Friday, May 31, 2013

A Baker's Dozen of Reviews: Day Thirteen--His Uptown Girl

His Uptown Girl
By Liz Talley
Harlequin Superromance
Release Date: June 4, 2013

Eleanor Theriot, owner of the Queen’s Box, an antiques shop, in New Orleans, has spent much of her life trying to be what other people expected her to be. Five years after she was widowed when her husband was murdered by his mistress, Eleanor is ready not just to get on with her life but to create a different, freer life, one that allows her to be who she is—just as soon as she discovers who that is. With forty just around the corner, she needs to begin the journey, and the hot, multiracial pianist Dez Batiste who can increase her heart rate with a look may be just the companion she needs.

Once a jazz pianist and composer on the cusp of fame, Dez Batiste has lost his music since Katrina. After trying and failing at a “normal” life, he has returned to New Orleans to open an upscale jazz club. The owners of businesses surrounding the site he has chosen aren’t sure a jazz club like the Blue Rondo is a good fit for their family-friendly neighborhood. Dez needs to convince them they are wrong, but he’d like to convince elegant Eleanor Theriot, president of the Magazine Street Merchants Association of much more. All the signs tell him she is interested if only she can move past her hang-ups over her being nearly nine years older than he and their vastly different lifestyles.

With a mix of eagerness and trepidation, and over the objections of her college-freshman daughter, her conservative parents, and her snobby bitch former mother-in-law, Eleanor welcomes Dez into her bed and into her life. Their mutually exclusive friends with benefits relationship is soon complicated by feelings they are both reluctant to put a name to. Relationships are not static, and Eleanor will have to decide whether the love she can have with Dez really can cast out her fears.

Liz Talley gives readers a look at post-Katrina New Orleans and the cultural mix of that colorful city. In addition to the complicated and sizzling romance between Eleanor and Dez, secondary threads point to the sharp contrast between the city’s privileged young whose greatest concern is owning another designer bag and the kids who grow up amid poverty and violence struggling to survive and dreaming of escape. The issues are large ones, perhaps too large for a romance with a word limit, but it’s exciting to see an author pushing boundaries. I might have wished for more depth at times, but I always found these characters and their story fully engaging. Talley goes back to New Orleans with her October 2013 Harlequin Superromance, His Brown-Eyed Girl. It’s on my TBR list.

Talley adds religion and politics to the ingredients that make up His Uptown Girl, topics some consider have no place in romance? Where do you stand on this issue?

Thursday, May 30, 2013

A Baker's Dozen of Reviews: Day Twelve--Jean Brashear's Texas Heroes

 I love family series, I love cowboys, and I love Jean Brashear’s writing. How could I not fall in love with the Gallaghers? I first encountered Boone Gallagher in the original book, A Family Secret (1999), when I was glomming Brashear’s backlist. Boone can act like a jerk, but he has his reasons to be moody, angry, and difficult—a bad relationship with a father who never recovered from his wife’s death, memories of his years as a Navy SEAL, his father’s leaving the home Boone loves to a stranger, and the guilt Boone feels over the death of his wife in an accident. The reader is never in doubt that the appealing Maddie Rose Collins, city girl though she be, is going to melt Boone’s reserve and win his heart. I found in this Texas tale the same kind of character-driven story with rich emotional contexts that had set me glomming Brashear’s books in the first place. Of course, I was eager to read the story of Boone’s brother Mitch.

Mitch’s story, Lonesome No More (2000), is literally a cabin romance. Mitch is a loner and has been since he left Morning Star, Texas, at sixteen. His only friend, Cy Blackburn, left him his wilderness cabin. When Cy’s granddaughter, Perrie Matheson, shows up, ill and vulnerable, with her five-year-old son, Mitch reluctantly shares the cabin with them until Perrie is well enough to leave. Suspicious of Perrie, who, Mitch believed, abandoned the grandfather who loved her, even solitary Mitch is not immune to the charms of young Davey. Soon Davey is not the only one capturing Mitch’s heart, and Mitch and Perrie discover that love can give them the strength to reveal their secrets and deal with their pasts. The second book tugs at the heart with an emotional power even stronger than the first.

The third book in the Gallaghers of Morning Star trilogy, Texas Royalty (2000), is the story of Lacey DeMille, a child of privilege and power, whose teenage love affair with Devlin Marlowe, a bad boy her father hates, ends in heartbreak for both young lovers.  Nineteen years later, private investigator Devlin is back in Houston, on a mission for his friends and clients, the Gallaghers of Morning Star, with information that is about to explode everything Lacey DeMille thinks she knows about herself.

Lacey may find the life of a blue-blooded DeMille stultifying at times and struggle to avoid her mother’s attempts to see Lacey married to a man like the plastic surgeon she is dating, a man whose bloodlines are pure and whose social status is unassailable. She may know her parents are less than pleased with Lacey’s work with the Child Advocacy Center, but her certainty of her place as a DeMille and her parents’ love for her is the cornerstone of her identity. 

Reunion stories are my favorites, and this is one with a twist that wraps up the loose ends in the Gallagher family story is a satisfying manner with a triple HEA bow. The three book were originally Silhouette Special Editions. In 2011, Brashear revised the trilogy and made them available in digital format as Texas Secrets, Texas Lonely, and Texas Bad Boy.

In 2012, Brashear added two more ebooks to her Texas Heroes collection. Texas Refuge combines a touch of paranormal with a generous helping of thriller mixed well with romance in the story of Quinn Marshall, a former Houston homicide detective looking for peace and a way to deal with the guilt over his failure to save his sister on the Texas ranch he now calls home. He has no desire to get involved in another case involving a woman and child in jeopardy, but the beauty and vulnerability of Lorie Chandler, best friend and co-star of his brother Josh, exert a strong pull. Before Quinn knows it, Lorie and her son Grant are finding a safe place to hide in Texas on Quinn’s ranch. Lorie finds on Quinn’s ranch and in his arms not just a refuge but a life for herself and her son far different and more fulfilling than her role as a soap opera star.

Josh Marshall gets the lead role in Texas Star. The Sexiest Man Alive is suddenly finding the Hollywood scene empty and unsatisfying, and a visit to his brother’s ranch sounds like just what he needs. On the way, he encounters Elena Navarro, a woman on the run from an abusive husband after seven years of terror. It would be difficult to imagine a more unlikely pair than the rising Hollywood and the terrified runaway, but the love that flares between them promises a reality better than any dream. First, however, the evil that threatens all they want must be conquered.

Texas Roots (February 2013) introduces another Gallagher series. The Gallaghers of Sweetgrass Springs, Texas, are cousins to the Gallaghers of Morning Star. When chef Scarlett Ross, a descendant of Sweetwater Springs founder Josiah Gallagher, leaves her suddenly messy and dangerous life in New York behind, she finds a history, a family, and a place she never knew where her roots run deep. She also finds a hero in hunky rancher Ian McLaren if only she can ler her heart trust him. Based on Texas Roots and the legend of Sweetgrass Springs, I think the new Gallagher series is going to offer the same heart-twisting complications and sigh-worthy romances as the first.

