Monday, December 31, 2012

A Hometown Boy

A Hometown Boy
By Janice Kay Johnson
Publisher: Harlequin (Superromance)
Release Date: January 2, 2013

David Owens and Acadia Henderson grew up as neighbors in the small town of Tucannon, Washington. Acadia had a crush on the older David, but at thirteen when her parents divorced, she moved to California with her mother. Except for one brief, magical summer, David became part of her past. Now they are both returning to Tucannon, but the Tucannon that awaits them is not the idyllic town they knew as children. It has become a scene from a nightmare, a horror so great that even David, a prosecutor, and Acadia, a trauma nurse, aren’t really prepared for it.

Robbie Owen, David’s older brother and a paranoid schizophrenic, has killed six of his neighbors and himself with guns stolen from his dead father’s gun safe. One of the victims is Charlie Henderson, Acadia’s mild-mannered, book-loving father. It is in these circumstances that Davis and Acadia meet again and are drawn together by their grief and regret, by their memories, and by an attraction that flourishes amid the tragedy and heartbreak that are the grim legacies of a few moments of terror.

David and Acadia are decent, intelligent, complex people. In addition to feelings of horror and loss, they are both struggling with guilt. David, the good son who never gave his parents a moment’s trouble, must face the resentment he felt over his parents’ immersion in his brother’s illness and the haunting questions of whether different choices could have prevented the horrific ending of his brother’s life. Acadia never fully forgave her father for not fighting to keep his family, and she is inundated with remorse over all the time she failed to spend with him and all the words she never said to him. It is easy to hope that somehow they can nurture the feelings they have for each other and find a way to build a life together despite the odds they face.

But this book is more than a romance. It is also the story of a town and its people caught in the aftermath of an unimaginable act. It is the story of the dead—a humorless grouch, an ex-marine who was heroic to the end, a kindly pharmacist who always had a smile for everyone and candy for kids—and the living—a mother broken by grief for the son she loved despite what his disease made of him and by the guilt that somehow she could have stopped him, the police officer who combines dedication and intelligence with compassion, the young mechanic coping with survivor’s guilt and the conviction that a hero died to save a coward like him. It is the story of how tragedy exposes the baseness and self-centeredness of some and the grace and great-heartedness of others. It is the story of the cost mental illness exacts from those who suffer with it, from their families, and ultimately from the social system so poorly prepared to deal with mental illness.

There will be readers who fault this book for being dark and anything but romantic. Others will find the book moving, haunting, and ultimately an affirmation of the transformative power of love in many forms. Janice Kay Johnson has long been one of my autobuy authors, and I was aware of her ability to weave unforgettable stories rich in their complexity and completeness. But even for so gifted a writer, A Hometown Boy is an extraordinary book, one that, in the wake of recent events, carries layers never expected by the author or the publisher. It is a reminder of all the stories that remain untold by the headlines in newspapers and magazines. This is one I can’t forget, and it should silence forever those who label category romance as inevitably lightweight and insubstantial.

I was unprepared for the story A Hometown Boy gave me. What was the last book that surprised you by being a larger, more important story than you expected?


Harlequin Superromance is my favorite category imprint. A number of my auto-buy authors write for this line. I was delighted when I learned that beginning in January 2013, the stories in this line would be longer and more complex. And the books I have read have more than fulfilled my expectations. I’ll follow today’s review with other January HSR reviews tomorrow and Wednesday Thursday.  On Thursday Friday, one randomly selected commenter will win her/his choice of the HSRs I review. (With apologies to international readers, this contest is open to U. S. residents only.)

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Short Takes: A Handful of Harlequin Holiday Reviews


Rescuing Christmas 
By Vicki Lewis Thompson, Catherine Mann, and Kathie DeNosky
Publisher: Harlequin
Release Date: October 30, 2012

This anthology includes three Christmas stories—“Holiday Haven” by Thompson, “Home for Christmas” by Mann, and “A Puppy for Will by DeNosky—linked by their connection to the Haven, a no-kill animal shelter and featuring one or more of the animals from the shelter. 

