Wednesday, September 21, 2016

TBR Day. The Secret Heart / Erin Satie. 2014

The Secret Heart is Erin Satie's debut novel, which is almost hard to believe because it was one of the more polished books I've read in a while. With one book, Satie landed on my auto-buy list. I'm kicking myself that I didn't read it much sooner than this.

Caroline Small, the daughter of an impoverished Marquess, knows that if she doesn't marry, and marry well, she and her younger brother face very precarious futures. She happens to be staying at a Duke's estate where an old friend of hers lives as the Duke's ward. There she meets Adam, heir to the dukedom, the man who becomes the focus of Caro's attentions. For marriage to Adam would solve Caro's problems.

Caro and Adam each have a secret. Caro dances, having learned ballet from her governess. Adam boxes anonymously, as it would be a huge scandal for the heir to a dukedom to be caught brawling with the lower classes.

Rather than spend a lot of time describing the plot I simply want to say how much I appreciated Satie's writing. There's a wonderful sense of time and place. The characters are facing real problems, especially Caro who needs to marry. Her manipulation of Adam is deliberate. Which doesn't make Caro particularly likable, but it does make her understandable and vulnerable. I like that Satie took a risk to make one of her main characters less than likable. And Caro does have to face the consequences of her actions, not the least of which is finding herself in love with Adam, and, when her schemes appear to fail, no expectation of being able to marry him.

Adam, who is fighting demons of his own, not to mention an extremely controlling father, finds himself first enchanted by Caro and then disillusioned by her schemes. Adam is not at all your typical Regency hero, and that makes him unique and fascinating.

This is one of those books I couldn't put down. I highly recommend it and -- no surprise here -- I have already started reading the next book in the series, The Lover's Knot. I'm hooked.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

TBR Day. Vacation pictures

Well, another month, another TBR failure. So how about some vacation pictures? I just got back from two weeks of driving out to the Rocky Mountains and back. I'm too swamped to write about anything I read, but I can post pictures!

We had a picnic lunch next to a prairie dog colony at a state park in Kansas:

In Estes Park, CO, two elk wandered into the town square:

Mama moose and her baby in Rocky Mountain National Park:

Sunset over our campground in Utah:

We drove through Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area and stopped to see the views:

On the west side of the Grand Tetons are Idaho's wheat fields:

Wildflowers spotted along the way. Don't ask--I have no idea of their names:

Late afternoon over Lake Yellowstone, a few hundred yards from our campsite:

Waiting for Old Faithful to erupt:

Beehive Geyser, near Old Faithful:

Hello Mr. Bison!! (shot with a zoom lens--I'm not stupid)

 Sunset over Yellowstone's Hayden Valley:

Driving through Nebraska on the way home:

We stopped at LOTS of quilt shops. My family is so patient.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

TBR Day. Unsuitable / Ainslie Paton. 2014

I'm two weeks late with this and almost considered skipping again, but I liked this book so well that I decided to suck it up and finally write my TBR post.

The home page of Ainslie Paton's website, has a little box that says "Favourite Tropes - New Takes" and in that box are pictures of a bunch of her books, including this one, Unsuitable. Unsuitable is a new take on the "busy executive needs a nanny for his kid" trope by making the executive a woman and the nanny a man. I thought this made Unsuitable a fun choice for "Favorite Trope" month.

Here's the blurb:
Can they make trailblazing and homemaking fit, or is love just another gender stereotype? 
Audrey broke the glass ceiling. Reece swapped a blue collar for a pink collar job. 
She’s a single mum by design. He’s a nanny by choice. 
She gets passed over for promotion. He struggles to find a job. 
She takes a chance on him. He’s worth more than he knows. 
There’s an imbalance of power. There’s an age difference. 
There’s a child whose favourite word is no. 
Everything about them being together is unsuitable. 
Except for love. 

Paton does a great job of turning a favorite trope on its head-- all the way to the end when Audrey is the one who has to go to Reece and grovel to get him back. Audrey chose to have a child on her own using a sperm donor. As the book opens Audrey has to find a new nanny. When Reece shows up at her door, Audrey is nonplussed, because she assumed, as she thought of Reese Witherspoon, that this Reece was also a woman. Audrey, however, recognizes her own biases for 2 reasons: 1) Reece is able to establish an instant rapport with 3-year old Mia, and 2) Audrey doesn't want to be guilty of the same discrimination she faces in her male-dominated profession. After some trials, she agrees to give Reece the job as carer to her daughter.

