Thursday, June 18, 2009

A color lesson

Our retreat this year featured an opportunity to make a mystery quilt (instructions are passed out in phases--you bring the required fabric, but have no idea what you'll end up with). I had cheated by finding the pattern online. I decided the project would be a great way to use up some of my green fabric and make my first monochromatic quilt. Here's the quilt top that I finished the other day:
As I selected the fabrics for this I first aimed for some true green in the 3 required values of light, medium, and dark. To add interest, I chose greens that were on the yellow side of the color wheel and on the blue side of the color wheel.

Now that I study the completed top, I see that I should have worked harder to incorporate the blue/green. Only one blue/green fabric stands out, but you can see quite a bit of yellow/green. When I picked these fabrics, I really liked how they looked together. Indeed, I still do. But after making Springing Up Fun and my Flower Pots, this quilt seems kinda' boring.
While I achieved my goal of a monochromatic quilt, I think it would be far more interesting if I had reached a little further to both sides of green on the wheel. How about a true yellow for one of the light or mediums? And a dark true blue? I could have leaned toward the blue side and used blues and purple. Or leaned to the yellow side and used yellow and orange. Or gone for the opposite side and used red. Nah, too Christmas-y. Still, I think some variation would have looked really cool. If I were at all able to use Photoshop I'd play with the picture and show you what I mean.

Instead this top will go into the UFO pile to be completed at a later date. And next time I try something monochromatic I'm going to break the rule by incorporating something from the other side of the wheel.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

TBR Day. Dead Giveaway / Brenda Novak. 2007

This month's TBR theme is "tortured hero or heroine" and I think Clay Montgomery from Brenda Novak's Stillwater trilogy fits the bill.

I was the winning bidder last year at Brenda's auction for an autographed set of this trilogy. I finally got around to reading the first book back in December. I liked it very much and really meant to read the next two sooner than this. But conveniently for me, when I needed a tortured hero I knew just what to read.

This romantic suspense trilogy tells the story of the Barker/Montgomery family who is deeply affected by the mysterious disappearance of their father/step-father, the Rev. Lee Barker, some 19 years before the books begin. The Rev. Barker was a beloved figure in tiny little Stillwater, Miss. and despite a total lack of evidence, step-son Clay Montgomery was presumed guilty of murder. With no body, Clay was never charged, but he is largely shunned and left friendless over the years by a community convinced he is to blame for the loss of their popular preacher.

The previous book was the story of his sister, Grace. In that book we first learn that Barker was guilty of unspeakable crimes against Grace and other young girls. And we learn the truth of what really happened to Barker when Clay was only 16 years old. In the intervening years Clay has kept silent about what happened in order to protect his mother, his sister Grace, and other sister Molly (all 3 of whom know the truth). While Clay is indeed not guilty of killing Barker, he nonetheless stands guard over the hidden location of Barker's body and he does this by isolating himself on the farm where they'd all lived with Barker. Clay also protects his step-sister, Barker's natural daughter, Maddy, who has no idea of Barker's crimes and holds her father's memory in high regard as does the rest of the town. The difference is that Maddy loves her step-family and is convinced that they couldn't possibly be involved in her father's disappearance.

When Maddy's old school friend Allie McCormick, a cold-case detective in Chicago, moves back to Stillwater, Maddy convinces Allie to use her cold-case skills to find her father. Allie has come back to Stillwater after a difficult divorce where her own father is police chief to provide a stable environment for her 6-year old daughter. It is not long before Allie has an encounter with Clay and she finds it hard to believe all of the rumors surrounding Clay. As she digs into the file and gets to know Clay, she becomes more convinced of his innocence while she's pressured by the town to find him guilty. It's not long before Allie has fallen in love with Clay and Clay with her. Allie, of course, eventually learns the truth and has to decide whether to reveal all or find a way to protect both Clay and his secrets.

Meanwhile, Clay has spent his entire adult life harboring these secrets in order to give his sisters and mother the chance to live normal lives. He has never let anyone close for fear that someone else would suffer because of what he knows. Grace (heroine of the first book) has found love and peace with her new husband and even has a baby on the way. Grace represents all of the things Clay has yearned for--intimacy with someone else and a family to love and care for. He's scared of his feelings for Allie because it would not be wise to involve her in his family. Clay makes a great tortured hero because he wants so badly to live a normal life and no one will let him until he meets Allie.

