More on my Favorite Reads from 2004

Return to the January 1st Issue of ATBF (#193)

My DIK's:


The Real Deal by Lucy Monroe (Contemporary Romance)

The most important thing in Amanda's life is negotiating a successful merger between her company and Brant Computers, a family-held competitor. It should be a done deal: Company president Eric Brant is on board with the idea. But when Amanda arrives in Eric's office, it is his cousin Simon Brant who greets her -- and Simon is anything but agreeable. He's not about to give up control of the family company or lay off loyal workers. Squaring off against the sexy, brilliant, sexy, obstinate, sexy, eccentric, not to mention sexy Simon is completely frustrating -- and a total turn-on. And when he walks out on her presentation, sidetracked by another one of his brilliant ideas, Amanda is shocked... and intrigued... no, furious!... and... and... and so attracted she can barely enter data into her Palm Pilot....

Simon has never met a woman as passionate and driven as Amanda, or as devastatingly attractive. He can't decide if he wants to put her on the next plane home -- in the cargo hold -- or kidnap her and spend a long weekend showing her exactly the kind of negotiating he likes best. Come to think of it, if the lady wants war, maybe they should engage in full-on battle... in the bedroom... and see who will be the victor. But when intimacy leads to an explosive passion, it might be time to think of a different, more permanent kind of merger... one that's less about business and all about pleasure....

I focused an entire ATBF column on The Real Deal and wrote a DIK review of it as well. I may be not bored with it, even after dozens of re-reads in the past few months, but if I keep talking about it, you will be.

 


A Family for Gillian by Catherine Blair (Traditional Regency Romance)

Can a marriage of convenience lead to a lifetime of love?

An Unexpected Bride
Miss Gillian Harwell was sure that getting caught in a compromising position would thwart her family's scheme to marry her off for money. However, her plan worked all too well -- with her reputation ruined, her only recourse was to wed Viscount Carlton Avery, a lonely widower with three unruly children. And it wasn't long before Gillian found her attempts to help her new family sparking a most surprising romance....

A Devoted Groom
Carlton had agreed to this hasty arrangement strictly for his family's sake. He never expected that his new wife would be so spirited and outspoken. Nor did he imagine that her caring ways would not only work wonders on his children, but would also break through his carefully cultivated reserve, provoking a passion he thought long dead. Now, amid past hurts and misunderstandings, he must prove his love to Gillian -- for if she leaves his home, she takes his heart with her....

Miss Gillian Harwell faked her own ruin to avoid marriage. What she didn't count on was that the widowed son of her obnoxious mother's best friend was in want of a wife to help him raise increasingly rebellious children. And so, as the book opens, Viscount Prescott Avery awaits the arrival of Gillian to his home in the Irish countryside while one of his children plants a fish in the teapot as a "surprise."

Avery's wife (and childhood sweetheart) died shortly after the birth of their third child. The two loved each other and lived quietly and without excitement. Gillian is altogether too attractive, clever, funny, and alive to suit; his attraction to her makes him incredibly guilty and he determines never to consummate their marriage.

Gillian is like a breath of fresh air to the stale Avery house, and her behavior confounds her new husband (who holds his family close to the vest) at every turn. She doesn't mope or burst into tears, her tactics with his children seem bizarre yet are also working, and she appears to have accepted that he only wanted her as a substitute mother even though their shared kisses (and eventual intimacy) were more passionate than anything he'd ever experienced with his beloved first wife. He's proud of her intelligence and wit, yet easily condemns her whenever she doesn't conform to the standards he has in his mind of whatever she should be at the time. Make no mistakes - this isn't the behavior of an alpha heel; he's a beta hero with passive-aggressive tendencies that eventually wane.

I cried several times reading A Family for Gillian; it really got to me. Readers who don't like reading about children probably would not enjoy this one because they are a strong focus of the story. But those who enjoy governess romances and romances featuring historical heroes who marry heroines to care for their children may love this one as much as I did. And for those worried that Gillian is some sort of Regency-era hippie-chick, there's no need for concern; this is no romp. Instead it's a subtle story about bringing life to a dead house and a man with a dead heart.

