The Firebird’s Feather by Marjorie Eccles

 

The Firebird's Feather Front Cover (Severn House Publishers)

The Firebird’s Feather Front Cover (Severn House Publishers)

What drew me to request The Firebird’s Feather: A Late-Edwardian Mystery? To start with, the cover, this awesome cover. LOVE the hat, the jewelry, that hint of the dress. Having the hat pulled down over her eyes adds to the “mystery” theme. WHAT is going on in this woman’s mind? What was she up to? Second, “Late-Edwardian” basically means the period right before George V’s coronation, so 1911. A wee little bit before the beginning of Downton Abbey, for those interested; think Mary Poppins. The question is, did the book live up to its cover?

THE PLOT: Lydia Challoner was born in Russia, emigrated to England with her father, and married into London society. Her daughter, Kitty, is about to debut in society, but Lydia is shockingly murdered while riding in Hyde Park. Who could have killed her, and why? Her husband Louis, Kitty’s father, is acting suspiciously, and his gun is missing. Kitty’s aunt Ursula is a society matron, and her two children (Kitty’s cousins) are both rebels: son Jonathan runs a socialist newspaper, while daughter Bridget is a burgeoning suffragette. Could the socialists or suffragettes have had anything to do with the murder? Are the socialists tied into Lydia’s Russian ancestry? What about Bridget’s friendship with Kitty’s maid? Louis’s business partner, Paul Estrabon, is a slimy character, and his wife, Fanny, was Lydia’s best friend and gambling partner. Do gambling debts factor into the murder? Finally, Lydia had a boy toy named Marcus. What’s his deal? What is he really after? Is the upcoming coronation of George V involved? Detective Chief Inspector Gaines and Detective Sergeant Inskip investigate the various suspects and their motives.

MY TWO CENTS: The introduction quickly pulled me in, but I was somewhat jarred with the way the murder was handled. Chapter Two ends with Lydia being late to lunch and her family wondering where she is. Chapter Three begins with Kitty already trying to accept that her mother has been murdered. So readers do not see the murder, nor do they see the family receiving the news of the murder. That just seemed very odd to me. It definitely pulled me out of the reading experience, and I felt like I had to adjust my mindset significantly to continue from that point.

Another thing you may notice from my summary is that there are a lot of characters. Family members, friends, friends of friends, people who aren’t friends. The strange thing is, there isn’t a lot of interaction among these various characters. For example, Aunt Ursula seems to act as a link between Kitty and her cousins because Kitty interacts more with Ursula than she does with either Jon or Bridget. Louis interacts more with the detectives than he does with his daughter. I felt that Kitty was fairly isolated as a character, and her main interaction ended up being with Marcus. And then, although Kitty is the main character, she really wasn’t even part of the climax.

BOTTOM LINE: An interesting, readable, and different story, but it doesn’t exactly gel together completely for me. I would have preferred more character development and interaction to add depth to a good story framework.

TEACUP RATING: I give it around three-and-a-half out of five teacups. If you enjoy mysteries or are interested in the time period, give this one a try.

ON SALE DATE: The Firebird’s Feather will be available in hardcover on December 1, 2014.

Note: Review is based on an ARC provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

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Louisa (Governess Club #4) by Ellie Macdonald

This is the first book I’m reading by Ellie Macdonald. Perhaps that wasn’t a smart move as this is the last book in the “Governess Club” series, so I was jumping into a bunch of characters who had already been established in previous books in the series. As I mentioned in another post, though, I was really draw to this gorgeous, serene, and sedate cover. (But looks CAN be deceiving, as Louisa is anything but serene and sedate!)

Louisa Front Cover (Avon/HarperCollins)

The Governess Club: Louisa Front Cover (Avon/HarperCollins)

THE PLOT: Louisa has been on the run for years (at the beginning, you don’t know why or for how long or from whom). The reader does know she abandoned her other friends in the Governess Club. She stops during bad weather at a pub/inn being run (poorly) by Giant Johnny Taylor, a former prizefighter. He and Louisa quickly strike up a deal: she will become part owner and take over accounting and other tasks while Johnny plays host. Their partnership leads to attraction, and they embark on an affair, which Louisa insists will remain merely physical. Johnny is falling in love, but Louisa can’t commit to love or risk settling in one place and letting her past catch up with her.

