Friday, December 30, 2011

Happy New Year!

A toast to you, my friends! May you recall moments to cherish as you reflect on 2011. May you welcome 2012 with high hopes and unfaltering courage. May the new year bring you reason for joy and jubilation.

I'll be back Tuesday, January 3, with my review of a book that will be released in 2012 and a week from today I'll share my 2012 book calendar with you. And we'll celebrate the New Year with giveaways on both days.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Tuesday Review: The Lure of Song and Magic

The Lure of Song and Magic
By Patricia Rice
Publisher: Source Book Casablanca
Release Date: January 1, 2012
Four Stars

The Little Angels Childcare Center in El Padre is the last place one would expect to find Dylan Ives “Oz” Oswin, successful Hollywood producer, but that’s exactly where he is. He has come to this unlikely place hoping that Pippa James, children’s author and illustrator is the former singing sensation Syrene who disappeared nine years earlier. It’s been more than a year since his son Donal disappeared, and Oz is desperate to find him. If the enigmatic “Librarian” with his mysterious email message is right, Syrene can lead him to his son. However remote the possibility that the former star’s singing the “Silly Seal” song can reunite Oz with Donal, it’s a chance the frantic father is not willing to pass up.

Oz’s appearance threatens the peace that Pippa has found in a new career and a new town. Syrene is her past, and Pippa is determined that she’ll stay there. She’s content writing and illustrating the children’s books that emerge from her fertile imagination and using her voice only in private where the destruction that its unleashed power provokes can be contained. She refers Oz to her agent and refuses to be part of the TV show that is his ploy for approaching her.

But Oz refuses to take no for an answer. Nothing’s more important than finding his son, and when he sees the effects of Pippa’s voice in locating a missing child, he begins to believe that the Librarian was right. Pippa knows from experience what it is to be a small child separated from parents, and the thought of Donal gets past the barriers she has in place. She also finds Oz difficult to resist; the chemistry between them is explosive. She finds it impossible to resist Oz and her own heart.

I requested this book from the publisher via NetGalley hoping that the use of “Magic” in the title meant the book was connected to Rice’s Malcolm and Ives books, which I remembered fondly. Although Lure has a contemporary setting, I was delighted to find that there is a connection which plays a significant role in the plot.

Pippa and Oz are both compelling characters, and both have sound reasons for their opposing positions. It’s difficult to see how both can achieve their goals, and yet the reader is sympathetic to Oz’s determination to find his son and to Pippa’s desire for a peaceful life. The conflict kept me eagerly turning the pages.

The fantasy is central without overpowering the romance, not an easy balance to achieve. I found Pippa’s siren voice with its potential for good and for destruction fascinating, but it never distracted me from her relationship with Oz. The book also has some interesting secondary characters who deserve their own stories. I found Pippa’s mother and Oz’s brother especially interesting. Some key questions remain unanswered, and I hope they signal that Rice is planning a series. If you are looking for something a bit different that still offers great contemporary romance, I recommend The Lure of Song and Magic. You can read the first chapter here.

What’s your favorite blend of fantasy and romance?

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas!

Peace on Earth--and in your heart.
Good will to you and yours.
May your Christmas be a blessed one.

Friday, December 23, 2011

I Only Want Books for Christmas

(with apologies to Alan Jackson)

The rain is falling on Christmas Eve.
Wrapped presents are under the tree.
Are there tons for me?

I only want books for Christmas, Santa.
Hey, I need nothing else.
I only want books for Christmas, Santa.
Tie a ribbon 'round a shelf.
Oh, tie a ribbon 'round a shelf.

I’m not writing a letter to add to your long list.
’Cause what I'm wanting this year I know you just can’t miss.

I only want books for Christmas, Santa.
Hey, I need nothing else.
I only want books for Christmas, Santa.
Tie a ribbon 'round a shelf.
Oh, tie a ribbon 'round a shelf.

I’ll put on my reading glasses. Forget that mistletoe.
Books fill me with the holiday spirit.
Santa, I know you know. Ho, ho, ho, ho, ho, ho!

I only want books for Christmas, Santa.
Hey, I need nothing else.
I only want books for Christmas, Santa.
Tie a ribbon 'round a shelf.
Oh, tie a ribbon 'round a shelf.

Ebooks will be fine. Gift cards? Perfect! Santa, I’ll use the gift card for the first fifteen titles on my wish list, all but two January releases. I’ve alphabetized them by author just to make it really easy.

