Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Tuesday Review: Beauty and the Blacksmith

Beauty and the Blacksmith
By Tessa Dare
Publisher: Avon Impulse
Release Date: April 30, 2013

Diana Highwood is the family beauty. It was Diana’s asthma that brought Mrs. Highwood and her daughters to Spindle Cove. After two years in the seaside village, Diana’s asthma has disappeared, but her mother’s conviction that Diana’s beauty will win the heart of a titled gentleman shows no signs of diminishing. Mrs. Highwood would be horrified if she knew that Diana’s thoughts are filled not with elusive dukes and earls but with the village blacksmith, one Aaron Dawes—his arms, his lips, his voice. In fact, Diana manufactures reasons for visiting the smith whose virility generates more heat than the forge in the opinion of the proper Miss Highwood.

Aaron Dawes may work with his hands, but he’s no simpleton. He realizes that the beautiful Diana is making excuses to see him. Aaron is not indifferent to the beautiful Diana, and it’s more than her beauty that attracts him. He enjoys playing big brother to most of the young women who have invaded Spindle Cove, but there’s nothing the least fraternal about his feelings for Diana. However, fully conscious of the social chasm between a lady and a blacksmith, he resists temptation even when a little whiskey emboldens Diana to ask for a kiss. He’s less noble when a second opportunity presents itself, ironically arranged by Diana’s mother.

I’ve loved Spindle Cove since I first heard the premise, and each novel and novella has given me more reasons for Spindle Cove to be one of my favorite historical series. “The Beauty and the Blacksmith” is a delight. It is joyous to watch Diana throw off the constraints that have limited her and become her own person, and Aaron is a wonderful hero whose physical appeal is only exceeded by his tenderness and wisdom. One of my favorite moments occurs when he teaches Diana to drive, a scene that reveals his practicality and his concern and respect for women. When Diana says that shooting lessons make the women of Spindle Cove feel strong and in control, Aaron responds, “I’m not saying it’s bad. But there’s feeling powerful, and then there’s actually taking the reins. There are a great many situations a woman might do well to drive away from. Very few where it’s advisable to shoot her way out.”

Dare’s use of humor is one of her most consistent strengths, one that is sometimes underappreciated. This novella is rich with humor. I have serious questions about the sense of humor of any reader who can get through the cooking scene without laughing out loud. The sensuality level of the novella is high, but the love scenes are never merely titillation. If you are a fan of the Spindle Cove books, you probably have this preordered. Prepare to enjoy every page. If you haven’t tried Tessa Dare’s books, this taste is sure to whet your appetite for more. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that Dare plans to write a story for Charlotte, the third Highwood sister, one of the lesser stars of “The Beauty and the Blacksmith.”

Aaron is definitely not the typical historical romance hero, and I love him all the more because he’s not. Do you like working class heroes the historical romances you read, or do you prefer your heroes with blue blood and a title?

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Bonus Review: Wind Chime Point

Wind Chime Point
By Sherryl Woods
Publisher: Harlequin Mira
Release Date: April 30, 2013

Gabriella is the Castle sister most driven to win the approval of her emotionally distant father. She chose her career with this in mind, and she has devoted herself to being the best in her job as a public relations executive for a biomedical research company. But an unplanned pregnancy leaves her without a job and her boyfriend’s response to her pregnancy is to forget their five-year relationship and remove himself from the picture as rapidly as possible. What’s a girl to do when her perfect life lies in pieces and she has major decisions to make? If you are a Castle, the answer is to leave her Raleigh, north Carolina apartment and head to the Outer Banks and Sand Castle Bay where her grandmother, Cora Jane Castle, will supply hugs, food, and advice and her sisters Emily and Samantha will be her support system while they plan Emily’s wedding.

Wade Johnson, cabinet maker and wood carver extraordinaire, fell for Gabi at first sight, and even a visibly pregnant Gabi fails to dim his interest. Gabi is not interested in a new relationship or in being the latest Castle subject to her grandmother’s matchmaking. But Cora Jane is an irresistible force, and Wade’s good looks and gallantry prove irresistible too. The HEA is in sight, but there are obstacles that must be overcome first. Gabi wants the best for her baby and that may mean adoption. Wade still has unresolved issues related to the wife and unborn child who died in an accident, and he has a bossy sister bent on protecting her brother.

