Saturday, August 21, 2010

I have been assimilated

While I often read children's fantasy and science fiction novels, I seldom select science fiction or fantasy romances. Am I prejudiced? Perhaps...or maybe I just never found the right author - until now!

I have been assimilated and Susan Grant's novel Sureblood: A Tale of the Borderlands is to blame. This weekend I raced through her story so quickly I'm surprised my Nook didn't catch fire.

*Spoiler alert*

The tale is set in the Borderlands of the Universe, where pirate clans clash with each other while raiding those that steal from their lands. Valeeya Blue has a lot to prove, both as a female raider and as the daughter of the clan captain. During her first raid as skiff commander, she boards a ship only to find that a rival clan, the Surebloods, has also decided to help themselves to the bounty. The Surebloods are led by their own young captain, Dake, and the sparks immediately start to fly between the handsome raider and the captivating she-pirate.

The Blues and the Surebloods band together to escape a third enemy, which starts them down the bumpy road to clan unity. During a celebration that follows, Dake and Val follow through with the desire that has been quickly building since they met. Evil plots have been set in motion and, while they are indisposed, Val's father is assassinated.

Instantly, the Blues blame the Surebloods, the fragile peace starts to crumble, and Val's life is forever changed. Dake leaves to help find out the truth behind the attack, but fails to contact Val in the months that follow. She becomes clan captain and soon after becomes a new mother, too.

What Val doesn't know is that Dake enduring the worst hell a pirate can imagine, but he never forgets his Blue girl and vows to return to her and to restore peace to all the clans. Will he return in time to help forge peace? Will Val believe in his innocence or has she found love with another?

The pacing in this story was top-notch and I found it difficult to put the story down or to let it out of my mind. Just as I would catch my breath after a tension filled scene, the story would careen into another dangerous section. The elements of foreboding woven throughout added to the suspense, as did the evil villain present throughout the novel.

The world was believable and easily imagined and I enjoyed the subtle physical and cultural differences between the clans. The perspective switched from Val to Dake (and sometimes others) and I believe that adds a little more depth to each character. The characters themselves suffer hardships that make you hurt for them and hope that things will, somehow, work out in the end.

This was another title from the Harlequin's Big Summer Reads (thanks HQN for the ARCs!). As a side note, even in the world of eBooks, cover art is still important. The stylistic cover immediately caught my attention. I look forward to catching up with Grant's previous novels and I am glad that my reading tastes were gently nudged in a new direction.

Orchard Valley Brides

Have you ever been strongly attracted to someone against your better judgment? That's exactly what happens to the both heroines in the stories that make up Debbie Macomber's Orchard Valley Brides, another of the Harlequin Big Summer Reads.

In Norah, the heroine is working one last shift as an ER nurse before her sister's wedding the following day when the lone survivor of a private plane crash is rushed in. His injuries are serious and things get complicated when Norah realizes the man was flying into town to stop her sister's wedding because of his feelings for her.

Wealthy CEO Rowdy Cassidy is a man used to getting his own way. When the pretty nurse Norah visits him after the wedding, he demands to see her more and has her reassigned to work on his floor. Norah soon finds herself captivated by this powerhouse of a man who can turn an entire hospital upside down, but she knows a relationship with him would be a mistake. After all, isn't he still in love with her sister?

In Lone Star Lovin', Sherrie decides to move from Orchard Valley to a small town in Texas to work as a physician's assistant. Her first patient is a handsome rancher struggling to parent a teenage daughter and before long sparks start to fly between them.

Neither Cody or Sherrie trust the immediate attraction they feel for each other. Cody's daughter is hell bent on getting a mom, which does not help matters. When Cody proposes to Sherrie, saying they might as well get married since he doesn't have time for all the romance crap, she feels her heart deflate like a balloon with a slow leak. She is falling in love with the gruff rancher, but she wants someone who will share his heart as well as his bed.

