Friday, December 31, 2010

Once Upon a Christmas

After a tragic loss, Celia Delacourt faces the daunting prospect of a lonely life as a governess... or worse.  Then the Duchess of Arnsford, her distant cousin, invites Celia to spend Christmas on the family estate.  Celia suspects an ulterior, but nonetheless decides that there are worse ways to pass the holidays than by spending them in a palace with family - however distant. 

Jack Delacourt knows his mother is plotting something when he receives a Christmas invitation from her.  If his mother plans to bully him into marrying a stranger, Jack is prepared to fight - with a delightfully mischievous plan of his own.  Then he meets Celia and discovers she's not what he expected.  In fact she's more than he dreamed.  Now, instead of playing the fool, he's becoming one - for love.

A lovely holiday story that I will enjoy again next year. 

This was a sweet story that I enjoyed reading last Christmas and earmarked for this year so I could enjoy it again and write a review.  Its a charmer of a book and, I'm ashamed to say, only my second Diane Farr title.  I really enjoyed her book The Nobody which led me to picking up this little gem, in addition to a few other Farr titles I have on my To-Be-Read shelf.  So many books, so little time, ya know?

So, first we meet Celia Delacourt.  While pondering her future (and imminent homelessness), she receives a visit from her very distant cousin, the Duchess of Arnsford.  A critical eye and an interview later, the duchess invites Celia to Delacourt for Chrismas and Celia accepts the invitation.  A visit would be a welcome change of scenery... but the duchess has a plan that will allow Celia to stay at Delacourt permanently.

Meanwhile, Jack Delacourt, Marquess of Lynden is carousing with his friends when he opens a missive from his mother - an invitation to Christmas at the family home.  Instantly a battalion of red flags pop up since he always makes an appearance for Christmas without the need of a formal invite.  Jack knows his mother has something up her lace-cuffed sleeves and it doesn't take much to realize that she's matchmaking.  Unenthused by this predicament, Jack comes up with a strategy to thwart his mother's plans by scaring off this girl who, no doubt, has high hopes of becoming his duchess.  Yes, scaring her off is the thing to do because Jack refuses to succumb to his mother's wishes... no matter what.

I really enjoyed this story for its witty writing and charming characters.  Celia is a sweetheart of a girl trying to find a place in the world while mourning the loss of her family.  Jack, of course, wreaks havoc, much to his family's disapproval and embarrassment.  But to appease his mother just a little, he does spend some time getting to know his distant relation.  Then he becomes intrigued, surprised... and maybe a bit smitten by Celia's sweet and honest nature. But the tables begin to turn when Jack realizes Celia actually feels sorry for him.  With all his hair-brained schemes and antics, Celia thinks he actually suffers from a mental illness!  But things aren't quite adding up and Jack isn't sure that Celia is really aiming for the prize of becoming a duchess.  By this time, the current duchess has already concluded that Celia could never fill her shoes and run Delacourt properly but Jack detests the thought of a cookie-cutter duplicate of his mother running Delacourt for him anyway.  Perhaps Celia would be the perfect candidate after all.   All this, and a moody cat named Manegold, create a beautiful and touching story that unfolds during the Christmas season.

Now I will be honest and share that I did find this story moved at a more leisurely, meandering pace than my usual reads.  Nothing wrong there but if you're the type who prefers to plow through a story while sitting on the edge of your seat eager for the next thing to happen, this story will probably move a bit slow.  There is no lacking in dialogue, which pleased me immensely because I abhor books that are heavily introspective.  This one balances nicely. 

I also enjoyed the little subplot with Jack's sister, Elizabeth - it shakes things up a little (Jack included) and helps round out the story.  If you have read the book The Nobody, you may remember Elizabeth as a minor character there as well.  A second subplot (which really comes first) involves Jack's mother and her urgency for finding a suitable replacement for herself.  I found the whole scenario to be poignant and beautifully illustrated.  Manegold, the cat, is a hoot even though he is really just a normal cat.  Ms. Farr describes the feline personality perfectly, which made Manegold fun to read especially since he was used as a tool to help the reader draw more out of the main characters.  But what I enjoyed most of all in this story was how Jack rang in Christmas for Celia.  It was sweet and sentimental and really showed Celia how he felt about her, rather than just telling.   It also wrapped the story up nicely even though this was one of those times when I wish there had been an epilogue.  Oh well, I will live.

All in all, this was a heartwarming story with characters you can't help but care about and root for their happiness.  I highly recommend this book as a lovely Christmassy historical romance with very mild sensual tones.  

My rating:  9 Loved it! 

These books stand alone but have a character connection:

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Heart of Christmas

Two classic tales from New York Times bestselling author Mary Balogh and Nicola Cornick and a brand new story from Courtney Milan!

A Handful of Gold - A love story from New York Times bestselling author Mary Balogh
Not only is Julian Dare dashing and wealthy, but he's the heir to an earldom. So what do you get a man who has everything? Innocent and comely Verity Ewing plans on giving Julian her heart—the most precious gift of all.

The Season for Suitors - An original romance from Nicola Cornick
After some close encounters with rakes in which she was nearly compromised, heiress Clara Davenport realizes that she needs some expert advice. And who better for the job than Sebastian Fleet, the most notorious rake in town? But the tutelage doesn't go quite as planned, as both Sebastian and Clara find it difficult to remain objective when it comes to lessons of the heart!

This Wicked Gift - An original romance from Courtney Milan
Lavinia Spencer has been saving her hard-earned pennies to provide her family with Christmas dinner. Days before the holiday, her brother is swindled, leaving them owing more than they can ever repay. Until a mysterious benefactor offers to settle the debt. Innocent Lavinia is stunned by what the dashing William White wants in return. Will she exchange a wicked gift for her family's fortune?

Finally an anthology where all three stories are good, strong reads!

I picked this book up last year when it came out and I put a gold star on the inside of the cover, which means that I liked the book and wanted to earmark it for re-reading.  Being short on reading time this Christmas season, I decided to read and enjoy the short stories again this year, which also gives me the opportunity to write a review!  So here we go!  But before we get too far, I've noticed more and more that anthologies, especially Christmas ones, contain short stories that have been reprinted at one time or another.  If you don't have one already, start a book list and note the individual anthology stories so you don't buy the same ones over and over.  The stories by Balogh and Cornick are both reprints, but Courtney Milan's story is new (at least it was in 2009). 