 

My (Romance) B+'s:


Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase (European Historical Romance)

Tough-minded Jessica Trent's sole intention is to free her nitwit brother from the destructive influence of Sebastian Ballister, the notorious Marquess of Dain. She never expects to desire the arrogant, amoral cad. And when Dain's reciprocal passion places them in a scandalously compromising, and public, position, Jessica is left with no choice but to seek satisfaction...

Damn the minx for tempting him, kissing him...and then for forcing him to salvage her reputation! Lord Dain can't wait to put the infuriating bluestocking in her place - and in some amorous position. And if this means marriage, so be it - though Sebastian is less than certain he can continue to remain aloof...and steel his heart to the sensuous, head strong lady's considerable charms.

After something like a half-dozen aborted efforts, I finally read Lord of Scoundrels. Everything that comes after the tumultuous and tempestuous "courtship" when Dain and Jessica marry about half-way through the book may be the best romance I've ever read, but the first half doesn't quite match up, and the first several chapters aren't nearly as good, although I know this is an opinion many others do not share. (My mother always did say I did things "bass ackward.") Here's a secret: I read this book starting several chapters in, finished it, then went back and reread it from start to finish. Then I reread the post-marriage section again, and again, and again. It's brilliant.

I call the second half of the book brilliant for a couple of reasons. Jessica Trent as a heroine and Sebastian's self-talk - his confusion over Jessica's reaction to his physical person - are utterly delightful, witty, charming, and sexy. The humor is neither bathroom nor farce; the book's wit simply sparkles in a way I cannot describe. The give and take between the two characters is romance at its best, and that I am unable to determine whether Sebastian as an adult "grew into" his looks vexes me at the same time as it delights me. Add sublime love scenes that are actually integral to the storyline and written cleverly and with such sensual verve that showcases each character and their manner of doing things, and you've got one terrific book. The only thing in the second half I'd have changed would be the convoluted mystery subplot, but without it, a couple of marvelous scenes would have gone missing.

I could expound on all the great moments of this book but won't because I'm coming so late to the party. But at least I got there. Lord of Scoundrels is not a DIK for me because as terrific as the second half was, the first few chapters simply didn't "wow" me. Any book that requires several attempts over a period of several years to read simply won't earn that highest of accolades from me. But damn, it comes close.

 


Courting Trouble by Nonnie St. George (traditional Regency Romance)

"Perhaps you've heard of me?

"The Duke of St. Fell, at your service. The women of the ton call me cynical, accuse me of gambling, drinking, seducing, and wanting to marry only for money. Guilty as charged. As for romance? Pure twaddle invented by brooding spinsters. Thank heavens for Arabella Swann. With her sharp wit, strong will, keen intelligence, and utterly delightful fortune, she'll make a perfect wife for me - as soon as she gets over her ridiculous notions of romance and realizes it. After all, I am a duke and devastatingly handsome and charming. It's not as if she could possibly find a better suitor than I.

"Except for that pestilential Lord Stonecroft. The sap remembers Arabella's favorite flowers and perfume. He eve writes epic poetry. He's everything she's ever wanted, damn him. Now that he's wormed his way into her affections, how can I possibly compete with such romantic perfection? And how will I ever prove to Arabella that this cynical duke no longer cares a whit for her fortune (heaven help me)...but only for her heart..."

By the time I'd finished reading Courting Trouble the book had practically doubled in width because I shoved so many papers in it to bookmark passages I wanted to re-read out of sheer joy. While I truly adored it, it was somehow "too funny" for its own good. By "too funny" I meant not that the author tried too hard for humor, but that my brain was not quite swift enough to "get it" as quickly as the author laid it down and had to re-read them - not that re-reading these brilliant moments was a hardship.

