Review & Author Interview – The Double Cross by Carla Kelly

Joining me on the blog today is seasoned romance author Carla Kelly promoting the first book in her new series, The Double Cross.  Y’all should know by now how I feel about historical romance — how I’ve read and enjoyed hundreds of books set in Regency England, even when I knew, cognitively, that I should not be enjoying them —  but I get extra excited about books set in atypical regions, time periods, classes, etc.  I was thrilled to discover this book, set in 1780s Spanish-controlled New Mexico.

Cover image, The Double Cross by Carla Kelly

The publisher’s blurb, courtesy of Goodreads:

The year is 1780, and Marco Mondragón is a brand inspector in the royal Spanish colony of New Mexico. A widower and rancher, Marco lives on the edge of Comanchería, the domain of the fierce Comanche. Each autumn, he takes cattle and wool, and his district’s records of livestock transactions to the governor in Santa Fe.  He is dedicated, conscientious and lonely. This year, he is looking for a little dog to keep his feet warm through cold winter nights. He finds a yellow dog but also meets a young, blue-eyed beauty named Paloma Vega.

Paloma is under the thumb of relatives who might have stolen a brand belonging to Paloma’s parents, dead in a Comanche raid. As a brand inspector, Marco has every right to be suspicious of brand thieves. If Marco has anything to do with it, Paloma’s fortunes are about to change. Meanwhile, Marco has other challenges to contend with. An elderly ranchero named Joaquin Muñoz has set in motion events that involve the ever-dangerous Comanches and threaten the uneasy peace of Marco’s jurisdiction. Set against the mountains and high plains of northeastern New Mexico during the decline of Spanish power in the New World, The Double Cross is a story of loss and love regained, at a time when honor went hand in glove with bravery, and danger was never far away.

My Review

This is the first Carla Kelly book I’ve ever read, and it definitely makes me want to read more. It’s so darn charming. In list form, here’s what I loved about the book:

  1. The chapter subtitles: Hilarious. Here are some examples: “Chapter Five, In Which Marco Mondragón Confesses, Argues about Penance and Takes an Unwilling Dog”; and “Chapter Eleven, In which Paloma Hears Father Damiano’s Confession and Suffers Delusions from Cabbage.”
  2. The writing style: The humorous chapter subtitles cue readers in to the sly humor that pervades this book. While the subject matter is often dark, the writing is just light enough to ensure a pleasant read and to highlight, by contrast, the darker themes discussed. The book reminded me of Voltaire’s Candide, in reverse. (Don Marco discovers his optimism, rather than losing it to disillusionment, throughout the course of the novel.) The book is funny, smart, and sharp.
  3. The setting: This story takes place in 1780s New Mexico. The historical details of the setting are beautifully incorporated into the story. I never felt like I was reading Kelly’s research notes.
  4. Adorable animal antics: I’m a sucker for animal cuteness in books, and Trece, the yellow dog, filled my heart with happy.

I had an absolute blast reading the book, but there were a few things that stuck out to me.  The language is occasionally jarringly modern, but though it sometimes doesn’t fit with the setting, the language fits the style of the book. (Also, anachronisms don’t bother me much.) Finally, this book seemed (to me) to be historical fiction rather than romance. The story is focused on Don Marco and his adventures, one of which is falling in love with and marrying Paloma Vega, but the story arc is not about the romance. That said, I thoroughly enjoyed The Double Cross, even though it’s not (to me) precisely a romance.

The bottom line, though, is that this book is a delightful read. Lovers of historical romance who are jonesing for interesting new settings should be all over The Double Cross. Lovers of historical fiction or any folk who read and liked Candide should pick it up, too.

Interview with Carla Kelly

1.  RwA: Over the past few months, I’ve been seeing more and more readers of historical fiction and historical romance clamoring for new and different settings (perhaps there has been an over-saturation of regency romances…), and this book definitely qualifies.  What drew you to write a novel set in New Mexico in the 1780s?

Carla Kelly: I totally agree with your comment about over-saturation of regency romances. Ho ho, maybe I’m part of the problem (Of course, I am part of the earlier bunch of Regency writers). Years ago, I was reading a Spanish borderlands history, and came across juez de campo in a mere footnote. It translates literally as “field judge,” but we would call him a brand inspector today. I teased out tiny bits of information here and there, including the statement that jueces de campo also solved petty crimes, in the absence of other forms of law enforcement. I thought first about setting the story in the early 1800s in south Texas, where I used to live, but I really wanted an earlier era. My undergrad degree in history is Latin American History. My grad degree is Indian Wars history. I wanted to combine the two. I shelved the idea until my son moved to northeastern New Mexico around Taos. On a visit two years ago, the whole thing coalesced. My brand inspector would be a New Mexican land grant owner in the 1780s, living on the edge of the most dangerous area in the Southwest, Comancheria. I wanted a time when Spain was growing weak and pulling back its puny protection from the frontier, leaving those self-reliant types to work out their own destinies. And so The Double Cross came about.

2.  RwA: There is so much playful humor in this book.  Do you tend to write with humor, or is the humor a product of these characters or this setting?

Carla Kelly: You’ll note, also, that there is a lot of deadly serious stuff in the novel. I tend to do that – humor and tragedy – because life is like that. We laugh a lot, but we also have cause to cry or mourn. These two characters just lent themselves to that kind of joshing good humor that two lovers in tune with each other have. That’s the way they are. So I suppose the humor is a product of the characters.