As I do with all anthologies, I rate each story individually as follows: LOVED IT, ENJOYED IT, JUST OK, or DIDN'T LIKE IT. My overall rating for the book will appear at the end of this post.

A Handful of Gold by Mary Balogh - Verity Ewing lives a double life.  To her mother and sister she is companion to Lady Coleman, but to the rest of London she is opera dancer Blanche Heyward.  Verity has no choice but to work if her sister Chastity is going to get the medicine she needs and being an opera dancer pays well but Verity is finding that it's not quite enough.  Several gentleman visit the dressing rooms after the shows and Verity begins to think she may need to accept an offer of becoming somebody's mistress to help provide for her family.  Enter Julian Dare.  He offers Blanche five hundred pounds if she spends Christmas week with him at his friend's county house in Norfolkshire.  Negotiating half payment before the trip, Blanche accepts his offer and reluctantly leaves her family behind to become a fallen woman.

ENJOYED IT.  Verity is a strong woman who basically martyrs herself to provide for her family although the last thing Julian wants is a martyr in his bed.  He doesn't know what to make of Blanche, especially when she stuns the everyone at the country house by deciding to decorate and celebrate Christmas.  She was very bold to start ordering people about in a house that was not hers.  Too bold, I thought.  Naturally, celebrating Christmas was not at all what the men had in mind for this little house party so there were some moments where I felt the story a bit forced, especially when there was no push-back from the other characters.  But things get more interesting when an overturned carriage topples and the passengers seek refuge from the storm.  A reverend and his family staying in a house with two men and their mistresses requires some quick thinking but events continue to unfold that just might create a memorable Christmas for them all.  As I have found with some other Balogh stories, there is a bit of sappiness that seeps through the pages.  The Christmas service Blanche arranges with the reverend was nice, but seemed over the top in the sentimental (dare I say corny?) department.  I think it was because it became another one of those instances that felt forced on the other characters but was made all sparkly and rosy because everyone just went along with it.  I did enjoy this story overall, especially the end as Julian searches and finds out about Verity's true identity, but just be prepared for a fair amount of sap along the way.

The Season for Suitors by Nicola Cornick - Clara Davenport needs help so she contacts the most notorious rake in town, Sebastian Fleet.  Sebastian calls on her and is floored when she asks for advice on how to outwit all the other rakes and scoundrels now that she is an heiress and can't seem to shake all the attention.  Refusing her proposition, he instead offers to protect her from unwanted suitors but when Sebastian sees for himself all the men who are attracted to Clara, jealousy begins to creep onto the scene and Sebastian finds he just might want Clara for himself after all.

ENJOYED IT.  I liked this story because its always fun when characters are fighting their own feelings.  It's interesting though that we learn early on that Clara had at one time proposed to Sebastian and he flatly refused her.  But later when he kisses her at the ball, he can tell that she has never been kissed before.  So, how exactly did the proposal come about originally?  This really had me intrigued.  He told her back then that he was not the marrying kind, but they hadn't, at the very least, even shared a kiss?  I became a tad more confused when I flipped back to when Sebastian first reads Clara's letter at the beginning of the story and he became "aware of rather more pleasure than seemed quite appropriate."  What exactly happened that eighteen months before when they had last seen each other?  We really don't learn any more about their past beyond this tidbit but it's obvious he is attracted to Clara. So, all of this contributes to Sebastian fighting with his own feelings, which is no surprise since we see how much he wants Clara but won't give in to what he feels.  Meanwhile, Clara's feelings for Sebastian, which she thought had diminished over the last year and a half, are back and strong as ever.  Sit back and enjoy the unraveling of this story but be aware that although it was an enjoyable read, there was nothing Christmassy in this story.  Not a Christmas carol, nor a sprig of mistletoe.  Nothing.  The story takes place in the winter season, but that's as close as you get. 

More to come... I'm still reading!

Under the Mistletoe

(Clipped snippets from the back cover letter to readers...)

A Family Christmas brings together a couple estranged since just after their arranged marriage the year before, and gives them the perfect chance to start over.

The Star of Bethlehem features one betrothal ring lost but three that are mysteriously found as a broken marriage is abundantly mended.

The Best Gift is the tale of a teacher who has never known family, love, or Christmas--then finds all three when asked to chaperon one of her pupils over the holiday.

In Playing House, a lonely aristocrat and his daughter are drawn to an impoverished young woman and her siblings, who are celebrating their last Christmas together with brave gaiety.

An assortment of unhappy travelers stranded by bad weather at an inn on Christmas Eve encounter love after a young couple arrives to that there is No Room at the Inn just as their child is about to be born.

Christmassy romance all around...

I picked this up at a used bookstore during my summer travels this year and looked forward to November 1st, which is when my Christmas reading officially began.  I selected this book in particular because I was in the mood for some short stories and since there are five in this book, I knew I would be assured of some light, quickie Christmassy reads.

Now, this book was published in 2006... nothing wrong there, but be warned... if you enjoy and read a lot of Balogh, you may have already read these stories.  A Family Christmas was the only new story to this book at the time of printing.  Ms. Balogh refers to the other four novellas as classic stories that were merely reprinted together to make this collection.  So don't run out to buy this before checking your booklist.  I know you have one, right?  ;)

As I do with all anthologies, I rate each story individually as follows: LOVED IT, ENJOYED IT, JUST OK, or DIDN'T LIKE IT.  My overall rating for the book is at the end of this post.  Let's begin!

A Family Christmas - Elizabeth and Edwin Chambers have been estranged since two weeks after their marriage, one year ago.  An agreement between Edwin's father and Elizabeth's parents unfolded into an arranged marriage where resentment and misunderstandings stand in the way of their relationship becoming anything warmer than a snowball.  While Edwin lives in London, Elizabeth's home is Wyldwood Hall where her parents have overstayed their welcome since the birth of her son.  Lady Templar, Elizabeth's mother, is a crabby, high and mighty, overbearing stick-in-the-mud who belittles Elizabeth at every turn.  But now that Edwin has decided to visit for Christmas, Lady Templar's plans for a large family Christmas gathering begin to crumble as Edwin takes the reigns and tries to show the family a fun and memorable Christmas.  Soon shared smiles and laughter emerge, showing Elizabeth and Edwin that perhaps something warmer could come of their marriage after all. 

