30 July 2013

The Skull and the Nightingale

Summary from Goodreads:
Michael Irwin’s The Skull and the Nightingale is a chilling and deliciously dark, literary novel of manipulation and sex, intrigue and seduction, set in 18th-century England.

When Richard Fenwick returns to London, his wealthy godfather, James Gilbert, has an unexpected proposition. Gilbert has led a sedate life in Worcestershire, but feels the urge to experience, even vicariously, the extremes of human feeling: love, passion, and something much more sinister.

It becomes apparent that Gilbert desires news filled with tales of carousing, flirtation, excess, and London’s more salacious side. But Gilbert’s elaborate and manipulative “experiments” into the workings of human behavior soon drag Richard into a Faustian vortex of betrayal and danger where lives are ruined and tragedy is only a step away.

With echoes of Dangerous Liaisons, Michael Irwin’s The Skull and the Nightingale is an urgent period drama that seduces the senses.

Fenwick returns to England fresh from his Grand Tour of the Continent in much the same position as he was when he left - dependent on his reclusive, distant godfather for an income.  When his godfather offers to fund Fenwick's lifestyle in return for detailed reports on his exploits, Fenwick doesn't even hesitate - he accepts.  He begins a round of socializing that begins as evenings of fairly benign carousing and, through his godfather's encouragement, grows slowly more debauched.

The Skull and the Nightingale was pitched to me because I liked Perfume: The Story of a Murderer and Les Liaisons Dangereuses and was tonally similar to The Crimson Petal and the White. And there are a lot of similarities in time period and tone. At one point in the novel almost every major character from Les Liaisons Dangereuses is represented (one of my status updates on Goodreads reads: "It just went all Dangerous Liaisons and I didn't even see it coming. Well played, Michael Irwin, well played."). Richardson's Clarissa, or, The History of a Young Lady - complete with the dick-tacular Lovelace - becomes a running thread when Fenwick buys the entire multi-volume novel and a pretty little bag in which to carry it home. The writing and multi-layered characters made for great reading.

This was a good book, a good read, but I wanted more: more grit, more dirt, more moral ambiguity. One of the things I loved about Perfume was how grimy and messy and gross and beautifully described it was.  Fenwick, the protagonist of The Skull and the Nightingale, is a handsome young man in mid-eighteenth century London, but he seems to pale next to more vivid characters of the time period.  He's too neat and conflicted compared to Lovelace and Valmont who both perform terrible acts in the course of their books, only asking for absolution at the very end.  I was hoping for some floundering about in drrrty, drrrty morally squalid London but it didn't dig quite deep enough, IMO.  Even a Falstaffian character doesn't go as far as the book promised.

I'm not quite sure what to think about the novel as a whole. I was fairly sure I knew how the novel would end...but then it did something different. Quite a bit different. And I haven't decided if I like the author's choices or not - it came down to the very last page.  You'll have to read it and decide.

Dear FTC: I received an advance copy of this novel from the publisher and a DRC via Edelweiss.

26 July 2013

Love and Other Scandals (Scandalous #1)

Summary from Goodreads:

Joan Bennet is tired of being a wallflower. Thanks to some deliciously scandalous—and infamous—stories, she has a pretty good idea of what she's missing as a spinster. Is even a short flirtation too much to ask for?

Tristan, Lord Burke, recognizes Joan at once for what she is: trouble. Not only is she his best friend's sister, she always seems to catch him at a disadvantage. The only way he can win an argument is by kissing her senseless. He'd give anything to get her out of her unflattering gowns. But either one of those could cost him his bachelor status, which would be dreadful—wouldn't it?

