The Summer Queen by Elizabeth Chadwick

tsqThe Summer Queen is the first in a planned trilogy based on the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine (or Alienor as she is called here). After the glut of Eleanor novels a couple of years ago, this review is written with the assumption that most readers are familiar with Eleanor’s history. This review will discuss those known events freely and might be a bit spoilerish for those new to the period, so consider yourself warned.

Arranged marriages can’t have been easy under the best of circumstances, but Louis and Alienor had so many things against them from the get-go: raised to the church until his older brother dies, having to take the throne earlier than expected upon his father’s death, political treachery and double dealing, and worst of all everyone waiting and watching for the heir that never arrives (it’s all the woman’s fault you know). And then something happens that completely changes Louis and he’s forever changed and more devoted to the church than before (and not in a good way).

What she saw now was a querulous man, old before his time, full of righteous anger, his guilt and self-loathing twisting within him, so that all the ills of the world became the sins of the nearest scapegoat.

That return home was compelling stuff. And then we get to the crusade – quite an adventure just getting there, let alone what happened when Alienor wanted to cut ties there and take shelter with Uncle Raymond (no, not that – get your mind out of the gutter!). That Thierry is one nasty eunuch is all I’m saying…
The latter part of the novel revolves around the failed marriage, obtaining the annulment, and of course this:

The Count of Anjou and his son are come to Paris to discuss the situation…

Can I say how much a loved the portrayal of Henry? I loved the way he entered the story, and tempted to quote, but it’s too much fun to see it for yourself at the proper moment. I loved his vitality and energy, and oh boy did I love it when he sent a letter to Louis announcing the birth of his first son.

I loved the story; I loved the way the author wrote Alienor as a woman of her times instead of a thorough modern independent woman, or a slut in chase of anything in pants. As with all Chadwick novels, there’s also the added plus of being sucked into another century with the sights, smells and sounds that wrap up a darn-near perfect reading experience. I couldn’t put it down, and very sorry I’m going to have to wait for the next installment.

Many thanks to Ms. Chadwick for an advance copy.

Minette by Melanie Clegg

minetteWarning. This book is based upon known historical events and people, and they will be freely discussed in this review. If you are unfamiliar with this period and wish to remain spoiler free, I recommend you not read this review.

This is the first of two books based on the life of Princess Henrietta Anne(Minette), younger sister to Charles II. Told in the first person narrative, the book begins in 1654. The Stuarts are in exile and a young Minette is living in Paris with her mother, with money and apartments provided by the French crown (well, they are all family). The bulk of the story in this book revolves around Minette’s teenage years living at the French court and the slippery slope of being a penniless princess in the world of kings and courtiers. The latter part of the book covers Minette’s grand visit to England after brother Charles gets his crown; her return to France and marriage to Philippe, Louis XIV’s younger brother.

My thoughts? I liked this one a lot, I’ve always been interested in Minette’s story and there aren’t that many books to pick and choose from – more often than not she’s a secondary character – so hats off to Ms. Clegg for telling her story. I generally don’t like the first person narrative, but I thought it was well done in this one, extra pluses for not talking to herself about how beautiful she was (a pet peeve of mine). I appreciated the way dialogue and interaction with other characters was used to recount back-history to the reader, as opposed to the tedious info dumps I’ve seen from other authors. It was abundantly clear how much she loved her family (especially her brothers), as well as how her brothers adored her. I very much appreciated this take on Minette, she was a genuinely good, caring person without the heavy sugar-coated Mary-Sue heroines so popular these days. I’m looking forward reading more on Philippe and Armand, and again hats off to the author for not succumbing to the temptation to overwrite Philippe’s character and turn him into a flaming OTT homosexual.

I did find a few typos scattered here and there, but nothing that really detracted from the story. Anxiously awaiting book #2.

FTC disclosure: Amazon verified purchase.

