A Day of Amazing New Books

I just have to go “SQUEEE” about the terrific list of romance novels released today. Here are the ones I have read and enjoyed, thanks to advance copies from the authors or publishers:

These three authors are all auto-buy for me; they write wonderful historical romances. They all know how to handle the novella length, too; these three stories are just right, not feeling rushed or crammed into the shorter form. The stories are loosely linked, which gives the collection a nice unified feeling, but without the awkwardness that I sometimes find when an author is trying to write about characters that another author has created.


I’m planning a longer review of this book soon, a mother-daughter review, but I had to put it on today’s list as well. As much as we sometimes bemoan “sequel bait” in romance novels, where it’s obvious that certain secondary characters are going to be the central characters of later books, there are times when that’s exactly what I want — a secondary character has intrigued me through the earlier books, and I really want to see that character find romance. That’s what I got with this book, where the orphan music teacher Kate is at last front and center. Interestingly, it turns out that the backstory that really matters here isn’t what happened in the previous two books of the Spindle Cover series, but the intertwined history of Kate and Thorne, and their families. As usual, there are some very funny scenes in this book, juxtaposed with scenes of great passion.

The second book by Katie Porter was just as good as the first one, which I reviewed last month. Again, the sex is very hot, but this is definitely erotic romance rather than straight erotica — the focus is on the relationship between the characters. I thought the dynamic between Heather and Jon was written very well; their experiments with risky, kinky sex juxtaposed with their fears about taking the bigger risk of romantic commitment really got me caught up in the story.

I’m always eager to read a new Victoria Dahl book; there’s always something surprising, different or risky (or all three). Plus, you know, hot sex. The sexual chemistry in Dahl’s books is always powerful, because it’s always unique to the particular couple. Some of Dahl’s heroines have been called “unlikeable” (or worse), and Grace definitely falls into that category. I didn’t like her at first, but I found her interesting, and I could see that it would take a lot to get her into a believable long-term romance. I was less intrigued by Cole, her hot cowboy neighbor, but it didn’t take long to see that he was just what she needed, so I liked him for that. I’m not sure I really liked Grace even by the end of the book, but I admired her for coming out swinging at life and for eventually being able to trust and care about people, recognizing that there really are family, friends and lovers in the world who won’t stab you in the back or sacrifice your well-being for their own. And I just loved how that realization was all of a piece, that learning to trust someone else wasn’t confined to her relationship with Cole — instead, it was acceptance and friendship among women that helped her build the self-confidence to trust in romantic love.

Last, but oh-so-far from least, today is the release of the final book about Sirantha Jax, jump-pilot, space adventurer, diplomat, undercover agent, and so much more. I haven’t read this one yet, nor was I provided with an early copy. I have to make the time to go back and re-read the five previous books before I am prepared to say good-bye to one of my favorite science fiction heroines ever. I’m sad to see her go, but I’m also glad that the author had the good sense and integrity to bring the series to an end when she thought it was time, and I enthusiastically recommend it — especially to people who don’t like open-ended series and want to wait to make sure the last book really gets written. Here it is.

Our Jolly Holiday, Part II

1857 Steam Loco “Shannon”

After our canal boat week, we spent a Saturday at the Didcot Railway Center, “the home of the Great Western Society.” The Great Western, also known as “God’s Wonderful Railway,” was one of Britain’s major rail companies in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It was engineered by I. K. Brunel (my partner’s favorite Victorian engineer — everybody has one of those, right?) and it eventually expanded (both by building and by acquiring smaller local lines) to cover the country west of London all the way north to Manchester, throughout Wales, and all the way to Penzance in the southwest. (There’s a map here.) The centre is a fabulous place to learn about the history of the Great Western and of the rail industry in Britain, but it’s much more than a museum. It is a working preservation yard, with many beautifully restored trains and coaches, and work ongoing to restore more. We were there on a “running day,” which meant that actual trains were operating, including more than one steam engine.

Little Pufferbellies!


Sections of Coach Restoration


King Edward II, 1930

We spent quite a bit of time wandering in the train shed, looking at the various locomotives and reading placards about their history. We saw everything from little steam engines to huge diesel trains. There were quite a few groups and families there, among the contingent of solo (mostly mail) train geeks. One little girl was delightedly cataloguing the trains she “recognized” — Thomas, and Edward, and Gordon, but “where’s Henry, Daddy?” I was happy to be able to give her somewhat bewildered father directions to a longish green steam engine that answered the general description of Henry.

1931 Steam Loco


Bonnie Prince Charlie


1917 Steam Loco

We got to see this engine run all around the yard, including taking on coal and being turned around on the turntable.

