Friday, August 12, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: The Sweetest Days by John Hough, Jr.

The Sweetest Days by John Hough, Jr. is one of those novels that straddles the line between contemporary and historical. A large part of the love story takes place in the early 1960s with a civil rights era setting. This is framed by the current day (or early 2000's) consequences.

There are two protagonists, Pete Hatch and his wife, Jackie. Pete was a successful journalist turned speechwriter for a rising congresswoman, now retired and writing novels. His first, a political thriller, has just been released. However, back in his high school days, he was a football player. To some extent, those high school times were his glory days. 

Pete and Jackie met in high school and can legitimately be called high school sweethearts. She was a gorgeous cheerleader, recently moved to New England from Texas. It seemed inevitable that handsome football player and sexy Texas cheerleader would be a couple. It took a little scheming, very little, on both their parts to make it happen. Both saw the “trophy” value of the other and sex played a big role. Then Jackie fell in love. Pete didn’t. He appreciated her as a girlfriend but always felt better than her, smarter than her. He felt destined for better things.

Toward the end of their senior year, on one fateful day, Pete fell in love with another girl. (She was smart, beautiful, sexy, and outspoken. But was she Pete’s soulmate, destined to be the true love of his life? Probably not. Of course, Pete was looking for the greener grass on the other side of the fence, so...) Before their relationship had a chance to develop, tragedy struck. Then, Pete left town abruptly without even saying goodbye to Jackie, leaving her to deal with the fallout. 

Jackie steeled herself to move on. But when they meet again, a decade later, they pick up where they left off and marry fairly quickly.

Now in their sixties, they have a decent marriage to all outward appearances. However, Jackie has always deferred her wishes to those of Pete, whose life choices took and still take precedence. He concluded very early that marrying her was a mistake. Throughout the marriage, he evidently still believed he could have done better. Although he never said so to her face, maybe she has sensed it. He never (I mean NEVER) ceases ogling other women, even in front of Jackie, even shortly after she has been diagnosed with probably terminal breast cancer.

Despite the diagnosis, he drags her back to their hometown to support him while he does a book-signing for his novel. He refuses to discuss any concerns she has about the death sentence she has just been handed; instead, he kindly insists she’ll beat the cancer. In any event, her own worries have to take second place to his concerns that his book signing may flop.

It’s difficult to read about the extraordinary self-centeredness of this man, but it is very cleverly written, rendering Pete in a voice that seems to have no inkling of how very wrong he is. It is appalling to think this is someone perceived to be a nice guy, while watching him treat his wife with condescension and disdain.

The signing does flop. But more importantly, a voice from the past inserts itself into the mix – a bomb dropped into the midst of their marriage. Jackie finally demands honesty from Pete. What did happen on that fateful day?

It takes the events of this long day and night to finally cause Pete to take stock of his life and his marriage, and to finally appreciate the wife that he has. This resolution is bittersweet because of how little time they have left. 

The novel is beautifully written and emotionally complex. Both characters are flawed, Pete more so than Jackie, but since Pete’s narrative is first person and Jackie’s is third person, the reader is forced into feeling some empathy for the husband, despite his horrific self-centeredness. To his credit, he is able to realize that he did love Jackie. Maybe he has to lose something to understand its value. One hopes that the couple’s final days together were the sweetest ones, even if they were bittersweet.

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: The Rake's Daughter by Anne Gracie

 I received this book for free from Netgalley. That did not influence this review.

I haven’t read Anne Gracie before, but I just finished The Rake’s Daughter and now I have a new Regency Romance author to add to my must-read list.

Isobelle (Izzy) and Clarissa Studley are half-sisters. Clarissa is quiet, shy, pretty, and an heiress. Izzy is bold, sassy, extraordinarily beautiful, and she is illegitimate. Despite the differences that might have pushed them apart, the two are devoted to one another.

