Random Reading

Here are three books I have enjoyed recently, with absolutely no connection to one another.

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Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid is a terrific novel. If you remember the 70s (although some say that if you think you remember that era you weren’t really there), you will recognize the time of sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll, and Daisy Jones pretty much exemplifies all that.

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The story covers the formation of the band called The Six, the tension, conflict, and success brought about by the addition of singer Daisy Jones, and the eventual sudden and unexplained (until now) break up of the band.

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Although Daisy was a spoiled brat in many ways, and a hard core addict, I was still pulling for her to somehow survive it all. Billy Dunne, leader of The Six, also deep into the drug scene (as was pretty much everyone in the cast) had enough redeeming qualities, and made enough good choices (Daisy rarely did) that I was pulling for him, too. And Karen, and Graham.

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The story is told in the form of bits of interviews, arranged by the nameless (until the end) Author; none of the characters are together through the interviews, but their versions of the story and their reactions to one another are skillfully braided together, in a sort of modern version of the old epistolary novel.

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It took me a while to find this book, but I’m so glad I did. Now I’ll have to keep an eye out for Reid’s other novels.

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A friend recommended Lyssa Kay Adams’ The Bromance Book Club, a book that might not otherwise have been on my reading radar, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. The premise, a group of men (most of them professional athletes) who read romance novels and regard them as “manuals” for puzzling out what the women in their lives really want, is as humorous as it sounds. The newest member of the club is baseball player Gavin Scott, whose wife of three years has thrown him out, for reasons he really doesn’t want to share with his friends. But he loves his wife, Thea, and he’s willing to take advice from his friends, as humiliating as that might be. If following the path to true love laid out in a paperback Regency romance called Courting the Countess (yes, there are excerpts) will get him back into Thea’s good graces, he’s willing to try. What could possibly go wrong?

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Well, it’s a funny, entertaining, heart-warming story, and of course all sorts of things go wrong. But Gavin and Thea are likable characters, clearly meant for each other, and worth rooting for. Adams also does an excellent job of showing how the hurts in their respective pasts cause problems in the present, and how sharing those buried secrets help to solve those problems.

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Thea and Gavin’s three-year-old twin daughters talk and sometimes act like six-year-old girls, and now and then Gavin’s male friends break into feminist rhetoric (if this was a movie they might break into song), but these are minor problems. On the whole The Bromance Book Club is funny and touching and optimistic, and well worth reading. My friend just picked up the sequel, Undercover Bromance.

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Not long ago I ran across an article listing good science fiction romances and thought that Finders Keepers by Linnea Sinclair looked particularly interesting. So I clicked on the Amazon link, only to learn that I had bought the book in June, 2016 — those little notices are definitely a blessing for bookaholics like me!

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So I located the book in my Kindle library, and a few days later I jumped in. I’ve been a science fiction fan all my reading life (and that goes back a long time), and I suspect Sinclair has been as well, because the science fiction aspects of Finders Keepers are as solid as the romance.

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Trilby Elliot is the captain and sole human crew member of an antiquated and beat up freighter called the Careless Venture. She and her android crewman Dezi are making repairs to the ship at her little hideaway on a rather inhospitable uninhabited planet when another space craft crashes nearby. Trilby rescues the pilot and brings him back to her rudimentary sick bay, where the equipment has a bit of trouble reading him.

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Trilby’s medical bay may be old and somewhat unreliable, but the truth is that Rhis Vanur really isn’t quite what—or who—he appears to be. By the time Trilby finds out the truth, she’s too far involved in galactic politics to get out. And she’s finding out the truth about far more than Rhis.

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Finders Keepers is just the ticket if you’re in the mood for a rousing space opera with a good (but never very graphic) romance running through it. My only complaint is that the ending seemed rather abrupt—and that Sinclair apparently never wrote a sequel (although she has written numerous other novels). I really wanted to know what happened next to Trilby, Rhis, and several of their colleagues.

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Now that I think about it, there is a connection: they all have love stories. That probably says something about my taste in books. I do like a happy ending.

The Kiss Quotient and The Bride Test

I picked up The Kiss Quotient after reading an article about its author, Helen Hoang, a woman who was diagnosed with autism (at the high functioning end of the spectrum) at the age of 34. Given at last some insight into the problems she had dealt with through the years, Hoang decided to write about an autistic heroine.