ENJOYED IT.  Elizabeth is a sweet, nurturing new mother who just wants to be loved and looks to her infant son to take away her loneliness.  Edwin just didn't seem to know what to do with Elizabeth after they married so he sticks her in the country and visits twice a year.  But Lady Templar didn't (and still doesn't) help matters and we quickly see that she is an absolute ogre.  I was rooting for Elizabeth when she summoned the backbone needed to put her mother in her place to support Edwin, even with the emotional distance that lay between them.  Lord Templar doesn't say much in this story, but the words he does speak are a hoot!  This was a sweet Christmas story, but I found it parallelled a lot with Balogh's full-length novel A Christmas Promise.  Unfortunately, I had just finished reading A Christmas Promise a few days prior to reading this novella, so for me this story lost a lot of its oomph.  But overall, I did enjoy it! 

The Star of Bethlehem - Allan, the Earl of Lisle has a problem.  His wife.  Something has to change so he tells Estelle that after the obligatory family Christmas gathering, she will go to live with her parents for a while.  Perhaps the time away from each other will help since she doesn't seem to care at all about their marriage, nor is she discreet with her flirtations with other men.  How can she care about their marriage if she could add insult to injury and care less about losing the beautiful betrothal ring he gave her two years ago?  But a small boy named Nicky may help bring Estelle and Allan closer than they've ever been.  And with Christmas just around the corner, the holiday spirit works overtime to bring happiness and joy into their lives.

ENJOYED IT.  This was a story about a boy who helped save a marriage.  Estelle and Allan's marriage had been arranged but Allan's chilly personality has done little to warm Estelle up to him.  Nicky challenges Allan to soften his heart which gives Estelle a glimpse of a warmer, compassionate side of her husband, a side she wishes she could see more often.  In the midst of all this is the beautiful diamond and sapphire betrothal ring.  With its whereabouts unknown, Estelle and Allan end up with a Christmas filled with much more than they bargained for.

The Best Gift - Viscount Buckley reluctantly claims his niece, Deborah, from Miss Phillpotts' school for girls in order to bring her to his country home in Hampshire for Christmas.  With neither party happy with the plan, the viscount feels the need to have a companion for Deborah so he doesn't have to keep her entertained.  Caught completely off-guard is Jane, a young woman who has lived a solitary life, first in an orphanage, then as a student and now a teacher at the school.  Faced with the opportunity for a holiday away from the confines of the school, she packs a valise and joins her student.  But Viscount Buckley finds more than what he bargained for when he brings Jane and Deborah home.  And when another guest shows up to spend Christmas with the Viscount, it seems that plans need to be changed and a few priorities rearranged.

LOVED IT.  This was a really sweet story that centers around Jane, known simply as 'Craggs' to her students.  Jane has never known the wonders and magic of Christmas because she's never had a family to love or be loved by in return.  So when the opportunity to spend Christmas with anyone is presented, she leaps at it.  But upon arrival at the viscount's home, they find his young daughter sitting in the hall, abandoned by her mother.  Jane immediately goes into maternal mode and helps the girl feel welcomed and cared for in her new situation.  But the viscount isn't sure that Jane's suggestion to decorate and celebrate Christmas is the best of ideas, although it seems logical it could lift everyone's spirits.  Smiles begin to emerge as the halls become decked and snow begins to fall.  And Viscount Buckley, Jane, Veronica and Deborah learn that Christmas is the most magical season of all.

More to come... I'm still reading.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A Wallflower Christmas

The Wallflowers are four young ladies in London who banded together in their wild and wickedly wonderful searches for true love. Now happily married, they join together once again to help one of the world’s most notorious rogues realize that happiness might be right under the mistletoe...

It’s Christmastime in London and Rafe Bowman has arrived from America for his arranged meeting with Natalie Blandford, the very proper and beautiful daughter of Lady and Lord Blandford. His chiseled good looks and imposing physique are sure to impress the lady-in-waiting and, if it weren’t for his shocking American ways and wild reputation, her hand would already be guaranteed. Before the courtship can begin, Rafe realizes he must learn the rules of London society. But when four former Wallflowers try their hand at matchmaking, no one knows what will happen. And winning a bride turns out to be more complicated than Rafe Bowman anticipated, especially for a man accustomed to getting anything he wants. However, Christmas works in the most unexpected ways, changing a cynic to a romantic and inspiring passion in the most timid of hearts.

A Wallflower Christmas takes a trip to Victorian London, under the mistletoe, and on a journey of the heart. With her trademark charm, sensuality, and unforgettable characters, there’s no one like Lisa Kleypas to make you believe in the magic of Christmas.

A sparkling Christmas treat for fans of the Wallflower series!

Oh my goodness, what a wonderful Christmas treat!  I loved Lisa Kleypas' Wallflower series and I was really excited when this bonus Christmas novella came out.  Big hint:  this book cannot fully be appreciated until you have first enjoyed reading the 4 book Wallflower series (see covers below for series order).  Now then, the copyright on my hardback novella says October 2008, but I know I didn't discover this book until last year, so I'm a bit boggled by that.  And unfortunately, between eye surgery recovery and work (and being the seasonal reader I am), I reluctantly had to place it on my shelf as a priority for this year's Christmas reading.  Oh, I wish I hadn't waited, but at the same time, I'm glad I did.  After reading this, I want to go back and read the entire Wallflower series all over again.

Reading this novella was truly like visiting old friends.  Shortly after Daisy's wedding from book 4, Scandal in Spring, we reunite with all four girls and their husbands.  Here, the Wallflowers take a stab at helping Lillian and Daisy's brother Rafe learn more about the girl their social-climbing parents want him to marry.  Rafe is crossing the pond from New York to meet Natalie Blandford for the first time during Christmas festivities at the Westcliff's Stoney Cross Park in Hampshire.  With the Bowman family's high hopes for a betrothal announcement at the Christmas Eve Ball, the Wallflowers get cracking on finding out more about Natalie. So what better way to learn about the girl than interview her companion?  

Hannah Appleton is an impoverished relative who the Blandfords took in to be Natalie's maid, chaperone and companion.  We learn this when Lillian invites Hannah to tea and Rafe interrupts their meeting, leaving Hannah to question his manners, reputation and his overall suitability.  Nevertheless, Natalie is intrigued enough with Hannah's report to carry on with the plan to spend Christmas with the Westcliffs where she will meet Rafe and see how things go.  

