at her best -- effervescent, breezy writing, a whip-smart sense of humor, and a sizzling romance made up of equal parts passion and intellect. For, as Lady Danbury tells Penelope, "Isn't it nice to discover that we're not exactly what we thought we were?" -- and therein lies the utter magic of this charming read. Colin and Penelope's slow-burning love story, founded on friendship and mutual interests, is a study in the heady, transforming power of love's ability to bring out the best in a couple. A romance to savor, Romancing Mister Bridgerton is a love letter to romantics, escapist wish fulfillment, yes, but a fantasy laced with a heart-tugging exploration of the risk and joy found in emotional honesty.

About the book:

Penelope Featherington has secretly adored her best friend's brother for . . . well, it feels like forever. After half a lifetime of watching Colin Bridgerton from afar, she thinks she knows everything about him, until she stumbles across his deepest secret . . . and fears she doesn't know him at all.

Colin Bridgerton is tired of being thought nothing but an empty-headed charmer, tired of everyone's preoccupation with the notorious gossip columnist Lady Whistledown, who can't seem to publish an edition without mentioning him in the first paragraph. But when Colin returns to London from a trip aboard he discovers nothing in his life is quite the same—especially Penelope Featherington! The girl haunting his dreams. But when he discovers that Penelope has secrets of her own, this elusive bachelor must decide . . . is she his biggest threat—or his promise of a happy ending?

Note: This is a (very slightly edited!) re-post of my review of Romancing Mister Bridgerton from March 2014. As I've mentioned in my previous posts,  I'm determined that this shall be the year I finish the Bridgerton books, so expect a re-post of the fifth book in the series before I dive into new-to-me Quinn reads soon! 

Review: An Offer From a Gentleman by Julia Quinn

An Offer From a Gentleman (Bridgertons #3)
By: Julia Quinn
Publisher: Harper Collins


From her earliest childhood memories, Sophie Beckett knew the truth of her parentage, and as a consequence, her place relative to the world of the rarefied English ton -- strictly outside the elite ranks of that social whirl. As the bastard daughter of the Earl of Penwood, Sophie knew she rested behind the thinnest veneer of respectability -- claimed as the earl's ward, but with the truth of her parentage writ clear on her features, until her tenth year Sophie enjoyed a life that, although lacking the emotional security of family ties that she craved, provided for the physical needs of food, shelter, and education. But everything changed when her father married a widow with two daughters, and Araminta, the new countess, taught Sophie what it meant to be shamed for possessing antecedents beyond her control. For four years, the girl was further ostracized, hated by the woman she'd hoped to look on as a mother and ridiculed by her daughters Rosamund and Posy. With the earl's sudden passing, Sophie found herself unacknowledged and penniless, thrust into a life of servitude, at the mercy of Araminta's every whim. Six years pass, her dreams worn thin under the grinding heel of Araminta's shoe, when invitations to the famed Bridgerton masquerade ball arrive, Sophie seizes the chance to, for just one night, be something more than a scorned illegitimate daughter -- to be just her, a woman reborn, a world of possibilities at her feet. It was just one night -- and one night couldn't possibly cause any harm. But sneaking into the masquerade, arrayed in a dazzling silver gown, Sophie underestimated the power of one night to transform her life forever, for she never counted on meeting Benedict Bridgerton...

Benedict, the tall, lanky, impossibly handsome second Bridgerton, is heartily sick of society in general and his mother Violet's matchmaking schemes in particular. But when he spies a mysterious woman in silver at his mother's masquerade, he knows his life has changed forever -- for this woman, known to him only by her winsome smile and electrifying presence, over the course of one brief encounter, captures his heart forever. When she flees the ball, leaving only a monogrammed glove as a clue to her identity, he's devastated, and spends months searching for her among the ton, to no avail. And as the months become years, he becomes convinced his once chance at a love match to rival his parents' has passed -- sure, that is, until he rescues housemaid Sophie Beckett from the unwelcome advances of her employer at a country party. But Sophie is a servant, a wholly unsuitable match for the younger brother of a viscount...isn't she? Be that as it may, she's the only woman to make his heart sing since the long-ago masquerade, and so he proposes an audacious scheme -- Sophie will become his mistress. However, Benedict never reckoned on Sophie's horror of inflicting her illegitimacy on a possible child, or the secrets she's been holding dear. When the truth is finally revealed, will true love conquer all, or will social conventions shatter the promise of a love that flowered one magical night, when a masquerade gave an unlikely pair the courage to reveal their hearts?

