Monday, September 30, 2013

Congratulation to the Winner!

The Randomizer chose Hope as the winner of the free Kindle book from the Twelve Days of Christmas in September. Hope, if you will send me your contact info at jangarho at gmail dot com, I'll send you your book ASAP.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Saturday Review: Above Scandal

Above Scandal
By Joan Leacott
Publisher: Woven Red Productions
Release Date: June 23, 2013

After an eleven-year absence, Cathy Rossetti returns to Clarence Bay to find her hometown has changed little. But Cathy’s life is very different from that of the pregnant teenager who left when her mother turned her back on the daughter determined to bring scandal on her family. Cathy graduated with a double degree from the University of Toronto, and she is now Director of Accounts Management for a large investment firm. But professional success is not the most significant change. That title goes to ten-year-old Haley, the daughter Cathy refused to give up for adoption, the daughter who has been a well-guarded secret from Cathy’s conservative Italian family and from the man who fathered her daughter.

Ryan Chisholm is in the middle of a campaign for mayor, fighting not only to win an election but also to be an honest politician committed to transparency in government, the very opposite of the policies of the town’s former mayor, Ryan’s father, a pragmatic politician for whom backroom deals and back-scratching methods were standard procedure. Ryan has never forgotten Cathy Rossetti, and he’s never understood why she disappeared from his life without a word. Just the sight of her is all it takes for him to realize she still affects him as no other woman ever has, and he’s charmed by her bright, outspoken daughter.

Small towns can be warm and welcoming, and Cathy finds it surprisingly easy to renew old ties with the friends of her youth. She also finds it all too easy to fall back into the familiar pattern at home: the close, affectionate relationship she shares with her aunt and the antagonistic, angry relationship with her mother. Always in her mind is the necessity of telling Ryan about Hayley. Cathy is still convinced she did the right thing in not telling Ryan, she still believes that their lives are too different for them to ever make forever work, but she knows Hayley and Ryan deserve to be part of one another’s life.

Small towns can be hotbeds of gossip, quick to judge and to revel in scandal. The identity of the father of Cathy Rossetti’s daughter is one juicy scandal, but it’s only one, and not the most shocking secret, that will threaten the Rossetti and Chisholm families before Cathy and Ryan find their way past all the obstacles to their HEA and Hayley finds a family larger and more loving than her dreams.

Joan Leacott’s Clarence Bay Chronicles is among the newest entries into the popular small-town romance genre. Above Scandal is the first book in the series. The Canadian setting makes it a standout, and Cathy and Ryan and their tangled relationships give readers an interesting story. I like novels rich in context, and Leacott generously provides that. In addition to the complex familial relationships are a host of minor characters who lend credibility to the central characters and their place in Clarence Bay. The secret baby plot is one often used in romance, but Leacott gives it a twist that will catch some readers by surprise.

On a less positive note, the dialogue sometimes came across as graceless and far removed from actual speech. Such responses are, of course, subjective, and other readers may find this quality less distracting than I did or disagree with my description. I also thought some passages were lavender tinged, but that too is a subjective call. Readers who are looking for a small-town romance series that offers an unexpected setting and a mix of characters who combine human flaws with endearing qualities may want to give Above Scandal a try.

I’ve read a number of historicals set in Canada, and I grew up reading and rereading Lucy Maud Montgomery’s books. But I haven’t read many contemporary romances set in Canada. Am I missing books? What contemporaries with Canadian settings have you read?

Friday, September 27, 2013

The Twelve Days of Christmas in September: Day Twelve--Big Sky Christmas

Big Sky Christmas
By C. J. Carmichael
Publisher: Harlequin 
(Harlequin American Romance)
Release Date: 
October 1, 2013

Winnie Hays has returned to Coffee Creek, Montana, eighteen months after her fiancé Brock Lambert was killed in an automobile accident on the way to their wedding and eleven months after the birth of their son Bobby. Even though it’s difficult, she pushed herself to attend the double wedding of Cassidy Lambert to veterinarian Dan Farley (Her Cowboy Dilemma) and B.J. Lambert to Sheriff Savannah Moody (Promise from a Cowboy). She can’t stop the memories of the day she stood in this same church, a bride waiting for her groom until Savannah brought word of the accident. Winnie might not have been able to handle those memories without breaking down if Jackson Stone, Brock’s foster brother, hadn’t been beside her to help her cope.

Jackson Stone is not happy the fresh-faced usher chose to seat Winnie Hays beside him at the wedding. Just the sight of Winnie is enough to have Jackson reliving the accident that left Brock Lambert dead, Corb Lambert critically injured, and Jackson drowning in grief and guilt. But he knows Winnie’s memories must be even more devastating than his, and he’ll do his best to help her. But once the wedding is over, Jackson plans to keep considerable distance between himself and Brock’s fiancée, the woman he’s loved since the day he met her. His feelings for Winnie just add to the burden of guilt Jackson carries.

Winnie is not surprised that she doesn’t make it through the wedding without a run-in with Olive Lambert. Olive never thought Winnie was good enough for Brock, and that hasn’t changed. But Winnie is determined to stand up to Olive. It’s important to Winnie that Bobby know his father’s family. Still, Winnie intends to make her own decisions about where she lives and with whom she spends her time, and if Olive wants a relationship with Brock’s son, she will have to accept Winnie’s decisions.  But the wedding is not the place for a confrontation, and Winnie’s close relationship to Laurel and Corb Lambert (Remember Me, Cowboy) is another reason to keep peace. Jackson comes to the rescue again. He shows up just in time to allow Winnie to use a dance with him to avoid further conversation with Olive.

Again, Jackson is not pleased to be dancing with Winnie. This is not the way to maintain distance, but he knows better than most how unrelenting Olive can be. She has never let him forget that he is not a Lambert. Her husband may have overruled her when it came to fostering a thirteen-year-old with a chip on his shoulder and mixed memories of a mother who ended up in jail, the Lambert kids, Corb, B.J., Brock, and Cassidy, may have accepted Jackson as another sibling, but to Olive he remained an outsider. She refused to adopt him then, and she’s even less of a Jackson Stone fan now that he has left Coffee Creek Ranch to work at Silver Creek, the ranch that belongs to Maddie Turner, Olive’s estranged sister. Olive would be horrified if she knew the thoughts Jackson was harboring about her grandson’s mother.

Winnie may be strong and independent and in control of things at the Cinnamon Stick, the café she owns, but needing Jackson is getting to be a habit. She is also determined to persuade him that he has no reason to feel guilty about Brock’s death. The more time she spends with Jackson, the more she realizes that she wants him in her life and in her son’s life. Winnie has to work her way through some guilt at moving on without Brock, but it is Jackson’s inability to release his guilt that is the real barrier to the two of them moving on together.

This is the fourth and final book in Carmichael’s Coffee Creek, Montana series, and it is a book for tying up loose ends. The first three books gave the three surviving Lambert siblings their HEAs. Now it’s the turn of Jackson Stone and Winnie Hays, the almost-Lamberts. With the theme of forgiveness and new life, Jackson and Winnie’s story is a perfect Christmas book. The presence of Bobby, Winnie’s toddler son, who seemed so real I wanted to reach through the pages to give him a hug, adds to the feel-good quality of this book. Even Olive, a controlling bitch at her best, softens a few degrees in this book. The mystery of her estrangement from Maddie is resolved along with a few other secrets.

I really loved all the happiness in this book. From a child’s giggles to the heroine and hero who definitely had paid their dues, from the healing of old wounds to glimpses of Lambert HEAs in process, I found this the kind of read that left me giving a sigh of satisfaction as I finished the last page. I’m not sure that a reader new to the series would feel the same way. This may be one of those books that are best for fans of the series or for those willing to read three other books as well.

If my recommendation of this book comes with a caveat, I can recommend the author with no reservations. I’ve been reading C. J. Carmichael’s books since The Fourth Child, a Harlequin Superromance from 2000. I know I will find likeable, complicated characters and interesting family dynamics in her books, and I have added more than a few to my keepers. If you have never read her, she has a great backlist.

