Friday, August 1, 2014

A Farewell Post

Over the past six and a half years, I have written more than 500 posts here and with the Romance Vagabonds. This blog got its name from my decision to continue blogging on my own after the Vagabonds broke camp. I began with a mix of fear and exhilaration. Those who know me best know that I am a classic introvert, and a shy one at that. I found sharing my thoughts about reading and writing and related issues without the security of planning and discussing them with the other Vagabonds* (Manda Collins, Lindsey Faber, and Sara Holmes) intimidating, but after years of being a closet romance reader, I was excited about going public with my enthusiasm for the genre. I loved my time as a Vagabond, but I felt that I had more to say when that time ended. In July 2009, I published my first post as Just Janga. It was about inspiration and perspiration and keeping on as an aspiring romance author. But in the five years since that post, that dream has been pushed further and further into the background as I did more and more freelance writing and wrote more and more book reviews.

I never planned for this to become a review site. In fact, I didn’t write my first formal review until April 2010 when I reviewed The Goddess of Fried Okra by Jean Brashear (a book I still love and have reread several times), Gradually, I wrote more and more reviews until the site became another romance review site. Don’t get me wrong. I have loved my role as a reviewer, and since I have reviewed only books that I have chosen to read, often by authors whose earlier books line my keeper shelves, I have been able to write not only honestly but also positively most of the time. I count myself privileged. However, writing two reviews a week—and sometimes more--meant less and less time was devoted to working on my own writing. While I still thought of myself as a writer, I identified as an academic writer and a writer about romance rather than as a romance writer.

My brother’s death this past January made me freshly aware that none of us is guaranteed tomorrow. If I wanted to realize my dream, I had to get busy today. Since my freelance writing supplies strawberry jam for my bread (and I like strawberry jam), cutting it to gain more writing time was not an option. Cutting back on reviews was. Thus, I made my decision to stop blogging at this site.

I leave with a feeling of pride in what I have accomplished and with gratitude for you who have joined me here. The three posts in which I take greatest pride are

“Nice Is a Four Letter Word” (August 5, 2011) because I took a stand against a meanness in some online communities that I found disturbing.

“My Mother’s Books: Parts 1-6” (February 8, February 9, February 23, March 9, March 23, and April 6, 2013) because this tribute to my mother and five romance authors she loved—Faith Baldwin, Grace Livingston Hill, Elizabeth Cadell, Emilie Loring, and D. E. Stevenson—made me cry and laugh and remember with a grateful heart.

“Girlfriends” (January 27, 2012) because it gave me a chance to say a public thank you to the women friends from every area of my life who have filled my life and my heart.

These are not my most popular posts. That distinction is reserved for various lists and one review. Based on blog stats, “Reading Beside the Christmas Tree” (December 23, 2010), a list of my favorite Christmas season readings from that year has proved to be my most popular post. “A New Cinderella Tale: Eloisa James’s A KISS AT MIDNIGHT” (July 8, 2010) is my most popular review. Strangely, “Periphrasis: Speaking Around” (September 30, 2011), a post I wrote quickly under deadline pressure from a freelance project, is another one that has been viewed thousands of times. I admit I’m puzzled by that one.

This last post here has me reflecting on what has been, anticipating new experiences, and feeling grateful to you who have read my posts. The comments and the numbers inspired me to continue for five years, and I value each one. I am particularly thankful for Quantum and Irish, my most faithful readers and my cherished friends. I hope you all will visit me at The Romance Dish where I will continue to review several times a month and at Heroes and Heartbreakers where I will occasionally post ruminations about romances past and current. I’ll also post reviews at GoodReads, a dozen of them within the next week or so.

Writers are notorious for pondering word choices. As I ponder my final words at Just Janga, I am reminded that the OED defines “farewell” as “an expression of good wishes at the parting of friends.” Ah, the perfect word for my purpose. Farewell, my friends, until another day, another place.

Janga’s Best Books of 2014 So Far (Romance and Women’s Fiction)

Since my lists have been well received and since I have had requests to post my annual Best of 2014 So Far list, it seems appropriate to make that list one of my final posts. Despite cries that the historical romance is in its death throes, that genre dominates my list, claiming six of the ten spots. Contemporary romance and women’s fiction split the remaining spots equally. March 25 was an extraordinary release date; three of the books on my list were widely available to readers on that date. I have provided links my reviews of eight of the books.

