Tuesday, September 25, 2012

I Can't Break Free . . .

I'm a captive of my computer until I meet my deadline this week. I'm still about ten thousand words or so from freedom. I apologize for the lack of a review today. I promise I'll do double posts next week because there are so many great reads I want to share with you. But for the next five days, I'll be in the deadline dungeon writing about multiculturalism.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Bonus Review: The Accidental Bride

The Accidental Bride
By Christina Skye
Publisher: Harlequin HQN
Release Date: 
September 18, 2012

Jilly O’Hara is happy. Everything seems to be falling in place. She’s well on her way to realizing her dream of creating a natural-food empire by her thirty-fifth birthday, Her restaurant, Jilly’s Place, in Scottsdale, Arizona, is successful beyond her dreams, booked weeks ahead. She’s had two offers to buy her signature line of organic salsas, and she may even find time to write a cookbook. So maybe her life is her work, but she does take time off for quick trips back to Summer Island, Oregon, where she and Caro, Grace, and Olivia, best friends  since their shared girlhood on the island, are working together to give the historic Harbor House a new life. Perhaps those trips aren’t exactly vacations, but keeping busy is necessary for Jilly.

Then one Saturday night just after she has removed an eggplant pizza from the oven, she passes out and wakes up in the hospital. At twenty-seven, she has had a heart attack. She hears the doctor talking about valve malformation and arrhythmia and ordering six months without stress, without caffeine, without sixteen-hour workdays. In other words, for six months Jilly has to give up her life in order to save her life. Caro, Grace, and Olivia know that sticking to doctor’s orders will be next to impossible for Jilly, and so, determined to save her from herself, they conspire to send her to a resort in Lost Creek, Wyoming, for a ten-day stay where she’ll be forced to learn to relax and maybe to knit as well.

 Lost Creek loves Walker Hale. They love his dog, Winslow too. The two of them saved a platoon in Afghanistan that included a number of locals, and the town can’t do enough for their heroes. Walker is uncomfortable with all the attention. All he really wants is to be left alone by the grateful citizens of Lost Creek and by his wealthy, high-profile family who are dissatisfied with what he’s made of his life. Since his medical discharge from the Marines, he has worked as a combat training consultant, and he needs the time between assignments to decompress. It’s only when he meets Jilly O’Hara that he begins to think he may want more from life than solitude and the companionship of the faithful Winslow.

Jilly’s not too happy when she realizes what her friends have done, but she is finding time to relax, meeting interesting people, and even taking a few knitting lessons. Although she falls in love with Winslow first, it isn’t long before she finds herself more and more interested in Winslow’s master. Jilly is slow to trust, and when she does open her heart to Walker Hale, she finds he’s not the man she thought he was. He turns out to be a greater danger to her heart than the most stressful kitchen disaster could ever be.

The Accidental Bride is the third story in Christina Skye’s Summer Island series, following the novella “Return to Summer Island” (Caro and Gage’s story) in the anthology The Knitting Diaries and A Home by the Sea (Grace and Noah’s story). I like the world Skye creates in these stories, and I was eager to see Jilly find happiness.  With her history of being abandoned as an infant, her passion for cooking, and her fierce loyalty to her friends, I found her an interesting, sympathetic character in the earlier stories. Walker’s stoicism and courage was appealing, and I fell for Winslow at the same time Jilly did. I was a bit disappointed at first that  The Accidental Bride  moved away from Summer Island, but Lost Creek and its inhabitants held their own delights.

But two things kept me from enjoying Jilly’s story as fully as I expected.  First, the wedding that gives the novel its title felt forced and gimmicky to me. I found it hard to believe in the circumstances that led to it, and I felt cheated of seeing the relationship between two characters I cared about develop more naturally.

Second, one of the reasons I’m addicted to series is that I love catching glimpses of the ongoing happiness of the H/H pairs from earlier books. In The Accidental Bride, Caro is on Summer Island caring for her baby and worrying about Gage who is still in danger every day, and Grace is wondering if she and Noah will ever have time together because he can’t seem to keep his promise to break free of his dangerous job. So although Jilly and Walker get their HEA, I wasn’t altogether happy with how they arrived there, and I finished concerned about Caro and Grace. I’ll be back for Olivia’s story. I can only hope that it will bring not only an HEA for her but also reaffirm the HEAs of her three friends.