I recommend you sample Jean Brashear’s Texas heroes. I’m betting you’ll fall for them too. I know of no better way to start than to buy today a box set of five novels entitled Love Me Some Cowboy, available at most book outlets right now. In addition to Texas Secrets by Jean Brashear, the first of her sexy, sigh-worthy Texas Heroes, the anthology includes Nothing But Trouble by Lisa Mondello, Crazy About a Cowboy by Barbara McMahon, Once Upon a Cowboy by Day Leclaire, and Love, Texas by Ginger Chambers.  It’s a steal at $.99, and if your heroes have always been cowboys—or even if your heroes have only sometimes been cowboys, you are sure to lose your heart a time or five.

Buy Love Me Some Cowboy at these sites:

I grew up watching Roy Rogers, King of the Cowboys, and Dale Evans, Queen of the West, and Gene Autry, the Singing Cowboy, and Lash LaRue, King of the Bullwhip, ride across the big screen during Saturday matinees. I was only a little older when I started reading my dad’s Zane Gray books. Who were your first cowboy heroes?

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

A Baker's Dozen of Reviews: Day Eleven--It Happened One Midnight

It Happened One Midnight
By Julie Anne Long
Publisher: Avon
Release Date: June 25, 2013

Thomasina de Bellestros is a woman in the business of survival—her own and those of the innocents for whom she risks everything. The bastard daughter of a famous courtesan who died too young and a duke who ignores her existence, from an early age, Tommy was dependent upon the kindness of an aging countess who owed her mother a favor and her own resources. Her beauty and charm mesmerize the men who attend the countess’s salons, but it is the image they adore. Only one man knows the heart and soul of Thomasina de Bellestros, and he is the son of a powerful family, at home in a world where Tommy is a misfit and a question mark.

Jonathan Redmond is the youngest of Isaiah and Fanchette Redmond’s children, a light-hearted charmer with rakish proclivities whom no one, not even his family and closest friends, takes seriously. No one is aware that it is Jonathan who has inherited his father’s gift and interest in investment; no one knows the man whose heart is stirred by the plight of the defenseless. His father not only refuses Jonathan’s request to sponsor his membership in an elite investment group; he also cuts his allowance and gives him an ultimatum—marry a young woman of acceptable breeding and wealth within six months or have funds cut permanently.

A chance meeting one night outside the home of a duke from whom they both want something makes Tommy and Jonathan newly aware of one another. The weapons they display that night will prove far less dangerous than the other means with which they will challenge one another. The genuine liking they feel for one another will be the seed of a rare friendship that soon encompasses desire, understanding, and a love neither Tommy nor Jonathan ever expected to find. They will have obstacles to overcome, some of their own making, but together they will change each other. Together they will even change their world.  

Long began her Pennyroyal Green series over five years ago with The Perils of Pleasure (2008). Sometimes I read the first book in a series, and I almost sense a force field around it so convinced am I that I have read the beginning of something truly extraordinary. That was the feeling I had after reading The Perils of Pleasure the first time. Each book in the series has reaffirmed my initial response.  It Happened One Midnight joins What I Did for a Duke and The Notorious Countess Confesses on my all-time top 100 list (or about the top one percent of the romances I’ve read).

In this eighth Pennyroyal Green book, Long weaves a story that pairs two people who should never be a match and makes me believe they are perfect for each other. She makes the impossible seem destined and the unexpected seem ideal. Tommy sees in Jonathan all that he is and all that he is capable of becoming. If ever a heroine deserved a hero to cherish her, Tommy does. And Jonathan’s heart is large enough to cherish all the pieces of who she is. Theirs is a story that, from the opening scene through the epilogue, never makes a misstep. Once again Long gives readers a book in which true love is characterized by the ability to see the essential self of the beloved that lies beyond the masks created to protect and conceal.

As always with Long, part of the joy of reading the book comes from her prose. The opening description with its pickax moon and diamond smithereens of stars sings, and there are dozens of other passages that are lovely and lyrical. My favorite comes from the scene where the Earl of Ardmay is waiting with Jonathan and the other Redmond males (except for Lyon, of course) are waiting for Violet to give birth. Violet is having a difficult time, and the scene is a fraught one. Amid his fear for his sister, Jonathan thinks of Tommy:

And in his weariness, only one word came to Jonathan, like a prayer. Tommy, he thought, invoking what was good and real. Tommy. The word for love in his world right now. Tommy. And he supposed that the word that occurred to you in your darkest moments . . . well, that word meant love. That was how you knew. And perhaps that was the purpose of dark moments.

Earlier Tommy has distinguished between love and romance. She, like Jonathan, has come to understand that love ennobles the giver and renders meaningful small, daily expressions.  It Happened One Midnight is deeply romantic, but even better, it is a heart-shatteringly beautiful love story with a sigh-evoking HEA. I highly recommend this book.

I bought digital copies of this JAL series when they were on sale, and I am in the process of rereading all eight Pennyroyal Green books. I am discovering new reasons to love the series. Are you a rereader? Do you buy digital copies of books you already own in print, or vice versa?

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

A Baker's Dozen of Reviews: Day Ten--The Newcomer

The Newcomer
By Robyn Carr
Publisher: Harlequin Mira
Release Date: June 25, 2013

The second book in Robyn Carr’s Thunder Point series could be subtitled “The Book of Complications.” All the lives that seemed moving toward happily ever after in The Wanderer are shaken up and the love affairs are tested.

Longtime friends Mac McCain and Gina James are still basking in the glow of their new romantic relationship when Cecilia Jayne, Mac’s ex-wife, shows up after ten years of no contact at all with Mac or with her three children. Even after Mac reassures Gina that the beautiful Cee Jay poses no threat to their relationship, concerns about the effects of her reappearance on the children remain, especially given the explosive anger of sixteen-year-old Eve.

Ashley, Gina’s sixteen-year-old daughter, is having problems too. The effects of a bad break-up with her boyfriend Downey are compounded when Downey’s new girlfriend sends a fake semi-nude photo of Ashley to all Downey’s phone contacts and posts a copy on Facebook. The combination sends the usually stable, upbeat Ashley spiraling into a frightening depression and sets Gina looking for information from Ashley’s father who disappeared before Ashley’s birth.

Mac and Gina are not the only ones dealing with surprises from their pasts. Hank Cooper receives a phone call summoning him across the country to hear some news from his former fiancée that will change his life forever. The contact from Coop’s past sets Sarah Dupre questioning whether or not she can really trust his commitment to her. Meanwhile, a promotion and a move for her are in the pipeline, and she’s faced with the choice of leaving the Coast Guard, or leaving Coop and Thunder Point and uprooting her brother Landon from a place where he is happy and anticipating a successful, potentially scholarship-producing senior year as quarterback for the high school team. And Sarah can’t bring herself to share her news with either of the males who will be affected by her decision.

Carr’s Thunder Point series is proving every bit as addictive as her beloved Virgin River books. It has the same strengths as the earlier series: a cast of characters of varying ages who capture the reader’s interest and affection; multiple storylines that sometimes run parallel to one another, sometimes intersect with one another but complement one another either way; and a sense of place strong enough to leave the reader feeling as if she’s spent time in a real town that she looks forward to visiting again.

