Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Tuesday Review: The Cottage on Juniper Ridge

The Cottage on Juniper Ridge
By Sheila Roberts
Publisher: Harlequin Mira
Release Date:
February 25, 2014

Jen Heath has lost all joy in her life. She is working two jobs in order to pay her mortgage, her car payment, and her maxed out credit cards. Looking back, she realizes she was crazy to buy the Seattle condo she fell in love with but couldn’t really afford and crazier to hit the limit on her credit cards for all the furniture and accessories she just had to have for her new home. Now she has no time to enjoy her home or her friends, and even finding time for her family is a stretch. A year after her divorce, she still can’t find time to date. Jen used to love Christmas, but now the holiday just means more tasks added to her must-do list. After a particularly difficult day, Jen goes home, calls in sick, and curls up with a book that her sister gave her—Simplicity by Muriel Sterling. As a result of reading the book, in an impulsive move to simplify her life, Jen quits her job, puts her condo up for sale, and moves to the small town of Icicle Falls, Washington, where she discovers the joys of life with fewer stresses, including a part-time job at a bookstore, and new friends who are kindred spirits, and begins writing a book. Learning to drive on snowy roads presents a challenge, but if only her landlord, sexy firefighter Garrett Armstrong, would stop jumping to conclusions about her similarity to his irresponsible ex-wife, life would be practically perfect.

Jen is only one of the women whose lives are transformed by reading Simplicity. Stacy Thomas’s motto when it comes to collectibles or sale items is the more, the merrier. When she decorates her home for Christmas, it is so cluttered that her guests can’t find a place to set a cup of coffee, and her husband complains that she has taken over their shared closets. Single mother, Chita Arness is stretched so thin with her job, her kids, and her volunteer activities that she has no time for herself. Even Jen’s sister Toni worries that her husband’s work which, thanks to the computer, infringes on personal time, her daughter’s constant texting, and her son’s video games are destroying the loving connection that once characterized her marriage and family.  Each of these women will discover ways to simplify her life, ways that will allow her to have a life that is richer and more satisfying than the one she has known.

 Although there are several romantic elements in The Cottage on Juniper Ridge, the primary one being Jen and Garrett’s relationship, the novel is more women’s fiction than romance. The focus is on the women and their friendships and individual journeys, and the romances are just one part of the women’s lives. As readers familiar with Sheila Roberts’s books will expect, there is a rich vein of humor, some of it quite broad and some of it wonderfully subtle. I found myself smiling a lot during the sisterly exchanges between Jen and Toni.  But there is also wisdom that most of us would do well to heed in the idea of simplifying complicated, overextended lives.

I’ve enjoyed all of the Icicle Falls books, but this one is my favorite. I liked Jen, and even though I could have shaken Garrett a few times, I liked him too. His stubborn clinging to clearly wrong-headed conclusions and his basic decency reminded me of men I know. I also liked that Roberts showcased women at various stages of their lives—from the single Jen to the older, twice-widowed author of Simplicity. This is the fourth book in the series, and while it can be read as a standalone, it is a more satisfying reading experience for those who have read the other books and are familiar with Icicle Falls.

I know people who are skeptical about the power of a book to change lives, but I’m a believer because I can point to several that changed mine. Can you point to particular books that changed your life in specific ways?

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Bonus Review: A Wicked Pursuit

A Wicked Pursuit
By Isabella Bradford
Publisher: Ballantine
Release Date:
February 25, 2014

Charles Neville Fitzroy, Earl of Hargreave and heir to the duchy of Breconridge, has decided at the age of twenty-four that it is time for him to settle down and take a wife. Being a man of decisive action accustomed to success, Harry, as he is known to family and friends, selects the Honorable Miss Julia Wetherby, elder daughter of a viscount and one of London’s reigning beauties, as his bride and sets off for her father’s estate in Norfolk to propose. Harry is confident that he will be accepted and impatient with Julia’s games and flirtatious ways that force a delay in his plans. He accepts Julia’s invitation to a ride with her the morning after his arrival, thinking he will have the opportunity to ask for her hand, but his plans again go awry, this time with disastrous consequences. An accident leaves Harry with a broken leg and even after it’s clear that he will survive the complications of fever and infection, he faces a long recovery.

