Five top fives

It’s that time of year again, when everyone makes their Best-Of lists, and who am I to buck a trend? So here are some of my favorite discoveries from the many hours I spent reading, listening to podcasts, or watching TV this year. Note that they’re not necessarily from 2014–I’m always behind on my TBR or belatedly jumping on a TV bandwagon–but they’re all still available for download and waiting to become your 2015 discovery!

My 5 Favorite Romance Reads

  • The Stolen Luck (Shawna Reppert, 2013) – m/m fantasy romance with excellent character development and world-building.
  • Stolen Luck

  • The Lucky Charm (Beth Bolden, 2014) – a fun sports romance that won my fangirl heart by getting the baseball right.
  • Sweet Disorder (Rose Lerner, 2014) – wherein my awesome critique partner Rose writes the freshest, most different historical romance I’ve read in ages.
  • Eleanor and Park (Rainbow Rowell, 2014) – I don’t think I can say anything about this amazing YA that hasn’t already been said. Go read it.
  • The Sharing Spoon (Kathleen Eagle, 2013) – IMHO nobody writes Native American romance better. If you’ve never read Eagle before, this holiday anthology is a great place to start.
  • 5 Favorite Fiction Reads from Other Genres

  • Hild (Nicola Griffith, 2013) – Usually books that everyone and their book club is reading don’t work for me, but this was a huge exception.
  • Hild

  • Boxers & Saints (Gene Luen Yang, 2013) – If my 10-year-old daughter weren’t so into graphic novels, I doubt I would’ve ever started reading them myself…and I never would’ve discovered this poignant, lyrical look at both sides of the Boxer Rebellion.
  • Code Name Verity (Elizabeth Wein, 2012) – Another book that’s already received wide praise. So, yeah, I loved it too.
  • Sparrow Hill Road (Seanan McGuire, 2014) – At the time I read it I didn’t expect this fantasy ghost story to make my best-of list–it didn’t feel big enough, somehow–but it’s stayed with me better than most of what I read this year.
  • Rilla of Ingleside (LM Montgomery, 1921) – A re-read that felt like the perfect way to mark the centennial of WWI.
  • 5 Favorite Nonfiction Reads

  • Marathon: The Battle that Changed Western Civilization (Richard Billows, 2011) – Since I’m completely fascinated by the Greco-Persian Wars AND inclined to think that Athens and the Battles of Marathon and Salamis should get some of the attention usually reserved for Sparta and Thermopylae, this book was my catnip.
  • An Empire on the Edge: How Britain Came to Fight America (Nick Bunker, 2014) – The three years leading up the the outbreak of the American Revolution, told mostly from the British perspective. If you’re interested in the era, I recommend this look from another angle.
  • Empire on the Edge

  • Time Warped (Claudia Hammond, 2013) – A compelling, well-written popular science book on how the human brain conceptualizes time.
  • Thank You For Your Service (David Finkel, 2013) – A tough but important read about the lives and struggles of soldiers trying to reintegrate into American society after deployment to Iraq.
  • Hyperbole and a Half (Allie Brosh, 2013) – An illustrated memoir that manages to both be hilarious and contain the most visceral and informative description of depression I’ve ever read.
  • 5 Podcasts I love
    Before this year I barely listened to podcasts. Now I depend upon them to keep my brain occupied while doing housework and when there’s nothing good on NPR during my commute.

  • The DBSA Podcast – Intelligent, insightful, and often hilarious discussion of the romance genre from Sarah of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books and Jane of Dear Author.
  • Pop Culture Happy Hour – Pop culture analysis, NPR-style.
  • Revolutions – History’s great revolutions. So far Mike Duncan has covered the English Civil War and the American Revolution, and he’s in the midst of the French Revolution. Witty and informative.
  • The History of Rome – A delightfully long podcast series covering Rome from Romulus & Remus to Romulus Augustulus, also by Mike Duncan.
  • Inquiring Minds – Science and what it means for you.
  • 5 TV Shows I Don’t Miss

  • Sleepy Hollow has stumbled a bit in its sophomore season (in my opinion, but I’m by no means alone in it). It’s still all kinds of crazy fun, and Tom Mison is easy on the eyes…
  • Ichabod

  • Miss Fraser and I are enjoying the Twelfth Doctor and looking forward to the Doctor Who Christmas special.
  • And she and I will mourn together after we watch the series finale of The Legend of Korra tonight.
  • One show I do NOT watch with my daughter is Game of Thrones
  • And last but far from least, I never miss a new episode of Chopped.
  • What about you? What are the favorite things you’ve read, watched, and heard in 2014?