While I wanted Coop and Sarah to resolve their problems, it was Mac and Gina’s story in which I was most invested. The friends-to-lovers trope is one of my favorites, and Carr’s treatment of their relationship rings true on so many levels. The slow pace at which it develops because of their concern about how their becoming a couple will affect their kids, the way family steps up to do the job when a support system is needed (Gina’s mother and Mac’s Aunt Lou), and the way that their friendship remains central to who they are even after they become lovers. I love that they keep the same small rituals in place and maintain their easy communication. Even their joy in a weekend escape for the two of them gives them an extra dimension of reality because when money is tight and kids are needy, it’s not easy for single parents to find time to be together without intrusions.

Carr gives the reader just enough information about new characters to make her eager to return for the next story. In this case, the next story is The Hero, the story of Spencer Lawson, single father and Thunder Point’s new football coach. I’ve already pre-ordered it for my Kindle.

I know many of you are Robyn Carr fans. Have you started the Thunder Point series? How do you think it compares to the Virgin River books?

Monday, May 27, 2013

A Baker's Dozen of Reviews: Day Nine--A Passion for Pleasure

A Passion for Pleasure
By Nina Rowan
Grand Central Publishing, Forever
Release Date: April 30, 2013

Sebastian Hall, brother to Alexander, Viscount Northwood (A Study in Seduction), resigned his position as conductor of the orchestra at the Court of Weimar, apparently in a display of artistic temperament, broke with his high-born patrons, and returned to London. Sebastian’s father, the Earl of Rushton, has never fully approved of his son’s musical career and is eager to see his second-born son settled into an appropriate position and married to an appropriate bride. Rushton gives Sebastian an ultimatum: marry or risk the loss of his allowance and possibly of his inheritance as well. What few people know is that a debilitating weakness in the muscles of his right arm and hand has left Sebastian unable to play the piano. His disability leaves him emotionally wounded and financially burdened by medical bills. When his brother Darius offers him money to find the plans for an encryption machine believed to be in the possession of Mr. Granville Blake, expert in automata and owner of Blake’s Museum of Automata, Sebastian reluctantly agrees to find the plans.

Clara Winter, the niece of Granville Blake, found sanctuary with her uncle when her father cast her out after her husband’s death. It is she whom Sebastian finds when he pays his first visit to Blake’s Museum of Automata. Although he has forgotten her, Clara recognizes him. He may look quite different from the musically gifted charmer who was the darling of London society, but Clara knows this man is the same Sebastian Hall who once gave music lessons to her and her brother in the halcyon days before the death of her brother and mother. What Clara doesn’t know is what this man who seemed the epitome of masculine beauty and grace to a younger Clara wants with her uncle.

She discovers Sebastian’s need for the encryption machine plans just after she learns that her latest effort to gain custody of her only child has failed. Her son, Andrew, according to the terms of his father’s will, is the ward of Clara’s father, Baron Fairfax. The baron, who declares Clara responsible for her husband’s death, charges that she is an unfit parent and has kept Andrew from his mother for more than a year. Knowing her father is facing bankruptcy because of his extravagance, Clara had hoped to offer him property she holds in a life tenancy to sell in exchange for her son, but the courts have ruled that she cannot break the trust. Desperate to have her son restored to her, Clara offers to locate the plans Sebastian needs if he will marry her, sell the property, which he can do legally as her husband, and use his influence as the son of an earl, to help her reclaim her son. Against the backdrop of familial conflict, a mother’s desperation, and an artist’s loss of the gift that defined him, the relationship between these two develops as they learn to love and trust one another and to believe in all they can achieve together.

A Passion for Pleasure is the second book in Rowan’s Daring Hearts series. While her sophomore novel lacks the rich historical and political contexts of her debut book, A Study in Seduction, it continues the intricate presentation of the theme of parenthood introduced in the first book. Rowan weaves the primary thread of Clara’s struggle to be reunited with her son with secondary threads that include Clara’s relationship with her own twisted father and with the maternal uncle who assumes the paternal role his brother-in-law abdicated and Sebastian’s relationship with his well-intentioned but controlling father and the mysterious mother who plunged the family into scandal when she eloped with her soldier lover. The Hall family is an interesting collection of characters, different from one another yet bound together by familial bonds and by the scandal that shadows all their lives. Clara’s story is interesting in its own right, and she is a particularly sympathetic figure as she exemplifies not only a mother willing to take any measure to reclaim her child but also the legal and social restrictions imposed on women of the period.

The chemistry between Sebastian and Clara is powerful, and the love scenes sizzle. I would like to have seen more details of the emotional development of their relationship. As it is, pragmatism and passion seem to be their strongest ties. I need to see the evidence rather than merely be told that they make one another better people. I also thought the fizzling out of the plot point involving the encryption plans was a betrayal of reader expectations. I recommend this book but with the noted caveats. I do think reading A Study in Seduction, while not necessary to understand A Passion for Pleasure, will make for a more rewarding reading experience.

Despite the flaws in the second book, I am intrigued by the world that Rowan has created. At the end of my review of A Study in Seduction, I expressed the hope that Talia and Castleford would get their own book, and I’m delighted that it is the next book in the series. I also look forward to learning more about diplomat Darius and his twin Nicholas. I found 2012 an exceptionally good year for debut discoveries, and Nina Rowan ranks high on that list.

I find that I am becoming more dedicated to reading series in order. I always feel as if I belong to an outer circle of readers when I don’t. How important do you consider reading series books in order?

Sunday, May 26, 2013

A Baker's Dozen of Reviews: Day Eight--Sea Glass Island

Sea Glass Island By Sherryl Woods Publisher: Harlequin Mira Release Date: June 1, 2013
Samantha Castle, oldest of the three Castle sisters, has returned to Sand Castle Bay, North Carolina, for her sister Emily’s wedding to Boone Dorsett, but this time she may be back for good. Her acting career in New York is fizzling out now that she’s in her mid-thirties and an ever-replenishing supply of younger hopefuls are competing for and winning the commercial shoots and short-term soap opera roles that used to go to Samantha. The passion that once fueled her dream seems to have fizzled as well. These days Samantha finds herself longing for the kind of balance her younger sisters Emily and Gabo have found with fulfilling careers and a man devoted to seeing they live happily ever after. Samantha has a lot of thinking to do, but her sisters have joined that inveterate matchmaker, their grandmother, in pairing maid-of-honor Samantha with Boone’s best friend and best man, physician Ethan Cole, the guy Samantha had a super-size crush on as a teenager.

Ethan Cole doesn’t believe in happily-ever-after for most people, but he’s willing to admit that his pal Boone and Emily Castle have something special. He’s even reluctantly willing to go along with all the wedding hoopla that his role as Boone’s best man dictates, but not even gorgeous, sexy Samantha Castle is going to change his mind about his own love life, or lack thereof, no matter how many times the two of them are manipulated into one another’s company. Boone decided when his fiancée dumped him after he returned from Afghanistan minus a leg that his work at the clinic he operates with his old friend and fellow-vet, Greg Knotts, and his volunteer efforts with Project Pride, a program dedicated to increasing the self-esteem of disabled children and teenagers, would be his focus. No one else is ever going to get close enough to break his heart again.

But there’s just something in the air of Sand Castle Bay that encourages even the unlikeliest dreams of romance. Between Samantha’s determined relatives, the sizzling chemistry between her and Ethan, and Samantha’s own shoot-from-the-hip honesty, Ethan’s determination is soon wavering. If he and Samantha can just trust themselves and their love for one another, they may discover their HEA after all.

