Monday, February 26, 2007

Title: Reforming Lord Ragsdale
Author: Carla Kelly
Published: 1995, Signet
Category: Regency Romance
Rating: 8/10

Last week, JMC blogged that she'd gotten her copy of Carla Kelly's newest book, Beau Crusoe, shipped to her early from eHarlequin. I was very jealous and went to my Borders to see if they had it out yet. No luck. I was all mad until I realized that I still had three older Kellys in the TBR. Just sitting there waiting to be read. (I tell you, the greed. Why must I have the NEW, SHINY, NOW?! Good thing it's only about books or I'd be in trouble.)

Emma Costello's very respectable family was torn apart during an attempted Irish rebellion in 1803 and in the aftermath, she was shipped off to become an indentured servant. John Staples, Lord Ragsdale, ends up winning her indenture in a hand of cards. Ragsdale is your typical dissipated, nearly useless English aristocrat (this is Emma's opinion at first, anyway). Ten years ago he lost his father and one of his eyes in a military snafu, and since then he's been floating along aimlessly, drinking too much and not doing anything with his life. One night, in a drunken haze, he tells Emma that if she can reform him, he'll release her from her indenture. So Emma begins to sort out all his confused finances and to persuade him, or guilt him, into becoming more involved with his estate. She's surprisingly successful at the reformation--and suddenly she realizes that he is someone who might just be worthy of her friendship.

This is one of those love stories that start out with the protagonists disliking each other completely. Ragsdale has prejudices against the Irish, and Emma against the English. Ragsdale is pretty distgustingly useless, selfish, and, at times, cruel to Emma. I love romances where you see the couple go from dislike to love--the characters obviously must undergo a lot of change, which makes for an interesting story.

At first I thought that Ragsdale's reformation was too easy. Surely someone who was a rake for 10 years would be less willing to change. But we see from the very beginning that he is a kind man--his faults are really due to boredom, guilt over his father's death, and a snobby sense of entitlement. Emma's not afraid to call him on it when he acts like an ass, something no one has really done for him before. So his eyes are opened, and he gains a sense of purpose and confidence in himself.

All-in-all, one of my favorite Kellys so far. And btw, I was able to pick up a copy of Beau Crusoe last weekend. Woo hoo! I'm glad she has a new book out, it's been a few years since she's had a book published, I think.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Title: Forever in Blue
Author: Ann Brashares
Published: 2007, Delacorte
Category: Young Adult
Rating: 7/10

The fourth Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants book. Because teen fiction is for grown-ups sometimes too.

Bridget, Lena, Tibby, and Carmen are now in the summer after their first year in college. Like always, they're scattered about for the summer, with the magical traveling pants being mailed back and forth among them. Lena is in art school in Rhode Island, painting portraits of a hottie classmate and trying to forget about Kostos, the love of her life who got away. Tibby is at NYU having some serious ups and downs in her relationship with her boyfriend, Brian. Bridget heads to Turkey on an archaeological dig (woohoo!) and has yet another inappropriate relationship with an authority figure (I think I see a pattern here). And Carmen goes to a drama program, where she means to do behind-the-scenes work, but ends up showcasing all her innate star power.

I love this series (the first two books I think are especially lovely), so even though this book frustrated me a little, I still enjoyed it. The teen angst, it was just so . . . angsty! I know that teens do feel these emotional roller coasters (and these girls have a lot happening in their lives to be angsty over), but this one felt just the littlest bit over-the-top. These books are always poignant, but this one seemed to go overboard. Too many characters spouting too much spontaneous pithiness. Can a book be too poignant? If so, then this one definitely approaches that line.

The girls make some really stupid decisions, and while we all can probably remember things we did in our teens and wonder what on earth we were thinking, I still wanted to shake them and scream, "What is your problem?!! Grow up!" But in the end, growing up is exactly what they are doing and they eventually sort themselves out.

Each of the four girls are so different, and yet each seems very real and genuine. Everyone can have someone to relate with. Me? I'm a bit like Lena (without the gorgeousness, of course!). In each book, Lena thinks or does something that I totally understand and it resonates with me. "There were people who lived in the moment, Lena knew, while she lived at a delay of hours or even years. And with that knowledge came the familiar frustration of wanting to club herself over the head with a combat boot if only to be sure of experiencing and feeling something in unison for once." I get that, I really do.