  1. Christina Brooke, Mad About the Earl (Ministry of Marriage #2): I loved the first book in the series and am fascinated by the Ministry of Marriage concept.
  2. Manda Collins, How to Dance with a Duke (Ugly Ducklings #1): I know what a great read this one is because I read a draft. I can’t wait to reread it and to squee heartily over my friend Manda’s debut. 
  3. Lisa Dale, A Promise of Safekeeping: This is classified as a thriller, not a genre I usually read. But I like Dale’s voice, and I am intrigued by the subject, the effects of an innocent man’s incarceration on the man himself, his best friend, and the prosecuting attorney. 
  4. Carola Dunn, Gone West (Daisy Dalrymple Mystery #20): I’m daffy about Daisy and never miss a book in this series. Since the murder victim in this one is a novelist, it promises to be especially interest. 
  5. Anne Gracie, Bride by Mistake (Devil Riders #5): I’ve been an Anne Gracie fan since I read Gallant Waif more than a decade ago. I’ve loved all the Devil Riders books (The Accidental Wedding was my top read of 2010), and I am beyond eager to read the story of daredevil Luke Ripton.
  6. Kristin Hannah, Home Front: Hannah is another of my auto-buy authors, and she calls this book about the effect of a wife and mother’s deployment on a family the “best, most emotional book [she’s] ever written.” I’ve already bought an extra box of Kleenex.
  7. Miranda James, File M for Murder (Cat in the Stacks #3): I’m not even a feline fancier and I love these Athena Mississippi, librarian Charlie Harris, and Diesel, Charlie's Maine coon cat. In this one, Charlie’s daughter is the prime suspect. Now that’s a surefire teaser.
  8. Sabrina Jeffries, A Lady Never Surrenders (Hellions of Halstead Hall #5): I’ve read an excerpt and I can’t wait to read the rest. Lady Celia Sharpe and Bow Street Runner Jackson Pinter promise to be a wonderful pair, and I so want to know the truth about the deaths of the Sharpe parents. 
  9. Darynda Jones, Third Grave Dead Ahead (Charlotte Davidson #3): I’m not much of a paranormal reader. Frankly, I started this series because my friend PJ sent me a Darynda Jones notebook in a RWA swag package, and I loved the notebook so much (the size and paper texture) that I felt obligated to try the books. I loved the humor and the terrific dialogue even though Charley’s love interest makes me uneasy. I’m definitely interested in what the Grim Reaper is up to next.
  10. Tony Judt, The Memory Chalet: This one is 2010 book I kept meaning to read and didn’t. This renowned historian composed these autobiographical recollections as nocturnal reflections during the final months of his life when his body was imprisoned by Lou Gehrig’s disease but his mind was free to wonder and ruminate.
  11. Mary Oliver, House of Light: This is actually a 1990 publication, but it’s being released as a Kindle edition in January, and I am thrilled by the thought of pulling up a poem from this collection when I need to be lifted out of myself or a moment that threatens to imprison me in the mundane. “Still, what I want in my life / is to be willing / to be dazzled—”   
  12.  Patricia Rice, The Lure of Song and Magic. I read this and loved this combination of fantasy, mystery, and romance in e-ARC form from NetGalley. Now I must have a copy I can reread and reread. In fact, I want to reread Rice’s Magic series and finish with this book.
  13. Mark Richard, House of Prayer No. 2: A Writer's Journey Home: This is not a January release. It’s one I missed in 2010. But I want to read this memoir of a writer, a Christ-haunted figure who would have been at home in a Flannery O’Connor novel.  
  14. JoAnn Ross, On Lavender Lane (Shelter Bay #3): I love that Ross has returned to the kind of books that first made me a fan. I look forward to a return visit to Shelter Bay and this reunion story that features a former SEAL and a celebrity chef.
  15. Kaki Warner, Colorado Dawn (Runaway Brides #2): Photographer Maddie Wallace captured my interest in Heartbreak Creek, the first book in the series. In the second book, Scotsman Angus Wallace, new heir to an earldom and determined to sire an heir of his own, pursues his errant wife to Heartbreak Creek, Colorado. 
Note: I've already used an early gift card to preorder copies of Hidden Summit by Robyn Carr, Trouble at the Wedding by Laura Lee Guhrke, The Duke Is Mine by Eloisa James, How the Marquess Was Won by Julie Anne Long, and The Pleasure of Your Kiss by Teresa Medeiros. I've already read all but the Medeiros, but I want keeper copies.