Today ends my Twelve Days of Christmas in September posts, but I will be reviewing other Christmas books here and elsewhere between now and Christmas. In fact, my First Look at Theresa Romain’s Season for Scandal went live at Heroes & Heartbreakers yesterday. Have you read any good Christmas books lately?

I’ll post the winner of the Christmas book giveaway Sunday.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Twelve Days of Christmas in September: Day Eleven--Second Chance Christmas

Second Chance Christmas
By Tanya Michaels
Publisher: Harlequin 
(Harlequin American Romance)
Release Date: 
December 3, 2013

Elisabeth Donnelly has just announced her engagement and her plans for a Christmas wedding and a move to California within six weeks. Her family is surprised and dismayed. Elisabeth is the sensible, responsible daughter, the very opposite of her fraternal twin, the spontaneous, free-spirited Evangeline. Not only are the Donnellys a close-knit, loving family, but Elisabeth also manages the family ski lodge, a job she trained for from an early age. It’s only been a few months since she was devastated by a break-up that caught her by surprise and by the death of Michelle Truitt, her friend and former college roommate. Her parents and sister can’t believe she’s over the break-up, and they aren’t happy that Elisabeth is planning to take her ward and goddaughter, six-year-old Kaylee, nine hundred miles away. None of the family has even met her fiancé since the courtship has been conducted primarily via Skyping.

Ski patroller Justin Cade likes women, and they like him right back. They like his blue eyes, his knockout smile, his athlete’s body, and his charm. But Justin doesn’t like commitments, and he always makes sure that the women he dates understand that he is strictly a for-the-moment guy. Justin knew he was in over his head with Elisabeth, whose understated beauty and passion left him reeling. When her mother baked him a birthday cake and her father called him “son,” he grew restless. But when Kaylee asked Justin questions about her dying mother, it brought back memories of his mother’s death and explaining the loss of her mother to his little sister. Justin remembered all the reasons he didn’t commit for the long term; he realized that his heart was doubly endangered, and it was time to tell Elisabeth goodbye. He just never knew she would be so hard to forget.

Elisabeth knows her family is not overjoyed with her news, but she’s convinced that once they meet Steven they will understand how much he and Elisabeth have in common. They are both practical, dependable people who want an orderly, sensible life. They are good friends who can count on one another. Since becoming Kaylee’s guardian after Michelle’s death, Elisabeth knows that Kaylee is her first concern, and Kaylee needs stability and routine, the kind of life Elisabeth and Steven can give her when they become a family. Now if she can just stop her irrepressible twin from scheming to have Justin talk to Elisabeth, stop Kaylee from spending too much time with Justin, and stop her foolish heart from remembering what life was like when she was Justin’s girl, maybe all her plans will fall in place. Or maybe not.

This is the second book in Tonya Michaels’s Colorado Cades trilogy, following Her Secret, His Baby, the story of Justin’s sister Arden and rancher Garrett Frost. I have grown weary of heroes who run from commitment. I have encountered too many in contemporary romances over the past few years, but Justin’s fear of commitment makes sense. The Cade siblings of Cielo Peak, Colorado, were all deeply affected by their parents’ deaths; their wounds deepened when oldest brother Colin lost his wife and young son in an accident. Justin was only ten when his mother died, and not much older when his father also died. Long-term effects of such a loss are psychologically sound, and I was willing to accept Justin’s reluctance to allow himself to love people he might lose. The connection between Kaylee’s losing her mother and his memories of Arden, who was only a couple of younger, was also credible. Michaels added poignancy and credibility by giving Justin specific Christmas memories associated with his mother.

I understand still-water characters who seem placid and in control but who are really passionate creatures with complications beneath the surface. I also understand that siblings really do get tagged with labels, positive and negative, that become self-fulfilling prophesies. So, while I thought Elisabeth made some choices that were not very smart, they were in keeping with who she was. People really do behave foolishly, and it’s not always because they are TSTL. Sometimes they are just human.

I loved the Donnelly family and all their Christmas traditions and delight in all kinds of celebrations. In fact, I liked all these characters. Even Steven is not a bad guy; he and Elisabeth are just wrong for each other. I’d like to think he finds his own HEA. I look forward to Colin’s book. If ever a character deserved a happy ending, this brooding, wounded, big brother does. I have no idea if Michaels has plans for other characters, but I’d also love to see Evangeline “Lina” get her own story. I also like the title because it has so many levels of meaning.

Characters are always the most important element for me, and so I could mostly ignore the niggles. I did think there were an abundance of deaths in this story: the Cade siblings’ parents, Colin’s wife and son, Kaylee’s mother, Michelle—and even Michelle’s parents. The deaths just began to seem more convenient than organic. But if you can overlook that (and I could), this is an appealing story with characters who are easy to care about and enough Christmas touches to make this a pleasing holiday read. And Justin is a charmer who will make you smile and sigh and shed a tear.

How demanding are you as a reader? Are you willing to forgive a niggle or few if you love the characters?

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Twelve Days of Christmas in September: Day Ten--The Christmas Wedding Quilt

The Christmas Wedding Quilt
By Emilie Richards, Janice Kay Johnson, and Sarah Mayberry
Publisher: Harlequin 
(Special Releases)
Release Date: 
November 6, 2013

The Premise

Once upon a time there were four little girls, cousins as close as sisters, who spent their summers at Hollymeade, the family vacation cottage on a lake shore in western New York. They spent their summers playing, eating ice cream, wearing lookalike dresses their grandmother had made them, and learning to quilt. Then their lives changed, some of their parents died, their idyllic summers ended, and they grew apart. As adults, they are little more than strangers, living in different places and rarely communicating. Then one day not long before Christmas, one of the little girls, now grown up, returns from Hong Kong to find a package from her aunt, a much loved figure from her childhood, who has recently died. Enclosed is a quilt square, a beautifully detailed rendering of Hollymeade in fabric and thread, complete with Christmas decorations, a snow bride and groom in the yard, and a silver star in the sky. The accompanying note explains that the aunt has made the quilt square as the centerpiece of a quilt for her daughter, one of the four cousins, but the aunt knows that she will not live to complete the quilt. She is asking her daughter’s three cousins to complete the quilt, round robin fashion, and gather for their cousin’s wedding next Christmas when the four of them together can put the finishing touches on the quilt.

The First Quilt Border: “Let It Snow” by Emilie Richards

Jo Miller is not sure when she gave up her life and became consumed with her work as a systems analyst for a San Diego-based consulting firm, but the request from her Aunt Gloria pushed her into using some of her vast accumulation of vacation time to return for the first time in many years to Hollymeade. She arranges to gather some fabrics from the groom’s baby clothes to add to pieces from the bride’s past while she’s there. Her plans are to spend Christmas alone at Hollymeade, working on her part of the quilt and contemplating her life. She doesn’t expect to get caught in a snow storm, unable to find the key to Hollymeade, and she doesn’t expect her rescuer to be the man who broke her teenage heart.

Brody Ryan, vintner and sometime jack-of-all-trades, has never forgotten Jo. He’s always wondered how different their lives would have been if his family situation hadn’t made it necessary for him to jilt her. He never thought Jo would come back, but now that she has, Brody plans to see that she stays long enough to see if they can recapture their old friendship—and maybe something more.

Seeing one another again definitely stirs the embers of an old flame, but can these two intensely private people, cautious and wary as they have become, learn to trust one another with all their secrets and risk loving once more?

The Second Quilt Border: “You Better Watch Out” by Janice Kay Johnson

Potter Ella Torrence thinks the Christmas quilt may be a way to reestablish a connection to her mother’s family, a connection that her guilt led her to sever years ago. She has finished her part and is ready to mail it to her cousin in Australia with high hopes for a reunion with her cousins. When she stops to leave some new pieces to a Seattle gallery, her car is stolen with the cherished quilt inside. Ella is angry and devastated and determined to chase down the thief—on foot, if necessary.

Defense attorney Brett Hollister was once on the fast track to success, but lately he’s become a loser. He lost his girlfriend, he’s lost too many cases, and he’s lost his enthusiasm for defending people he knows are guilty of all charges. When Ella plows into him, he offers his Corvette to pursue the thief. The thief evades them, but finding him and rescuing the quilt become as important to Brett, who needs to win at something, as it is to Ella.

