Thursday, April 29, 2010

Review: The Highest Stakes by Emery Lee

The Highest Stakes was a diversion in historical reading. The backdrop of horse racing was new territory for me, but curiosity about the sport in the 18 century, and one of my favorite romance tropes - star crossed lovers - sold me on the story before I ever opened the book.

Charlotte Wallace was a lonely 13 year old orphan taken in by her uncle and his family when she met stable boy Robert Devington. The two formed a bond through horses and horse racing, and over the years, fell in love.

Now of marriageable age, Robert and Charlotte want nothing more than to marry, but Charlotte's Uncle refuses to be persuaded in the matter. To Charles Wallace, Robert is not good enough for Charlotte because he has no assets to bring into a marriage and Charles is set on making a gainful match for himself through Charlotte's marriage.

As fate would have it, Charlotte and Robert are separated. Charlotte is forced into a life she doesn't want, and Robert loses everything and must start over from the bottom. While Charlotte tries to make the most out of what life has given her, Robert refuses to let things remain as they stand. He puts his all into training a small horse that is his last hope at correcting the wrongs that have unjustly befallen him.

The Highest Stakes was a lively read. The horse riding details were woven so seamlessly into the story that I was able to understand and appreciate its influence on the characters and the romance. It took me a while to warm to Robert and Charlotte, I think because of the 18th century language threw me a little, but after getting used to the language and delving into the back stories, I came to root them on and hope for their happily ever after.

Undying love, deceit, greed and retribution fuel Emery Lee's debut novel. I look forward to seeing what else this talented author has to offer. Grade B+

Visit Emery Lee here. Read chapter one here.

Review based on ARC copy from Sourcebooks.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Mini Musings on: Sebastian St Cyr Mysteries by C. S. Harris

I normally try to start a new series with the first book so that I can have a full understanding of characters and motivations. My reason for beginning with book 3 in the Sebastian St. Cyr Mysteries was because I read the first few chapters and was instantly intrigued. Since the first two books weren't in stock, I picked up the two that were, books 3 and 4 and ended up being happy I did.

Why Mermaids Sing is book three in the Sebastian St. Cyr Mystery series. Someone is killing the sons of powerful men in Regency England. When a second young man is found dead in the same manner of one just months prior, Chief Magistrate, Sir Henry Lovejoy enlists the assistance of Sebastian St. Cyr in finding the killer. Since Sebastian is a Viscount and from the same world as the two young men found dead, Lovejoy believes that he's the right person for the job. Sebastian takes up piecing the clues of the murders together and it becomes a race against time, because the closer Sebastian gets to the killer the more bodies he leaves behind.

The downside to starting this series on the third book are the many relationship threads that I didn't have a full grasp of, but the background info did help me piece things together. Sebastian interacts with a lot of people throughout the course of the book. There is an antagonistic relationship between he and Lord Jarvis, cousin to the prince regent. A shaky one between Sebastian and his father, a lighthearted one with his friend Paul Gibson, and a romantic one with his lover, the beautiful actress Kat Boleyn. These relationships are woven through the story alongside the mystery, at times crossing over.

Of all the relationships, I disliked Sebastian and Kat the most. I'm a romantic at heart and can usually find something to love about all romantic pairings, but these two lacked spark. Sebastian is so in love with Kat that he can forgive her anything, and so absolutely soft with her that I felt he was out of character. Kat fills the role of "prostitute with a heart of gold" so well it was a bit nauseating. She's also a martyr, which doesn't help my opinion of her. They got along like two peas in a pod and yet, I was most happy toward the end of the book when a secret is revealed that causes them to part ways. I think it would serve me well to go back and read the first two books so that maybe I will appreciate Kat more.

The mystery was interesting, but I didn't like that there were no clues that pointed to the killer. Also the killer's logic was flimsy at best and even though his reasons were explained, I felt he lacked the background that would make his intense anger understandable. But that's just me. Grade B-

Where Serpents Sleep picks up months after the end of Why Mermaids Sing. Having found out a devastating secret, Sebastian and his love Kat have broken off their engagement and Sebastian is on the outs with his father. He's been living a dissolute life since then, getting lost in alcohol and debauchery. Sebastian is perfectly content to keep on this way but then Blue Stocking, Hero Jarvis (the aptly named daughter of his enemy) comes to him seeking his assistance with a dangerous situation she's become involved in, and Sebastian can not resist a good mystery. He and Hero form a reluctant duo and set out, both in their own ways, to find the killers responsible for the deaths of eight prostitutes.