There are numerous sub-plots to this story and a wide range of secondary characters who help carry the tale. I've really found all of it very well-written. The main characters are well-developed and I could empathize with their dilemma. I also have to give kudos to Ms. Novak for the continuity. This book is clearly meant to follow the first and ends with a lead-in to the 3rd. Yet I do think it could be read alone. As readers, we're allowed to see the truth about Barker early on. It's the rest of the town that has no idea, although slowly but surely the truth is being revealed to select individuals. Some references are made to the first book, but this book does not rely heavily upon them. There was just enough there to refresh my aging memory or inform the new reader who might have missed Grace's book.

I would definitely recommend this book and when I'm done with Maddy's story I will be looking to read some of Ms. Novak's other romantic suspense titles.

Hey! Guess who has a birthday today! Cheesecake ahoy!

Thursday, June 4, 2009

4 Months -- 4 Baloghs

Mary Balogh’s last series of connected books, her “Simply” books, were released 1 per year from 2005-2008. As I understand it, she actually wrote much faster than that. Her publisher saved up her most recent books in order to release them at a rate of 1 per month from February through May of this year. And now we’ll wait another year for the next new book which will conclude this latest series.

1. First Comes Marriage. Feb. 2009
2. Then Comes Seduction. March 2009
3. At Last Comes Love. April 2009
4. Seducing an Angel. May 2009

It’s a strange move by the publisher on a number of levels. And I’m not entirely certain that I liked it. And I'm a huge fan--it was certainly nice to get some new books by her more often than once a year. But once a month? Obviously, it’s a blatant ploy to generate so much interest that those of us who bought books 1-3 (issued as MM paperbacks) would then happily plunk down the big bucks for the hardback. Phooey. I bought 1-3 and then put my name on the library wait list for 4. I'll buy it next year when it comes out in MM. The other disturbing thing this publishing decision creates is an awful long wait for the concluding book to the series. I think Con's book won't be published until the 2nd half of 2010. I suppose the upside is that we MB fans got a huge, huge fix this spring.

Personally, I think it would be really nice if we could just count on a new MB book every 6 months or so.

But that’s not how it went, and it was rather interesting to read these books so close together. When something like that happens, certain idiosyncrasies of structure and style become way more obvious than they might ordinarily. And for me, those idiosyncrasies became a tad less charming when I saw them again and again.

I think most readers would agree that Mary has a very unique voice among romance authors. I wish I were schooled in the art of literary criticism, because maybe I’d have the words to describe what makes her voice unique. Most of her books are not action-packed. Rather they are character-driven. The plots move along through the actions and inter-actions of the main characters. Along the way we are treated to the thoughts and feelings of the characters and we’re emotionally drawn in. Mary’s writing is—for me—very successful at this. And even though certain aspects of her plots have become more predictable, I still find her writing very engaging.

One thing I’ve noticed is that every one of her books going back to before the Simply series has a wedding scene. You can probably go back before that, but I’m not going to bother. Most of the Slightly series and A Summer to Remember also had full church wedding scenes. That’s a lot of weddings. And friends, that’s overkill. Because you can only describe the walk down the aisle so many times before it sounds rote. If you want to have a wedding scene in each book, how about some variety? A special license (which I think, but won’t swear to, was last done in Slightly Married—13 books ago) here and there would be interesting. Or an elopement (I know—terribly scandalous). Or gosh, end the book with a betrothal. My imagination can fill in the rest.

Something else that is repetitive in many of these books is some kind of philosophical discussion on the meaning of happiness and living happily ever after. I think this is a theme that is meaningful to the author. In all honesty, I appreciate the discussion she generates between her characters because I agree with her that we are responsible for our own happiness and that happiness is the cumulation of many small moments. But it just seems strange to see a variation of the same conversation show up in each book. It tends to negate the things she's done to create some differentiation between her characters. How can they have distinct personalities if they spout the same verbage?

These things said---As long as Mary Balogh keeps writing romance, I’ll keep reading it. The introspective nature of her writing really does appeal to me. Her plots are usually different enough to keep me engaged. But her style and structure has become…. well….. very structured. And I really don’t think I care to read back-to-back-to-back-to-back releases again.