As they work together to find the thief, they fall in love. But both Brett and Ella have baggage that makes commitment difficult. They have to let go of pasts that they have misinterpreted before they can seize a future that promises the happily ever after neither of them expects.

The Third Quilt Border: “Nine Ladies Dancing” by Sarah Mayberry

Librarian and ballroom dancer Rachel Macintosh is awed by the skill that has gone into creating the quilt she received from her cousin Ella. Intimidated by her task when she hasn’t done any needlecraft in years, she seeks the help of quilter Gabby Bennett. One day when she and Gabby are having lunch in Gabby’s home and discussing the quilt, they are joined by Gabby’s son. Rachel is dismayed to learn that Gabby’s rude and sharp-tongued son is none other than the arrogant jerk whose careless, cruel comment once destroyed the fragile self-esteem of a young Rachel when she was an awkward American feeling out of place in her new Australian school.

Leo Bennett is a firefighter wounded physically and emotionally in a fire that left his best friend dead. On medical leave, he is staying with his mother since his broken wrist makes to difficult for him to manage on his own. He loves his mother, but her hovering pushes him over the edge sometimes, especially when survivor’s guilt threatens to overwhelm him. He knows he owes his mother an apology, and he owes Rachel one too, although he can’t understand why a woman he can’t remember loathes him.

Rachel acknowledges that an adult Leo is even more physically appealing than the hot, popular jock that was the teenage Leo, but she’s not convinced that tigers change their stripes, no matter how charmingly he apologizes once she’s told him about that long ago incident. Leo really is a different person, and the evidence of his arrogant younger self makes him cringe. He is attracted to Rachel, but he knows she will be slow to trust him. In fact, it’s not until Rachel sees the vulnerable, hurting man that Leo hides so well that Rachel admits how much she has come to care for him.

The Epilogue: The Fourth Cousin

The quilt is at Hollymeade for the wedding, and readers witness the reunion of Olivia Miller and her returning vet hero, Eric Grant.

I’ve said before that I am a fan of anthologies, but I typically read them because one or two of the authors is a favorite. The Christmas Wedding Quilt is that rare collection with all the stories by autobuy authors. Also, this is really more collaboration than anthology since the stories are so carefully woven together. While none of the three had me revising my choice of the author’s best work, all are sweet, satisfying tales, and the premise is sentimental with a bittersweet touch.

I liked all the characters, and I liked that the stories were linked thematically as well as by the premise. All the characters are dealing with problems rooted in their pasts, and the quilt itself is linked to the shared pasts of the four cousins, to Hollymeade, and to the woman who created the quilt’s center and who loved all four girls “like daughters.” I also loved that all three heroes did something extraordinary for their heroines. I admit though that my favorite moment was when Brett returned to Ella with the quilt in hand.

I’m not a quilter, but both my grandmothers were, and I have wonderful memories of them, particularly of my maternal grandmother, a gifted needlewoman and storyteller. One of my grab-in-case-of-fire objects is a quilt a group of dear friends made for me as a retirement gift. So I loved the Christmas quilt, and I thought it was a particular delight that so many visual details of it were included.

The only thing I didn’t like was that the epilogue was too short. Readers are told that there is a wedding, a celebration, and a reunion, but I wanted to see those things. I wanted to see not just the bride and groom together but also see the cousins and Olivia with the quilt. I want a sequel. Nevertheless, The Christmas Wedding Quilt is sweet with the perfect touch of sentiment, a lovely Christmas read. I recommend it.

Are you a quilter? Do you have favorite quilting stories in fiction or in your autobiography?

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Twelve Days of Christmas in September: Day Nine--Christmas Angel

Christmas Angel
By Jo Beverley
Publisher: ePublishing Works
Release Date: July 12 2013
(Print edition released in 1992)

Leander Knollis, Earl of Charrington, was born in Istanbul, and, as the son of an English diplomat, he has spent most of lie abroad. But having survived Vitoria, Toulouse, and Waterloo, he has returned to England with a sense of his own mortality and a determination to settle down with a congenial wife. His problem is that all the eligible maidens he has met persist in falling in love with him, and Leander believes himself incapable of romantic love. Leaving the lovelorn misses in London, Leander sets out for Hartwell, the Surrey cottage where his friend Lucien de Vaux, Marquess of Arden, and his wife Beth are still enjoying newlywed bliss. Some might be reluctant to intrude, but Lee, as he is known to his friends, belongs to the Company of Rogues, and he is certain of a welcome from a fellow rogue. Not only is he welcomed, but Beth has a suggestion of a prospective bride, one certain not to fall in love with him.

Judith Rossiter is not the typical candidate for the bride of an earl. The daughter of a poor curate with a large family and the widow of a popular poet, she doesn’t move in aristocratic circles. Since her husband’s income ended with his death, she is dependent on a small quarterly sum provided by her brother-in-law. It barely covers the cost of the tiny cottage where she lives with her two children, Bastian, 11, and Rosie, 6. Judith is hoping to find the funds to provide at least a meager Christmas for her children. Known as the Weeping Widow because her love story, thanks to her husband’s poems which celebrated his “angel bride,” is the stuff of legends, Judith's identity as the woman eternally mourning Sebastian Rossiter is frozen in popular imagination. Therein lies her appeal for Lee. If she is still in love with husband, she can’t fall in love with him.

Judith thinks Leander is mad when he proposes, but marriage to him would solve all her economic problems. Bastian could have a pony, Rosie could have a pink silk dress, and their futures would be secure. All she has to do is keep secret the fact that her love story is a myth. The infatuation she felt as a romantic sixteen-year-old didn’t last, and she was left with a man so absorbed in his poems and his image as a poet that he was a poor father and a poorer husband. She’s not the only one with secrets. Lee has not shared his concerns about the family problems at Temple Knollis, his grandfather’s obsession and one of the most beautiful houses in England, a house Lee was brought up to hate. With all these secrets, the adjustments of a new marriage with children, and the frightening and unexpected threats to Bastian’s life, things grow more complicated daily. Not least of the complications are the feelings Judith and Lee are developing for each other, feelings far stronger and more complex than the tepid affection they expected. Can they find their way through the maze of tangled emotions and secrets to honesty, love, and a happy family Christmas?

Christmas Angel is the third book in Beverley’s famous Company of Rogues series. Some readers think it is overshadowed by An Arranged Marriage (Nicholas and Eleanor’s story) and An Unwilling Bride (Lucien and Beth’s story), which precede it, and by Forbidden (Francis and Serena’s story), which immediately follows it. Christmas Angel is less dramatic than these other books, but it has its own charms. I like stories with children who are more than props, and it seems especially appropriate that they have a part in a Christmas story. I like the practical marriage turned love match plot. I find Lee and Judith likeable, endearing characters, and I especially enjoy the fact that Beverley allows her readers to glimpse what Christmas was like for people in different circumstances. AND I love the very Christmassy HEA ending.

The Company of Rogues is one of my all-time favorite series. I read each book as it was released, eagerly anticipating each addition to the series and rereading them often. (I’m thrilled that Beverley’s 2014 book, A Shocking Delight, is set in the Rogues’ world.) I have a difficult time imagining Christmas Angel apart from the other books, but I think it can be read as a standalone. A reader approaching it without benefit of the earlier books might not understand the particular nature of the Rogues’ friendships or welcome the appearance of Lucien and Beth and Nicholas and Eleanor with the delight of series fans, but there sould be no difficulty in following the main story.

I’m happy that Beverley has made the first three Rogue books available in e-format. (Forbidden was supposed to be available in August, but it does not show up on Amazon.) These Christmas in September reviews have been contemporaries, and, as much as I love them, my Christmas reading would be incomplete without historical romance. I recommend not only Christmas Angel but also Winter Fire, part of Beverley’s Malloren series and a book I’ve read each Christmas season since it was first released in 2003. I love spending a few hours of my Christmas at Rothgar Abbey.