Meanwhile Rafe is chuckling in the wings... Hannah was just too easy a target.  His attitude and lack of manners were an exaggeration to gain the upper hand of the whole situation but Rafe hadn't counted on finding himself intrigued by this intelligent, pretty girl.  Natalie?  Yes, he would go along with the plan to see if they suit, but Hannah was a surprise, and a pleasant one at that.  With Christmas around the corner, Natalie doesn't hide her attraction to Rafe and he shows just as much interest in return.   Will Hannah be able to stomach the growing attraction she sees forming between Natalie and Rafe?  And will the Wallflowers come to aid the romance that's due for announcement on Christmas Eve?

I really loved this story.  It was just one of those warm, cozy Christmas reads that make you want to curl up with a blanket in front of the fire with hot cocoa and fuzzy socks.  Sure the story was a tad predictable in the grand scheme of things, but the road travelled was an excellent one.  I would have loved to have seen this as a full length novel, and a bit more meat in the epilogue would have been equally welcomed.  The epilogue was very short and sweet, and unfortunately left no doubt that this was indeed the end of the Wallflowers series.  I'm sad to see it end but the series will remain on my shelves (and Kindle) and I look forward to visiting them all again soon.

Now, lets talk about the physical book.  I mentioned that I own the hardback release of this book, and it is indeed a pretty thing.  It stands approximately 8.5 inches tall, and 5.5 inches wide, and clocks in at 216 pages.  In other words, it looks dang good on my keeper shelf.  Plus it has generous margins, easy-on-the-eye type...  The price, you say?  Let's just say that I did NOT pay the original price tag of $16.95.  Nor would I.  And if you hunt just a little, I have no doubt you can pick up the pretty hardbound copy for under $6 if you look in the bargain areas of Borders, B&N and BAM.  Even Amazon has slashed ten bucks off the price (as of the date of this review) and I've seen them with my own eyes as low as $4 at BAM.  But keep in mind too that while the hardback can be found for a steal, there is a mass market paperback that was released this season for $6.99 (full price) and, truthfully, I'm ready to trade in my hardback to get the paperback instead.  Wanna know why?  The paperback will sit neatly with my other Wallflower paperbacks on the bookshelf.  Unless the Wallflowers are being released in hardbound sometime soon - which I doubt, but would totally buy! - the hardbound novella really means little to me.  Simple, really.  I prefer to keep my favorite series books grouped together on my shelves. 

All that said and done, I highly recommend A Wallflower Christmas.  It's a quickie read you can finish in an evening or two and a fine compliment and end to the series itself.  Below are the covers for the Wallflower series which are equally wonderful.  Devil in Winter is my personal favorite!  Please read them in order for maximum enjoyment.

My rating:  9 - Loved it!

The Wallflower series in order and the Christmas novella...

Friday, November 12, 2010

A Christmas Promise

A love that cannot be bought or sold proves to be the greatest gift of all, in this heartwarming classic that demonstrates once again why New York Times bestselling author Mary Balogh is among the most celebrated authors of historical romance.

Weddings are supposed to be joyous occasions—especially when a couple seems as well matched as Randolph Pierce, Earl of Falloden, and his bride-to-be, Eleanor Transome. Ellie brings to the marriage a vast dowry, while Falloden, though distant, is handsome, tremendously desirable, and possessed of a title most young ladies can only dream of sharing.

Yet Ellie is not most young ladies. She knows that she must honor her dear father’s dying wish for her to wed the proud earl, but she dreads a lifetime in a union without love—and how can Falloden claim to love her when he married her only for her fortune? As Christmas descends upon the Falloden manor, the warmth of the season may yet melt away the trappings of duty and wealth, leaving behind only a man and a woman destined for each other’s arms.

Indeed heartwarming, but not sure about a classic...

I enjoyed this Christmas story by Mary Balogh but was a little disappointed with it.  My review is coming up!

My rating:  6 - It was a pleasant read

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Regency Christmas Proposals

The Soldier's Christmas Miracle by Gayle Wilson
Wounded soldier Guy Wakefield has finally found the woman who saved his life. Isabella Stowe accepts his gratitude, but it will take more than a kiss under the mistletoe to convince this world-weary widow to accept his proposal….

Snowbound and Seduced by Amanda McCabe
Mary Bassington, Lady Derrington, longs to be the carefree woman she once was. But she gets more than she bargained for this Christmas when she's snowbound with old flame Dominick, Viscount Amesby, who reignites her passion for life—and love!

Christmas at Mulberry Hall by Carole Mortimer
Spending Christmas alone with his unconventional ward pushes the boundaries of propriety—and self-control—too far for Lord Gideon Grayson. So he takes delectably pure Amelia Ashford to Mulberry Hall—but that pesky mistletoe is still all around….

McCabe's story shines... a perfectly warm and cozy Christmas read!

Harlequin Historicals has released a collection of three Christmassy romances tucked together behind a beautiful cover which offers light, seasonal reading for a few cozy evenings by the fire.  Amanda McCabe and Carole Mortimer were familiar names to me, thanks to other Harlequin titles they've penned but Gayle Wilson was a new author for me and she had a nice contribution to this anthology.  These three stories are individual and not related to each other except sharing the Christmas season but I must confess that as a big fan of The Diamonds of Welbourne Manor, I was excited to see Ms. McCabe give one of the supporting characters a romance of her own.  And it was my favorite in this anthology!   Ms. Mortimer also gives a supporting character from her Notorious St. Claires series a Christmas love story too.  (Book connections are listed at the end of this post.)

Above, next to the cover pic, is the brief synopsis of each story from the back cover of the book and below is my mini-review along with my ratings for each story.  My anthology stories are individually rated as follows:  LOVED IT, ENJOYED IT, JUST OK, or DIDN'T LIKE IT. 

The Soldier's Christmas Miracle by Gayle Wilson - Guy Wakefield was injured and temporarily blinded at the front lines several years ago, but the woman who tended to his injuries and gave him hope and encouragement has haunted him ever since.  Years later, Guy learns that the woman was Isabella Stowe, wife of Captain William Stowe, so he travels to her home to express his gratitude.

Isabella is trying to make ends meet with the pension from her late husband's military service but Guy is quick to discover her financial difficulties and contrives a plan to discreetly help her out as a "thank you" for everything she did.  Isabella was quick to brush off his gratitude, after all she probably said the same words of encouragement to hundreds of other soldiers too.  But Guy doesn't give up so easily, especially since he finds her to be a strong and independent woman, and one he is attracted to.  Can he make Isabella see that all he really wants is to show her the same kindness in return, with maybe some Christmas love to go along with it?