Are you getting books for Christmas? What January books are you most anticipating?

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Tuesday Review: A Marriage Carol

A Marriage Carol
By Chris Fabry and Gary D. Chapman
Publisher: Moody
Release Date: September 1, 2011

Borrowing some elements from Charles Dickens Christmas classic, Fabry and Chapman create a story that is more allegory than carol. The twenty-year marriage of Marlee and Jacob Ebenezer is on the verge of being canceled due to accumulated distance and lack of interest.  On the evening of Christmas Eve, their wedding anniversary, they are on their way to a lawyer’s office to sign divorce papers when, after Jacob’s insistence on leaving the sanded interstate highway for a shortcut, they are involved in an automobile accident. Marlee regains consciousness to find herself alone in a car that won’t start and with a cell phone that has no signal.

Searching for her husband, she stumbles through the snow and darkness to find a house occupied by an old man and his wife. The wife remains upstairs out of sight, but the old man offers Marlee help—refuge from the cold, three-bean chili and cornbread, and an effort to find Jacob. He doesn’t find Jacob, but he offers Marlee shelter for the night in his home, which is a former funeral home turned into a retreat where he and his wife offer help for troubled marriages. Marlee to her own surprise tells Jay about her marriage. Jay encourages her to hold on to hope that love can be resurrected and instructs her in the use of three golden pots that he uses in his marriage counseling. When Marlee melts snow in the first one, she finds herself immersed in scenes from her past, complete with sound effects that include Dan Fogelberg’s “Promises Made.” Scenes from her childhood and youth flicker past; the focus is on her life with Jacob from the “season of delight” when they were young and newly in love through the moment they left their children to head for the divorce lawyer’s office. As Marlee uses the other snow-filled golden pots in turn, she sees Christmas present with her frightened children, her parents and her sister praying for her, an old boyfriend, and Jacob buried in snow; and she sees Christmas future with a miserable second marriage, children estranged from her, and the possibility of a very different future. She is reminded that “One choice changes the construction of a life.”  And she’s left to make her choice.

A Marriage Carol is not a romance novel. It is a short (128 pages) story of a marriage that rises renewed from the ashes of hopelessness and resignation written by two writers well-known within the Christian community. Its message that God can restore broken marriages when both parties are committed to Him, to one another, and to their marriage will evoke hope in some and seem simplistic to others. The prose is sometimes lovely and lyrical (“There is no barren place on earth that love cannot grow a garden. Not even your heart.”) and sometimes over the top (“The phone was stillborn. As lifeless as my soul.”).

I have refrained from a ranking because I could not decide how to rate this book. I can imagine recommending it highly to a friend and fellow believer who is experiencing marital ennui or to a church group looking for something that speaks to their needs and to their faith. Even tagging it as an inspirational romance is inaccurate. Its purpose is didactic, and I use the term strictly and in no pejorative sense. It is effective for its purpose, but its purpose is different from that of a romance novel. I will also add that while it employs a Christmas setting, it is not really a Christmas book. Snow is essential to the plot, but the Christmas season isn’t.

Do you sometimes have difficulty assigning a rating to books you read? What do you expect from a Christmas book?

Friday, December 16, 2011

Janga’s Top Ten in Romance Fiction for 2011

Writer Russell Banks’s statement that “[l]ists of books we reread and books we can't finish tell more about us than about the relative worth of the books themselves” can be applied to lists of best books as well. Such lists are subjective, and I know from my time with the Romance Vagabonds that even readers with similar tastes are unlikely to produce identical best books lists. Even knowing this, I am fascinated by the annual compilation of best books lists and read every one that comes through my email, Google reader, or Tweet stream. I cheer when I see one of my favorites recognized, mutter imprecations when one I deem unworthy is acknowledged, and make notes about those I’ve missed but think I will enjoy.  Only Booklist lacked the discernment in 2011 to agree with me about a single one of the best romance fiction books of the year. Library Journal and I concurred on three; it would have been four if I allowed myself to include two books by one author. Amazon and I agreed on two, and even Publishers Weekly included one of my best books in their brief (top five) list. (Check out their slide show and see if you think they may be biased in favor of books with blue in the cover design.)

