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Pick of the Week: July 16, 2014

The Lotus Palace My pick this week has been on my to-be-read list for quite a while and I am so glad I finally got to it!  Jeannie Lin’s The Lotus Palace is set in Tang Dynasty China.  One of the most famous residents of Pingkang Li has been murdered.  Someone must know something about the crime, but no one in the secretive pleasure quarter has been forthcoming.  Bai Huang, a wealthy aristocrat, makes it his personal mission to solve the case and bring the murderer to justice.  In the meantime, he also appears to be courting Mingyu, a celebrated concubine.  In fact, Bai Huang only has eyes for Mingyu’s plain servant, Yue-ying.  Because Yue-ying knows the pleasure quarter so well, Bai Huang finally has an excuse to talk to the servant, and soon Bai Huang and Yue-ying are routinely spending time together in an effort to solve the mystery.  The pair fall in love, but they have no clear future together – Huang has been betrothed to another since childhood.  Furthermore, Bai Huang and Yue-ying are from different social classes – another seemingly insurmountable hurdle.  Bai Huang offers Yue-ying the position of concubine, but his proposition is untenable to her – she cannot stand the notion of being in her beloved’s life as he marries another.  The novel’s setting is unusual for the romance genre and is a truly refreshing change of pace.  Moreover, Ms. Lin writes with panache – this novel is engrossing and really satisfied.  I cannot wait to read the next book in the Pingkang Li Mysteries series and happily, The Jade Temptress is available now.

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The Short List

The following authors are favorites of mine.  In typical romance reader style, once I discover an author I like, I read her entire backlist.  These ladies are on my I-absolutely-read-her-new-release list and in most cases you are probably already familiar with them.  But if you see someone you haven’t already read here: run, don’t walk, to the library or bookstore.

Elizabeth Hoyt:  If I have to choose, Elizabeth Hoyt is my favorite romance author and The Raven Prince is my favorite romance.  Her writing is fully engaging and yet infused with a faraway fairytale mystique that is simply divine.

Mary Balogh:  Her books are dense and extremely well written.  If you haven’t read this author before, start with her Slightly Series – j’adore!  Each book in the series of six features one of the members of the Bedwyn family – a haughty, snobbish bunch who are nonetheless all very loveable.  The first book in the series is called Slightly Married.  I confess the final book, Slightly Dangerous, is my personal favorite – my interest in the hero developed over the course of the first five novels in the series.  He is portrayed as very stern and cold but there are intriguing little glimpses of his soft heart, which we get to know is his story.

Sherry Thomas: Her books are fresh, smart, original; and I enjoyed them all.  I hope she is hard at work on a new novel – it will be on my kindle the second it’s available!  My personal favorite is Not Quite a Husband.  We all know and love the dark, brooding mystery man as romance novel hero, but in Not Quite a Husband Sherry Thomas gives us the dark, brooding, mystery woman and I just loved her.  Brittle and unforgiving, the protagonist, Bryony Asquith, is not so easy to love.  In this novel the hero is the sunny optimist – a role that tends to go to the heroine.  This role reversal hooked me and held me – I stayed up all night reading.  The next day I was miserably tired, but it was totally worth it.

Julia Quinn:  Most reviews I read of Julia Quinn’s writing focus on how witty she is.  And no doubt you will laugh often when reading her books.  But for me the word that comes to mind when trying to describe her writing is charming.  She is smart and funny, but for me her charm is what makes her unique.  If you haven’t read her books, start with the Bridgerton Series – in my opinion they represent Julia Quinn at her best.  Begin at the beginning with Book One: The Duke and I.

Susan Elizabeth Phillips:  When I’m in the mood for a contemporary romance, a novel by Susan Elizabeth Philips is what I reach for.  She writes fun heartwarming tales, heavily sprinkled with glamour and loaded with drama.  My favorite book of hers isn’t strictly a romance: Ain’t She Sweet? is the tale of a former mean girl who returns to her hometown and her comeuppance.  Normally it bothers me a lot when I think I’m reading a romance and it turns out the romance is merely a secondary plot, but not in this case – it is a real page turner and I can’t recommend this one more.

Eloisa James:  Eloisa James writes complicated stories with many different dramas that often span the length of many books.  While this is common in the genre, Ms. James takes it to new heights.  For example: in her Desperate Duchesses Series the (alleged) love triangle between the characters Jemma, Elijah and Leopold is a major point of interest in the first four novels, though Jemma and Elijah’s story, This Duchess of Mine, is book five of the series and Leopold is the hero of book six: A Duke of Her Own.  By the time one gets to these characters’ novels, one knows them well as opposed to having a passing acquaintance with them as is more usual in a series with interconnected characters.  This aspect of Eloisa James’ writing is why I read her series in order and in entirety.  But for me the allure of her stories is her complete lack of interest in the oh-so-common sugary sweet heroine – loved by all, she is incredibly beautiful but doesn’t know it, she is the embodiment of kindness, purity and light, she is probably the victim of some kind of cruel circumstance, but despite that fact she is cheerfully optimistic.  This is not the profile of an Eloisa James protagonist.  She tends to write women who are very glamorous, often disillusioned, usually funny with a snarky edge and much more interesting.

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