Friday, September 7, 2012

Brenda Novak's Whiskey Creek Series

The trend for small-town romance series shows no sign of slowing so far, and I’ve given up on keeping up with all of them. Frankly, I’ve read so many that I have difficulty differentiating. I was a fan of small-town romances before the trend caught on, but I’ve reached the point that I’m limiting my reading to series set in towns that are distinctive places rather than just another generic town with a catchy name. The Whiskey Creek series qualifies.  It is different, with characters who are significantly different from one another. Brenda Novak has been one of my favorite romantic suspense authors for some time, and I’m delighted that she’s writing a straight contemporary series. I’ve read the free novella that introduced the series and the first two novels, and I am eager to see more of Whiskey Creek and its residents.

When We Touch
By Brenda Novak
Publisher: Harlequin Mira
Release Date: August 1, 2012

Olivia Arnold, a wedding planner, is pressured by her parents to return to Whiskey Creek to oversee the wedding of her younger sister Noelle. Theirs is a sisterhood characterized by Noelle’s determination to have what belongs to Olivia. This time her target was the man Olivia loved and expected to marry, Kyle Houseman, and now a pregnant Noelle and an unhappy Kyle are getting married. Olivia’s goal is to arrive, take care of the wedding, and get away as quickly as possible. She knows it’s going to be difficult, but she’s not prepared for the emotional meltdown that hits her just before she drives into town.

The only witness to the meltdown is Brandon Lucero, professional skier and professional heartbreaker, who also happens to be the stepbrother and #1 enemy of Olivia’s ex and soon-to-be brother-in-law. He proves surprisingly compassionate, and the spark that is struck when he proves a friendly refuge soon ignites into a blaze. But Olivia is a forever kind of woman, and Brandon’s profession and experience make him a for-now guy. Is love enough to overcome differences and doubts?

Novak is offering this novella as a free read. It’s a quick read, and the relationship between Olivia and Brandon is both sweet and sexy. The limits of novella length don’t allow for nuanced characterization, but Novak employs her usual gift for creating likeable characters. In this case, she creates a most unlikeable one as well. Noelle is a one-dimensional bitch who is easy to hate, and I didn’t like the Arnold parents much better. Kyle is more interesting, a guy who made a stupid mistake and is paying the price of marriage and shared parenthood with a woman he doesn’t even like very much. Neither do his family and friends. Interesting possibilities there, so maybe we’ll see more of Kyle in other Whiskey Creek books.

The novella is free in a variety of e-formats. Novak provides links on her web site

When Lightning Strikes
By Brenda Novak
Publisher: Harlequin Mira
August 28, 2012

Gail DeMarco may have started as a small-town girl from Whiskey Creek, California, but she’s made a success of her Los Angeles public relations firm. Her roster of clients includes some of the biggest names in Hollywood—or at least it did. When she dropped superstar bad boy Simon O’Neal after he refused to atop his self-destructive behavior, he retaliated by taking most of her clients with him to a new agency. Her firm is on the verge of bankruptcy. A heavy helping of humility and an apology offer the hope of salvaging Big Hit Public Relations.  But then a loyal employee, striking a last blow at the enemy, plants a story that Simon sexually assaulted Gail.

The one thing Simon O’Neal cares about is his son. His ex-wife has played him, and he’s unwittingly co-operated by challenging Charlie Sheen’s claim as the most self-destructive idiot in the show business. If he wants to share the custody of his son, he has to clean up his image. When he learns of the sexual assault story, he goes ballistic, promising to destroy Gail if he loses his son.

Gail decides that what Simon needs is a story that will be big enough to knock the negative news out of the headlines and improve Simon’s image in the process. What he needs is marriage to an All-American girl with a pristine reputation with whom he can project enough mutual adoration to convince the public and a certain judge that Simon is a changed man—sober, stable, and committed to one woman. Simon’s agent thinks Gail herself is the ideal candidate.