MY TWO CENTS: Readers who met Louisa in the series’ previous books are probably used to her prickly nature by now, and even looking forward to her romantic downfall. For a newbie, though, she was kind of shockingly unpleasant. I guess the point is that underneath she was vulnerable, and that’s what Johnny sensed and fell in love with (hence, the horrible and completely inappropriate nickname of “kitten”), but I didn’t completely buy it. For a man who could have his pick of women, why would he pick Ms. Snippy with her chin constantly in the air? Sure, she’s good at math, but what else? Well, okay, the love scenes were fairly explicit. But Louis makes it perfectly clear that she’s not engaging with her whole heart, so how does this get beyond physical attraction?

A pet peeve of mine: I get really irritated at heavily repeated phrases. So I understand that Johnny’s catchphrase is “Yea gods,” but it got really annoying really fast, and we see it 24 times in this book. That’s WAY too many. Maybe fewer than 10 times would have been appropriate and not as annoying. Johnny also calls Louisa “kitten” 33 times, which is way, way too many. (I also personally hate when men call a woman “Kitten,” which seems contrived and precious. Plus, as I mentioned, completely inappropriate for Louisa’s character.  “Barracuda” probably would have been much more appropriate.) Finally, Louisa “lifts her chin” (or tilts or raises it) 36 times. I understand the gesture, but the writing is just too repetitive. Repetitive enough that I noticed it fairly consistently.

I do like, though, how the author deliberately sets out to cover some of the less pleasant realities of romance. Louisa and Johnny are still arguing over very important issues at the end of the end of the story, and that makes sense. I’d rather see that than “We’re perfectly happy and never disagree on anything.”

BOTTOM LINE: I will probably give Ellie Macdonald another shot and see if I like another of her characters better than Louisa. Since I started at the end anyway, I’m thinking Sara (Book 3) sounds pretty interesting. But as far as this book goes, the character of Louisa will probably turn off more readers than are drawn in, so if you’re just starting the series, it’s probably wise to start with the first book in the series, Claire.

Governess Club Series

Governess Club Series

TEACUP RATING: About three teacups out of five.

ON SALE DATE: Louisa will be available in eformats on October 7, 2014. I can’t find a release date for the paperback format, but the other books in the series are being released in paperback, so I assume this one will too at some point.

Note: Review is based on an ARC provided by the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.

Four Nights with the Duke Cover Reveal/Discussion

Eloisa James has revealed the cover for her upcoming release, Four Nights with the Duke, #8 in the “Desperate Duchesses” series (on sale March 31, 2015) .

Four Nights with the Duke

Four Nights with the Duke Front Cover (Avon/HarperCollins)

What I like about it: I like the delicate coloring, the sumptuous fabrics, and the background setting…looks like this duke owns a palatial estate.

What I don’t like as much: I’m not a fan of unclothed women on covers, and I especially dislike the open dress/bare back thing that seems to be popular at the moment in romance. Although I enjoy many romance titles, I’m definitely not into “naked” covers. It won’t stop me from picking up this book, of course (I already have it on preorder…I LOVE Eloisa James), but if this author was unknown to me, I’d probably be inclined to skip it.

You might say, “It seems to be a genre thing. What kind of covers SHOULD a romance novel have?”

Well, for example, here are two covers of books also published by Avon/HarperCollins in styles that I find more appealing. The first is Louisa by Ellie Macdonald, a book I am currently reading specifically because of the cover. I had never read Ellie Macdonald before, but this cover really caught my attention. (I will probably post my review of the book by the end of the week.) The cover is fairly demure, and I love it:

Louisa Front Cover (Avon/HarperCollins)

Louisa Front Cover (Avon/HarperCollins)

She’s fully clothed, looking pensive, pretty dress, pretty colors. The funny thing is, I can almost guarantee that the love scenes in this book are more explicit than anything readers will find in Four Nights with the Duke. They certainly seem steamier than what we normally see in an Eloisa James book. So why is this cover so much less revealing? Just wondering.

Another favorite: Just Like Heaven from Julia Quinn. Again, I loved this cover, even before I found out that the red shoes tie into the story. It’s pretty and feminine and appealing without showing a lot of skin. I want to be skipping down this garden path in this frilly dress with these shockingly red shoes.