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Stella Lane comes from a wealthy family, but she’s made her own fortune through her work as an econometrician, a mathematical and statistical occupation ideally suited to her personality. Her social life isn’t so successful. In fact, it’s pretty much non-existent. She’s nearing thirty, and she’s had three sexual experiences, all of them disasters. Her mother wants grandchildren, and Stella herself thinks there might be more to life than binge watching Korean drama shows. So she does what anyone with tunnel vision and determination might do—she hires a male escort to teach her “how to do sex.”

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Michael Phan is half Vietnamese and half Swedish, handsome and athletic. On Friday nights he works as, let’s be honest here, a prostitute. He has his reasons, thinks he does, anyway, and he’s at heart a nice guy (although he worries about that—his father wasn’t). He tries his best to avoid ever having a second “date” with a client, so he’s very reluctant to accept an exclusive job with Stella. At least until he gets to know her.

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There’s a lot of graphic sex in this novel. Not my favorite reading, frankly, but Stella wants to learn about sex, so that’s sort of the point. But seeing the world through Stella’s eyes, and seeing Stella through the eyes of a writer who really knows what makes Stella tick, is fascinating, and that’s what makes The Kiss Quotient such a good book.

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The Bride Test, Hoang’s second novel, is not about learning “how to do sex”; there’s bit of that, but much less graphic sex than in The Kiss Quotient. Rather, The Bride Test is about learning how to recognize love when it knocks you off your feet. In a reversal of roles, in this book the hero is on the autism spectrum, while the heroine, a village girl from Vietnam, has no idea what that means.

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Khai Diep (Michael’s cousin and Quan’s brother from the previous book) is a highly successful CPA, although he lives modestly and has little interest in money. He is convinced that he has no feelings, that his heart is stone, and that involving himself in any relationship would only be cruel to the other person. His mother knows better, and she goes to Vietnam to find him a wife.

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The potential bride she finds is Esme Tran, who lives with her daughter, her mother and her grandmother in a shack, and who cleans the bathrooms in a hotel to support them. When Khai’s mother offers her a summer in California to see if she’s a match for Khai, Esme decides (with encouragement from her mother) to take the chance. (And if she’s very lucky, she might even track down her American father, knowing only that his name was Phil, he went to Cal Berkley, and he must have been the source of Esme’s green eyes.)

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Two people from wildly different cultures, backgrounds and educational levels—what could possibly go wrong? And what could possibly go right? Will Khai (with help from some very funny conversations with Michael and Quan) ever figure out what love is? Will Esme, diving into the local night school for immigrants, exceed her own expectations? Will the ending produce a few happy tears? Hey, folks, this is a romance. You know the answers, but getting there is definitely worth reading the book.

A Regency Christmas Novella

Lady Sarah Milton, the heroine of Cheryl Bolen’s His Lady Deceived, has had numerous offers of marriage since her presentation at court five years earlier, but none of those men made her heart sing. She’s reserved that feeling for a man she’s never even spoken to, Alfred Wickham, the son of Viscount Landis. When Lady Landis invites Sarah and her family to spend Christmas at Hedley Hall, the home of the Duke and Duchess of Radcliff, Sarah agrees, but she’s cautious. Lady Landis is convinced that Sarah would be the perfect wife for her only son, Alfred. Sarah longs to meet Alfred at last—but won’t be a party to any marital trap set by his mother.

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Alfred Wickham (known to his friends as Wick) has made it to the age of thirty without a wife, and he’s happy that way. When he gets wind of his mother’s Christmas plans, he agrees to go to Hedley Hall, but enlists his best friend, Lord Hugh Pottinger (known as Potts) to accompany him. Wick claims he doesn’t want to leave Potts to spend Christmas alone in London, but Potts knows better. Wick wants something.

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Wick does indeed want something. He wants Potts to convince Lady Sarah that Wick is a poor marital candidate. He makes Potts (who is hopelessly shy around women) promise to tell the lady that Wick wagers on everything—and always loses, that he fences without a mask, and, worst of all, that he has an “understanding” with an actress. The third, at least, is not true.

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What Wick has failed to realize is just how attractive Lady Sarah is. Alas, Potts finds her attractive, too, and Potts believes that Wick is not interested. Meanwhile Sarah isn’t sure what to think about either one of them. Surely Wickham is out of the question (that actress!), but maybe there’s more to Hugh Pottinger than meets the eye.