Both novels were originally published in the early 1990s, although they are timeless in their appeal. The stories include strong family ties and small town settings in Oregon and Texas. Macomber is best in the back-and-forth dialogue between the main characters, making it both fresh and funny. The sensuality is drawn more from the build-up of attraction between the couples than any detailed bedroom scenes. Those that have read Macomber's titles will know exactly what to expect. New readers will find sweet stories of people learning how to listen to their hearts as well as their heads when it comes to love.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

A Certain Fondness for Crazy

As I started to read my first Victoria Dahl book, Crazy for Love, I didn't really know what to expect. I imagined humor, I imagined steamy love scenes, but I certainly didn't expect to find a hero with anxiety issues. But, find him I did - and I loved Max for being strong, true, and admirably struggling to live with his control issues.

Max and his brother Elliott have decided to take a much-needed vacation. Elliott is a divorced workaholic from the CDC and Max is a sea-faring treasure hunter who feels responsible for the safety of everyone he encounters. Everyone!

Max has managed to hide his anxiety by playing the charming playboy and the ploy has always worked, until he mets Chloe, a fellow tourist in the cabin next door. She sees right through his act and makes him face the truth about himself and his life.

What Max doesn't know is that Chloe has a secret of her own. A month ago, she was supposed to be getting married, but then her fiance died in a plane crash. Suddenly, she finds out he hadn't died after all - he had staged the accident to escape from marrying her! That's when the rumors start flying and suddenly Chloe is a national tabloid star as Chloe the Bridezilla! When Chloe's identity is revealed, she and Jenn are forced to return home to prepare for the ex-fiance's upcoming trial.

Reading Crazy for Love was a wonderfully refreshing experience. Dahl masterfully creates a main character that is strong, handsome, and neurotic. His anxiety issues reveal his true nature and make him endearing as we see him struggle to live with the worry that he battles 24/7. Chloe understands him and loves him, while also trying to help him be honest with himself as he starts thinking about changing his life.

Another of the Harlequin's Big Summer Reads off the list - but now I have all the other Victoria Dahl books to look forward to! So long, housework!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

All I Ever Wanted

A few months ago, I had the fun opportunity to write a blog post for the Borders True Romance Blog. I wrote about being in a reading slump and how I just couldn't find a really great book to sink my teeth into. Well, I am in a slump no more, my friends! One of the reasons: Kristan Higgins, the next stop on the Harlequin Big Summer Reads.

What a thrill to receive a review copy of All I Ever Wanted from Harlequin! Kristan Higgins has quickly skyrocketed to a permanent place on my list of favorite authors. Her ability to create quirky characters, charming small towns, and relationships that suffer from insecurities, uncertainties and misunderstandings.

In All I Ever Wanted, Callie is ready to celebrate her 30th birthday (that's right, the big 3-0) when her boss/crush/ex gives her a gift, tells her she is special and then hits her right between the eyes with the news that he is seeing someone. Callie reacts much as the rest of us would, she runs to the DMV and has her breakdown there, much to the dismay of the uptight, Russian assassin in line behind her.

She tries to move on with life, so when she hears there is a cute new vet in town, she tells her dog to look sick and makes an appointment. Sadly, the new vet is the same Russian assassin from the DMV and is still ice cold, but that's when the fun begins.

Callie and Ian (who, it turns out, is not a Russian assassin after all) keep running into each other and eventually Callie breaks through the cold demeanor to find the shy man with a big heart that lies beneath.

Callie's life could probably be more complicated, although she isn't sure how. Her divorced dad is trying to make up with her mother 20 years after they split-up. Her man-hating sister is sleeping with the creepy mortician that works at their family funeral home, and her Gramps, well, Gramps has a story all his own.

Once again, Higgins has created a story full of people just enough and stories just weird enough to make it easy to fall into and difficult to remember that the characters aren't actually real! I find it interesting that while reading, I am fairly sure of a happy ending, I'm just not quite sure how it is actually going to happen.

The laughter, the tears, the romance - these books are money well spent (or library card well used). Don't just take my word for it, Higgins was awarded a RITA last month for Too Good to Be True. (Seriously, how awesome are these covers? Beautiful.)