Miss Joan Bennet is just “too” – too tall, too plump, too witty, too badly dressed, and too tired of rakish gentlemen. One gentleman, Lord Burke, in particular. When Joan arrives at her brother’s townhouse to extract a promise to attend a ball – at their mother’s behest – the door is opened by a shirtless Lord Burke, given name Tristan. The two trade dozens of barbs as Joan extracts a written promise from her hung-over brother, Douglas, to attend the ball. Douglas, who has no desire to attend a ball/find a wife, begs Tristan to go after Joan and retrieve the paper from her. Tristan tracks Joan to a bookshop, intending to seduce the paper from her, only to find that Joan’s sharp tongue deftly blunts his swagger. When she flees without waiting for her purchase, Tristan agrees to deliver it…providing him with a weapon: Joan was purchasing the latest installment of “50 Ways to Sin”, a scandalous pamphlet certainly not intended for gently-bred unmarried ladies. Thus begins a round of flirtation and temptation as Tristan teases (or blackmails, depending on viewpoint) Joan over the pamphlet. His bachelor status is in no way threatened by such a dowdy Fury…but soon Tristan finds Joan’s witty conversation and sharp mind much to his liking. Once Joan finds a modiste to properly dress her and a new hairstyle Tristan is more or less struck by scandal – the scandal of a rake in love!

Joan is the stronger of the two characters. She is a well-developed and strong heroine who embodies that wonderful reality where, as a full-figured woman, once she realizes that she must wear what makes her look and feel good – as opposed to what is “fashionable” - she is that much more comfortable with herself. Her determination to learn about sensuality in the face of spinsterhood, hence the “50 Ways to Sin” pamphlet, is very relatable. Tristan is a good match for Joan, but he doesn’t seem to have as many dimensions. I would have liked a bit more exploration of his entrepreneurial side – the scene where he takes Joan through the house he is renovating was excellent. The resolution of the marriage plot is very sweet, a characteristic of Linden’s books that I like very much. I love suspenseful historicals but sometimes you just want to see a couple come together without the threat of imminent death to force the issue.

This novel has one weak spot and it comes early in the plot. Douglas is sent to oversee repairs at the family estate and the Bennet parents are forced to seek out Bath for Lady Bennet’s health leaving Joan behind in London. With her father’s “scandalous” sister Evangeline, who introduces Joan to a male modiste. And Douglas gets Tristan to promise to entertain Joan/look out for her in his stead. It’s an elaborate, and overly-contrived, set-up to get Joan and Tristan a lot of page time together and allow the family to return and express “rake disapproval” later. I think Linden could have done with just the parents leaving – since Douglas wouldn’t have been considered much of an appropriate chaperone given his own behavior – and got some mileage out of the conflict between Douglas and Tristan as Tristan-the-established-rake falls under Joan’s spell. Love and Other Scandals is the first novel in a new series from Caroline Linden – I hope we see a book for Douglas next!

24 July 2013

Living With Shakespeare: Actors, Directors, and Writers on Shakespeare in Our Time

Summary from Goodreads:
Why Shakespeare? What explains our continued fascination with his poems and plays? In Living with Shakespeare, Susannah Carson invites forty actors, directors, scholars, and writers to reflect on why his work is still such a vital part of our culture.

We hear from James Earl Jones on reclaiming Othello as a tragic hero, Julie Taymor on turning Prospero into Prospera, Camille Paglia on teaching the plays to actors, F. Murray Abraham on gaining an audience’s sympathy for Shylock, Sir Ben Kingsley on communicating Shakespeare’s ideas through performance, Germaine Greer on the playwright’s home life, Dame Harriet Walter on the complexity of his heroines, Brian Cox on social conflict in his time and ours, Jane Smiley on transposing King Lear to Iowa in A Thousand Acres, and Sir Antony Sher on feeling at home in Shakespeare’s language. Together these essays provide a fresh appreciation of Shakespeare’s works as a living legacy to be read, seen, performed, adapted, revised, wrestled with, and embraced by creative professionals and lay enthusiasts alike.

The only drawback to working in a bookstore is that your fellow booksellers very quickly figure out all your book soft spots.  So I silently cursed the merch manager when he very casually said "Oh, hey, there's a new book of Shakespeare essays and one of the contributors is Ralph Fiennes" and handed over my dollars.  The other bonus on this collection is that it was edited by Susannah Carson who previously worked on the Austen collection A Truth Universally Acknowledged.