Courting Trouble is brilliantly written, romantic - but in a different way than most romances are - and filled with interesting characters. Had I possessed another five IQ points the book surely would have earned DIK status as did The Ideal Wife (my only romance DIK for 2003) . I realized this was the case when, on one of our lengthy evening walks, I tried to describe the book to my husband and could not. Describing all the satirical "romance moments" was easy; it didn't take much to explain the humor surrounding the cliche about the best husbands being reformed rakes (the heroine's father is such a reformed rake and he takes to walking with - and using - a stick to prevent suitors from being rakish with his daughters), the fact that dukes are so common in romance England they're almost like Cicadas in the spring of 2004, and that quirky heroines abound in romance novels:

"Of course, I am assuming she has all the qualifications to become a duchess," his mother continued, still refusing to spontaneously combust. "Intelligence, determination, firm opinions, and a monkey. Well, it doesn't have to be a monkey," Mother said. "I had a python when I met the duke. Any unusual pet will do. Either that or she curses."

What was more difficult to describe was how the author "worked" the hitch in the hero's shoulders so that not only did the heroine seem to love it, but that it's apparently a trait of the men in his family that their shoulders hitch when they fall in love. Because first, you see, I'd have to be able to describe what constitutes a hitch in the shoulder. Then there's the heroine's habit of cursing - not out loud, mind you - and that the hero can always tell when she's thinking one. It doesn't necessarily sound funny when described, nor does her panting when she's feeling lustful, or that she refuses to believe she's in love because she doesn't feel all warm and cuddly about the hero as her sister does about her hero, but it's hilarious - you've got to trust me on this. The entire book is hilarious, and deep down underneath all that hilarity is a wonderful love story about two strong-willed people who consistently try to get the better of the other but are unable to totally succeed because they are so well matched.

 

The Ideal Wife and The Obedient Bride by Mary Balogh (traditional Regency Romances)


The Earl of Severn's question was simple enough. Would Miss Abigail Gardiner agree to become his wife?

But a far more difficult question was why the most handsome and wealthy lord in London, with a ravishing mistress and his pick of the marriage mart, would want to wed a Miss Nobody like her. A Miss Nobody, to boot, who harbored a secret that could cover her with shame and fill a husband with horror.

There was but one way for Abigail to find out what lay behind the Earl's proposal and what danger her dark past might pose.

For better or worse, she had to say yes.


A beautiful innocent finds love and marriage are a confusing combination.

Love Was Not Part of Her Marriage Bargain
Miss Arabella Wilson knew perfectly well that the handsome, dashing Lord Geoffrey Astor was marrying her only out of a sense of duty. She knew she could be only grateful to this man who so generously offered her a life of aristocratic privilege.

Surely she could not imagine she could ever claim his heart as well as his hand. Surely she could not object to his mistress, the ravishingly sensual Ginny Cox. Surely she should be content with the attentions of the gentlemen of the ton who swarmed around her.

But Arabella had committed the most scandalous of sins. She had fallen in love with her own husband....

Though these books are not connected, it's helpful to talk about them not only separately, but together as well...you'll see what I mean when you read on.

The Ideal Wife is a mix of light and dark. It's not a romp, and while not as dark in tone as some of her other trads, some of the subject matter is most assuredly intense. Miss Abigail Gardiner must find employment - she stood up to her employer after roving hands accosted her friend and, as a result, has been accused of improper behavior herself. When she arrives at the home of distant relative Miles Ripley, the Earl of Severn, she is shocked when the handsome earl proposes to her in a few moments. Miles' mama is about to descend on his London home and push him into marriage with a beautiful but vapid and vain young woman. If he can marry a plain, quiet woman instead, he'll be able to produce an heir and get on with his regular life while his wife and family rusticate in the country.