Sea Glass Island is the conclusion to the Ocean Breeze trilogy of the prolific Sherryl Woods. Samantha and Ethan, like the rest of the Sand Castle Bay crew, are likeable characters, and it’s easy enough to root for them. But the conflict in the story is strictly a one-note song with Ethan clinging tenaciously to the serene, peaceful life he has built for himself, free from romantic complications and the possibility of more emotional pain. It seems a long time for a man who is so well-adjusted in all other areas to allow his life to be shaped by the rejection of a shallow woman. I was also disappointed that the sibling rivalry issue was resolved so simplistically. Still, it’s a sweet story, and the romances expand to promise not only weddings for the three Castle sisters but also for the widowed Cora Jane and her long-time swain and even a love interest for the sisters’ formerly emotionally distant father.

This trilogy is not Woods’s best work, lacking the complexities and depth of some of her Sweet Magnolias Chesapeake Shores books. But the community is idyllic, the characters appealing, and the sweetness factor high enough to keep the author’s devoted fans happy.

If I were still grading books, this one would be a C-C+ read for me. In my system, that means, it’s an ok read, but not a keeper since I don’t expect to reread it. What puts a book in the C range for you?

Saturday, May 25, 2013

A Baker's Dozen of Reviews: Day Seven--A Midnight Clear

A Midnight Clear
By Lynn Kerstan
Publisher: Belle Bridge Books
Release Date: March 11, 2013
(Reissue of 1997 Fawcett Regency)

Jane Ryder is desperate when she applies for and obtains a position as secretary to Lady Eudora Swann, an immensely wealthy grande dame, thanks to her having outlived six husbands. At eighty-six, Lady Swann is determined to leave something behind to ensure that she will be remembered. With this goal in mind, she is writing two books. One is a history of the British aristocracy to be printed a hundred years after Lady Swann’s death; the other, entitled Scandalbroth, is an account of the scandals that have rocked the ton during Lady Swann’s long memory, with three chapters devoted to the particularly disreputable Marquesses of Fallon.

The current Marquess of Fallon, recently returned from India where he made his fortune, is determined to restore the family’s estate which has been ruined by his father’s and grandfather’s excesses and the family name. Scandalbroth will make his task immeasurably difficult, if not impossible. Too stubborn to be persuaded and too wealthy to be bribed, Lady Swann is immune to the marquess’s pleas and threats. But she sends one offer via Jane. If Fallon will allow Jane access to the Fallon family papers and tell Jane his own story for the history, Lady Swann will consider destroying Scandalbroth unpublished.

Fallon has little confidence in Lady Swann’s promise and even less that there are any Fallon family papers, but he agrees that Jane can accompany him to his family estate, Wolvercote, while he considers what must be done to restore the place. At least, Jane will be company when he makes a visit to a place to which he is strangely reluctant to return.

Wolvercote is in deplorable condition, and the memories it holds just as unpleasant as Fallon expected. What he doesn’t expect is to fall through rotted stairs and injure himself. His injuries added to a snowstorm make a return to the inn dangerous, but Fallon refuses to shelter at Wolvercote. Instead, he and Jane make their way to the nearby dower house where his grandmother lived, the one place that holds happy childhood memories.

The snowstorm challenges the ingenuity of the two to find fuel for the fireplaces and food to eat, but both Jane and Fallon enjoy the challenge. The seclusion fosters an emotional intimacy between the mismatched pair, and they share details of their pasts that they have shared with no one else. Jane’s competence and resilience hold a strong appeal for Fallon, who is also finding her more and more attractive as they get to know one another. Jane has already lost her heart. She loses it again when their makeshift Christmas dinner is interrupted by the sound of bells and they find an infant in a basket outside the stable. Fallon has a mystery to solve that will bring him pain and joy, and Jane finds a future brighter than any she could have imagined.

I love traditional Regencies, and it was a pleasure to find a delightful one that I had not read. A wealthy marquess and a secretary who is little more than a servant seem to have nothing in common, but Jane and Fallon are both lonely people forced by circumstances to depend only on themselves and to make the most of their opportunities. Watching them become real and dear to one another and watching Lady Swann’s machinations force them into a realization of just what they have found in one another is heartwarming. The Christmas setting and the infant whose tiny hands grab both their hearts make it a special story.

If you like traditional Regencies with engaging characters or if you like historical Christmas stories with a tender romance and a generous serving of seasonal sentiment, you will enjoy this story. Once again Belle Bridge has reissued an older romance that is a true treasure. I’ll be adding A Midnight Clear to my favorite Christmas romances.

Some reissues seem dated. Some are classic stories that are timeless. I place A Midnight Clear in the latter category. What makes a story timeless for you?

Friday, May 24, 2013

A Baker's Dozen of Reviews: Day Six--Protector

By Nancy Northcott
Publisher: Forever Yours
Release Date: March 5, 2013

Three years ago, helicopter pilot Josh Campbell and firefighter paramedic Edie Lang turned to one another in their grief over three comrades lost in a burnover in Wyoming. When Josh’s pager interrupted their time together, he was forced to leave, promising to return. Not even the mage magic they share was enough to overcome Josh’s reservations about a woman who regularly risked her life. He did not return. But three years was not long enough to make either of them forget the passion that flared between them. Now Edie’s crew from Colorado has been rotated in to help fight a fire devastating Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp, and Josh, who flies for the Southeastern Shire Collegium (cover name: the Georgia Institute of Paranormal Research), is the pilot of the medevac helicopter  taking Edie to an injured firefighter in need of rescue.

Their chance meeting might have been only an awkward experience that stirred memories neither of them was comfortable recalling, but they both fall victim to a strange illness that depletes their mage powers. They end up in the Collegium infirmary under the care of mage healer Dr. Stefan Harper, a character readers familiar with Northcott’s debut novel, Renegade, will remember. When it turns out that their illness is due to contact with an orb that drains mages’ magical powers, a weapon of ghouls and traitor mages. Edie and Josh will have to work together to battle the forces that threaten them and worlds of Mage and Mundane alike, and they also will have to battle their feelings for one another.

Neither can deny the powerful feelings they have for one another. But Edie’s plans include becoming a smokejumper, an even more dangerous job than the one she now holds, and Josh’s conviction that women should be kept safe for the good of the family unit is deeply rooted in his childhood experience. Can their love overcome the impasse?

Protector falls between Renegade and Guardian, scheduled for release on July 2, 2013. Northcott returns the reader to the fascinating world of the benevolent mages in the Southeastern Collegium headquartered in Wayfarer, Georgia, on the edges of the mysterious Okefenokee Swamp. Northcott’s worldbuilding is sufficiently detailed even in this short form to create multi-dimensional place that is fantastical enough to appeal to the imagination and sufficiently grounded in the real to make suspension of disbelief easy. Her characters are strong and richly developed, and the stakes are high enough to keep the story compelling.

While the focus on the novella is on Edie and Josh’s story, Stefan is not the only familiar character who appears in the story. Readers who liked Renegade will enjoy seeing Griffin and Val again, and Stefan, a character I found fascinating in the first book, becomes even more so in Protector. I eagerly anticipate his story in Guardian. It’s a reunion tale too, my favorite trope. If you like a mix of fantasy and romance, or even if you’re a fan of character-driven romance willing to broaden your reading experience, I recommend this series.

Are you a reader of romantic fantasy? What do you require for willing suspension of disbelief?