Have you met Beverley’s Rogues? Who’s your favorite? Have you engaged in the controversies surrounding the first two?

You can find all the Company of Rogues books listed here with a brief description of each.

Monday, September 23, 2013

The Twelve Days of Christmas in September: Day Eight--Holiday Kisses

Holiday Kisses
By Alison Kent, Jaci Burton,
Helen Kay Dimon, Shannon Stacey
Publisher: Carina Press
Release Date: 
October 29, 2013
(Print release of an e-anthology released December 2011)

“This Time Next Year” by Alison Kent

 Brenna Keating is eagerly anticipating following a family tradition and using her nursing skills where the need for them is great, but before she leaves for Africa early in the new year, she’s looking forward to spending the holidays with her beloved grandmother. Her parents have worked in a clinic in Africa since Brenna turned eighteen, and her grandmother had been her always-there family. Christmas with Gran is special, and the rituals they have developed define Christmas for Brenna. She’s not expecting the winter “storm of the century” nor wrecking her car to avoid a deer, and she’s really caught by surprise by her rescuer, a hero on horseback who seems to know a great deal about her even though she’s never heard of him.

Dillon Craig is haunted by his experiences during two tours of duty in Afghanistan and regretting time lost with his father who died while Dillon was deployed. But he’s found a refuge in his cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains and satisfaction in setting up a clinic. He is that rare doctor who makes house calls to his isolated neighbors in the mountain community, and his favorite visits are those to Dakota Keating, whom he knows is expecting her granddaughter to arrive from Raleigh. Instinct sends him along the road where he finds Brenna in her wrecked car already half buried in the snow. Being snowed in doesn’t seem like much of a Christmas gift, but it is exactly what these two need to change their hearts and their lives forever.

"A Rare Gift" by Jaci Burton

Once upon a time Wyatt Kent was married to Cassandra Andrews, but it turned out that they wanted different things out of life. Their HEA turned out to be neither happy nor ever after, and divorce put a period to it—except Wyatt still has a lot of anger and resentment toward Cassandra even three years after they split up. He’s not at all pleased when he’s given the job of expanding a day care center owned by Calliope Andrews, younger sister of his ex-wife. He’s even less pleased when Calliope has him noticing things he’d prefer not to notice about his ex-sister-in-law.

Calliope has had a crush on Wyatt since the first time she saw him when she was fifteen and he was twenty-three. She still has a crush on him, and she’s really bothered that he’s still not over Cassie. She thinks she’s just the one to heal the hole in his heart. Wyatt doesn’t know it, but there’s no way his resistance can hold against a determined Calliope. Once he learns just how different she is from her sister and how perfect she is for him, he surrenders to the inevitable with a smile. But nothing’s ever quite that simple. Wyatt has to deal with his past before his heart is ready for the future.

"It's Not Christmas Without You" by HelenKay Dimon

Carrie Anders and Austin Thomas were high school sweethearts who dated off and on through college and settled into couples bliss afterwards, but they broke up six months ago when Carrie was offered a job with the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D. C.  Austin can’t imagine any life other than the one he has working in his family’s landscaping business in his home town, Holloway, West Virginia. Carrie loves her job. Sure she misses Austin, but she’s determined not to give up her dream and be filled with regrets later.

Austin is convinced that Carrie will realize that she’s no city girl at heart and be back in Holloway with him in a short time. As the months pass, he grows concerned, and when he learns that Carrie is not coming home for Christmas, he knows he has to act. He pays a hefty price for the permit that allows him to set up a Christmas tree lot across the street from Carrie’s Washington apartment, figuring he’ll still be back in Holloway by Christmas and Cassie with him. Austin has a lot to learn about understanding and valuing all the pieces that make up the woman he loves, but Cassie too has something to learn—how empty her life would be if Austin was not in it.

"Mistletoe and Margaritas" by Shannon Stacey

Justin McCormack has been in love with Claire Rutledge since before she changed her last name to Rutledge. He and his best friend, Brendan Rutledge, met Claire the same night at a party, but Brendan was the one with whom Claire fell in love. Claire and Justin have been buddies through the years Claire and Brendan dated and through their three-year marriage, and their friendship has grown since Brendan was killed in an automobile accident two years ago. For seven years, Justin has loved Claire, but even after she’s available, he never makes a move. Loyalty to Brendan and fear of losing Claire altogether have kept Justin firmly in the role of friend, but it’s time for him to let go. He needs a full life, and he can’t have one as long as so much of his time and his heart are devoted to Claire.

Claire loved her husband, and she has spent two years mourning his loss and the loss of the life they should have had together. But she’s beginning to be ready to move on with her life. She misses the passion and the intimacy of being part of a loving couple. Lately she’s been noticing how good-looking Justin is. When an old friend half-teasingly speculates about what a hot lover Justin would be, Claire is partly intrigued, partly horrified at the new thoughts about Justin that begin to fill her mind.

All their friends and family seem fine with the idea of Justin and Claire becoming more than friends, but it’s not easy to redefine a long-term relationship. Claire finds the way to accepting a second chance at love fraught with complications, but Justin’s struggle is even tougher. He has to forgive himself for loving his best friend’s wife before he can believe he deserves a life with Claire.

I love Christmas anthologies, and I missed this one in its e-release version two years ago. Like most anthologies, I liked some stories better than others, but there’s not a really a bad story or a poorly written one in this group. I liked the voices of all four authors, I thought the characters were credible and engaging, and I found enough touches of the holiday to be persuaded they all could legitimately be termed “Christmas stories.” Perhaps most important I thought they all worked as novellas. None of them left me feeling as if I needed several more chapters to find it a satisfying read.

My favorite was Shannon Stacey’s “Mistletoe and Margaritas.” Friends to lovers is one of my favorite tropes, and this one is rich with emotional depth and complications. I’m a big fan of Stacey’s Kowalskis, and I thought this story had the same kind of warmth and family connections. I also loved Alison Kent’s "This Time Next Year" by Alison Kent’s “This Time Next Year.” I was won over early on by the image of a knight on horseback who turned out to be a doctor, and I cheered when Kent avoided the predictable ending and allowed Brenna to have her dream and her HEA. Jaci Burton and HelenKay Dimon were both new-to-me authors. I liked Dimon’s story, and I thought I would not because I didn’t think she could give me an ending that would make me happy. She did. I was so pleased that I went to Amazon to see if she had written the hero’s brother’s story, and I found three other stories in the series. I was less delighted with Jaci Burton’s story, although I thought Calliope was wonderful. But I just don’t care for triangles that involve siblings, especially when marriage is part of the picture. That’s a personal response, and other readers may not find the fact that the heroine is the hero’s ex-sister-in-law objectionable at all.

Holiday Kisses is being released for the first time in print. It’s also still available in e-format. And something I love about Carina press’s anthologies is that you can buy the novellas individually if you want to read only one or two stories in the collection. Whatever your preferred format, if you like Christmas anthologies, you should definitely check this one out.

Are you a fan of Christmas anthologies? What’s your all-time favorite?

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Twelve Days of Christmas in September: Day Seven--The Christmas He Loved Her

The Christmas He Loved Her
By Juliana Stone
Publisher: Sourcebooks
Release Date: 
October 1, 2013

Raine Edwards is drowning in sadness. Even the ordinary tasks of life such as eating and getting dressed require more effort than she can summon. Once she was the wife of Jesse Edwards—Jesse, who had always been in her life, making her feel safe and cherished, Jesse, who promised her forever. But Jesse’s promises ended more than eighteen months ago in Afghanistan, and now Jake, his twin, who challenged her and pushed her and stirred all kinds of feelings, is gone too, leaving Raine with grief and guilt and secrets too painful to bear. Raine has lost too much, and now she’s losing herself.

Eighteen months ago, Jake Edwards, former bad boy and ex-Army Ranger, ran. Behind him in Crystal Lake, the small Michigan town where he grew up, he left his best friends, his grieving parents, and Raine, his twin brother’s widow who has owned Jake’s heart for longer than he can remember. He didn’t leave his own crippling grief or the guilt that torments him or his memories of home, Jesse, Raine, the horrors of war, or a night that should never have happened. Now he’s headed home, and he’s not alone. And he’s not prepared for what he finds in Crystal Lake.