I created my own best books list before I ever heard of email loops, bulletin boards, or blogs, carefully noting in my reading journal the books that had given me particular delight, challenged me to think long thoughts, or led me into a world that I left with a sigh and a promise to return. But my annual list has been more fun since I’ve had an audience with whom to share it. I look forward to going public and having people say, “Oh, yes! I loved that one too.”  It’s almost as much fun when someone says, “Oh, surely not. I didn’t even finish that one.” Differences make for interesting conversation.

Some people rank their best books. I can’t. How can I place in last place on my list a book I adored? My top three—or, to be more accurate, a three-way tie for my top romance of the year—will be posted on another site later. Here I make no distinctions. I just share my top ten romance novels of 2011, books I read and loved and that I expect to love more with each rereading. There were other books I read this year that were five-star reads for me and even more that were four-star reads. Many of them were added to me keeper shelves, and all of them gave me hours of reading pleasure. But these, listed in alphabetical order by author, are ten books that I’d take with me if I were spending 2012 on an island and could take only ten romance novels from 2011 with me to reread throughout the year.

The Black Hawk by Joanna Bourne

I think The Black Hawk is Bourne’s finest book yet. It is part historical thriller and part romance, and both parts are the work of a writer who practices her craft with unfaltering excellence. Justine DeCabrillac and Adrian Hawkhurst have already captured readers’ interest; in this book they capture readers’ hearts as well in an unforgettable love story that I expect to see join thr ranks of classic romance novels.

The Other Guy’s Bride by Connie Brockway

Some books are just fun. This sequel to the beloved As You Desire is one of those books. The Other Guy's Bride has wit and heart and Brockway’s prose, any one of which would make me glad I read it. Together they propel it on this list. The link is to Gannon’s review at The Romance Dish.

Silk Is for Seduction by Loretta Chase

The first book in a new series by a writer who consistently proves she is one of the best writers of any year, Silk Is for Seduction offers a strong-willed, self-made heroine, a duke who counts his world well lost for love, and lines that are among my favorites of the year: “Life isn’t perfect. But I’d much rather live it imperfectly with you.”

A Lady’s Lesson in Scandal by Meredith Duran

This one has it all--engaging characters, compelling plot, and wonderful prose. Another keeper from Duran who gets better with every book, A Lady's Lesson in Scandal gives the most credible and unforgettable look at a heroine reared in poverty moving into a world of the privilege that I’ve seen in all my years of reading romance fiction. The link is to Gannon’s review at The Romance Dish.

The Duke Is Mine by Eloisa James

When Beauty Tamed the Beast would have been on my list had I not read This Duke Is Mine in 2011. I love all three of James’s fairy tale books, but this one has a warrior poet (not the hero) who touched my heart and made this book more than just another book I love.

What I Did for a Duke by Julie Anne Long

I knew when I read this book in January that it would be on this list. I’ve reread What I Did for a Duke twice since then, and I fell more deeply in love with the characters and the story each time. Long takes conventional roles, the proper maiden and the dangerous rake, and shows two characters who see beneath the image to the complexities that make up the real person. And the author’s prose is as seductive as her hero.

Angel’s Rest by Emily March

I’m a fan of small-town settings, and Eternity Springs has become one of my favorites. But it’s the hero of Angel’s Rest who earns this book a spot on my top ten list. Gabriel Callahan is a man who lost two lives, but he gets a shot at a third after love and Eternity Springs work their healing miracle

The Amorous Education of Celia Seaton by Miranda Neville

From the minute I saw the title, I loved The AmorousEducation of Celia Seaton. The reasons are many. It’s a book that is smart, witty, tender, and memorable. It also has a hero who admits he would not have fallen in love with the heroine at first sight but might have after he came to know her. How rare is that honesty in romance?

Nowhere Near Respectable by Mary Jo Putney

I confess that I gave an extra cheer when Nowhere Near Respectable showed up on the LJ list since I felt a lot of reviews undervalued it. I loved its multi-ethnicity and its hero, whom I labeled a beta who gives lie to the idea that beta heroes are not strong and hot and the author called a “warrior poet.”  Whatever the label, he's a keeper--and so is the book. The link is to Cheryl Sneed's commentary at Heroes and Heartbreakers.

The Beach Trees by Karen White

A little bit women’s fiction, a little bit romantic suspense, and wholly extraordinary, White’s “grit lit” look at a generations-spanning mystery set in a region that demonstrates its tenacity and resilience throughout The Beach Trees is a book to be cherished, remembered, and reread.

What are your choices for the top romance novels of 2011?