Thompson’s “Holiday Haven” introduces readers to the shelter and to Tansy Dexter, its director. Tansy loves her job and she’s passionate about finding the right home for the animals. She meets she’s cameraman Ben Rhodes when she’s on a local TV show to plug her holiday adopt-a-pet campaign. She thinks she’s found a kindred spirit when Ben volunteers to take pictures of the animals for the Haven’s web site, especially when a grumpy cat who is not a people person bonds with him. But Ben, whose childhood was a troubled one, has had his heart broken by the loss of a beloved pet long ago and has refused to have a pet since. Despite the chemistry between them, Tansy can’t imagine a relationship with someone who’s afraid to even love a pet. Can Ben find the courage to take a risk?

Mann’s “Home for Christmas” is a marriage-in-trouble tale that combines a returning soldier and a trio of adorable dogs. Shelby Dawson-Conrad knows that her marriage is over even if the legal formalities have yet to be completed. Infertility, miscarriages, and a husband who volunteered for combat duty rather than deal with the problems in his marriage have ended her dreams of happily ever after, but she’s still determined her husband Alex will not return home for Christmas with no one to greet him. Shelby, a volunteer at the Haven, has committed to transporting three dogs from the shelter to their new families in time for Christmas. She and Alex are both surprised when he agrees to go with her, dropping the animals with their new owners and joining Shelby’s father and step-mother for Christmas. Despite the presence of a cameraman, Alex and Shelby begin to communicate in a way they never have before. But is it in time to save their marriage?

DeNosky’s “A Puppy for Will” is a romantic comedy with some laugh-out-loud moments. Will Parker’s grandmother has convince the game designer to foster Harley, a five-month-old Saint Bernard and Bernese Mountain mixed breed puppy from the Haven, for the Christmas holidays. Harley is responsible for Will’s meeting Macie Fairbanks, a writer who has sworn off men since her former fiancĂ© dumped her during the holidays a year ago. But Will is hot enough to melt Macie’s firm intentions, and Macie and Harley are claiming spaces in the heart that Will had marked “No Entrance.”

This anthology was one of my favorite Christmas reads. The animals are an addition guaranteed to win the hearts of pet lovers. The three couples are all appealing characters, and the authors create stories that have common ground but are distinctive in style and tone. I enjoyed all three stories and am especially pleased to have discovered DeNosky, a new-to-me writer whose backlist I will definitely check out.

A Snowglobe Christmas
By Linda Goodnight and Lissa Manley
Publisher: Harlequin (Love Inspired)
Release Date: November 1, 2012

This is a duet of Christmas stories set in a town called Snowglobe, Montana. In “Yuletide Homecoming” by Rita-winner Linda Goodnight, Amy Caldwell, with marketing degree and experience in Spokane in hand, has returned home prepared to gradually take over her mother’s gift shop. However, she had not counted on Rafe Westfield, her former fiancĂ©, having returned to Snowglobe as well. Rafe broke Amy’s heart when he chose a career in the Marines over marriage to her. There’s no avoiding him. Friends, family, and church make sure the two are constantly being thrown together, and their insistence that the only thing linking them is their past fools no one.  But Amy’s fear of abandonment runs deep, with its roots in her father’s leaving when she was a child. Will her faith in God and her love for Rafe be enough to allow her to trust in their future together?

“A Family’s Christmas Wish” by Lissa Manley features single parents Sara Kincaid, owner of the Snowglobe Bed and Breakfast, and Owen Larsen, contractor. Both Sara, whose husband left her when she was eight months pregnant, and Owen, who was widowed a year ago, have three-year-old daughters. A friendship develops when they agree to exchange Owen’s completing some much needed repairs on the inn for Sara’s home cooking and babysitting services. As they spend time together, the children bond and Sara and Owen begin to fall in love. But can these two wounded people find a happy ending when Sara can’t leave Snowglobe and Owen is convinced God is leading him to another town?

The stories are linked by setting and theme, and they are both sweet stories in which the religious faith of the characters is central.  Character development is slight, and conflict is resolved quickly and simplistically. I didn’t dislike these stories, but I wanted them to have more substance. I’ve read other stories by Goodnight that I thought had more heft to them. These are like Christmas ornaments that look pretty but are too fragile to survive close examination.

A Cold Creek Noel 
By RaeAnne Thayne
Publisher: Harlequin (Special Edition)
Release Date: November 13, 2012

Caidy Bowman is the youngest of the four Bowman siblings whose parents were murdered in a home invasion a few days before Christmas eleven years ago. The murders changed Caidy’s life forever. She gave up her dream of becoming a veterinarian and settled for staying close to home on the family ranch, she stopped singing, and she lost the joy in Christmas.