Their father was a rake and a truly awful man who did his best to cast Izzy into an orphanage or out on the streets while he was alive. If not for Clarissa’s determination to keep her hidden from his view, he would have succeeded. When he died, he could not deprive Clarissa of the trust her mother left her, but he could cut Izzy off without a penny. Moreover, his will stipulated that Clarissa’s guardian would be the Earl of Salcott, and he left the earl a deathbed letter warning him against Izzy, a spiteful letter full of lies.

The letter was meant for the previous earl, who is now deceased.

Leo Thorne is the new earl of Salcott, and he’s appalled to find himself suddenly saddled with the girls. He has no choice but to do his duty by Clarissa – taking her in, hiring a chaperone, and introducing her to the ton so that she can find a husband. But he can’t do that with Izzy hanging about. Illegitimate daughters do not come out as debutantes in Society. He can’t understand why the two girls don’t see that Izzy will hurt Clarissa’s chances. It’s his duty to make sure she does not. 

He doesn’t trust Izzy, but he’s fascinated by her.

He has a few things to tend to on his country estate and leaves the young ladies with his reclusive aunt under strict orders to stay put. He hopes a few weeks of boredom will teach them a lesson and convince Izzy to accept a bribe to disappear. Instead, they launch themselves into Society. They are wildly successful, but all three are aware that they are living a lie. When Society discovers that they are hiding Izzy’s illegitimacy, they will all be spurned.

The loyalty and good-heartedness of both sisters and the unfairness of Izzy’s situation makes their scheming understandable and forgivable. Leo’s stodginess stems from betrayals in his past. His ability to admit when he’s in the wrong and apologize make him a strong and likeable protagonist despite his missteps.

Leo and Izzy find their way to one another despite Society’s obstacles. This is a delightful, charming romance. I’m looking forward to Clarissa’s story.

Monday, August 8, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Daughter of Sparta by Claire M. Andrews

I just finished another YA adventure based on Greek mythology, Daughter of Sparta, by Claire M. Andrews. 

Daphne (and her two brothers) are outsiders in Sparta, brought up by adoptive parents to be warriors but never quite belonging. During a critical Spartan contest, a race which will determine the success or failure of their yearly harvest, Daphne is lured into the woods where she meets the goddess Artemis. The goddess has a task for her. Daphne must retrieve nine items stolen from Olympus by a traitor to the gods. Without these items, the gods’ powers will wane and the Olympians will fall. 

Daphne is to be aided and guided by Artemis’ brother, the god Apollo. Since Artemis has enslaved Daphne’s favorite brother to ensure cooperation, Daphne hasn’t much choice but to do the gods’ bidding.

She (and Apollo) embark upon a series of dark adventures, encountering a plethora of Greek gods and goddesses, legendary heroes and heroines, and mythological creatures/monsters. The Olympians know who their enemy is, but not which of them has betrayed the family to that enemy. It’s Daphne’s job to find out. Daphne has to decide who to trust and who to fight. 

Trained by the Spartans, she has the speed and strength of a warrior. At first, she puts her faith in her training, but slowly learns her powers are superhuman. Unfortunately, no one will explain to her why. Much of the questing is performed on a need-to-know basis, which helps build suspense even though it doesn’t always seem logical.

The adventures come at the team fast and furious. (In addition to Daphne and Apollo, this team includes a friend/boyfriend of Daphne’s who has been turned into a wolf, and, for a period of time, the Greek hero Theseus.) The pace is fairly quick, though at times it feels like too much is crammed in and threads are left hanging, making it apparent there will have to be at least one more book to complete the tale.

Daphne is an admirable character and her supporting cast is entertaining. It’s a fun book to read and held my attention throughout as each new villain or ally entered the picture. The world-building was intricate and credible. However, it is a typical superhero story in that there was never really any doubt that Daphne would succeed in overcoming the increasingly dangerous difficulties thrown at her. For me, the battles tended to blur after a while. Nevertheless, it was a clever way to tie together many Greek myths.

Thursday, August 4, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: The Devil and the Viscount by Mary Lancaster

I’m a huge fan of Mary Lancaster’s Regency Romances. Nevertheless, I approached her new series, Gentlemen of Pleasure, with some trepidation. The new novels are in Dragonblade Publishing’s Flame line of steamy romances and come with a warning (or advertisement) of a scorching-hot read with multiple sex scenes.