How about you? Are you bothered by HEAs with question marks? Do you, like me, prefer your HEAs unshadowed?

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Tuesday Review: Seven Nights in a Rogue's Bed

Seven Nights in a Rogue’s Bed
By Anna Campbell
Publisher: Grand Central
Release Date: 
September 25, 2012

 Sidonie Forsythe arrives at Castle Craven expecting its master to be a monster. That’s what her sister, Roberta, Lady Hillbrook had led her to expect. Sidonie has come to this godforsaken place on a bitterly cold November night for one reason—to save her sister. However wrong her sister was to gamble and place herself in the power of Jonas Merrick, she doesn’t deserve the price she’ll pay if her abusive husband discovers what Merrick is demanding for her vowels. So to save her sister’s life and to protect her two young nephews, Sidonie has come to Castle Craven in Roberta’s place. She will offer her virginity as a substitute for the adulterous sex with the wife of his life-long enemy that is what Jonas Merrick has demanded in exchange for absolving Lady Hillbrook’s gambling debt.

Jonas Merrick is a bastard. Branded as one literally when his parents’ marriage was declared invalid, he has proudly assumed the role of a cold-hearted, alienated man who uses his wealth and power ruthlessly to achieve his goals. He inherited his father’s considerable unentailed fortune, and he has added to it with single-minded purpose. Wealth will be the weapon he uses to destroy his cousin William--the man who holds the title that should have been Jonas’s, the man responsible for the physical and psychic scars that define Jonas, the man married to Sidonie Forsythe’s sister.

Neither Sidonie nor Jonas find what they expect. Sidonie sees in Jonas not a monster, but a man, although not handsome, who is so filled with life and intelligence that he captures her interest despite the situation. She fears him, but she is also fascinated by him. And she’s confused by the mix of dread and desire he inspires in her. For his part, Jonas was expecting Roberta, a shallow beauty whose only attraction for him was as a means to strike another blow at his mortal enemy. Instead, he sees a younger woman whose mix of innocence, spirit, and voluptuousness stirs his interest, his loins, and his heart.

Sidonie so captivates Jonas that on the morning after her arrival, he maneuvers her into a new bargain. Sidonie will spend six more days and nights with him, after which he will give her Roberta’s vowels and consider the debt fully paid. During the period, Jonas will do all within his power to seduce her into coming willingly to his bed. Sidonie will do all she can to resist him and to leave with her sister’s debt paid and her own virtue intact. Jonas has lived a life filled with betrayal, and he will not allow himself to be vulnerable. Sidonie has seen in her parents’ marriage and her sister’s what happens to a woman when marriage places her under the control of a man. She is determined to live a life of single independence. But the love they find in their time together is more powerful than the either of them could have dreamed. Will it be more powerful than Sidonie’s loyalty to the sister who was her only source of affection throughout their childhood? Will it be strong enough to enable Jonas to forgive more betrayals?

The opening scene of SNIARB took me back to summers when I visited a favorite aunt and read grocery bags filled with the Gothic romances she had saved for me. I was hooked from the opening sentence: “Storms split the heavens on the night Sidonie Forsythe went to her ruin.” Although the love scenes in the Gothic romances of my long-ago youth were tepid and bland in comparison to the sizzle and flames of Campbell’s fiction,  in the innocent heroine, the isolated setting, the stormy night, the scarred hero, the irresistible attraction, the secrets and the distrust all evoked memories of those earlier books. Added to the Gothic appeal were the Beauty and Beast theme and the complex characters that I expect in an Anna Campbell book.

I read romance fiction because I can trust in the happy ending. At the same time, the books that I find most compelling are those that make me believe for a few holding-my-breath moments that there is no way the hero and heroine can overcome the obstacles and win their HEA. Campbell gave me these moments in this book. I loved Sidonie and Jonas, flaws and all. I believed in their love for one another, and I thought they deserved one another. But there were those moments when my heart stuttered and I thought, oh no, they can’t make it past this. But, of course, they did and in a sublimely satisfying epilogue.

Seven Nights in a Rogue’s Bed is Anna Campbell’s first book for Grand Central. It’s the first book in a series and the introduction to her first series. How rare is that for a romance author who debuted in 2007? It’s a wonderful beginning. In fact, I think this may be AC’s best book yet. I loved it, and I can’t wait to read the stories of those other Sons of Sin, Cam Rothermere and Richard Harmsworth. 