3.  RwA: What was the average life expectancy in New Mexico at that time?

Carla Kelly: Most young women married at puberty, around 14. By 18 or so, a young man was either well-seasoned or dead. The fact that Marco is all of 31 testifies to good genes, and the deliberate way he goes about keeping safe, as he explains in the story. The threat of Indians was constant, and disease took a toll. I suppose a woman of 35 and a man of 40 would be considered well into middle age. Life was often short, harsh and brutal.  On the other hand, a healthy person could probably live into the 60s.

4.  RwA: What happens, politically, after the story ends (between, say, 1780 and 1820)?

Carla Kelly:I picked 1780 deliberately because the series begins just after Gov. Juan de Anza has defeated the Kwahadi Comanche, which happened to be the tribe closest to his royal territory. By 1786, de Anza forged a remarkable peace with the Comanche, first white leader to do this successfully. He promised trading rights at the great Taos fair (the Comanche were great traders), in exchange for a cessation of raiding the colony. Both sides actually kept their promises, which meant that the Comanche turned their horrific raids east to Texas. Between 1780-1786 is a time of some peace, some suspicion, some wariness: a great time to write about. There was also a major smallpox epidemic during this time, subject of book 2. By 1810, Mexico had revolted from Spain. New Mexico followed suit later on, mainly because the colony had no huge gripe with Spain and was so remote. By 1820, trade with Americans and fur trappers was well underway, but that’s beyond the scope of my series.

 5.  RwA: How typical was it to have separate churches for the rich and the poor?  Is it fair to assume that in general the breakdown between rich and poor is similar to the breakdown between Spaniards and mestizo/natives?  What kind of impact did that breakdown have on the society?

Carla Kelly: The Indians tended to go to San Miguel in Santa Fe, because it was their mission church. The Spaniards went to San Fernando. You have to understand that by 1780, most so-called Spaniards had mingled with the Indians, creating mestizos. Marco himself is one of these, while Paloma is mostly Spanish, if not all. So the breakdown is actually Spanish/mestizo (rich) and Indian (poor or maybe just Indian). There really weren’t as many class distinctions as one might find in Mexico City. The races mingled far more successfully than they ever did in the English colonies.

RwA: Regarding that last sentence, “The races mingled far more successfully than they ever did in the English colonies,” do you suppose geography and/or a lower population density had anything to do with it?  In a less rugged geography with more people, one can choose one’s neighbors and friends, right?

Carla Kelly: My own studies in Colonial Latin American history assure me that the races mingled successfully because Spaniards were less bigoted than English colonists. They had a two-fold purpose in exploration: wealth, and to spread Catholicism. When natives converted, they were welcomed into the fold. (And true, many were forced into conversion. The priests were often careful to incorporate native beliefs into Catholic New World ritual.) From 711 to 1492, Moors and Spaniards existed together, more or less, in Spain. At least partly because of this, I don’t think the New World conquerors saw Indian contact as a great gulf to overcome. Also, Spaniards didn’t bring along women in their conquests, i.e., they didn’t come as family units, the way many of the English did. The available women were Indian, and Spanish have always been pretty matter-of-fact people.

 6.  RwA: Here’s a trivial question: what kind of dog is Trece?

Carla Kelly: The Trece in my writer’s eye is a sort of Pomeranian, that useless kind of dog good to warm feet.

 7.  RwA: What’s the USD equivalent of 1 peso?  I’m curious to know just how much Marco paid for that dog. 🙂

Carla Kelly: The peso to dollar ratio was about even in 1780: 1 1780 peso = 1 1780 dollar.  The value of such a dollar today would be between $50-$100, probably closer to $100. Marco was completely fleeced, but he knew it. That peso would have bought several very fine cows.

18th century:
1 peso= 8 reales
medio peso= 4 reales
peseta= 2 reales
medio peseta= 1/2 real
cuartillo= 1/4 real  (This probably would have been a logical price for a runt)

8.  RwA: I understand The Double Cross is the first book in a new series; what more do you have planned?

Carla Kelly: Well, we’re headed to an encounter with a disgraced doctor fleeing across east Texas from the American colonies now at war in the distant east. Smallpox is all around (as it was in the early 1780s out West), and Marco had already told Paloma he can protect her from everything except disease. But never fear.  Also, there is the matter of Paloma’s land in Texas. Another book, probably number 3, will involve the Great Taos Trading Fair. And then we’ll see. I intend to write The Spanish Brand series until readers get tired of my charming couple and their enigmatic Comanche.
I know this dates me, but in my mind I see Marco Mondragon and Paloma Vega as the Nick and Nora Charles of the 18th century Spanish borderlands: a little sexy, a little sassy, a little mysterious. I’ve also written it in the style of an 18th century picaresque novel. It’s quite straightforward, as 18th century Spanish writings tends to be.
Also, Marco and Paloma are obviously religious. They lived in a religious society that relied upon the rituals of Holy Church. It governs what they do and how they feel. Paloma is so eager to have children, because they need children. But will it happen? Marco tells her to be patient, and she prays. And so does he. And as Father Damiano says, God does things in His time, not ours. Maybe there is a message here for us about contentment and patience.

Thank you, Carla, for coming on the blog today to answer all my random questions!  I’m looking forward to the next book in this series.  (And I need to check out some of your regency romances!)