Living With Shakespeare has a very good range of essays on Shakespeare as man, playwright, and the plays as entities separate from their author by actors, directors, scholars, and writers (similar to the breadth in her volume of essays on Austen). So many of the contributors have "lived" with Shakespeare in so many ways.  Eleanor Brown, who wrote the wonderful novel The Weird Sisters, pops up.  As does James Franco, which seems on on the face of it but makes sense when you read it.  There is a 40 page essay by James Earl Jones about setting Othello that would probably have great merit for an actor (somewhat less for the lay-reader, I wasn't as interested in that level of nitty-gritty).  My favorite is by Harriet Walter (known to Janeites as Fanny Dashwood in the Ang Lee/Emma Thompson Sense and Sensibility adaptation) who gets into how Shakespeare may have viewed gender roles - great ideas there.

Very enjoyable and thought-provoking.

22 July 2013

An English Bride in Scotland (An English Bride in Scotland #1)

Summary from Goodreads:

The first in a new historical series set in the Highlands of Scotland, from Lynsay Sands, the New York Times bestselling author of the Argeneau vampire series and countless historical romances.

Annabel was about to take the veil to become a nun when her mother suddenly arrives at the Abbey to take her home… so that she can marry the Scottish laird who is betrothed to her runaway sister! She knows nothing about being a wife, nothing about how to run a household, and definitely nothing about the marriage bed!

But from the moment Ross MacKay sets eyes on Annabel, he is taken with his shy sweet bride… and the fact that she's blessed with lush curves only makes him utter his own prayers of thanks. But when an enemy endangers her life, he'll move the Highlands themselves to save her. For though Annabel's not the bride he planned for, she's the only woman he desires…

Annabel was given over to the sisters as a little girl and hasn’t seen her family since. But now her mother has arrived at the Abbey and hustled her away – to be married! Her sister ran off with the stable boy rather than wed a Scottish laird so Annabel must take her place or the family forfeits both the dowry and betrothal agreement.

For his part, Ross could have refused to marry Annabel but one look is enough to have him wishing for the marriage bed. Annabel is learning to be a wife and the mistress of Clan MacKay but danger soon strikes.

I was admittedly hesitant to take a chance on another Sands historical – the Madison sisters trilogy had left much to be desired – but since I had enjoyed Sands’s medieval historicals I decided this would be a fun read. And it was. Annabel is a character you can root for through her missteps and triumphs once she leaves the Abbey. Ross is a trademark Scottish Sands hero – big, boisterous, and kilt-wearing. There is danger and intrigue and smoking-hot love scenes….

Which is where the book stumbles. So much of the plot is derivative when compared to previous medieval Sands historicals – a novitiate saved from taking the veil and married off quickly (Always), Scottish husband who loathes wife’s family (The Devil of the Highlands) and peremptorily orders wife to be guarded in the keep (without her consent) when she’s repeatedly attacked (many, many books), heroine with body issues (The Perfect Wife), crazy-jealous villain (The Hellion and the Highlander, and, well, almost all of them) so An English Bride in Scotland seems overly recycled if one has read her previous work. It was a fun book but when I finished I found myself wishing that parts of the novel played out differently. (Annoyance warning: vocabulary anachronisms abound – i.e. comfy, nirvana – so be forewarned if that is off-putting for you).

16 July 2013

Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish

Summary from Goodreads:
From the incomparable David Rakoff, a poignant, beautiful, witty and wise novel in verse whose scope spans the 20th Century.

David Rakoff, who died in 2012 at the age of 47,  built a deserved reputation as one of the finest and funniest essayists of our time.  This intricately woven novel, written with humour, sympathy and tenderness, proves him the master of an altogether different art form.

Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish leaps cities and decades as Rakoff, a Canadian who became an American citizen, sings the song of his adoptive homeland--a country whose freedoms can be intoxicating, or brutal. Here the characters' lives are linked to each other by acts of generosity or cruelty. A critic once called Rakoff "magnificent," a word which perfectly describes this wonderful novel in verse.

Unfortunately, I'd never read a work by David Rakoff (I mean book - I'm pretty sure I read at least one or two essays in some form or another) before he passed away.  And it seems particularly mean, on the part of the Universe, that he passed just as this last book came available to the reading population.

Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish is an amazing, gorgeously designed book.  I'm not sure how much Rakoff was involved in the cover design (authors usually aren't) but this is easily one of the most beautiful books I've purchased in a long while.  Kudos to Chip Kidd for the design and Seth for the illustration.  The design is vivid, it stands out, you want to pick it up and hold it.  Then buy the damn thing to take it home and wallow in the language.  A book to own as an art object not just a collection of words on paper.