Note: All links are to my reviews at this site or to guest reviews at The Romance Dish unless otherwise specified.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Tuesday Review: How the Marquess Was Won

How the Marquess Was Won
By Julie Anne Long
Publisher: Avon
Release Date: December 27, 2011
Five Stars

Julian Spenser, Marquess Dryden, is the idol of the ton. His every move is followed slavishly by those who aspire to the pinnacle of approval and influence he has reached, but none can approach his perfection. His admirers are unaware that Dryden has reached his position through careful calculation and a determination to restore the family reputation and fortune. His plan will be complete when he acquires one last piece of land from Isaiah Redmond. He expects marriage to Isaiah’s niece, the beautiful Lisbeth Redmond, to make that acquisition possible.  

Phoebe Vale, born in dire poverty in the London slums, has achieved respectability and independence by virtue of a benefactor who saw that she was enrolled in Miss Marietta Endicott’s Academy for Girls where she is presently an instructor. Phoebe has a weakness for the scandal sheets, and thus she is well acquainted with the gossip about Lord Ice, as Dryden is called. But she never expected to see him in Pennyroyal Green in Postlethwaite’s Shop. She certainly never expected to be the object of a kissing bet involving the gentleman.

She also never expected to see him at Miss Marietta Endicott’s Academy for Girls, but there he is. And this time he notices Phoebe and is intrigued by a schoolteacher who behaves in a most unschoolteacherish manner. When Phoebe accepts an invitation from a former pupil, Lisbeth Redmond, to serve as her companion for the summer, she is thrown into the company of Dryden on a regular basis. Lisbeth makes clear her interest in Lord Ice, and he proceeds with his courtship, even as his attraction to Phoebe grows into feelings that complicate all Dryden’s plans. Lisbeth is all he needs in a bride, but it is Phoebe who holds his interest and soon his heart. A match between the two is unthinkable, and Phoebe will be no man’s mistress.

Julie Anne Long takes a conventional plot—lord falls for woman of a lower social class, she rejects his offer of an illicit relationship, all seems hopeless until . . . But Long creates characters who are so compelling that standard plot is a minor point. Phoebe is a survivor, intelligent, funny, sensitive, and strong-willed. She is also what she knows herself to be, not an aristocrat’s daughter born inside or outside wedlock. Dryden is much more than a man of fashion and the envy of his peers. He is a man of substance in the truest sense of that term; he possesses an ultimate reality that underlies all outward manifestations. In what has become a recurring motif in Long’s Pennyroyal books, Dryden and Phoebe see beyond the image that each projects to the person who thinks and feels, dreams and fears, soars, and stumbles, and it is the reality with whom they fall in love.

This is a wonderfully romantic book. That may sound redundant when speaking of a romance novel, but truly it isn’t. I read a lot of romances these days that devote great attention to sex but little to romance. Long doesn’t stint on the heat, and the sexual tension is superbly done, but there are also moments like the waltz scene that reveal not just desire but also tenderness and  sentiment and impulsive affection.

As always with a JAL book, the prose is sometimes tactile, frequently lyrical, and always purposeful; it is not opaque and ornamental.  Consider how much is revealed about both hero and heroine in this description of Phoebe’s eyes from Dryden’s point of view:

Mutely, he looked at her. Too full to speak. Her eyes were green. He knew that decisively now. A more facile man would have compared them flatteringly to something—leaves or moss or emeralds or some such—but all he would truthfully be able to say was that no one he’d ever known possessed eyes quite hers. It had little to do with their color. It was in the way that over the course of mere days he’d found himself saying things just to see how they would change: how humor would kindle them, and kindness soften them, and anger make them flash, and how he felt when the light of them was turned on him. How he wanted to hold up his hands before them and warm them.

Humor is also part of the appeal of this book. Phoebe and Dryden banter in a fashion that will delight readers who enjoy such exchanges. Phoebe’s cat Charybdis, a feline who has a personality the equal of Hermione Granger’s Crookshanks, has an important role that will leave readers laughing—and wincing. There are appearances by Redmonds and Everseas and tantalizing references to others. There are at least a couple that clearly demand their own books. How the Marquess Was Won is the sixth book in Long’s Pennyroyal Green series. I’ll be content to see the series twice that length. I highly recommend the book--and the series. Book 6 won this reader’s affection and a place on the keeper shelf. I just have one question: What’s next, Ms. Long?

What series has held your interest for the longest? Do you think there’s an ideal length for a series? Have you visited Pennyroyal Green, Sussex?

