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.