Miss Augusta Wetherby, Julia’s younger half-sister, comes to Harry’s aid when the selfish, flighty Julia flees first the scene and later her home, incapable of facing the consequences of the accident to which she contributed. Gus lacks her sister’s arresting beauty, but her intelligence, kindness, and honor clearly identify her as Julia’s superior in every way that matters. A favorite with the servants because of her fairness and respect for them, Gus is the one her father relies on to serve as chatelaine, even as he allows himself to be manipulated by the beautiful Julia. Her compassion and her sense of family honor mandate that she care for Harry, but Gus, who is innocent but not ignorant, is determined to protect her virtue and her heart from the man who poses a threat to both.

From the moment Harry regains consciousness after his accident, Gus is there. She is his lodestar when he is overwhelmed by pain and confusion, she is the preserver of his sanity when he is mired in the monotony of recovery, and she is the saving grace in an otherwise miserable situation. When Harry still imagines that he is going to marry Julia, he thinks comfortably that Gus will be the little sister he’s never had. As the two grow to know each other better, they become friends who delight in one another’s company. When desire is added to the mix, they both want more than friendship. But Gus sees herself as a country mouse unworthy of the brilliance that is Harry, a brilliance she believes deserves a woman like Julia who will shine with him in London’s brightest circles. Harry, freshly aware that his injury is one from which he will never fully recover, thinks Julia deserves a whole man, not a cripple whose activities will always be limited. Gus and Harry will have to see themselves through each other’s eyes rather than through their own valuations before they can claim their HEA.

Bradford introduces her new Breconridge Brothers series with a story of two likeable characters who grow into love. Gus has lived her life in Julia’s shadow, but she has been content to do so, relishing the country life and her role in the household. A quiet heroine who is far removed from the “kickass heroines” beloved by many readers, Gus is nevertheless no self-abnegating pushover. She stands up for herself when she needs to do so, and she definitely has a temper. She also has an innate goodness and a loving heart. I found these qualities both credible and immensely appealing, and I’m no fan of Griselda types.  

The cover copy describes Harry and his brothers as “London’s most scandalous rakes,” but the Harry readers meet early in the novel seems a rather typical male of his class and time—a bit arrogant and accustomed to the privileges of rank and wealth but basically a decent man who cares for his family and sees himself following in his father’s footsteps as a faithful husband and good parent. He rather foolishly imagines that Julia’s beauty and social status ensure that she possesses all the qualities he desires in a wife, but even his beguilement is typical. It is the accident that changes him both because it is the first time he has encountered circumstances that do not conform to how he sees himself and his place in the world and because falling in love with Gus awakens him to the qualities he truly values in a person. He certainly grows in more obvious ways than does Gus during the course of the story, but even at the beginning, his faults can be attributed to his youth rather than to his fundamental character.

Although A Wicked Pursuit is the first book in a new series, it is loosely linked to Bradford’s previous Wylder Sisters series. Like the earlier series, this one is set in the Georgian Era. (It takes place eight years later.) The Duke of Breconridge is a secondary character in the Wylder Sisters series, and the Duke of Sheffield, Harry’s cousin and close friend and a secondary character in A Wicked Pursuit, is the hero of When the Duke Found Love (Wylder Sisters 3). I enjoy this kind of continuity; I was particularly pleased that Sheffield was accompanied by his dog.
This is not a book filled with high adventure. But if you appreciate quieter, character-driven romances, I recommend A Wicked Pursuit.  The second book in the series, A Sinful Deception, featuring Breconridge’s second son, Geoff and a heroine with a secret, will be released August 26.  I hope it offers glimpses of Harry and Gus’s HEA in progress. I tried to preorder it, but it is not yet available for preorder on Kindle.

I have become really irritated by the assumption in some quarters that a strong heroine has to conform to a particular image of strength. I think there is room in romance for heroines who demonstrate their strength in different ways. What is your idea of a strong heroine?