The Double Cross was released on August 1, 2013 as a paperback by Camel Press.  To learn more about the book, please click on the cover image above to visit the book’s page on Goodreads.  To learn more about Carla Kelly, please visit her website.

*FTC Disclosure – I received an e-galley of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.*

Review – Stealing the Preacher by Karen Witemeyer

So after reading that terrible book, I knew I needed something wholesome and fun to help me redeem my faith in the world.  Very luckily for me, I had Karen Witemeyer’s Stealing the Preacher in my queue, and I started reading it the second I finished that other book.  It did the trick.

Cover image, Stealing the Preacher by Karen Witemeyer

The publisher’s blurb, courtesy of Goodreads:

On his way to interview for a position at a church in the Piney Woods of Texas, Crockett Archer can scarcely believe it when he’s forced off the train by a retired outlaw and presented to the man’s daughter as the minister she requested for her birthday. Worried this unfortunate detour will ruin his chances of finally serving a congregation of his own, Crockett is determined to escape. But when he finally gets away, he’s haunted by the memory of the young woman he left behind–a woman whose dreams now hinge on him.

For months, Joanna Robbins prayed for a preacher. A man to breathe life back into the abandoned church at the heart of her community. A man to assist her in fulfilling a promise to her dying mother. A man to help her discover answers to the questions that have been on her heart for so long. But just when it seems God has answered her prayers, it turns out the person is there against his will and has dreams of his own calling him elsewhere. Is there any way she can convince Crockett to stay in her little backwoods community? And does the attraction between them have any chance of blossoming when Joanna’s outlaw father is dead set against his daughter courting a preacher?

This is the second of Witemeyer’s books that I’ve read, and I enjoyed it just almost as much as I did the other.  Some of that liking may possibly be attributed to the sense of contrast I experienced in reading this book right after a boldly terrible book, but I honestly believe that I’d love this book even if I read it right after one of my favorite books.  At some point, I really must get off my duff and read Witemeyer’s other books.  She really has a way with writing believable, likable characters.

This book was a wee bit preachier than To Win Her Love, but maybe that’s to be expected considering one of the characters is, in fact, a preacher, and another character is the main impetus behind the reestablishment of a church in her neighborhood.  Preaching sort of fits in that context, no?  Anyway, I’m rather religious myself, so I certainly didn’t mind the increase in religious overtones.

Stealing the Preacher touches on the concepts of vocation and calling, trusting (the whims of) a higher power, justice (and injustice), rehabilitation, love, family, loss, community, faith, and the rather tricky problem of pain.  The romance between Crockett (one of the most interesting hero names I’ve ever come across) and Joanna is set against the backdrop of all these themes, and, far from being squeezed out by all these big ideas, the love story is enriched.  The book devotes a considerable amount of page time to the redemption of Joanna’s father, Silas, but I didn’t mind it, even when it felt like a distraction from the central story.  Silas provides Crockett an opportunity to show off his sterling qualities, and Joanna certainly takes note.  I don’t know — it worked for me.

One of the things I enjoy about Christian romances is that they follow a different story arc from standard romances.  Christian romances feature love stories that don’t involve sex as a crutch and, as a rule, steer clear of instalust, so the author has to find ways for the main characters to develop intimacy without being intimate (in our modern sense of the word).  One of the things I loved about To Win Her Love is that the main characters develop their relationship through reading and discussing Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth.  How cool is that?  In Stealing the Preacher, Witemeyer allows her characters to fall in love while working together to establish a community church and heal Silas’ spirit.

I sort of veered into spoiler territory… if you want to risk it, just highlight the text to view it.

The conflict that drives this story is twofold: on the one hand, Silas holds out as long as possible before having his conversion experience; on the other, Joanna and Crockett’s relationship (and Crockett’s life) is threatened by a young, attractive succubus and her too-gullible father.  Silas’ incremental conversion story works, even as a plot device, but I was a tad irritated by the other conflict.  In a book set in a community, it irked me that (1) Joanna has no friends her age; (2) the only other woman Joanna’s age who gets any page time is Holly Brewster (the succubus) who gloms on to Crockett as to a life preserver, and, when that doesn’t yield the results she wants, attempts to seduce him and then, when that fails, manipulates her father into assuming that Crockett assaulted Holly; (3) after Holly’s father overreacts to the point of nearly lynching Crockett, his reaction is that it’s actually all Holly’s fault for possessing an impure spirit.  That progression bugs me… Holly’s father’s actions are entirely his fault and responsibility.  Moreover, it’s a little disturbing that the two examples of young, viable (in the marrying sense) femininity shown in this book are so extreme; Joanna’s purity is complete, and Holly’s sordid character is equally complete.  Middle ground is where reality hangs out, but there’s none of that in this book.

The bottom line, though, is that I enjoyed the book, even though the major conflict was troubling.

Stealing the Preacher  was released on June 1, 2013 as a paperback and e-book by Bethany House Publishers.  If you’re interested in learning more about the book, click on the cover image above to visit the book’s page on Goodreads.  For more information about Karen Witemeyer, please visit her website.

*FTC Disclosure – I received an e-galley of this book from Bethany House Publishers via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.*

Giveaway results & Review – The Heiress’s Homecoming by Regina Scott

First up, I’m pleased to very belatedly report the giveaway results for Admission.