Just Like Heaven Front Cover (Avon/HarperCollins)

Just Like Heaven Front Cover (Avon/HarperCollins)

For those romance readers out there, what do you find more appealing: a demure cover or a sexy cover?

 

 

The Virgin Widow by Anne O’Brien

This historical fiction is the love story of Richard of Gloucester and Anne Neville. If you are a Richard III hater or someone who likes historical fiction to be almost completely factual, this may not be the book for you. But I am neither of those types of people, so I loved this book.

Virgin Widow Front Cover

Virgin Widow Front Cover (US edition, NAL/Penguin)

THE PLOT: The book starts with Richard being fostered as a child by Warwick at Middleham and meeting Warwick’s daughter, the young Anne Neville. It ends with the birth of their son, Edward of Middleham. In between is a turbulent ride of betrothals, betrayals, rebellions, marriages, other marriages, and kidnapping.

Young Anne is betrothed to Richard in her father’s bid to keep power away from the grasping Woodvilles, family of Queen Elizabeth. But when Warwick rebels against Edward IV, the betrothal is broken and the Neville family is exiled. When Warwick allies with Margaret of Anjou, queen of the former King Henry VI, Anne is betrothed to Margaret’s son Prince Edward instead. When Warwick leads an army against King Edward, Margaret allows the marriage to be performed, but not consummated. Her and her son’s treatment of Anne is marked by mental and emotional cruelty.

Once Warwick is defeated and Prince Edward is killed, Anne returns to Edward IV’s court as a wealthy heiress. There she becomes a pawn in a struggle between Richard and his other brother, George, Duke of Clarence (who is married to Anne’s sister Isabel), for Anne’s inheritance.

MY TWO CENTS: I just can’t stress how much I loved this book. Anne was written as a believable and sympathetic girl, struggling to stay strong amid the crazy turmoil she’s unwittingly trapped in. Despite what you know of Richard III, you can freely let yourself believe that he and Anne are childhood sweethearts torn apart. Even during the fight with Clarence over her inheritance, the reader can believe that Richard truly loves her and is trying to protect her. I was perfectly willing to let go of my knowledge of Richard as Richard III and just flow with their story.

The Virgin Widow Front Cover, UK Edition (MIRA Books)

Virgin Widow Front Cover, UK Edition (MIRA Books)

 

Are there any hints that Richard COULD be a monster? That he would disinherit is own nephews and possibly kill them to take his brother’s throne? There are moments when Richard is described as a warrior, a ruthless constable of England. But the reader is led to believe that this ruthlessness is used only to serve his brother, King Edward, and protect Anne, his great love. Even his slaying of Prince Edward of Lancaster is described as either a brutal murder OR defense of King Edward. If you know nothing about Richard, you might not pick up on the subtle hints that Richard CAN be manipulative and cold-blooded. There is nothing in the book that nods toward the future that awaits following the death of his brother. My own knowledge of these future events still didn’t detract from my pleasure in the book.

BOTTOM LINE: Lovers of romantic historical fiction should enjoy this book. Of course, readers should keep in mind that this is historical fiction, and those with real interest in facts about Richard and Anne should turn to nonfiction. Just remember that history doesn’t record what went on between them during their private moments.

TEACUP RATING: Five out of Five teacups. Anne O’Brien is now on my must-read list. I wish all her titles were available in the US, but I’ll just get them from Amazon UK.

ON SALE DATE: The Virgin Widow is available in eformats and trade paperback now.

The Only Thing to Fear by Caroline Tung Richmond

The first time I saw this YA book in a catalog, the tagline caught my eye: “What if Hitler had won World War II?” And my response was, “SQUEEEEE!” Not at the thought of Hitler’s victory, of course; but at the idea of a new book that deals with the consequences of imagined alternate history. I put it on my watch-list and requested it as soon as it popped up on Netgalley (Thank you so much, Scholastic!) I did wonder how the Nazis would have won the war in this reality…and that’s when a little bit of  Captain America crossed with X-Men is added to the mix. Wheeee!