The more I read Julia Quinn, the more I become convinced that this woman can do no wrong. The Bridgertons have quickly become one of my all-time favorite fictional families, and with this third installment, Quinn blends her trademark warmth, wit, and humor with a fairy tale retelling that is at once both literal and wholly new. The Duke and I and The Viscount Who Loved Me, which showcased the love stories of Benedict's sister Daphne and brother Anthony, respectively, are essential fairy tales in and of themselves -- delightfully romantic, humorous, heartfelt confections that establish Quinn as a gold standard in romance. But with An Offer From a Gentleman, Quinn takes the conceit one step further, weaving the tropes of the Cinderella story -- the evil stepmother and stepsisters, shoes, a ball, secret identities -- into the Bridgerton world and making the classic tale her own.

Lest her retelling become too literal, Quinn introduces Sophie and Benedict, sparks fly -- and then circumstances conspire to keep the would-be lovers apart for two years. And this time jump is one of the things that impressed me the most about this retelling of Cinderella, revealing Quinn's determination to thoroughly test the fairy tale trope of love at first sight to the max. Both Sophie and Benedict construct ideals, fantasies that arguably see the best potential in each other but just as arguably fall short of reality. For Sophie's determination to keep her secret reveals the great irony of the title -- Benedict's offer to make Sophie the maid his mistress means that in perhaps the most important aspect of their relationship-- respect of Sophie as an individual, regardless of social station -- that he is no gentleman. His pressure to get Sophie to acquiesce to his plan is inexcusable and short-sighted, but it's a testament to Quinn's characterization and plotting that he still emerges as a hero worthy of keeping company with Simon and Anthony. This Bridgerton, of the charmed life, loving family, and hidden artistic bent, is desperate to be known and loved as an individual, yet is just as susceptible to the social pressure to marry well until he realizes that in Sophie he has a woman who'd love him if he were a pauper -- and how, therefore, could he do any less in return?

Perhaps it is the comfort of familiarity, but with each successive installment that I read of Quinn's Bridgerton series I fall more and more in love with this delightfully quirky, passionate, close-knit family. Even more than the previous two installments, this novel showcases their legendary family bond, and gives their matriarch Violet a chance to shine, far beyond merely urging each of her children in turn towards matrimony. It could be tempting, with Quinn's breezy writing style and irrepressible sense of humor, to gloss over the weightier themes of family and belonging, of seeing, being seen, and being truly accepted as one is, that she explores within the pages of Benedict and Sophie's story, but that is what makes her books such gems. She blends the heady flush of new romance with a refreshingly honest look at what it takes to make a relationship last beyond the thrill of discovery and the first rush of passion. An Offer From a Gentleman is romantic escapism at its finest, yes -- but escapism laced with thought-provoking nuggets shedding light on identity, self-worth, and the respect of one another required to make a relationship work that once again elevates Quinn's storytelling from the realms of the ordinary to the extraordinary.

About the book:

Sophie Beckett never dreamed she′d be able to sneak into Lady Bridgerton′s famed masquerade ball - or that "Prince Charming" would be waiting there for her! Though the daughter of an earl, Sophie has been relegated to the role of servant by her disdainful stepmother. But now, spinning in the strong arms of the debonair and devastatingly handsome Benedict Bridgerton, she feels like royalty. Alas, she knows all enchantments must end when the clock strikes midnight.

Who was that extraordinary woman? Ever since that magical night, a radiant vision in silver has blinded Benedict to the attractions of any other - except, perhaps, this alluring and oddly familiar beauty dressed in housemaid′s garb whom he feels compelled to rescue from a most disagreeable situation. He has sworn to find and wed his mystery miss, but this breathtaking maid makes him weak with wanting her. Yet, if he offers her his heart, will Benedict sacrifice his only chance for a fairy tale love?