Admission-Random-giveawayresultsBeautyinbudgetblog is the big winner, and she will receive a movie-tie-in copy of the book in short order courtesy of the publisher, Grand Central Publishing.  I send my thanks to the publisher for hosting the giveaway and to everyone who participated!  OK, now back to the regularly scheduled programming.

I’m quite behind schedule in my posting on this blog–I’ve been very busy in all areas of my life, and the amount of time available to putz around on the Internet has seriously decreased–and it’s starting to stress me out a little bit.  At any rate, I’m very pleased finally to be getting around to posting about this book, because I loved it.

Cover image, The Heiress’s Homecoming by Regina Scott

I have a bit of a soft spot for inspirational romances, but my appreciation for this book really has nothing to do with its wholesomeness.

As usual, I’ll start with the blurb, courtesy of Goodreads:

To keep her cherished childhood home, Samantha Everard must marry by her twenty-fifth birthday. Yet she refuses to marry on a whim, not even to save her fortune. When she returns to Dallsten Manor to say goodbye, the last person she expects to see is her handsome, disapproving neighbor William Wentworth, Earl of Kendrick.

Will is certain the scandalous Everard family is nothing but trouble. He shouldn’t care about Samantha’s predicament, but her feistiness and kindheartedness intrigue him—as does her refusal to wed. He wants to help, especially when he perceives the threat that surrounds her. Soon his greatest wish is to persuade Samantha that her true home is with him.

The publisher’s blurb doesn’t lie – the story is about a woman who has to make an awful choice: marry within a few weeks or lose her family home.  It’s about what happens when that woman meets her handsome, disapproving neighbor and the hijinks that ensue, including said neighbor persuading her to matrimony, but the whole is so much better than one would assume, considering a sum of the parts.

For starters, there is Samantha, a well-developed character whose motivations and actions always make sense.  She doesn’t want to marry without the right kind of love, so she chooses not to accept the well-meaning proposals that are thrown her way.  Her choice is not made out of petulance, it’s an honest conviction to which she sticks, no matter the personal cost.  Beyond that, Samantha is reasonably self-sufficient.  When danger rears its head, she neither cowers behind the males nor charges off half-cocked into danger.  Instead, she arms herself when possible, fights when she’s able, and runs for safety when there is no other choice.  Samantha is never a damsel in distress, even when a dude with a gun is chasing after her.

Then there is Will, whose development from disapproving neighbor to man in love is a delight to read.  For some added fun, readers also get to watch Will recover from his grief at losing his first love and learn how to relate to his nearly-adult son, Jamie.  The relationships between Samantha and Jamie, friends since childhood, Samantha and Will, and Will and Jamie are complex and, for me, were a bit of surprising gold hidden in an enjoyable story.

There were a few things about the story that didn’t entirely work for me.  I haven’t read any other books by this author, and some of the backstory elements that involved Samantha, Will’s brother, and Samantha’s relatives (all secondary characters here) didn’t quite make sense to me as a reader new to the story.  That said, the things I loved about this story (Samantha, Will, & Jamie, pretty much) far outweighed the occasional irritation of not knowing what was happening.

So there you go!  If you’re looking for a historical romance that is wholesome and not at all preachy, has interesting, well-developed characters and an intriguing  if occasionally confusing, plot, this is the book for you.

The Heiress’s Homecoming was released on March 5, 2013 as a mass-market and e-book by Love Inspired Historical (Harlequin).  If you’re interested in learning more about the book, please click on the cover image above to visit the book’s page on Goodreads.  For more information about Regina Scott, please visit her website.

*FTC Disclosure – I received an e-galley of this book from Love Inspired via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.*

Review – The Reluctant Earl by C.J. Chase

I have an immoderate love of stories that feature heroine characters who are governesses.  There’s something about a character who balances on the knife edge of taking care of herself (being employed) and of being utterly at the whim of others (her employers, their guests, etc.) that is interesting to me.  Maybe it’s Jane Eyre‘s fault…

Cover image, The Reluctant Earl by C.J. Chase

The blurb, courtesy of Goodreads:

Alone in a gentleman’s bedchamber, rummaging through his clothing—governess Leah Vance risks social ruin. Only by selling political information can she pay for her sister’s care. And the letter she found in Julian DeChambelle’s coat could be valuable—if the ex-sea captain himself had not just walked in.As a navy officer, Julian knew his purpose. As a new earl, he’s plagued by trivialities and marriage-obsessed females. Miss Vance’s independence is intriguing—and useful. In return for relaying false information, he will pay her handsomely. But trusting her, even caring for her? That would be pure folly. Yet when he sees the danger that surrounds her, it may be too late to stop himself….

That’s right!  She’s a governess and (sort of) a traitor to her country.  There were so many things I liked about this book.  The characters are complex and constructed with many shades of gray (especially Leah).  While quite a few of the characters do some pretty awful things, not a one of them is without some redeeming quality and/or some powerful impetus.

My educational background is political science, and my favorite classes were theory classes.  What is right, in the context of all humanity?  What is just?  These questions are huge and unanswerable, but it is the business of every society to grapple with them nonetheless and attempt a best answer.  This book asks these questions indirectly, and I loved it for having the guts to do so.  In addition to these broad social questions, this book examines faith and redemption, trust, love, and imperfection.  Romances that contain social commentary may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I enjoy them.  The Reluctant Earl discusses  social equity relating to the largess of the few and the starvation of the many (it is set during  the winter of 1816, called the year without a summer) and discusses the treatment of the mentally ill and infirm during the Regency Era (in case you were wondering, they weren’t treated well.).