Wind Chime Point is the second book in Sherryl Woods’s Ocean Breeze series. Once again the author gives her readers likeable characters in a charming setting with a sweet love story as the main course and a side dish of family dynamics.  Fans of the first book in the series, Sand Castle Bay, will be pleased to see Emily and Boone in the midst of wedding plans, and a secondary plot involving a deserving teen befriended by Wade and the Castle family adds interest. This is a gentle, agreeable read that contains few surprises.

I was surprised—and not happily--by the speed with which Gabi and Wade begin having quite intimate conversations. The two are mere acquaintances when Gabi returns to the island, and yet he asks about the father of her child immediately.  And she gives him a detailed answer. The conversation at that stage felt off to me, and it seemed out of character for Wade, an extraordinarily sensitive man. Except for that scene and Wade’s sister whom I found irritating, I liked this story well enough to look forward to Sea Glass Island, Samantha’s book, which releases on May 28. It promises a more complicated hero and the resolution to some sibling tension between Emily and Samantha.

Two of Sherryl Woods’s most popular series are her Sweet Magnolia novels (ten books) and her Chesapeake Shores stories (nine books). The Ocean Breeze books evidently will end with the third book. Do you prefer short series—trilogies and quartets—or are you happy to see a favorite series run to a dozen books or more?

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Bonus Review: The Apple Orchard

The Apple Orchard
By Susan Wiggs
Publisher: Harlequin Mira
Release Date: April 30, 2013

Tess Delaney, a provenance specialist for a prestigious auction house, finds her career rewarding and often exciting, but her personal life is less satisfying. Raised by her beloved Irish grandmother and her mother whose own career required constant travel, Tess satisfies her need for connection by collecting objects that have a history, often objects with a family story. With her grandmother dead and her mother as distant as ever, Tess depends upon a small core of friends in lieu of family, but her best friend’s recent engagement signals that those relationships are changing. 

Just at the moment when she is feeling most alone, Tess learns that the grandfather she never knew is in critical condition in a hospital in Sonoma County, California, and that he has named Tess as heir to half of Bella Vista, a hundred-acre working orchard with a house and outbuildings in a town called Archangel. Her co-heir is Isabel Johansen, a half-sister Tess never dreamed she had.

Dominic Rossi, banker, vintner, devoted father of two with his ex-wife, and executor of the estate of his friend and neighbor Magnus Johansen, is the one who finds Tess and gives her the news for which she is totally unprepared. When the stress of Dominic’s news precipitates a medical emergency that leaves Tess with a diagnosis (generalized anxiety disorder) and treatment (a radical change in lifestyle), she allows herself to be persuaded to fly to Archangel with Dominic. Bella Vista is a world far removed from anything Tess has ever known. Feeling an unexpected tie to her vulnerable sister and to the complicated and label-defying Dominic, Tess also finds the Archangel community endlessly fascinating and appealing. Soon she is using the skills that have ensured her professional success to uncover generations of secrets and the missing treasure that may save this world she has come to love.   

I started reading the books of Susan Wiggs when she was writing historical romance, and she remained an autobuy author for me when she moved to novels that are a hybrid of women’s fiction and contemporary romance. One of the things I have always loved about Wiggs’s books is her ability to weave together story strands, each forming its own pattern and yet integrated into a rich and complex whole. The Apple Orchard is a splendid example of this gift, taking the reader back to Magnus Johansen’s past in occupied Denmark during World War II, weaving in the story of one of Tess’s clients, encompassing a forbidden love story in the next generation, and adding the complications of Tess and Dominic. The story is compelling, the characters are vibrant and appealing, and the world of the novel is one in which I wanted to linger. My favorite books engage both my brain and my heart, and this one qualifies. I highly recommend it.

Food always figures prominently in the contemporary novels of Susan Wiggs. I confess Wiggs persuades me I can smell and taste the food her characters prepare. I’m not much of a cook, but I have tried some of the recipes she includes. Do you like to see recipes included in novels? Have you ever tested any in your own kitchen?

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Tuesday Review: Half Moon Hill

Half Moon Hill
By Toni Blake
Publisher: Avon
Release Date: April 30, 2013

Anna Romo loves her newly discovered family, but sometimes she finds them overwhelming. Despite her history, she still feels like an outsider in Destiny. Her solution is to devote her time and energy to renovations on the Victorian house she bought with the plan to transform it into a bed and breakfast. With the help of some new friends, she has completed the work on the interior, but the exterior still needs major work. She also realizes that she needs to master some recipes for the delectation of her future guests. With this thought in mind, she goes berry picking.