Seeing Raine so precariously balanced fills Jake with more guilt and more anger at her, at himself, at life and its losses. The feelings that Jake and Raine have for one another are so tangled that they can’t separate the love and the desire from the grief and the guilt and the belief that they have betrayed the man they both loved. The things they can’t share and all they do share are tearing them apart.  At least Jake’s presence has Raine rejoining the living. But can they remove the barbs of the past without destroying each other in the process? Can love really conquer all?

The Christmas He Loved Her is the second book in Stone’s Bad Boys of Crystal Lake series, following The Summer He Came Home, and it is darker, more intense, and more angst-filled than the first book. The characters who gave the first book its feeling of community and home are here, along with Lily St. Claire, a new one who complicates the current story a bit and hints of things to come. But the focus is solidly on the twisted mix of feelings between Jake and Raine and the complex battles they must fight individually and together to win their happiness.

The intensity in this story is real, credibly arising from the powerful emotions of these characters whose pain keeps a firm grip on the reader’s heart. This is not a typical Christmas story. The well-intentioned but confused plotting of Jake’s mother and Raine’s puppy Gibson are as warm and fuzzy as it gets. If you like your romance complicated and dark with memorable characters who take you on an emotional journey, with Stone’s usual sizzle as a bonus, I suggest you add this one to your Christmas romance wish list.

Do you prefer light-hearted stories, or are your bookshelves filled with darker reads? Or do you like a mix of the two? What’s your favorite angst-laden romance?

Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Twelve Days of Christmas in September: Day Six--Kissing under the Mistletoe

Kissing under the Mistletoe
By Bella Andre
Publisher: Harlequin
Release Date: 
September 24, 2013

Jack Sullivan, engineer, entrepreneur, and all-around genius, believes wholeheartedly that there is a market for the electronic pocket planner that he and his two partners, friends since their college days, have developed. Unfortunately, early sales are less than impressive, and retail stores are reluctant to stock it. The CEO of the San Francisco company that is manufacturing and distributing the device is ready to pull the plug. He gives Jack and his team twenty-four hours to come up with a sexy plan that will make the pocket planner the must-have gift of the Christmas season. His partners are skeptical of their success, but Jack is too stubborn to give up.

Thirteen years ago Mary Ferrer was a naïve nineteen-year-old with a dream of seeing the world beyond the tiny Italian village where she was born. She knows she wants more out of life than to follow the path of her childhood friends who are marrying and having babies. When a modeling scout on vacation in Italy sees Mary, he offers to represent her, confident she has a promising career. Mary succeeds beyond all her dreams. She has enjoyed more than a decade of being one of the most famous models in the world, but her success came at a price. Her mother, fearful of the dangers in that larger world forbids Mary to go, and when Mary refuses to obey her, her mother disowns her. Now Mary has decided that it’s time for her to explore new opportunities. She is on her final photo shoot.  

Jack and his partners set out without a lot of hope for a brainstorming session in which they will have to put their engineer’s brains to work trying to play the role of PR reps. Jack sees a vision—the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen. He doesn’t know who she is, but he’s certain she can sell his pocket planner to men, women, and children. He’d also certain that she’s already stolen his heart. Mary is no less taken with the tall, good-looking engineer, and it doesn’t take a lot of persuasion for her to agree to be the face of their product. However, she has been burnt badly in the past, and hers is a cautious heart. It will take some time for Jack to convince her that they are a forever team.

Kissing under the Mistletoe reminded me not of a Christmas song, although it has plenty of Christmas connections, but of my favorite song from an old musical, The King and I. Like “Hello, Young Lovers,” this story is bittersweet, infinitely sad in its irreparable loss and warmly comforting in its cherished memories. It is told retrospectively by the widowed Mary who is in the cabin Jack and his brothers built for Mary and Jack forty years ago. As she waits for her eight children and their families to arrive, she unwraps Christmas ornaments that are traditionally hung on the family tree. They bring back the Christmases of the past, especially the very first one she shared with Jack.

I confess that I’m a sentimentalist, particularly so at Christmas. I haven’t read any of Andre’s Sullivan books, so I’m not up on the stories of the eight Sullivan children, each of whom I understand has his/her (six sons, two daughters) book. This lack of familiarity did not interfere with my following this story.

Some readers may be displeased because, of course, a conventional happy ending is impossible. But that doesn’t mean Jack and Mary’s love story is missing happy scenes, sweet romance, or lots of sizzle. From the little I know of Andre, the last is one of her trademarks. If you are looking for a Christmas read that is a departure from the usual, you may want to try this one—even if you don’t know the eight Sullivans. And they have cousins with stories too, I understand.

What do you think of romance novels that depart from the conventional HEA? Can you be satisfied with bittersweet instead of bow-on-the-top, totally sweet, satisfying ending?

Friday, September 20, 2013

The Twelve Days of Christmas in September: Day Five--Sleigh Bells in the Snow

Sleigh Bells in the Snow
By Sarah Morgan
Publisher: Harlequin HQN
Release Date: 
October 29, 2013

Jackson O’Neil has left his own highly successful business, a chain of European luxury hotels specializing in winter sports, to concentrate on the family business, the Snow Crystal Resort and Spa in Vermont. His father’s death eighteen months ago in an automobile accident left the family reeling and the business that had been in the family for four generations on the edge of disaster. Jackson is astute enough to know that the only way to save the business is to make some changes, but his eighty-year-old grandfather is fighting him every step of the way. He thinks Jackson’s decision to build luxury cabins and to add the spa was foolish, and he is furious when Jackson announces that he has hired a public relations genius from a New York firm to help them sell the attractions of the resort to a larger audience.

Kayla Green is the public relations whiz. A British import, she is winning accolades from her clients and her boss for her innovative, commercially appealing work. She’s delighted when she learns that she is being given a new account to work on—first, because she’s a workaholic who is always happy to have more work and second, because anything that helps her avoid the excess of seasonal cheer that seems to be everywhere is good. She’s also very curious about Jackson’s reasons for leaving his internationally known business in other hands to focus on some Vermont ski resort few people ever heard of. When he makes clear that he expects her to spend a week at the resort, Kayla is horrified at the idea of taking a full week out of her busy schedule, but then she recalls his mention of secluded cabins and decides that since she can’t make Christmas disappear, the next best thing is spending it in seclusion in Vermont where no one will drape her in tinsel or demand that she visit Santa Claus. What she gets is a messy, marvelous family who makes her a part of them, a sigh-worthy hero who has her reassembling her dreams, and enough love to stretch her heart more sizes than the Grinch’s.

I’ve been hearing good things about RITA-winner Sarah Morgan for a while now, so when I saw an HQN  Christmas book with her name attached, I jumped at the chance to review it. I’m so glad I did because Sleigh Bells in the Snow is a smart, sexy story with a surprising amount of sweetness and a generous helping of humor that has a contemporary sharpness without the snark. Kayla is a sleekly polished career woman with a façade so firmly in place that no one who knows her can see the vulnerable, lonely person who still bears the wounds of the unwanted adolescent she was. She has grown strong, but her strength doesn’t mean that the broken places don’t remain weak. Jackson is a dream of a hero—intelligent, good-looking, and accomplished, with a deep love of family and home. An alpha who is accustomed to being in charge and having everything and everyone fall in with his plans, he finds life far more complicated with his family and with Kayla because his heart is on the line.

I loved these characters—not just Kayla and Jackson but also every member of his “infuriating exasperating, interfering, lovable family”: his grandparents, sweet Alice and curmudgeonly Walter; his mother Elizabeth, trying to find her place as she adjusts to being a widow rather than a wife; short-tempered, soft-hearted brother Tyler and his appealing daughter Jess; and even the poodle puppy, Maple. Each one is real and engaging. The other O’Neil brother Sean plays a more limited role, but he is promising. Morgan gives readers a real sense of place with the beauty of the Vermont setting and the thrill of winter sports. Finally, this author includes enough sizzle to please readers who require some steam, but she also includes enough tender, heart-touching moments for this novel to be a truly romantic story as well as a sexy one. And it has the Christmas lights and gingerbread and gifts and snow that one expects in a Christmas book.