ENJOYED IT.  Isabella was a bit too stubborn for my taste and Guy was a real sweetheart of a guy who had to do a lot of work to woo this woman.  I liked his attempts but got frustrated with Isabella.  He eventually wins her heart, but I wasn't quite satisfied with the ending since her pity for his on-again-off-again blindness seemed to propel the end of the story and, even then, Isabella was a trial to win over.  Guy just seemed too good for her.  Overall, I did enjoy it, although its Chistmassiness was minimal. 

Snowbound and Seduced by Amanda McCabe - At a summer party at Welbourne Manor, Mary Bassington discovers that her feelings for Dominick, Viscount Amesby have never truly gone away since he left her heartbroken several years ago.  Mary has since endured a loveless arranged marriage and, more recently, the death of her husband so her only solace is her young son.  Attempting to protect her heart from being broken again, she and Dominick part ways once more. 

Two years later, Mary is nursing another broken heart... the loss of her son.  To keep herself occupied she focuses all of her attention on finding a suitable match for her younger sister, Ginny.  But Ginny's in love with Dominick's cousin who doesn't have the means to support a wife or family.  Seeking Dominick's help in knocking some sense into these young lovers' heads becomes paramount until Ginny is discovered missing.  The discovery of a note reveals an elopement to Gretna Green so Dominick sets out to charge after them but not until Mary talks him in to letting her come too.  With her portmanteau packed, she climbs aboard for a journey that leads her to be snowbound and seduced.

LOVED IT.  Dominick still loves and desires Mary and we see that from their reunion in the first chapter.  But Dominick struggles with feelings of unworthiness and Mary is trying to protect her heart from being broken yet again.  So, cue the snowstorm as Mary and Dominick forget the rest of the world and indulge in their passion for one another for just one night.  But their journey isn't over and with Christmas day upon them, what better time for a love to reignite against the beautiful backdrop of the season?  No huge drama or hoops to jump through here... just a tender, romantic story and a perfectly warm and cozy Christmas read.  Curl up next to the fire with a cup of cocoa and enjoy this one!

Christmas at Mulberry Hall by Carole Mortimer - Lord Gideon Grayson stops to check in on his late brother's estate on his way to the St. Claire's family gathering for Christmas.  Upon arriving, Gray is shocked to find Steadley Manor in disrepair and Amelia, his brother's step-child and now Gray's ward, alone with only two old servants.  Angered to learn that the estate manager pocketed the funds sent to keep the manor running and fled, Gray begins to set things straight.  He also manages to drop the Grinch attitude for a few minutes and decides to bring Amelia to Mulberry Hall with him. 

Naturally, Gray is enticed by his delectable ward and Ameila finds her new rakishly handsome guardian irresistable, but Gray's stand-offish approach pushes Amelia away as Christmas festivities begin at Mulberry Hall. 

DIDN'T LIKE IT. I really struggled with this story so I'm just going to let it out... The absence of a consistent point of view resulted in reading a lot of the same details twice because scenes described by Amelia's thoughts would then be rehashed in the description of Gray's thoughts in the next paragraph.  All this was in addition to the reminders the author already gives us just in case you forgot what happened on the previous page and, frankly, it all became tiresome.  The author also got carried away using exclamation points and these weird things: "...!" and "...?"  Why not just end with a question mark or a period and be done?  And speaking of editing, or lack thereof, lets add to the list the many long sentences, often with no structure.  Several random fragments thrown together into run-ons do not tell a story any better than the instances where words were just plain missing:  "Gray's gaze narrowed he strode into the parlour, ..." (pg 229)  As for the actual meat of the story, I barely made it to chapter 5, then skimmed the rest.  There was nothing that made me care about Amelia or Gray nor was there even a hint of chemistry.  Their attraction was only physical which made their declarations of falling in love with each other the moment they met all the more laughable.  The only recommendation I can make for this story is to skip it altogether.  Honestly, I can't believe it even made it to print.

So, there you have it... three stories and three different ratings.  I'll be honest... I'm holding onto this book for the sole purpose of keeping McCabe's companion story to The Diamonds of Welbourne Manor anthology.  Snowbound and Seduced was definitely my favorite novella in Regency Christmas Proposals and rated best of the bunch. 

My overall rating for this anthology:  5 – I liked most of the book

Amanda McCabe's novella is connected to The Diamonds of Welbourne Manor anthology, which I highly recommend!

Carole Mortimer's novella is connected to The Notorious St. Claires quartet:  The Duke's Cinderella Bride, The Rake's Wicked Proposal, The Rogue's Disgraced Lady and Lady Arabella's Scandalous Marriage.  I have not read any of these titles.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

In the Thrill of the Night

Meet the Merry Widows, a secret society of respectable ladies... with some scandalous ideas...

Assured of both money and position, none of the five friends who form the Merry Widows need ever marry again. But they have no intention of foresaking physical passion for the rest of their lives. So they make a daring pact -- each will consider taking a lover for the pure pleasure of it.

Marianne Nesbitt adored her late husband, David, but the racy reminiscences of the Merry Widows make her wonder if she missed something special. Might she find it now through a love affair? Uncertain how to go about it, she asks Adam Cazenove, an old friend and notorious rake, to tutor her in the arts of seduction.

The brazen request turns Adam's world upside down. He never imagined his best friend's very proper and exceedingly attractive widow would seek out a lover. If not for his own recent betrothal, he would jump at the chance to warm her bed. Since he cannot bear the thought of another man doing so, he foils her every attempt at seduction. Until one night of unintended passion changes everything...

Excellent start to the Merry Widows series!

Oh. My. Goodness.  I LOVED this book.  In the Thrill of the Night is book 1 of a three book series (plus one novella) about the Merry Widows... five friends who together maintain the facade of proper and respectable widows as trustees of a Widow's Benevolent Fund.  But when one of the widows takes on a lover, she tries to convince the other widows that they should do the same, or at least consider the possibility.