Call Up The Morning by Clyde M. Brundy

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Nebraska, 1889, where things are getting a bit heated between the sheepherders and the cattlemen – and Deborah Dexter and her mother find themselves smack in the middle of it when they give aid to a Basque sheepherder. They head west with friends and finally settle at Bonanza City, a remote mining town in Idaho. Deborah’s mother eventually accepts a marriage offer from a senior LDS bishop (she’s not wife #1), and with the support her new stepfather, Deborah obtains a business degree from the University of Utah and returns to Idaho set on righting the world’s wrongs and catching the baddies who are cheating the Basque sheepherders with the support of the dirty politicians in the state capital.

That’s pretty much the main gist of the storyline, and a pretty solid read for me. The author did a nice job throwing in real historical events and people, and lots of new-to-me factoids (always a plus). Along with the Basque sheepherders (who I understand are still a strong presence in Idaho today), Brundy also tossed in the mining influence, the LDS (don’t worry, it’s not preachy), and last but not least – all that timber. 4/5 stars, recommended for those with an interest in Idaho history.

 

The Last Renegade by Jo Goodman

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Folks are dropping like flies.

Wyoming Territory, 1888. Kellen Coltrane finds himself in the midst of a mystery when his train ride is interrupted by a stranger with a fatal knife wound.  Before he breathes his last, Nat Church asks Kellen to finish his journey to the Pennyroyal Saloon in Bitter Springs where he had accepted employment as a hired gun. When Kellen arrives he’s met by the hotel’s owner, Lorraine (Raine) Berry, who makes the erroneous assumption that Kellen is Church’s partner, and Kellen decides to continue the deception.

Why did Raine need to hire a gunman? I don’t want to say too much so as not to spoil, but there was a trial a few years back that convicted one of the sons of powerful ranch owner, and it seems that some of the jurors who convicted him are having fatal *accidents*. OK, so you know who the baddies are at the get go, but things aren’t all cut and dried and there’s plenty of other dirty dealing and secrets going on underneath the surface to keep you guessing. Not everyone is what they appear to be (that includes Kellen), and it’s up to our pair to put the pieces together and catch the baddies, plus taking time to fall in love (this is a romance novel after all).

This was great fun with a good solid mystery that kept me turning the pages until the very end - and that includes Kellen’s mysterious past (loved it!). I really like the way Goodman uses dialogue and characters to move the story along, instead of long-winded, lengthy paragraphs of oh-so-tedious inner analyzing. Kellen and Raine have good chemistry from the get go, but it is slow to build while they’re getting to know each other – and I loved their bantering as much as I did the romance:

Am I allowed to kiss you?”

“Only if you want frostbite.”

“I’ll take my chances.

Kellen was a serious dishy hunk of a hero, Raine was definitely more than another pretty female, but my hands down favorite characters who stole every scene were the two young scamps nicknamed Rabbit and Finn. Picture a pair of very young cowlicked Ronnie Howards running loose in town and you’ll know what I mean.

We saw him from our bedroom window on account Finn had to piss and didn’t want to use the privy.”

“Rabbit was trying to shut the window on my-”

Rain’s quelling look stopped Finn cold.

Lol, and those boys were everywhere and into everything. This was a solid four-star read for me, but I’m tacking on an extra half star for the awesome finish as well as the big reveal on Kellen’s secret past. I loved every page. 4.5/5 stars.

Book source: library loan.

Let No Man Divide by Elizabeth Kary

St. Louis, Missouri 1861. Leigh Pennington is the daughter of a divided household. Her father supports the Union cause, while her southern born mother supports the *home team*. Leigh meets Yankee Hayes Banister when he saves her from injury when a crowd runs amok, and there’s sparks a-flying between the two, but this being a romance novel and all there are complications. Leigh’s engaged to her childhood friend who has just left to fight for the Confederate army, and Hayes was bit hard by a female viper and he’s not about to fall in love again and risk another broken heart. Leigh has a gift for nursing, and she plans to devote herself to helping the wounded soldiers, and it doesn’t matter which side of the conflict they’re on. Hayes is a shipbuilder working with the Union Army developing Ironclad warships for control of the Mississippi River. Hayes is also doing a bit of spying on the side (but for which side is he spying?), which of course contributes to misunderstandings between the two.