If you like heavy, all-encompassing mysteries then this series is probably not for you. While the mystery in this book was easy to follow and in the end everything made sense, there was nothing stand out about it. I went into this series for the mystery, but have found that I enjoy the relationship threads a lot more. Between Sebastian and his father, Sebastian and Lord Jarvis, Sebastian and Hero and Hero and her father, Lord Jarvis, there is a lot to love. The characters are exceptionally well drawn, though I find Lord Jarvis to be a bit of a caricature at times, but that could very well be the way he is supposed to be.

As a whole, I liked Where Serpents Sleep a lot more than Why Mermaids Sing, I believe because of Hero. She's my type of heroine. Smart, adept, witty, and a worthy match to the hero-- in this case Sebastian. In fact, I enjoyed Hero more than Sebastian in this book, most likely because of Sebastian's sadness due to his severed relationship with Kat. In Why Mermaids Sing, I didn't really take to Kat, which made it hard to sympathize with Sebastian's current plight. I much prefer Sebastian with Hero. Sure, their relationship is nothing short of contentious, but they have a mutual respect and a certain like-mindedness that makes them an interesting pair. I am intrigued by these two and look forward to seeing where they go. Grade B+

Visit C. S. Harris here.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Musings on: Ravishing in Red by Madeline Hunter

I became a fan of Madeline Hunter with her Rothwell & Seducer series. That led me to her back-list of medievals, which I enjoyed as well. With her new series, The Rarest Blooms, Hunter introduces us to four women from different backgrounds who, through varying circumstances, have come to share a home. Under the tutelage of the homes owner, Daphne, the women raise and sell rare flowers. Ravishing in Red is the story of Daphne's cousin, Audrianna Kelmsleigh.

Audrianna's father was accused of letting bad gunpowder be used during the
Peninsular War, which resulted in the tragic death of soldiers. The outcome of the tragedy sparked an inquisition that ultimately led to her father's suicide. The stain of suicide left a bad mark on her family. With future marriage prospects gone, Audrianna decided that she would live independently and left her mother's home to live with her cousin Daphne.

Audrianna remained convinced that her father was wrongly accused, so when
an ad appears in the paper by the "Domino," wishing to meet with Audrianna's deceased father, she goes in his place, hoping the meeting will result in information she can use to clear her dead father's name. She travels alone to the meeting place, a coaching inn, with her cousin's gun as protection.

Lord Sebastian Summerhays, one of the Audrianna's father's persecutors, also read the ad and goes to the coaching inn hoping to find the source of the bad gunpowder. Sebastian and Audrianna come face to face believing that the other is the "Domino." W
hile the two are distracted, the real Domino shows up. A tussle occurs, the gun is discharged, Sebastian is grazed, the whole inn is alerted, and they are compromised.

Sebastian thinks up a plan that paints the two as lovers in order to keep Audrianna from being accused of trying to kill the marquess's brother, but the speculation is damning and soon Sebastian is being depicted as a villain and Audrianna's already weakened reputation is at stake. For Sebastian there is only one solution that will clear both their names and hush rumors: marriage.

Ravishing in Red has everything in it that I love about Hunter's writing.
The historical detail, characterization, and descriptive writing make reading her books a joy. Hunter shines at writing male/male and female/female interpersonal relationships in a very believable way, and both types are present in this book. The four women in the Rarest Blooms House are shown to care deeply for each other. They have come together and formed a sisterly commune, that is an escape of sorts from their pasts. The one rule of the house, that no one pry into anyone's background, gives all the women a peace that they may not otherwise have.

I was especially taken with Sebastian and his brother, Morgan, the marquess. Morgan is chair bound due to war injuries that resulted in him losing use of his legs. The relationship between Sebastian and Morgan is very interesting. Due to Morgan's injuries, Sebastian has stepped into his brother's place as marquess. It is a role that he never intended to have and he struggles with his brother being alive to see his position taken. This causes Sebastian a lot of strife, especially when he begins to feel that he and Morgan share not only a life and title, but Audrianna as well.

Sebastian is my favorite type of hero. A reformed rake, he's doing his best to keep his repaired reputation as spotless as possible, that's why when the fall out from the inn fiasco takes place, he feels that marriage is the best way to go.
He's sensual, charming and understanding. He strives to do the right thing by his brother and Audrianna, even if that means his feelings are not acknowledged. Sebastian is for them the calm in the storm, even though he has is own raging storm inside.