Gail refuses at first, but she eventually agrees with the provisions that Simon cut out all alcohol consumption and that their marriage remain in name only. It soon becomes clear that Simon desperately needs to get away from the world that has encouraged his worst decisions. He and Gail retreat to Whiskey Creek where her family and friends are dismayed by the news of their marriage, but, like Gail, they soon discover that Simon O’Neal at his best is hard to resist. Gail and Simon’s relationship shifts as their emotional intimacy increases. But just as happiness is within their reach, Simon leaves to return to LA. Can the life they have found together survive the plots of those who want to separate them and the media that feed on scandal?

Although the focus is on the relationship between Gail and Simon, the book introduces a cast of characters from Whiskey Creek, Gail’s father and brother and the friends with whom she grew up, including an abused wife, a woman with a troubled past, an injured athlete, and others whose stories will doubtless be developed in subsequent books. 

Gail and Simon are both flawed characters who behave in ways that make them difficult to like in the early chapters, but even then Simon’s love for his young son and Gail’s concern about her employees balance their less than admirable choices. I found Simon the more complex and more sympathetic character once he is revealed as more than just another celebrity corrupted by too much money, too much power, and too few values. There is a particularly poignant moment when he realizes the costs.

As he glanced around his son’s old bedroom, he suffered a tremendous sense of loss. That was what he’d really been hiding from—his own inadequacies and what they’d cost him...Although he’d promised himself he’d get control of his life many times in the past few months, now he had no choice. He had to hold the line without a single mistake.

Marriage of convenience stories don’t usually work for me in contemporaries, but the circumstances surrounding this one made it credible. I also liked the gradual growth of trust and liking that developed between Simon and Gail. The ending with its manipulation and betrayal seemed over the top, but perhaps in Hollywood, that is realistic. The epilogue was reassuring, and I finished the book ready for a return visit to Whiskey Creek. It turned out that I didn’t have long to wait.

When Snow Falls
By Brenda Novak
Publisher: Harlequin Mira
Release Date: October 23, 2012

Whiskey Creek was Cheyenne Christensen’s salvation. Until cancer forced Anita Cristensen (the most recent name she’s used) to settle in the small California town seventeen years ago, she dragged Cheyenne and her older sister across half the country while they lived in cheap motels and sometimes even in rattletrap cars, begging on street corners and going hungry at times. The house Cheyenne now lives in with her dying mother and druggie sister Presley may be low rent by Whiskey Creek standards, but it’s the first permanent home Cheyenne can remember. In Whiskey Creek, she had a chance to go to school and to make friends who care about her.  If vague memories of a blue-eyed blonde smiling at a little girl in a princess dress surrounded by presents sometimes leave her with questions for which she has no answers, they do nothing to lessen Cheyenne’s sense of responsibility toward her family.

Chey has had a crush on Joe DeMarco (older brother of Gail, heroine of When Lightning Strikes) since he was kind to her the day she arrived in Whiskey Creek. When he returned to his hometown five years ago after a divorce, she hoped he might notice her as someone other than a friend of his little sister. But her hope came to nothing, and she never told anyone how she felt about Joe. Now Eve Harmon, Cheyenne’s best friend, has announced that she’s interested in Joe. Eve’s happiness is important to Chey. Not only has she been the best friend anyone could ask for, but Eve’s family opened their home and hearts to Chey, giving her a job and offering the encouragement and support she never got from her mother. For Eve’s sake, Chey decides she must forget about Joe.

With Eve and most of her other friends on a cruise, Chey is feeling lonely. She soon finds herself spending time with Dylan Amos, the antithesis of Joe DeMarco. Joe is a nice guy; Dylan is the baddest of a family of bad boys. Joe is part of the right crowd; Dylan is an outsider. Joe is safe; Dylan is dangerous. Yet strangely, with Dylan, Cheyenne feels free to be herself, with no need to explain or apologize for who she is and what she has. He may be hot enough to melt all her reserve, but Cheyenne has worked too hard to earn a reputation that separates her from her mother and sister to be comfortable being publicly linked with Dylan. But there is more to Dylan than anyone knows, and Chey finds him more and more difficult to resist. Her horrified friends are planning an intervention, but Chey is beginning to think a bad boy may prove to be the perfect man for her.