So, I know the costumes aren't right, but hey when we're talking fairy tale casting who cares about accuracy, eh? All while I was reading An Offer From a Gentleman (and this opinion still stands!) I kept picturing Benedict and Sophie as Richard Chamberlain and Gemma Craven from my beloved 1976 version of Cinderella, The Slipper and the Rose.

I mean look at this profile -- does that scream artistic, brooding aristocrat or what? :)

Note: This is a (very slightly edited!) re-post of my review of An Offer From a Gentleman from March 2014. As I've mentioned in my previous posts,  I'm determined that this shall be the year I finish the Bridgerton books, so expect re-posts of my reviews of for the next two Bridgerton novels soon!

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Review: The Viscount Who Loved Me by Julia Quinn

The Viscount Who Loved Me (Bridgertons #2)
By: Julia Quinn
Publisher: HarperCollins


At eighteen, Anthony Bridgerton -- the eldest of the expansive family's brood of eight -- assumed the mantle of leadership in his family following his beloved father's untimely death. As the firstborn, Anthony viewed his father as a larger-than-life figure, a constant north star, the man against all others -- including himself -- could be measured and found wanting. To lose such a man to a freak accident like a bee sting was a tragedy even an eighteen-year-old Anthony could barely fathom, and holding his father in such esteem, Anthony instinctively determined that there was no way he could surpass his father even in years -- therefore he must be destined to die at thirty-eight. With that deadline looming over his life, Anthony threw himself into the position of surrogate father and head-of-household with a fervor born of his desire to honor his father and his own deep and abiding love for his close-knit family. But it was with a very different kind of fervor he set himself to embrace all the vice and passions offered to a leading member of the ton, and in the process earned a reputation as one of London's most unrepentant rakes. However, when Anthony realizes he is a mere ten years away from that fateful age of thirty-eight, he decides that this season he must finally embrace his familial duty and at long last take a bride and have an heir. His one stipulation is that the woman in question must be one he could never love, for love would make his inevitable mortality unbearable. And so he sets his sights on this season's jewel, Edwina Sheffield -- she's beautiful and kind but leaves him cold, the perfect bride -- but he never counted on Edwina's older sister to be equal parts interfering and alluring...

At twenty-one, Kate Sheffield is finally enjoying her first season in London -- or she would be, if she was viewed as more than the radiant Edwina's older sister. Kate is resigned to the fact that she'll likely end a spinster, and that her younger half-sister will be the one to save her family from an unenviable future of genteel poverty. She doesn't resent her sister's beauty or acclaim, but rather she resolves to use her position as the older sibling to make sure that Edwina marries well -- more than a wealthy man, Kate wants her sister to marry a good one. And thanks to the infamous Lady Whistledown's gossip column, she's positive that Anthony Bridgerton is the last man in the world who could make her sister happy.  When Kate meets Anthony, sparks fly -- she's determined to protect her sister from a rake of the worst sort (never mind his smoldering glances and smiles that turn her weak in the knees!) while he's maddened by her intractable opinion on his character and therefore his marriage to Edwina (never mind that it's her sister's lips he wants to kiss and whose image, uninvited, fills his dreams). Viscount Bridgerton will marry a Sheffield -- the only question is, will it be the sister he's chosen or the one who drives him mad, whose self-proclaimed mission in life is to foil his plans?

After falling in love with the quirky, exuberant Bridgerton clan in The Duke and I -- my introduction to Julia Quinn's writing -- I knew I wouldn't be able to long resist the pull to revisit their world. Everything I loved in Daphne and Simon's story reappears here in Anthony's tale -- the warmth, wit, and humor that I'm fast learning is a hallmark of Quinn's effervescent writing. From the first moments of Anthony and Kate's introduction, I was powerfully reminded of the spark that characterizes one of my all-time favorite romances -- that of Beatrice and Benedick in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, with perhaps just a dash of the fire that sparks between another Kate and her unwanted suitor Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew. Here Quinn takes the familiar trope of warring, would-be lovers and breathes fresh life into it through her whip-smart characterizations and the situations -- from the ridiculous to the sublimely romantic -- that gradually weave a seductive web around Anthony and Kate, forcing them each to realize the one truth they'd rather die than admit -- that they just might be each other's perfect match.

