Monday, 29 March 2010

Silent in the Grave by Deanna Raybourn

"To say that I met Nicholas Brisbane over my husband's dead body is not entirely accurate. Edward, it should be noted, was still twitching upon the floor."

Have to say that this is the one of the best openings I've read for a long time and on the whole, the book did manage to live up it!
Despite Lady Julia Grey's unconventional family and liberal upbringing she leads a predictable life with her ailing husband. Unfortunately for all their guests he dies unexpectedly at a dinner party, but what makes it worse is that private inspector to the titled, Nicholas Brisbane, informs her that he was probably murdered. Although she found her marriage cold and unfulfilling, it takes a year of mourning and an accidental find to make her seek out Brisbane to reopen the case. By now the trail is stone cold, but they persist and delve into the seedier aspects of Victorian life to discover the murderer, but also that Julia really didn't know her husband at all.
I bought this hoping it would help fill the gap left by Amelia Peabody (completely read them all up years ago and it takes sooo long for new ones to come out!) and there are certain similarities. Firstly, Julia is ahead of her time, she has a radical father and non-conformist siblings. To them she has always been the normal one, marrying her childhood sweetheart and living a quiet life in London society. By becoming newly single (after the suitable period of mourning) she allows her sister Portia to revamp her wardrobe and hair! Her new found freedom allows her to engage the services of Nicholas Brisbane, who she finds herself increasingly attracted to. The book is written from Julia's point of view and she is equally engaging, witty and stupid! You can't really help but warm to her blundering and although the romantic element is an integral part, particularly the sparring between Julia and Nicholas, it really is a fun, gothic thriller.
Brisbane is obviously the dashing hero, but unfortunately for me, he has too many talents...brilliantly clever, violin virtuoso, languages, dodgy but moneyed family background, widely travelled, bare-knuckled fighter and famous lothario! I also assumed the "illness" would be malaria, possibly linked to his travels in exotic places, which might have been an interesting back story, but no - it's his psychic abilities! Apart from being easily irritated, he's just a bit too perfect. Despite finding all his many virtues, he does remain a man of mystery to a large degree and I feel Raybourn is holding out for the later novels.
Julia's family are interesting, particularly the ghoul and Portia, but are not fully developed yet and I hope this comes through more strongly in the series. Aquinas, the butler, is also a complete star and I hope he is able to take a larger role too!
The style of writing and descriptions is evocative of the Victorian era and again, makes it a good, enjoyable read. In terms of the murder, I sussed whodunit within the first 50 pages, but not the motive or method! The resolution is done fairly quickly towards the end of the book and it lacks sufficient twists and red herrings! (That's why it's a 4 star!)

Sunday, 28 March 2010

The Glass Painter's Daughter by Rachel Hore

Fran is forced to return from her nomadic life of playing in various orchestras around the world when her father is taken seriously ill. She goes back to the family business, Minster Glass and tries to maintain things with the help of her father's assistant, the taciturn, Zac. Fran has a fractured relationship with her father, which was further damaged by his refusal to talk about her mother, who died when she was very young. Her father's stroke means that she is unable to address their problems and find out about her own family history, she is further frustrated to find that her father has befriended and confided in the local vicar. Through the work at the glass shop she becomes embroiled in the journals of Laura, a young Victorian woman strongly linked to both the parish and the business. Laura's family had their own tragedies and commissioned a glass window, which 120 years later Fran and Zac are trying to repair. The stories are Laura and Fran are intertwined throughout the book.

The main themes of redemption, forgiveness and moving forward are reflected in all the main characters lives. Christianity and angels play a large part in this book and despite me being a complete agnostic, that didn't grate. I loved it, the novel has a warm, spiritual feel and although the story is gentle, the way Fran develops from being a rather spiky individual to a much warmer, whole person as she allows others into her life had me gripped. Yes, the romantic angle is predictable right from the beginning and you wonder why it takes so long for Fran to realise what's going on, but it works with her lack of understanding of herself and her background and the need to find her own place in the world.
It's cleverly and subtly written and I will definitely be looking to read further from this author.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

