Saturday, September 29, 2012

Phyl's 5 Phaves from August

Things are usually pretty slow here at Phyl's Quilts and Books. They've been slower than usual of late because I badly pinched a nerve in my lower back in mid-August. Pain, drugs, and physical therapy have dominated my landscape since then. The good news is that I'm way better than I was a month ago. The bad news is that I'm still dealing with some pain, weird nerve activity, and weakness in my right leg. The goal is to avoid back surgery at all costs, so I've been faithful with my exercise routine. I'm glad to be resuming most of my normal activities, including sewing, but at the risk of being repetitive, it's slow. So very slow.

Fortunately I actually wrote a couple of these (#5 and #3) right after I read those books, before the pinched nerve. I read #1 and #4 while I was stuck in bed. Frankly, I'm amazed I remember anything from the "Vicodin is my best friend" days. But here we go:

5. The Chocolate Thief by Laura Florand. I've been lucky enough to visit 49 of the 50 U.S. states (I still need to get to Alaska). I've seen a bit of Canada and once went to Colombia, decades ago when it was probably much safer to visit there. I hope to see more of the rest of the world, but oddly, I've never had much interest in visiting France or Paris. Until I read this book. Florand's words made the city come alive in a whole new way for me. But it wasn't just Paris, it was Sylvain Marquis, a premier chocolatier who clashes with Cade Corey, an American and heiress to a successful chocolate empire (think Hershey). Cade wants to add a line of specialty chocolates to the Corey line, and she wants Sylvain's name and recipes to make up that line. Sylvain is positively horrified by the idea, even as he finds himself strongly attracted to Cade. Cade's frustration and an unlooked-for opportunity lead her to break into Sylvain's shop so she can learn more about him and his chocolate. I like the way Florand develops their relationship. It's both hot and tentative as they act on their attraction, yet hide behind their respective insecurities. This was a fun and funny story that had me totally engrossed, craving gourmet chocolate, and wishing for a chance to go to Paris.

4. My Fair Concubine by Jeannie Lin. Lin's historicals, set in ancient China, have been on my radar for a while and I'm glad I finally picked one up. This is a wonderful story of a man, desperate to restore his family's fortunes, and the young woman who helps him out. Chang Fei Long had promised his sister in marriage as part of a political alliance. When his sister runs away, he tracks her down in a tea house far from home. In the end, unwilling to force her into an unwanted marriage, he lets her go off with her lover. But he still needs a "sister" to marry the foreign prince. The young woman working in the tea house, Yan Ling, ends up going back to Fei Long's home where she learns how to become a princess, suitable for the planned marriage. Lin skillfully weaves in details of ancient Chinese life for those, like myself, who are rather ignorant of the era. Yan Ling and Fei Long are interesting characters who clearly are coming to care for one another. Yet they each owe a duty to those depending upon them. How will they escape the dilemma of Yan Ling's impending marriage? I really liked this and am eager to read more of Lin's books.

3. Untie My Heart by Judith Ivory. I first read this Victorian historical close to 10 years ago. Unfortunately, as the years wore on, I couldn't remember the title or the author. But I always remembered Stuart Aysgarth with his huge greatcoat, and Emma Hotchkiss, a sheep farmer and Stuart's neighbor. When the ebook showed up as a cheap deal for my Kindle I was so excited to buy it and read it again to see if I would like it as much now as I did then. And indeed, this book held up very well. Stuart and Emma appear to be as different as can be, yet they actually have quite a bit in common. The real charm to this book is how Ivory takes Stuart, an aristocrat through-and-through, and matches him to Emma, a commoner and former thief. When Stuart's coach accidentally kills Emma's prized lamb, Emma seeks redress. When she gets creative in seeking restitution, Stuart realizes what she's doing and he coerces her into helping him retrieve some property his uncle had stolen from him. It's wonderful to watch them fall in love with one another. The presumed chasm between them is a significant obstacle to overcome and Ivory brings them together in a way that struck me as very believable. I love this book and am glad to finally own a copy that I can read again and again.