Thursday, May 23, 2013

A Baker's Dozen of Reviews: Day Five--I'll Be Seeing You

I’ll Be Seeing You
By Suzanne Hayes 
and Loretta Nyhan
Publisher: Harlequin Mira
Release Date: May 28, 2013

It is mid-January, 1943, when Gloria Whitehall, a twenty-three-year-old in Rockport, Massachusetts, pregnant with her second child, writes her first letter to her new pen-pal, Marguerite “Rita” Vincenzo, an almost forty-one-year-old wife of a biology professor turned Army medic. Glory’s husband is an army staff sergeant in basic training. Rita’s husband is already in Tunisia, and her eighteen-year-old son is in basic training with the Navy. The only thing the two women have in common is their status as military wives in a time of war. They belong to different generations, different social classes, and different geographical regions. Glory’s home in Rockport was her parents’ summer home; it is one of three homes she inherited from them. Rita and her husband Sal are first-generation Americans from Chicago, Her parents were German immigrants; his were Italian. Their lifestyle is solidly middle-class. 

Yet over the almost three and a half years that these women exchange letters in which they share their pasts and their present, their fears and their hopes, their failures and their triumphs, their friends and their families, a rare and powerful friendship develops. They become a lifeline for one another, offering through their letters honesty, acceptance, and emotional sustenance.  Their friendship makes both women braver, wiser, and more resilient. The letters allow the reader to share the forging of this extraordinary friendship and to meet through Glory and Rita’s words, and occasionally through others’ letters, the other people who fill their lives.

I’ll Be Seeing You is an extraordinary book. It brings World War II on the American home front vividly to life. The details that Glory and Rita share remind the reader of the fear and loneliness those left behind experienced, of the terror the sight of a telegram delivery struck in their hearts, and of the courage they displayed by getting on with life and doing all they could for the war effort. The recipes they share show how people coped with rationing, and reminders of the scarcity of everything from women’s stockings to children’s toys demonstrate how war affected every aspect of life.

Most of all, the novel celebrates the power of women’s friendship to strengthen, enrich, and transform the lives of women blessed to find friend of the heart and form bonds of intimacy that bridge all differences of age, class, and place.

This is an extraordinary book, made more so by the fact that the two women who wrote it did so through correspondence without ever meeting face-to-face. I love epistolary novels, and this one may be my favorite since Lee Smith’s Fair and Tender Ladies in 1993. If you like women’s fiction that touches the heart and illuminates your understanding of what it means to live with courage and compassion for others and for yourself, I highly recommend I’ll Be Seeing You.

I’m happy to see more books being written about the World War II era. What historical period would you like to see more of in fiction?

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

A Baker's Dozen of Reviews: Day Four--Love Rehab

Love Rehab: 
A Novel in Twelve Steps
By Jo Piazza
Open Road Media e-Original
Release Date: June 4, 2013

Sophie is an illustrator of children’s books, but her work is stacking up undone. Her personal hygiene and friendships are suffering, and Sophie is spending far too much time vainly checking her cell phone for calls that are never made. Unable to let go of Eric, her cheating ex-boyfriend, she cyber stalks him and the woman for whom he dumped her, Floozy McSecretary, a big-boobed, sexting blonde. When Eric finally calls, it’s with a threat to call the police after Sophie and her best friend Annie, drunk past the point of reason and discretion, create a Facebook page for Eric’s penis.

Sophie is not the only one in trouble. When her best friend Annie, owner of a local bar, “borrows” a police car and races through their hometown of Yardville, New Jersey, endangering property and feline lives, she is charged with DUI and ends up with a suspended license and court-ordered counseling and AA attendance. Sophie agrees to attend the meeting with her, although Sophie rarely drinks. Annie is silent during the meeting, bothered by the presence of bar customers and her pediatrician, but Sophie finds comfort in the confession and support of the AA group. She is struck by the similarity between her experience with Eric and the experiences of the AA members. Sophie is a love addict, and she knows other women who are also love addicts. With the encouragement of Joe, the AA leader, she starts Love Addicts Anonymous.

Thanks to Sophie’s editor putting out the word and Sophie contacting all her friends with relationship problems, thirty plus women show up for the first meeting. Among them is Prethi, who has been dumped by her doctor fiancé for a brain surgeon. Jobless, homeless, and embarrassed to tell her traditional Indian parents what has happened to her, Prethi finds refuge in the aging six-bedroom Victorian that Sophie inherited from her grandmother. Soon the house becomes a rehab facility for women in various stages of love addiction, with some members living in-house and others “‘outpatients’ who commuted in on Sundays.”

Love Rehab is light chick-lit. It is genuinely funny with some great dialogue and some scenes that will leave most readers laughing out loud. Some of the humor may come with a sting as readers recognize a comment or a situation that comes close to home. You don’t have to be under thirty-five to recognize the woman who is divorcing her cheating husband and talks incessantly about her heartbreak to everyone from her closest friends to the gas station attendant or to understand when Sophie admits, “I just wanted my boyfriends to like me so much that I never really considered whether I liked them.”

The ending is a bit too starry-eyed to be fully credible, and Joe, who has the potential to be complex and interesting, ends up being little more than a means of giving Sophie her HEA, or at least a HFN. Still, it is an entertaining read with some accurate revelations about the degree that women see themselves as defined by a man who views them as worthy—or unworthy—of his love. If you are in the mood for laughs perhaps accompanied by some insights, you should give Love Rehab a try.

Do you read chick-lit? I read an article in the Atlantic recently that said the subgenre, at least in its best known form, is dead. What do you think?

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

A Baker's Dozen of Reviews: Day Three Once Upon a Tower

Once Upon a Tower
By Eloisa James
Publisher: Avon
Release Date: May 28, 2013

Gowan Stoughton, Duke of Kinross, Chief of Clan MacAulay, is a man who knows the value of time. He might prefer to be in the Highlands fishing for salmon to being in an English ballroom fishing for a wife, but since he needs information from the Earl of Gilchrist, it seems prudent to combine the two tasks. But Gowan is the one who is hooked at first sight by Gilchrist’s beautiful daughter. He told himself that diligence was the chief criterion for his duchess, but it is not a quality he considers at all in choosing Lady Edith Gilchrist for his bride.

Instead, from the moment he sees her, Gowan thinks of Edie in the language of fairy tales. She is “otherworldly.” She looks as if she were “dreaming of her home under a fairy hill.” Her hair “gleamed like the golden apples of the sun.” Gowan, who professes to value the utilitarian, suddenly discovers that Shakespeare has his uses since the bard gives Gowan the words to express his inexpressible feelings for the glorious Edie: “I never saw true beauty till this night.”
(Romeo and Juliet, Act 1, Scene 5).

The reader soon discovers that Edie’s silence and serenity, qualities that greatly appeal to Gowan, as well as her “burning touch” are attributable to her feverishness. Edie is much less ethereal and much more unconventional than Gowan knows. He doesn’t even know that music is the most important thing to her. Edie is a gifted cellist, good enough to have been a performer had she been born male. From the first letter he receives from her, Gowan learns that his first impression of Edie was an incomplete picture. It will take marriage to teach him how incomplete.