This is the last book in the series. The pants are no more. It is a bit sad, though I've heard that Brashares is writing an adult novel, which could be very good.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Who's the big winner??

Kristie J!!! Your name was drawn out of the hat by my impartial assistant (Twin)--so congrats! Send your snail mail address to me at jenniesbooklog(at)gmail and I'll send your books off.

Sorry to those who didn't win. So sad. But maybe I'll do another giveaway soon. Must spread on the love of deliciously yummy books. ;)

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Free books! Win free books here!

Have I got your attention? I think so. Today's my blogiversary! Happy birthday little blog. Who knew you'd be so much fun?

So in honor of this momentous occasion (hyperbole), I'm going to give away some books to one lucky reader. I tend to collect multiple copies of some of my favorite books--does anyone else do this? I see them on the shelf and think, surely it would be a good idea to have backup copy. You know, in case of emergency. But these extra copies would obviously be doing much more good if I sent them out into the world to be introduced to new people.

The deal: Here's a list of books. You look them over and decide which FOUR books you would like to call your very own. Leave a comment listing those four books. On Wednesday night, I will put all the names in a hat and pull one out. Completely random. I promise. Then I will mail that person the four books they chose.
*These are all used books. I'm trying to survive on a publishing salary here people. But I take very fine care of my books, so they are all in good shape.
*International peeps, feel free to enter. But know that I will send them the slowest delivery method. So you would have to be patient, but these books are totally worth it.

So here are your options. They're all books I can recommend completely without reservation:

From top of stack to bottom:
Mrs. Drew Plays Her Hand by Carla Kelly. This author was new to me last year and is now one of my favorites. Regency romance. Really good regency romance. Sweet and lovely. *Warning: Contains a healthy dose of cute children. (for Cindy)*
Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart. Stewart did romantic suspense before romantic suspense was cool. She is a goddess, she should be knighted, she is my favorite author. If you've never read one of her books, you are missing out on something special.
Touch not the Cat by Mary Stewart. Because you can never have too much Stewart. Telepathic heroine, crumbling castle, evil lurking nearby. Need I say more?
Lord Perfect by Loretta Chase. This isn't actually my favorite Chase, but it's the only one I have an extra copy of. But it is excellent.
The Blue Castle by L. M. Montgomery. Favorite book of all time. Perfectly perfect in every way.
Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear. A mystery to mix things up. Post-WWI London. Maisie is a psychologist/detective. Whodunit mixed with war story mixed with upstairs/downstairs story.
The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde. A book to be loved by all bibliophiles. Fforde is probably the most imaginative author I've ever read.
The Secret Garden by Francis Hodgeson Burnett. Classic childhood favorite. Everyone knows the story, but have you read the book? It is so, so lovely.
Montana Sky by Nora Roberts. One of my favorite Noras. If you saw the movie--the book is much better.
The Complete Novels of Jane Austen. A beautiful edition of all five novels. I don't really have to say anything else here, do I?
Pompeii by Robert Harris. (Ex-library copy!) I adore this book. Young Roman engineer is sent to Pompeii days before the eruption because the aqueducts have stopped up. So, so fascinating. And not so tragic as you might fear.

So do you see four you want? Leave a comment!

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Title: See Delphi and Die
Author: Lindsey Davis
Published: 2005, St. Martin's Minotaur
Category: Mystery
Rating: 8/10

This is the 17th in the Marcus Didius Falco mystery series. I've been slightly disappointed by the last few of these, but this one was tops! That's the Falco I know and love.

Roman informer Falco and his wife Helena head to Greece in this one. Helena's brother Aulus is studying there to be a lawyer and has stumbled across a mystery (of course!). Seems like two young female tourists have died under suspicious circumstances. Falco decides to meet up with Aulus and do some digging. Both the victims were on tours set up by the same Roman tourist agency. All their fellow tourists, as well as the agency owners are suspects.

I can't quite put my finger on why this one was so much more interesting to me than the last few. Possibly the setting, which was fantastic. Falco's never been to Greece before, I don't think. They go to several cities and since Falco and Helena are behaving as tourists, we get a lot more description of the sights. Greek myths, oracles--so interesting. And I found the mystery particularly good. It's sort of like the old dinner-party plotline--a group of near-strangers who are all stuck together and one of them is the murderer. But who, who?!