This is the first book in a trilogy. I’m definitely signing up for Tyler’s book and for Sean’s. I’m betting that once you’ve read Sleigh Bells in the Snow (and you should read it), you’ll join me.

Sarah Morgan is a new-to-me author, and I loved this first book. Who is your most recent new-to-you author who gave you a book you loved?

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Twelve Days of Christmas in September: Day Four--Christmas in Snowflake Canyon

Christmas in Snowflake Canyon
By RaeAnne Thayne
Publisher: Harlequin HQN
Release Date: 
October 29, 2013

Genevieve Beaumont, Hope’s Crossing’s spoiled princess and former Bridezilla, and Dylan Caine, war hero who left a few missing parts in Afghanistan, have only two things in common. They both ended up at drinking at the Speckled Lizard on the Friday after Thanksgiving and they both really dislike the Christmas carols some patron with lousy taste in music keeps playing on the digital jukebox. When Genevieve decides to make her objections to the music known, she ends up in an altercation with a redhead with a fondness for Christmas carols and a job as assistant district attorney. The altercation turns physical, and when the redhead’s obnoxious male companion gets involved, Dylan can’t sit there and watch him manhandle Genevieve, even if she is a spoiled brat. By evening’s end, they have something else in common: they are handcuffed together in a squad car on their way to the police station.

Genevieve is in Hope’s Crossing only under duress. She’s spent the last two years in Paris spending money and enjoying time with people who know nothing of her family or the humiliation of the perfect wedding that never was. Her parents sent her a ticket to fly home. Genevieve thinks she’s home for the holidays, but once she’s in Hope’s Crossing, she learns that her indulgent daddy has had enough of his extravagant princess spending money as if there is no tomorrow. Genevieve’s tomorrows for the foreseeable future will be spent in Hope’s Crossing. Her father has canceled her credit cards and blocked access to her trust fund. All Genevieve has is the ugly house at the mouth of Snowflake Canyon that she inherited from her grandmother. She has hopes of selling it, but it will take some work first. And work is a new experience for Genevieve. It’s enough to cause a girl to drink.

Dylan Caine lost an eye and an arm in Afghanistan. He almost lost his life. The youngest of Dermot Caine’s six sons, Dylan knows his father, his five older brothers, and his sister Charlotte, the baby of the family, are thankful that he survived and eager to see him integrated back into the close family life of the growing Caine clan and into the Hope’s Crossing community. They are troubled and worried by Dylan’s drinking and the seclusion he clings to in his isolated cabin deep in Snowflake Canyon with only his dog Tucker for companionship. Dylan hates to hurt them, but there’s no way he can make them understand that he just wants to be left alone to face what his life is going to be with a shattered body and a shattered soul.

That one night at the Lizard changed the lives of Genevieve and Dylan. Thanks to a little interference from Dermot and Henry Lange, the only man in Hope’s Crossing richer and more powerful than Genevieve’s father, Mayor William Beaumont, Dylan’s lawyer brother Andrew arranges to have their “crime” wiped off their records if, before New Year’s, they serve one hundred hours of community service at the Warrior’s Hope, the new recreational therapy facility for wounded veterans that is the brain child of former baseball star Smoke Gregory and his beloved, Charlotte Caine (Willowleaf Lane). Dylan thinks their dream of helping traumatized vets with recreation is foolish and has already refused to have anything to do with it. Now he has little choice about spending time at The Warrior’s Hope or with Genevieve, who proves to be more human and far more tempting that Dylan expected. Dylan and the Warrior’s Hope are both new experiences for Genevieve, and they are making her believe she can be different—and better—than she ever dreamed. Reason says two such different people are all wrong for each other, but the heart is no organ of reason. And Christmas is the season for proving love offers greater gifts than the mind can conceive.

Christmas in Snowflake Canyon is the sixth book in RaeAnne Thayne’s Hope’s Crossing series, which has been one of my favorite contemporary series since I read the first book, Blackberry Summer, in the spring of 2011. Each book has offered a rich emotional experience that evoked laughter and tears and earned a spot among my keepers. This one is one of the best, as emotionally wrenching in a different way as Maura McKnight’s healing from her grievous loss and first steps into a new life in Sweet Laurel Falls (2012).

It is all the more remarkable because Genevieve and Dylan are not likeable characters. Dylan, of course, is a hero, and he sacrificed enormously in service of his country. It is impossible not to feel sympathy for him, but it’s also difficult to really like him when he is all wounded animal who snarls and tears at his loving family who are brokenhearted over his losses but whose gratitude that Dylan’s life has been spared is even greater. However, with Dylan, readers familiar with the series recognize from the opening scene that his psychological healing has begun, albeit in infinitesimal increments. The Dylan of earlier books would never have agreed to meet his brother Jamie at the Lizard.

No mitigating factors exist for Genevieve. She was a snob, and still is, though less of a one than readers might have supposed. She did behave horribly to some of Hope’s Crossing’s most noble characters. About the only thing she has going for her at the beginning is that readers of the earlier books can appreciate that she had the good sense to dump her rich, cheating, no-good political heir boyfriend. But Thayne shows her readers the family forces that have molded Genevieve into the pampered, petulant beauty she appears to be; she shows us that there is something worthwhile in Genevieve. She may be ill-equipped for transformation, but from the moment she has an epiphany that allows her to see herself as “small, selfish, and stupid,” she begins a journey that will bring her, the hope’s Crossing community, and readers to the understanding that can be great-hearted, giving, and smart in all the ways that matter most. This may be the best contemporary heroine redemption story since Susan Elizabeth Phillips gave the world Sugar Beth.

Dylan’s journey to health and wholeness is more complicated and more fraught, fittingly so, and he fights it with weapons honed in a hard school. But love works its miracle within him, love in so many facets—not just the love he and Genevieve share and finally confess, although that is central, but also his family’s love for him and his for them, the love he sees in the lives of other wounded veterans who have come to the Warrior’s Hope, and his community’s love for the many who need healing, helping touches. This is a Christmas book, and it has a plenitude of Christmas trappings: decorations, lights, gifts, and music. But it is most deeply Christmas at its heart, and I loved everything about it.

Thayne has said that there will be one more Hope’s Crossing series, the story of another Caine brother, Brendan, in the spring of 2014. I hate to see this series end, but I know I it will be one of those series that I revisit again and again. I highly recommend Christmas in Snowflake Canyon. You can read it as a standalone, although Genevieve’s redemption will not be as meaningful as it will be for readers who have seen her in her rich bitch incarnation.


Are there series that you are sad to see end? Or do you belong to the company who thinks series should be limited to trilogies and quartets?

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Twelve Days of Christmas in September: Day Three--Starry Night

Starry Night
By Debbie Macomber
Publisher: Ballantine
Release Date: 
October 8, 2013

Carrie Slayton was elated when she started her career at the Chicago Sun-Times, but now she feels that she’s missing out on her chance to be a “real journalist.” Despite her managing editor’s promise that she would have her chance at interviews and human interest stories, for two years she has been covering only society weddings, parties, and fundraisers. Carrie has had enough. She is prepared to turn in her two-week notice and look for a job in the Pacific Northwest, nearer her family, but she can’t resist when her boss offers her a deal. If Carrie can secure an interview with elusive survivalist author Finn Dalton, whose book Alone, an account of life in the Arctic tundra, has spent seven months on bestseller lists, she can have the assignments she wants.

Finn Dalton grew up in Alaska and developed a love for its untamed wilderness from an early age. His distrust of women developed early too, starting with his mother’s leaving when he was ten and reinforced when another woman betrayed him. He never expected his book to earn him the level of attention it has, and he has no interest in satisfying the public’s hunger for personal information about him. Despite his reputation, Finn is no recluse, but he is determined to protect his solitary life from becoming fodder for media representatives who refuse to recognize boundaries. It helps that he spends much of his time in an isolated cabin in the Alaskan wilderness and that the few people who know his location are loyal and close-mouthed.