There is a good deal of adventure in this story, as the characters investigate and solve a murder, prevent an overthrow of the government, and thwart a kidnapping.  I really enjoyed the chemistry between Leah and Julian — and especially the  sweet ending — but the development of their romance didn’t exactly flow naturally.  It seemed a little strange that Julian would go from, “OMG, she’s a traitor!!!” to “OMG, I think I love her!!!” without knowing any of the reasons for Leah’s apparently treasonous actions.  I suppose we are to understand that admiration sometimes overrules reason (in these cases).  The ending, though, is so sweet, that I forgave the book for not making a whole lot of sense.  It should be noted that The Reluctant Earl is an inspirational romance in which both main characters meander their way towards faith, helped on by a few helpful (if a bit preachy) secondary characters.

There was one thing about this book that really bugged me.  After the first or second mention of how incredibly cold 1816 was, how there was a famine because of the lack of summer, and how the winter was doubly awful because everyone was cold and hungry, I totally understood: it was cold.  But the author wants to make sure that we really understand.  The phrase “winter of want” appears three times in the book (there is also a “winter of despair and deprivation,” two mentions of a “winter of famine,” a “winter of deprivation” and a “winter of scarcity”;  “famine” is mentioned five times; and “winter” appears 37 times.  Now, I know it’s petty, but after the fourth or fifth reference to winter, I felt pulled out of the story every time it came up.

Bottom line: I enjoyed reading this story and will probably pick up other books by C.J. Chase.  Leah is a lovely character, and it’s worth it to read the book just to follow the adventures of a treasonous (but not really) governess.

The Reluctant Earl was published on February 5, 2013 as an e-book and paperback by Harlequin Love Inspired Historical.  If you’re interested in finding out more about the book, please click the cover image above.  For more information on C.J. Chase, visit her website here.

*FTC Disclosure – I received an e-galley of this book from Harlequin Love Inspired Historical via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.*

Review – The Tutor’s Daughter by Julie Klassen

I have been eagerly awaiting the release of this book ever since I read and loved The Maid of Fairbourne Hall at the recommendation of Kim at Reflections of a Book Addict.  This is the third of Klassen’s novels that I have read, and she has become one of my favorite authors (admittedly a long list).  There are times when I long for an extra dose of wholesomeness in my romance reading, and Klassen never fails to deliver this along with remarkably complex characters and, at least in The Maid of Fairbourne Hall and The Tutor’s Daughter, a little mystery to unravel.

Cover image, The Tutor’s Daughter by Julie Klassen

The publisher’s blurb, courtesy of Goodreads:

Emma Smallwood, determined to help her widowed father regain his spirits when his academy fails, agrees to travel with him to the distant Cornwall coast, to the cliff-top manor of a baronet and his four sons. But after they arrive and begin teaching the younger boys, mysterious things begin to happen and danger mounts. Who does Emma hear playing the pianoforte, only to find the music room empty? Who sneaks into her room at night? Who rips a page from her journal, only to return it with a chilling illustration?

The baronet’s older sons, Phillip and Henry, wrestle with problems–and secrets–of their own. They both remember Emma Smallwood from their days at her father’s academy. She had been an awkward, studious girl. But now one of them finds himself unexpectedly drawn to her.

When the suspicious acts escalate, can the clever tutor’s daughter figure out which brother to blame… and which brother to trust with her heart?

There is an urgency to this book that I thoroughly enjoyed, though it surprised me (that it existed, not that I enjoyed it).  There are all sorts of adventures to be had in this book, from the discovery of a lost family member to the nefarious intrigues of a wrecker and his band of ne’er-do-wells, who profit from shipwrecks and the deaths of all on-board.  At the center of it all are Henry and Emma, who knew each other as youths and have the opportunity to get to know one another as adults.

Emma is a supremely reserved, self-contained character.  She’s a bit type-A, dusts her bedside table every morning (!!), and has a place for everything (and puts everything in its place).  When the story picks up, she is a young woman who has taken on increasing responsibility for her family’s financial well-being (her father having gone into a bit of a decline after her mother passed away two years before), a woman with no friends with which she might share confidences.  She has, instead, the fabulous Aunt Jane, her father’s younger sister.

I loved Aunt Jane.  She was my favorite of all the secondary characters, but they are all well-drawn and complex, a mix of good qualities and bad.  There are, from time to time, a number of characters who take up the mantle of villain, but excepting the aforementioned nefarious wrecker, these momentary villains are sympathetic characters who make mistakes but are not altogether bad.  With the book spending so much time in the gray matter between absolute good and evil, both Emma and Henry have an opportunity to examine some of their long-held but not quite right beliefs and to make some changes for the better.

Henry’s family dynamic was fascinating and the source of much of the novel’s mystery, so I’ll leave it at that.  While it might just be a symptom of my current reading choices, Henry himself seemed to me to be a bit of a hybrid between Jane Austen’s Fitzwilliam Darcy and Henry Tilney.  He has all the amiability of the latter tempered by some very serious regrets about the way he behaved towards Emma when he was a boy in her father’s school.  By contrast, Henry’s brother Phillip seemed to be a Wickham with better natural principles.

