Saturday, August 17, 2013

Review: The Blood of Roses by Marsha Canham

Title: The Blood of Roses
Series: Highlands
Author: Marsha Canham
Read copy: Mass Market Paperback
Published: May 11, 1998
Publisher: Dell
ISBN: 0440224551
ISBN-13: 9780440224556

She was born an Englishwoman, but he made her a Scot, pledged to fight for her beloved husband—even against the country of her birth.

Catherine Ashbrooke Cameron had committed the unpardonable sin of falling in love with her husband—a Scottish spy she married in her English home. Now, as she raced to the Highlands, into the strong, tender arms of Alexander Cameron, the innocent English beauty would learn the passions of war—and the price of love ...

He fought to keep her safe as he battled the English enemy—and betrayal from within.

Alexander Cameron was a man with a price on his head and enemies to burn. Love had made the legendary warrior vulnerable. Now he must protect Catherine from the dangers that threatened them both. But as he rode into battle against the English, she refused to stay behind. He had claimed her, touched her, loved her, and she vowed nothing would ever separate them again.

My rating:

The sequel to The Pride of Lions whisks us back into war-torn Scotland of 1745-46, for us to once again join one of the leaders of the second Jacobite rebellion ('The Forty-Five or Bliadhna Theàrlaich Charles' year in Gaelic), Alexander Cameron, and his English wife, Catherine, in their fight for Scottish freedom, their lives, and their love.

We saw them fall hopelessly and helplessly in love in the first book, so the author was now free to more fully delve into the background story, the history of the final rebellion. The story begins just a few days after the first book ended, in Blackpool, where Alex had sent Catherine to be safe from the upcoming war, then proceeds with intertwining scenes of rural (and still peaceful) Derbyshire, England and the battles both on and off the field in Scotland. Until the Scots (oh, ye, foolish, foolish Bonnie Prince Charlie), cross the river Esk (in the middle of winter, might I add, and march into England.

And there's only one person in England whom Alexander Cameron wants to see.

The reunion is hot, sweaty, rapturous, tumultuous...and bittersweet when Catherine is once again left behind, only to follow her husband (with good reason!) as the Jacobite army retreats (still in the middle of winter!) back to Scotland.

And it's in Scotland that this story comes to a close on April 16, 1746, on the barren, windswept, gore-filled field of Culloden...and to a second close, a little happier one, at dawn on a field near Achnacarry Castle in Lochaber.

This book is much more historically oriented, yet the detailed descriptions of the politics of the time, military tactics, battles, and troop movements, don't slow the pace, on the contrary in fact, and offer an even more realistic background to the touching love story between Alex and Catherine.

There is enough of their "interaction" to satisfy our curiosity, and the true facts of the history unraveling around them add a touch of truth to the fictitious romance, the constant threat of danger keeping the reader at the edge of the seat, hoping against hope sometimes, that these two truly star-crossed lovers might actually get to have their much deserved HEA.

The narrative of the rebellion ends with the horrific battle on the plain of Culloden Moor and its gruesome aftermath (having seen Culloden the reading experience was all the more chilling for me), yet Ms. Canham chose not to start with the battle itself, but to bring goosebumps on the skin and chills down the (at least this one) reader's spine through Catherine's ears as she listens to the distant rumblings of the cannons and then...
She ran to the front door and flung it open, straining now to hear and identify the cause of yet another shocking sound: the sound of absolute, deathly silence. (p. 480)

And at this (eighth read of this story) that this reader lost it. I've seen Culloden three times already and every single time I'm amazed by the fact that even though the road passes just alongside the battlefield, the visitor can hear only the wind sweeping across the plain, billowing in the grass. That sentence perfectly describes that feeling of isolation and silence I experience every time I stand there at Culloden.

In the next paragraph, the reader is thrust straight in the middle of the battle without having been given a moment to brace, to prepare for the pointless, tragic, wasteful loss of life and humanity on that moor. The reader is in the thick of it alongside Alexander Cameron, as he charges with his clansmen, as he plunges in the middle of the scarlet-clad soldiers, as he slashes his broadsword, roars the cath-ghairm of his clan...

And when it ends the reader accompanies Catherine and Deirdre onto that same field, as they stumble over the dead and dying, make their way between torn limbs and dead horses, in their desperate search for their husbands.

And we're once more whisked over the Highlands into Lochaber, walking alongside the vanquished Camerons, alongside Gentle Donald on his stretched, and Alexander enduring the fever brought forth by his wounds, share his desperation, his anguish, his need to see Catherine, to let her take the pain away. And knowing the heartbreak that awaits him at home.

Oh, God!

I thought after putting the book down and indulging in one last, cathartic bout of crying that was a combined result of the emotions this story evokes and the Pearl Harbor soundtrack that seems to fit so well, I'd be back to normal. Not yet, so you'll have to forgive this rather strange review. Typing and trying to read the screen is tough though a film of tears.