Friday, December 9, 2011

Watching Christmas: My Top Ten Christmas TV Episodes

I admit it. I was never one of the cool kids, and at my time of life, I’ve accepted that I’m never going to join that group. Frankly, I left any aspiration to be cool behind about the same time that I stopped wearing flared-leg jeans and angel sleeves. I say these things not as any sort of personal manifesto but rather to preface my selection of favorite Christmas episodes of TV shows and to warn the Christmas cynics among you that my favorites are unabashedly sentimental--some would say some of them are downright cheesy. (And yes, I’m old enough to have seen all of the original episodes, although I was a mere infant—almost--for the early ones.)

I love Christmas movies too, but that a subject for another blog. This one’s all about episodic television, and Christmas shows that still have me checking  the TVLand schedule and Hulu Plus to see them one more time.

1.     “The Christmas Story,” The Andy Griffith Show (December 19, 1960)

The scene is the Mayberry jail where Mayberry’s moonshiner, Sam Muggins, has been locked up by Andy on Christmas Eve at the insistence of Grinch-hearted shop owner Ben Weaver. Andy arrests him, but he also arrests Sam’s wife and children as "accessories before, during, and after the fact" and deputizes Aunt Bea, Opie, and Ellie to watch the “dangerous” crew. The two families unite to turn Mayberry’s jail into the warmest, most inviting place to spend Christmas. Weaver even manages to get himself arrested so he can join the happy group, bringing gifts from his store. And if Weaver’s heart-growing, moonshine-nipping conversion isn’t Christmassy enough, there’s the inimitable Don Knotts as Barney Fife playing Santa Claus.

2.     “Humbug Not To Be Spoken Here,” Bewitched (December 21, 1967)

Darrin (the first one, Dick York) has a grumpy client, Mr. Mortimer, who insists on working late on Christmas Eve. Even though Darrin leaves the meeting to be at home with Samantha and Tabitha, that night Sam takes on the guise of the Spirit of Christmas à la Charles Dickens, even taking the Scrooge-as-soup-king to the North Pole for a visit with Santa.

3.     “Christmas at Plum Creek,” Little House on the Prairie (December 25, 1974)

This one’s all about giving. Pa’s making a set of wagon wheels to earn the money to buy Ma a new stove. Ma’s making Pa a new shirt, and so is Mary. Ma ends up hiding her shirt to let Mary’s gift shine. Laura sold her horse, Bunny, to Mr. Oleson to buy the new stove for Ma. Carrie uses her penny to buy a gift for Baby Jesus.

4.     Guess Who’s Coming to Christmas,” Happy Days (December 17, 1974)

Fonzie tells Al the story of the Christmas Howard Cunningham didn’t get the traditional, family Christmas he wanted, Fonzie got the family he didn’t know he needed, and the famously disappearing Chuck Cunningham was still part of the family. The episode ends with Fonzie being asked to say grace over the Cunningham family dinner. 

5.     “Death Takes a Holiday,” M*A*S*H (December 15, 1980)

Christmas comes even in war zones.  The 4077th, at the urging of Father Mulcahy have invited the children from the local orphanage to a Christmas part in the mess tent. B.J. gives fudge from home to the cause, and Charles, who turns out to be a secret Santa, offers smoked oysters. While Colonel Potter plays Santa, Hawkeye, B.J., and Margaret battle to keep a mortally wounded soldier alive for one more day so that his family won’t forever associate Christmas with the day their son/husband/father died.

6.     “Basinger’s New York,” Highway to Heaven (December 17, 1986)

A disillusioned, divorced New York newspaper columnist Jeb Basinger (played by Richard Mulligan) struggles to write his Christmas column. Jonathan and Mark must show the cynical journalist that goodness and hope exists. Jeb accompanies them as they help a 20th-century homeless Mary and Joseph find food, shelter, and a hospital for their child to be born. Along the way, they help a cab driver find his missing son, a senator and his wife find love, and some homeless men find purpose, and Jeb finds Christmas miracles enough to write his story and change his life.