The Love Nest by Julia Llewellyn

This story starts with Chadlicote Manor going up for sale to pay Grace's family debts after the death of her mother. It charts the stories of several characters as they make plans to move homes and change their lives through homes, children and careers. Karen is a career woman but the family plan to move to the country as her husband recovers from cancer. Gemma lives with her husband in a loft apartment but is desperate for a child and a family home. Rock star Nick seeks a home to reflect his new status and also the high class estate agent Lucinda. The stories and characters intertwine as they all try to get what they want out of life.
There's a lot going on within this book and it is cleverly constructed. Llewellyn weaves the stories of all the characters into the story is very well done and doesn't feel overly contrived as many "chick-lits" do. However, as in a couple of her other books I found it all a bit "cold"...I didn't warm to any of the characters at all and bearing in mind how many there is across the book, that's fairly surprising. I thought the majority of them to be self-seeking, insular, fairly disagreeable people, and even if that was the intention, I personally need to feel some sort of connection or engagement for me to want to read on. I also felt that two dimensional stereotypes were over used - e.g. career woman, embarrassed by her humble beginnings has an affair with a good looking waste of space; super rich daddy's girl trying to prove herself and still considered second best to her lesser brother; nice but dim, fat girlfriend from the sticks; flaky sister, hippy, mildly druggie background and iffy relationships. Even Grace, who I developed a very small amount of sympathy for (if only for the food and Doctor Who fixation) was weak and pathetically grateful for anything that came her way. All the character's got on with the problems that they'd created for themselves, but I didn't really care how it all ended.
Overall the book is well structured and cleverly managed, but due to the characterisation (and that’s maybe just me) I found the book a bit soulless and lacking in humour.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Rules by Jane Beaton

It’s Maggie's second year at Downey House, an independent school for girls in Cornwall. Her new job has changed her expectations and outlook on life and not everyone likes the changes. She's now engaged to Stan and the pressure is on for her to return to Glasgow and settle down and fit back into her old ways, however, the attractions of English teacher, David are tempting and she's not sure about where her future lies. Throw in the dilemma created for headteacher Veronica Deveral's when her long lost adopted son reappears and the misdemeanours of the second year girls and it's a grown up boarding school book!

I thought the first book "Class" was good fun and looked forward to this coming out. It is a nostalgic book for everyone who loved their Malory Towers et al in their childhood, but I'm not convinced there's enough to keep the series going to the projected six novels and I doubt I'll pursue the series any further.
Firstly, I don't really like Maggie any more, which is a bit of an issue for the heroine. In the first book she was uncertain of fitting in the "posh" school and was interesting due to this, but now she's a bit bland and preoccupied with her dilemma between Stan and David. That brings me to the next problem; I don't like either of them either! Stan is an inverted snob and unfortunately Beaton uses every anti-English stereotype possible. David is fey and pretentious - why call your dog that?! I know he's brilliantly clever, but honestly! It's all a bit unconvincing and I don't see the problem, neither are worth the fuss.
Veronica Deveral had more promise and I was expecting a really meaty back story but the incorrect detail about Sheffield and the mysterious Russian lover didn't work for me. The relationship with Daniel, the son she gave up for adoption seemed to develop into cosy too quickly and was a missed opportunity for character development.
The schoolgirls are nicely self obsessed and evil to each other, but eating disorders are old hat and again, they are not pushed to their full potential, although they get up to bother, they don't push it sufficiently to be convincing teenagers.
The best character is Claire the French teacher, I think she's great, but under used! Give her something interesting to do, rather than just looking fabulous and moaning about the English drinking too much.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Missing You by Louise Douglas

Sean’s seemingly perfect life crumbles when his adored wife Belle throws him out to start a new life with the Other. Sean had no idea of his wife’s unhappiness and struggles to cope without her and his young daughter, Amy. He rents a room in a house with Fen and her little boy Connor. Fen leads a secluded life based on work and the care of her boy. She’s moved away from family and friends to hide a guilty secret involving her brother. Both characters have difficulties in moving on but circumstances bring them together and they begin to find some happiness.
I do worry about second book syndrome, (I couldn’t quite forgive Victoria Hislop when The Return didn’t quite live up to my expectations after The Island – sad, but true!) but I didn’t need to worry with Louise Douglas. It has a similar thoughtfully wistful, sad tone as “The Love of my Life” (which I also loved!) The story starts slowly and in less capable hands there would be a danger of both Fen and Sean of being a bit pathetic and self-indulgent. However, despite there not being a lot of action through the story the sensitive and well created characters drive it on. Sean grows on you as he gradually accepts the changes in his life and falls in love with Fen. Fen is less straightforward; the guilty secret that has made her create her own seclusion is fairly predictable, but also understandable. She grows into a whole person by the end and appears much younger and lively than she does at the beginning. Belle is suitably shallow (as she needed to be for the plot to work) a spoilt brat that hasn’t grown up and still doesn’t know what she wants, I simply couldn’t understand what Sean loved about her in the first place apart from being a great beauty. I loved the character of Sean’s sister Lola and would have liked to know about her and her back story (another book?!)
Beautifully written and wistful – I loved it!