The rhyme scheme is very simple - just rhyming couplets, so don't let the words "novel in verse" put you off.  It just lulls you into the interlinked stories of various family members and friends as the twentieth century moves along with all the horrors that cropped up as time went on.  In an interesting twist, the sing-song rhyming couplets crossed with the less-than-savory behavior on the part of some characters makes for a weird reading experience. The best sections are the opening chapter (which reminded me of Eleanor and Park in some ways in Peggy's character) and the last two Clifford chapters.

14 July 2013

At the Duke's Wedding (A Romance Anthology)

Summary from Goodreads:

As society gathers at Kingstag Castle for the wedding of the year, matrimony is in the air. But who will be the bride? With swoonworthy lords, witty ladies, eccentric relatives, a gaggle of free-spirited girls, not to mention the world’s best high perch phaeton, it’s a recipe for mayhem — and romance. Award winning, best-selling authors Katharine Ashe, Caroline Linden, Miranda Neville and Maya Rodale serve up delectable Regency fun and a sexy contemporary twist in this anthology of original novellas.
Four authors, four couples, four deliciously romantic surprises. When it comes to love, anything can happen…

That Rogue Jack by Maya Rodale
Jack, Lord Willoughby is charming, handsome, and utterly irresponsible. In other words, he’s the worst person to entrust with the ducal wedding ring. Miss Henrietta Black is prim, proper and the ideal person to help find the priceless family heirloom that’s gone missing… as long as she isn’t distracted by Jack’s gorgeous smile and tantalizing attempts at seduction. They MUST find the ring before the wedding… if they aren’t too busy falling in love.

P.S. I Love You by Miranda Neville
Handsome, inarticulate Frank Newnham asks for his cousin Christian's help when he woos Rosanne Lacy by letter. Rosanne falls for Frank's delicious prose, but when they meet in person at the duke's wedding party, Rosanne can't understand why Frank seems so ... dull. And why is she drawn to the dark brooding Earl of Bruton, with his scarred face and air of melancholy?

When I Met My Duchess by Caroline Linden
Gareth Cavendish, Duke of Wessex, believes he’s chosen the perfect bride… until he meets her sister and lightning strikes—literally! Now he’s the only member of society dreading the wedding of the season. Or is he? Cleo Barrows can’t fathom why her knees weaken every time the handsome duke approaches, or why her sister isn’t in the clouds at the prospect of marrying him. But the more often wedding plans throw Cleo and Gareth intimately together, the faster time is running out to turn the celebration of the summer into the scandal of the year.

How Angela Got Her Rogue Back by Katharine Ashe
When gorgeous Lord Trenton Ascot beckons to history grad student Angela Cowdrey from the pages of a comic book, she thinks she’s going crazy. When Trent rescues her from a lake and she claims she’s from the future, he knows he is. But a blackmailer is threatening Trent’s family and Angela is determined to help. While unraveling the mystery of her time-travel trip to the duke’s wedding, this modern girl and Regency lord just might discover a passion that defies centuries.

A very sweet collection of four novellas from Avon Romance authors Katherine Ashe, Caroline Linden, Miranda Neville, and Maya Rodale who all also have novels coming out later this year. The stories all involve guests (or crashers) of the Duke of Wessex at his wedding (he's the hero of the third story). The first three novellas are straight-up Regency romance with the fourth a time-travelling Regency/contemporary mash-up.

04 July 2013

The Graphic Canon, Vols 1, 2, and 3

Nestled among the graphic novels I found The Graphic Canon volumes 1 and 2.  What is this, this is interesting....  An anthology series.  Of classic literature.  But turned into graphic novel editions.  Must have must have....

Summary from Goodreads:
THE GRAPHIC CANON (Seven Stories Press) is a gorgeous, one-of-a-kind trilogy that brings classic literatures of the world together with legendary graphic artists and illustrators. There are more than 130 illustrators represented and 190 literary works over three volumes—many newly commissioned, some hard to find—reinterpreted here for readers and collectors of all ages.