 Duke Dawson has found a sanctuary in an old cabin secluded in the woods behind the house on Half Moon Hill. Wounded in body and spirit, struggling with survivor’s guilt and the belief that his scarred face renders him monstrous, he has become a recluse, cutting himself off even from Lucky Romo, his closest friend.

When Anna’s berry picking brings her into contact with the wild man in the woods, all she can think about is running for her life. She does not recognize her brother’s friend and fellow biker in the hairy derelict before her. In fact, when he calls her “Daisy Duke,” she’s convinced he’s mad. Even after he identifies himself, connects the “Daisy Duke” name to the shorts Anna is wearing, and explains he just wants to be left alone, Anna finds it hard to believe this bearded man is the Duke Dawson she had met earlier.

Duke insists on taking care of Anna’s sprained ankle, and she bakes him a blackberry cobbler as a thank you gift. This exchange of favors leads to an agreement that Duke will help Anna with the repairs to her house, and she will say nothing of his presence in her woods—not even to Lucky.  In addition to painting, the house needs a new roof and work on the gutters, porch, trim, and shutters. Soon Anna and Lucky are spending a great deal time of together, and it doesn’t take long for the spark that ignited in Anna’s woods to become a consuming conflagration. But can Duke overcome his demons and accept Anna’s love, or will Anna find that her love story mirrors the sad tale of another house-and-cabin pair of lovers that is related in the old diary she discovers in her house?

Half Moon Hill is the sixth book in Toni Blake’s Destiny series. In the fifth book, Willow Springs, readers are introduced to Anna Romo, the sister of Lucky and Mike who was abducted as a five-year-old. Anna is not a likeable character in that book, and readers who have followed the series may find it difficult at first to warm up to her in the heroine’s role. But Blake reveals her vulnerabilities soon enough so that the sympathies of most readers will be awakened within early chapters. Duke’s history is revealed gradually as he opens up more and more to Anna, and each layer that is uncovered awakens new sympathies. In the case of his family, I wish the disclosures had been more fully detailed. I was frustrated by the unanswered questions about the family dynamics.

As is typical with a Toni Blake book, the sensuality level is high. The love scenes are frequent, hot, and graphic, but they also serve to reveal character and advance the plot. Blake uses elements of Beauty and the Beast and, more obviously, The Phantom of the Opera, in this story. I was happy that the love triangle that is suggested never really develops because Anna is a woman who knows what she wants and refuses to play games. The “other man” is a nice guy with definite hero potential, so I won’t be surprised to meet him later in the series.

Favorites from earlier Destiny books make appearances. There is a subplot that shows even BFFs and HEA couples sometimes hit a rough patch in their relationships. But none of these appearances distract the reader from Anna and Duke’s story. Just the reverse: they serve to enrich the primary characters.

I’ve been reading the Destiny books since the first one, and overall have found the characters appealing and their stories engaging. Willow Springs was a bit disappointing, but Half Moon Hill gave me exactly what I expect from a Toni Blake book—sweetness mixed with a super size of sizzle and an emotional journey that left me sighing and smiling.

Today’s review makes two in a row set in the Midwest, something of an anomaly in settings for small-town romances, which seem to be disproportionately set in the Northwest and Texas. What’s your favorite fictional small town?

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Due to a rapidly approaching deadline on a freelance project (the stuff I actually get paid for writing), I must delay the first of my Saturday RITA Season series of posts until May 4. The next Tuesday Review will be posted on April 23. Have a great weekend!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Tuesday Review: Saved by the Bride

Saved by the Bride
(an electronic book)
By Fiona Lowe
Publisher: Carina Press
Release Date: April 15, 2013

Annika Jacobson returned to her hometown of Whitetail, Wisconsin, after a bad breakup and a savaging by art critics left her with the artist’s equivalent of writer’s block. Since childhood, she has had the reputation of being a helper and problem solver. Thus, when Whitetail needs an acting mayor to lead the battle for the economic revitalization of a town that has been devastated by the loss of its largest employer, Annika takes on the job. Concentrating on Whitetail’s problems allows her to avoid her own problems such as an inability to paint, rent that is in arrears, and a bank balance filled with zeroes.