Reece turns out to have an amazing gift working with children. But he continually has to deal with all of the assumptions that people make about him and how painful it is to be denied opportunities with children simply because he's a man. I think Paton explores this issue very well and I liked the way this book got me thinking about my own biases.

Audrey chose to be a single parent because she didn't really trust relationships and she desperately wanted to have a family. She's estranged from her parents and pretty much on her own with the exception of a few close friends. She's good at her job, but she works in the construction industry, and is often passed over in favor of her male colleagues.

It's not long before Audrey and Reece realize how attracted they are to one another. Audrey feels guilty as she is Reece's employer. She also feels awkward over the fact that she's several years older than Reece. She doesn't want a permanent relationship-- she just wants her little family of herself and Mia. It's clear that Reece is the emotionally mature one (again going against trope). So it's Audrey who has to decide that she does indeed want Reece permanently in her life.

Like the other Paton book I read, Grease Monkey Jive, Unsuitable, is on the longish side (about 350 pages). The length gives us a chance to see Audrey & Reece weather some storms as their relationship deepens and develops. In the end, though, it's Audrey who has to relinquish absolute control over her life and let someone else in. This was a thought-provoking, satisfying, and entertaining read.

I'm just sorry I've been so preoccupied by other things that I didn't take the time to write about it sooner.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Pretty Purple Quilt

In my February posts about my sister, I mentioned that she gave me a ton of her stuff--fabric, tools, a machine, and lots of partially completed projects. I brought it all home, stacked in the guest room and tried to figure out where to store it all. Gradually, I organized it, re-arranged some of my own stuff, and figured out how to put it away. It was an emotional process and it took months. I didn't always get a lot of sewing done; it was hard to find the energy as I continued to get used to her being gone.

A few months before she passed away, Char handed me this particular quilt and insisted that I finish it soon. It's actually a quilt top that I made for her back in 2006. She sent me the pattern and fabric and asked me to make just the top. She was going to use it in the book she was writing. When I was finished I sent her the completed top, the pattern, and the leftover fabric. In the book, it's used to demonstrate a basting technique. So she basted the layers together, took pictures for the book, but in the years following never got around to quilting it.

When she gave it to me last fall, she said she couldn't find the pattern or leftover fabric. I wasn't able to find it either as I went through her sewing room. So I can't tell you the name of this, but it reminds me of a floor tile pattern or a garden trellis. I just think of it as the pretty purple quilt. I spent the winter quilting it and finished it in March.
 I didn't do anything fancy with the quilting, just a simple meander across the whole thing.
I keep it on my bed now. A warm, comforting reminder of Char.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

TBR Day. Special Interests / Emma Barry. 2014

I remember reading a number of positive reviews of this book when it came out almost exactly two years ago. I'm sure I purchased it on the strength of those reviews, but like too many of the books I buy, it got pushed to the back burner. I was scrolling through my Kindle titles recently and realized that this would be an excellent choice for this month's TBR Challenge.

The blurb:
Compared to love, politics is easy
Union organizer Millie Frank's world isn't filled with cocktails and nightclubs…until she's turned into an unwitting minor celebrity. As if being part of a hostage situation wasn't traumatizing enough, now her face is splashed across the news. But Millie's got fresher wounds to nurse—like being shot down by the arrogant bad boy she stupidly hit on.
Parker Beckett will do whatever it takes to close a deal for the senate majority leader, including selling out union labor. Charming and smart on the surface, he's also cynical and uncommitted—an asset on the Hill. But something about Millie has stuck with him and when negotiations bring her to his office, Parker breaks his own rules and asks her out.
Parker can't understand how Millie has retained her idealism in a place like D.C. Millie can't believe what Parker's willing to sacrifice in order to pass a budget. But as they navigate their political differences, what grows between them looks a lot like a relationship…and maybe even a little like love.
Special Interests by Emma Barry, is a smart, fun look at two people at political odds who cannot fight their attraction to one another. It seemed extremely appropriate to read this book during a time when we in the U.S. have an abundance of "Super Tuesdays." The primaries dominate the news cycle and cynicism about our government abounds. I liked reading a book about two people who are behind the politicians whose faces are in the news, yet are the ones doing the real work of government.