Ben Caldwell, a widower, is the new vet in Pine Gulch, Idaho, having moved there from California in search of a more peaceful life for himself and his two young children. He hopes Idaho is far enough from his former in-laws to limit their influence over his children, especially his nine-year-old daughter who has adopted some of her grandmother’s less pleasant attitudes.

Caidy meets Ben when a bull gores one of the ranch dogs. After some initial misunderstanding, the two gain a respect for one another. By their second meeting, it’s clear that the chemistry between them is potentially explosive. But Ben still has issues concerning the diabetes-related death of his wife, and Caidy blames herself for her parents’ deaths. Both of them have to resolve their pasts before they are ready for a new life.  

This is the eleventh book in Thayne’s Cowboys of Cold Creek, a series that has yielded three earlier Christmas books with a fifth one, the story of the fourth Bowman sibling, scheduled for 2013. Although I prefer Thayne’s non-category books because I like a longer, more developed story, she has a gift for creating characters that I care about. I’ve read most of the Cold Creek books and found them engaging. This one is no exception. It’s a heartwarming story of two wounded people, two believable kids, a generous serving of extended family, and lots of dogs. Add the touches of Christmas, and it’s a satisfying holiday read.

The Spirit of Christmas  
By Liz Talley  
Publisher: Harlequin (Superromance)  
Release Date: November 27, 2012
Mary Paige Gentry may be late for a family Christmas party, but even so she can’t ignore the homeless tramp she discovers outside a convenience store. She intends to give him only a cup of coffee, but when she realizes he’s barefooted, she gives him the novelty Christmas socks she’s just purchased as a white-elephant gift for the party. Her giving spirit changes Mary Paige’s life because the tramp is actually Malcolm Henry, Jr., a post-transformation Scrooge who rewards her act of genuine selflessness with a check for two million and a request that she become the public face of Henry Department Stores’ Spirit of Christmas Campaign to make New Orleans aware of the true spirit of Christmas.
Brennan Henry is a younger, still unrepentant Scrooge. He loves his grandfather, but he hears that all the changes that have occurred in the old man since a heart attack six months ago, especially his determination to give away money, are signs that he’s had a stroke or is suffering from senility. He reluctantly goes along with his grandfather’s spirit of Christmas idea because the old man is still in charge after all and because he is persuaded the campaign will prove good for the bottom line, his major concern.
Mary Paige and Brennan are opposites in every way. They recognize their differences, they are convinced they are all wrong for each other, but there is an attraction between them that can’t be denied. Brennan is intrigued by Mary Paige and the kindness and empathy that are so much a part of who she is, but he’s a cynic when it comes to Christmas. It will take something out of the ordinary to persuade him that life is more that the satisfaction of seeing the dollars rolling in.
The elder Henry and his romance were my favorite part of the story. It’s a nice Christmas tale, but it’s predictable, another variation on a story often retold. Just in case you miss the parallels to Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, there are ample reminders such as this one:
 “Remember the children beneath the robes?”  

“Ignorance and Want,” Brennan said to himself, his mind clicking as he grasped the implications.”

“Don’t let them win.”
It’s a lesson that bears repeating, and it’s sweetly seasoned with romance. Not a bad choice for reading beside a Christmas tree with a cup of hot chocolate or a glass of wine.


Countdown to First Night (an anthology)
By Jillian Hart, Margaret Daly, and Brenda Minton
Publisher: Harlequin
Release Date: January 2, 2013

This holiday anthology celebrates New Year’s rather than Christmas. The three stories are set in Snow Falls, Colorado, as the town readies for First Night, its annual countdown to the New Year.

“Winter’s Heart” by Jillian Heart is the story of Shelby Craig, a young, down-on-her-luck widow who returns with her two children to Snow Falls. Her grandmother offers her sanctuary while Shelby searches for a new job that will allow her to support her small family. But an unexpected meeting with Ronan Winters, a friend from her childhood, leads not only to a new job but also to the possibility of a new life for the new year.