Steamier romances are not my favorite reads. Still, book one, The Devil and the Viscount, continues to revolve around the Maida Pleasure Gardens and includes many of the characters introduced in that series, so I decided to give it a try. This is a short and rather sweet romance focusing on Rollo Darblay, a viscount and a well-known rake, who has shown his face in previous books. Rollo has recently inherited his title and a mountain of debt. He needs to marry an heiress and is dreading it. The female protagonist is Miss Gina Wallace, an heiress, who is betrothed to another fortune-hunting gent–an earl who is significantly older.

Gina has always been an obedient daughter and she is ready to marry the stuffy old Lord Longton because her father arranged it and has given his word. But it’s the last thing in the world that she wants.

Gina and Rollo meet in the sitting room of the hotel alongside the Maida Gardens. Gina is on her way to London with a respectable chaperone to be introduced to society (and to be evaluated more closely by Lord Longton.) Rollo is at the hotel with a group of friends who are drinking and gambling. He wanders into the sitting room for a respite. They strike up a conversation then sneak out to the gardens for a dance. (The chaperone is in her room with a headache.) They spend the next day together as well and grow enamored of each other. They spend one passionate night together. Then, they must part.

Although they fulfill the requirements of what each other needs in a marriage partner (Rollo has a title and Gina has money), Gina can’t back out of her betrothal to Lord Longton without betraying her father. So when their paths cross again and again at society functions, they have to behave themselves. Until they can’t.

The characters are charming, sympathetic, and respectful of one another. The sex scenes (actually very few) do not overwhelm the story. This looks like it will be a fun series to follow!

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Game of Strength and Storm by Rachel Menard

It’s been a while since I’ve read a YA novel, so I decided to dip my toe back in with the YA fantasy adventure Game of Strength and Storm by Rachel Menard. 

Borrowing from Greek mythology and infusing the story with modern twists, the author spins a nuanced tale of good versus evil.

Gen (Genevieve) is the daughter of a Mindworker and a Mazon. Mindworkers are able to empathize with/read the minds of other creatures (even other humans to some extent) by feeding them the blood, hair, or saliva of a Mindworker. Mazons (analogous to Amazons) are women with exceptional strength – at least, they were until their whole race was murdered by a race of giants because of a long-standing feud. Gen survived because she was only half Mazon. Her father was then accused of and jailed for the slaughter of a group of these giants using his mind-controlling talents. Gen is certain he is innocent and is willing to do anything to free him and restore his good name.

Castor is the daughter of the Lord of Storms, ruler of Arcadia. The Arcadians are able to control weather. They are also able to bottle and sell small bursts of this power. They are powerful and exceptionally greedy, giving little thought to the havoc caused by the product they sell. One example of the havoc was the slaughter of the Mazons by the giants, who could not have succeeded without utilizing the Arcadian’s weather vials. Castor wants nothing but to take over Arcadia after her father’s death. Her lust for control of the country’s wealth and power has warped her completely. However, the law of the land is that only a male can inherit. So her father’s heir is her twin brother, Pollux, a kindly musician who uses his storm powers for good and for entertainment. Castor views him as weak. She will do anything to force a change in the law so that she will be her father’s heir.

What can these two young women do?

Their world is ruled by the two-headed empresses, who hold a lottery each year to help consolidate their power. The ten lottery “winners” are invited to submit wishes to them. Rarely, the wishes are refused. Usually they are granted but at a cost.

This year, Gen and Castor win places in the lottery. Each submits their wish. The empresses propose a competition. Ten tasks (a.k.a. the labors of Hercules) are set before them. Whichever of them completes the most tasks will win and that wish will be granted.

Gen utilizes her great strength and her ability to recruit animals to aid her. Castor uses ruthlessness and control of the weather. Gen has something else on her side – Castor’s brother Pollux, who is in love with Gen.

The novel pits the two against one another in a desperate race. It’s a fun adventure tale that also explores themes of loyalty, love, and how far one will go to win when the stakes are desperately high.