She is not enthusiastic about her fellow Chamber of Commerce members’ idea to persuade Bridget Callahan, only daughter of wealthy industrialist Sean Callahan, that their town is the ideal location for her upcoming wedding and Weddings that Wow, their embryonic wedding planning business, the perfect choice to make her wedding all that she dreams of its being. Nevertheless, Annika agrees to crash the heiress’s engagement party, which is being held at Kylemore, the family’s vacation home on Lake Whitetail. She may have little faith that Bridget Callahan will do for Whitetail, Wisconsin, what Chelsea Clinton did for Rhinebeck, New York, but she is more hopeful of persuading Sean Callahan to put to use the warehouses in Whitetail’s business park that he recently purchased. He has ignored her letters, faxes, and phone calls, but he won’t be able to ignore her in a face-to-face meeting. Unfortunately the plan that seemed promising goes awry in major fashion. Denied entrance to the party by a security guard, Annika makes a window entrance only after falling victim to a sprinkler system and falling into the hands of the brother of the bride-to-be.

Finn Callahan is not happy to be part of his sister’s scheme for playing happy family at Kylemore. In fact, gathering his father and his current wife and his mother, the first Mrs. Sean Callahan, under one roof seems downright foolhardy to Finn, given that the acrimony between his parents is still going strong even though the divorce happened years ago. Sean Callahan wasn’t much interested in being a father when Finn needed him; now Finn makes certain only business ties him to the man. Finn retreats to the library, one room mostly unchanged since his grandfather’s day, to check his work email and avoid the party until his presence is required. When his privacy is invaded by a pair of sexy legs wriggling into the library via a window, he is intrigued enough to offer his help. But suspicion soon overcomes his interest. Annika ends up in the Whitetail jail, and Finn ends up angry and self-righteous. They both end up thinking too much for their comfort about a passionate kiss they exchanged. 

Neither one is prepared for the chain of circumstances that leaves Finn forced to spend two months in Whitetail as acting CEO of AKP Industries with Annika as his PA and housemate in his one-bedroom island cabin. Her own history had made Annika wary of handsome men, and anti-marriage, anti-family Finn has limited his relationships to women who are satisfied with dinner and mutually satisfying sex. Despite an attraction that is on simmer just about to heat up to full boil, they are determined to keep their relationship that of employer-employee. But Finn finds Annika’s warmth and light irresistible. Even her klutziness becomes endearing. And Annika knows that Finn is in need of connection and laughter and a life that is more than business. She longs to see him reconciled to his father. They agree on a summer fling, but Annika is still too busy finding solutions for everybody else’s to confront her own, and Finn is too frightened by love’s power to look into his own heart. They have to discover the truth of who they are before they can earn their HEA.

Saved by the Bride, the first book in Fiona Lowe’s Wedding Fever series, is a delicious romantic comedy that combines laugh-out-loud physical comedy, sigh-worthy love scenes, and enough heartbreak to keep it real. I liked not only Annika and Finn but also Finn’s sister who is headed toward Bridezilla status in her quest to see that a perfect wedding protects her and her endearing beta finance from the sad ending that her parents experienced. Frothier than Lowe’s Rita-winning Boomerang Bride, this book has the same charm. Tobin and Whitetail have more in common than their Wisconsin address and the wedding business. Give this one a try. I think you’ll be glad you did. 

The citizens of Whitetail succeed in making their small town a destination wedding site. Destination weddings (average cost $22,000) are the fastest growing segment of the wedding market. Do you find the idea romantic, or does a traditional wedding seem more romantic to you?

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Tuesday Review: The Summer He Came Home

The Summer He Came Home
By Juliana Stone
Publisher: Sourcebooks Casablanca
Release Date: April 2, 2013

It took a funeral to bring Cain Black back to Crystal Lake, Michigan. He left ten years earlier to chase his dream of becoming a musician rather than doing what the town expected their star quarterback to do and accepting a full football scholarship to Michigan State University. Now Jesse Edwards, one of the Bad Boys of Crystal Lake, is dead, killed in Afghanistan. His widow Raine, his twin Jake, his parents, and his life-long friends Mackenzie Draper and Cain are left to mourn him. Cain’s plan is to spend a couple of days in his hometown and then fly back to L.A.  Coming off a grueling six-month tour with his band BlackRock as the opening act for Grind, he needs time to unwind and come to terms with all the changes in his life—the buzz that is propelling him to the success he’s dreamed of, the firing of BlackRock’s drummer and Cain’s co-songwriter, and his divorce from a publicity-addicted actress. But in Crystal Lake he runs head on into old memories and the new woman in town, single mother Maggie O’Roarke. Maybe a summer in the old hometown is just what he needs.