7.     “Christmas,” The Wonder Years (December 14, 1988)

What can you do when the girl you love has a Christmas gift for you, and you have $6 and no idea what to get her? This is the problem Kevin Arnold is facing in 1968, the year he and his butt-head brother are trying to talk their dad into buying the family’s first color TV for Christmas. I loved the beginning and ending retrospective narratives of this show. “Christmas” closes with these words:

I don't even remember what I got for Christmas that year. But Dad gave Mom a bracelet that knocked her socks off. Oh, yeah... and he did get us that color-TV... two years later. For me, that year Christmas stopped being about tinsel and wrapping paper, and started being about memory. At first I was disappointed. Until I learned that memory is a way of holding on to the things you love, the things you are, the things you wish to never lose. And I learned from Winnie, that in a world that changes too fast, the best we can do is wish each other Merry Christmas. [Kevin opens Winnie's present, which is a four-leaf clover] And good luck.

8.     “The First Day of the Last Decade of the Entire Twentieth Century,” Designing Women (January 1, 1990)

I’m cheating here because this is a New Year’s episode rather than a Christmas one, but 1989 was not a good year for Christmas episodes. This was the first holiday show that year that had the special warmth that marks the standouts for me. I always think of it as a Christmas show.

Charlene dreams of a visit from her “guardian celebrity,” Dolly Parton, who tells her that a baby girl will soon arrive. When Charlene is saddened by the thought of family members who didn’t live to see her soon-to-arrive daughter, Dolly assures her that they will be with the child in spirit as she grows to adulthood. Charlene is awakened by labor pains. Bill’s plane is grounded by bad weather, and Julia, Mary Jo, and Suzanne take her to the hospital.

In the hospital, Julia meets Minnie Bell Ward, a 102-year-old woman who is waiting for death. The character was inspired by Meshach Taylor’s grandmother. Like Taylor’s grandmother, Miss Minnie shares stories of her long life that spanned most of the 20th century. As the old year departs, Miss Minnie dies, and as the new year begins, Charlene and Bill’s daughter Olivia is born.

9.     “Fear Not,” Touched by an Angel (December 25, 1994)

Monica and Tess both befriend Joey, a mentally challenged teenager. Joey must learn to let go of his fear of the dark, a legacy of his parents’ deaths in an automobile accident at night, in order to help his friend Selena. Monica’s special mission is to teach Wayne, Joey’s older brother, burdened by duty and resentful of his responsibility for Joey, to open his heart to brotherly love. These characters reappear in several episodes including the series finale, but this one, a real tearjerker, is the best. Tess always gets the best lines. In “Fear Not,” she says to Monica: “When life keeps you in the dark, baby, that's when you start looking at the stars.”

10.     “In Excelsis Deo,” The West Wing (December 15, 1999)

Life in the White House and for its staffers continues at its complicated pace while Toby is called by the D.C. police to identify a homeless man found dead wearing Toby’s coat. Toby had donated the coat to Good Will and accidentally left his card in it. But he is determined to identify the man, and when he discovers the man was a Korean War veteran, he uses the influence of his position to arrange a military funeral and burial at Arlington. When President Bartlett warns that Toby could be setting a precedent, Toby responds, “I can only hope so, sir.” Only the dead man’s brother, also homeless, Toby, and Mrs. Landingham, whose two sons were killed in Vietnam, attend the funeral.

Is watching Christmas one of the ways you celebrate the season? What are your favorite Christmas TV episodes? Your favorite Christmas movies?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Tuesday Review: The Duke Is Mine

The Duke Is Mine
By Eloisa James
Publisher: Avon
Release Date: December 27, 2011
Five Stars

Olivia Lytton was born to be a duchess, and her whole life has been a process of preparing her for that role. She and her twin sister Georgiana, younger by seven minutes, have been schooled in all the finer points of proper duchess behavior. The result in Georgiana’s case is perfection. From her slender beauty to her every word and move, she is ideal duchess material. Olivia, on the other hand, is disastrously frank with a fondness for bawdy limericks and a lushly curved body that fails the elegance test. Nevertheless, by virtue of being first born, she is destined to be the bride of Rupert Blakemore, Marquess of Montsurrey and heir to the Duke of Canterwick. Rupert is five years her junior and a simple soul who has none of Olivia’s intelligence and wit. But Rupert has reached the age of eighteen, and his father is eager to see him wed. Olivia is unhappy but resigned to her fate. Her consolation is that her marriage will enable her to dower Georgiana and help her to find a man with whom she can find happiness.

Surprisingly, it is young Rupert who delays the marriage because he has a vision of achieving military glory. He departs with a retinue his father is persuaded will keep him safe, leaving Olivia with the true love of his life, Lucy, a most non-aristocratic dog. Meanwhile Georgiana has received an invitation from the mother of Tarquin Brook-Chatfield, the Duke of Sconce, a woman bent on finding a proper duchess for her widowed son. Olivia accompanies her sister on her visit to the ducal domicile.