Volume 1 takes us on a visual tour from the earliest literature through the end of the 1700s. Along the way, we're treated to eye-popping renditions of the human race's greatest epics: Gilgamesh, The Iliad, The Odyssey (in watercolors by Gareth Hinds), The Aeneid, Beowulf, and The Arabian Nights, plus later epics The Divine Comedy and The Canterbury Tales (both by legendary illustrator and graphic designer Seymour Chwast), Paradise Lost, and Le Morte D'Arthur. Two of ancient Greece's greatest plays are adapted—the tragedy Medea by Euripides and Tania Schrag’s uninhibited rendering of the very bawdy comedy Lysistrata by Aristophanes (the text of which is still censored in many textbooks). Also included is Robert Crumb’s rarely-seen adaptation of James Boswell’s London Journal, filled with philosophical debate and lowbrow debauchery. Religious literature is well-covered and well-illustrated, with the Books of Daniel and Esther from the Old Testament, Rick Geary’s awe-inspiring new rendition of the Book of Revelation from the New Testament, the Tao te Ching, Rumi’s Sufi poetry, Hinduism’s Mahabharata, and the Mayan holy book Popol Vuh, illustrated by Roberta Gregory. The Eastern canon gets its due, with The Tale of Genji (the world’s first novel, done in full-page illustrations reminiscent of Aubrey Beardsley), three poems from China’s golden age of literature lovingly drawn by pioneering underground comics artist Sharon Rudahl, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, a Japanese Noh play, and other works from Asia.  Two of Shakespeare’s greatest plays (King Lear and A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and two of his sonnets are here, as are Plato’s Symposium, Gulliver’s Travels, Candide, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Renaissance poetry of love and desire, and Don Quixote visualized by the legendary Will Eisner.  Some unexpected twists in this volume include a Native American folktale, an Incan play, Sappho’s poetic fragments, bawdy essays by Benjamin Franklin, the love letters of Abelard and Heloise, and the decadent French classic Dangerous Liaisons, as illustrated by Molly Crabapple.

Look at all the cool things that have been illustrated or turned into beautiful graphic novels. Very much enjoyed the breadth of work both geographically and artistically. My favorite pieces are The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, Coyote and the Pebbles (gorgeous art), Shakespeare's Sonnet 18, The Flea, and The Tale of Genji. I laughed so hard during The Woman With Two Coyntes.  I wish that so many pieces weren't excerpted but a) can you imagine how long this is and b) obviously, this is an anthology and if I like something THAT MUCH I will go buy the original and pony up for the authors' work (I really need to win the lottery).

Summary from Goodreads:
The Graphic Canon, Volume 2 gives us a visual cornucopia based on the wealth of literature from the 1800s. Several artists—including Maxon Crumb and Gris Grimly—present their versions of Edgar Allan Poe’s visions. The great American novel Huckleberry Finn is adapted uncensored for the first time, as Twain wrote it. The bad boys of Romanticism—Shelley, Keats, and Byron—are visualized here, and so are the Brontë sisters. We see both of Coleridge’s most famous poems: “Kubla Khan” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (the latter by British comics legend Hunt Emerson). Philosophy and science are ably represented by ink versions of Nietzsche’sThus Spake Zarathustra and Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.  Frankenstein, Moby-Dick, Les Misérables, Great Expectations, Middlemarch, Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment (a hallucinatory take on the pivotal murder scene), Thoreau’s Walden (in spare line art by John Porcellino of King-Cat Comics fame), “The Drunken Boat” by Rimbaud, Leaves of Grass by Whitman, and two of Emily Dickinson’s greatest poems are all present and accounted for. John Coulthart has created ten magnificent full-page collages that tell the story of The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. And Pride and Prejudice has never looked this splendiferous!  This volume is a special treat for Lewis Carroll fans. Dame Darcy puts her unmistakable stamp on—what else?—the Alice books in a new 16-page tour-de-force, while a dozen other artists present their versions of the most famous characters and moments from Wonderland. There’s also a gorgeous silhouetted telling of “Jabberwocky,” and Mahendra’s Singh’s surrealistic take on “The Hunting of the Snark.”  Curveballs in this volume include fairy tales illustrated by the untameable S. Clay Wilson, a fiery speech from freed slave Frederick Douglass (rendered in stark black and white by Seth Tobocman), a letter on reincarnation from Flaubert, the Victorian erotic classic Venus in Furs, the drug classic The Hasheesh Eater, and silk-screened illustrations for the ghastly children’s classic Der Struwwelpeter. Among many other canonical works.

