Pandora's Box

Winter Garden

Adele Ashworth
2002, European Historical Romance (1840s [Victorian] England)
Jove, $6.99, 344 pages, Amazon ASIN 051512866X
Part of a series

Grade: N/A
Sensuality: N/A

There is a staff review of this book as well

Winter Garden by Adele Ashworth is the sequel to Stolen Charms. Heroine Madeleine DuMais is a Mata Hari-type Frenchwoman spying for the English. Winter Garden brings her together with another English spy, Thomas Blackwood. Thomas has had Madeleine summoned to England ostensibly to help him with a smuggling investigation, but it is quickly obvious that he has hidden motivations. Winter Garden goes on sale at the end of June, 2000.

Blythe:   Okay, Linda - you've been waiting to hear these words from me for three months now. . .I liked this book! The heroine was experienced yet vulnerable. There was loads of sexual tension, and some "Big Secrets" that I didn't guess. All in all I found it a winning combination.

Linda:   Be still my heart! You liked it too? I thought that Adele Ashworth was incredibly brave with her choice of heroines. I read her last book, Stolen Charms, in which Madeleine was introduced. As I was reading SC, I couldn't believe that Madeleine was going to be the heroine of Winter Garden. A woman of experience - no contrived virginity - what a concept. I loved her.

Blythe:   Me too. I noticed her in Stolen Charms as well, and I couldn't wait to hear her story. I was not at all disappointed. Experienced heroines are a rarity in historicals, and Madeleine's experience really added to this book. Usually it is the hero who shies away from love and commitment, but that's not what happens here.

Linda:   Yes, this book was refreshing and it was fun to read about a couple that is truly unique. This is truly a "beauty and the beast" story, but with some nice twists, especially with beauty not being an innocent miss.

The hero, Thomas is a divine beast. He has that sort of Heathcliffian air about him and is scarred, crippled and tortured as anyone could desire. Alpha too! But, he is also kind, tender and genuinely loving. Although on the surface this is a "spy" novel, it is really a wonderful character-driven romance. With so many people looking for something different, this book deserves to be a hit.

Blythe:   We are just agreeing all over the place tonight. <g> Since Madeleine's primary occupation is that of a spy, I kind of expected espionage to be the central theme of this book, but it is more of a backdrop for the relationship between Madeleine and Thomas. I thought of Thomas as one of those "still waters running deep" types, a little quiet on the outside but inside, look out. Madeleine's experience called for a special hero, and Thomas makes a perfect foil for her.

Linda:   Yes, it is amazing to find us in so much agreement, who would have thunk it? Ashworth is very subtle about the "spy" story. I kept wondering why they weren't working at it harder. Thomas seemed more interested in discussing personal stuff and not especially interested in what Madeleine turns up. The villain is named and obvious from the beginning, too. This is truly my favorite kind of book: a 2-person story that dwells on character and shows great emotional growth. Madeleine had shut off her emotional life long ago in order to survive. Watching her grow and yet trying to deny that growth under Thomas's gentle prodding was engrossing. She is a very intriguing character, very untypical of the usual romance heroine.

Blythe:   I probably would have liked to see the spy storyline played up a little more, but because the characterizations were so enjoyable, this seems a very minor flaw. Madeleine was my favorite character in the book, mostly because her experience made her seem unique and refreshing. But it was Thomas and his secrets that really kept me turning the pages. It is revealed early on that Thomas has deliberately brought Madeleine to Winter Garden, but we aren't told why. I was just dying to know more about his past, and I was dying to know how he had known about Madeleine and what she meant to him. And although we know that he is crippled, we also wait for a while to hear what caused his injuries.

Linda:   There has been a discussion on-line about "secrets" recently and how authors use these secrets. I thought Ashworth's use of Thomas's history with Madeleine was brilliant. It is gradually revealed that he loves her and that he knows all about her life, but we don't know why until the crisis scene at the end. I was in tears when I read it and to be honest had a little problem with Madeleine's response. But, when I thought about it, her response was true to her character and the ending was believable and touching.

This book will stand on it's own but I felt reading Stolen Charms first did give me insights into Madeleine's work as a spy and her character that we don't get in this book. She was a true friend to Natalie in SC and a worthy partner for Jonathan. Reading Stolen Charms first lets us see her in her milieu before we meet her in Winter Garden. I would recommend that people read both of these books; they are both wonderful. The only flaw in SC for me was that the heroine dithered a little too much accepting Jonathan and his love for her. But I just loved Jonathan and that is probably why Natalie's constant doubts bothered me. Ashworth has certainly created two wonderful heroes in these two books.

Blythe:   I have read a lot of books that use the concept of a "Big Secret" - or even several secrets - but don't use it very effectively. A secret is no fun if you guess it half way through the book. You find yourself wondering why the characters aren't smart enough to figure it out for themselves.

I think Winter Garden does stand alone, but I know I got much more out of it since I read Stolen Charms first - and I actually slightly prefer Stolen Charms. It does give a good background on Madeleine (who even propositions the hero of Stolen Charms!) and it is easier to see where she is coming from. Reading SC first made me eager to read Winter Garden, and I have to admit it was the experience and boldness of the heroine that I found most appealing.

Linda:   I agree with you, to be an effective plot device the "Big Secret" has to be both a secret and dramatic. I have read some books where, when the secret is finally revealed, it is a big letdown. Thomas's revelation at the end was dramatic and touching. In fact, I want to be careful not to give any spoilers here, because like the "worm" scene in Robin Schone's The Lover, which we discussed two months ago, to give it away is to take away some of the impact of the scene. Some things are best left for the readers to discover for themselves.