    Posted in Frivolity, Reading, Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

    Happy late birthday Jane Austen

    The day was actually December 16th, Tuesday, but I couldn’t let this week go by without thanking Austen and all she’s done in educating me about writing (and reading, come to that).

    Here are a few things I’ve learned:

    You can write very hot scenes using very proper language and vocabulary. e.g. Mansfield Park, which I guest blogged about on Jess Michael’s site earlier this week.

    You don’t need excessive, if any, descriptions of people or places. Fine eyes. It says it all.

    You don’t need to wrap everything up at the end of a book but if you feel compelled to do so, you may certainly leave something to be read between the lines;

    Happy for all her maternal feelings was the day on which Mrs. Bennet got rid of her two most deserving daughters. With what delighted pride she afterwards visited Mrs. Bingley, and talked of Mrs. Darcy, may be guessed. I wish I could say, for the sake of her family, that the accomplishment of her earnest desire in the establishment of so many of her children produced so happy an effect as to make her a sensible, amiable, well-informed woman for the rest of her life; though perhaps it was lucky for her husband, who might not have relished domestic felicity in so unusual a form, that she still was occasionally nervous and invariably silly.
    Mr. Bennet missed his second daughter exceedingly; his affection for her drew him oftener from home than anything else could do. He delighted in going to Pemberley, especially when he was least expected.

    captain-charles-austen-2And thanks, Jane, for having such hot brothers, because I find all your portraits awful. Here’s Charles (1779-1852), one of her Navy brothers who rose to become Admiral of the Fleet. Yowsers. The nose works on him.

    Have you celebrated Austen’s birthday this week? How?



    Posted in Jane Austen | 1 Comment

    More Christmas Shopping – Regency Style Redux

    This Christmas is exceptionally busy–and not with Christmas things! So I haven’t even been Christmas shopping yet. So today I went looking for an old Christmas posting and I found one!

    Last week I was dreaming about shopping in Mayfair and it seems in 2011 I was dreaming about shopping in Regency England (I do a lot of dreaming, apparently).

    Here’s what I said I’d purchase for my family and friends back then. Seems just as good to me now….If the year were 1819 and I was shopping in London.

    If in Regency England, first place I’d go would be to the mall–The Burlington Arcade, I mean.

    The Burlington Arcade is a covered shopping area behind Bond Street on what was formerly the garden of Burlington House. Lord George Cavendish, younger brother of the Duke of Devonshire owned Burlington House and wanted to do something to prevent ruffians from throwing trash and oyster shells into his garden. He hired architect Same Ware to design the arcade which had spaces for 72 enclosed shops. The arcade opened in 1819 and was an instant success. It is still the place to go for fashionable shopping in London.

    On my London trip this September 2014, I walked through the Arcade and glanced at the windows of all the lovely shops still doing a thriving business.

    I also used the Burlington Arcade in my 2012 book, A Not So Respectable Gentleman. Leo, the hero and brother of the Diamonds of Wellbourne Manor, runs into the Burlington Arcade to escape the bad guys….

    If I can’t find all the gifts in the Burlington Arcade, I can shop at a department store–Harding Howell and Co, which sells everything from lace and every kind of haberdashery, but also jewelry, watches, clocks, perfumery and more. Harding Howell and Co. was opened in 1807 in Pall Mall, but it closed in 1820, so I couldn’t visit it on my recent trip.

    I have a list to follow of what I’m looking for. (In 1819, I was organized; not so much now.)

    Dear Husband: He likes gizmos. And he loves clocks. I think I’ll buy him a French clock. But he’d like a gizmo toy, too, like some kind of automaton.

    Dear Daughter: She’s a music lover. I might buy her the latest piano sheet music from the music seller in the arcade although guitar is her instrument of choice. Maybe she’d play the harp in the Regency.