I had some trouble buying Kate's self-proclaimed role as gatekeeper of her sister's future, particularly since she has such a warm relationship with her stepmother Mary, and Edwina never appears to be lacking for commonsense. That aside, Quinn sketches Kate's insecurities regarding her own self-worth and desirability with a sensitive brush. In a less accomplished author's hands, Kate's qualms, her self-image issues and fears could have become a farce, but as Kate begins to fall in love with Anthony, Quinn's deft characterization illuminates the fears, doubts, and self-image issues that have caused Kate to buy into the lie that she is somehow less than her beloved sister and makes her transformation all the sweeter. It's a delicate balance to achieve, but Quinn is a master at tapping into one's most closely-held doubts and fears, and seeing them excised on the page with warmth and compassion.

Overcoming fear is an over-arching theme throughout the novel -- not only Kate's fears of rejection, but Anthony's fear of his own mortality, birthed out of his beloved father's death. I loved Quinn's honest treatment of fear and grief here, for no matter the cause, she never belittles its oft-times crippling impact. As someone who has often fought her own battle with fear, I loved Quinn's honest, compassionate portrayal of such. As I discovered in The Duke and I, her often frothy, humorous writing belies the weightier subject matter she introduces as obstacles in her romances -- there she touched on the subject of the emotional abuse Simon suffered as a child, while here she delves into the emotional toll losing a parent has exacted on both Anthony and Kate's lives, and the danger in allowing one's fears to dictate how one lives life, and the liberty found in opening oneself to love, affirmation, and healing. It would've been easy, given the subject of Anthony's fears, to have his character seem less than "heroic," given the emotional component and the expectations of heroes to live up to their alpha potential in novels of this ilk. But in the hands of a master craftsman like Quinn, Anthony's character shines with depth, all the more alluring for the honesty with which his reluctant, unexpected love story inspires him to transform his life.

Quinn's trademark humor and breezy, fast-paced writing style make her second installment of the Bridgerton series shine. While Anthony and Kate's budding relationship is a tick more physical (*ahem*) initially than the intellectual camaraderie that characterized Daphne and Simon's early encounters, Quinn is fast proving herself to be a master at crafting relationships ultimately founded on a bedrock of emotional and intellectual compatibility. And for all Kate and Anthony relish trading verbal jabs when they first meet, it's their journey from adversaries to lovers, with a friendship founded on respect and honesty, and of, as Kate resolves, making the conscious decision to fall in love anew every single day that made my heart sing. The absolutely delightful dynamic between the close-knit Bridgertons, from the infamous Pall Mall game to the delicious, needling camaraderie between Anthony and his younger brothers (oh, I cannot WAIT for Colin's story!), the humorous antics of Kate's beloved corgi Newton -- all these elements are just the proverbial icing on the cake. The Viscount Who Loved Me is a thoroughly engaging, swoon-worthy love story -- a romance crafted of equal parts passion and intellect, Anthony and Kate's reluctant romance is a story to cherish.

About the book:

1814 promises to be another eventful season, but not, This Author believes, for Anthony Bridgerton, London's most elusive bachelor, who has shown no indication that he plans to marry. And in all truth, why should he? When it comes to playing the consummate rake, nobody does it better...
--Lady Whistledown's Society Papers, April 1814

But this time the gossip columnists have it wrong. Anthony Bridgerton hasn't just decided to marry--he's even chosen a wife! The only obstacle is his intended's older sister, Kate Sheffield--the most meddlesome woman ever to grace a London ballroom. The spirited schemer is driving Anthony mad with her determination to stop the betrothal, but when he closes his eyes at night, Kate's the woman haunting his increasingly erotic dreams...

Contrary to popular belief, Kate is quite sure that reformed rakes to not make the best husbands--and Anthony Bridgerton is the most wicked rogue of them all. Kate's determined to protect her sister--but she fears her own heart is vulnerable. And when Anthony's lips touch hers, she's suddenly afraid she might not be able to resist the reprehensible rake herself...