Ashworth even handled well one of my least favorite plot devices: the separation. I hate those - a lot - but she dealt with it quickly and moves right on to the wonderful ending. I guess if I had any complaint it would be that I would have liked to see more of Jonathan and Natalie from SC. Since both Thomas and Madeleine knew them it would have been nice to have seen them more than just on the last few pages. Perhaps Madeleine could have fled to Natalie as Natalie did to Madeleine? But, this is a very small quibble. Ashworth is going on my auto-buy list.

Another subject being discussed on-line right now is the level of sexuality in romances - I think Laurie generated the discussion in the June 1st At the Back Fence. How was the sexual level of WG for you?

Blythe:   I think readers should know this is a pretty hot book. Not quite on the level of The Lover, which was really too much for me, but it's definitely hot. Madeleine does some things I'd never seen a heroine do before (but I won't reveal them here). What I liked is that the love scenes were very sensual, but they weren't full of purple prose or silly sounding talk. And all of the love scenes served a purpose in the plot, which is just as it should be. My favorite of these was the scene in which Madeleine and Thomas consummate their relationship. Their feelings for each other are not quite "equal" at this point, which makes the scene very poignant, especially at the end.

Linda:   Yes, both Stolen Charms and Winter Garden are very sensuous books. But, the important gauge for me is "does it fit the characters?" In this case, it fits them beautifully. Madeleine is a beautiful and experienced woman and it was fun to see the hero over-powered by the heroine's expertise. It's a nice change from the usual formula. I nearly died laughing when Thomas admits he had lost it in his pants in their first encounter. When have you ever read about a hero who did that? <g> Usually they are studs who can go all night long; this was marvelous and made Thomas endearing. In fact, I think Thomas is one of the most loving heroes I have read in a long time. I would love Ashworth to write another in this series and revisit the couples from SC and WG several years down the road. I would especially like to see how the "secret" revealed at the end changes Madeleine's character and life. She has never had anyone of her own to love and I think she will just open like a flower under the warmth of Thomas's love and their family life.

Blythe:   I wouldn't mind revisiting these characters either. And there is also a secondary character whom I just loved - Desdemona. She was plain and quiet at first, but so interesting. I would love to see a sequel about her. However, I know that Ashworth is changing publishers with her next book, which will be published by Avon. That might have an effect on possible sequels.

Linda:   Well, it is a big endorsement of Ashworth, and the big chances she took in WG, that we would like to see these characters again. It was just such fun to read a story with a truly different hero and heroine. Even the spy plot was different and the secondary characters were so well done. Ashworth writes characters with depth to them, no pasteboard figures here.

Blythe:   No kidding. Her skill with characterization is even more obvious if you have just finished a reading a book that contains the cardboard variety - which I have. As you say, it is always a good sign when you talk about characters as if they are real. I found myself wondering about their spying activities, which had been a huge part of both their lives before they met. Do you think they would continue spying after their marriage?

Linda:   I think that their family life will take precedence over the "spy" stuff. I think this book truly gave us a happy ending for this couple. You are right that these characters seemed real; they are wonderfully drawn and multi-layered. I am putting SC and WG high on my keeper shelves.

Blythe:   I'm glad you have discovered a new author you enjoy. Have you read My Darling Caroline? That is many readers' favorite Ashworth, although mine is probably SC.

Linda:   LOL, I am going to give you the standard bookaholics answer - it's in my TBR pile and I haven't read it yet. I will have to elevate it to the top <g>

Blythe:   You'll have to let me know what you think when you get to it, but I bet you will like it since you have so enjoyed the other two. And to sum up, it looks like Winter Garden is the first book that both of us would recommend, and for many of the same reasons. The heroine is a standout and not to be missed if you are tired of the same old, same old. And the hero is an excellent match for her.

Linda:   I really applaud Ashworth. I have read several books by authors, who shall remain nameless, where the woman was presumed to be experienced and then a very ridiculous plot twist has them really being virgins. When we first met Madeleine in SC and she was getting ready to meet Jonathan and offer him a personal as well as professional relationship, I thought, "Oh Boy, this is the heroine of Winter Garden?" I knew we were in for an interesting ride and WG did not disappoint.

Blythe, what are we reading next month?

Blythe:   Next month is Pamela Morsi's Here Comes the Bride - an American Historical Romance for a change. I have read and enjoyed some of Morsi's books but I've missed the last couple, so I'm glad to have a specific reason to read her next one.

Linda:   I have had her recommended to me by several people on-line. She is supposed to be a humorous author and I really like humor in romances. In fact she was so well recommended that I have her entire backlist in my TBR pile <g> and hadn't gotten to one yet. One of the fun things about going to Celebrate Romance 2000 was meeting other people who are also bookaholics and who also have entire backlists of authors they have never read. There were even people there with bigger TBR's than me. Hopefully, reading next month's book will have me getting the others out of the TBR mountain.

Blythe:   I know just what you mean. As a reviewer I am always trying new authors, so sometimes even authors that I know I like, like Morsi, sit in TBR la-la land seemingly forever. I am hoping Here Comes the Bride measures up to past favorites like Garters and The Love Charm.

Linda:   Well, I will look forward to discovering a new-to-me author next month. It would be truly amazing if we agree two months in a row, won't it?

Blythe:   Well, here's hoping!

BTW, Linda, I guess now would be a good time to let readers know that Pandora's Box will no longer be posted toward the end of the month but toward the beginning instead so that we can be more in front of new releases.

--Blythe Barnhill and Linda Hurst, with assistance from Sandi Morris, for

-- Pandora's Box

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