Marianne Nesbitt loved and adored her husband, but after hearing about the pleasure one of the other widows has found with her new lover, Marianne begins to think something may have been missing from her marriage.  Although she was and is still dedicated to the memory of her late husband, a part of her wants to see just what that missing thing may have been.  Next thing we know, Marianne has composed a list of gentleman that might fit the bill.  But she's still a bit nervous about the whole idea and approaches her best friend, Adam Cazenove, for his advice, opinion and ultimately his approval.  

Adam on the other hand is convinced he needs to just bite the bullet and marry and settle down for good.  So, one evening he suprises Marianne with the news that he's betrothed to one of the young diamonds of the season and while shock and disappointment darken the mood, Marianne drops a bomb on Adam as well, with her decision to find a lover.  

Adam and Marianne's relationship has always been a special one, which is written and described beautifully.  In short, Adam was David's best friend and David and Marianne were betrothed when they were still children.  So think of the three of them as the musketeers, in a sense.  All three were very close, with Marianne and Adam having an even closer bond after mourning the loss of David.

But as we move through the story, we see that the close bond Marianne and Adam share may hold more than either of them had ever thought possible.  With Adam now publicly betrothed, it shoots down even the fleeting thought of offering himself as her lover, but Adam later learns that perhaps Marianne and David's marriage wasn't as perfect as he always believed it to be.  Can he help her find the lover she is looking for?

I really enjoyed how this book was written.  The way the story unfolded was just masterful and I liked how the story kept moving along, enabling me to plow through this book in less than a day.  I also liked how Adam was protective of Marianne, upholding David's dying wish for him to look after her.  He wasn't too overly protective of the prospect of Marianne taking on a lover until she began actively seeking one... then the fun begins when we see Adam begin to realize his own feelings for Marianne.  Soon Adam begins to sabotage every opportunity Marianne finds and some of the results are hilarious, but at the same time, heartbreaking and disappointing for Marianne.  All the while, you can see Adam is just battling with himself... and then he remembers that he is the one betrothed!  So, why should he care so much?

I also really liked this story because contrary to the tone you may get from the cover blurb (at the top of this post) Marianne is not sleeping with everyone in the ton to find the perfect lover.  The story is spicey without being trashy in any way and it really turns into an emotional and uplifting tale about these two people who find love in a way neither had ever expected.  Plus you have the added subplot of Adam's fiancee which gives you a first-hand look at their relationship and the tangles it creates.

Book 2, Just One of those Flings, is next in the series, but if you read my review for that title you'll see that I started this three book series in the middle by accident. So, I'm off to curl up with book 3, Lady Be Bad.  I'm actually dying to dive into it because this is Grace's story and she is the straight-laced, proper bishop's widow who blushes furiously whenever the Merry Widows begin "comparing notes."  i anticipate another delightful read.  I highly recommend this series and suggest you do read them in order.  Book 2 actually overlaps the latter part of book 1 just a smidge, but from a different character angle.  I may go back and re-read the first few chapters of book 2 just so I can see the complete transition between stories. 

My rating:  9 - Loved it

The Merry Widow trilogy, plus one novella...     

Monday, October 25, 2010

Just One of those Flings

The Merry Widows are thought to be among the finest ladies of society... Though secretly, their thoughts are quite unrefined.

With the comforts of wealth to replace the absence of their husbands, the Merry Widows need not trouble themselves again with marriage. But that doesn't mean these five friends must deprive themselves of their most basic need - physical pleasure. So they each agree to seek out a lover...

Beatrice, Lady Somerfield, is too busy chaperoning her headstrong niece and overseeing her own young daughters to take a lover - until one night at a ball when a masked stranger makes her realize the delights she's been missing. When she learns his identity, however, an affair seems impossible.  He is Gabriel, the Marquess of Thayne, just returned from India, the catch of the season - and the one man half the debutantes of London (including Beatrice's niece!) want for a husband.

But Thayne is thoroughly captivated by Beatrice, and their attraction leads to several mutually satisfying encounters. As he searches for a bride among the Season's young ladies, he finds himself increasingly drawn to the beautiful, sensual, more sophisticated Lady Somerfield, and suspects his mistress might make the perfect wife.  But will Beatrice's deepening feelings for Thayne be enough to overcome her vow never to marry again, and the scandal once their relationship is revealed?

A great read by a new (to me) author!

So, I was introduced to Candice Hern by way of her short story in The Mammoth Book of Regency Romance and I was so delighted with Just One of those Flings, I can't wait to continue the series.  Of course, I bought all three books and started reading Book 2 first - I'm totally blaming a bad cold for this!  I kinda wondered about it but it didn't seem like a glaring issue as the books are meant to stand alone too.  But I'm a sucker for reading series books in order and I goofed.  Oh well.  

Anyhoo, we start off by meeting Beatrice, Lady Somerfield at a masquerade ball dressed as a Grecian huntress.  Gabriel Loughton, Marquess of Thayne, dressed as a maharajah, eyes her from across a crowded ballroom... fireworks go off, butterflies flurry... ok, not really, but Thayne is drawn to her like a mosquito to a bug light.  Beatrice feels the awareness to this mysterious stranger in return but she's certain she's just becoming more aware of how men look at her because she's been widowed for three years and is starting to yearn for the physical intimacy she once had. 

Now a bit about Beatrice... she belongs to a group privately known as the Merry Widows, but society knows the group as proper and respectable trustees of the Benevolent Widow's Fund, a charity aiding less fortunate widows and their families.  But when one of the Merry Widows recently took a lover, it was suggested they all should do the same, or at least try.  So with all this fresh in Beatrice's head, she's bound to be a bit more alert in the gentleman department.  And the maharajah's attention towards Beatrice does not go unnoticed.  Finally he asks her to dance... then out to the terrace for some fresh air.  An impromptu tryst ensues leaving Beatrice stunned at her own wanton behavior, while leaving the masquerading maharajah wanting more.  Much more.  But they didn't exchange names.  Can he find this woman, this Artemis?

Now a bit about Thayne... He's just returned from working in India for the last eight years and surely making an appearance at a masquerade is an easy way to survey the new blood in society without making his presence known just yet, right?  With his thirtieth birthday around the corner and to keep up his end of the bargain with the ducal parental units, Thayne needs to find a bride this season to settle down with and beget an heir.  Since he's a marquess, heir to a dukedom, that makes him easily the most eligible target of the season.  But when this woman, Artemis as he affectionately calls her, flees without even telling him her name, Thayne is on the hunt for his Grecian huntress when he should be on the hunt for a young, debutante bride.