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Mix in a house party and a blizzard, a variety of eccentric guests, and a child with a secret identity, and you have a Christmas Regency romp. And if you want to know how the Duke and Duchess of Radcliff (the Duchess is Wick’s cousin) met and fell in love, pick up Bolen’s A Duke Deceived.

Romance!

Gerry Bartlett’s Texas Trouble brings together Scarlett Hall from Texas Lightning and Ethan Calhoun from Bartlett’s earlier Texas Heat trilogy–and a whole lot of trouble. Scarlett is doing her best to recover from a traumatic encounter with a knife-wielding criminal when she learns that Knife Guy has escaped from prison, and just might be looking for her. Meanwhile Ethan’s mother has escaped from a mental hospital, demanding help from him.

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Texas Trouble has lots of action, sizzling romance, some very scary villains, a talented tattoo artist, Scarlett’s brother (named, surprise, Rhett), a motorcycle riding PI, a sometimes exasperated Texas Ranger, and one very small but very brave dog. What more could we ask for in romantic suspense? (Rumor has it that Rhett Hall will be getting his own happy ending come December–I’m looking forward to that one.)

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I’m not an avid reader of historical romance, but I picked up (or rather downloaded) Zana Bell’s Fool’s Gold on the strength of its setting, New Zealand in 1866, definitely something different. Gwen (Lady Guinevere) Stanhope is an English woman left on her own in New Zealand after her father dies on the long sea voyage to the colony. Gwen has very little money, but she does have the photographic equipment with which her father had hoped to capture a picture of the (alas, extinct) moa and make enough money to buy back the mortgage on the family estate. Gwen is very nearly swept away by a sudden flood, only to be rescued by Quinn O’Donnell, an Irishman who arrived in New Zealand after serving as a surgeon in the American Civil War.

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Gwen wants only to return to Maidenhurst, the family home in England, even if she has to marry the man who holds the mortgage (her father’s back up plan). Quinn hates the English and wants to build a new life in New Zealand. But this is a romance novel, so we know something’s gotta give.

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Along the way, Gwen tackles a number of jobs, even working briefly as a housemaid, learning quite a bit about herself and about the people she never noticed when she was a pampered lady in England, while Quinn learns what he is really meant to do with his life. Their romance grows slowly (heat level sweet) and believably.

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The New Zealand setting is fascinating (and I assume authentic, as the author lives in New Zealand), the characters are likeable, and the story held my attention.

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Shelly Chalmers’ Must Love Plague is the first book in her Sisters of the Apocalypse series. Piper Bane, descendant of the Pestilence clan, returns to the small paranormal town of Beckwell, Alberta, for the wedding of her best friend, Ginny (heiress of Famine, who loves to bake) and a reunion with their friends Anna (heiress of War, currently the town librarian) and Nia (heiress of Death, who speaks to ghosts). Piper has spent ten years trying to avoid her heritage—and her propensity for making others ill. Now she’s faced with the rumor that she and her friends are about to rise as the Four Horsewomen of the Apocalypse, bringing on the End of the World.

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As if that wasn’t annoying enough, the first person she runs into when her car lands in a ditch going through the supernatural barrier that protects the town is her one-time fiance, Daniel Quillan, town doctor and sometime Fomorian (yes, I had to look that one up—definitely bad-ass guys). She’s also being stalked by a large brown toad. And the barrier that has protected the town and its not quite human inhabitants for a century has suddenly turned into a prison dome.

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What’s a girl to do? Piper and her friends are determined to avoid the Apocalypse, but the citizens of Beckwell aren’t making that easy.

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Chalmers’ imaginative approach to a wide range of mythology makes for an entertaining read, to be continued as the rest of the Four Horsewomen take their turns.

New From Cheryl Bolen: Last Duke Standing

Alex Haversham, much to his own surprise, is the Last Duke Standing in the third tale in Cheryl Bolen’s Lords of Eton trilogy. Recently returned from service in the Peninsular War, he is stunned when his brother Freddie, the eighth Duke of Fordham, dies in his sleep, leaving Alex as the ninth Duke. As the third son, Alex never expected—nor wanted—to inherit the title.

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Now he is faced with all the responsibilities of his new position, including breaking the sad news to Freddie’s fiancée, whom Alex has never met.

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Lady Georgiana Fenton can hold her own in any situation, even the sudden death of the fiancé she was fond of, if not in love with. But she’s not sure what to think of this new Duke who looks so much like Freddie—but behaves so differently. And who seems to be the only person who would benefit from Freddie’s untimely, and perhaps suspicious, death.