With the holidays coming, Higgins' publishers should bundle her books for big holiday sales. Check out her other titles on her website and ENJOY!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

How the West Was FUN!

Next up on my TBR pile: Harlequin's Big Summer Reads. I am determined to make this summer last longer and that won't be a problem because there are some great titles on this list!

First up: How the West Was FUN!

Cowboys and romance novels, now that is a combination that appeals to many. Some may be attracted to the cowboy stereotype simply because of biological tendencies - the desire to be provided for and protected. Others may be charmed by the strong silent type that cares as much for animals as they do people. No matter what attracts you to cowboys - you'll want to consider these two series.

Prolific author Linda Lael Miller has written several western romance series, both historical and contemporary. In McKettricks of
Texas: Garrett, the second in the series, Garrett works for a married political giant who has taken a wrong turn by going public with an illicit affair. He feels betrayed by the man he idolized, so he quits
and returns home to the family ranch. Upon arrival, he finds that the family's home is currently inhabited by temporarily displaced Julie, her son, Calvin, and their three-legged dog, Harry.

Julie can't deny her attraction to Garrett, but she is determined to be cautious both to protect her young son and because she can't imagine that as a high-powered political insider would settle down with a small town girl. To complicate her life even further, Calvin's dad is back in their lives, she's overwhelmed at work, and their home is being sold out from under them
I enjoyed returning to the world of the McKettricks and catching up with Tate and Libby while looking forward to Austin's story. Miller is able to present a contemporary story with enough of the wild west to make you feel right at home on the Texas ranch. She also write children and animal characters particularly well, making the family dynamics ring true.

Another steamy title is Claimed by Vicki Lewis Thompson from her Sons of Chance series. Ten months ago, Jack was reluctant to leave the warm bed he shared with girlfriend, Josie, so he told his dad to go pick up a new horse without him. When his dad is later killed on the trip, Jack feels responsible and breaks up with Josie as his penance.

So, when he decides to visit Josie after a night of drinking in the small Wyoming town, he shouldn't have been surprised that the encounter goes badly. She pushes him away, and he makes a fool of himself. Jack is going to be the best man at his brother's upcoming wedding (on horseback, naturally) and guess who is the maid of honor? Yes, fair Josie - and she doesn't know how to ride a horse. Jack himself offers to teach her and soon their lessons turn into a secret affair. Josie wants to give her heart to Jack, but is he ready to take it for real?

Claimed is part of the Harlequin Blaze series, which are shorter, steamy contemporary romances with an emphasis on the development physical relationship between the two characters. I don't read this series too often, but check them out if you want a quick, sensual read (kind of like dessert!). I have, however, thoroughly enjoyed Thompson's Hex and Nerd series. You can learn more about these fun, sexy series on her website.


Thursday, April 15, 2010

In Bed with the Duke and Stolen Seduction

Recently, I attended a library conference program by several romance authors and good fortune rained down upon me! Little did I expect that Christina Dodd would be both signing and giving away copies of In Bed with the Duke which I had been hearing some good buzz about. Seriously, how can you not want to read a book called In the Bed with the Duke?

I must admit, historical romances are not usually my first choice. However, this one drew me in from the start! Endearing Emma Chegwidden is wandering lost in the countryside after losing her job when suddenly the masked "Reaper" appears. The next thing she knows, she is waking up in elegant house and offered employment. A few nights later, the Reaper enters her room to escape from the evil Prince that rules the land. Our Emma offers the Reaper a place to hide and thus begins an affair with a man with a secret identity.

Emma and the Reaper are both wonderful characters: strong, vulnerable, and passionate. Full of intrigue, steamy love scenes, and adventure, this historical romance is worth the read.

At this same library conference, I also picked up a signed copy of Elisabeth Naughton's Stolen Seduction during an author signing. Oh, happy serendipity! This book is third in a romance/adventure trilogy, and I like to describe it as a very grown-up 39 Clues.