    Dear Son: He’d probably want the latest in dueling pistols. Or the best hunting whip, although in today’s world, his shooting would be confined to video games and his vehicle accessory would probably be a GPS or cell phone holder.

    Dear Daughter-in-law: (she wasn’t on that 2011 list, but I must add her now) She is an artist, so I would purchase art supplies from Thomas Hewlett Oil and Colourman near the Egyptian Hall, like Jack did in Gallant Officer, Forbidden Lady.

    Dearest Grandson!: (also not on the 2011 list – he’s only 17 mos. old, after all) Grandson loves cars and trucks, so I suppose in 1819, he might like a toy horse and carriage from Mr. Hamley’s toy store on High Holburn Street, the toy store where Anna and Brent bought toys for Brent’s children in Born To Scandal.

    Dear Sisters: for one I’ll have to go to Jermyn Street and buy her some fragrance from Floris (where she and I shopped this past September!). The other might like a pretty new bonnet–I’d get her a Yorkshire terrier puppy (she has 3 already) but the breed won’t exist for a few years yet.

    Dear Friends: Oh, I know what I’d buy them. BOOKS!!! Perhaps in 1819, I’d buy them two books in one. Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, published in 1818. Sadly the author died in 1817, but she is our favorite author.

    What gifts would you buy for friends and family if you were shopping in Regency England?

    And, are you as ill-prepared as I am this year?

    Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

    When Good Earls Go Bad

    When-Good-Earls-Go-BadThursday I finished the copy edits for my February 2015 novella, When Good Earls Go Bad. Here’s the blurb:

    What’s a lovely young woman doing asleep in his bed? Matthew, Earl of Selkirk, is shocked to discover it’s his new housekeeper! She’s a far cry from the gray-haired woman he expected. Matthew is no fan of surprises, and Annabelle Tyne is pure temptation. Perhaps he shouldn’t have had her hired sight unseen.

    Annabelle, co-owner of the Quality Employment Agency, is no housekeeper, but she wasn’t about to lose a potential client simply because there was no one to fit the bill. Imagine her shock when the earl arrives at his London townhome and she’s awoken in the night by the most attractive man she’s ever seen.

    Matthew is a man who lives life by the rules, but sometimes rules are made to be broken … and being bad can be very, very good.

    And here is the part where he ends up in her bed:

    Annabelle had never been so comfortable before, or at least it felt that way. The bed was soft and warm, the house was quiet, just a slight rustling of something, fabric maybe? Then the feel of another body easing into—

    “What? Who? What are you doing in here?” she said, kicking at the other occupant of the bed, who was not only someone she’d not invited in, but definitely not anyone she’d even ever met before.

    It was light enough in the room, thanks to the moonlight, to see it was a man, which did not reassure her. From what she saw of his expression, however, he was just as startled as she was to find her there. Well, she was not startled to find herself there, but she was startled to find him.

    Perhaps she would not be the best person to lead the How to Speak to Annabelle course, since she barely understood herself what she was thinking.

    “Who are you?” His voice held a foreign accent, but it was his obvious outrage that she listened to the most.

    “Who am I?” she said, pushing herself back into the corner of the bed, her back making a comforting contact with the wall. “Who am I? I am supposed to be here, whereas you . . .”

    “Are supposed to be here also,” he replied, before she could finish her sentence.

    And the foreign accent clicked it all into place, and she felt her stomach whoosh in panic and terror and . . .

    “You’re the earl. And you’re early.”

    His face did not change, not even when she stressed “early” as in earl-y.

    “And who are you?” he said, folding his arms across his—oh my goodness—naked chest.

    “The housekeeper?” Annabelle hated that her voice rose at the end, as though she weren’t quite sure herself. “The housekeeper,” she said, this time in a much firmer tone. But not nearly as firm as his chest was; it was rippled throughout with all sorts of intriguing muscles and a light dusting of dark chest hair, and his shoulders were so broad it seemed he filled the room, or at least her vision of the room.

    And suddenly she was even warmer in her bed than she’d been five minutes ago.

    The Scottish earl should not be this attractive, which she could tell even only by the moonlight. Imagine the impact when she viewed him with the full strength of the sun. She shuddered at the thought, only the shudder somehow seemed to feel more like a shiver. Of something.

    “You were not to arrive until tomorrow,” he said, his voice, despite the nice Scottish burr, practically dripping disdain.