“Snowbound at New Year” by Ellie Summer features Ellie Summers, author of a series of children’s books who has come to Snow Falls to meet with her new illustrator. Brody Kincaid was recommended by her former illustrator with whom Ellie had enjoyed perfect understanding, but things aren’t going so well with the new guy. Ellie hopes a face-to-face meeting will improve their communication. Brody, a widower, has retreated with his twin daughters to an isolated home atop a mountain outside Snow Falls, convinced there is no room in his heart for anything other than his love for his children and his memories of his wife. That face-to-face meeting brings a connection neither author nor illustrator anticipates.

“A Kiss at Midnight” by Brenda Minton offers the tale of Jolie Goodwin and Jake Wild, natives of Snow Falls with a history between them. Jolie is the daughter of an alcoholic who stole from Jake. Jake is the son of shallow mother who almost destroyed his legacy from his father. They are both weighed down by their pasts and wary of trusting the feelings that spark between them.  And neither can forget the kiss they shared last New Year’s Eve? Do they dare go for a replay at the ball that is the culmination of First Night festivities?

These are all sweet second-chance stories with kids as secondary characters. They are conventional stories with no surprises, but they are heartwarming and the New Year’s connection makes them a bit different.

Are you still reading holiday stories? Or have you had you fill until 2013? 


Friday, December 21, 2012

Janga’s Top Twelve Romance Novels and Other Favorites of 2012

As of December 18, I have read 447 books this year. Because I have read so many books for review and those books overwhelmingly have been romance, I have read even more romance novels and novellas this year than I typically do, more than 80 percent of the books I’ve read. Many of them I loved, but these are the twelve (in order by release date) that I loved most, that I am surest I will be rereading, that I have recommended most enthusiastically—publically and privately-- to other romance readers. Honestly, I tried for a top ten, but I just couldn’t cut two from this list. I have provided links to my full reviews that were published here, at The Romance Dish, or at Heroes and Heartbreakers.

How to Dance with a Duke, Manda Collins (January 31)
This book is a wonderful blend of romance and mystery with protagonists who not only lust after one another and fall passionately in love with one another but who also genuinely like one another and enjoy talking and laughing together. I love an HEA I can believe in with all my heart. JJ review

Rainshadow Road, Lisa Kleypas (February 28)
I loved the characters who fall in love despite their best intentions to be friends with benefits, I love the magic realism that works as it is supposed to, blurring the line between what is real and what seems magical, and I loved the mix of heat, heart, and humor. And I especially loved Kleypas’s refusal to allow the Big Misunderstanding. 

A Week to Be Wicked, Tessa Dare (March 27)
As I said in my review back in March, “My favorite romance novels are those that involve my brain, touch my heart, tickle my funny bone, and satisfy my love for lucid, textured prose. A Week to Be Wicked satisfies on all counts.” All that and a smart, bookish heroine too—and a road trip! JJ review

The Witness, Nora Roberts (April 17)
This story of opposites who overcome all kinds of obstacles to move toward the best kind of HEA—a long, loving stable relationship--is Roberts at her best. It is romantic suspense that gives the reader edge-of-the-seat suspense and a slamming ending without sacrificing anything in the romance. And it’s her 200th book!

A Gentleman Undone, Cecilia Grant (May 29)
Grant creates characters with whom I become totally engaged, she works within genre conventions but pushes the boundaries, and she writes the kind of prose that sends me back to reread passages that are symphonies of sound and sense. Both her books are extraordinary, but the second one, a dark story shot through with the light of intelligence and persistent love, is the more memorable for me. JJ review

Can’t Buy Me Love, Molly O’Keefe (June 26)
In her first single-title novel, O’Keefe characters who are engaged in redefining themselves and coming to believe that with all their rough edges they still can be capable of loving and worthy of being loved. Her characters are not conventional romance novel protagonists, but they are richly human and believable and unforgettable. TRD review

Ravishing the Heiress, Sherry Thomas (July 3)
One of the things that made 2012 a reading year to celebrate is that it brought three books by Sherry Thomas. I loved all three of the Fitzhugh books, but this one is my favorite, and Millie—smart, brave, and vulnerable--is one of the most remarkable heroines I’ve encountered in my years of reading romance. The book also has my favorite line of the year. Venetia, Fitz’s sister and heroine of Beguiling the Beauty says to Millie, who has paraphrased with some bitterness Byron’s claim that “Friendship is Love without his wings”: “No, my dear Millie, you are wrong. Love without friendship is like a kite, aloft only when the winds are favorable. Friendship is what gives love its wings.” TRD Review