No one believed really believed that Carrie could track down the author whom far more experienced journalists had vainly pursued, but thanks to her tenacity, a sympathetic connection she establishes with Finn’s mother, and a friend of Finn’s who decides more human contact is in Finn’s best interest, she finds him. When Finn’s friend Sawyer flies her into the wilderness and points her in the right direction, Carrie expects to get her interview and return to civilization as soon as Sawyer returns for her. She is unprepared for Alaska’s brutal weather, for the wolf-like creature who appears ready to attack her, or for the large, graceful, silent man who reluctantly comes to her rescue.  When a winter storm forces Carrie and Finn to spend forty-eight hours together in his small cabin, games of cribbage, shared laughter, and a mutual attraction neither is ready to name shatter their preconceptions about one another. But Carrie has her interview. Are her new feelings for Finn important enough for her to grant his request to kill the interview and the career aspirations she has cherished for years? Are Finn’s new feelings for Carrie strong enough to overcome his entrenched distrust of women? Can the effervescent, people-loving Carrie and the taciturn, solitude-craving really Finn find happiness together?

A holiday book from Debbie Macomber is almost as established a tradition for her fans as singing “Silent Night” and leaving milk and cookies for Santa. Starry Night may not be as conventionally Christmassy as Macomber’s angel books or her Mrs. Miracle duo, but it is filled with the sweetness, tenderness, warmth, and other feel-good emotions (along with a touch of the poignant) that Macomber’s readers expect from her books. It reminded me of her older romances, the ones with a clear focus on a single couple who fall in love, encounter obstacles, and still find their way to a happily-ever-after. If these are the qualities you are looking for in a Christmas romance, Macomber delivers with a full quotient of coziness and comfort.

If you are looking for layers of complexity, however, you will need to look elsewhere. Finn’s trust issues are resolved easily, Carrie’s patience is seemingly limitless, and—as Macomber herself observes in an author’s intro—this is “romance, plain and simple.”  A warning to those for whom the title may evoke associations with Van Gogh’s famous painting and/or  Don MacLean’s 1972 hit “Vincent”:  you will find no tension between peace and hope, on one hand, and anguish and isolation on the other in Macomber’s Starry Night. Trust the cover. It’s a more accurate reflection of the contents. I refuse to be bothered by what this book isn’t. Instead, I’ll celebrate what it is: a perfect book to read curled in a chair by the Christmas tree, with a cup of peppermint tea and a frosted angel cookie at hand, a book that will leave me in just the right frame of mind to fall asleep and dream of sugar plums and happy endings.

I have a dozen or more Debbie Macomber Christmas books among my Christmas keepers plus last year’s Angels at the Table on my Kindle. Do you know Starry Night is the second Macomber Christmas book set in Alaska? The first was The Snow Bride a decade ago. The Trouble with Angels is my favorite Macomber Christmas book? Are you a Macomber fan? Do you have a favorite?

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Twelve Days of Christmas in September: Day Two--A Seaside Christmas

A Seaside Christmas
By Sherryl Woods
Publisher: Harlequin Mira
Release Date: 
September 24, 2013

Songwriter Jenny Collins is coming home for Christmas for the first time in several years. She has avoided Chesapeake Shores for the most part since her mother’s marriage to Thomas O’Brien left Jenny feeling like an outsider. This feeling was exacerbated when Connie and Thomas announced Connie’s pregnancy during the O’Brien family trip to Ireland (An O’Brien Family Christmas, Book 8, 2011). 

Jenny ran away from that news, and the distance between her and her family has continued to grow since then. She is little more than a stranger to her four-year-old half-brother, Sean Michael. Jenny knows her jealousy and resentment are childish, and she misses the closeness she and her mother had always enjoyed. But she can’t seem to control the complex swirl of emotions that keep her from accepting that she has a place in her mother’s new family. Even now, she is in Chesapeake Shores at the urging of Bree O’Brien Collins, wife of Jenny’s Uncle Jake (Flowers on Main, Book 2, 2009), who has persuaded Jenny to write songs for the Christmas play Bree has written to be performed at her theater in December. Jenny loves Bree and Jake, but if she’s honest with herself, she knows that her reluctance to spend another Christmas alone in Nashville reliving her breakup with country music superstar Caleb Green is also a factor in her decision to return to Chesapeake Shores.

Two years ago Caleb Green self-destructed. His alcohol abuse and the drunken revels that made tabloid headlines of his infidelity destroyed his career as front man for one of country music’s hottest bands and ended his professional and personal collaboration with Jenny Collins, one of the industry’s most successful songwriters and the only woman to win Caleb’s heart. After a stint in rehab, Caleb is sober and determined to remain so, and he’s ready and eager to reclaim his place on country charts and in Jenny’s life. When he hears a young singer perform a song that Caleb knows will be perfect to jumpstart his career as a solo artist, a heartbreak song that is unmistakably Jenny’s work, he makes plans to head for Chesapeake Shores, hoping to persuade Jenny to give him her song and a second chance.

Forgiveness and reconciliation are the themes of this tenth book and third Christmas tale in Sherryl Woods’s popular Chesapeake Shores series. They are themes that Woods has used effectively throughout this series as the vividly drawn, vital O’Briens and their various connections laugh and love and live out their often tangled, complicated lives, and they seem particularly appropriate in a Christmas story.

Jenny and Caleb are richly human, imperfect characters, and their very real flaws may loom unforgivably large for some readers. Jenny’s reaction to her mother’s marriage and to Sean Michael makes her seem selfish and self-absorbed, but there are mitigating factors. She is still quite young when Connie and Thomas marry and only a bit older when Sean Michael is born, and self-absorption is a credible characteristic in the young. Also, her father’s absence from her life has left her with insecurities, and she has grown up as the focus of her mother’s love. Once Jenny distances herself from her family, accepting the role of the prodigal requires a humility and self-knowledge that are difficult to achieve. Her choices are not always admirable, but they are consistent with her character, credible with her circumstances, and convincing means to demonstrate growth.

Caleb too may seem rather too self-interested in his eagerness to gain the rights to record Jenny’s song, but in his case too, this is a flaw consistent with who he is. Given his profession, it makes sense that he has an economy-sized ego. Given his history, it makes sense that he has deep-seated insecurities. His fall from grace was profound and public; thus, he has a great deal personally and professionally riding on a successful comeback. His success with Jenny’s songs has already been established, and his emotional investment in this particular song is significant. And once he sees Jenny again, the song is no longer his top priority.

I loved seeing Jenny and Caleb’s story play out against the backdrop of an O’Brien holiday gathering. I loved seeing Jenny’s reconciliation with all of her family; I loved the family ties, the bonds of friendship, and the new generation of O’Briens growing up. Bree is one of my favorite characters in the series, and so I was particularly pleased to see her writing dream come true. I’ve been a Sherryl Woods reader for a long time, but I’ve found some of her recent novels disappointing. But A Seaside Christmas left me with a sigh of satisfaction, a Christmassy heart, and a wish to spend another Christmas with the O’Briens. If you are a fan of Woods’s O’Briens, you don’t want to miss this one. If you have a soft spot for a Christmas romance filled with family, friends, and forgiveness as well as lovers, add this one to your list.

One of the things that keep me reading romance fiction is that redemption and reconciliation are common themes in the genre. I believe in second chances. What theme in romance resonates most with you?

Monday, September 16, 2013

Twelve Days of Christmas in September: Day One--Christmas on 4th Street

Today is the first day of Twelve Days of Christmas in September, celebrating some great holiday-themed books that will be released over the next several weeks. I started reading 2013 Christmas books in July, so I’ve been ready to start wrapping gifts and listening to favorite carols for three months now. I hope you’ll join me for the next twelve days to get a head start on the season and on the new winter holiday romance fiction that you’ll want to include among your September through December reading this year. At the end of the twelve days, the Randomizer will select one commenter to receive a gift certificate. 