    “Well, I’m here, and so are you, and here we are, and you are nearly, well, if I might say so, you are nearly naked,” Annabelle finished in a rush, trying very hard not to look there, not where there were some interesting parts covered by his underclothes.

    Even in the dim light she could see when he realized just how he must look, his eyebrows raising up so far up his face it seemed as though he might just take flight, his eyes wide.

    “Mrs. Housekeeper, I promise you, I am not in the habit of . . .” he began, then spun on his heels—or his bare feet, actually, since he wasn’t wearing boots, presenting Annabelle with a view of a very strong, very broad back, with some even more interesting divots that were on either side of his lower spine.

    This was probably the zaniest book I have ever written (which is saying something!), and I had such fun writing it. It comes out February 10, 2015.


    Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

    More than Topography

    This article on the tradition of topographical water colors states that “topographical paintings seem quaint and bland to modern tastes”. Maybe I don’t have modern taste, because I love them.

    In the 18th and early 19th centuries, topographical art served the purpose that cameras do now—recording what places looked like. Reason #1 I love topographical art is because I find it useful when developing settings for my stories. Many places have changed considerably since the Regency, so it helps to see buildings, roads, people and animals as they were back then.

    However, some artists took topographical pictures further into the realm of art, and this is Reason #2 why I love them.

    When the “picturesque” tradition met the topographical traditions, mountains became higher, crags became craggier and wilderness more wild. This is where I do check these images against modern photos, but I really I don’t care that they took liberties. It tells a lot about the culture of the times and I love those pictures anyway.

    Here are just a few English topographical artists whose work I enjoy.

    Paul Sandby (1731-1809) is one of my favorites. Here’s a 1794 picture of Darmouth Castle and a comparison photograph.


    Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), is famous for works which were impressionistic before the Impressionist movement had fully begun, but he also produced landscapes in the more traditional manner. Here’s his “Vale of Ashburnham”, 1816.


    A later artist I enjoy is Thomas Allom (1804-1872). Here’s his “Eaton Hall”, published in the 1830s.


    Do you enjoy topographical art? Do you have any favorite artists or pictures? Please feel free to share links!


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    The Messiah at Christmas

    I’m not religious and I don’t do much over Christmas, but one thing I’ve done for years is to attend a performance of the Messiah. I’ve attended performances in concert halls with huge choruses and orchestras; and a memorable performance in York Minster during the power cuts of the early 1970s when we all kept on our gloves and hats and one very short intermission at which we all dashed out to the nearest pub for warming drinks. Last national_cathedral_002-2Saturday I heard Messiah at Washington National Cathedral, performed with a baroque orchestra and an “authentic” chorus of a children’s choir plus male voices. It was really spectacular and in a gorgeous setting.

    Handel, however, composed it for Easter, and it’s still performed then. It has never waned in popularity–Mozart, Carl Maria von Weber, and Mendelssohn introduced it in Europe and the rise of choral societies in the later nineteenth century ensured its popularity. The world record for an unbroken sequence of performances is held by the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic, which has performed it annually since 1853!

    Handel composed the work in 1741 in a breathtaking 24 days, despite a difficult relationship with librettist Charles Jennens:

    Messiah has disappointed me, being set in great haste, tho’ [Handel] said he would be a year about it, and make it the best of all his Compositions. I shall put no more Sacred Words into his hands, to be thus abus’d.

    Six months later Jennens was still unimpressed:

    ‘Tis still in his power by retouching the weak parts to make it fit for publick performance; and I have said a great deal to him on the Subject; but he is so lazy and so obstinate, that I much doubt the Effect.

    250px-Neal_Music_HallMessiah premiered in Dublin on April 13, 1742 as part of a series of charity concerts in Neal’s Music Hall in Fishamble Street near Dublin’s Temple Bar. Right up to the very date of the premiere the performance was plagued by technical difficulties, and the Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Jonathan Swift (under whose aegis the premiere was to be held) postponed it. He demanded that the revenue from the concert be promised to local asylums for the mentally ill. The performance was sold out, with gentleman requested not to carry swords or ladies to wear hoops, to make more room in the hall. Handel led the performance from the harpsichord with his frequent collaborator Matthew Dubourg conducting the orchestra.