His "ideal wife" turns out to be his ideal, but not at all in the ways he imagined. Abby turns his life upside down and from the start he can't help but love it. Not only does she handle his mother and sister with ease, she makes him laugh. True, she's not the plain and quiet woman he thought she was, but he'll do anything to make her happy. Trouble is, Abby's got some secrets, and Miles must find a way to earn her trust so that he can help her be honest with him and thereby help resolve her troubles. And to make matters worse, once Abby learns Miles' original plan for her, she cannot imagine his ever loving her, particularly not when her Big Secrets are revealed.

The dialogue in The Ideal Wife sings, and the hoops Abby and Miles leap through until the story's end are well worth the jump. My copy of The Ideal Wife is in horrendous shape (and it's well out of print); I had to tape in pages that fell out as I was reading. It's also filled with more typos than I've ever come across in another romance, but I really didn't mind.

Though I'm usually loathe to read a book I know features infidelity, Robin's DIK Review of The Obedient Bride looked so intriguing I decided it would be my next read following The Ideal Wife.

I made the right decision. With both books, sexual intimacy plays a significant role; indeed, several of Balogh's traditional Regencies really push the bounds of the accepted level of sensuality. While many historicals set in the Regency seem to be filled with almost mindless boinking, when there's sex in a Regency, it serves a real purpose and most generally furthers the story. Balogh does this better than any other trad writer I know; her subtle to warm love scenes are as satisfying to read as most books with far more over sexuality.

While the heroine enjoys sex with the hero almost from the start in The Ideal Wife, she doesn't reach a climax the first time, or the second time they make love. And while the hero enjoys making love to his wife, he shares something in common with many other Balogh heroes - he believes intercourse with his wife is something she must endure and that only mistresses enjoyable sexual activity. That eventually changes in The Ideal Wife after the heroine does have an orgasm, but frankly, it isn't until fairly late in the book. And it's even later, when he's professed his love to her and she refuses to listen and simply wants to make love, that he realizes a "good" woman can indeed enjoy the pleasures of the flesh for purely physical reasons.

That's something the hero from The Obedient Bride takes an inordinate amount of time to discover as well. At the book's start, Lord Geoffrey Astor is on his way to be married in order that his now-deceased relative's wife and daughters will not lose their home - by marrying one of the man's three daughters, he can keep the estate in the family. Rather than marrying the eldest daughter who is also quite beautiful, the petite and girlish middle girl, Arabella, offers herself up as sacrificial lamb when it is assumed Astor must be an old man.

Lord Astor determines to do his duty, bring his new wife back to London, with her older sister for companionship and a Season, and while he'll squire them around somewhat, he'll simply go back to his mistress. Arabella is so incredibly impressed with her new husband's good looks and charm that she becomes tongue-tied and shy around him. She lays like a china doll when he comes to her on their wedding night and though subsequent beddings are not painful or unpleasant, because he is so sexually selfish she isn't given the opportunity to feel what true love-making can be. Her life becomes one of doing her duty, but gladly; she treats others with kindness and never imagines others doing otherwise. She manages to charm those around her, including her new husband, but he continues with his mistress, particularly because he continues to believe wives find sex a burden, never for once attempting to discover if this is a fact.

Although on some levels husband and wife are beginning to know one another - and like one another - Arabella's shyness remains a major obstacle. But once she learns of Geoffrey's infidelity, her shyness evaporates as she gives him a set-down the likes of which I've rarely read, and rarely enjoyed more.

It is how Lord Astor manages to redeem himself in the eyes of his obedient bride that tugs at the heartstrings. It's one thing to "do the right thing" out of duty and quite another to do the right thing because you want to do right, you want to make someone proud, you want to make someone happy, and in so doing, to make yourself happy. Given Arabella's girlishness at the start of the book it's no surprise that she's idealistic enough to believe that once married, her husband would not break his vows to her in front of God. But beneath that girlish exterior is a strong woman, strong enough to bring her husband to heel and repent his selfish sexual ways. The final love scene is masterful and I can't remember, other than reading Catherine Anderson's Phantom Waltz, being so personally invested in a heroine's orgasm.