It took me a while to warm to Audrianna. In the beginning of the book s
he made decisions that were not smart, like taking a gun that she didn't know how to use to meet up with a complete stranger at an inn. I felt that she lacked self awareness and at times life awareness. She put herself in situations that any woman of her time would steer clear of, or at least find a less clueless way of going about them. About halfway through, she seemed to smarten up a little and I began liking her more.

Overall, the book was really good. I enjoyed the story as a whole. It was well plotted and paced. The set up for future books in the series was discretely so it did not overwhelm the story. The little tidbits revealed about the women of the Rarest Blooms house, and the men who make up Sebastian's circle were intriguing enough for me to look forward to all their stories. Grade B.

Visit Madeline Hunter here. Read an excerpt for Ravishing in Red here.
Be sure to check out her book trailers, they are really good.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Review: Lessons in French by Laura Kinsale

I should probably start by saying that I spazzed a little when I found out that Laura Kinsale had a new release for 2010. If you're familiar with my blog then you know how much of a fangirl I am when it comes to her writing. While I've had a couple of misses, my overwhelming feelings about Kinsale's books are that they are awesome historical romances. Her characters are always layered and often deeply flawed. Her heroes are to die for and majority of her heroines are endearing.

I'm happy to report that Lessons in French keeps with that trend.

Trevelyn and Callie are childhood sweethearts with a taste for adventure. Until the fateful day her father discovers them embracing in the carriage and in a furious frenzy drives Trevelyn away in disgrace. Nine long, lonely years later, Trevelyn returns. Callie is shocked to discover that he can still make her blood race and fill her life with mischief, excitement and scandal. He would give her the world, but he can't give her the one thing she wants more than anything - himself. For Trevelyn, Callie is a spark of light in a world of darkness and deceit. Before he can bear to say his last good-byes, he's determined to sweep her into one last, fateful adventure, just for the two of them.
By the age of twenty seven, Lady Callista Taillefaire had been jilted 3 times. Despite that, she moved on, turning her complete focus to raising cattle, most notable is Hubert, her prize-winning bull. She's resigned herself to remaining a spinster and only attends affairs as a chaperon to her younger sister, Hermione. Callie and Hermione have decided that once Hermione marries, Callie will live with sister and her husband, getting Callie out of Shelford and away from her cousin's haughty wife, the new Lady Shelford. It is at one of the events that Callie has accompanied her sister to, that she hears news that Trevelyn de Monceaux has returned after a nine year sojourn to remake his family's fortune.

Callie and Trev were in love before he left, but that love was forbidden being that she was a Lady and Trev was from a disgraced French family. The relationship was doomed from the start and after they were found out, Trev fled, leaving Callie a mess trying to pick up the pieces. She kept up with Trev through the letters he wrote his mother over the years, but she doesn't expect to see him again, so she's floored when waltzes back into Shelford, asking for her help with his ailing mother. Callie has a soft spot for Madame de Monceaux and doesn't turn Trev's request down. She's sure that Trev has thought little of her over the years and finding out that she's been jilted 3 times will turn him off if he happened to feel otherwise.

To the contrary, Trev is just as in love with Callie as he was nine years ago, even though he still feels unworthy. Trev isn't being completely honest about how he's regained Monceaux fortune, and his past is quickly catching up with him. He knows he'll have to flee Shelford once more, but before he goes, he wants to make every minute with Callie count. Thus, an adventure is born. Trev pulls Callie into an elaborate scheme that has them both recapturing the thrill of their youth, while discovering how hard old flames really die.

In the authors note, Laura Kinsale relates Lessons in French to two of her previous books, stating: "Lessons in French is a first cousin of Midsummer Moon and only a very, very distant relation of Shadowheart." Having not read Shadowheart yet, I can only touch on the similarities to Midsummer Moon. The humor is there (though I think Midsummer Moon was funnier), they are lighter works (But Lessons is meatier than MM) and they both have animals that steal the show a time or two (Porcupine beats the bull any day of the week)--but that's about as far as the likeness goes. Lessons in French is very much its own book.

Trev and Callie are fleshed out, fully realized characters. I absolutely loved Trev, his inner-voice and charm won me over early on, and Callie isn't your cardboard heroine. She's not a damsel, nor is she kick-butt, she's a little shy, maybe a bit naive, but she's smart and witty and adorable. Secondary characters compliment the story, with even Callie's bull, Hubert bringing the laughs.

If I had a complaint it would be a little detail about Trev that popped up unexpectedly. I won't go deeply into it because it's a spoiler, but based on what I felt I knew about Trev's character up to that point, it threw me a little. But that is a minor nitpick in a story that was overall a winner.