Here are my choices for the top ten romance/women’s fiction novels from January through July (in order of publication):

How to Master Your Marquess (January 7), Juliana Gray
I have an abiding respect for authors who can operate within the conventions of romance while twisting those conventions just enough to give the reader something fresh. Juliana Gray excels at this. How to Master Your Marquis combines some truly dark elements with moments of madcap humor. It also features a hero and heroine who save each other. This one is five-star quality all the way.

The All You Can Dream Buffet (March 4), Barbara O’Neal
Whether she is writing as Barbara Samuel, Ruth Wind, or Barbara O’Neal, this author gives her readers books that pack a mighty emotional punch written in wonderfully lyrical prose. This women’s fiction novel with strong romantic elements celebrates online friendships and features four women of varying ages, ethnicities, and experiences. O’Neal also paints the setting in words so vivid that the reader feels as if she can see and smell the fields of lavender in bloom, hear the buzzing of the bees, taste Ginny’s streusel cake and Ruby’s watermelon salad, and feel the warmth of Lavender’s hug. I savored every word of this book.

Sweet Disorder (March 18), Rose Lerner
Rose Lerner is a writer whose books deserve to be big buzz books. Sweet Disorder with its cross-class romance, party politics plot, and not one but two bad mothers who seem disturbingly real is a treasure. Phoebe Sparks, widow of a newspaper editor and printer, and Nick Dymond, middle son of an earl and war veteran, are likeable and flawed, their meeting is credible, and their relationship is based on more than libidinal urges. Set in the town of Lively St. Lemeston, the story offers a portrait of ordinary life in the second decade of the nineteenth century and shows the extraordinary relationship between two complicated people who earn their HEA. And I love that the title is taken from a Robert Herrick poem which Nick quotes at a meaningful moment.

 Waiting on You (March 25), Kristan Higgins
Kristan Higgins blends the humorous and the poignant masterfully in this third novel in her Blue Heron series. As with the other books, Higgins adds a full cast of characters to the story, showing readers the family backgrounds that have made Colleen and Lucas the complicated people they are. Colleen and Lucas are fully dimensional characters whose actions and reactions readers will understand even if they sometimes wish they behaved differently. The cast of characters is large, but even those that appear fleetingly have individual quirks and a real presence. Plus, this is a reunion story, my favorite trope.

Three Weeks with Lady X (March 25), Eloisa James
There seems to be a broad consensus, with which I heartily concur, that this son of Villiers book is Eloisa James at her best. Thorn and India are both self-made characters whose pasts remain very much a part of their present. Their dialogue and their letters are witty and revealing, their relationship is has multiple levels, and the ending ranks among my all-time best. Charming, touching, complex, and brilliantly conceived and written, this is my favorite Eloisa James novel. 

Between the Devil and Ian Eversea (March 25), Julie Anne Long
Julie Anne Long’s Pennyroyal Green series is one of the best overall series ever. In this latest novel in the series, Long takes Ian, a character who has served as a comic figure in earlier novels, and credibly transforms him into a complex hero with unsuspected depth and pairs him with an American-reared heroine who also hides complexity beneath a façade. Sweet and passionate, this emotionally satisfying tale also adds a layer to the ongoing story of Olivia Eversea. I turned the last page sighing over Tansy and Ian’s HEA and wondering how long I have to wait to return to the world of the Everseas and Redmonds.

The Winter Bride (April 1), Anne Gracie
The second book in Anne Gracie’s Chance Sisters series features a strong heroine who has suffered devastating loss and has had the courage to survive events that would have destroyed a weaker person. That she has done so without becoming bitter or vengeful makes her all the more remarkable. Damaris deserves an accepting, tender, protective hero, and Freddy is all of these.
Like Damaris, Freddy keeps his past to himself, and even those who know him best and realize some of what he has accomplished accept him essentially as the light-hearted rake he appears to be. This book is just one more reason that Anne Gracie springs to mind everytime someone asks for book recommendations.