The Only Thing to Fear Front Cover (Scholastic)

The Only Thing to Fear Front Cover (Scholastic)

THE PLOT: (Imagine movie voiceover guy here…) In a WORLD where Adolf Hitler won WWII and executed President Roosevelt, and Washington D.C. is now known as Neuberlin…

It’s been 80 years since the Allies lost the war, and the world is divided into territories ruled by Nazis, Japan, Italy, and the Soviet Union. Germany won the war by developing genetically enhanced “super soldiers” before America could develop the atom bomb. These sentinels continue to enforce the rule of the Empire by wielding special powers. American “peasants” are known as Kleinbauern.

Zara St. James is a teenager who lives in the Shenandoah Valley of what used to be the United States, but is now the Eastern American Territories of the Nazi Empire. Zara is the product of a Japanese soldier who used and abandoned his American lover, so she is looked down on as a Untermensch, a sub-human half-breed, or a Mischling of mixed race. Zara’s mother was killed in the last attempt at rebellion. Her uncle Redmond (Red) also used to be a revolutionary, but now lives a docile life trying to fly under the radar of the Nazi government while he brings Zara up.

Zara has lost friends and loved ones who dared to speak out against the regime. Her life of servitude is spent cleaning the nearby Nazi academy and serving the cadets who attend. She tries to keep out of the cadets’ way and avoid drawing attention to herself, but Bastian Eckhart, son of Fort Goering’s commanding officer, seems to have an interest in her. What are his real motivations?

Plus, Zara is hiding a secret: she’s an anomaly—she has special powers like the sentinels, probably passed down through her father. She can control the wind, and eventually finds out she can create lightning as well. Uncle Red begs her to keep her powers hidden because the Nazis kill Kleinbauern anomalies, who might be a threat to them. But a series of events eventually pushes Zara straight to the heart of the American rebellion.

MY TWO CENTS: I have a lot of respect for any author who writes alternate history.  First the author has to KNOW history, and then he or she has to deal with the ripple effect of how changing the events also changes the outcomes. That’s a LOT of detail, from the big things, like how France is now the “French Territorial State,” to all the horrible detail stepped out in the White House scene in the climax. Maybe some readers will be drawn into researching some details of WWII. For example, do kids today even learn who Goering was? If not, maybe they’ll be intrigued enough to find out.

The book gradually builds toward two battles, a prison break and a final, massive mission. The first half of the book lays a lot of groundwork, while the second half pays off with a lot of action. My one semi-gripe could be that Zara becomes so important to the final mission, which seems to happen very quickly. I don’t know, though, if a sequel is guaranteed, and if not, it makes a lot of sense for Zara to fulfill a lot of potential by the end of this book.

Finally, I cannot stress how glad I am that this book his fairly little romance in it. Yes, we get that Bastian and Zara have a spark between them, but there is no full-blown romance and, thank you SO much, no love triangle.

BOTTOM LINE: This is a young adult book for the thinking reader. The spirit of The Hunger Games, but with a basis in actual world history. Young readers who are just looking for entertainment might learn something without even realizing it! A tiny hint of possible romance, but the book doesn’t revolve around it.

TEACUP RATING: A solid five out of five teacups. I’m glad this book lived up to the excitement I felt before reading it, and I sincerely hope there’s a sequel, if not a series.

ON SALE DATE: Available in hardcover and eformats on September 30, 2014.

Note: Review is based on an ARC provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Change of Heart (Montgomery-Taggert/Edilean) by Jude Deveraux

Ooooh, Jude Deveraux, you sneaky little devil. I see what you did here. You’ve combined the worlds of Edilean with the monolith known as the Montgomery-Taggerts, and now those series are joined forever. For those of us afraid we’d never see our favorite Edilean characters again, it looks like we’ve been granted a reprieve…plus, the M-Ts are moving into Edilean. (And why not? I don’t think they had a major presence in Virginia. Maine, Colorado, California, Washington State, Florida, Nantucket, England, and Lanconia, but not Virginia. Unless I’m drawing a blank, which is always possible.)