Reading these two Baloghs set me on a mini-glom early in the year that I thoroughly enjoyed. Two of the other four Baloghs that followed were also quite good - The Temporary Wife (recently reviewed for us by Nonnie St George) and The Plumed Bonnet.

 


Winter Fire by Elizabeth Lowell (Western Historical Romance)

Orphaned at thirteen, a mail-order bride at fourteen, widowed at sixteen, Sarah Kennedy learned to depend only on herself. At twenty, she has no illusions about men, passion, or a wife's lot in life. She gives all her love to her fifteen-year-old brother, Conner, and to the wounded hawks she heals and returns to the sky.

Whenever she can, Sarah searches for the fabled Spanish treasure lost in the immense wilderness that is her home. Treasure-hunting in Utah's towering stone canyons is never safe, but lately it has become downright lethal, since the Culpepper clan settled in just a few miles from Sarah's home. There's nothing Sarah and Conner alone can do about it without getting killed.

The Culpepper clan and the Civil War taught Case Maxwell three things: how to be a patient, deadly fighter, to love nothing that can die; and that justice is blind. He has sworn vengeance on the Culpeppers who destroyed all he held dear. When a fight with them leaves Case near-dead, he finds himself, like many another wounded wild creature, under the tender, unwanted care of Sarah Kennedy.

Though she fears men and their lust, something about this controlled, unsmiling gunfighter stirs Sarah deeply: glimpses of a hidden gentleness, haunting echoes of lost warmth and laughter. Destiny has brought the healer and the warrior together to face chilling risks and violent peril in a wild, magnificent land -- as together they discover a passion that is like a fire that burns in the very heart of winter.

But only a deeper bond, the intense emotion both Sarah and Case dread, can save them from the dangers of the present and the bitter ghosts of the past. And together, somehow, they must find the courage to face the greatest risk of all: love.

This book is the final in Lowell's Only series. It and its direct predecessor - Autumn Lover - are tangentially related to those earlier four books, connected by a villainous family of violent thieves.

Case is such a wonderful example of a tortured hero. He believes he's dead inside and will do anything to keep it that way; after having loved his niece and nephew as he did, only to have to dig their graves with his fingernails, he learned it's best not to love at all. And if the math is to be believed, he learned this by the age of 20. Throughout the course of the book Sarah teaches him by her behavior (she could probably be called Saint Sarah - one of her "saved," an Indian named Ute, deems her an angel, after all), that no matter how hard the hurt, the only way to continue to survive is to continue to love.

I've read some criticism that an early, semi-love scene that occurs after Sarah crawls into Case's bedroll to soothe his nightmares is icky, but I disagree. See, she soothes him, but every time she tries to leave he wraps himself around her in his sleep, so she gives up and settles in. When he awakens and she's still asleep, with no knowledge of how or why she's there, he assumes she wants him. The imagery of lovemaking as a dream plays itself out throughout the book and the fantasy worked for me. Even when Case treats Sarah harshly, in an effort to push her away so she won't love a man who can't love in return, he's really not "mean" to her; he's actually taking care of her (albeit brusquely) by forcing her to eat and sleep and letting him take up some of the slack on her chores.

After having not enjoyed Autumn Lover - the hero's behavior toward the heroine during the first 2/3 of the book went beyond even how Caleb Black treated Willow throughout much of Only His in the first book of the series - I didn't quite know what to expect with Winter Fire, but I'm glad I found out. It ends this series on wonderful note.

Deciding where to place Winter Fire and Only Mine on my list was tough; was Case and Sarah's story better, or was Jessica and Wolfe's? I switched them back and forth a couple of times, and finally left them as you see them here. The same actually goes for the two Balogh's on my list; in the end I went with the one that started my Balogh glom while in Lowell's case I went with the book that ended it. I like that sort of reverse symmetry.