Anyway, as mentioned before, the last battle on the British soil was just the first climax of this novel which ends with the final confrontation that's been building since the first book—the fateful night in which Alex won Catherine in a duel.

The epilogue is bitter-sweet, so many lives and so much love lost, yet the glimmer of hope is there, a steady guiding light on the horizon.

This is a truly beautiful and amazing story.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Review: The Pride of Lions by Marsha Canham

Title: The Pride of Lions
Series: Highlands
Author: Marsha Canham
Read copy: Mass Market Paperback
Published: October 6, 1997
Publisher: Dell
ISBN: 0440224578
ISBN-13: 9780440224570


It was a boastful wager, a bold flirtation meant to win a proposal from the most eligible officer in His Majesty's Royal Dragoons. How was the spoiled and pampered Catherine Augustine Ashbrooke to know the handsome stranger with the brooding midnight eyes would see through her plot and make her the pawn in a dangerous game of his own?


Alexander Cameron may have won the highborn English beauty in a duel, but not even the lure of long-forgotten desires could keep him from his meeting with destiny. He had no choice but to carry his reluctant bride off to the Highlands, to a world of ancient blood feuds and a brewing rebellion --- a world where fiery passion and breathtaking courage would prove that even legendary warriors could lose their hearts.

My rating:

Sometimes books purchased in the spur of the moment leave you with a sour taste in your mouth after you read them, but sometimes (very few times, for me), they turn out to be truly remarkable stories with gripping plots, wonderful characters, great dialogue, and even greater chemistry – both between the leading couple and other characters. The first two books in Marsha Canham's Highlands trilogy, The Pride of Lions and The Blood of Roses, turned out to be one of those rare gems with a firmly ingrained spot on my keeper shelf, that despite knowing them almost by heart, I never mind picking them up again and again.

In the first book we're introduced to the spoiled and self-centered Derby beauty, Catherine Augustine Ashbrooke. She's riding through the forest on the day of her eighteenth birthday only to encounter a tall, dark, and handsome stranger who quickly teaches her an important lesson that the world does not revolve around her. With her pride still chafed from the "ordeal" Catherine is dismayed to see the same stranger, her brother's acquaintance, Raefer Montgomery, at the ball in her honor that same evening, but being the spoiled brat that she is, she somehow overcomes her adversity and decides to shamelessly use him to her advantage—making the man she wants to marry insanely jealous.

Unfortunately her plan backfires. She is pleasantly—and passionately—surprised by Montgomery's kiss on the shadowed terrace, and her jealous would-be-suitor, instead of being normally jealous as she intended, throws a fit and challenges Montgomery to a duel. The dark stranger, though pressed for time, agrees and wins the duel...And Catherine’s hand in the process.

Despite the unwillingness of both bride and groom, Catherine and Raefer are joined in holy matrimony in her father's study.

The next evening, having stopped for the night in a seedy tavern, Catherine learns the shocking truth about her husband. He's not a wealthy English merchant by the name of Raefer Montgomery, but in fact a Scot, a Jacobite spy, Alexander Cameron, returning to his homeland after fifteen years in exile.

Scared half to death by the towering Highlander promising swift demise for her, her brother who comes to collect her, and her maid, Catherine flees the tavern, but is quickly apprehended by her husband, and, after a few more threats to her brother's life, bundled up in a carriage and whisked away to Scotland as hostage and cover for the long trek to the north, evading English troops.

Reluctant to admit it, Catherine is quickly taken by the rugged beauty of the country, and more and more intrigued with Alexander Cameron and his mercurial disposition. As she gradually lowers her defenses and pushes aside her pride, so does he, and the two slowly, but surely shift from enemies to something else entirely, just as Scotland is on the verge of the war that will change its history forever.

Though this first book concentrates on the characters, especially Catherine as she grows and matures, and the budding romance between them, the imminent threat of danger is palpable and always on the outskirts of the story, there to see, but not yet ready to be grasped.
Marsha Canham wove history and romance into a captivating love story, full of passion, devotion, and courage, against the backdrop of the (final) Jacobite rebellion.

Catherine's spoiled ways took some time to digest (on the first read), but through the course of the book her character evolves from a spoiled child to a strong, passionate woman. Her growth and maturing is evident in each scene, each dialogue, and inner monologue. It is true what they say, that a change of scenery can do miracles for somebody. In Catherine's case her change started when her heart first pounded in earnest as she set her eyes on Alexander and it was him and his homeland that made her see her (previous) life for what it really was—a shallow excuse for an existence—and made her reevaluate her priorities, her true desires, and her true self.
For that reason, the cliffy ending was so much more heartbreaking, just when she realized what she wanted, it was snatched away, and no manner of tantrums and fits could give her what she wanted. It was proof of her growth and change that she didn't revert to her childish ways and instead took all she was delivered with quiet dignity and hidden hopes for the future.