The highlight of our visit, though, was the experience of riding two of the newer trains at the centre. From Didcot Halt, a reconstructed local station, we rode a mid-20th century diesel train to the Transfer Shed, a building necessary in the early years of the Great Western because its lines were built to a broad gauge of track (about 7 feet between the rails) and goods needed to be transfered to other railways that build a narrow gauge (4 feet 8 1/2 inches between the rails). [By act of Parliament in the mid-19th century, narrow gauge became the standard gauge, and all track and locomotives were eventually converted.] In the transfer shed, we were herded into a reconstructed livestock truck and (after a lively explanation of the realities of passenger rail travel in the 1840s) pulled up and pushed down a short section of actual broad gauge track by Firefly, a replica of a broad-gauge steam locomotive from 1840 that was built to operate at the centre in 2005.

Firefly

You probably have to be a train geek and/or an avid student of industrial archeology (my partner is both) to understand what a great experience this was.

Steam locomotive controls



We spent the rest of that weekend with friends in Romsey; our traveling companions headed back to work and home in Scotland, and we did some walking in mixed sunshine and rain and searched futilely for a cream tea on a Sunday afternoon.

We were also served a fabulous homemade Indian meal.

On Monday we were off to explore; we drove up into Wiltshire to Devizes, where we visited another old brewery, Wadworth’s.

Wadworth’s brewery entrance

It’s a much bigger and more modernized operation than Hook Norton, but it also still delivers kegs of beer to local pubs using a horse-drawn dray. (Our guide at Hook Norton said there were only three breweries still operating horse deliveries, and we visited two of them.)

Beer drays

The big Shire horses are quite impressive up close, as is their collection of gear for both day-to-day work and competitive shows.

Everyday tack

Show tack


We spent the night in picturesque Stow-on-the-Wold in Gloucestershire, in a 500-year-old coaching in that once housed Charles I. We love staying in places like this, with the narrow stairs, uneven floors, and rooms where nothing is quite level or square.

Kings Arms, Stow

Stairs to our room


It’s hard to believe that this was seven weeks ago (and that I’m just now getting around to posting about it). There’s still almost a whole week of the holiday to share, too.

August TBR Challenge: Steamy Read

I have very little “steamy” material in my TBR. I don’t buy a lot of erotic romance, and almost no straight erotica, but what I buy, I usually read right away. Much of the romance I read is “steamy,” but for this month I wanted to pick something that I’d put off because it pushed my comfort zone a bit. This novella has been sitting unread because it is spicy werewolf romance, and frankly I worried that might push too many buttons for me, given that the animal element of sex in shifter romance is often too squicky for my taste.

“Wild Card” is the first of three novellas that comprise the Down and Dirty trilogy. The heroine, Ginny is a female “lone wolf”; she doesn’t want to be part of the local pack, even though she finds the pack leader, Jack, very attractive. Jack has wanted Ginny for some time, but he has done the best that an alpha male can to respect her boundaries, physical and emotional. I liked that about him right away, and I liked that the characters were mature, without the use of the “I don’t know how to control my wolf” complication.

Ginny’s independence from the pack has made her a target for vandals and thieves, and she has finally decided that she has to ask Jack for help, even though that means giving up some of her solitude and freedom. Jack sees this as an opportunity to show her that they could be good together, and he hopes to persuade her that she’d actually be a good mate. Working that out between them, while working together against the thugs, made for a satisfying short read. I immediately bought the other two novellas in the series and read them within a few days; it was good to complete the story arcs started in this novella, and it reassured me that while a Moira Rogers book may come right up to the edge of my comfort zone with shifter sex, it doesn’t necessarily cross a line I can’t handle.

The bundle of all three stories is only $4.99

This is also an “author behaving well” story; like Liz at Something More, I want to do a better job of pointing out that effective use of social media can cause me to try an author’s work, just as the author behaving badly phenomenon (which gets a lot more discussion) lands an author on my “never buy” list. Since I’m not a big PNR reader, especially shifter romance, I hadn’t read anything by Moira Rogers until recently. But I had encountered Bree (half of the Moira Rogers writing duo) on Twitter, and I’ve found her to be funny, smart, and sensible, which of course translates at least partially into “she sees the world the way I do.” She has a particularly healthy attitude about publishing; she wants data and information before coming to conclusions, and I admire that. So when paging through the older files on my Kindle for something steamy to review, my positive feeling about her helped her novella to jump out at me. And I now own and have read this trilogy and the first book in two other series, and I’ll be shopping for more. (Which will amuse my good friend Richard, a slightly stuffy Englishman in the field of telecommunications, who has Moira Rogers on his auto-buy list for business trips all over the world.)

Our Jolly Holiday, Part I


From June 22 to July 9, my partner and I were on our annual trek to the homeland; that is, the United Kingdom. There are a few people we try to see every summer, family and friends, and we also like to visit a mixture of favorite spots and new sights. This year was a very successful trip, focused on the south of England for the most part.