Christmas on 4th Street
By Susan Mallery
Publisher: Harlequin HQN
Release Date: September 24, 2013

Noelle Perkins may be a newcomer to Fool’s Gold, but she’s already in love with her life in the California town. She has loyal friends, a successful business, and a deep appreciation of all the little things that give her reason to rejoice every day. Her past has taught her never to take life’s bounty for granted, and it is a lesson she never allows herself to forget. In fact, the only things that are keeping her life from being pretty close to perfect are her lack of skill in dealing with frozen precipitation (for which her childhood in Florida and her years working in L. A. failed to prepare her), her college student employees who take off for the ski slopes without warning, and the absence of a man in her life who will give her the look of a woman well loved that is unmistakable in the expressions of her three best friends, Patience McGraw (Just One Kiss), Felicia Swift (Two of a Kind) and Isabel Carlisle (Three Little Words).

A hand injury that left Gabriel Boylan unable to continue his usual practice of volunteering to work through the holidays has sent the trauma surgeon to Fool’s Gold to spend Christmas with his fraternal twin, Gideon, Gideon’s fiancé and recently discovered son, and the Boylan parents. It’s the first Christmas Gabe has spent with all of his family in more than fifteen years, and he’s not looking forward to it. His bond with his brother is deep if rarely expressed, but lifelong tensions with his drill sergeant father who never understood Gabe’s preference for books over ballgames or his refusal to follow the family tradition of becoming a soldier have not been resolved by time and distance.

Noelle and Gabe meet when she shows up at Gideon and Felicia’s home to take care of their puppy Webster. “Heavily armed” with an umbrella, she is ready to defend her friends’ home from an invader when she realizes the hunk wearing nothing but jeans looks vaguely familiar. Then she sees the nasty-looking wound to his left hand, and the only thing she’s battling is her inclination to faint at the sight of blood. As for Gideon, he thinks his brother has connected with a kook. He’s not about to admit he’s pleased to find out that the tall blonde with the perpetual-motion mouth is not Felicia after all.

The initial attraction between Noelle and Gabe intensifies as they spend more and more time together. Gabe, who is not the sort to enjoy inactivity, even ends up working in Noelle’s shop, The Christmas Attic, the last place one would expect to find this hero who is more a bah-humbug sort than he is a holiday joy spreader. But regardless of their deepening feelings, Gabe has no intention of staying in Fool’s Gold and no plans to make a lifetime commitment, and Noelle knows she deserves someone who is brave enough to risk celebrating what they have rather than fearing what they could lose.

Ever Mallery book I read just strengthens my conviction that this writer is one of the most gifted creators of characters in contemporary romance fiction. Noelle is a joy. I adored her only a few degrees less than I adores Felicia. Her courage, her optimism, and her contagious joy make her the perfect heroine for a Christmas romance. The sensitive, intellectual Gabe is something of an anomaly among the recent batch of Fool’s Gold heroes. I loved the difference, and I loved that Mallery showed the cost war exacts on those whose battle role is different from that of the typical warrior. Given Gabe’s relationship with his father over long years and all the rest that he has endured, I could even be patient with his slowness to recognize what he and Noelle had.

One of my favorite moments in the novel came when Noelle, thinking Gabriel is gone, recognizes that his leaving does not negate all that he has given her, and that she will prevail even if she has to continue without him. For me, that moment made the HEA all the sweeter.

I loved seeing the other Fool’s Gold characters. I especially loved that Felicia, Gideon, and Carter were such integral parts of the story. One of the things that make me a series addict is seeing the HEA of characters from earlier books in progress, and it’s especially rewarding when the characters are a favorite couple, as was the case with Felicia and Gideon.

Finally, I loved that this really is a Christmas book, not just a book set in December that could as easily have been set in March or August. The seasonal rituals of the town, the genuine sentiment that the holidays evoke among families and friends, and the joy and love that are the very definition of the season are all part of what makes this book special. Some readers may find it kitschy, but I even liked the Christmas associations of the protagonists’ names. In fact, except for the ’nother-verse, same-as-the-first feel of Gabe’s flight, I liked everything about this book. “Heartwarming” is a word I find overused and too readily applied to every book with sentimental appeal, but I think Christmas on 4th Street truly deserves to be termed “heartwarming” because it is indeed emotionally uplifting, sustaining, heartening, and encouraging. It’s also sexy, and it offers the gift of a wonderfully satisfying, sigh-evoking ending. If you like Christmas romances, you definitely should include this one on your list of must-reads for 2013.

This is Book 13 in Mallery’s Fool’s Gold series. I’ve read every one of them. How many have you read? Do you have a favorite?

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Saturday Review: Summer Is for Lovers

Summer Is for Lovers
By Jennifer McQuiston
Publisher: Avon
Release Date: 
September 24, 2013

Caroline Tolbertson is not yet in her teens when, on a deserted Brighton beach, she first encounters David Cameron, a troubled young army officer who changes his mind about suicide almost too late. Thanks to her late father’s unconventional approach to rearing daughters, Caroline is an experienced swimmer who is able to guide the young soldier to safety. Keeping silent about the rescue is in both their best interests, and so they part with no one else knowing about the incident. But David, second son of a Scots baron, retains a vivid memory of his plain but passionate young savior, and for Caroline, David becomes the “verray, parfit, gentil knight” of her dreams.

More than a decade later, the tall, gawky Caroline and her older sister, Penelope, a generally proper, bookish miss with a stammer, are on the verge of spinsterhood, both of them poor material for the stuff of their widowed mother’s dream of seeing her daughters married ladies. Caroline is all too aware of her physical and social deficiencies, and she is troubled by them since she knows a good marriage is the only way she can fulfill her promise to her father and take care of her mother, and her sister. Prompt action is vital if they are not to descend from genteel poverty into outright penury.

Caroline and David meet the second time when David accompanies his mother to Brighton for a two-week stay while she recuperates from a lingering illness.  The sea air at Brighton works its restorative powers quickly because within for days, David’s mother is engaged in matchmaking schemes to see her younger son paired with an eligible bride. Both Caroline and David are reluctant guests at a social gathering at the summer home of an English viscount whose daughter is the match David’s mother has selected for him.

David, a caretaker by nature, and Caroline’s innocence intensifies the guilt he feels about an incident in his past. He is indignant when he realizes that she is the target of the cruelty of a group of shallow, immature aristocrats, and he determines that he will do his best to open their eyes to her intelligence and unique appeal and push them into seeing her as a worthy candidate for marriage. It doesn’t take long for Davis to realize that the friendship and desire he feels for Caroline insure that there is only one man he can see as her husband, David himself.

I enjoyed McQuiston’s debut novel, but I found Summer Is for Lovers, the second book in the series, to be even better. Caroline is a delightful heroine—strong physically and emotionally, intelligent, and vulnerable. Her aptitude for swimming makes her unconventional in an original fashion, and yet she is very much a woman of her time with limited choices.  David is a decent, honorable man who made a mistake for which he cannot forgive himself. I think for most people in real life, their strengths and weaknesses are entangled, often like the opposite sides of a single coin, and so I found David a credible and appealing hero. I applaud the skill with which McQuiston shows the development of the relationship between David and Caroline. I especially appreciated the scene where David sees Caroline in her natural element, the sea, and becomes aware that she is the very opposite of the graceless, plain young woman he thought her to be.

I also liked the fact that David is the second son of a Scots baron, the lowest-ranking title in the United Kingdom and that Caroline’s father was a newspaper owner. The Brighton setting also added freshness and interest to the novel. I even approve the “villains” of the piece who are not incredibly evil but rather weak and self-absorbed and incapable of seeing the “other” with sympathy and understanding.

This book is loosely connected to What Happens in Scotland, but it is not necessary to have read that book to follow the events of Summer is for Lovers. If you haven’t yet tried Jennifer McQuiston’s books, I recommend you do so. She’s high on my list of up and comers to watch.

McQuiston said in an interview with Tracy Brogan that Dierks Bentley served as the inspiration for David Cameron and Kip Moore as the hero of her third Avon novel, Moonlight on My Mind, a March 25, 2014 release.  An author who has a proper appreciation for country music hunks is clearly a woman of insight and discriminating taste.  What country music star inspires you to imagine him—or her—as the protagonist of a romance novel?