Hailey Roarke leaves her job as a Florida police officer to run the family business in Chicago. Her father's death starts a chain-reaction of events all surrounding a quest to find some missing statues. Hailey is on the search when she accidentally-on-purpose runs into the hunky cop Shane Maxwell. Their brief romantic moment makes things complicated the next morning when he arrives to question her as a murder suspect.

Here the tale takes some surprising twists-and-turns as the pair flies from country to country in search of answers. Full of action, romance, and true emotion, this is definitely a book you won't want to put down and you'll race to track down the others before time runs out!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Faith, Hope, and Ivy June

Ever since the tragic explosion at the West Virginia coal mine earlier this week, I have been thinking a lot about a book I listened to a few months ago, Faith, Hope, and Ivy June by Phyllis Naylor Reynolds.

Ivy June Mosley and Catherine Combs both live in Kentucky, but they live in two different worlds. Ivy June lives with her grandparents outside a small coal mining town while Catherine goes to a private school in Lexington. When the girls are chosen to be exchange students, they spend two weeks at each others home learning about their differences, their similarities, and ultimately themselves.

When Catherine visits Ivy June's small town - tragedy strikes them both. An incident occurs out at the mine and Ivy June's grandpa is one of the miners trapped inside. At the same time, Catherine learns that her mother faces a serious medical crisis back home and anxiously awaits news of her condition. During these events, the girls each face uncertainty, helplessness, and grief. The desperation that Ivy June's small town faces is palpable.

Consequently, I was moved during the recent news coverage, when a miner at the West Virginia coal mine said, "Every time you turn on a light, you should think of these guys."

He is right. Coal mines are not a thing of the past-they are a reality today and it is important to put a human face on the cost of electricity. This book would be an interesting discussion book to use with older elementary age students, both because of the real way it connects with the dangers of coal mining and because it provides a glimpse into prejudice from several important angles.

Are there other titles you think are important to discuss during this eco-friendly month?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

New York Day 5 - FDR, CIA, Vanderbilts and More

For our last full day in NY, we returned to the FDR site to resume our tour of the museum and explored the remaining exhibits (The New Deal, The Presidential Years).

Next, we headed back to the CIA for lunch at one of the student run restaurants. Each student attends the school for 21 months, and the last several weeks are spent working in the kitchens and then in the front of various students restaurants on campus. We ate St. Andrew's Cafe, which focuses on both local and heathful fare. We made the most of our experience and practically rolled out of the restaurant some time later. Here is a picture taken during dessert (Goatcheese Cheesecake, Milkshake Sampler, and Pear/Ginger Crisp).

These last few days gave us beautiful weather to enjoy. We were happy to spend the rest of this afternoon touring the grand Vanderbilt Mansion and estate. Walking through this huge mansion, left almost entirely as it had been furnished in the late 1930s, was quite the experience. We also explored the gardens and riverfront, which gave us a wonderful opportunity to watch the colors shift as the sun went down.

After a wild goose chase through Poughkeepsie to find the perfect restaurant for dinner, we headed back to the hotel to enjoy the last of our wine on our last evening on vacation. More Apples to Apples also rounded out the evening. Throughout our trip, we had some wonderful conversations - some funny, some serious, and always enlightening. It was a great experience to learn about people and events from a wide-range of time periods and then to discuss them with our fellow travelers.

Where to go next...

New York Day 4 - FDR, ER, CIA

Day 4 of our trip was the day we were all waiting for: the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum! This was the first presidential museum and the only museum to have been built and opened with the president still in office. Located in Hyde Park, NY - it sits on a campus which includes FDR's home, a National Historic Site, and is very close to Eleanor Roosevelt's National Historic Site and the Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site.

We arrived bright and early at the Library/Museum and immediately secured tickets for the FDR Home tour. We enjoyed learning more about President Roosevelt and his family through the interesting tour through his home. By this point we had started to become quite good at evaluating tour guides, and Pres, our FDR Home guide, was one of the best. With clear enthusiasm for the subject and easy manor, we thoroughly enjoyed this tour.