 


Only Mine by Elizabeth Lowell (Western Historical Romance)

To get out of her arranged marriage to an elderly British lord, Lady Jessica asks handsome half-breed Wolfe Longtree for a marriage in name only. Wolfe agrees, but Jessica must go with Wolfe to America's untamed west. And in the new world, their arrangement develops into a blistering romance.

The bastard son of an English viscount and a Cheyenne shaman's daughter, Wolfe Lonetree reluctantly agrees to rescue beautiful, pampered Lady Jessica Chateris from an unwanted arranged union... if she agrees to accompany him to America to live as a frontier wife

Married in name only -- naive and unprepared for the hardships that await her -- Jessica's terror of the untamed West pales before her determination to be free of any man's embrace and her fear of the rugged, virile stranger who leaves her breathless with a passion she has never before known. In the harsh, magnificent land at the edge of the Rockies, she must find the extraordinary strength to endure -- and learn the sensuous joy of becoming a woman in Wolfe Lonetree's powerful arms.

As it turns out, this, the second book in the Only series, is my favorite of the original four, even though it starts out slowly...it's not until the action moves from England to the U.S. that I found myself totally and utterly absorbed in the narrative. As with many of Lowell's books, the center is a Big Secret. Jessi will not tell Wolfe why she fears men, sex, and having babies. Although Wolfe is a man, she has always trusted him, which makes the eventual revelation of her Big Secret all the more powerful, particularly given the humiliation Wolfe heaps upon her in front of his friends before the truth comes out.

In a subsequent scene she behaves in an astonishingly brave fashion that only Willow (heroine of the series' first book) seems to understand. Wolfe finally sees Jessi as the woman she truly is, even though it scares him so badly that he's willing to risk his own happiness to keep her safe. This unknowingly sets off a near Gift of the Magi-esque ending that both Wolfe and Jessi engage in to save the other from a fate neither believes the other can handle. It's a strong several chapters and Lowell takes what could have been a disastrous premise and transforms it into some lovely writing. The author's ability to create seemingly weak or doormat heroines who are actually strong and filled with grace is powerfully evident here.

In each of the six books of this series - as with Lowell in general - the heroes do some lovely groveling at the end - which mitigates a lot of the nastiness they perpetrate on their heroines. There aren't many authors from whom I will accept this type of behavior, but it's a combination of their total turnaround, in conjunction with the innate grace of her heroines, that make it work for me. And it helps that - in this series - subsequent books let you see that the transformation has "stuck."

 


Undead and Unwed by MaryJanice Davidson (Hybrid Novel)

Betsy Taylor is having a helluva week. She's been laid off, her stepmother boycotted her birthday party (again), her cat isn't speaking to her, she can count on one hand how often she's gotten laid in the last 18 months, and she's dead.

As if this wasn't bad enough, she can't seem to stay dead. She rises each night in search of unholy sustenance and designer footwear. Worse, the other vampires are convinced she's been Foretold... in other words, she's the new vampire queen.

More concerned with her looks than vamp politics, Betsy just wants to keep her head down and adjust to her new liquid diet. Trouble is, the only vampires who want her more than the good guys are the bad guys. And when the good guys are ruthless, and the bad guys are unhinged, and they ALL want to have sex with her to cement their power base, it's tough for a modern girl to keep her shapely butt out of trouble... and out of bed.

Undead and Unwed is rollicking, sexy good fun, sure to get your pulse rate up and your funny bone throbbing!

Undead and Unwed is one of the best books of the year. It's among the funniest, and quite inventive, and manages to slyly pay homage to both Chick Lit and vampire novels in one fell swoop.

Betsy Taylor, like many a Chick Lit heroine, is an under-achiever, one with a penchant for Manolo Blahniks and Jimmy Choos. Her parents are divorced and her step-mother is a selfish bitch. After being laid off from her secretarial position secure in the knowledge that her bosses will never survive as they can't fix the copy machine, Betsy tries to rescue a cat from oncoming traffic. The cat lives and she dies, only to wake up in a funeral home wearing an ugly pink suit and, horror of horrors, cheap shoes from Payless.