Cheyenne and Dylan are far removed from the wealth and glitz that serve as the background of Gail and Simon in the first book in this series. Chey has known what it is to lack the most basic human comforts. Anita left her daughters alone or with strangers, she made them part of her scams, she even allowed a man to fondle Chey for money. Added to these horrific experiences are the memories of a very different life that make Chey question who she is and who her mother is. Although Dylan has been spared the poverty and neglect Cheyenne has endured, his background is far removed from the middle-class life that is typical in Whiskey Creek. His mother died from an overdose of sleeping pills when his youngest brother was still small, and his drunken father knifed a man in a bar and was sent to prison Dylan’s senior year. He dropped out of school to take over the family auto body shop and serve as parent to his four younger brothers.  These backgrounds give both characters a dark complexity, and it gives them common ground. They are both the responsible ones in their respective families, taking on roles the adults in their lives abandoned and fighting to save siblings who escape through alcohol, drugs, and promiscuity.

I didn’t always like Chey. She uses Dylan in the beginning with no real understanding of her power to hurt him. She cares too much about what people think.  But even when I didn’t like her choices, I understand them, and I was happy to see her grow to appreciate Dylan. The pacing seemed a bit slow in the early chapters, but once Chey and Dylan begin interacting, it picks up. The characters make this story a standout, one that I won’t soon forget.

When Summer Comes, Book #4, will be released January 22, 2013. It is Eve Harmon’s story. She meets a man on a motorcycle. I like the sound of that.

 Based on the first two books and, to a lesser degree, the novella, this group of close friends who have grown up together and continue to be close freely expressing their opinions about one another’s love lives will be a recurring thread.  Do you think such expression is one of the privileges of friendship?


Kathleen O said...

I have really good friends, and we have talked about each others relationships... I think if the friendship is solid, then yes you are able to freely talk about you feel about the choices they make.And that is a privalage of a solid friendship.

But, and this is a big but, you don't advise them. They can say what they feel about the person I see, but the choice is mine... and visa versa. They are not the ones who have to live with that person. Right or wrong, you make the choice of you see or dont' see.

Kathleen O said...

I have really good friends, and we have talked about each others relationships... I think if the friendship is solid, then yes you are able to freely talk about you feel about the choices they make.And that is a privalage of a solid friendship.

But, and this is a big but, you don't advise them. They can say what they feel about the person I see, but the choice is mine... and visa versa. They are not the ones who have to live with that person. Right or wrong, you make the choice of you see or dont' see.

Susan in AZ said...

Not unless you don't want to be friends for very long. As I get older, myself and my friends find this kind of "emotional hovering" less acceptable.

Nancy Northcott said...

Hi, Janga--

Thanks for the preview. The series looks great.

You know I like small towns, but I agree that I prefer the towns have something that makes them unique. As for friends, I do think comments on one's love life are a prerogative of friendship. If your friends can't tell you to watch your step, who will?

However, I believe warnings have to be given carefully. Today's trouble spot may be tomorrow's happily ever after. So I think expressing concern about choices is within the realm of friendship but dissing the love interest is unwise. A friend who wants to keep being friends needs to leave some wiggle room for the future.

Janga said...

Kathleen, I think you are right. The distinction between talking freely and giving advice is an important one. Advice is tricky even when it is requested. The closest I've come is driving a friend 75 miles to break up with a playboy boyfriend I loathed. That turned out ok since she married the other guy, the one I championed. They've celebrated well over thirty anniversaries together since then. I love being proved right. :)

Janga said...

Susan, "emotional hovering" is a great term to describe what I felt the friends in this series were doing. I didn't question their love and loyalty for each other, but they ignored lines that I felt should have been in place even among close friends.

Thanks for dropping by Just Janga.

Janga said...

Hi, Nancy!

Yes, unlike the books we love, there is no predicting the HEAs in real life. I know I have friends whom I thought were perfect for one another who split up, and one old friend whom I expected to be divorced within a year has enjoyed twenty-eight years in one of the happiest marriages I know.