The step-back

I enjoyed this, and even at 460+ pages it was a fairly quick, easy read. Hayes was a seriously yummy hero, and Leigh’s independent nature was handled well without going OTT and her being one of those foot-stomping-until-I-get-my-own-way heroine. There are some pretty steamy sex scenes, but you won’t be finding them on every page – war does tend to get folks separated at times. I hadn’t realized how much military activity there was off to the *west*, so there were a lot of new factoids for me in this one. I thought the author did a good job of mixing in her characters with known historical events and people (although the Quantrill episode kind of stretched credulity), which are noted in the author’s notes at the end.

Now for the quibbles – and that is the over-analyzing that goes on in Hayes’ and Leigh’s heads and it comes across as telling instead of showing. Similar to what Roberta Gellis is like when she’s at her explainatory worst (not knocking Gellis, she’s put out some very good novels). If they would just talk to each other. Argh. A worthwhile read for fans of Civil War romances. 3.5/5 stars.

Omamori by Richard McGill

This novel is set around events that are historical facts and will be freely discussed in this review. In the event that you weren’t paying attention during history lessons and are not familiar with what happened in Nazi Germany, Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima and Nagasaki then this review might be a bit spoilerish.

I just love scrounging used book stores and library sales, you never know what long forgotten treasures you’ll find and this is one of the best yet. I’m very glad I picked this one up despite the fairly unattractive cover, just look at what is on the step-back inside.

Is that artwork gorgeous or what? The story is centered around Hosokawa-Napier Limited, a silk weaving dynasty that was founded in 1871 between American and Japanese partners. The Great Depression has had its impact on the silk trade, and the current partners, Douglas Napier and Baron Tadashi Hosokawa have to look to new ways to keep their business alive.  Manufacturing and selling silk parachutes seems the perfect answer, but the only country currently spending money to build up their military in 1936 would be Germany…

A  difficult choice. Do you bankrupt the business, lay off your workers, close the doors and walk away? Or sleep with Hitler the devil? Along with those complications, there’s also the little matter of the children of these two great friends and partners. Maxwell (Max) Napier comes home from school and finds Hosokawa’s fifteen year old daughter Shizue a beautiful young woman and the pair are head over heels in love, but interracial marriage is not the done thing, especially for an old Samurai family like Hosokawa.

That’s the basic set-up and I don’t want to give away more, just fasten your seatbelts ’cause it’s going to be a bumpy ride. I loved this book, the writing and most especially the way the author put his characters into known historical events, giving the reader an up close look at those events through their eyes. No long-winded info dumps here, instead you’ll get a lively discussion at a business dinner to get you up to speed on Hitler’s Germany in 1936. An illegitimate child is added so that the reader can see first hand at how the Japanese shun those of mixed blood. You get to witness Kristallnacht though the eyes of one of the characters, and you’ll experience the terror of trying to get out of Germany (and Japan!) before it’s too late. Most compelling horrifying of all is putting one of the main characters directly at the center of the bombing of Nagasaki and seeing it through his/her eyes (I’m not telling you who). Terrifying stuff. I don’t know when I’ll emotionally recover.

I loved every one of the 750+ pages in this book and had a hard time finding an excuse not to call in sick to work so I could keep reading. There’s plenty of tragedy, heartbreak and nail-biting until the very last pages. According to the brief bio at the back, McGill took seven years to write Omamori and it shows on every page; and for a male author he really does a nice job with his female characters. This book was written in 1987 before the days of all things politically correct, so if you’re touchy about certain racial terms this book might not suit. The author doesn’t pull any punches with the details about the Japanese wars in China (a great touch sending Paul there as a journalist to witness it firsthand), and of course the bombing of Nagasaki, so if you’re a bit squeamish I’d recommend giving this a pass. This book is very much suited to fans of big fat family sagas with plenty of drama, angst and history. 5/5 stars.