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Tuesday Review: The Chance

The Chance

By Robyn Carr

Publisher: Harlequin Mira

Release Date:

February 25, 2014

Laine Carrington, the FBI agent who was injured in the raid on the cult from which Devon McAllister escaped (The Hero), is spending a year in Thunder Point, Oregon. Once she realized that her superiors were going to restrict her to desk duty until she had recovered 100 percent from the bullet wound and subsequent surgery, she requested a year’s leave of absence for rehab. Her reasons for choosing to spend that year in Thunder Point, three thousand miles from her home in Virginia and even farther from her family in Boston, are complicated, but she plans to take the time to rethink her career plans, get to know the people who saved her life, and enjoy the ocean view from her new home.

Eric Gentry, high school dropout and ex-con, is a reformed man. He returned to Thunder Point after more than a decade in Eugene and bought out the local service station, renovating it and expanding services into mechanics and body work. Eric enjoys his job, especially the classic car restoration, but his seventeen-year-old daughter is his real reason for moving. He has only known her for a year, but he is eager to be as much a part of her life as possible. Her senior year in high school is his last chance to be the father she has never had before she moves on to college and starting her life as an adult. Eric is not looking for a romantic relationship, but from his first look at Laine, he is hooked—and most of Thunder Point is aware of his interest.

When Eric is slow to act on his attraction, Laine takes the initiative and asks him out. Their first date is a success, and so is their first kiss. But Eric is determined to be honest with Laine about his past, and she responds with the same degree of openness. Just when it seems that an ex-con from a poor, working-class background and an FBI agent from a privileged background may be on the path to a happy ending, Laine’s complicated family problems surface. So do Eric’s insecurities. Is their relationship strong enough to survive these challenges?

The Chance is the fourth book in Carr’s Thunder Point series, and it’s a winner. Laine and Eric, although introduced in earlier books in the series, are both newcomers to Thunder Point. They are refreshingly adult characters who bring to their new lives baggage from their pasts which shapes but does not define them. I loved that Laine gets tired of waiting for Eric and asks him out, and I loved his response. That’s not the only bit of role reversal either. When Laine is clearly ready for physical intimacy, it is Eric who chooses to wait until they know each other better. The honesty of both characters is engaging, and it allows them to avoid the misunderstandings that keeping secrets could have created.

Fans of the series will be pleased to see favorite characters from other books make appearances in a manner that feels organic and does not distract from Laine and Eric’s story. The secondary romance between Eric’s rolling-stone friend, Al, and Thunder Point’s colorful realtor, Rae Ann, adds to the book’s appeal. Nobody does a better job than Carr of showing her readers that romance is possible at any age.

With two more books in this series scheduled for release in 2014, the Thunder Point books seem poised to rival the Virgin River series in longevity and popularity. I think The Chance is the strongest book in the new series, and I have enjoyed them all. I am particularly pleased that The Promise (June 24, 2014) will give readers the story of the widowed Dr. Scott Grant. Clearly the second chance theme that links the first four books will continue through the fifth one.

If you are a fan of small-town romances or of romances that develop in credible ways rather than rush to combustible consummation scenes, I highly recommend The Chance.

I read so many small-town romances that I have a difficult time choosing favorites. But Carr’s Virgin River and Thunder Point series are definitely on my top ten list. What series are on your list?

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Tuesday Review: The First Boy I Loved

The First Boy I Loved
By Cheryl Reavis
Bell Bridge Books
Release Date:
January 16, 2014

Since her husband’s death, Gillian Warner has been haunted by a past that refuses to stay buried and secrets that belong to a time in her life before she became a wife, a mother, a grandmother—a past that belongs to a younger Gilly and her first love who died in Vietnam decades ago. When it turns out that her closest friend from her nursing school days is now living in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Gilly plans a month-long visit that she hopes will not only allow her to renew her friendship with June but also come to terms with her guilt and regrets and her “relentless remembering” of Ben Tucker. At the last moment, a separate family crisis gives Gilly a companion on her journey, her fifteen-year-old granddaughter Mae who is heartbroken over the betrayal of her first love.

One of the first people Gilly meets in Vietnam is A. J. Donegan, a Vietnam vet and expatriate who serves as a tour guide for guilty, grieving Americans who come to Vietnam to make peace with their pasts and the losses they cannot forget.  A. J., haunted by his own ghosts, knows that the peace the visitors hope to find will prove elusive. As Mae faces her own losses, A. J. shows Gilly the city as few visitors see it, including but not limited to the sites central to Tucker’s life there, and introduces her to residents who have their own memories and varying responses to the past. An attraction develops between them, but can two people whose pasts still claim them so inescapably find a future together?