Volume 2 picks up right where Volume 1 left off and drops the reader straight into the trippy world of Coleridge's "Kubla Khan".  I am coveting the Pride and Prejudice adaptation - of which only Chapter 2 in included here - and the beautiful Moby-Dick illustrations done on found paper.  By far the absolute best art is the silhouette adaptation of "Jabberwocky" for which I had to Instagram one page because it blew. my. mind.

Summary from Goodreads:
Volume 3 brings to life the literature of the end of the 20th century and the start of the 21st, including a Sherlock Holmes mystery, an H.G. Wells story, an illustrated guide to the Beat writers, a one-act play from Zora Neale Hurston, a disturbing meditation on Naked Lunch, Rilke's soul-stirring Letters to a Young Poet, Anaïs Nin's diaries, the visions of Black Elk, the heroin classic The Man With the Golden Arm (published four years before William Burroughs' Junky), and the postmodernism of Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, Kathy Acker, Raymond Carver, and Donald Barthelme.  The towering works of modernism are here--T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" and "The Waste Land," Yeats's "The Second Coming" done as a magazine spread, Heart of Darkness, stories from Kafka, The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf, James Joyce's masterpiece, Ulysses, and his short story "Araby" from Dubliners, rare early work from Faulkner and Hemingway (by artists who have drawn for Marvel), and poems by Gertrude Stein and Edna St. Vincent Millay.  You'll also find original comic versions of short stories by W. Somerset Maugham, Flannery O'Connor, and Saki (manga style), plus adaptations of Lolita (and everyone said it couldn't be done!), The Age of Innocence, Siddhartha and Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" by Langston Hughes, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Last Exit to Brooklyn, J.G. Ballard's Crash, and photo-dioramas for Animal Farm and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Feast your eyes on new full-page illustrations for 1984, Brave New World, Waiting for Godot, One Hundred Years of Solitude,The Bell Jar, On the Road, Lord of the Flies, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and three Borges stories.  Robert Crumb's rarely seen adaptation of Nausea captures Sartre's existential dread. Dame Darcy illustrates Cormac McCarthy's masterpiece, Blood Meridian, universally considered one of the most brutal novels ever written and long regarded as unfilmable by Hollywood. Tara Seibel, the only female artist involved with the Harvey Pekar Project, turns in an exquisite series of illustrations for The Great Gatsby. And then there's the moment we've been waiting for: the first graphic adaptation from Kurt Vonnegut's masterwork, Slaughterhouse-Five. Among many other gems.

Conveniently for me, I discovered the first two volumes right before Volume 3 was scheduled for release so I didn't have long to wait.  Modernist works are less familiar to me (so sue me for being a Regency/Victorian specialist) but holy cats, "Araby" is amazing in adaptation.  My one bone to pick here is that so many very long works (i.e. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle) were represented by one-page or two-page illustrations and, unfortunately for me, they were often books I hadn't read before in the original so I couldn't judge how it was adapted.  But the art was still gorgeous.

(ETA: There will be a CHILDREN'S LITERATURE COLLECTION coming out in November.  So amazing!)

The Marquess of Cake (Redcakes #1)

Summary from Goodreads:

Coffee…tea…or a pastry chef sweeter than any confection…

Scotch trifle fit for Queen Victoria, scones with clotted cream…Alys Redcake knows the way to a man’s heart. Yet she is unaware that with each morsel—and flash of ankle—she is seducing the handsome marquess frequenting her father’s tea shop. Unmarried at twenty-six, Alys’s first love is the family business. But thoughts of the gentleman’s touch are driving her to distraction…

With his weakness for sugar, the Marquess of Hatbrook can imagine no more desirable woman than one scented with cake and spice. Mistaking Alys for a mere waitress, he has no doubt she would make a most delicious mistress. And when he finds himself in need of an heir, he plans to make her his convenient bride. Yet as they satisfy their craving for one another, business and pleasure suddenly collide. Will Hatbrook’s passion for sweets—and for Alys—be his heart’s undoing?