Note: This is a (very slightly edited!) re-post of my review of The Viscount Who Loved Me from February 2014. I'm determined that this shall be the year I finish the Bridgerton books, so expect other re-posts of my reviews of the next few Bridgerton novels in the coming days!

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Review: The Duke & I by Julia Quinn

The Duke & I (Bridgertons #1)
By: Julia Quinn
Publisher: HarperCollins


In the midst of her second Season, Daphne - the eldest girl in the Bridgerton family of eight -- has all but given up on the hope of making a love match. Daphne is the girl that everyone likes, that everyone wants to be friends with -- always the chum, the good sport, but never the lover inspiring flowery declarations of passionate intent. But Daphne's closely-held dream of a loving husband and family, her desire to not settle, and her reluctance to compete in the Season's Marriage Market threatens to make her the bane of her loving mother Violet's existence. Violet, after all, must think beyond her eldest daughter's reluctance to make a match to the three girls waiting in the wings to make their own debuts. When Daphne meets the newly-minted and arrived in London Duke of Hastings, Simon Basset, she's alternately maddened by his haughty demeanor and unsettled by his direct, passionate gaze. The infamous rake is her oldest brother Anthony's long-time best friend, the type of man a good society miss avoids at all costs -- until he makes an intriguing offer, one that promises a blessed reprieve from her marriage-minded mama -- but with the unintended side effect of imperiling her heart.

Only one thing could induce Simon to forsake his world travels and return to London -- his estranged father's death. The old duke made Simon's life a torment from childhood, belittling the boy for his stammer, leaving him to be raised by servants and forge a successful path in life through sheer force of will -- the will to prove his hated sire wrong. However, he was not prepared for the attention his new title brought to his personal life as Ambitious Mamas flocked to his side to introduce their debutante daughters. When Simon meets Daphne, he's shocked by how quickly she puts him at ease, intrigue colored with a desire to possess her beauty -- until he learns that she's Anthony's sister, which places her in the Strictly Forbidden category of romantic dalliances. Even so, he cannot resist suggesting an audacious scheme -- he'll pay court to Daphne, ostensibly removing himself from the Marriage Market, and she'll become more desirable than ever by virtue of being associated with London's newest duke. But when the fake courtship gives birth to real attachment, lines are crossed -- could marriage between the girl no one wanted and the duke determined to die alone become a love affair for the social record book?

After several years of two very dear friends telling me I'd love Julia Quinn's Regency romances, I finally decided to give The Duke and I a try, and I'm SO glad I did. The first installment in Quinn's popular Bridgerton series sparkles with wit, warmth, and a genuine emotional and intellectual connection that goes far deeper than any physical attraction that sparks between the duke and Daphne. I've read reviews comparing Quinn to Jane Austen, and while Quinn's sly humor and sharp characterizations were certainly inspired by Austen, I think a more apt comparison would liken Quinn to Georgette Heyer, with a dash of the chick-lit sensibilities found in the likes of Hester Browne's or Jill Mansell's novels. In other words, The Duke and I is a clever, funny, warm-hearted romp through Regency England with a romance that will take your breath away and an unexpectedly deep emotional resonance between its hero and heroine -- this is, refreshingly, the story of a physical, emotional, and intellectual union of complementary equals.

I adored the family dynamic exhibited here -- the Bridgertons are the type of sprawling fictional family I love to read about. The may fight and squabble but they are loyal to a fault (as Simon quickly learns even during the early days of his "faux courtship" with Daphne). Although this is very much Daphne's story, Quinn does an excellent job introducing the siblings that will feature in later installments. From the rakish Colin, newly-returned from Europe, to Anthony the eldest, nearly driving himself batty attempting to navigate the Marriage Mart as a very eligible viscount while shepherding his strong-willed family through society's social whirl, to the precocious ten-year-old Hyacinth, whose outspoken wisdom beyond her years marks her as a force to be reckoned with once she comes of age. And I adore their mother, Violet! At first I feared she was Mrs. Bennet reborn, but her occasional flighty absent-mindedness masks the razor sharp wit and intelligence required to survive as matriarch to the lively Bridgerton children.