To Scotland with Love (June 3), Patience Griffin
I owe this one to a recommendation from PJ at the Romance Dish. “Read it,” she said. I did and found it just as wonderful as she said. The title may suggest this is just another Scotland-set historical, but it is a contemporary romance with a journalist heroine, Cait Macleod, who retreats to Gandiegow, Scotland, her childhood home, after the death of her faithless husband and discovers Gandiegow is also the place to which Graham Buchanan, a reclusive movie star, has retreated. Cait is confronted with her own past, a complex hero who challenges her at every level, and a test of her morality. This is a beautifully written debut novel, one I highly recommend.

No River Too Wide (June 24), Emilie Richards
Emilie Richards has written both romance and mystery, and she skillfully weaves elements of both into this women’s fiction story that includes domestic violence, insurance fraud, mother-daughter relationships, and growth for characters from the three women protagonists to a minor, once indifferent father. The third book in Richards’s Goddesses Anonymous series, No River Too Wide, like its predecessors, affirms what women can accomplish through their own powers and the help of friends.

The Game and the Governess (July 29), Kate Noble
In this first book in a new series, Kate Noble offers readers a heroine possessed of intelligence, strength of character, a lively sense of the ridiculous, and integrity in the fullest sense of that word. She makes a deliberate choice not to let anger and bitterness consume her. Her unlikely hero is a young aristocrat who lives on the surface, using self-indulgence to avoid thinking deeply about anything. Frankly, I found the first part of the book rough going because I disliked the hero, but the hero’s growth is central to this story. Ned grows into a man with a keener mind, a sharper conscience, and a larger heart, and I loved watching his growth.

What books are your best of 2014 so far?

Thursday, July 31, 2014

An HQN Trio: Novels from Mallery, Morgan, and Ridgway

Before We Kiss
By Susan Mallery
Publisher: Harlequin HQN
Release Date: May 27, 2014

Since a history of bad luck with women had him taking a hiatus from romantic entanglements, Sam Ridge planned on spending the evening of Valentine’s Day alone. His plan changed when he saw Dellina Hopkins smile. They spent one incredible night together, but the sight that greeted Sam when he opened the door of a spare bedroom in error sent him fleeing into the night. A room full of wedding gowns and a dry-erase board list headed “Ten Ways to Get Him to Propose” terrified him so much that he spent the next five months avoiding Dellina. Unfortunately, she’s the only party planner in Fool’s Gold, and Sam needs her help to organize a three-day party his PR firm Score is hosting for clients. Awkward doesn’t even begin to describe Sam’s situation.

Dellina Hopkins is not a one-night stand kind of girl, but former football star Sam Ridge was hot enough to cause her to make an exception. The time they share is the stuff of fantasy, but Dellina is less impressed by Sam’s hasty departure. She knows she shouldn’t enjoy his discomfort so much when, after months of silence, he has to seek her out to request she plan the Score party, but she does. She anticipates how foolish he’s going to feel when he learns that the wedding gowns belong in Paper Moon Wedding Gowns, Isabel Beebee’s shop, and the list to Dellina's sister Fayrene. But Sam’s discomfiture is all she can enjoy. It doesn’t matter how strong their chemistry is, Dellina doesn’t get involved with her clients.

Mallery gives her readers another emotionally satisfying story in this tale of two people who are more interested in right now than in forever until their hearts persuade them differently. This is a novel filled with humor (Sam’s irrepressible mother and her inability to accept boundaries is a hoot) plus ample sizzle and the warmth and interconnections that are characteristic of Fool’s Gold. Thumbs up to another winner from Mallery.

Suddenly Last Summer
By Sarah Morgan
Publisher: Harlequin HQN
Release Date: June 24, 2014

Sean O’Neil loves his family, but he prefers to limit his contact with them. His life is centered not at Snow Crystal Resort, the family business in Vermont, but in his orthopedic surgery practice in Boston. That changes when Walter O’Neil, grandfather to Sean and his brothers Jackson and Tyler, suffers a heart attack. Sean plans to spend a short time in Vermont, oversee his grandfather’s first days at home after his release from the hospital, and then return to Boston and life as usual, but when his help is needed to see that a new restaurant at the resorts opens on schedule, he extends his stay. Family loyalty is a factor, but if he is honest with himself, he knows that it is the resort’s passionate French chef Élise Philippe who has him building a deck and spending too much time remembering the moments he shared with her during an earlier visit.