Chocolate Wishes by Trisha Ashley

Chloe lives fairly quietly with her teenage brother, eccentric grandfather and aunt in a pretty Lancashire village. She makes gorgeous chocolate wishes in the shape of angels, acts a PA to her grandfather, goes to the pub with her two best friends and according to the book she does very little else! She’s been unlucky in love – jilted by her fiancé just before the wedding and in the dim distant past she was badly let down by Raffy, the love of her life, when she had to leave university to look after her baby brother. Chloe is getting on with things when Raffy unexpectedly reappears as the new vicar!
It’s been of a Trisha Ashley fest this year! Here’s her latest and, sadly, it didn’t live up to my expectations…I think she’s brilliant and I was sooo looking forward to reading this, but it just didn’t quite make it. However, despite my slight disappointment, there’s a lot of good, Chloe is an interesting heroine and although it seems a weak reason for her to be so hung on Raffy after all this time, it eventually becomes apparent that she has some justification for doing so. Felix and Poppy make stereotypically good friends and create a romantic subplot with a bit of help through love potions and magical chocolate. Jake the stroppy teenage brother who she has raised is interesting enough and prevents Chloe becoming a total sad no-life! I felt Raffy was actually a bit underwritten and could have been more interesting, he’s been a rock star, is obviously gorgeous (what else?) but then settles for a quiet rural life? I would have liked much more back story to make him fully developed. David, the jilting fiancé was suitably nasty and disagreeable and deserving of the rubbish dumped on him. The descriptions of making chocolate were great and gave me cravings to get down to Thornton’s asap!
The less likeable aspect was the whole pagan/ magic stuff didn’t really work for me – I know Ashley has used magical themes in her previous work, and I liked the links to A Winter’s Tale, which I loved! But the magical aspect just felt a bit contrived (it smacked of Christina Jones stuff and I was a bit disappointed by her last one too). Okay, I accept it created a contrast/tension with Raffy’s Christianity, but is it such a big deal, haven’t “alternative belief systems” become more widespread?
Anyway, it is snappily written, has good "realistic" characterisation overall, due to having more mature, less moneyed and glamourous charcters than a lot of chick-lit (which I think is a good thing!) , but was just lacking something for me.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

The Urge to Jump by Trisha Ashley

Sappho is almost 40 and feels life is slipping away…she’s managed most things in life except motherhood and is looking for potential fathers and Nye, a local potter has the most potential.
As I said in an earlier post I’m chasing “older” books by this author and again managed to get a RiSi swap again. I feel slightly guilty rating a favourite author only three stars but unfortunately I found the whole plot difficult to get into and most importantly I didn’t warm to Sappho. Like in Singled Out, our heroine is an author, this time of fantasy fiction and likewise she’s older than the usual chick-lit type and has a tendency to wander off alone in the middle of the night. Nye is predictably grouchy but devastatingly handsome but the whole thing just didn’t work for me. Sorry.