This is Davis's first book with her new publisher. New jacket design, which I like. But they didn't Americanize the text, which I find distracting. And they did not provide site maps of the places Falco visits. I love looking at site maps, so I was disappointed.

I won't hold this against them though, because they did reissue the first Falco mystery, Silver Pigs. This is excellent news, as it's been out of print for a while. I need to buy a copy--my old one is falling apart!

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Title: Burning Bright
Author: Tracy Chevalier
Published: 2007, Dutton
Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 6.5/10

This is Tracy Chevalier of Girl with a Pearl Earring fame. That book was the story of an ordinary girl whose life brushed with the famous painter Vermeer. Burning Bright is similar--it's the story of two children whose lives are affected by a different kind of artist: the poet William Blake.

Burning Bright is set in London in 1972, right at the beginning of the French Revolution. 13-year-old Jem Halloway has just moved with his family from rural Dorsetshire so that his father can accept a job as a carpenter for Philip Astley, of Astley's Amphitheater (the one often mentioned in romance novels!). Jem is very intimidated by the city at first and is happy to make friends with Maggie, a London-bred girl who delights in showing Jem the ropes. Jem and Maggie soon become acquainted with William Blake, who lives next door to the Halloways. Blake is rather an outcast in the neighborhood, so he takes the time to help the children and read his poetry to them (he says that his poems are best understood by children). Blake is also a supporter of the revolution in France, which gets him into trouble--trouble the children help him out of.

I enjoyed this solely as a historical piece--Chevalier does a wonderful job of describing what life was like in London at that time. All the characters are of the working class, so you see how hard life was for them. Poor Maggie working 12 hours a day in a factory when she's still so young! It makes me very happy I live in comfortable 21st century America.

But overall, I have to say meh. The plot is a bit meandering. I liked the characters but I kept waiting for the real action to start. And then the book ended. It seemed like Chevalier was trying to make some great point about innocence vs. experience, but it never quite gelled for me.

Still, an interesting read. And the jacket is very pretty. :p

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Title: The Windflower
Author: Laura London
Published: 1984, Dell
Category: Historical Romance
Rating: 10/10

Yes, you read that right. I'm giving this book a 10/10. I never give 10s! But then this just might be the best romance I've ever read. I've heard about this book ever since I started reading romance--it always comes up as a classic old favorite. And now I know why.

Merry Wilding is an 18-year-old living in rural Virginia during the War of 1812. She's a bit sheltered and a little naive. Her brother is a spy for the Americans and he asks Merry to come with him to a tavern so that she can draw sketches (she's a very good artist) of a few men--men who turn out to be pirates. Merry and one of the pirates--the extremely handsome, godlike Devon--have a little interlude, though Devon lets her go without too much bother. Several months later, Merry is setting out on a trip to England with her aunt, when she is abducted by the same pirates (for reasons that are too complicated to go into here). Merry is held on the ship for months, has many adventures, befriends a crew of pirates, grows up a lot, and of course falls in love with one of her captors.

[sidenote] Isn't there a condition where victims fall in love with their captors? And I've just been to Wiki--it's called the Stockholm Syndrome. Like Patty Hearst! There are definite shades of that here. She hates the pirates/she loves the pirates. She wants to go home/she wants to adventure. She is never really beaten or molested, though the pirates are quite cruel to her at times. And surprisingly kind at other times. [/sidenote]

And now I will gush like a rabid fangirl.

This really is classic romance. The 1980s were sort of the glory days of the big historical romance novel. Everything was big in the 1980s--LOL. The story is big and complicated, the characters are complex and interesting. People may complain that Merry is naive and annoying, but I thought her reactions to her situation was spot-on and fabulous. You would be scared and confused and resentful, but she gets over it. She learns and you really can see her grow up. I liked Devon too, though he was a little bland compared with some of the other characters. Um, like Cat?! Yeah! I've heard people calling for Cat's story and I will join them because he's f*ing FANTASTIC. He's so clever--I think he and Morgan definitely have some of the best lines in the book. And lovable Raven!