Pear Tree Inn, Hook Norton

Our first night in England was spent at the Pear Tree Inn in Hook Norton, a pretty little 18th-century pub that serves the local brewery. We stayed in a spacious suite above the bar, had a delicious dinner, good ale, and then a good breakfast the next morning. The first pints of bitter and the first full English breakfast of the holiday were very special.

On Saturday morning, we toured the Hook Norton brewery; it is a wonderful old Victorian gravity brewery that still uses some equipment from the 19th century. They even have a steam engine that can power the entire brewery, although it’s currently not in use due to the price of fuel (electricity is cheaper).

Steam engine to power the brewery

Electric engine to power the brewery

“New” grist mill, 1899

Mash tun

That afternoon we drove to Lower Heyford, on the southern section of the Oxford canal, and picked up our 58-foot home for the next week from Oxfordshire Narrowboats. It was a lovely boat, very clean and well-appointed, and the whole rental process was very smooth and pretty efficient.

Our boat


My awesome boat shoes


Leaving the boatyard


We didn’t go far the first evening, just to Enslow Bridge and the Rock of Gibraltar pub. It is owned by a very friendly family (Dad is Greek, which influences the menu and the flavor of the hospitality), and we had a good evening. It rained, but we were warm and well-fed. Plus, more beer.

Dinner & mooring spot, day 1


I should clarify that there were four of us on the boat; my partner and I, and his sister and her husband. The latter two are much more experienced boaters than we are! On our second day, we were scheduled to meet up with friends of theirs who were driving to see us and have Sunday dinner on the boat. It proved to be more difficult than anticipated to find a spot where they could park their car and get to the boat; in the end it involved quite a trek on their part, but they were good sports about it.

Coming to the Thames


Complicating matters, we had come down the Duke’s Cut, a short canal that links the Oxford Canal to the River Thames, bypassing the city of Oxford. We planned to spend most of our week on the Thames itself. However, the lock keeper at King’s Lock advised us to turn back, as the rain the night before had put the river into a state of caution for boats (“yellow boards”). If the water flow got stronger, the red boards would go up, which indicates dangerous conditions in which we should not travel. Not wanting to risk being stuck on the Thames and unable to move the boat, we took his advice (and his help turning the boat around!) and the six of us went back up to the main canal, moored up and had a nice roast dinner.

At King’s Lock on the Thames


Next morning: Red boards mean no access


Not being able to go where we’d planned, we headed north instead. We made a brief stop in Banbury for some necessary shopping, and I was really struck by how well the town has incorporated the canal. There’s plenty of boat mooring, and you can easily walk to quite a few shops, banks, pubs, and so on. The whole area around the canal feels new and vital, including some nice housing units.

Banbury


Banbury lock


The beautiful Oxford canal


Over three days we went north almost to the Claydon locks before deciding to turn around again so we could be sure to get back on the Saturday morning to return the boat on schedule. There are only certain places you can turn a long boat in a narrow canal, usually wide spots in the canal called “winding holes” (pronounced like blowing air, not like rotating, even though rotating is what you’re doing….). We then made our way back in two days and a bit.

Turning the boat


Wild roses in bloom all along the canal



It’s amazing how peaceful and satisfying a canal boat holiday can be. Part of that is the pace — top speed on a canal boat is only about five miles an hour, so the world goes by very slowly. There’s plenty of time to see the scenery, appreciate flowers and plants, and watch for birds. In this part of the country, the scenery is bucolic, with a restful beauty rather than a dramatic one. Sitting with a cup of tea, or a glass of beer, it was incredibly relaxing just to watch the world go by, or to sit with my crochet or my Kindle. (I saw several Kindles on the canal, and had one rather long conversation with a couple in their 70s or so about how much they loved theirs. It was like being in a special club; we’d spot each others’ Kindles and gush “Isn’t it great? Don’t you love it?” Such fun.)

Such pretty countryside


Moorhen family



Of course, the restful aspect of canal boating is balanced with some activity. There are locks and bridges to operate, although not nearly as many this trip as our epic week two years ago on the Leeds & Liverpool, Ayr & Calder, and Calder & Hebble canals. A crew of four meant that no one had to work every lock, but we all got our share of labor in. It keept me from feeling lazy, and it also provided opportunities to meet and chat with other boaters as together we waited for locks to fill or empty. Most people on the canals are courteous and friendly.

Waiting for the lock to fill


Somerton Deep Lock

Heyford Common Bridge & Lock


We were quite lucky with the weather this trip. The others assure me that boating in lots of rain is a completely different, less enjoyable, experience. We had only a little rain, and we weren’t on the kind of schedule where we had to press on when a shower came up. I heard a few horror stories, and I feel fortunate to have so far been in mostly good weather on the canals of England. (And yes, I realize that I have probably just jinxed our next trip.)