Although Daphne and Simon's journey from courtship to marriage covers only the span of a few short weeks, I loved the emphasis Quinn placed on their intellectual and emotional compatibility. Yes, they each are highly appreciative of the other's fine form, but what makes their romance make my heart sing is how they are both so utterly disarmed and genuinely comfortable in each other's company. Looks may fade with time, but personality is forever, eh? And while keeping with the fact that since this is a mainstream historical romance there are some spicy scenes, refreshingly those occur after marriage. I was really impressed by how Quinn touched on the intimacies of the marital relationship making each partner vulnerable to the other, and how that trust, if lost (speaking of misunderstanding, not abuse) can create a painful rift. Daphne and Simon's commitment to each other, despite their marriage's rocky start and subsequent misunderstandings, is the hook that got me so emotionally invested in this couple and kept my fingers flying to turn the pages.

Quinn possesses a delightfully breezy writing style that oft-times belies the serious issues of emotional weight that she addresses within the pages of Simon and Daphne's story. The prologue, revealing Simon's tragic childhood, reads with the matter of fact tone of a dark fairy tale, one leaving readers to question the possibility of the tortured heir's future happiness. The warmth and humor with which she imbues this romance makes the heart of The Duke and I all the more compelling and memorable, because Quinn doesn't shy away from the difficult issues that could make or break a marriage. Even if her breezy writing style lends itself to playing a *bit* fast and loose with period mannerisms, that is forgivable since The Duke and I is thoroughly engaging, romance for the heart and the mind at its finest. This is wholly memorable, utterly delightful introduction to the Bridgerton clan -- and with the added mystery of the mysterious gossip columnist Lady Whistledown's true identity, whose quips are peppered throughout the novel -- I cannot WAIT to revisit this family in subsequent novels.

About the book:

Can there be any greater challenge to London's Ambitious Mamas than an unmarried duke? -- Lady Whistledown's Society Papers, April 1813

Simon Basset, the irresistible Duke of Hastings, has hatched a plan to keep himself free from the town′s marriage-minded society mothers. He pretends to be engaged to the lovely Daphne Bridgerton. After all, it isn′t as if the brooding rogue has any real plans to marry - though there is something about the alluring Miss Bridgerton that sets Simon′s heart beating a bit faster. And as for Daphne, surely the clever debutante will attract some very worthy suitors now that it seems a duke has declared her desirable. But as Daphne waltzes across ballroom after ballroom with Simon, she soon forgets that their courtship is a complete sham. And now she has to do the impossible and keep herself from losing her heart and soul completely to the handsome hell-raiser who has sworn off marriage forever!

Note: This is a (very slightly edited!) re-post of my review of The Duke & I from January 2014. I'm determined that this shall be the year I finish the Bridgerton books, so expect other re-posts of my reviews of the next few Bridgerton novels in the coming days!

Monday, January 4, 2016

Review: Falling Stars by Loretta Chase

Falling Stars
By: Loretta Chase
Publisher: NYLA


Driven by a restless longing he cannot define, Marcus Greyson arrives at his brother's home just in time for Christmas, only to be confronted by the woman who'd broken his heart years earlier. Ten years ago, Marcus had been a callow twenty-four year old youth, brash and outspoken, a social reject. Christina Travers was all that is prim and proper, just eighteen and ill-prepared to resist the magnetic force of Marcus's personality and regard. Over the course of two weeks they fell madly in love -- but when Christina refused to run away with him, they parted in anger -- Marcus going on to make his fortune and reputation, Christina to a happy marriage and two daughters. Now a widow, Christina is determined to reclaim her independence and raise her children as she wishes, free from the influence of her late husband's sisters. Marcus isn't about to let the one woman who truly broke his heart upset his life, and the last thing Christina wants is to reignite a the flame of a youthful indiscretion she's sure is much better left buried. But over the course of one magical Christmas, the ties that once bound two young lovers may prove to be the most irresistible gift of all...