Maggie O’Roarke has found friends and a peaceful life for herself and her young son Michael in Crystal Lake. She cleans houses to earn a living for two of them and works on an illustrated children’s book when she can find the time. Maggie is not immune to the good looks and charisma of Cain Black, but she has no room in her life for the here today-gone tomorrow relationship that is all rock star Cain can offer. And she’s determined that no one in Crystal Lake will know anything about the life from which she escaped. But Cain is more than a rock star; he’s also the man who has her remembering that she’s a woman as well as a mother and has her son happy with all the male bonding over fishing, football, and other guy stuff. He may just be irresistible.

The Summer He Came Home, the first book in Stone’s Bad Boys of Crystal Lake series, is an appealing addition to the small-town stories that are still prevalent in contemporary romance. Crystal Lake has its share of warm, welcoming folks along with a few jerks and bitches, and it is not isolated from the larger world. Cain and his fellow surviving bad boys are sexy, interesting men with a history that evokes smiles and tears. The way they reconnect seemed real and heartwarming. Maggie is a woman still discovering her own strength, and Michael is an endearing kid who acts like a little boy. Supporting characters such as Cain’s mother and Jesse’s widow add interest to the story.

Readers who approach this book looking for a rock star hero may be disappointed since the focus is clearly on Cain in his hometown. His career is background and plot element, but the reader sees almost nothing of that part of his life. Maggie’s secret is one that any perceptive reader will figure out early on. But predictability can be part of the charm of romance fiction, and this is a well-written book with likeable characters who will have readers rooting for their HEA.

Stone reveals just enough about the troubled Jake who has the double wounds of his war experience and his twin brother’s death to deal with and Mac who must confront his own demons of an abusive past and a fondness for the bottle to leave readers hungry for their stories. I confess that the sibling triangle trope in any variation is one that often has an ick factor too high for my taste, but some authors have written stories strong enough to overcome my instinctive recoil. I’m interested enough in Jake to give Stone a chance to persuade me she’s in that company, and so I’ll be reading The Christmas He Loved Her, which releases October 1. I fell hard for Mac and am eager for his story.

If you are a fan of small-town romances or if you like your contemporary romance with a nice balance of sweet and sizzle, I recommend The Summer He Came Home. I predict you too will enjoy Cain and Maggie’s story.

Bad boy heroes seem to be popular in 2013 contemporary romance releases. Who is your favorite bad boy hero?

Saturday, April 6, 2013

My Mother's Books, Part 6: D. E. Stevenson (1892-1973)

Before Susan Elizabeth Phillips had her Seppies, D. E. Stevenson had her Dessies. In the case of the latter, they pay visits to Moffat in Dumfriesshire where Stevenson lived for the last three decades of her life rather that showing up for book signings, but their loyalty to Stevenson is just as intense and their knowledge of her characters just as detailed as that of any SEP fan. My mother never made any pilgrimages to Moffat, but she loved Stevenson’s books and passed that love on to me. My fascination with Scotland began with Stevenson’s books, and I still halfway believe that if I ever visited the Scottish Border country, I would find Dunnian with some descendant of Celia Dunne living there. When I think of romances set in Scotland, the books of Stevenson are among the first that come to mind. Even after many rereading, her characters come alive for me, and the world of her novels offers an escape to a simpler, less harried place.

Dorothy Emily Stevenson was born November 18, 1892, in Edinburgh, Scotland. Her father was a first cousin of Robert Louis Stevenson, and D. E. Stevenson claimed that writing was “in her blood.”  She began writing as a child, hiding in a closet to do so since her parents discouraged her efforts. Stevenson persisted even in the face of their disapproval, although she conformed in other ways. She made her debut in Edinburgh in 1913, and three years later, she married Major James Reid Peploe, a young officer home recovering from war wounds. Their first child was born with a year, followed by three other children over the next fourteen years. 