Are you a fan of Gothic romances? What's your favorite?

Friday, September 14, 2012

Seeing Gold, Getting Cozy: The Personal History of a Mystery Reader (Part One)

I was talking books with a friend the other day who found it strange that I avoid thrillers and read very selectively in romantic suspense but consider myself a fan of mysteries. I don’t see any contradiction.  I choose my mysteries on the basis of characterization and world building with the actual puzzle a distant third criterion. My choices are shaped by my earliest reading of mysteries, which began if not at my mother’s knee, at least with her bookshelves. I read mysteries from the Golden Age of the Genre and the forerunners of the cozy mysteries that are my most frequent mystery reads today.

I started reading adult mysteries that same fateful summer I started reading romance. As with romance, I began with my mother’s favorite. In this case, that meant Agatha Christie.  While I loved Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, my favorites were the Tommy and Tuppence stories. Their appeal was less in the mysteries and more in the developing relationship between the careful Tommy and the impulsive Tuppence who begin as “The Young Adventurers,” introduced in The Secret Adversary. They move on to become a married couple with children and finally retirees and grandparents over the course of four more books. Their friends-to-lovers tale has the ultimate HEA, ending with the pair in their seventies, living in a country home with their dog, surrounded by family. All the books resonate with charm and humor and the pair’s love for one another.

Tommy and Tuppence Books:

The Secret Adversary
Partners in Crime, a collection of short stories (1929)
N or M? (1941)
By the Pricking of My Thumbs (1968)
Postern of Fate (1973) 

After Christie, I moved on to Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion books. Like Christie, Allingham wrote books with little gore and lots of characters interacting with one another. I discovered Sayers later, and so I was unconscious of Campion’s similarities to Lord Peter Wimsey.  His class, his mysterious war work, his manservant (the reformed burglar Magersfontein Lugg_ and his extended family fascinating, but I paid particular attention to his romantic entanglements. Poor Albert had his heart cracked several times before he married aircraft engineer Amanda Fitton, whom he first encountered as a plucky seventeen-year-old in Kingdom of Death.

Albert Campion Mysteries

The Black Dudley Murder (1929)  
Mystery Mile (1930)
The Gyrth Chalice Mystery (1931)
Police at the Funeral (1931)
Kingdom of Death (1933)
Death of a Ghost (1934)
Legacy in Blood (1936)  
The Case of the Late Pig (1937)
Who Killed Chloe? (1937)
The Fashion in Shrouds (1938)
The Sabotage Murder Mystery (1941)  
Pearls Before Swine (1945)

I have used American titles and stopped at #12 in which Campion and Amanda are married and have a son. Allingham wrote four more Campion novels before her death, plus four collections of short stories. Another three were completed or written by her husband after her death.  

A few years later I discovered Leslie Ford’s Grace Latham/Colonel Primrose mysteries, books that continue to be favorites. The original books were called Colonel Primrose books, but Grace Latham is the narrator of most of the books, and her life is revealed in considerably greater detail. I’ve always thought of them as Grace Latham mysteries, and they are often referred to in this manner by other readers. Ford, whose real name was Zenith Jones Brown, is not to everyone’s taste. She is very much a product of her time and class, and the novels are not politically correct. Racism and sexism are part of the fabric of these books, just as they were of the actual historical period in which the mysteries are set. 

But Ford’s writing is excellent, and Grace Latham, a widow bringing up her two sons, and her long-time beau Colonel John Primrose, whose bachelorhood is zealously guarded by his aide, Sergeant Buck, are eminently likeable characters. The view of WW II era Washington, D. C. with its entangled social and political threads offers a background I find fascinating.

Grace was happy in her first marriage, but she shows no inclination to marry the Colonel. I like to think that the two were lovers, but given the delicacy with which sexuality was referenced in the books, it’s impossible to know for certain. It is clear that they were in love with one another and spent a great deal of time together.

Grace Latham/Colonel Primrose Mysteries

The Strangled Witness (1934)
Ill Met by Moonlight (1934)
The Simple Way of Poison (1937)
Three Bright Pebbles (1938)
False to Any Man (1939)
Reno Rendezvous (1939)
Old Lover's Ghost (1941)
The Murder of the Fifth Columnist (1941)
Murder in the O. P. M. (1942)
Siren in the Night (1943)
All for the Love of a Lady (1944)
The Philadelphia Murder Story (1945)

 Again, I stopped with the first twelve. Ford wrote four more books in the series between 1948 and 1952.