Next - the museum! We made it through the exhibit covering his boyhood and pre-presidential history before needing a lunch break. After grabbing a bit to eat at the museum's cafe, we ventured across the way to Eleanor Roosevelt's National Historic Site since our tickets would be good for two days. Here we toured the house that was to become her retreat (Val-Kill) when FDR was in Washington and after his death. We learned a lot at this site and felt a much greater appreciation for Eleanor Roosevelt and how she worked tirelessly to make the world a better place. Mike, in particular, become a huge ER fan.

Cousin Christine had made reservations for us to tour the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), our next stop for the day. Our tour gave us great insight into life for these dedicated culinary students and we were even able to observe classes in session through large zoo-like windows. After the tour of the beautiful campus, we stopped by the student run Apple Pie Cafe and Bakery for some decadent and unique deserts (carrot cake pictured above).

Again we returned to our hotel and ate at the nearby La Luna Pizzeria before retiring to our hotel room. We finished out the day enjoying wine from the winery, teaching Mike and Christine a new card game, and playing Apples to Apples into the wee hours. Who could ask for more?

New York Day 3 - West Point

Day 3 led us to the United States Military Academy at West Point, after another breathtaking drive through another region of the Catskills. After a brief tour of the West Point visitors center, we took a guided bus tour learning about West Point history and visiting several sites along the way. First we visited the Cadet Chapel, pictured at right. Next, we viewed memorials dedicated to West Point officers that served in the Civil War. Our tour guide described how difficult it must have been for the West Point officers to fight in the Civil War against their fellow classmates and teachers.

Later we were able to observe a mini-parade of cadets along their parade ground and then we visited the West Point cemetery. This was poignant experience as we saw several gravestones of West Point graduates killed in several wars, including Iraq and Afghanistan. We also saw another example of how Benedict Arnold was removed from history (shown by the blanked out section on this plaque).

After lunch at a local pizza joint and a quick visit to the West Point Museum, we headed back towards George Washington's Headquarters! Or so we thought. We had spotted a sign directing us to the headquarters on the drive to West Point, but later we realized that George Washington had two separate headquarters and we had gone to the wrong one!

Thankfully, we soon discovered that we weren't too far from America's Oldest Winery - the Brotherhood Winery. So we stopped by and had a quick, enjoyable wine tasting which improved our moods greatly! After that, we headed back to the hotel for dinner and later had dinner at Salsa. Another good day!

New York Day 2 - The Catskills

Our second day got off to a cold start - since this would turn out to be the coldest day of our tour (high of 46 degrees). Still, we were intrepid tourists and would not be stopped! This was our day to explore the Catskills - starting with a visit to Cedar Grove, the home of Thomas Cole (19th Century landscape artist and founder of the Hudson River School of Art). Here is our version of a famous painting of Thomas Cole's House (Cedar Grove by Charles Moore).

Next, after a chilly, depressing lunch at a fast-food-chain-not-to-be-named and a trip to a liquor store staffed by a Chinese Sharpei dog, we drove into the Catskills Mountains. Our first stop was Kaaterskill Falls, a 260 ft. waterfall that inspired Thomas Cole painting as well as other Hudson River School artists. We took the short, rocky hike up to the foot of the falls while watching a few small snow-like flakes start to fall.

On the way back to our vehicle, we ran into fellow tourists the told us about a hike we should take further up the "Clove." After locating the trail head a few miles up, we started out on our hike on the Escarpment Trail. The colors throughout this region were beautiful! Yellows and reds spotting the green forest landscape. This trail alternated between easy walking to moderate climbing and led us to a path that ran along cliffs overlooking the Clove. It was a wonderful view and enjoyable hike. Mike even saved the day when he rescued my water bottle before it rolled over the edge and crashed into the valley below. What a guy.

We finished this wonderful day by driving to Poughkeepsie, where we would stay for the next few nights. The drive took us over the Mid-Hudson Bridge, which was spectacular to see at night (even though bridges seriously creep me out). We spent the rest of the night warming up, eating dinner, and discussing our plans for the next day.