This book seemed slightly more preachy than the other two Klassen books I’ve read — Emma has a soul in need of saving, and Henry has an earnest desire to know that she has made peace with the Almighty — but it wasn’t overwhelming.  All told, I thoroughly enjoyed this story and think that anyone with a taste for a sweet romance with a dash of intrigue will likewise enjoy it.

The Tutor’s Daughter was released on January 1, 2013 by Bethany House Publishers as a paperback and e-book.  If you are interested in learning more about the book, please click on the cover image above to visit the book’s page on Goodreads.  You can also find information on Julie Klassen’s website.

*FTC disclosure – I received an e-galley of this book from Bethany House Publishers via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.*

Review, author interview, and giveaway – An Heiress at Heart by Jennifer Delamere

Cover image, An Heiress at Heart by Jennifer Delamere

I am thrilled to be able to talk about this fantastic book on the blog today, to feature an interview with the author, Jennifer Delamere, and to facilitate the first-ever giveaway on this blog, kindly hosted by the publisher.  I think the technical term for this sort of post is Extravaganza!  Let’s get down to business.

A New Beginning

A youthful indiscretion has cost Lizzie Poole more than just her honor. After five years living in exile, she’s finally returning home, but she’s still living a secret life. Her best friend, Ria’s dying wish was for Lizzie to assume her identity, return to London, and make amends that Ria herself would never live to make. Bearing a striking resemblance to her friend, and harboring more secrets than ever before, Lizzie embarks on a journey that tempts her reckless heart once again . . .

A committed clergyman, Geoffrey Somerville’s world is upended when he suddenly inherits the title of Lord Somerville. Now he’s invited to every ball and sought after by the matchmaking mothers of London society. Yet the only woman to capture his heart is the one he cannot have: his brother’s young widow, Ria. Duty demands he deny his feelings, but his heart longs for the mysterious beauty. With both their futures at stake, will Lizzie be able to keep up her façade? Or will she find the strength to share her secret and put her faith in true love?

My review

In short: I loved this book.  I have a bit of a soft spot for inspirational romance that doesn’t strangle one with sweetness and sparkly rainbows, and this book more than fit that bill.  It is a lovely romance featuring a slew of flawed but likable characters, a case of assumed identity, some pining, a bit of despair, a spoonful of righteous indignation, and a fantastically awful villain (and he TOTALLY did the Wilhelm scream).  Further, even though Lizzie endures years of unpleasant consequences and guilt as a result of her ‘youthful indiscretion,’ nothing about this book raised my lady hackles.  The feminist in me was well-pleased.

I loved all of the history that is sprinkled throughout this book–there is enough historical detail to provide a proper setting for the characters’ actions but never so much that I grew bored or impatient–especially the parts relating to the Great Exhibition.  So often in a historical novel, there is not a clear connection between the world-building and the characters, but Delamere does a fantastic job here of making the historical details that establish the setting relate to the characters and to the characters’ story arc.  There is this lovely little bit wherein Geoffrey, a vicar-turned-baron, refers to the Great Exhibition as an occasion “where the rich and the poor might meet together,” and that line becomes a motif that demonstrates one of the novel’s themes and sheds light on Lizzie’s thoughts on where she stands vis-à-vis Geoffrey.  As a reader, I get so frustrated when books suffer from a glut of unnecessary detail, but An Heiress at Heart was a balm to my soul.

Interview with Jennifer Delamere

The youngest child of a Navy pilot and a journalist, Jennifer acquired a love of adventure and an excitement for learning that continues to this day. She’s lived in three countries and traveled through the U.S. An avid reader of classics and historical fiction, she also enjoys biographies and histories, which she mines for the vivid details to bring to life the characters and places in her books. She resides with her husband in North Carolina. You can learn more at: http://www.jenniferdelamere.com/

I want to start by thanking Jennifer for coming on the blog today to answer some questions about her debut novel.  As some of you know, I have kind of a thing for history, and it is rare to have the opportunity to discuss it with anyone who is not put off by my creepy enthusiasm (in general, and about history in particular).

1.  RwA: An Heiress at Heart includes many rich historical details about London and Australia in the early Victorian Era. Where and how did you conduct your research? Did you do any traveling?

Delamere: Most of my research was done through books. Victorian London, by Liza Picard, was extremely helpful. It focused on the period 1840-1870, and included fascinating details on all aspects of everyday life, right down to the sounds and smells. It had an entire chapter devoted to the Great Exhibition, which is where I first learned about it.

And of course there is a treasure trove of sources available online! I even found a site that had scanned copies of Australian newspapers going back to the 1840s—very helpful because the backstory for An Heiress at Heart takes place in colonial Australia. The color paintings that the London Illustrated News produced of the Great Exhibition
were valuable for helping me describe it. Readers who want to get a better “look” can easily find dozens of these pictures by doing a Google search for images from the Great Exhibition.

I did also travel to England. Many of the descriptions of Hyde Park and the homes in Mayfair are based on what I was able to see for myself. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London had wonderful displays of Victorian clothing and jewelry.

2. RwA: What drew you to the early Victorian Era as a setting for your books?

Delamere: It was an easy choice for me. I have so many favorite authors from that time, including Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell. I’m a big fan of the Gilbert and Sullivan comic operettas (written in the 1870s and 1880s), and the plays of Oscar Wilde. I’ve read lots of books about Victorian England just for enjoyment. Because my head was already in that era, so to speak, I felt I understood the Victorian world well enough to set my novels there.