Falling Stars is a gorgeously wrought reminder of everything I love about Loretta Chase's writing, wrapped up with a sparkling bow of holiday cheer. This story of second chances and love renewed just shines from start to finish, it's greatest crime being that it is "only" novella-length. This is a story I would have happily lost myself in for triple the time. Every revelation, every scene between Marcus and Christina sparks with romantic chemistry. This is a tale of two people who, after the wound of their initial failed romance, went on to live full, rewarding lives -- they didn't live with regret, but when they are reunited, the spark and connection that once bound them cannot be denied. It's especially refreshing to see a heroine like Christina who made the mature, difficult decision to leave Marcus, lived and loved, and now finds the promise of a renewed romance with Marcus more than ever before the possibility of a union of intellectual and emotional equals.

Chase's gift for razor-sharp characterizations and relationship development are on full display here. Her romances shine because its never just about a physical element, though that is present -- her lovers are deliciously equatable, often-bickering, equals. Perhaps the best surprise is the role Christina's children play in rekindling her romance -- the small children in a romance trope can wear thin quickly in less capable hands, but here Marcus's interactions with her two precocious daughters is absolutely ADORABLE. Watching this gruff, independent man fall so convincingly under the charms of the two girls positively melted my heart.

Falling Stars is the perfect introduction to Chase's novels for those who have yet to fall under the spell of her swoon-worthy, laugh-out-loud romances. This is a sparkling gem of a story to savor, one I'll happily revisit. Chase is an absolute pro, her books instant classics, never failing (yet, at any rate) to deliver an unforgettable romance wrapped in warmth and humor, grounded in the mores and manners of history. The perfect dose of winter romance escapism, Falling Stars more than lives up to its enchanting premise. I adore it!

About the book:

New York Times bestselling author, Loretta Chase shares an enchanting Regency Christmas novella about romance, forgiveness… and a second chance for a once-in-a-lifetime love. 

Ten years ago, dashing Marcus Greyson and na├»ve Christina Travers fell madly in love—and parted in anger. Now, wiser and more seasoned, both know better than to trust the wayward impulses of the heart.

But some feelings never fade; and the joys of Christmas and family just might rekindle a certain, special spark…

This novella was previously published in A Christmas Collection anthology.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Review: One Enchanted Christmas by Melissa Tagg

One Enchanted Christmas
By: Melissa Tagg


Despite being a mystery author, Maren Grant has an incorrigible romantic streak, and one magical December evening she met Colin Renwycke, the model gracing the cover of her debut...and her heart was lost. The character she'd imagined and sacrificed to bring to life on the page had a flesh-and-blood face and a charming manner, and after one snow-kissed date dreams of the possibility of romance with Colin took up permanent residence in Maren's heart. But one year later, with no follow-up date and a looming deadline, fearing her debut will prove she was a one hit wonder, Maren takes her craziest leap of faith yet. Remembering Colin's offer of the use of his family farm as a writing retreat, she shows up, hoping to spark story inspiration and reconnect with Colin. But she didn't expect no Colin, instead finding his brother Drew, determined to stake claim to the family's land and reunite his wayward siblings. Despite the unexpected family drama, Maren stays, and gradually her hope that Colin will return gives way to an unexpected contentment in Drew's company...will the last thing either of them wished for or expected be the greatest Christmas gift either has ever received?

This story has a charm that others of its ilk can only aspire to -- warmth, humor, swoon-worthy romance, and a dash of Christmas magic. I desperately need Hallmark to make this into a Christmas movie, because within these pages Tagg hits it out of the park on all fronts with a cinematic flair. Those who, like myself, love the Gilmore Girls, will find themselves comfortably at home within these pages as Maple Valley has all of the charm and quirkiness of Stars Hollow, and best of all, Drew bears a suspicious spiritual familiarity to one reticent, flannel-loving coffee shop owner/handyman. *wink*

Tagg's books have long been on my radar, but thanks to time and the ever-increasing height of my TBR pile, have yet to be read...but One Enchanted Christmas has left me more determined than ever to rectify that oversight. In less careful hands novellas can seem like afterthoughts, deleted scenes excerpted from a larger work without thought to how they are received as a whole. Happily that is far from the case here, as Tagg delivers one of the most well-rounded, wholly satisfying novellas I've yet to read. This is aided by her choice to use an unnamed narrator to fill in the missing scenes, adding an extra dash of humor, fleshing out the storyline, thus allowing it to remain within the length requirements of a novella. This is a story with warmth, wit, heart-rending family conflict, and a deliciously satisfying romance. Maren and Drew's enchanted holiday is an utter charmer, escapist fiction that captures the warmth and romantic possibilities of the season with a deft, irresistible touch. Hallmark, I hope you're listening, because I NEED this to be a movie next Christmas!