The Ugly Duchess, Eloisa James (August 28)
This may be my favorite ugly duckling romance ever. I loved the use James made of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, loved the reverse transformation, and loved that while the world may have believed the duchess changed from ugly duckling to swan, the duke never saw her as less than beautiful. H &H First Look

 His Very Own Girl, Carrie Lofty (September 4)
This is a World War II romance in which the characters are complex and compelling, and the physical and emotional brutality of war so real that I felt disoriented when I left the world of the book. Lofty is an exceptional writer, but this is my favorite of all her books. TRD review

A Notorious Countess Confesses, Julie Anne Long (October 30)
The book is a winner on all counts, but Adam Sylvaine is my favorite romance hero of the year: a rare vicar hero who is convincing in his role as a spiritual leader but is also fully human, with a man’s passions and flaws and vanities. He is as aware of the political element of his work as he is of the spiritual. The Pennyroyal Green series is one of my favorite series, and this is my favorite among a group of cherished books that now numbers seven. H & H First Look

Barefoot in the Rain, Roxanne St. Claire (October 30)
St. Claire gives her readers her usual love story with characters that capture the heart and the imagination, she weaves in real life concerns that make this an important issues book, and she also goes a step beyond to push her readers to consider questions about the human capacity for change and for forgiveness. Are some things unforgiveable? Can people who are guilty of heinous actions change? Is harboring even deserved anger and hatred worth the prison sentence it imposes on the heart that holds such darkness? JJ review

The Importance of Being Wicked, Miranda Neville (November 27)
What happens to a young lady who elopes at seventeen? Neville’s first book in a new series provides one answer to that questions and gives her readers a delicious scandalous heroine/stuffy hero romance that in typical Neville passage is engaging and a bit different. JJ review

Other Books I’ve Loved:

Favorite Category:  Within Reach, Sarah Mayberry
An excellent romance and a powerful and moving look at grief and recovery. 

Favorite Novella: “Seducing the Pirate,” Eloisa James
A pirate hero who seduced me in a heartbeat in my #1 fun read of the year.

Favorite Memoir: Paris in Love, Eloisa James
Witty and warm and wise, generous and honest--this is a book to be read and reread. It made me laugh, it made me cry, and, through its rich sensory details, it gave the sights and sounds and tastes of Paris to me. I loved it! H & H First Look

 Favorite Mystery: The Buzzard Table, Margaret Maron
The 18th book in my favorite mystery series continues to combine a look at the family relationships, immediate and extended, of Judge Deborah Knott with a mystery that weaves current issues and questions of conscience and morality that transcend the historical moment. And Maron does all this with a Sothern accent. (PW review)

Favorite Historical Fiction: The Book of Madness and Cures, Regina O’Melveny
An unmarried woman physician in 16th-century Venice sets out to find her father in this book that combines vivid historical background with a contemplative journey and musical prose. JJ review

Favorite Women’s Fiction: Home Front, Kristin Hannah
An extraordinary look at war, losses of various kinds, and their effects on soldiers and their families presented from the point of view of a female helicopter pilot. (Kirkus review)

Favorite General Fiction: Dear Life: Stories, Alice Munro
A collection of stories, most of them set in the 1940s and 1950s featuring rural and small-town characters in Ontario, manages to be spare, empathetic, and memorable. I, for one, am grateful that Munro continues to be productive into her eighties. USA Today review

Favorite Southern Fiction: The River Witch, Kimberly Brock
Southern in voice, style, and story, this is an exceptional debut--beautiful, haunting, and unforgettable, with a lyrical blend of past and present, natural and supernatural.

 Favorite Poetry: The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010
One of my reading resolutions for this year was to read more poetry, and I did. I particularly loved two collections: Thrall by Natasha Trethewey, the current poet laureate, and A Thousand Mornings by the wondrous Mary Oliver. Both found a permanent home on my bookshelves, but when forced to choose one favorite for the year, I had to go with this lifetime collection of an underrated poet who wrote powerfully of race and gender and change. PW review

Favorite Nonfiction: Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights, Marina Warner
Reading Warner’s examination of the stories of Scheherazade (or Shahrazad, the name Warner uses), a character the New York Times called “the muse of all great fantasy writing,” made me long for the days when I would have found new inspiration for my world literature classes in its pages. PW review

What were your favorite romance novels of 2012? What other books made the reading year memorable for you?