    Ticket for a benefit performance of the Messiah

    Handel continued to work on the score and excerpts were performed in 1749 to raise funds for the Foundling Hospital in London (of which Handel was a founder). In 1750, the final  version was presented there and remained the fundraising vehicle for the institution.

    Messiah is famous for the Hallelujah Chorus in which the audience stands, a tradition allegedly started at the first London performance on March 23, 1743. King George II rose, and so of course the rest of the audience had to follow. However, there are no eyewitness accounts, and the first mention of it comes 37 years later. Confusingly, it seems that audiences of the time liked to stand to certain pieces of music, such as the Dead March from Saul, and an audience member of a 1750 Messiah noted that the audience stood for the “grand choruses” (note the plural):

    Audiences may have been spontaneously standing not because of royal example, but because of the confusing oddity of Handelian oratorio, and the additional oddity of Messiah itself. Handel’s hybrid of sacred subjects with operatic style, moving Bible stories into secular venues, had already struck some puritanical Britons as curious, or worse; Messiah went further, its libretto (by Charles Jennens) not even a dramatic narrative, but a theologically curated collection of Scripture passages.

    “An Oratorio either is an Act of Religion, or it is not,’’ complained one anonymous critic on the eve of the London premiere of Messiah. “If it is one I ask if the Playhouse is a fit Temple to perform it, or a Company of Players fit Ministers of God’s Word.’’ The sermon-like atmosphere of Messiah may have triggered audiences’ churchgoing reflexes, and they may have felt compelled to respond, standing for choruses as if they were hymns – better to be piously safe than sorry. Read more

    Tell us about your favorite Christmas music!

    Posted in History, Music | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

    The Glaciarium; or, Sandy’s Victorian Magazine Goes Digital

    Ooops – I nearly forgot that it’s my turn to post today. (My excuse: I was teaching today, and when I came home I fell asleep on the couch.)

    After I finished my essay for the Punch Digital Archive that I mentioned in my last post, I turned to a fun project I had thinking about for quite some time: to put together a historical archive for my own Victorian magazine, Allan’s Miscellany, complete with selected articles. Fictional reporters reporting about (mostly) real news? Yeah, that’s my kind of historical-geek-catnip. :-)

    Earlier this week, the Allan’s Miscellany digital archive finally went online, complete with very serious scholarly commentary –

    Though articles were published anonymously or pseudonymously, as was the wont in the Victorian Age, the early issues of Allan’s clearly display the  influence of its charismatic editor, William MacNeil.”

    – and a selection of articles from October 1839, December 1842, and April 1847. Real news!

    “Visitors to Madame TUSSAUD’S elegant exhibition of waxworks will find that the collection has recently been extended to include figures of Calvin, Knox, and Luther as well as Her Majesty, in her Robes of State.”

    Snarky reviews of (mostly) real books!

    “The second part of Lady CHARLOTTE GUEST’s translation of the “Mabinogion” from the Welsh has just been released. While the “Literary Gazette” was thrown into raptures over the volume, we cannot help but wonder whether such old-fashioned romances as are included in the “Mabinogion” will not induce even more chivalric delusions in readers who easily fall victim to such humbug. We therefore cannot recommend Lady CHARLOTTE’s translation to young men of the gentry and the aristocracy.”

    This was, of course, the perfect excuse to rummage around several Victorian magazines in search for contemporary amusements, theatrical productions, book releases, and political news. And I found the most amaaaaaaaaazing stuff!!! (she squeals.)

    Like the Christmas pantomime that the guys from Punch (yes, my Punch!!!!) wrote for the Christmas season of 1842: “PUNCH’S PANTOMIME; or, Harlequin, King John, and Magna Charta,” performed at Covent Garden.

    Even better than that: for the same year I also stumbled across a mention of the Glaciarium – London’s very first ice-skating rink with artificial (!!!) ice. It was installed in the Baker Street Bazaar at Portman Square, and the rink itself was surrounded by an Alpine panorama, which seems to have been partly painted and partly a scenery with rocks, little cottages and benches for visitors to explore. (The image above, however, is from Punch.) The Glaciarium was only open for two years, from 1842 to 1844. When it closed at the Baker Street Bazaar, it was apparently removed to another location, though I wasn’t able to find anything on that.