Since she was so ill when they met, Edie knows even less about Gowan than he knows about her. She’s not even certain what the man she has promised to marry looks like. Her strongest memory is of his “enchanting Scottish burr.” Combining her own vague recollection of him with what her stepmother tells her, Edie concludes that she is about to become the wife of “a Scotsman the size of a bloody tree with no sense of humor and an impulsive bent.”  

The letters Edie and Gowan exchange do reveal something of who they are, but they are still essentially strangers when they marry. They are also quite young: she is nineteen and he is twenty-one. They are also both single-minded in their obsessions, as the young are prone to be, and neither really understands what drives the other. Nor have they learned the necessity of compromise.

Gowan learns that Edie’s practice time with her cello is important to her, but he does not understand that music determines how Edie thinks, how she views the external world. He says to her at one point, “You may be a musician, but that is not the sum of you.” And Edie’s response is to think he is wrong, that music is the sum of her. It isn’t all of who she is, of course, but it does color everything about her. This is particularly true because for all of her life, music has been both her single passion and her sole means of real connection with her only parent.

Gowan is as consumed by his responsibilities as duke and chief of his clan as Edie is by her music. Edie subconsciously understands this, as one intuitive response reveals: “Hundreds of years of self-assurance had been drilled into him with the same rigor as had her musical scales.
Earlier she recognizes that Gowan is “as driven as she. . . Though she wasn’t entirely sure in what direction.” What she can’t know is that for Gowan, as for Edie, the importance of this role is magnified by what his father was.

The potential for problems is there from the beginning, and then the problems with their sex life complicate the situation even more. Edie and Gowan are not merely sexually inexperienced; they are true innocents. Edie barely understands what the word “prick” means. She doesn’t even know how to flirt. She is dependent upon what her stepmother tells her, and some of Layla’s advice is very bad indeed. Gowan was betrothed to his first fiancée when he was very young, and the licentiousness of his parents has made him adopt high standards for his own behavior. He was too honorable to be faithless, believing that lying with another woman when his troth was  pledged would dishonor both his fiancée and himself. He found the idea of paying for sex “distasteful.” Gowan knows more about sex than Edie does, but his knowledge is based on certain illustrated volumes in his library. Their ignorance combined with their inability to communicate is disastrous.

The first seventeen chapters show Gowan and Edie meeting and moving toward marriage. The next twenty-five show their marriage moving toward trouble, deeply in trouble, and achieving their HEA. Eloisa James is at her finest when she writes marriage-in trouble stories, and Once Upon a Tower is no exception.

I spent a great deal of time trying to get all the reasons I love this book into coherent paragraphs. I couldn’t do it. My enthusiasm just kept overpowering my rational thought process. So instead of reasoned criticism, I give you a list:

The Top Ten Reasons I Loved Once Upon a Tower
(in addition to Gowan and Edie, of course)

10. Literary Allusions
One of the things I always look forward to in an Eloisa James novel is the literary allusions. I have fun trying to identify those she sneaks in, but even when they come with full identification, I enjoy them. The Romeo and Juliet references were a joy in this one, but an even greater delight was the use of John Donne’s aubade, a poem I love for many reasons.

9. Smythe-Smith
What fun to have Edie and Gowan attending the wedding of Honoria Smyth-Smith to the Earl of Chatteris! I love the idea that they are all part of one world. I might say it’s “Just like Heaven.”

8. Letters
I loved the letters! I thought they were funny, and I thought they served a significant purpose  in allowing Gowan and Edie to learn a little more about one another before their second meeting.

7. Bardolph
Since Bardolph’s name comes from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I and Henry V, I might have included him with the literary allusions, but another of my particular joys in reading Eloisa James is decoding the names she gives tertiary characters. My favorite is Prufrock, Piers’s butler in When Beauty Tamed the Beast, but Bardolph is a close second. He’s a terrific character, much worthier than the character whose name he bears.

6. Layla
First, Layla with her cheroots, her empty flirtations, her unhappy marriage, and her loving heart is a vibrant character , one who is easy to like. But I also thought her name fit perfectly into the novel, evoking both the character from Arabic literature whose love story has some similarities to Romeo and Juliet and Eric Clapton’s song by that title (based on the literary character). I thought a couple of Clapton’s lines fit EJ’s Layla well: “You've been running and hiding much too long. / You know it's just your foolish pride.”

5. The Dress
I can’t say too much about this without moving into spoiler territory, but readers will understand the importance of The Dress, the one that makes you look the way you want to look, the one that affects him exactly the way you want it too. Edie wears such a dress. It is “China rose. . . . Darker than cinnabar, more saturated than claret . . . well, close to claret.”  It is amazing, and it leads to a Moment. The only other thing I’m going to say is that nobody can make a kiss on the hand as sexy as Eloisa James does.

 4. The Tower
Part of the fun of reading James’s fairy tale romances is considering how she uses elements of the traditional story, sometimes staying true to them in order to suggest the original and sometimes giving one a twist to make it reflect a quite different meaning. Edie is beautiful like Rapunzel. In fact Gowan’s comparison of her hair to the “golden apples of the sun” echoes the description from the Grimm Brothers’ tale (1812) that calls her “the most beautiful child under the sun.”  Rapunzel is musical as well. It is her voice that first enchants the king’s son. Edie is a cellist rather than a singer, but her playing enchants Gowan the first time he hears her. Rapunzel and her prince marry, but they must overcome obstacles before they begin their HEA. Edie and Gowan’s story follows the same pattern. The prince wanders blind, weeping over the loss of his wife. Gowan’s blindness is metaphoric, but he too wanders and weeps for the same cause.  And in both stories, the wife’s tears are healing.

The twist comes with the tower. Rapunzel is shut into a tower that “had neither stairs nor door, but quite at the top was a little window.” The tower sounds similar to Edie’s, but Edie chooses to shut herself into her tower rather than being imprisoned there by an enchantress.  Readers with a Freudian leaning may see the tower as a phallic symbol. I was more interested in seeing Edie’s making choices and taking action as evidence of her maturing and recognizing her autonomy, qualities that link Edie more closely to Charlotte Rose de Caumont de la Force’s version of the tale, "Persinette"  (1697).

3. The Groveling
Sometimes my affection for a book is shadowed by the hero’s insufficient groveling for what I see as serious offenses. EJ’s Potent Pleasures is one of those books. But Gowan grovels beautifully. Additionally, other characters—several of them-- say to Gowan all the things I wanted to shout at him. Wonderful!

2. The Language
The language of Eloisa James’s novels is an abiding joy. There are the lovely, lyrical lines that sing softly in the reader’s ear. I pick out one sentence in every EJ novel that particularly satisfies my love of the lyrical line. My pick for OUAT: “Her lips held a natural curve, as if she had a kiss or a smile in reserve, one that she had never given away.” 

Beyond the lyricism, there is a sense of rightness in every word. James gives the reader the feeling that each word is chosen with precision and purpose. For example, in one scene Layla claims that her husband doesn’t like her. Edie says to her, “I believe you do like each other. You just need to talk more.” The language here is simple; twelve of the thirteen words in the two sentences are monosyllabic.  But the rhythm is perfect for the situation, intensifying the directness and genuineness of Edie’s response. Her words are also touched with irony since the reader understands what Edie does not: her words will apply as well to Edie and Gowan.