If you're already a fan of Laura Kinsale, I think you will find Lessons in French lives up to expectations. If you're new to her writing, this book is a great place to start. If you end up enjoying it, I can pretty much guarantee that you'll enjoy much of her earlier work. For me, this book is something of a celebration. I'm happy to know that one of my favorite authors is back and ecstatic to see that she hasn't lost her touch. Definitely looking forward to more! Grade A-

Visit Laura Kinsale here. Read chapter 1 of Lessons in French here.

Lessons in French hits stores today!
ARC copy provided by Sourcebooks.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Summers at Castle Auburn by Sharon Shinn

My first review of the new year!

Coriel Halsing, the illegitimate daughter of a wise woman and a deceased royal lord, has split every year since the age of six studying to become a wise woman under her grandmother's tutelage in their small village, and living the privileged life of a Lady during her annual summers at Castle Auburn. Corie finds happiness in both worlds. As her grandmother's apprentice she thrives in learning potions and cures and prepares to take over the position as her villages wise woman upon her grandmother's death. In Auburn she shares precious time with her beloved sister Elisandra, uncle Jaxon, and the many people she has come to call friends over the years.

During her fourteenth year, Corie's summer at Castle Auburn becomes an adventure. She sets out with her Uncle Jaxon, her sister's betrothed Bryan the Prince of Auburn, his kinsman, Kent, and guardsman, Roderick on a hunt for aliora. The aliora are mystical creatures that inhabit a secret realm deep in the woods. They are hunted, captured, sold and kept as servants in the noble houses. For all of the young people on the trip, there is no greater prize than returning to Auburn with an aliora.

Corie is excited about her excursion for more reasons than one. She, like every other young woman in their realm, has harbored a crush on Bryan for as long as she can remember--and to spend an entire trip in his company pleases her to no end. The hunt for aliora doesn't go as planned and Bryan's actions on the trip leave her conflicted, but Coriel does return to the castle with new friends in the handsome, but serious Kent, and the easy-going Roderick.

The next few years pass like all the ones before it and soon Corie is seventeen and fast becoming a woman. Her summer return to Auburn is met with much enthusiasm from young and older men alike, as Corie had reached marriageable age and is now a hot commodity. Due to her new popularity, Corie begins to find out things at Castle Auburn aren't exactly what they have seemed. Dark secrets come to light, the summer becomes suffocating, and Corie wishes to be anywhere but Auburn, a place she once loved.

Her eyes are opened to the machinations and calculations of the people around her. Where she once thought happiness lied, she now finds sadness. Those she believed honorable, prove to be anything but. Corie's awakening isn't reserved for only those around her, though. She realizes that in her naivety, she has overlooked her own unjust practices. Enlightened by her new wisdom, Corie takes matters into her own hands and attempts to rectify the wrongs around. This lands her in a danger she never thought possible. Everything around her comes crumbling down and life as she knows it is forever changed.

Summers at Castle Auburn is a coming of age story of love, exploration, romance, and intrigue. Corie starts out a head strong young girl, blind to the people around her, seeing only what she wants to. These characteristics could easily make Corie hard to relate to. It is only through her self awareness that she escapes being annoying in her naivety. When Corie finally begins to dig deeper and stops seeing everyone on a surface level, she becomes a more endearing character and her struggles become more palpable.

What I loved most about this book is the writing. I've read a couple of books from Shinn's Samaria series in the past and have admired her lyrical prose. While not as prominent here, she does a wonderful job at describing the ethereal Aliora in a way that is nothing short of enchanting. The book as a whole is immersing and easy to get lost in. I read for hours without realizing how much time had passed. Any book that can sweep me into its pages so completely is a winner for me. I also loved Corie's first person perspective. Her voice was very strong and grew more mature over the course of the story. The only fault I can find with this point of view was how it may (or maybe not) have affected believability of the romantic revelations toward the end of the book.

It is no secret that Shinn likes to tackle issues of oppression in her stories and she does so very well, in my opinion. That said, I have to wonder if the way that the issue with the aliora were dealt with in Summers was a little too pat. I felt that the resolution to their enslavement was glossed over and never got a true understanding of what was to happen with them in the future. I feel like I'm treading on spoiler territory, so I'll stop there, but if anyone else has read this book, let me know what you thought about this aspect in the comments, please.

Overall, Summers at Castle Auburn was very good. I enjoyed getting lost in the fantasy for a few hours. Grade B+

Visit Sharon Shinn here. More about Summers at Castle Auburn here.