    Still – an ice-skating rink with artificial ice in 1842? That find pleased my inner historical geek to no end! :-)

    What about you? What kind of news would you be looking for when rummaging through old magazines? Book reviews? News about the Queen? The latest fashion trends?

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    I Wish I Were Shopping In Mayfair

    For many reasons too boring to chronicle, I have not yet started on the Holiday shopping. Maybe I’m spending too much time wishing I was back in Mayfair. Now that would be a place to go shopping!

    I’m sure I could find 99% of my gifts at Fortnum and Mason! In fact, I was just looking online to see if I could purchase Fortnum and Mason tea somewhere (William and Sonoma). But wouldn’t I love to be browsing through the Mayfair store again.
    I also wish I could purchase something from Floris. Not only are the scents wonderful, I would just love to walk into the store again!
    Books are always a good gift, right? Especially from Hatchard’s
    It’s difficult to pick a hat as a gift for someone, but if I stopped into Lock and Co., I’d get to gaze at Wellington’s hat and Nelson’s.
    After exhausting the options in Mayfair, I could stop at a boutique in Chelsea.

    No matter what store–heck, I’d even settle for a stop in Boots–I’d rather be shopping in England.

    How about you? Any dream locations for Holiday shopping?

    Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

    Happy St. Nicholas Day

    According to Hone’s Every Day Book (1827), today is St. Nicholas Day. This is, apparently, the anniversary of his death in 343.

    Hone reports that

    St. Nicholas

    He is in the almanacs, and church of England calendar. He is a patron or titular saint of virgins, boys, sailors, and the worshipful company of parish clerks of the city of London (an interesting collection). Mr. Audley (of Audley’s Companion to the Almanac) briefly observes of him, that he was remarkable in his infancy for piety, an dthe knowledge of the scriptures; that he was made bishop of Myra, in Lycia, by Constantine the Great, and the ‘he was present in the council of Nice, where it is aid that he gave Arius a box on the ear.’

    St. Nicholas & the pickled children
    St. Nicholas & the pickled children

    One of the stories of St. Nicholas’s virtue concerns him resurrecting two boys who had been killed and cut into pieces with the intention of selling them for pickled pork. (Ick) Nicholas, then the bishop of Myra, had a vision of these proceedings and went to the innkeeper who had salted the boys. Once the innkeeper confessed, asked for forgiveness and “supplicated restoration of life to the children, “the pickled pieces reunited, and the reanimated youths stepped from the brine-tub and threw themselves at the feet of St. Nicholas.

    This, and other tales of virtue, caused his festival day to involve choosing a choir boy to “maintain the state and authority of a bishop.” This show of the “Boy Bishop” was abrogated by Henry VIII by proclamation but revived in the reign of Mary “with other Romish ceremonials.”

    Hone leaves December 6 with a poem entitled Winter.

    Hoary, and dim, and bare, and shivering.
    Like a poor almsman comes the aged Year,
    With kind “God save you all, good gentlefolks!”
    Heap on fresh fuel, make a blazing fire,
    Bring out the cup of kindness, spread the board,
    And gladden Winter with our cheerfulness!
    Wassail! — to you, and yours, and all! — All health!

    And so say we all.

    Posted in Anything but writing, History | 2 Comments

    Lady Dearing’s Masquerade audiobook on sale!

    Lady Dearing's Masquerade Audiobook CoverHello. It’s been a busy week and I’m sorry to say I don’t have a real post, only some news.

    If you are into audiobooks–or would like to try one–the audiobook of Lady Dearing’s Masquerade is currently on sale at Audible for $6.95, over 60% off the regular price.

    Lady Dearing’s Masquerade was awarded Best Regency Romance in 2005 from RT Book Reviews. Here’s a short summary:

    Lady Dearing became society’s most notorious widow after kissing a stranger at a masquerade but two years later, his memory still haunts her dreams. Sir Jeremy Fairhill has given up hope of finding her, but when he investigates the infamous widow who’s taking in children from London’s Foundling Hospital, his sense of duty clashes with a dangerous passion for the elusive, alluring Lady Dearing.

    And here’s a sample.

    Have a great weekend, everyone!


    Posted in Risky Book Talk | Tagged , | Leave a comment