Change of Heart Front Cover (Pocket Books/Simon & Schuster)

Change of Heart Front Cover (Pocket Books/Simon & Schuster)

THE PLOT: Once upon a time in 1994, a Taggert novella called “Change of Heart” was published in an anthology of romance stories. This story featured a duo of precocious children: Eli, a super genius, and Chelsea, who was rich and spunky and smart enough to hang out a with genius. They worked to solve various social injustices, including the problem of Eli’s mother, a soft-hearted pushover who let anyone and everyone walk all over her. The plot was to hook her up with Eli’s hero, Frank Taggert, a cold-hearted businessman (who also happened to be the brother of super-Taggert Michael, of Sweet Liar, and his twin brother Kane, of the novella “Just Curious”). And of course even though it took Michael, his wife Sam, and the kids to give them a push to an isolated mountain cabin, Miranda and Frank figured it out in the end. Got all that? Mother + Taggert = happily every after.

A Holiday of Love,  copyright 1994

A Holiday of Love, copyright 1994

Fast forward 20 years to find out what happened to Eli and Chelsea. And here’s where things begin to fall apart for me.

Turns out that Chelsea’s family moved out of town when she was a teenager…but not before she went batcrap crazy with her raging hormones, dating every pretty football player she could find, and treating skinny nerd Eli like…well…her best girlfriend. So Chelsea leaves town, stops writing to or even emailing Eli, becomes a supermodel, and basically abandons Eli to bloom under his new Taggert relatives and their endless trips to the gym.

Now a bulked-up Eli works for the government, and he’s never lost hope of getting back in touch with Chelsea. He writes to her and invites her to his biological father’s hometown of Edilean (yep, he’s one of THOSE Harcourts, check the Edilean family tree!) and Chelsea is bullied into going by her parents. What follows includes shenanigans such as mistaken identity, switching identities, attempts to catch a criminal, the realization that eating junk food solves everything, and friending a brand-new generation of Robin and Marian Les Jeunes (hopefully preventing them from following the mistakes of Eli and Chelsea).

MY TWO CENTS: For those who are wondering: the original novella takes up about 40% of the book and the new story is the other 60%. You’re getting more than half new book. One of the only two changes I can find from my old battered book is that Miranda, poor Miranda, was called “Randy” back in the day, and we’re all thankful that’s no longer the case. When I hear Randy now, all I get is this:

No Taggert anywhere ever looked like this.

No Taggert anywhere ever looked like this.

The other “major”change is that in the original, Chelsea was a brunette; now she’s blonde.  And I’m not even going to question why anyone thought that change was a good idea. I’ll just say I think it was completely unnecessary.

As far as the story goes, is it realistic to believe that the Chelsea we knew as a child, the one who worked to fix social injustice and punish bad people, became a self-centered, shallow airhead who only cared about looks? I had a VERY hard time with this. I’ve seen Jude Deveraux post that readers complain when a hero or heroine isn’t perfectly chiseled, perfectly skinny, perfectly buff, perfectly coiffed. And she certainly makes sure not to anger these readers here. We hear often about Chelsea’s long, slim legs and her perfectly golden hair. We see Chelsea’s interest perk up when a mega-hot guy walks into the room, and she’s stunned to eventually realize he’s Eli, who may now be worthy of her attention. We’re treated to great detail on Eli’s transformation to muscled hunk.

To answer my earlier question: Maybe it IS realistic to think that the hot girl discarded her geeky friend, and then only pays attention again once he’s built some muscle. But that doesn’t make her an appealing character. I can’t identify with her. I didn’t root for her. In fact, I pretty much disliked her and hoped she spent a lot of time throwing up from all the bread Eli made her eat. I’m sad that she couldn’t have loved Eli for what he already was, instead of what he had to become (really, she couldn’t even stay his friend? She was just too beautiful?) And I’m glad that two other geeky guys were able to snare their dream girls without first spending quality time at the Edilean gym.

BOTTOM LINE: A must-read for fans of Jude, Taggerts, and Edliean, but be warned: the characters became physically attractive but emotionally shallow. It leaves me feeling sorry for readers who honestly think that only pretty people deserve romance. After all, gentle reader, how long and slim are YOUR legs?

TEACUP RATING: Lukewarm tea, maybe three out of five teacups. The original novella is on the higher end of the grading scale, the new portion on the lower.

ON SALE DATE: Available in paperback and e-formats on October 21, 2014.

Note: Review is based on an ARC provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

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