2. A Gentleman Undone by Cecilia Grant. After just two books, Cecilia Grant has become a must-read author for me. Her first book, A Lady Awakened, was a December Phave. Once again, Grant has gone where the genre rarely goes by making a courtesan the heroine. The hero, Will, is the brother of Martha from ALA. He meets Lydia at a gaming house when she wins a small fortune from him. Both Will and Lydia are desperate to win a significant amount of money. Will wants to provide for the widow of one of his fellow soldiers who died at Waterloo. Lydia wants to leave her life of prostitution. Will and Lydia become uneasy partners which of course deepens into something more. There are significant obstacles to their HEA, not the least of which is the scandal of Lydia's former life. I found this book to be deeply romantic as well as believable as Will and Lydia sort through their various issues and begin to trust one another. I loved this and am eagerly awaiting whatever Grant has for us next.

1. Thief of Shadows by Elizabeth Hoyt. It was a tough decision, but this book was my Phave of the month because I really, really liked the way Hoyt wrote the hero of this book, Winter Makepeace. Winter is a complicated man. He is stern, yet affectionate. And he leads a double life as the Ghost of St. Giles, a costumed character who rescues young children from lives of poverty, abuse, and prostitution. He would seem the polar opposite of Lady Isabel, a society matron who is one of the patronesses of Winter's orphanage. Just as there's much more to Winter, there is much more to Lady Isabel, and another appealing part of this book is they way we learn about each of them. I loved Winter's determination to eventually make Isabel his wife, and his assumption it would happen. I loved watching Isabel let go of her fears and hurts. Together they work to save the orphanage and also to save little girls who are being stolen off the streets. This is another great addition in a series I've enjoyed so much.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

TBR Day. The Birth of Venus / Sarah Dunant. 2003

I'm bending the rules a little this month. This book was not in my personal TBR pile. It was a library book I'd picked up at the urging of my QBFFs who had read and loved this book. Since they often read the romances I recommend to them, it seemed only fair to follow up on a rec from them. It was almost due and I needed a non-romance for this month, so I decided to write about Sarah Dunant's rich historical novel set in Florence during the turbulent 1490s.

Dunant is apparently well-known for her suspense novels, including a series of crime novels with the recurring character, Hannah Wolfe. The Birth of Venus was her first historical novel. She's since gone on to write a few more. At any rate, I found this to be a very interesting novel, full of details about the art and politics of Florence during a time when a monk named Savonarola temporarily wrested power from the Medicis and preached a very puritanical gospel. He defied the Pope and claimed to have visions that would establish Florence as the New Jerusalem, a newer and more holy center for the Christian Church.

The book's narrator and central character is Alessandra, a young women who is the youngest daughter of a moderately wealthy cloth merchant. She is intellectually brilliant, curious about everything, and a gifted artist. But as a young woman she is suited only for marriage and child-bearing. Her parents arrange a marriage for her with a much older man, who, it turns out, has very little interest in her. Her marriage ends up giving her a degree of unexpected freedom and an opportunity to develop a relationship with a painter. Alessandra grows into womanhood as the Florence she knew as a child undergoes massive changes.

I found the book a bit slow going at first, as various threads are introduced. But the pace really picked up after Alessandra's marriage and I was glad I stuck with this. The book opened a world that I am not all that familiar with, and I enjoyed learning more about medieval Florence. One thing that struck me was how the puritanical messages preached by Savonarola reminded me of today's War on Women. While not really the same, the truth is that there are parallels to the ways religion was/is used to control women. The book is also full of references to art, philosophy, politics, and sex. It's amazingly full, yet very readable.

For a change of pace, this was a good choice.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Phyl's 5 Phaves from July

5. The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker. I wish I knew where I saw a recommendation for this book. It's YA, I genre I really tend to avoid. But the story intrigued me so much I had to read it and once I started I couldn't put it down. This is the story of Julia, an 11-12 year-old girl who writes about the year the Earth's rotation began to slow down. The earth's 24 hour rotation slows to over 72 hours by the end of the book. The magnetic fields of the earth have shifted, people's circadian rhythms are disturbed, and the world slowly begins to die. Be warned, this is not a book with a sudden miraculous happy ending. Julia, already a lonely only child, finds ways to cope with the changes around her. She's resilient and determined to move forward. This first novel by Walker is compelling and emotional. Thank you to whoever mentioned it online. I'm so glad I read this.