The Lost Duke of Wyndham by Julia Quinn

Another regency romance from Julia Quinn. I find these books a self indulgent Sunday afternoon treat...nothing to take seriously, or to improve your mind, but comfortable easy romantic relaxation!
This one is about Jack Audley, man of mystery - currently an extremely well mannered highwayman who accidently pulls the carriage of the dowager Duchess of Wyndham and becomes embroiled in a family battle over the Dukedom (is that the correct word?!!) Anyway, it's the typical romp of handsome men in breeches, pretty girls with heaving bosoms, confused identities and privileged lives! Grace Eversleigh is a far weaker than usual heroine, who has been well trodden on by the dowager, but still instantly loves Jack. Thomas (the current Duke) has a soft spot for Grace, but again doesn't come across strongly until very close to the end when he finally stands up against his grandmother.
Not one of Julia Quinn's best books, it all feels a bit rushed and cursory.  Jack is likeable, but Grace is far too wet.  Although all Quinn's books have a similar formula (and I can't criticise that - you know what you're buying) this one didn't sparkle as many of her others did.  There's the companion book "Mr Cavendish, I presume" which tells the same story from the other couples pov and I honestly didn't find this story engaging enough to bother with it, which is unusual for me, but I think sums up why it's a 3 star!

Singled Out by Trisha Ashley

Cass Leigh writes sensationalist gothic horror books, she's slightly odd with a penchant for velvet cloaks and walking in graveyards during the night. She finally realises that her long term married boyfriend, who she's been holding out for, is a rat and there's very few romantic options now available. Unfortunately, Jason, one of her oldest friends develops an unreciprocated crush on her and the mysterious Dante appears in the village after buying the ghost-ridden manor house that fascinates Cass. Along with a slave auction organised by the local vicar, which becomes a bit of a fight between all the men in Cass's life when love rat Max reappears, becoming a ghost in Dante's house, the need to write her sinister books and the ongoing worries of wanting a baby, Cass's life resolves itself and she finds her happy ending.
I have read a couple of Trisha Ashley's books and really enjoyed them, she generally writes interesting and not naff heroines under slightly strange circumstances and with a bent towards older chick lit readers (doubt her stuff appeals to the twentysomethings) - as you may have gathered from other posts, I've been trying to track down her earlier stuff and this is one of them (published 2003 - I managed to get a RiSi swap for an old library copy!) It clearly is an early one - it's shorter with fewer sub plots than her later books, but demonstrates her humour and quirkiness. However, in some respects I did feel it was trying a bit too hard to be different... Cassandra differs from the generic "chick-lit" heroine in several ways, she's 44, has a bizarre back story of religious freak father. This explains her horror obsession but became a bit extreme at times. She can also "mind-read", although the mind reading seemed to me to be only a short cut way of getting into Dante's character. As te book develops she also shows her desperation for a baby, which could have come across as sad, but Ashley just about pulls it off.
Dante of course is gorgeous, stern (back to my Darcy ideal!) with serious guilt issues and a back story, I wouldn't expect anything else! He's interesting and well written enough to maintain interest and the characterisation works with Cass.
At times some of the literary references and "authorisms" seemed to me to be a bit self-indulgent but overall it was self-depreciating enough to keep it light.  I still love Trisha Ashley, and although I think her later stuff is better, it's great to read her earlier work to see how it's all developed. Well worth a look if you're a fan and can get hold of a copy!

Monday, 15 March 2010

Molly's Millions By Victoria Connelly

Molly is a florist, she's happy but permanently skint... but all that changes when she wins the lottery.  However, rather than live a life of luxury, she decides to share her good fortune so packs her old faithful Beetle and scoots of around the country to anonymously re-distribute her new found wealth to deserving people leaving her calling card of a yellow gerbera.  Her generousity quickly grabs the attention of Tom, a reporter who follows her round the UK with his young daughter, Flora in tow.  Molly's family have a very different view of money and how it should be spent, so once she hits the newspapers they also try to follow her to bring her to her senses.
I found this rather sweet and Molly is a pleasant, if very naive heroine.  However, her awful family became tedious, her sister-in-law too weak and the revelation about Molly's parentage wasn't necessary.  Again Tom was likeable enough and his daughter was fab, but the developing romance was unconvincing. 
Overall I thought it was enjoyable fluff, despite the predictable and rather cliched ending, but I didn't become involved in the characters or the situations - possibly because of the constant moving that the plot required, so due to that I've put it down half a star.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

How remiss of me...

Apologies to few who were following my blog.  Unfortunately, real life landed and work commitments have completely taken over for the past month or so.  It's also massively affected the amount of reading I've been able to do too, so although I have a few books to catch up on reviewing...I need to read more material!
I hope to resume normal service very soon and hope you'll bear with me!
Thanks x