The story gets interesting when Beatrice and her freshly launched niece visit the Duchess of Doncaster to inquire about the use of their ballroom for one of the Widow's Fund Balls.  Suddenly the Duke and his son, the Marquess of Thayne appear, with his friend Jeremy Burnett in tow.  Beatrice's niece, Emily, instantly captivates them all with her young, fresh beauty, sending glances - or rather, ballistic missiles - of interest to Thayne.  But Thayne is really not in the mood for simpering misses when he's still on the hunt for his unknown huntress...

Beatrice and Thayne made a great story, and with the mystery of their identities and a bit of a love triangle, this story had all the workings of a fun and enjoyable Regency romp.  I was a little worried about the tryst at the beginning of the book because it was a bit, umm, bold to say the least.  But I was pleased with the rest of the story and how things came together in the end.  Emily does become a bit of a shrew... she's a beauty and she knows it and everyone else does too, but its well written and she does get a bit of a subplot of her own which added a nice garnish.  The Merry Widows are a fun, wicked bunch and stick together to protect each other, which was a nice touch and really made this book a delightful read. 

My only small complaint about this book was that there were a LOT of references to India, including some vocabulary. While I don't mind learning new things about a foreign place or finding vocabulary or phrases sprinkled into the story, I kinda felt like this book became a billboard for showing off the author's research skills.  Ms. Hern no doubt researched thoroughly, but I got to a point where it just felt like too much.  Totally my opinion here, and it would never stop me from re-reading this book, but it was my observation. 

I really did enjoy this book, and judging by the steady ratings of Ms. Hern's books, I am sure to enjoy her others as well. In the Thrill of the Night (book 1) tells us Marianne Nesbitt's story, which is mildly touched on in Just One of those Flings but does not leave a gaping hole making you wonder too much about what you've missed. Book 3, Lady Be Bad, is Grace Marlowe's story. Ms. Hern has also penned a novella for a fourth Merry Widow which is included in the It Happened One Night anthology.

My rating: 7 - I really enjoyed it

The Merry Widows Trilogy, plus one novella...

Thursday, October 14, 2010

My Lord Scandal

Despite her beauty, Lady Amelia Patton has lived a sheltered life among her books.  When she finds herself suddenly the toast of the ton, she is far from delighted.  Her father, Lord Hathaway wants her married off quickly, but the last person he'd choose for her husband is the son of his worst enemy...

Alexander St. James may be a thief of hearts, but he is no burglar.  Nevertheless, he must recover an item belonging to his family to avoid a scandal, and so he has stolen into the home of Lord Hathaway, not expecting to come upon the beguiling Lady Amelia in her bedroom, wearing only a lacy chemise...

From their first meeting, Alexander leaves Amelia breathless-- but is it from fear or from excitement?  Captivated by her beauty and charmed by her intellect, he ignores the scandalous whispers as he sets out to seduce the woman of his dreams...

A beautiful girl... a dashing rake... and a family scandal that threatens their future...

I was so excited to see Ms. Wildes come out with this trilogy after reading her last two books in this genre - An Indecent Proposition and Lessons from a Scarlet Lady.  (I reviewed both of these books earlier this year.)  Already an established historical erotica author, Ms. Wildes has done an excellent job crossing over into mainstream historical romance with stories that are sensual, lush and super romantic.  And wow, she has made a fine start with this Notorious Bachelors trilogy.  The Notorious Bachelors are Lord Alexander St. James, Luke Daudet, Viscount Altea and Michael Hepburn, Marquess of Longhaven - three friends who have returned to London after serving together in Spain.  We begin with My Lord Scandal (book 1) which tells us Alexander's story...

Alexander St. James is the younger son of a duke and is asked by his grandmother to retrieve a sliver key that she believes to be in Lord Hathaway's possession.  There has been a feud between the Hathaway and St. James families as a result of a scandal that happened years ago and sending Alex into the lion's den is indeed a risk but one right up his alley after his adventures in Spain.  But when he emerges from the Hathaway house empty-handed, he finds Hathaway's daughter out on her balcony looking as if she's about to faint.  There to catch her and return her safely to her room is Alex, and deciding to make the evening not a total loss, he steals a kiss before he leaves.

Lady Amelia Patton, is stunned to find this man - this gentleman - on her balcony.  And when he steals a kiss, she's intrigued and determined to find out who he is.  Amelia's chaperone-aunt, Sophia, instantly becomes more vigilant when her charge begins inquiring about Lord Alexander St. James.  Known about society as a shameless rake, naturally an innocent debutante should never go anywhere near the man.  But Alex is just as curious about the girl he met on the balcony the night before and makes some inquiries of his own which leads to an unexpected meeting where the two compare notes about each other before sharing another much more passionate kiss.

But a mystery lurks and weaves itself into Alex and Amelia's romance.  Suddenly old letters begin to surface from an unknown source... love letters from an Anna St. James to a Samuel Hathaway, written many years ago.  With the old scandal still a source of tension between the Hathaway and St. James families, the surfacing letters now add fresh fuel to the fire, escalating the need for the silver key to be found quickly.  For this key may unlock secrets that have never been told...

This was an excellent story, full of passion, romance and mystery.  I really enjoyed our main characters and liked that the focus really stayed on them throughout most of the book.  Sophia gets a little bit of a subplot, which was nice but a tad abbreviated.  I would have welcomed a bit more explanation.  One thing I really liked about this story was that Amelia and Alex genuinely liked each other and Alex really wanted to get to know her.  He found her beautiful, yes, but independent and intellectual as well.  Amelia has an inner beauty that Alex seems drawn to like a magnet.  I also enjoyed how open and honest both characters were.  No misunderstanding plot here! And it was refreshing to see Amelia believe Alex unquestionably when he explains he's really not the rake everyone takes him to be.  Shadowed by his brother's formerly wicked ways, Alex maintains the rakish facade to keep the marriage-minded ladies at bay, but after meeting Amelia, we see that he's eager to cut all ties to that facade and secretly pursue her.

I also liked how Ms. Wildes gave Amelia a "glaring imperfection" as Amelia's father had called it. Amelia suffered from asthma, which I've never seen addressed in a Regency before, but surely they suffered from it in Regency times too, right? Personally, I feel adding an element like that makes the character all the more human  and someone I can relate to even more, especially if the reader or someone you know suffers from the same affliction.