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Despite their prickly relationship—Georgiana is a Tory and Alex is a Whig—the two team up to discover the truth behind Freddie’s death, and the even more important matter of their future.

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Cheryl Bolen spins a delightful tale of mystery, politics, and (of course) romance, in a most satisfying conclusion to the story of three men who bonded as boys in school and rushed to one another’s aid as adults.

The Earl, the Vow, and the Plain Jane

The second installment in Cheryl Bolen’s Lords of Eton series finds Jack St. John, known to his friends as Sinjin, elevated to the title Earl of Slade. Lord Slade has enthusiastically taken his place in the House of Lords as a Whig, and has made a success of his public life, but his personal life is something else. The family coffers are lower than low, and Slade has three sisters to present and dower, and a crumbling ancestral home, not to mention the promise he made to his dying father. He’s leased out the family’s London house and rented rooms for himself, but he can’t even afford to keep a carriage. It seems the only solution must be to marry an heiress. A very wealthy heiress.

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The Earl the Vow the Plain JaneMiss Jane Featherstone has long felt a tender admiration for Lord Slade, but she and her father, a leading Whig in the House of Commons, are poor as the proverbial church mice, and Jane believes herself to be hopelessly plain. Her cousin and dearest friend, Lady Sarah Bertram, however, is beautiful, extremely wealthy, and about to be presented to society.

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Small wonder Lord Slade should focus his interest on Lady Sarah.

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As if that weren’t distressing enough to Jane, Slade proceeds to ask for her help in courting her cousin.

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Heartbroken in spite of her conviction that a poor plain Jane could never be the wife of an earl, Jane agrees to help, on the condition that Slade refrain from offering for Lady Sarah until he can honestly say that he loves her.

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As Slade finds himself in competition with the many young men swarming around the gorgeous Lady Sarah, he spends more time than he should with Jane, with whom he shares many political and intellectual interests, while Sarah seems rather taken with Slade’s younger brother, Captain David St. John. And Jane finds herself seriously considering the worth of a successful businessman and would-be politician, Mr. Cecil Poppinbotham.

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Add an inside look at period electioneering, an amusing cast of supporting players, and the support of Slade’s long-time friends Harry and Alex, and you have another entertaining tale of life, love, and politics under the Regency.

 

The Portrait of Lady Wycliff

Cheryl Bolen begins a new series (The Lords of Eton) with The Portrait of Lady Wycliff, the story of Harry Blassingame, the Earl of Wycliff, as he searches for the missing portrait of his late mother. Harry has spent the last eight years restoring the family fortunes lost by his late father, a decent man sorely lacking in ability as a gambler. Harry would prefer to keep his own counsel as to exactly how he has refilled the Wycliff coffers, but it wasn’t through gambling. Well, not exactly, anyway.

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The Portrait of Lady WycliffThe last property on Harry’s list is the London house on Grosvenor Square, now in the possession of a young widow, Louisa Phillips. Surely it won’t be difficult to convince her to sell.

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Louisa holds no admiration for the aristocracy, and no grief over the loss of her much older and unloved husband, who bought her from her unscrupulous father when she was fifteen years old. In fact, she holds very little admiration for men in general. She prefers to be an independent woman, with a secret of her own.

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But, she discovers to her great distress, she can’t sell the house to Harry because she doesn’t own it. How will she and her younger sister Ellie manage now?

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Against her better judgment, Louisa teams up with Harry to peel an onion of mysteries: Who is the shadowy “benefactor” who actually owns the house and apparently owned Louisa’s husband, too? Did Phillips and his secret backer deliberately set out to ruin the Wycliff family? And what has become of the missing portrait of Lady Wycliff, which should have been hanging in the Grosvenor Square house?

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Louisa and Harry set off on a wild tour of Cornwall in search of answers, posing as Mr. and Mrs. Smith and (definitely against Louisa’s better judgment) sharing rooms—and, chastely, beds—in country inns along the way, fighting their growing admiration for each other, convinced an aristocrat and a bluestocking have no future together.

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Will they find the benefactor? The portrait? The answers? True love? Well, this is a romance, of course, but the road to Happily Ever After is always an adventure. In this case, a thoroughly enjoyable adventure, populated with charming characters—Louisa’s sister Ellie and Harry’s cousin Edward have a few adventures of their own—and the always interesting background of Regency England.

 

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