Interesting concept involving an aristocrat with hypoglycemia and a baker in Victorian London. The middle section of the novel - once Alys and Michael are out of London and in Sussex and relatively alone - is the best. The opening felt rough and a bit too modern, the resolution/reconciliation of Alys and Michael at the end of the book felt rushed, and the bit with the sick sister didn't fit with a reported action later. I would have liked an expanded look at how the class differences between the hero and heroine were an obstacle or bonus. Cute though - and for those of us with a pastry/cake habit very bad for the waistline.

I'd like to see how the second book works in moving Michael's brother into the hero role but definitely a "maybe" series.

02 July 2013

Less Than a Gentleman

Summary from Goodreads:

In this never-before-published historical romance, New York Times bestselling author Kerrelyn Sparks returns to the 18th century, where the fight for freedom is as dangerous as the fight for love.

Between searching for the missing Munro sisters and South Carolina being all but lost to the British, Captain Matthais Thomas has more important things to worry about than finding a bride. But his mother has other ideas. When Matthais finds a beautiful woman in his bed who claims to be his betrothed, he is suspicious of her identity…and determined to discover the truth.

Caroline Munro had few options. The British burned down her home, and now, traveling with her very pregnant sister, Caroline is pretending to be someone she’s not so they can have a safe place to rest. But she didn’t count on a matchmaking matron or her rogue of a son…and certainly never dreamed she would fall in love with a spy.

Captain Matthias Murray Thomas leads his men in a daring escape from certain death - the noose, for fighting as Colonialists. As they continue to fight in British occupied South Carolina, the losses are mounting in both people and property. Major Jamie Munro, fresh from a rout in the west, is unable to find his daughters who should have been at a safe location on the Pee Dee river. Matthias agrees to look for the women while disrupting the redcoats' supply lines.

Caroline Munro, her sister Virginia Stanton, and Virginia's two children are fleeing the British - their home has been burned down and their only remaining property stolen by a thief - when they come across a lovely, pristine plantation on the banks of a river. Caroline intends to ask only for shelter but when the elegant lady greets her as Miss Agatha Ludlow, a young lady invited as a potential bride for her son, Caroline seizes the opportunity. She assumes the unknown woman's identity. It means temporary shelter for all four of them, five if Virginia's labor begins.

Thus begins a romance of mistaken identity set amid the horrors of the American Revolution. The plantation belongs to Matthias's father. When Matthias sneaks into his old bedroom he finds Caroline, masquerading as Agatha in his bed. Matthias has no desire to wed the obviously gold-digging Agatha - although this woman feels very different from the Agatha he met previously - and pretends to be the insolent butler Haversham to both avoid marriage and sniff out the truth. Caroline is absolutely determined to avoid Matthias because she has no interest in marrying, especially a soldier. Soldiers die. The butler, though...he seems rather nice. When a local Loyalist, Captain Hickman, appears with the real Agatha Ludlow in tow (who proves to be a spoiled brat) Caroline and Matthias commence a spy operation that ultimately endangers all their lives.

Real historical figures like Tarleton the Butcher and General Cornwallis help to anchor the story within the time period. Although much of the reported violence occurs off-page, especially to that of women in a time of war, Sparks works to keep the danger to the main characters very real. She also touches on the contrasting concepts of freedom and slave ownership though they felt very secondary and Matthias's explanation of why he won't free the slaves even though he detests his father's ideals is weak at best.

The novel was very enjoyable, a quick read on a rainy afternoon, but perhaps not quite as good as other historical romances I recently read. I had a bit of trouble believing that a local Loyalist didn't immediately connect Matthias and his mother. The language at times felt too modern. For example, Matthias's mother is referred to as Jane almost immediately by all the characters which would have been considered ill-bred. The climax of the novel also felt too cluttered with extraneous secondary characters and backstory. The character of Greville, a British soldier who swears vengeance on Matthias for killing one of his men, could have been dispensed with once Hickman is introduced; as it is he is just unnecessary cannon fodder. Quibbles aside, I am interested in tracking down Sparks's earlier book For Love or Country, recently re-released by Avon Impulse as The Forbidden Lady, which tells the story of Virginia and her husband, Quincy Stanton.