About the book:

Last December, mystery author Maren Grant had the most perfect night of her life. On a glimmering winter evening, she got to watch the photo shoot for her very first book and ended up on a magical date with the cover model himself—Colin Renwycke.

Fast forward one year. This December, with a looming deadline, restless spirit and her creative spark long since gone, Maren is desperate to get unstuck. And she can’t get Colin out of her head…or his year-old open invitation to spend a couple weeks writing at his family’s farm.

Drew Renwycke never planned to come home and take over the Renwycke family farm. But he’s spent too many years watching his siblings unravel, including his brother, Colin, after one terrible family mistake. If moving to Maple Valley, Iowa, renovating an old farmhouse and switching careers is what it takes to put the Renwycke family back together, he’ll do it.

But his simple plan upends when a scrappy author lands on his doorstep. And she just might be the key to coaxing his brother home. But what if he wants her all to himself? Drew will have to choose between his Christmas wish and the enchantment of a holiday romance that just might be the happy ending they all long for.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Review: A Singular & Whimsical Problem by Rachel McMillan

A Singular & Whimsical Problem (Herringford & Watts #0.5)
By: Rachel McMillan
Publisher: Harvest House
ASIN: B017WQ26U6


In an era when most women aspired to the comforts of hearth, home, and marriage, Merinda Herringford and Jem Watts prefer to spend their time solving mysteries rather than perfecting their cooking skills or learning to stitch a straight hem. Taking their inspiration from the most famous fictional detective of the day, Sherlock Holmes, Merinda and Jem are well on their way to becoming Toronto's most notorious bachelor girls, their exploits chronicled in the Hogtown Herald. But the fame of their fictional idol does not come easily, as their desire to help the unfortunate -- who often cannot pay -- war with the necessity of bills and food. But when the wife of a wealthy shipping magnate begs their help in finding her lost cat Pepper, the girls have little reason to expect the mystery this wayward feline will lead them into, uncovering a far-reaching web of intrigue and danger that could make their reputation...if they can survive to bring the truth to light.

This slim novella is the introduction to McMillan's Herringford and Watts mysteries, if if this is any indication, Merinda and Jem's Holmesian adventures will be a welcome and sparkling addition to the ranks of cozy historicals. This is a cozy mystery to be sure, but one with a bit of bite, as sandwiched between the fluff of their search for a missing cat is a glimpse into a darker world kidnapping and exploitation, where those women without the benefit of family and resources find themselves at the mercy of unscrupulous predators.

For anyone who, like myself, loves stories of women who break societal boundaries, this all-too-brief introduction to Jem and Merinda's world is a promising start to McMillan's new series. While Merinda's favorite exclamation of "cracker jacks!" wears thin, the exuberance charm of this new world and the characters populating it cannot be denied. Following this rollicking, fast-paced debut, I am eagerly looking forward to following Jem and Merinda's further adventures!

About the book:

Christmas, 1910. Merinda Herringford and Jem Watts would be enjoying the season a lot more if they weren’t forced to do their own laundry and cooking. Just as they are adapting to their trusty housekeeper’s ill-timed vacation, they are confronted by the strangest mystery they’ve encountered since they started their private investigation firm.

In this bonus e-only novella, what begins as the search for a missing cat leads to a rabble-rousing suffragette and the disappearance of several young women from St. Jerome’s Reformatory for Incorrigible Females. From the women’s courts of City Hall to Toronto’s seedy docks and into the cold heart of the underground shipping industry, this will be the most exciting Christmas the girls have had yet…if they can stay alive long enough to enjoy it.