To me, the book's strengths lie in the ways we get to know both Millie and Parker. Parker is a workaholic--any personal time he gives himself is devoted to his mother and his grandparents. Millie cares deeply for the unions she represents, but is also dealing with the trauma of having been caught up in a hostage situation. The dialogue between the two is great and pretty funny in spots. There's real poignancy to Parker's interactions with his grandfather who has Alzheimer's, and also to the way Parker helps Millie with her nightmares. When their personal and professional lives overlap, there is a genuine conflict that needs to be resolved. Passing a budget is a very real issue, as we Americans have experienced in the not-too-distant past. And given a government where compromise isn't on the table, there's a cost to getting results. All of this is so well portrayed in the book.

One aspect I didn't care for so much was that Millie's insecurities got in the way so easily and then what I perceived to be Parker's over-reaction to them. Their relationship is still very new and playing out against a very stressful political issue and suddenly there's an all-or-nothing moment. I had a hard time buying into that. But it only briefly dimmed my enjoyment of the book, and Parker and Millie's reconciliation was sweet and believable.

Altogether, this is an easy book to recommend. I've already purchased Private Politics, the next book in the series, and look forward to reading it.

Monday, April 11, 2016

While You Were Mine / Ann Howard Creel. 2016

I sort of stumbled across this book when it was a March Kindle First* offering. As near as I can tell, Ann Howard Creel (no website found) is primarily a YA author. This is her second "adult" novel. I can't tell if it's being marketed as a romance or not, but it definitely meets the definition, HEA and all.

While You Were Mine uses the iconic photo of a sailor kissing a nurse on V-J Day as it's jumping off point. 
The blurb:

Everything she loved could so easily be lost.
The end of WWII should have brought joy to Gwen Mullen. But on V-J Day, her worst fear is realized. As celebrating crowds gather in Times Square, a soldier appears on her doorstep to claim Mary, the baby abandoned to Gwen one year earlier. Suddenly Gwen is on the verge of losing the child she has nurtured and loves dearly.
With no legal claim to Mary, Gwen begins to teach Lieutenant John McKee how to care for his child, knowing that he will ultimately take Mary away. What starts as a contentious relationship, however, turns into something more, and Gwen must open her heart to learn that love means taking chances.
While You Were Mine paints a vivid portrait of 1940s New York and tells an enchanting tale of the nature of love and trust.

Told primarily in first person from Gwen's POV, the book opens with the celebration in Times Square. But soon Gwen is racing home, only to find John on her doorstep looking for his wife and baby daughter. The book goes back over a year to when Gwen takes a young bride into her apartment as a roommate. Alice is pregnant and because she's had no letters from her husband, she's convinced he's dead. Eventually Alice gives birth to little Mary. But Alice cannot bond with her daughter and becomes increasingly detached. So she tells Gwen that she has to leave and she's going to California. Despite all of Gwen's efforts, Alice walks out leaving Mary behind. At first Gwen is resentful. As a young, single woman who loves the energy of New York City, she is forced to stay home to care for Mary. Gwen knows she could turn the child over to the authorities, but she cannot bear the thought of what might happen to Mary. Over the course of the next year Gwen becomes more and more attached to Mary.

But when John comes home just as the war ends, Gwen knows that she's going to have to give Mary back to John. John is bewildered by that fact that Alice is gone. John had been captured by the Germans and held in a POW camp for nearly a year. His memories of Alice were the incentive he needed to stay alive despite the conditions of his captivity. Everything he had imagined crumbles to dust when he learns Alice is gone. Leaving Mary with Gwen a while longer, he goes to California hoping to find Alice. When his search proves fruitless, he comes back to New York, bringing his sister with him. His plan is to take Mary to Ohio where his sister lives and let his sister help him raise Mary. But when he is back in New York and sees the bond Mary has with Gwen, he cannot separate them and sends his sister alone back to Ohio.