Betsy's pissed off, to say the least, and not only because when her fangs grow she lisps. Her best friend thinks it's really cool that Betsy's a vamp, and helps her recover from step-mommy dearest all the shoes the bitch stole when she learned of her step-daughter's demise. It's weird enough that Betsy's undead, but the thrall vamps hold their victims in while bloodsucking takes an erotic turn in Betsy's case - even gay men want to f_ck her after she takes a sip. She refuses to get caught up in the whole vampire coven thing, which puts her in danger because the local Lestat, Nostro, is on a power trip. And what to make of Eric Sinclair, the arrogant and gorgeous alpha vamp whom she's bent on antagonizing though there's some incredibly sexual chemistry between the two?

Davidson is most known for her erotic writing, and the love scene in this book is certainly one of the best I've ever read, particularly since Betsy can read Eric's mind and listen to his overwhelming lust - and fears for her safety over his size (another romance cliche bites the dust!) - while they do it. The book is labeled "paranormal romance," though, and I think that's a definite misnomer. It reminds me more of Christopher Moore's hilarious Bloodsucking Fiends in tone than anything else, which is a supreme compliment.

As I mentioned earlier, Undead and Unwed pays sly homage to other genres, and in the best satirical fashion turns cliches on their head. This is something we've occasionally seen as regards Chick Lit, which in itself sometimes satirizes other writing, but when Davidson goes after vampire lore, it's terrific.

 


Second Helpings by Megan McCafferty (Young Adult Novel)

“Knowing that I’ve just done something that will take decades off my parents’ lives with worry, you’ll excuse me for not getting into the fa-la-la-la-la Yuletide spirit this year. . . . The only difference between Christmas 2001 and Christmas 2000 is that I don’t have a visit from Hope to look forward to. And Bethany has already packed on some major fetal flab. Oh, and now Gladdie doesn’t need to ask a bizillion questions about my boyfriend, because she’s already gotten the dirt from you know who.”

Jessica Darling is up in arms again in this much-anticipated, hilarious sequel to Sloppy Firsts. This time, the hyperobservant, angst-ridden teenager is going through the social and emotional ordeal of her senior year at Pineville High. Not only does the mysterious and oh-so-compelling Marcus Flutie continue to distract Jessica, but her best friend, Hope, still lives in another state, and she can’t seem to escape the clutches of the Clueless Crew, her annoying so-called friends. To top it off, Jessica’s parents won’t get off her butt about choosing a college, and her sister Bethany’s pregnancy is causing a big stir in the Darling household.

With keen intelligence, sardonic wit, and ingenious comedic timing, Megan McCafferty again re-creates the tumultuous world of today’s fast-moving and sophisticated teens. Fans of Sloppy Firsts will be reunited with their favorite characters and also introduced to the fresh new faces that have entered Jess’s life, including the hot creative writing teacher at her summer college prep program and her feisty, tell-it-like-it-is grandmother Gladdie. But most of all, readers will finally have the answers to all of their burgeoning questions, and then some: Will Jessica crack under the pressure of senioritis? Will her unresolved feelings for Marcus wreak havoc on her love life? Will Hope ever come back to Pineville? Fall in love with saucy, irreverent Jessica all over again in this wonderful sequel to a book that critics and readers alike hailed as the best high school novel in years.

I first read Sloppy Firsts, which precedes Second Helpings, back in 2003. I enjoyed it fairly well, but was so aghast that my then-11-year-old daughter had read it that after glancing at Second Helpings and telling her if she wanted to read it she'd have to buy it herself or check it out at the library (breaking my "you can read whatever you want" rule), I simply put it away and didn't read it myself.