Monday, August 1, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: The Nurse's Secret by Amanda Skenandore

 I received this book for free from Netgalley. That did not influence this review. 

The Nurse’s Secret by Amanda Skenandore is a historical mystery embedded in a rags-to-riches (or if not riches, at least reasonable success) tale set in New York City in 1883.

Born to a poor but respectable Irish family in Five Points, Una lost her mother to a tenement fire (her mother was trying to help others) and her father to drink when she was just a child. She survives by becoming a petty thief and pickpocket. She’s understandably embittered and lives by an every-woman-for-herself creed. She believes everyone else does too.

Una loses even the very weak support system that she has when, while attempting to fence stolen cufflinks, she is caught in the act. Worse, the man to whom she was going to sell the jewelry was murdered in an alley. Una is arrested and charged with theft and murder. She escapes; she has some practice escaping from lawmen. Needing to lie low afterward, she applies for a position at the new nurse training school at Bellevue Hospital.

Nursing had not been a respectable profession before Florence Nightingale made it so. Bellevue Hospital started a program to train young women in the Nightingale tradition. Una lies her way in. However, she quickly discovers her usual blend of defiance and guile will not serve her well. Fearful of being kicked out of the program, she buckles down. Gradually she discovers an aptitude for nursing. She also makes a true friend, her very innocent roommate, who has a passion for the job. Also, she is befriended by a young surgeon, a man trying to live up to the name of his famous surgeon grandfather while also adopting newer surgical practices that his superiors scorn. This friendship soon veers into love.

Una’s transformation proceeds apace, from an angry, cynical young woman who can’t be trusted (and who is not a likeable protagonist) into a competent nurse and reliable friend. However, at the same time, the person who did commit the murder that Una was blamed for strikes again. And again. Una figures out who it is. To expose the killer, she has to risk re-engaging with the criminal underworld, which could lead to her own capture by the police. Or, it could lead to her being the killer’s next victim.

The historical details are well presented and Una ultimately matures into an admirable character. The novel is well worth the read for its glimpse into the seedy criminal world of the times.

Thursday, July 28, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith

I’ve seen Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 classic The Price of Salt recommended a bunch of times as an example of early lesbian literature in the U.S. and one of the first with an ending that doesn’t leave at least one of the women dead or gone back to a man. Does this mean a HEA?

Not exactly.

The protagonist is Therese Belivet, a twenty-one-year-old woman just beginning in her career as a stage designer. She’s dating Richard, a wannabe painter, and she’s working part-time, through Christmas, at a department store in N.Y.C.. For backstory, she grew up in an orphanage after her father’s death and mother’s abandonment. So she has some baggage. However, her inability to love Richard and her distaste for sex with him is not the result of childhood trauma.

One day, a woman comes into the store looking for a doll for her daughter and Therese’s heart stops. It’s love at first sight. The woman, Carol Aird, leaves her address to have the doll shipped, and Therese boldly sends her a Christmas card. Carol responds with a lunch invitation.

Therese soon learns that Carol is in the process of divorcing her husband. The husband is trying to wrangle additional custody of their daughter, Rindy. This all makes Carol a bit moody and sometimes mean. In a way, Carol is trying to protect Therese. She knows better the consequences of two women falling in love.

Therese is too smitten to be put off by Carol’s shifting moods and they begin spending more time together. This culminates in a cross-country road trip. While on the road, their relationship develops further, both emotionally and sexually. So far so good.

However, they learn that Carol’s husband is having them followed by a detective, who now has evidence of their love affair. Seeing as this is the 1940s or 50s, running off with another woman is far more detrimental to Carol’s reputation than running off with a man. Her husband threatens to use the information to gain total custody of Rindy. And unless Carol gives up Therese altogether, he will not allow her to see her child again.

The novel has a very brooding atmosphere despite moments of joy. Conversations are often stilted. Interactions with other characters are often referred to after the fact, which keeps the focus on the pair but also adds to a sense of claustrophobia.

It’s easy to see why this novel is a classic. Still, I found the happy ending rather sad.