The Duke of Sconce, like Olivia, is resigned to marriage. His first marriage was a love match on his part, and it ended in tragedy. He allows his mother to play matchmaker because he has determined to have nothing more to do with love. His devotion now is reserved for mathematics, a field where he has better fortune solving the problems. But from his first sight of Olivia, his life begins to change. He finds her beautiful and the more time they spend together, the greater distraction she becomes. Since his mother is putting Georgiana and another young woman through a series of tests to determine their fitness to become the next Duchess of Sconce, Quin and Olivia are often in each other’s company. Soon to the physical attraction that sparked between them early are added an appreciation of one another’s intelligence, an openness in their communication, and the sense of wholeness they discover in one another. Georgiana thinks Quin will make her a perfect husband. Olivia’s betrothal papers to a man who is fighting for his country have been signed. What are two honorable people who are hopelessly in love to do?

The Duke Is Mine is the third book in James’s Happily Ever After series, novels that offer the author’s take on classic fairy tales. Although I loved A Kiss at Midnight (Cinderella) and When Beauty Tamed the Beast (Beauty and the Beast), I had reservations about a romance based on the Princess and the Pea. Unlike the other two, it was not a favorite fairy tale, and I didn’t see it as romantic at all. I should have trusted the author. James takes elements from Hans Christian Andersen’s tale and weaves them into a story that is truly and delightfully a romance.

Like the princess in the fairy tale, when Olivia first meets “the prince,” she is a refugee from the storm, “in a sad condition; the water trickled down from her hair, and her clothes clung to her body.” But unlike the original bedraggled princess, Olivia doesn’t feel like a real princess—or even a real duchess. She is convinced that she is totally unsuited physically and temperamentally to be a duchess, and it is not she but her sister who is being tested by the reigning matriarch. Olivia is everything Quin’s mother finds most unsuitable for a real duchess. But Olivia is no passive princess who goes meekly off to sleep on twenty mattresses. She challenges Quin from their first exchange. I loved her irrepressibility and vulnerability and determination to be herself. I loved that she was more earthy than ethereal. I loved her wit and her bawdy sense of humor. I loved her intelligence, strength, and honor. I loved her understanding heart.

And Quin! I fell hard for him from the first description.

. . . the Duke of Sconce was the sort of man repulsed by the very idea of fairy tales. He neither read nor thought about them (let alone believed in them); the notion of playing a role in one would have been preposterous, and he would have rejected outright the notion that he resembled in any fashion the golden-haired, velvet-lad princes generally found in such tales.

Tarquin Brook-Chatfield, Duke of Sconce—known as Quin to his intimates, who numbered exactly two—was more like the villain in those stories than the hero, and he knew it.

I loved Quin’s intelligence, his passion for mathematics, and his logic. Most of all, I loved his overwhelming feelings for Olivia.

This is a story rich in humor, and I smiled a lot and sometimes laughed aloud while reading it. But as the story unfolded, I became aware how much more there was to the novel than a few hours entertainment. James takes a company of flawed characters and from the hero and heroine to Quin’s arrogant mother to the plebian pet, Lucy, shows love making them all “real.” Quin’s mother might have been just another controlling mother, but James reveals that it is not false pride but genuine love for her son who was devastated by his first marriage that motivates her actions. Even Rupert’s manipulative father becomes endearing when the reader sees his pride and love for his son. Rupert’s foil, his cousin Justin (a Bieber tribute in honor of James’s daughter), might have been shallow but instead possesses an enviable joie de vivre. Georgiana’s perfection would have been boring had the reader not seen the unconventional ambition that lay beneath her polished exterior. And most surprising, Rupert, who in less skillful hands might have been little more than a buffoon, become the realest of all—not because he ends up a military hero but because he had all along the sensitivity and compassion that are the very definition of realness, as the story of the Princess and the Pea illustrates.

The Duke Is Mine has all the things I look for in an Eloisa James novel: the wit, the literary allusions, the lyrical moments, the love scene in an unexpected setting. Quin and Olivia’s tree house, which “had windows on all four sides open to the moonlight, which poured in like fairy dust turned silver,” may just be my favorite in a long list of such scenes.

This is a book to which I will return, one that I will reread often, anticipating that it will break my heart in places and set it singing in others. I highly recommend it.

Do you like romances based on fairy tales? What are some of your favorites?