4. Wool Omnibus by Hugh Howey. This dystopian story is set on earth at an unspecified point in the future. The earth's surface has become uninhabitable and all that's left is a small group of people living in a silo that goes deep into the earth. Life is strictly regimented; the penalty for disobedience is being sent outside (with a piece of wool) to scrub the camera lens that is the sole window to the outside world. This book is actually the collection of six stories that Howey originally self-published. This is a fascinating look at what happens when a small group of people within the silo question the established order. It takes awhile for Howey to begin to reveal the secrets of the silo. The first of the six books is very short and tragic. I'm glad I persisted, though, as the world-building was complex and interesting. This was a long book that I read as we drove home from Oregon, across Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, etc., etc. The Omnibus ends on a much more optimistic note than the first book does and leaves lots of room for future books set in the silo. I will be watching for them.

3. Carolina Home by Virginia Kantra. I really liked Kantra's Children of the Sea series, even though I shy away from paranormal stuff most of the time these days. So I was quite happy to pick up the first book in a new contemporary series called Dare Island. The series revolves around three siblings and the small coastal island off North Carolina. Matt is the oldest sibling, the one who never left. He has a teen-aged son and an aversion to commitment. Into his life comes Allison Carter, a teacher with a passion for kids and a desire to find a small community where she can put down roots. Matt is determined to resist Allison, but when events prove overwhelming for his family, he needs help. It's Allison who is there for him and his family. I liked that Kantra wrote a heroine who was vocal and steadfast about what she wanted out of life. This is a solidly-written family, small-town story that does not get overly sentimental and I found it very emotionally satisfying. I'm really looking forward to the other two books to come. Kantra has a backlist I also need to tackle.

2. Ravishing the Heiress by Sherry Thomas. I was not crazy about the first entry in Thomas' new Fitzhugh trilogy, although there were parts I liked very much. The set-up to RTH had me eagerly anticipating this book and it was everything I hoped it would be. I would describe this as a combination of a marriage of convenience story and a friends to lovers story. I totally understood the characters' motivations and their choices made sense for who they were. I was emotionally invested from the first page and read this practically non-stop. Millie is an heiress who agrees to marry the desperate Lord Fitzhugh. He needs money to restore his estate and make sure all the people working there are not left destitute. Fitz is giving up the woman he loves and had planned to marry in order to do the right thing by his family and dependents. Millie is practical and pragmatic. Even so, she falls in love with Fitz immediately and becomes his partner in every sense except sexually. I love the steps they take toward one another, especially as Fitz realizes how much Millie has come to mean to him over the years of their celibate marriage. Beautifully written, I loved every word.

1. A Scandalous Scot by Karen Ranney. Ranney's latest was a real winner for me, mostly because of the way she made this improbable romance between an Earl and a housemaid plausible. I admit to having a huge bias in favor of Ranney's books, which probably helps explain why I rated this my favorite of the month. So take this with a grain of salt! Morgan MacCraig has returned to his ancestral home after a long absence. His political career, which had meant so much to him, is permanently in tatters because he chose to divorce his adulterous wife. He's at loose ends at Ballindair Castle, which does little more than remind of him of all the ways he believes he has disappointed his late father. Jean MacDonald, and her sister Catriona, are employed as maids in the castle, thanks to their aunt, the housekeeper. The MacDonald sisters had been raised in gentility in Inverness, but lost their home, also to scandal. Jean embraces her role as a servant and is fascinated by her new home and the potential for ghosts. Jean and Morgan have a handful of late-night encounters and eventually they are caught in a compromising position, forcing them to marry. I loved the way the dialogue was written between these two. I loved the character arcs, especially Morgan's. He has to get over the life he left behind in London and pay attention what needs doing at Ballindair. Jean needs to trust Morgan's love for her with the truth of her background. I was not so fond of Catriona or Morgan's friend Andrew. I think they made interesting foils for Jean and Morgan, but were not essential to the story. Still, I really liked this historical that had a slightly different twist on the consequence of scandal.