      1. The Totally Satisfying HEA
No matter what else I love about a romance novel, it can never reach my top tier of favorites if the ending     fails to leave me believing that the love of the H/H is the kind that can survive all the blows life will deliver. The ending of OUAT leaves me with this feeling with no reservations. The romantic gesture is perfect, the luscious frosting on the very best cake.

I highly recommend this one. Imagine I’m sending up “Read This!” balloons to remind you that it’s available in one week.

Are you a fan of fairy tale romances? What qualities do your top tier favorites have in common?

Monday, May 20, 2013

A Baker's Dozen of Reviews: Day Two--Just One Kiss

Just One Kiss
By Susan Mallery
Publisher: Harlequin HQN
Release Date: May 28, 2013

Justice Garrett was Patience McGraw’s first love, but he disappeared from Fool’s Gold with no warning before the young teens ever shared a kiss. Patience grew up and married at eighteen a man who couldn’t accept the responsibilities of fatherhood and left her less than a year later. She and her ten-year-old daughter Lillie live with Patience’s mother Ava, who suffers from MS. Patience is an optimist who enjoys her life in Fool’s Gold, dreaming of the day she can open Brew-haha, a coffee shop and occasionally regretting the man shortage in her hometown. One day Justice walks back into her life as unexpectedly as he walked out.

Memories of Fool’s Gold and Patience have been bright spots in the bleak early life of Justice Garrett. He has never forgotten Patience, and the adult version is even better than his memories. The grown-up Patience has the same vitality and straightforwardness that characterized her fourteen-year-old self and a new beauty that makes Justice dangerously aware of her. He’s hoping that his move back to Fool’s Gold will give him something he’s never had—a normal life, but he is convinced that his past makes him unfit for Patience. Life with his career criminal father, the witness protection program to prevent the father he had testified against from killing him, and a career as a military sniper have immersed his very soul in darkness that he doesn’t want touching the sweetness of Patience and her family. Can he build the security training facility that he and his friends Ford Hendrix and Angel Whittaker are planning for Fool’s Gold and keep his relationship with Patience one of friendship when he wants so much more?

Justice’s effect on Patience is just as potent as it was in the past, but Patience is more wary now. Abandoned by both her father and her husband, she knows men are always leaving. Even Justice left her, and however good his reason, he has made no effort to get in touch with her during the intervening years, not even when he reconnected with Ford, their mutual friend. Patience has to protect not only her own heart but also that of her vulnerable daughter who clearly is not immune to Justice’s charm. But Patience thinks Justice owes her the kiss she never got all those years ago, and as both she and Justice are about to discover just one kiss will never be enough.

Just One Kiss is Susan Mallery’s sixteenth trip to Fool’s Gold, California (eleven novels and five novellas), so perhaps it is not surprising that the basic plot in this one—hero driven by demons from his past too noble to commit to the heroine, whose roots run deep in the small town and who has her own reasons for wariness—is a familiar one. But Mallery’s characters are so appealing that plot similarities are a minor quibble. Patience is a delight—warm, funny, loyal, and resolute, and Justice, whose blond, blue-eyed good looks are the antithesis of his inner darkness, is not only a hunk but also a man of courage and decency, capable of more tenderness and love than he realizes.

The secondary characters, especially Lillie and Ava, add depth and interest to the story. As always, part of the fun of reading a Fool’s Gold book is the appearance of various members of the community, those whose HEAs are in process and those whose stories are yet to come. If you are a regular visitor to Fool’s Gold, you will want to be certain to buy your ticket for this year’s trips. (You can purchase them in advance.) If you’ve never been to Fool’s Gold, I highly recommend it to readers who enjoy small towns with a distinctive history and dozens of fascinating people. I never miss an opportunity to visit.

One of the things I especially enjoy about Fool’s Gold and other favorite fictional small towns is the presence of all ages from infants to nonagenerians, but it does make for a large cast of characters. Do you like books with dozens of characters, or do you belong to the camp that believes the focus in romance fiction belongs solidly on the H/H?

Sunday, May 19, 2013

A Baker's Dozen of Reviews: Day One--The Sassy Belles

The Sassy Belle
By Beth Albright
Publisher: Harlequin Mira
Release Date: May 28, 2013

Blake O’Hara Heart and Vivi McFadden are BFFs, and have been since they were nine-year-olds in a Catholic school in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, so who else would Vivi turn to when Lewis Heart, Vivi’s latest lover and the Voice of the Crimson Tide, stops breathing during an intimate encounter at the Fountain Mist Motel. Both Blake and her husband Harry, brother to the breathless Lewis, are attorneys. Vivi is going to need two attorneys because by the time the police get to the Fountain Mist, the body has disappeared.

Things get more complicated by the minute when the homicide investigator in charge of the case turns out to be Sonny Bartholomew, Blake’s old boyfriend. The murder case may have turned into a missing person case, but Vivi is still a person of interest. Blake and Harry spend the tenth anniversary of a marriage that may be in its death throes in the bar of the historic Tutwiler Hotel, the scene of Harry ‘s proposal, listening to the man Blake might have married ask her best friend questions about  Vivi’s sex life with the missing brother  to whom Harry hasn’t spoken in six years. This may be a scandal big enough to torpedo Harry’s chances of becoming the next senator from Alabama. 

The case seems to be stirring up more questions than answers, and half of Tuscaloosa, including Blake’s former stepsister and forever bête noire, seems to be bent on inserting themselves into the mystery. Meanwhile, Blake’s personal life is also growing more complicated as the distance between her and increases and her feelings for Sonny grow more intense. Some things are broken beyond repair, some things are fixed, and answers come from unexpected sources, but through it all three generations of Sassy Belles, “Southern Belles with attitude and a splash of fun,” emerge triumphant.

Beth Albright’s debut novel blends elements of romance, mystery, and chick lit into a frothy mix that is as Southern as grits and barbecue and as appealing as a glass of cold sweet tea on an August afternoon. Albright overgeneralizes Southern experience, but the result is a cast of amusing characters.  The Sassy Belles was such fun to read that even a reader with ties to Georgia and Auburn could enjoy a few hours in Tide Country.

The setting for this book is a real place, clearly one that the author knows well. Do you prefer your settings real or fictional?

Saturday, May 18, 2013

RITA Season: Part 1 (Single-Title Contemporary)

In March calls went out informing seventy-five authors that their books had been named finalists for the 2013 RITAs, romance fiction’s most prestigious awards. Winners in eleven categories will be announced July 20 at the 33rd annual conference of the Romance Writers of America. I know some romance readers—even some romance writers—pay little attention to these awards. And while I’m certainly no expert on the selection process, I know enough to know that the oft-repeated comparison to the Oscars is misleading since there is no RWA equivalent of voting within branches (writers for writers, actors for actors, film editors for film editors, etc.) by which the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences selects finalists or for all active members to vote for the winners. If I understand the RITA process correctly, finalists and winners are determined by small panels of judges. While I’m sure the judges make every effort to be fair and objective, I’m skeptical enough to think personal tastes and histories are bound to be a factor.

Now I don’t mean to rain on anybody’s parade. I’m an awards junkie, and since I spend considerably more time reading and writing about romance fiction than I do watching movies or television or listening to the kind of music that is the focus of most of the music award shows, the RITAs are the awards I’m most interested in. Whatever the process, they are the industry awards with the greatest cachet. I cheer wildly when favorite books and authors are recognized, regret the shortsightedness or questionable taste that ignored some deserving recognition, and check out unfamiliar finalists that I might find rewarding.