Daughters of the Storm by Elizabeth Buchan

It was too much,’ she murmured. “Too much of everything. Blood. Death. Fear. Wasted hope…

Paris, 1789. Sophie Lutrell leaves her comfortable life in the English countryside behind for an extended visit with her cousin Héloïse de Guinot. The two cousins are more like sisters, and they’re soon swept up in the romance and glamour of the Parisian court – and Sophie might forget her almost-fiance from home and let herself be swept off her feet by the dashing American William Jones (a secret spy for the American government). Héloïse is unhappily married off to the Comte de Choissy, but she soon finds love in the arms of a French soldier, Louis d’Epinon. The third female in this story is that of Héloïse’s maid, Marie-Victoire Bonnard, who finds love in the arms of a revolutionary – but that love comes at a great personal cost.

They threw their hats into the air, screamed their joy and fought to dip their handkerchiefs into the blood.

Sophie is so caught up in the glitz and glamour of her life in Paris that she hides her head in the sand ignores the warnings to leave France while she still can, and when madness takes over and The Terror begins, it just might be too late…

You have heard what they say about the Conciergerie? The hell from which there is no route save by the little window of the guillotine.

Let me tell you, that was some pretty intense stuff at the end. I did have a pretty rocky start with this one, the early chapters were very short and there was a lot of head hopping (third person, but still annoying), and I admit to thinking about bailing out of this, and glad I hung on. The different POVs give the reader a bird’s-eye view from multiple perspectives, from the glitz of Versailles to the underbelly of Paris. I’ll just add one word of caution – this is not a fluffy, feel good, romantic HEA kind of book, so if that’s your cuppa tea I suggest you move along. One word of caution for cover geeks, my copy ISBN #0-553-28448-7 has the cover posted above, but when you search swap/seller sites by this number it pulls up the so-ugly-I-won’t-even-post-it-here cover. I have no idea which cover you’ll get, so don’t blame me if you get that other one.

One odd thing is the author’s Afterward. She writes as if some of the characters in the novel were real historical people, yet I’ve not had a hit on any of them on Google. Any one out there have an answer for me?

The House of Closed Doors by Jane Steen

But I had been far more innocent than my flirtatious manner suggested, and therein lay my doom.

Nell Lillington’s got a big problem – her mother and stepfather have just discovered she’s pregnant and she’s not willing to name the father and enter into a marriage she doesn’t want. Nell’s stepfather is active in politics and the last thing he needs is a scandal, so he packs her off to a poor farm out in the country for her confinement. Nell settles in well at her new *home* and makes some interesting new friends (loved Tess!), but there’s soon a bit of a mystery to be solved when the older wing is opened and a pair of bodies is found in one of the cells. Were they locked in, or did they lock themselves in? How did they get into a section of the home that was securely locked? And just who would want to *do in* an unwed mother and her young child? Hmmmm?

The door slammed shut. I heard the spring bolt shoot into place with a hard thud. I leaped to my feet and screamed like I had never screamed in my entire life.

That’s about all I want to tell, going further would spoil the story. I liked this a lot, it was a quick easy read that kept me guessing; and there are more twists and turns after the evil baddie is revealed (my heart just about dropped when he did THAT). The 1870s Midwest setting was a refreshing change, and along with a look at life on a poor farm (it’s like its own mini-society), and the author also worked the Great Chicago Fire into the story.  I know I’m going to say this clumsily, but a huge thumbs up to the character of Tess, who suffered from Down’s Syndrome. It so refreshing to have a character with a handicap worked into the story and to watch the strong bond develop between Nell and Tess. Other big pluses were no formatting errors, nor even a typo to be found (if there were, I missed them), so thank you Ms. Steen for taking the time to polish it up, we readers really do care about things like that. The author’s notes at the end mention where the story idea came from and what was fact and what was not (always appreciated). My only real quibble is the story ended too soon. I wanted more, especially Martin (be still my beating heart). Thankfully there is a sequel in the works (whew).