The next mystery writer who claimed my allegiance was Rae Foley, pseudonym of Elinore Denniston, with her Hiram Potter books. Potter, an urbane, wealthy, intelligent man with a not always convenient conscience falls in love with a psychotic murderer in the first book. She is a shadow in his life through several books, and finally dies in a mental institution. Eventually Potter meets and falls for Janet Grant, and the two marry and live happily in his Grammercy Park. A recurring cast of secondary characters including beauty Opal Reed and her handy boyfriend Sam, playwright Graham Collinge, and Captain Peter O’Toole provide the context I consider essential.

Hiram Potter Mysteries

The Peacock Is a Bird of Prey (1955)
The Last Gamble (1956)
Run for Your Life (1957)
Where Is Mary Bostwick? (1958)
Dangerous to Me (1959)
Curtain Call (1961)
Repent at Leisure (1962)
Back Door to Death (1963)
Fatal Lady (1964)
Call It Accident (1965)
Calculated Risk (1970)

 I’m not sure how I missed Sayers during in my early mystery reading, but I discovered Lord Peter Wimsey only after I was introduced to Sayers through her translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy and her voluminous explanatory notes that saved my grade. Only after reading Sayers’s mysteries did I understand Allingham’s nod to Sayers in creating Albert Campion and the description of Hiram Potter as “America’s Lord Peter Wimsey.” 

Lord Peter is an interesting character before he meets Harriet Vane. He is a wealthy aristocrat with seemingly unlimited funds, interests, and time. I always experience a fellow feeling with Sayers when I remember Sayers saying that she gave Lord Peter all the things she didn’t have. Given the preponderance of wealthy heroes in romance fiction, I suspect many writers can understand the choices Sayers makes. She describes him in Clouds of Witness, the second book in the series:

He was a respectable scholar in five or six languages, a musician of some skill and more understanding, something of an expert in toxicology, a collector of rare editions, an entertaining man-about-town, and a common sensationalist. He had been seen at half-past twelve on a Sunday morning walking in Hyde Park in a top-hat and frock-coat reading the News of the World. His passion for the unexplored led him to hunt up obscure pamphlets in the British Museum, to unravel the emotional history of income-tax collectors, and to find out where his own drains led to.

But however interesting the early Wimsey books are, the books that follow his relationship with Harriet Vane are my favorites. They don’t meet until Strong Poison, the sixth book. Harriet, a mystery writer, is suspected of murdering her lover. Wimsey falls in love with her at first sight and devotes himself to proving her innocence. When he succeeds, he proposes. She refuses bothered by class differences, her gratitude for his saving her from the gallows, and her fears that marriage to him won’t allow her to herself. Over five books, Peter courts her, reiterating his proposal. They work on cases together, and she repeats her refusal. Finally, in Gaudy Night, worth reading for its view of academic women, Harriet accepts his proposal. In Busman’s Honeymoon, they marry and spend their honeymoon solving a case, hence the title.  Their life together continues in several short stories in which they become parents of three sons. My summary fails to do justice to the complex, nuanced relationship that develops between these two characters. Theirs is a great love story.
Lord Peter Wimsey Stories

Whose Body? (1923)
Clouds of Witness (1926)
Unnatural Death (1927)
Lord Peter Views the Body (1928)
The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928)
Strong Poison (1930)
The Five Red Herrings (1931)
Have His Carcase (1932)
Hangman's Holiday (1933)
Murder Must Advertize (1933)
The Nine Tailors (1934)
Gaudy Night (1935)
Busman's Honeymoon (1937)
In the Teeth of the Evidence (1939)
Lord Peter: The Complete Lord Peter Wimsey Stories (1972)
Striding Folly (1972)

Decades after I read my first Agatha Christie, I have more than seventy authors on my list of mystery writers that I read. Some are from mystery’s Golden Age; many, perhaps most, are more are authors of modern cozies. The list changes.  Sometimes I drop an author. One killed off a main character, an unforgivable writing offense for me.  Much more often a recommendation leads to the discovery of a new favorite.  But those new favorites are another subject; they will be the topic of part two. 

Are you a mystery reader? Do you like a little romance mixed with your mystery?