So John stays in New York, finds a place to live and a job, and begins to get to know his daughter. He also gets to know Gwen and slowly a relationship develops between them. John gets a divorce because of abandonment and hopes for a life with Gwen and Mary and maybe more children. But then Alice reappears and John needs to make a choice.

This novel paints a vivid picture of life in America immediately after the war. Men returned home by the thousands and jobs and housing were scarce at first. While John is haunted by his memories, there's a secondary character, Dennis, who is clearly suffering and cannot function normally after his discharge. Gwen herself is very cautious and has a hard time standing up for what she wants. She's guarding her heart from more hurt. John is a pleaser and has a hard time saying no when he ought to. These are flawed characters trying to make a way out of an impossible situation during a time of upheaval and change. Things take place slowly, over the course of four and a half months, which I thought made things more authentic.

I really enjoyed this book. I wasn't always happy with the choices Gwen and John made, and the resolution was rather too easy, although not unexpected. Still, the portrait of life in New York from V-J day to New Year's Eve in 1945 was fascinating. Creel provides just enough detail to give the reader a very strong sense of time and place. This was one of those books I had a hard time putting down. I recommend this book to anyone looking for an unusual historical romance.

*Kindle First is a program for Amazon Prime members. I don't know if it's available outside of the US or not. Anyhow, once a month I get an opportunity to "buy" one book for free from a list of 4-6 books of various genres. There's usually a romance offering, although not always. Usually I've never heard of the authors.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Re-reading the Psy-Changling Series

Last spring I decided to re-read Nalini Singh's entire Psy-Changeling Series when I discovered my public library owned it in downloadable audio format. Yesterday I finished Shards of Hope, the latest book in the series. All together it took me about 9 months to listen to 14 books (I did not attempt to re-read any of the novellas). It was an interesting experience. Last July, when I was part-way the series through I blogged this:
First, I'm extremely glad I decided to do this re-read. It's been almost nine years since the 1st book, Slave to Sensation, was published and over the years I've forgotten as much as I've remembered. Some books have been more compelling, and thus more memorable than others. Some, like Blaze of Memory have not been so memorable. Case in point, with BoM-- as I listened I knew I'd read it before, but honestly couldn't remember any of it until near the end. And this is kind of important because Singh has carefully built the Psy-Changeling world and each book is full of clues as to what will be coming. When I finally get to listen to the latest book, Shards of Hope, I suspect that some parts of it will make much more sense than they did when I read the book in June. Anyhow, I am enjoying the re-read and the narration by Angela Dawe. Her voice goes a little lower in volume when it goes low for the male lines, which makes it hard to drive with the windows down on the freeway (I hate to use the A/C). But I figure that's on me, not her.
And it's true, even though I'd read Shards of Hope in print last June, it was for more enjoyable now that I was re-acquainted with the major players and various groups. For example, in June I couldn't remember who the "Forgotten" were and I did not remember that Zaira made an appearance in Shield of Winter. I liked Shards of Hope first time around, but I definitely enjoyed it way more this time now that the details were fresher in my mind. The truth is, this is a series that you need to read from the beginning and each book builds on the one that came before.

You might be thinking, "Wow, Phyl, you must have an awful memory." Yep. It sucks. It's one of the main reasons I quit reading Kresley Cole's Immortals After Dark series. I was totally lost when trying to read the 5th book. When there's too much time between releases (and hey! I do get that the poor author needs time to write her book) it can be a deal breaker for me. This is especially true for a paranormal or SF/F series where the author is doing a lot of world-building. Sometimes I'll be reading an In Death book and it'll refer to one of Eve's previous cases. I don't even try to remember. Fortunately, it rarely has an impact on the current book. Anyhow, I steer clear of lengthy series these days and prefer the ones where there may be many appearances by happy couples (I'm looking at you, Mary Balogh), but I still get a central, satisfying romance. I don't need to worry about world-building and the accompanying details.

Anyhow, this was a great experience. I'm so glad my library owned them all. I am sad, though, that for the time being I have no more psy-changeling books to listen to. And I hope I can remember enough to enjoy future books in the series. Truthfully, I'm a little worried.