Review copy provided by author, thank you.

Fifty Shades Freed by E.L. James

This review is for the third book in a series, and might be considered spoilerish - consider yourself warned.

Yes it was painful, but I managed to get through all three of these books relatively unscathed. I did need to bleach my brain out afterwards, but I believe I’ve recovered and can now return to good books. I could have used a break period between books, but the last two turned up at the library at the same time, and with such a long wait list (why?), I felt it best to dig in and get it over with and pass them along. Now to the review, which I’m finding difficult because this book is less like a *story* and more like a series of vignettes that don’t add to the plot (such as it is), or to the character development. Think of it as watching clips from Pretty Woman your favorite movies on YouTube, bits and pieces that don’t quite make up the whole.

At the start, we find Ana and Christian on their honeymoon in the south of France, with some flashbacks to the wedding and events leading up to it. Ana ticks Christian off by removing her top at a nude beach, and despite the fact that she accepts his reasons for not doing so (paparazzi, ya know), he takes her back to their private yacht, handcuffs her hand-ankle, blindfolds her and marks her chest with a bunch of hickies so she won’t be sunbathing again (that is a loving husband?). Ana shows a bit of backbone, but a few smirks and cocked heads from Christian bring her right back into the fold.

Why do I feel like I’ve entered the principal’s office? This man had me in handcuffs yesterday. I refuse to be intimidated by him, he’s my husband, damn it.

There are wasted pages of  being cool and filthy rich until the *cough* action finally returns to Seattle. Then we get some conflict between controlling Christian having issues with Ana returning to work. There’s also some crazy person who is stalking the Greys. I won’t spoil, but it’s pretty damned easy to guess who the nutter is. This of course leads to a high-speed car chase, which leads our intrepid pair to a public parking garage. Can you guess what happens?

Shit! We really are going to do this, in a public parking lot.

I actually have a better quote, but it contains multiple “F” bombs, and my recently bleached brain is trying to avoid them.

Despite Christian’s confession in book two that he’s like an alcoholic trying to get sober, dumb stupid Ana can’t resist her curiosity about the toys in the red room of pain. I will spare you the details, but I suspect you’ll learn way more about butt plugs than you ever wanted to know.

Toys! Oh, I love, love, love this anticipation. The drawer closes and my breathing spikes. How can the sound of a drawer render me a quivering mess? It makes no sense.

No, it doesn’t make any sense. Stop enabling the man.

Who cleans these toys?” I ask as I follow him over to the chest. He frowns at me, as if not understanding the question. “Me. Mrs. Jones.” “What?” He nods, amused and embarrassed, I think.

TMI

The next little *play* takes our pair to Aspen, with BFF Kate and her brother, as well as Christian’s brother and sister. They shop and drink and dance and stuff. Not sure why this little bit was included at all, except to club the reader over the head remind us how filthy rich Christian is, and how hot all the men think Ana is.

OK, back to Seattle via their private jet landing at SeaTac. Ms. James: no one lands their private jets at SeaTac, why would you when Boeing Field is so damned convenient? Even the president, who can use any airspace he damn well pleases lands at BFI. Every. Single. Time. he comes to Seattle. There’s more stuff with the big mean baddie who is stalking the Greys, kerfuffles over his former subs, Christian getting mad, Ana cowering because she’s afraid he won’t want her if she doesn’t like the kinky side of sex, kerfuffles over an accidental pregnancy (for once she shows some spirit), and lastly the silliest hostage situation ever. Seriously, you can stick a gun into the back of your pants and walk into a downtown bank? There is parking to be had in the back of the building? I told my coworkers about this development and they’re laughing their arses off.