3.  RwA: I loved your use of poetry throughout this book. Could you talk a bit about the specific poets you chose and their importance to the period?

Delamere: I first came across a few lines of a Tennyson poem in Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel North and South. I loved it so much I found a book of Tennyson poems so that I could read the whole thing. That poem is the one Lizzie Poole is reading on the hillside at Rosewood. Tennyson was the poet laureate at the time An Heiress at Heart takes place, and he was immensely popular. He really was in many ways the quintessential Victorian poet. I ended up finding two other poems that also suited the book very well.

4.  RwA: Much of the action in London takes place at the Great Exhibition. Why was this exhibition so important?

Delamere: The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations was meant to show England’s prominence in trade and manufacturing, and it succeeded, even though countries from around the world were exhibiting their marvels as well. At times it’s referred to as the first world’s fair. It also boosted Prince Albert’s popularity. He was heavily involved in its planning and promotion and was vital to making it successful. Because of his foreign origins he’d initially had a hard time being accepted by Britons, but after the Great Exhibition he was held in higher esteem. This made Queen Victoria (who visited the Exhibition dozens of times) very proud and happy. The Exhibition made a lot of money, much of which was used to buy up property south of Hyde Park and fund (among other things) the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Natural History Museum. The Royal Commission that was founded to run the Great Exhibition is still in operation today, funding research in science and engineering. That’s quite a legacy.

5.  RwA: I am curious: did the Prince’s Cottages end up being a success for both the working poor and the investors that funded their construction?

Delamere: I haven’t studied it in detail, but it does seem true that many successful housing projects were completed using that business model. The “Prince’s Cottages” that Geoffrey and Lizzie toured is in fact still standing, although not in Hyde Park. It was torn down after the Great Exhibition and rebuilt south of the Thames River in Kennington Park. It’s now called the Prince Consort Lodge.

A block of flats built on the design of the Prince’s Cottages is also still standing today, in a neighborhood near the British Museum. It’s a large group of condos built around an enclosed courtyard. I was not able to go inside, but I did get a picture of the outside, which still proclaims their original purpose. I’ve included a copy for you here.

6.  RwA: Who are your favorite authors/what are your favorite books?

Delamere: I’m a pretty eclectic reader. I love classics, histories,  travelogues, historical romances, and contemporary romances. I’ve listed many of them on my GoodReads page; I love to connect with readers there: http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/5814224.Jennifer_Delamere.

7.  RwA: I see you have another book in the works; is there any chance we will get to explore James’ story in a future book?

Delamere: Funny you should ask! Yes, we will see more of James. His story will conclude in the third book of this trilogy. I like to say he’ll be the last man standing! No one will be more surprised than James at the woman who manages to finally steal his heart. I believe the readers will be pleasantly surprised, too.

Thank you for these wonderful and insightful questions! I enjoyed answering these immensely. I hope readers will take great pleasure in reading An Heiress at Heart.

Giveaway!

FOREVER Romance has generously agreed to host this giveaway and will send one print copy of An Heiress to Remember to one lucky commenter, chosen at random (thank you, random.org).  There are, of course, some rules:

  1. This giveaway is limited to US residents only (sorry!).
  2. You must be 13 years of age or older to enter.
  3. You must comment on this post in order to qualify.  Don’t worry, I’ll give you a topic.
  4. You must be willing to provide your mailing address in order to receive your copy of the book.
  5. The giveaway will run through 11:59 PM pacific time on Wednesday, November 7.  I will announce the winner on Thursday, November 8.

Please leave a comment about your favorite historical time period, assuming you have one.  Would you want to live in a time bendy universe wherein you could experience that time period for  yourself, or are you quite content with modern conveniences (and lack of time travel)?   Please feel free to ignore my arbitrarily chosen topic in favor of one that is more interesting to you. 🙂

An Heiress at Heart was released on October 30, 2012 as a trade paperback from Forever Trade Paperback and as a mass market.  If you are interested in the book, please visit its page on Goodreads here.  Jennifer Delamere is on Twitter (@jendelamere), so feel free to follow if you’re into that whole Twitter thing.

* FTC Disclaimer – I received an e-galley of this book from Forever through Net Galley in exchange for an honest review. *

The Apothecary’s Daughter and my ridiculous memory

I possess an uncertain memory.  In some situations, I have astonishingly accurate, detailed recall, and in other situations I have no ability to recall a situation, conversation, book, etc.  I suspect it comes down to focus: at work, I generally focus on the emails I receive and read, and it’s amazing what I can recall (and how quickly).  Years after I emailed someone once, I’ll still remember the content of that email.  My freaky brain latches onto codes, so a full decade after I worked for a telephone answering service, I still remember the switchboard line numbers for some of our clients.  In my private life, I’m known for being flaky, ditzy, and generally forgetful.  I forget to tell my husband about appointments I’ve made; I forget to call people back; I forget to respond to emails.  I forget 80% of what I read.  It’s astonishing that I can be known for my cleverness and exceptional memory in one area of my life and can be famous for my ditzy forgetfulness in all the others.