Stevenson published two volumes of poetry, one in 1913 and one in 1926, with a novel, Peter West (1923) between them, none of which attracted much attention. But it wasn’t until the early 1930s that she began writing the books that would earn her an international following. A friend whose daughter was engaged to an army officer borrowed Stevenson’s diary to gain an understanding of the life her daughter could expect to lead, and she found Stevenson’s account of military life so engrossing that she urged Stevenson to publish her diary. Instead, Stevenson drew on the diary to write Mrs. Tim of the Regiment (1932), the fictional diary of Hester Christie, the wife of army officer Tim Christie. Stevenson maintained the diary form in her subsequent Mrs. Tim books that carried Hester and her family through World War II and the post-war period: Golden Days (1934), published with Mrs. Tim of the Regiment as Mrs. Tim Christie (1940) in the U. S., Mrs. Tim Carries On (1941), Mrs. Tim Gets a Job (1947), and Mrs. Tim Flies Home (1957).

The Mrs. Tim books proved critically and commercially successful. Stevenson went on to write more than forty novels, but the Mrs. Tim books and the Miss Buncle books (Miss Buncle’s Book, 1934; Miss Buncle Married, 1936; The Two Mrs. Abbots, 1942) remain her most popular novels. I like the Mrs. Tim books, but I adore the Miss Buncle books. Barbara Buncle writes a book to augment her dwindling income, and she decides she can write only what she knows, she writes about Silverstream, the village where she has always lived, and the people who live there. The publisher to whom she sends it recognizes a bestseller when he sees one, but he changes the title from Chronicles of an English Village to Disturber of the Peace, a title that proves prophetic as the book wreaks havoc in Silverstream. The satire is gentle, but the revelations are unrelenting. A romance between author and publisher, who proves himself the right kind of dragon slayer, is a bonus, and the two sequels show their HEA in process.

Stevenson herself had this to say about her fiction: My books are all novels as it is the human element which interests me most in life; some of my books are light and amusing and others are serious studies of character, but they are human and carefully thought out, and perhaps it is for these two reasons that my public is so diverse and ranges from university professors to old ladies and small boys!
” Her happy endings led many critics to dismiss her later books as light reading, but her popularity continued. At the time of her death, more than seven million copies of her novels had been sold in the United Kingdom and the United States and her work had been translated into half a dozen different languages.

One of the recurring themes in Stevenson’s books is the house as the center of familial identity and stability. In Celia’s House, the opening page introduces Dunnian as the emotional and spiritual heart of the "generations of Dunnes, born and bred at Dunnian and afterwards scattered to the four corners of the earth.” In 1905, ninety-year-old Celia Dunne decides to leave Dunnian to her great nephew Humphrey Dunne on the condition that it pass to his as-yet-unborn daughter, another Celia Dunne. The novel follows four decades of life at Dunnian, following not only the younger Celia but also her siblings as they move through two world wars.  Amberwell (1955) centers on the five Aryton siblings, a dysfunctional family before the term became popular, who grow up at Amberwell. Summerhills (1956) covers the Arytons during the immediate post-war years and they appear in minor roles in Still Glides the Stream, (1959). &nbsp Limbourne, the ancestral mansion of the English Wentworths, figures prominently in Katherine Wentworth (1964) and Katherine’s Marriage (1965). Years later I fell in love with the fictional worlds of Jo Beverley, Mary Jo Putney, and Liz Carlyle in which the paths of characters from other, seemingly unrelated books intersected or ran parallel to one another, but it was Stevenson who first introduced me to a world where such things happened.

Like most of the gentle romance authors, Stevenson experienced a decline in popularity after the romance revolution of the 1970s. Although her books could still be found on library shelves and large print editions occasionally appeared, new readers who wanted to own copies of her books found that they were out of print. Used copies could be found but often prices were steep with some copies of hard-to-find titles selling for over $500. Then, in the twenty-first century, there was a reawakening of interest in Stevenson. The Bloomsbury Group, announcing itself as “a new library of books from the early twentieth-century chosen by readers for readers” reissued Mrs. Tim of the Regiment in 2010. That same year, Persephone Books reissued Miss Buncle’s Book and Miss Buncle Married. The following year, Greyladies Books in Edinburgh published three new books by Stevenson based on manuscripts discovered by the author’s granddaughter in an attic: Emily Dennistoun, The Fair Miss Fortune, and Portrait of Saskia. Two more, Jean Erskine’s Secret and Found in the Attic (a selection of unpublished short stories, poems, plays, and talks on books and writing) will be published in 2013. (All available in North America from Anglophile Books.) Sourcebooks reissued Miss Buncle’s Book (my review here) and Miss Buncle Married in 2012 and will release The Young Clementina (originally Divorced from Reality, U. K. title, Miss Dean’s Dilemma, U. S. title, 1935) in July 2013.