Alexander Cameron was the quintessential leading man. One that makes your heart pound and wish they still made men like him. Tall, dark, devilishly handsome, devoted and dedicated, with a strict code of honor that he doesn't break even in most dire of times. I loved how he also changed as the story progressed, how he was brought to his knees by something utterly and completely beyond his control—the love for a woman. His inner struggles against the attraction, against wanting her, even liking her, were completely futile (he fell down that proverbial cliff like a lemming), and wonderful to read.

In a way, Catherine and Alexander were the same, both lonely, she having grown up with indifferent parents, he for the fifteen years spend in hating-the-world exile. They both had one true friend, their respective brothers, Damien and Aluinn. And they were both determined to show the world a brave face, building defensive walls behind which to hide their emotions, their desires, and their fears.
And Kismet (or whatever you want to call it) brought them together, to lean on each other, learn from each other, love each other. He turned her into a woman (in more ways than the basic one), she showed him it was safe to feel again, without betraying his personal ghost.

Their struggle against their feelings was almost comical in its bitter sweetness and the moment they finally accept these feeling is both heart-warming and sad at the same time, because here they are, two people finally ready to give their hearts to each other, yet with the constant whisper of imminent danger threatening to tear them apart forever.

This sweeping saga takes us from the glittering ballrooms full of hypocrisy and false smiles, to the primal, honest, wind-swept Highlands as a spoiled, selfish brat turns into a proud and determined young woman and a icy-cold, cynical soldier of fortune is humbled and changed by his love for her. All this happens in real time, in front of our very eyes, and that’s what makes this such a remarkable read.

Reviewer Note: I've read this book eight times already and I cannot get tired of it. I might know it by heart already, but there's always that giddy excitement present each time I pick it up, that curiosity as to what might happen, the wonder of (re)discovering the Scottish highlands, the quickening of a heartbeat whenever Catherine and Alex are on the 'page' at the same time, the tugging at the heartstrings toward the end...I absolutely love this book and the next one, the finale of this epic (yes, it's epic!) love story.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Review: The Mystery Woman by Amanda Quick

Title: The Mystery Woman
Series: Ladies of Lantern Street
Author: Amanda Quick
Read copy: eBook
Published: April 23, 2013
Publisher: Penguin Group USA
ISBN: 1101621176
ISBN-13: 9781101621172

Beatrice Lockwood, one of the intrepid ladies of Lantern Street, is in the middle of a case when her past comes back to haunt her. Joshua North, a former spy for the Crown, has come out of a self-imposed retirement after a disastrous case that left him scarred and forced to use a cane. He is hunting the villain who is blackmailing his sister.

The trail leads him to Beatrice who is his chief suspect. But when he realizes that she is not the blackmailer they set out to find the real extortionist. Passion flares between them as they dodge a professional assassin. Meanwhile a mysterious scientist intent on resurrecting his dead lover using an ancient Egyptian formula for preserving the bodies of the dead is also hunting Beatrice. He is keeping his dead love perfectly preserved in a special, crystal-topped sarcophagus filled with the special fluid. But he needs Beatrice's paranormal talent to activate the reviving properties of the preservative in the coffin. Time is running out for everyone involved.

The two cases collide at a mysterious country-house filled with artifacts from ancient Egyptian tombs. The drama concludes in the mad scientist's laboratory where Joshua discovers that the past he thought was dead is still very much alive—sort of.

My rating:

This came completely out of the left field for me. The story simply didn't suck me in as Ms. Quick's novels usually do.

Let's start with the title—The Mystery Woman. That was supposed to be the heroine. To me, she was no mystery. I would've preferred her secrets to be revealed more slowly, not giving it all up front (to the reader, that is). She was also the usual Quick-heroine that often annoy me with their behavior, notions and convictions.

The hero also wasn't of much help to make me enjoy the story. Though he was (at least in appearance) the usual Quick-hero, the rest simply fizzled. Though the new approach Ms. Quick chose with him not believing in the paranormal was indeed refreshing, it quickly turned annoying.

Also, I didn't feel the connection between them, not the attraction, not the affection, not the love, not the sex. Nothing. It just didn't work.

The suspense part of the story was also incomparable with Ms. Quick's other novels. Maybe it was the fact the main reason the villain wanted to kidnap Beatrice (the heroine) was utterly out there—yes, the guy was completely nuts, but still. Maybe it was the fact I didn't much care what happens to the heroine (or hero), but I had a really hard time getting though the book. Kudos for the other villain, yet it took me way too long to finish this one.

Still, the writing was good, the plot also (despite everything I've listed), so I decided to give it three stars. I'm quite disappointed, though. I expected more.