That’s why it’s funny that I read a book about a character with an inescapably good memory.  And do you know what’s even funnier?  I finished the book last Thursday (July 5) and started writing a blog post about it on Monday (July 9).  In four days, I had managed to forget the main character’s name.  (That’s not all that uncommon for me, and you might notice that a lot of the time when I’m talking about the characters of a romance novel, I just call them the hero and the heroine, usually because I can’t remember the character’s names.  I guess I just don’t pay attention to names.)

Cover image, The Apothecary’s Daughter by Julie Klassen

I enjoyed this story, although I had an understandably difficult time relating to the main character (Lilly… I finally remembered her name this afternoon).  Lilly has fantastic recall for anything she’s read or anything she’s experienced/witnessed.  She remembers dialogue from conversations.  She remembers all the apothecary recipes she’s ever learned.  She longs to forget some things, but she doesn’t get her wish.  Lilly also has a taste for adventure and an ability to attract a horde of suitors.

It is typical for a romance novel to have two main characters, but this book really doesn’t.  It’s about Lilly, and there are a bunch of dudes twirling around her, trying to gain her favor, but none of them is treated as another main character.  In a way, that’s one of the strengths of the book.  Part of what drives the plot is the question of whom Lilly will choose (if anyone) at the end.  But by the time I reached the end of the book, I felt sort of manipulated, as though Klassen had lured me into caring about several characters who ended up having little importance by dangling the carroty chance that there would be a turnaround or a reveal and Lilly would end up loving them.  I felt that this story was a nearly-executed (very nearly… it almost made it) attempt to take a straightforward love story and make it more mysterious.

I suspect I’m being slightly unfair to the book because I could not relate to the main character.  I know that taste in reading is completely subjective, and a character that draws me in and seems to speak to my soul will be completely off-putting to another person.  I know that there is a lot to like about The Apothecary’s Daughter, but none of that likable stuff quite makes up for my not being able to connect to the main character (although I recognize that the disconnect is personal and has nothing to do with the book).  I just happen to be a not-very-adventurous homebody with a poor memory, and stories about people who yearn for new locales and who have problems adjusting to the horror of not ever forgetting anything just don’t appeal to me.

Ready for a horrifically abrupt subject change?  Here it is.  I don’t know how many times I’ve read Pride and Prejudice, but I have certainly read it at least once a year for the past fifteen years.  I was in high school when the Colin Firth/Jennifer Ehle P&P movie came out (thank you BBC/A&E!), and I got a trifle obsessed and watched it daily for months on end.  I can spot a snatched line from P&P at a hundred paces, so, naturally, a few lines from The Apothecary’s Daughter really stood out to me.

From page 100 of The Apothecary’s Daughter, Nook version

“I am ashamed to think of what I said then.”

Line from section 6 of the 1995 P&P miniseries

“I am ashamed to remember what I said then.”

From page 185 of The Apothecary’s Daughter, Nook version

“Mary Helen Mimpurse!  That is the first nearly unkind thing I believe I’ve ever heard you say about anyone.”

From page 815 of Pride and Prejudice, Nook version (the freebie)

“That is the most unforgiving speech,” said Elizabeth, “that I ever heard you utter.  Good girl!  It would vex me, indeed, to see you again the dupe of Miss Bingley’s pretended regard.”

From page 314 of The Apothecary’s Daughter, Nook version

“I hope you will dance, especially should gentlemen be scarce and ladies be in want of a partner.”

From page 454 of Pride and Prejudice, Nook version (the freebie)

“He danced only four dances, though gentlemen were scarce; and, to my certain knowledge, more than one young lady was sitting down in want of a partner.”

I should really start bookmarking while I read, because there was a fourth eerily familiar line, but I just can’t remember it now, and I don’t feel like skimming through the entire book just to find it.  I’m not trying to start some sort of odd Jane Austen plagiarism brigade (because a hell of a lot of authors would get rounded up in that one, including every author who ever wrote any JA fanfic), but I personally found these lines very jarring.  I’d be trucking along in the story, and then all of a sudden there would be this random P&P reference… and, to me, it was as jarring as a random Rocky Horror Picture Show reference would have been.  Every time I discovered a reference, I felt like I had gotten a joke that the author didn’t intend to make.  I was this guy:

Bottom line… for all that I’ve complained about not connecting with the main character, being irritated by the P&P references, and feeling slightly manipulated by the author, I did enjoy this book.  There are all of these lovely little bits of history woven into the story (history of medicine, apothecary’s lore, etc.), and these details added depth to the characters and explained a lot of the character’s motivations.  I loved Klassen’s descriptions of life in that little village whose name I’ve forgotten.  I loved the scene on Apothecary Row in London…  This book has all these delightful little facets (and a mystery or two!) that make it well worth the read, even if you don’t particularly enjoy the main character.

My favorite thing about The Apothecary’s Daughter is that Lilly learns a very important lesson.  She’s got this crazy-good memory, but that doesn’t always mean that she remembers things accurately.  She remembers all the dialogue of every conversation, but that doesn’t mean that she always perfectly understood the context.  Lilly has the opportunity to learn that things often aren’t what they seem, and that even the smartest of us can be surprised by things that were under our noses the whole time.  Lilly also has a difficulty noticing changes in people over time because her habit is to rely on her memory, using information from the past to inform the present.  The way Klassen allows Lilly to discover the other characters, those that she thought she knew so well (her father, Mary, Mrs. Mimpurse, Francis, etc.), is just lovely.  For this reason alone, you should  read The Apothecary’s Daughter, but, of course, there are many reasons to do so.