When Connie Brockway asked her fans to name their favorite Scotland-set novels last month, Listening Valley (1944) and Blue Sapphire (1963) by D. E. Stevenson, both out of print, were on the list. And the reissued books are winning Stevenson new fans. Jayne of Dear Author named Miss Buncle’s Book one of her top reads of 2012. Bookfoolery called Barbara Buncle a “delightful” character and the book “a breath of fresh air.” “Charming” was a word frequently used to describe Stevenson’s novels by early critics, and it is the adjective of choice for many of her recent readers. “Comfort read” is another term used often by Stevenson’s new readers, who affirm the judgment of critics writing more than half a century ago. A. F. Wolfe, reviewing Amberwell in the Saturday Review in 1955 wrote, "Opening a D. E. Stevenson novel is like entering the home of a hospitable old friend."   That effectively sums up my feelings when I reread the Stevenson books I own: the Mrs. Tim books, the first two Miss Buncle books, and Celia’s House. But life’s been tough lately, and I feel the need of comfort and a visit with a hospitable old friend. I just put half a dozen Stevenson books on hold at the library, and I’ll definitely be downloading The Young Clementina to my Kindle come July.

Are there books that you classify as “hospitable old friends”? What are your comfort reads? What makes them comforting?

Note: This is the last of the series of posts on my mother’s books. On Saturday, April 20, I will begin a new series on the 2013 RITA finalists that will be posted on alternate Saturdays through July.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Bonus Review: While We Were Watching Downton Abbey

While We Were Watching Downton Abbey
By Wendy Wax
Publisher: Berkeley Trade
Release Date: April 2, 2013

Edward Parker, a British transplant proud of the family tradition of service, is the owner of Private Butler, a personal concierge company that six months earlier was selected to supply concierge service for the historic Alexander, “a beautifully renovated Beaux Arts and Renaissance Revival-styled apartment building in the center of Midtown Atlanta.” Edward, dapper and discrete, is the perfect concierge. To create a greater sense of community among those who live in the Alexander, Edward comes up with the idea of weekly viewings of the first two seasons of Downton Abbey on the big screen television in the clubroom, complete with popcorn and wine and “English-themed nibbles” to follow the screening.

Neither Brooke Mackenzie, Samantha Davis, nor Claire Walker is enthusiastic about watching a stuffy British TV show with a bunch of strangers, but each finds herself attending the viewing. As they watch Downton Abbey and become engaged with the show’s characters, they become friends. Their lives intersect with one another’s and with Edward’s in surprising ways.

Brooke is a divorcee with two young daughters, ages seven and five, and an ex-husband who discarded her for an Atlanta socialite who was a better advertisement for his skills as a plastic surgeon and more in tune with his ambitions. Brooke is lonely and dissatisfied with herself and her life. Years of placating her husband have turned her into a doormat, and she’s not sure how to change. Her friendship with Samantha and Claire brings people into her life who care about her, and Edward’s recognition of skills that Brooke has developed as a homemaker and mother paves the way for a career and possibilities she never dared dream.

Samantha married into Atlanta royalty and for twenty-five years she has been trying to deserve the man who saved her and her two younger siblings when their father’s greed and dishonesty destroyed the life they had known. She didn’t love Jonathan Davis when she married him, but she has fallen in love with him over the years. However, she’s so caught up in maintaining the perfect image and feeling grateful that she cannot allow herself to be honest and express her real feelings. When her perfect life falls to pieces, it is her new friends who help her discover a strength and determination she never knew she possessed.

Claire is facing a new life. Divorced for sixteen years after a brief marriage that she knew was a mistake from the beginning, she has worked, cared for aging parents, and nurtured her daughter in suburban Atlanta. Now she has a new apartment and a new life. Her daughter is a freshman at Northwestern University, and Claire, who has written two moderately successful historical romance novels, has enough money to spend a year working fulltime on her breakout novel. The only problem is she is suffering from an advanced case of writer’s block—until she discovers the seeds of a different story in the lives of her new friends.

While We Were Watching Downton Abbey is the story of the unlikely friendship that develops among these characters. The three women are at different stages in their lives, they are from different backgrounds, and they appear to have little in common other than their address. But over three months, they come to trust one another and to open themselves to the joys and the challenges of friendship. While there are some romantic elements in the story, the focus is on the power of friendship to comfort and empower.