Honestly, I still don’t get why these are selling like hotcakes and being promoted heavily by the media outlets as the greatest books ever. This is not romance, this is sex with a heavy emphasis on the “F” word. I understand Christian was abused as a child, but that still does not count for him abusing others, and while he does show a tender side towards Ana, it doesn’t make up for the abuse he dishes out (and I do mean abuse). Ana doesn’t get any points for 1) being so terrified she’ll lose Christian if she doesn’t play along and 2) being the one to encourage him to continue, and that includes spanking.

I know, I know – what goes on between two consenting adults and all, but there’s a whole lot more baggage with this pair, and the conflicting messages just don’t work to carry off such a feeble storyline. In the end, all you’re going to have is a sexed up Bella and Edward, a very predictable baddie, and probably one of the worst epilogues ever. Worse yet, there’s a peek at the back of the edition I had that begins the story all over again from Christian’s POV. Please, tell me they’re not going to publish these all over again.

Fifty Shades Darker by E.L. James

There’s not much recap needed for this book, by this time I suspect the entire English-speaking world knows about these books. Mousy Ana Steele meets über rich but oh-so-emotionally disturbed Christian Grey. In this book, Ana settles into her new job at a Seattle publishing house and life without Christian (hah – you know that won’t last long). Our pair of *lovebirds* continue to deal with Christian’s dark past, one of his former subs in his games of BDSM, and the woman who made him what he is today (Mrs. Robinson Ana calls her). Will Ana and Christian be able to break through his tortured soul and heal him? Or will they just continue for another 400 or so pages of horizontal hurdy gurdy? Does anyone really care?

Not me, I was just too curious to see what all the hoopla was about and hate to say it, but I still don’t get it. While the writing and storyline is somewhat improved in book two, the repetitiveness still reigns supreme. I am very weary of smirks, rolling eyes, flushing and blushing and inner goddesses (kill her, please). I am so shell-shocked from the constant sex that any other book is going to be tame by comparison (you don’t want to hear about the butt drawer). By my tally, they’ve not only done it in the bedroom, but in the elevator, on the pool table, on the grand piano, on the table in the foyer along a round of digital pleasuring in a crowded elevator in the Columbia Tower. Gah, less is more.

Then we come once again to the Seattle setting, a setting that isn’t always based on reality. You would think that once you’ve got the contract from the big publishing house you could afford an editor, but no…

This review is getting long enough so this Seattle native will just name a few pet peeves.

Seattle and my stomach drop away from us, and there’s so
much to see. “We’ve chased the dawn, Anastasia, now the dusk…

The time setting is early to mid June. Christian has picked her up around 5:45 PM for a 7:30 PM show in Portland. The sun sets around 9PM at this time of year, but we get this when they land in Portland,

It’s a clear, crisp evening, and the lights of Portland twinkle and wink…

Kind of hard to see lights twinkling when it is broad daylight and all.

Placing his hands snugly over mine, he continues to steer
our course out of the marina, and within a few minutes we are out on the open sea, the cold blue waters of Puget Sound. Away from the shelter of the marina’s protective wall, the wind is stronger, and the sea pitches and rolls beneath us.

This is the Puget Sound. This is not the open sea. And don’t get me started on taking an entire afternoon to sail to Bainbridge Island and back. Even with a long stop for another round of hot sex, it doesn’t take that long. The ferry would have been faster :/

I’ve always wanted to live on the coast. I sail up and down the Sound coveting these houses.

Read my lips. The Puget Sound is not the coast. And would someone please tell me who in the USA thinks of mac and cheese as “nursery food?” Honestly, I don’t know why the author just didn’t take her version of Twilight and stick them in London or somewhere closer to home.

I guess if you like a thin plot, mixed signals (is beating a woman with a ruler good or bad?), repetitive writing, sex at the drop of a hat with no romance, these books might suit – but I’m still scratching my head trying to understand why they’re so popular. I am going to tackle book three, and thank goodness the first of it is set in Europe. If James messes that up, I’ll never know, although there was a huge gaffe over what airport they used to board the private jet out of Seattle :D

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