In The First Boy I Loved, Cheryl Reavis speaks the language of the heart with grace and truth. She cuts past the differences that separate human beings by age and gender and race and reveals experiences we all share—the loss of innocence, the heartbreak of harsh realities, the regrets that never lose their sting, and the many facets of love that help us to survive and even triumph, scarred though we be by our journeys.

I’ve been a Cheryl Reavis fan for more than twenty years, and I regularly recommend her books to other readers. I was delighted to see a Reavis book I had not read listed in the NetGalley catalog and even more delighted that it lived up to every expectation. This book, more women’s fiction with a strong romantic element, will make you laugh, make you cry, and perhaps make you newly conscious of your own “relentless remembering.” Reavis’s deft hand with characterization is evident in her creation of Gilly and A.J., both of them so real I could almost touch them, but also in a wealth of secondary characters from the achingly adolescent Mae to the faithful friend June to the Vietnamese doctor who treats Mae with skill and compassion despite her dislike for Americans rooted in her father’s death in the American War.

Readers who demand a conventional HEA may not be satisfied with the ending, although I have difficulty imaging a more perfect conclusion than the last line, and the story will likely resonate with particular power for those who are old enough to remember the Vietnam War. But I highly recommend this book for anyone who values emotionally compelling stories and excellent writing.


Just seeing a new title from Cheryl Reavis left me with a smile on my face. Who are the authors that evoke that response from you?

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Super Tuesday January 28 Releases: Review Five

Shoreline Drive
By Lily Everett
Publisher: St. Martin’s
Release Date:
January 28, 2014

Dr. Ben Fairfax has a gifted touch with the four-footed animals that he treats in his veterinary practice on Sanctuary Island, but he has little patience for—and, frankly, little interest in most of the two-footed variety. One of the few exceptions to Ben’s disinterest in people is Meredith Preston, younger daughter of Jo Ellen Hollister.  The free-spirited, effervescent Merry stirs feelings in Ben that have been dormant since he turned his back on his former life more than seven years ago. When Merry’s baby decides to make his appearance three weeks early in the middle of a storm, Ben delivers him. From the moment of his birth, the baby wraps his tiny fingers around Ben’s heart. Merry and young Alex together have Ben believing that perhaps he can have the family he thought could never be his.

Merry’s purpose in coming to Sanctuary Island was to establish a relationship with the mother she never knew, but Jo Ellen is so eager to make up for the past that she leaves Merry feeling smothered and overwhelmed. Now that she is a mother herself, Merry is discovering forgiveness may not be as simple as she thought. She has unresolved feelings about Jo Ellen’s abandonment of her. Despite these emotions, Merry is invested in the transformation of Windy Corner, the Hollister boarding and training stable into a therapeutic riding center. She just needs some space.

Four months after the birth of young Alexander Hollister Preston, Ben proposes that Merry marry him for their mutual convenience. He can offer her the space she needs from her mother while still remaining on Sanctuary Island and financial security for Alex, and she can allow him to adopt Alex, thereby assuring an heir to the distinguished Fairfax name. He promises that the marriage will be unconsummated until Merry wants a real marriage. The happy ending is assured, but first Ben and Merry will have to trust each other enough to defeat Ben’s scheming, snpbby parents and the unexpected appearance of young Alex’s biological father who suddenly is interested in being a daddy.

This is the second novel in Everett’s Sanctuary Island series, following last summer’s Sanctuary Island . I loved the first book, a women’s fiction/romance with an unforgettable setting that offered the best of both genres. The curmudgeonly Ben and spontaneous Merry are introduced in the first book, and I looked forward to their story. Unfortunately, it did not reach the level set by the first book.

I still like the characters, and while Merry is less the free spirit than she was, I could believe that the responsibilities of motherhood accounted for the changes. Baby Alex is adorable, and I loved the scenes where Ben and Merry become partners and they and Alex become a family. There is also a strong secondary plot involving two teens who are strikingly believable. I wanted more of them.

But marriage-of-convenience plots are a hard sale in contemporary romance, and this one seemed overly contrived. Ben’s parents resembled characters from a bad soap opera, and their interference in Ben’s life after years of distance as well as Ben’s failure to foresee their reaction to an heir who lacked Fairfax blood was difficult to believe.  