Downton Abbey fans will doubtless enjoy the references to characters from the series, and they may see some parallels between Yorkshire estate and village of Downton Abbey and the Alexander where characters from the wealthy elite such as the Samantha and Jonathan Davis are brought into contact with their social inferiors. They may also make connections between Edward and Carson, Samantha and Lady Mary, and perhaps Violet and Samantha’s mother-in-law, but it is not necessary to be familiar with the show to appreciate the novel.

Wax excels at using humor, bits of local color, and multiple, complex female protagonists, and she uses all of these to good effect here. I found Brooke, Samantha, and Claire interesting and likeable, and Edward, a George Clooney lookalike with a British accent and a big heart, is the stuff of dreams. He made me want to move to the Alexander immediately.  I also enjoyed the references to familiar Atlanta spots.

I also loved, as I typically do with Wax’s novels, the memorable lines that say a great deal in a sentence or two. These are among my favorites:

Of the effects of Brooke’s marriage to the jerk:
By then her imperfections were the only thing in their marriage that she still recognized.

Of Claire’s feeling caught between who she once was and who she is becoming:
She felt like a disembodied spirit with one foot in the old life and one in the new but belonging in neither.

Of Samantha’s saying yes to her savior prince:
There was plenty of precedent for prince-marrying in the fairy-tale world. Sleeping Beauty had not ignored the prince’s kiss in favor of a few more years of shut-eye. Cinderella never considered refusing to try on the glass slipper. And Snow White didn’t bat an eyelash at moving in with those seven little men

If you like women’s fiction that makes you smile, warms your heart, and reminds you why friendship matters, this book is definitely one you will enjoy.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Tuesday Review: What She Wants

What She Wants
By Sheila Roberts
Publisher: Harlequin
Release Date: March 26, 2013

Friday Night is poker night in Icicle Falls where computer geek Jonathan Templar and four of his friends gather weekly for a friendly game. When the guys learn that Jonathan has started reading romance novels, they give him a difficult time. But Jonathan is undeterred in his “research” to discover what women want, and soon two of his friends have joined him in his research. The other two have no need to do so. Happily married Bernardo Ruiz is already romance-novel friendly since he regularly reaps the benefits of his wife’s romance-reading habit, and grumpy, cynic Vance fish is harboring a big secret.

Jonathan is an unlikely hero. At thirty-three, he is a skinny guy in glasses who is most comfortable with his computers and his dog. He owns his own business, Geek Gods Computer Services, and his own home, a log cabin that he built himself, but essentially he’s a grown-up version of the kid that the jocks stuffed in a locker in high school. No one knows that Jonathan has nurtured a passion for his friend Lissa Castle, once literally the girl next door—gorgeous and popular—and now host of a Seattle television show. Their fifteenth high school reunion is coming up, and Jonathan sees it as his last chance to impress Lissa.

His buddy Kyle Long has romance problems too. Short in stature and in cool, he is hopelessly infatuated with one of his co-workers at the Safe Hands Insurance Company, a beauty with a super model’s looks and a gold digger’s soul. Kyle, of course, is so blinded by her looks that he can’t see her flaws. He also can’t see as anything but friend material in cute, petite Mindy who works in the next cubicle.

Their friend Adam Edwards, a good-looking guy with a great job as a sales rep for a pharmaceutical company, is more conventional hero material, but he’s already living out his HEA with his wife Chelsea. At least, he was until she grew tired of his self-absorption and changed the locks on their doors. Now he’s camping out in Jonathan’s spare bedroom and trying to figure out what went wrong.

Can these three men find the advice they need in the pages of romance novels, particularly those written by the bestselling Vanessa Valentine?

Sheila Roberts’s newest installment in her Icicle Falls series is a genuinely funny romantic comedy that both defends romance novels and gently mocks some of the genre’s most cherished conventions. The characters are endearing, the community appealing, and the conclusion that while men can learn something from romance fiction, what matters most is what’s in their hearts one that romance readers will approve. The humor is delightful and includes scenes that evoke an inner chuckle and laugh-out-loud moments. What She Wants gets a Best-of-Series ribbon from me.

The heroes in What She Wants are ordinary guys, no billionaires or über alphas or members of secret forces. Do you think ordinary guys can be convincing heroes?