This story reminded me a lot of Maya Rodale's Negligent Chaperone books - which are excellent, by the way - because Sophia's role in this story is just that.  She sees the genuine feelings Alex and Amelia share and she's willing to bend some rules and look the other way to support them.  Sophia understands completely that the ongoing family fued has nothing to do with Alex and Amelia personally, so it was nice to see Amelia and Alex gain a stong ally.  That was cool.

I did have two small gripes with this book.  One was that we are constantly reminded about how beautiful Amelia is.  Everyone knows it, everyone talks about it and frankly, it got to be a bit tiring.  I was happy to see that Amelia wasn't at all vain about it and Alex appreciated her inner beauty right from the start so I just reminded myself of that everytime I encountered another praise for her beauty.  But really, I almost began feeling inadequate just reading it.  It's kinda like watching your best friend get all the compliments right in front of you, ya know?  The author also spent a lot of time describing hair.  And I mean A LOT!  Her golden locks, his dark, silky hair... I was getting ready to pull mine out!  But aside from these two things, this story was really a fabulous one.  

The mystery was well written and weaved into the main story of Alex and Amelia's romance perfectly and just when I thought the romance might take a back seat to the secondary story, the two stories came together and had me eager to finish the book in one sitting.  Very well done!  Ms. Wildes tells a great story and, really, she doesn't use any filler or fluff - everything relates to the story which is why she's become one of my favorites to read.  I've just started reading Luke's story, Our Wicked Mistake and Michael's story wraps up this trilogy with His Sinful Secret.  I'm so pleased to see Ms. Wildes continue to write in this genre.  For me, she is an auto-buy and after a quick check of her website I see there is more to come!  Woot!

My rating:  9 - Loved it!

The Notorious Bachelors trilogy in order...

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Married By Morning

He is everything she wants to avoid...

For two years, Catherine Marks has been a paid companion to the Hathaway sisters—a pleasant position, with one caveat. Her charges’ older brother, Leo Hathaway, is thoroughly exasperating. Cat can hardly believe that their constant arguing could mask a mutual attraction. But when one quarrel ends in a sudden kiss, Cat is shocked at her powerful response—and even more so when Leo proposes a dangerous liaison.

She is not at all what she seems...

Leo must marry and produce an heir within a year to save his family home. Catherine’s respectable demeanor hides a secret that would utterly destroy her. But to Leo, Cat is intriguing and infernally tempting, even to a man resolved never to love again. The danger Cat tried to outrun is about to separate them forever—unless two wary lovers can find a way to banish the shadows and give in to their desires…

Not the strongest book in the series, but an excellent read that builds up nicely to the last book in The Hathaways quintet!

Kleypas does not disappoint in this fourth book of The Hathaways series. If you have not read this series, please do so in order! It's wonderful and you will get so much more out of these characters. (See my review on Tempt Me at Twilight for a little background about the series.) The order of the series is listed at the end of this post, but Leo is the character that shows the most growth over all the books up to this point and Married By Morning is his story.

Leo's been through a lot, from endless drinking and debauching to the healthier, much more respectable man, supported by a loving and caring family all along the way. But over the last two years he's been plagued by Catherine Marks, the strict, no-nonsense be-spectacled governess to the family's two youngest girls. Ever since Catherine - or Marks, as Leo affectionately calls her - came onto the scene, she and Leo have had a challenging, quarrelsome relationship. They bicker relentlessly and their strife is well-known by the entire family, but as we see in Tempt Me at Twilight it begins to give way to something quite different. Suddenly the passion and tension behind the taunting becomes more about the thrill of interaction and a craving for more of it. You can see in the previous books how they fed off of each others harsh remarks and put-downs, but all that hostility has more recently become a mask for feelings that finally begin to show through, although both are reluctant to admit it.

Leo is intrigued by the intimate conversation he witnesses between Catherine and Harry Rutledge, Poppy's husband. When Catherine tells Leo that she and Harry are in fact half-siblings, sharing the same mother, we settle in to learn all about Catherine's past and how it will affect her future with the Hathaways. But Leo baits her and she bites back (figuratively, of course) and next thing you know, he kisses her.  But that kiss opens a world of something new for both of them.

Meanwhile, the Hathaway family is in a tizzy because of a letter they received from their solicitor. It seems that as a result of the Ramsey properties changing hands multiple times, and messily done at that, there was a clause that was missed, stating Leo needs to produce an heir within a year if the Hathaway family is to keep possession of the physical house they have all put so much effort into rebuilding and refurbishing. Eagerly waiting in the wings to take possession is the late Viscount's wife and a very beautiful daughter. A ball is just the thing to find Leo a wife, but Catherine's past soon catches up with her, leaving her no choice but to flee from the Hathaways and leave Leo to the future he must uphold.

This story, while good and very much anticipated, was not quite what I was expecting.  It was really good, definitely, but I thought it was the weakest of the series to date.  The first few chapters duplicate a lot of information we learn at the end of Tempt Me at Twilight, which would have been fine if I hadn't just read it all and moved right into this book. So once past that, things began to pick up steam. Leo and Catherine battle their emotions and their attraction for each other as two other subplots work their gears in the background. Dodger, Beatrix's pet ferret, was oodles of fun to read since he has a way of getting his cute little whiskers right in the middle of anything where Catherine is concerned. It seems where Leo leaves off, Dodger picks up, antagonizing Catherine even further, but in a affectionate, besotted-ferret kind of way. I'm still waiting for Dodger's antics to reveal where he's stashed all of Catherine's garters, which have been disappearing over the course of the books. I also really enjoyed Leo's questions everytime he tried to convince Catherine that a kiss with the right person could turn your brains to mush. Such a creative ploy in the story and it was tons of fun to read. Indeed, it was lovely to see Leo and Catherine finally get together, but there is a lot of drama before any kind of happily ever after can happen, so who better than the Hathaway clan to come together to support and protect their own?

I'm off to read the last book in this fabulous series. Love in the Afternoon tells us Beatrix's story and I can't wait since she was my favorite of the Hathaway siblings.  I'm also sad to start this last book because I know this is the end of the series... but one I will definitely read again.  I highly recommend this series and encourage readers to start with book one for maximum enjoyment!   

My rating:  8 - Definitely on my keeper shelf

The Hathaway Series in order...  

    Amelia's Story            Win's Story                 Poppy's Story             Leo's Story                   Beatrix's Story