The prose is lush, florid, slightly overblown, with adjectives dripping from every sentence--just the kind of writing that usually drives me nuts. An example: "The kindly fates, after separating Merry and Devon in experience and temperament, had looked back with regretful sighs and cast camelia garlands of warm conversation on the ill-omened pair." Ah! It's so over-the-top, and yet it's original and so part-and-parcel with the whole epic, ultra-romantic feeling of the novel that it's perfect. My general preference may be for spare, straightforward writing, but that would never have worked here.

There's so much to this book that I can see myself re-reading it many times and finding something new every time. A joke I missed, an aspect of a character that I hadn't seen before. And to be honest, (though I love romance, don't get me wrong) subtlety and complexity are the two things I find most annoyingly lacking in romance novels. So when I find a book like this, it makes me all the more appreciative.

Have I gushed enough? I will just end by saying that this was 450 pages of a helluva good time. Must-read for anyone who likes romance!

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Why is Harlequin Harlequin?

It struck me today that I didn't know what a Harlequin is. That little guy on the spine of Harlequin books? Merriam-Webster says, "a. a character in comedy and pantomime with a shaved head, masked face, variegated tights, and wooden sword b. Buffoon." Wiki has a bit more information. Harlequin, the anglicized version of Arlecchino, was the name of a stock character in the Commedia dell'arte, which was an improvisational form of theater popular in Italy in the 16th century. Harlequin is a jokester, described as stupid and glutinous. He carried a baton, with which he beat other characters, and that's where we get our term "slapstick." His distinctive diamond costume was a stylized representation of ragged, patchwork clothing, as he was a pauper.

So why is a romance publisher named after that? It would make sense if Harlequin was a romantic hero, but a jester? Well, Harlequin's website has no company history at all. Very disappointing. But Mills & Boon, the UK arm of Harlequin came through with a history. And I found more history here. Apparently Harlequin was founded by Richard Bonnycastle (great name!) in 1949. At first they didn't even publish romances--they did paperback reprints of mysteries and westerns. They started doing romance in the mid-1950s.

Okay, so all that is quite interesting, but I couldn't find any information on why the company was named Harlequin. I guess Mr. Bonnycastle equated Harlequin, the funniest character from a form of popular theater, with reasonably priced (cheap) paperback fiction. Sort of high-brow, but not stuffy. Popular entertainment, but classy. If there's another connection, I'm not seeing it.

I don't think Harlequin actually uses the figure as a logo anymore, do they? Just the diamond from his costume. And that's my history lesson for today. :o)

Friday, February 02, 2007

Title: Home to Big Stone Gap
Author: Adriana Trigiani
Published: 2006, Random House
Category: General Fiction
Rating: 5/10

This is the 4th in Trigiani's Big Stone Gap series. The first book in the series, Big Stone Gap, is a favorite of mine--it's really charming and lovely. Quirky characters, great small-town setting in my home state of VA, and a really nice story. I've read all the sequels and I've enjoyed them, but they've never quite recaptured the magic of the first one. And I'm sorry to say I think this is the weakest yet.

Ave Maria and Jack have just arrived home from their daughter's wedding in Italy. Ave is of course having a tough time dealing with an empty nest. Jack's having health problems. Iva Lou has a big secret that comes out. Fleeta gets married.

It was nice to see all these characters again, but not that much really happens and the whole thing just felt sort of flat. A lot of it seemed to be a rehashing of plot that had gone on in earlier books. And I was a little bored. Ave Maria is an older lady now, with a grown child, and this may be part of the reason the book didn't do much for me. It's the same reason I don't really get "Mom lit"--I'm just not there yet! Give me a few years and maybe I'll be able to relate better. Though a good book should be able to engage even a reader who has no similar life experience.

The author bio on the flap says that Trigiani has already written the screenplay for the movie version of Big Stone Gap and will also direct it. That could be really good. I hope they actually film it in the Appalachian mountains. There's no where that's prettier. (Okay, maybe there is. I'm biased. But it is beautiful. And now I'm homesick a little bit.)

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Squee! Squee! Squeeeeeeeee!!!

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is on sale July 21, 2007!!!!

I was beginning to worry it wasn't going to come out this summer. I've already marked out that whole weekend on my calendar. :)