I'll end this post with a picture. Tucked in my closet with some of my sewing supplies is my “Complete Works of Mary Balogh Shelves”:

Monday, June 1, 2009

Phyl's 5 Phaves from May

I had a hard time leaving Smooth Talking Stranger off the list this month; it was one of several books that nearly made the cut. I also need to give props to two Harlequin Blazes: Anything for You by Sarah Mayberry and His Expectant Ex by Catherine Mann. I don't read Blazes very often, but I saw a good review for Anything for You and I was intrigued by the storyline in His Expectant Ex. The heroines in both of these books make a stand for what they want out of their relationships with the heroes and I really appreciated that. Strong characters made these engaging, fun reads. I also found Anna Campbell's Tempt the Devil extremely compelling. I applaud Campbell for tackling difficult storylines and I think her writing is improving. Still, that book isn't for everyone and I'm not sure I'd call it a "favorite." But I think I would read it again some day. Always a Scoundrel by Suzanne Enoch almost made this list. It was a darn close call. But, well, I just love Carla Kelly....

5. The Surgeon's Lady by Carla Kelly. This is the second in her trilogy about the illegitimate daughters of a rather nasty aristocrat, Lord Ratliff. Laura had been sold into marriage by her father and is now widowed and possessor of a decent fortune. She had not known she has half-sisters and when she finally decides to visit Nana (heroine of Marrying the Captain) she finds herself coming to the assistance of one of the surgeons at the nearby Naval hospital and going to work there. The surgeon, Philemon Brittle has to get past the walls Laura has built after the way she was mistreated by her father and husband. As their romance blooms, we also get another fascinating look at 19th century naval life. Kelly's books are always a treat and this was no exception. I bought this as an ebook May 1. It goes on sale in paper today.

4. Whisper of Warning by Laura Griffin. This is the sequel to Thread of Fear and tells the story of Courtney Glass, sister to Fiona in TOF. Courtney is framed for a murder she didn't commit and it's up to Detective Will Hodges to follow his gut and prove she didn't do it. Courtney is a very different character than her sister and I liked her flamboyant nature. The romance between Courtney and Will unfolds gradually even though they are immediately attracted to one another. There were some details here, such as the fact that Will has a job that requires him to juggle multiple cases that made this book very realistic-sounding. I'm looking forward to reading more by this author.

3. Untamed by Pamela Clare. I have had this one forever, it seems. It was released last November. Ms. Clare's books have been consistent winners for me. The hero and heroine are an unlikely pair. Morgan Mackinnon is a Scot raised in America with a well-developed dislike of the British. He's forced to fight against the French, but is captured by them and tended by the recently orphaned half French/half Indian daughter of a French commander who was recently killed by Morgan's band of Rangers. On the surface it all seems convoluted. And the French and Indian Wars were very brutal. So this might not sound like an inviting read. But if you enjoy history even a little bit, this book was fascinating and the history was clearly presented. The romance develops slowly and naturally and it's possible to believe that Amelie would be able to fall in love with Morgan. One thing that I really, really appreciated about this book is that the French commander who replaces Amelie's father is a decent man and Morgan is genuinely conflicted about being forced to treat him as an enemy. Things are never black and white in war and Clare does an excellent job of reminding us of that fact.

2. Seducing an Angel by Mary Balogh. You know what? I did not expect to like this book. The previous 3 books in the series painted Stephen as an almost perfect young man. Good-looking, good-humored, good-[whatever] just sounded to me as if that could only spell b-o-r-i-n-g. And, well, Stephen is actually pretty perfect in this book. But it turns out that the real interesting character here is Cassandra, a disgraced and destitute widow who comes to London to hire herself out as a courtesan in order to provide for herself and 2 retainers. She puts on a very cold mask, but Stephen is able to see beyond it and he insists on getting to know the real Cassandra. Their story develops over a very short period of time. Almost too short, but at least the author acknowledges the short time span through some of Stephen's inner dialogue. Balogh reveals Cassandra's back story in stages and I liked how it was done. Another thing that made this book different is that it had far less sexual content than her books usually do. It was an interesting experiment by her publisher to release 4 books in quick succession like this. I have some things to say about that, so I'll leave it for a future blog post. Meanwhile, I did end up liking this very much indeed.

1. Not Quite a Husband by Sherry Thomas. Gosh, did I love this book. I had to keep putting it down to google stuff, though. Like maps of Pakistan and India. (I do wish a map could have been printed in book!) And to look up the 3 new words I learned: concupiscence, pellucid, and deodar. But the best part was watching two people put a very broken relationship back together. I love that kind of story and this was done very well. The past was brought into the story in stages. It took a while to get to understand just what had happened and then Bryony and Leo have to work their way through the hurt to get back together. Meanwhile there's a threat to their lives in the form of an uprising, there's hundreds of miles of hostile terrain to traverse, and the walls of their past to break down. This book was on my mind for days after I finished it. Loved it.