In late(ish) 2004 Rachel Potter did a double DIK of McCafferty's books. That she, a very conservative individual, adored these foul-mouthed books (featuring certain behavior that, shall we say, I wasn't too keen on my daughter reading, but needless to say she'd "borrowed" Second Helpings months earlier - something I noticed when packing the book and seeing its less than pristine condition) was a shock to me, and I decided I'd give the first book a second chance. If I liked it, I'd try the second. Both went with me on my recent vacation and were my favorite reads of the trip.

Both books have a very true-to-life vibe to them and are filled with the sort of language I associate with smart and smart-mouthed teens. Jessica Darling, the books' narrator, is what I like to call a "difficult individual," but since I'm one - as is my daughter - that only worked in her favor. She's irreverent, filled with keen observations about the ludicrous hypocrisy of her peers, and calls 'em as she sees 'em...even when considering herself. There's "hobagity" Amanda, part of the Clueless Crew (a trio of three girls who used to be her I-don't-really-like-them friends), who is known for her Monica Lewinsky-like behavior. Jessica also tends to crush, unknowingly, on gay guys. And what to do about Marcus Flutie and Len Levy? Marcus broke her heart the previous year and Len broke it on Valentine's Day in the third grade, but since he turned into a pimple-ridden geek until senior year, she didn't really care. Now he's hot, if a tad dull, and Marcus's best friend. Speaking of Marcus, his honesty and cryptic realness mean "He Who Shall Remain Nameless" doesn't remain so for long.

These books are sometimes housed in the YA section of the bookstore - that's where I first found them. Other bookstores - including one I visited recently - keep them in Fiction, which is where I think they really belong. The characters may be in high school, but the content is far more adult...even if lots and lots of high-schoolers engage in similar activities and use similar language.

Even though my daughter loved these books, she wouldn't talk to me about them - it either embarrassed her that I knew what she'd read (and now know what she knows) or she didn't want to think about her mom reading that stuff and finding it funny. Why, she wouldn't even tell me if she thought Marcus Flutie was as wonderful as I did by the end of the Second Helpings.


Mail-Order Bride by Maureen McKade (Western Historical Romance)

A Match
Kate Murphy arrives in the Rocky Mountain mining town as a mail-order bride - just in time to discover she's a widow before she's a wife. Looking to earn the stagecoach fare out of this dangerous town, Kate never expects the true peril to come in the tantalizing form of Trev Trevelyan.

Made in Heaven
The handsome mine superintendent desperately needs someone to care for his two young, motherless children, and Kate is delighted to take the job. But first the children capture her heart...and then the leaping attraction between sweet Kate and the smolderingly handsome Trev is too powerful to deny. Although Kate longs for the safety of his arms, will she ever be able to accept the danger of his life?

I am a sucker for the mail-order bride romance, and McKade's is quite a good one, with the most unique twist I've come across after reading dozens of this type of book. The heroine moves across country to marry, only to discover that her intended is dead.

There were many things about this book that I adored. First off is Kate herself. She's tall and lanky and doesn't particularly see herself as attractive. Neither does Trev, at first, but as the story progresses he sees not only her inner beauty, but her subtle physical beauty as well. Then there's Kate's dilemma; how to earn money enough so she can move on and study astronomy now that she won't be getting married? Trev needs a nanny for his children, but Kate is initially clueless when it comes to taking care of them. Unlike most romances wherein the historical heroine fits into her role as nanny with ease, Kate has a tough time of it.

There are some wonderful love scenes in this book, great sexual tension and chemistry between the leads, and an ending so poignant I was in tears. And, no, I didn't read Mail-Order Bride when I was PMS'ing and will cry at sappy TV commercials. The author explores how difficult life was for miners and the two-faced historical nature of unions in the U.S. She may, in fact, have come down rather harshly on the union movement, but then again, the mine's owner didn't exactly come out smelling like a rose, so it all seemed to even out. Add a curmudgeonly old woman with a curmudgeonly cat to the mix and you have a really fine read.

 

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