The posts that I’ll be sharing on alternate Saturdays between now and July 6 will be self-indulgent, romance-fan posts.  I’m going to be looking only at the categories in which I have read most of the finalists and talking about the books I have read with a nostalgic glance at some favorite winners from the past and a few gripes about treasured books not included among the current finalists. I hope you’ll join me and share your own totally authentic, equally subjective views.

Contemporary Single Title Romance: The Past


Checking past winners of the RITA for Best Contemporary Single Title Romance, I was surprised to see how many writers have won more than once. Nora Roberts predictably is on the list of multiple winners. One of her triple Hall of Fame positions is due to her winning the Rita in this category for Public Secrets (1991), Private Scandals (1994), and Born in Ice (1996). Another Hall of Famer, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, practically owned the award for a while, winning for Nobody's Baby But Mine (1998), Dream A Little Dream, and First Lady (2001). More recently, Rachel Gibson (True Confessions, 2002; Not Another Bad Date, 2009) and Kristan Higgins (Catch of the Day, 2008; Too Good to Be True, 2010) have each won twice. One of this year’s finalists, Barbara Freethy, won in this category with her debut book, Daniel’s Gift, in 1997. It’s still my favorite Freethy. I’ve read all those listed above, some of them several times.

If I could grant a personal Worth Reading and Rereading in Any Year award to the three RITA winners in this category, I’d present my award to Again (1995) by Kathleen Gilles Seidel, No Place Like Home (2003) by Barbara Samuel and Bet Me (2005) by Jennifer Crusie.

  • Seidel is an author I sorely miss. Till the Stars Fall, astoundingly not a RITA winner, is one of my most reread books, but I love Again almost as much. Since the heroine is a Georgette Heyer-loving chief writer for a soap opera set in Regency London and the hero plays a duke in said soap opera, reading Again is almost like getting a contemporary and a historical in one book. Seidel proves that romance can be intelligent, funny, and sigh-worthy at the same time. Will somebody please digitalize Seidel’s books? My copies are falling to bits, and I’d pay trade pb prices to have them on my Kindle.
  • I’d read a McDonald’s ad if Barbara Samuel wrote the copy, and No Place Like Home is one of my most beloved reads ever. Even though it is classified as contemporary romance, it is a good fit with the women’s fiction titles this Hall of Fame author has written as Barbara Samuel and as Barbara O’Neal. This powerful, emotional first-person tale features a heroine who ran away with a musician and returns more than two decades later, still estranged from her father, with a seventeen-year-old-son and a gay best friend dying of AIDS. Her hero, a wanderer named Malachi, is the brother of the best friend.
  • Back when the Eloisa James/Julia Quinn bulletin board was alive and several thousand strong, we ran a poll for the romance of the decade, a book that set a standard by which others would be judged. Crusie’s Bet Me was the undisputed winner. With a zaftig heroine, a hero who gives her Krispy Kremes and loves her as she is, and a cat named Elvis, this one is funny, sweet (unexpectedly so for a Crusie), smart, and irresistible—within a hair’s breadth of perfect IMO.
Contemporary Single Title Romance: The Present



This is one of the categories in which I have usually read most of the finalists. This year I’ve read six of the eight. One thing that most of my favorite contemporary authors have in common is their ability to create characters who are imperfect, in process, and at home in the 21st century. For me, it’s particularly important that these qualities hold true for the heroine, and the heroines in these six finalists satisfied on all counts.

  • About Last Night by Ruthie Knox: I love that Cath enjoyed her work at the Victoria and Albert Museum, that she speculates about other passengers on the tube, and that she is determined to become a new Cath because she made some bad choices as the old Cath.
  • Barefoot in the Sand by Roxanne St. Claire: Lacey is a survivor. She survived a bad relationship, a hurricane that left her home in pieces, and life with a teenage daughter. She survives because of her own toughness and tenacity but also because she has great friends who show up when she needs them, who call her on the excuses she gives to avoid action, and who love her at her best and her worst.
  • Forever and a Day by Jill Shalvis; Lucky in Love by Jill Shalvis: Shalvis is terrific at creating heroines who, like most of the women I know from teenagers to octogenarians, are full of contradictions. Grace (Forever and a Day) is a bit of a ditz, but she’s also smart intellectually and emotionally.  Mallory (Lucky in Love) is a classic good girl who wants to let her inner bad girl loose. They are also funny. I like heroines who make me laugh, the kind of genuinely affectionate, I’m-glad-I-know-you laughter that my good friends inspire. Grace and Mallory evoke this kind of laughter.
  • Sugar Springs by Kim Law: I’m no fan of self-abnegating heroines, but experience has taught me that love sometimes requires sacrifices. I have a particular fondness for heroines who reshape their dreams to fit unexpected choices they were forced to make. Lee Ann is this kind of heroine, and it’s all the sweeter when, against huge odds, she gets her HEA.
  • The Way Back Home by Barbara Freethy: Emotions can be messy, and where grief is concerned, they can also be ugly. Women in fiction and in life are sometimes denied free expression of such feelings. Freethy allows Alicia to be angry and even cruel as she struggles with her brother’s death five days before he was due to end his enlistment in the Marine Corps. Toxins have to be released before healing can occur. Alicia’s actions ring true to me.

Melt into You by Roni Loren and Zoe’s Muster by Barbara Hannay are also finalists in this category. I haven’t read these books. I checked them out. Melt into You sounds too edgy to be in my comfort zone, but I plan to read Zoe’s Muster if I can find it at the library or if it turns up as a Daily Deal.

Contemporary Single Title Romance: The Missing

Surely I’m not the only romance reader who reads the list of nominated books for any of the big awards and thinks well, that’s great, but what about X. It should be on the list. We can’t know why all our favorites don’t become RITA finalists. Perhaps some of them were not even entered by their authors or publishers. Here are seven (in alphabetical order by author) that I consider contenders for the Best Single-Title Contemporary Romance of 2012:

  • Somebody to Love, Kristan Higgins: Parker’s back but she lost her money and gained a hero, the last one she expected to fill the role. This book is genuinely funny in KH’s signature style and an interesting what-if.
  • About That Night, Julie James: Smart, funny, sexy, and contemporary in the best sense of all that word means, this novel offers a heroine you feel like you know and a hero you can’t forget.
  • Rainshadow Road, Lisa Kleypas: Sibling rivalry, a couple who actually communicate, and wonderful touches of magical realism make this one of Kleypas’s best and riskiest books. I loved it!
  • All Summer Long, Susan Mallery: This is my favorite in this long-running series (and I’ve read every one). Clay and Charlie are richly drawn with layers of complexity and likeability. And the gender reversal is spot on.
  • When Snow Falls, Brenda Novak: A heroine and hero neither of whom is powerful and wealthy or even middle-class make this a rare story indeed.
  • Can’t Buy Me Love, Molly O’Keefe: This is the debut single-title for this amazing writer who gives the reader deeply flawed characters who challenge each other, grow and change, and win the readers’ hearts.
  • Barefoot in the Rain, Roxanne St. Claire: A terrific story that has important, even profound things to say while still managing to be all a romance should be.

Now it’s your turn. How many of these finalists have you read? Do you have a favorite in the category? What missing contemporary titles would you have included?