Overall evaluation: This is a book with some clear strength but also with some flaws. It is not as outstanding as the earlier book, but it is good enough to keep me interested in the characters and to persuade me to book a return trip to Sanctuary Island.


Are you a fan of marriage of convenience tales? What’s your favorite book that uses this trope?

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Super Tuesday January 28 Releases: Review 4

At the River’s Edge
By Mariah Stewart
Publisher: Ballantine
Release Date: 
January 28, 2014

Sophie Enright thinks of St. Dennis, Maryland, as the small town where her grandfather and her brother and his soon-to-be bride live. It’s a nice place to visit, but it’s not where she expects to live. But when a case she has thrown her heart into as the ADA in charge falls apart, and she discovers her boyfriend in flagrante delicto with another ADA in his parked car, St. Dennis looks like a good bolt hole while Sophie finds the answers to some big questions about her life. Her brother Jesse is not only delighted to offer her his guest room again, but he also offers her a job. The family law firm really needs another lawyer, and there is nothing that Jesse and their grandfather would like better than to welcome another Enright. Sophie is willing to help Jesse out temporarily, but she lacks her brother and grandfather’s certainty that she belongs in the firm her grandfather founded. When she happens upon an abandoned restaurant, an old dream surfaces, and one hot guy is filling her head with new dreams. Suddenly St. Dennis looks like exactly the place Sophie Enright belongs.

Jason Bowers moved himself and his landscaping business to St. Dennis from Florida because with his parents years ago and brother killed in Iraq more recently, his brother’s son is his only family. If his nephew is in St. Dennis, that’s where Jason plans to be so that he can be a part of the boy’s life. St. Dennis is a nice town. Jason’s business is prospering, and he has plans to expand soon. He’s made friends, he likes Jesse Enright (the man his former sister-in-law is about to marry), and he enjoys the time he spends with his nephew. Although his brother’s death is still an open wound, Jason is pleased with his life and the decisions he made. But life gets a lot more interesting when he meets Sophie Enright.

A happily-ever-after seems just around a curve in the road, but the proverbial path to true love proves to have a couple of rocky spots. First, the rough diamond of a restaurant that Sophie plans to polish to perfection turns out to be the place Jason had his eye on and had already tried to buy to complete his business dreams. He’s disgruntled that Sophie bought the place he considers his. Sophie doesn’t like his reaction, and she is really unhappy that he has dumped a smelly load that is a necessary part of his business just where it will interfere with her customers’ outdoor dining experience. As if that were not enough to create problems, her faithless ex puts in an appearance, and he’s eager to turn back the clock. Can two people who clearly were meant for each other get around these barriers?

At the River’s Edge is the seventh book in Stewart’s Chesapeake Diaries series, and St. Dennis and its citizens are as warm and friendly as ever. Sophie and Jason are likeable characters, the kind of pleasant people readers might know, with just enough complications in their past and imperfections in their present to make them interesting and real. An attraction that is strong from their first meeting grows into more than lust as they discover that they also like one another and share core values.

Readers who are familiar with earlier books in the series will enjoy seeing many familiar characters. The glimpses of Jesse and Brooke (Book 4, Hometown Girl, 2011) and their wedding are a particular delight, and Sophie and Jason’s love for her grandfather, Curtis Enright, was also a favorite thread for me. If you are a longtime Mariah Stewart reader like me, you will smile to see some of the family guests at the wedding. Home for the Summer (Book 5, 2012) sent me back to reread Stewart’s Mercy Street books, and At the River’s Edge had me pulling the 1990s Enright books (Devlin’s Light, Wonderful You, and Moon Dance) off the keeper shelf for a reread. I do like intersecting worlds.

At the River’s Edge is not an extraordinary book. Instead it is a story about ordinary people and the heartbreaks and miracles that make up their lives. It is a sweet, satisfying read, and sometimes that is exactly what I want. Book 8, On Sunset Beach, the story of the last Sinclair sibling and Ellie’s friend, Carly Summit, will be released July 1, just in time for a summer trip to St. Dennis. I am so there.

Do you crave adventure in your reading, or do you have a fondness for books that showcase the extraordinariness of the ordinary?