Élise is a passionate woman. She is passionate about her job and about the O’Neils who, from family patriarch Walter to teenage Jess, have become her family, but she is doing all she can to contain her passion for Sean O’Neil. Deeply scarred by her past, Élise ferociously protects her heart from romantic entanglements. Let her staff drool over the sexy, shirtless Sean O’Neil as he builds that deck. Élise will focus her energies on ensuring that last summer’s passionate encounter remains an unforgettable but not-to-be-repeated experience. But when the two are constantly in one another’s company, an emotional intimacy develops that intensifies the physical attraction that is stronger than all their determination to avoid long-term commitment.

 If you are a fan of contemporary romance and have not read Sarah Morgan, do yourself a favor and rush to your favorite bookseller to find this book. Nobody is better at creating characters so real they seem like friends engaged in relationships that, while high on sizzle, still develop in a credible fashion. Sleigh Bells in the Snow was one of my favorite contemporaries of 2013, and Suddenly Last Summer is just as good. I’ve already read Tyler’s book, Maybe This Christmas (an October 29 release) and loved it. I give this series my highest recommendation.

Take My Breath Away
By Christie Ridgway
Publisher: Harlequin HQN
Release Date: May 27

Poppy Walker is one stubborn woman. Her siblings may be convinced that a family curse prevents them from doing anything with a dozen run-down cabins that the Walkers own, but Poppy is determined that her vision and sweat equity will be enough to transform the cabins into a revenue-producing enterprise that will help support her and her five-year-old son Mason. The two weeks that her son is on a visit to Disneyland seems the perfect opportunity to make a dent in the required renovations. Poppy hopes to have the cabins ready for summer rental, but when a clearly wealthy flatlander shows up wanting to rent a cabin and offering quintuple the going rate, Poppy can’t say no, even when all her instincts tell her that this stranger with the electric-blue eyes is dangerous.

Ever since the tragedy that devastated his family four years ago, former teen idol and current movie executive Ryan Hamilton has found the month of March torturous. All he wants is a sanctuary where he can hide from the world—particularly the celebrity-stalking press--and prevent himself from doing something crazily destructive for the next few weeks. The secluded cabin in the mountains of Southern California seems perfect for his purpose. Now he just needs to control his interest in Poppy whose natural beauty and total ignorance of who he is make her difficult to ignore.

Christie Ridgway combines sweet and sexy in this first book in her Cabin Fever series. Poppy and Ryan are opposites in every way. She is a sunny optimist with deep roots in her small community; he is a haunted man whose fame and wealth do little to help him escape his demons. But circumstances throw them together. Although each has reasons to avoid relationships, neither can deny the attraction that blazes between them. A secondary romance between Ryan’s brother Linus and Poppy’s cousin Charlotte (Charlie) adds interest. Although there’s nothing extraordinary about this book and some readers may find a kidnapping thread a bit over-the-top, Ridgway fans and other readers who like their romances heavy on charm and heart-tugs will enjoy this book and look forward to the next book about the Walker siblings.

All these books are part of a series, a description that applies to most of the books I read. I’m a series addict. Do you share my addiction, or would you like to see fewer series and more single books?

Note: Since I am late posting these reviews, I am moving the final post at Just Janga to tomorrow, Friday, August 1.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Why Lords Lose Their Hearts

Why Lords Lose Their Hearts
By Manda Collins
Publisher: St. Martin’s
Release Date: July 29, 2014

It has been almost two years since the Duke of Ormond died as violently as he had lived. After years of abuse at the hands of her brute of a husband, Perdita, the widowed Duchess of Ormond, has had enough of allowing someone else to control her life. When threats from her husband’s unknown avenger escalate from private to public, she refuses to be driven from London. Perdita argues that the experience of her sister Isabella, the new Duchess of Ormond, (Why Dukes Say I Do) and of their friend Georgina Mowbray, now Countess of Coniston, (Why Earls Fall in Love) prove that eluding their tormenter cannot be accomplished so easily. She is also determined not to endanger others by her presence. Not even an attack on her person when she is riding in the park is enough to change Perdita’s mind.

Lord Archer Lisle, youngest son of a duke and secretary to both the immediate past and current Duke of Ormond, has been in love with Perdita for years. He proves as stubborn in his determination to protect Perdita as she is in exercising her autonomy. If protecting her requires extreme measures, he will take those measures. He is also determined to show the widowed duchess just how wrong-headed she is in her belief that she can never again marry a man with whom she is in love.

Manda Collins skillfully weaves together the ongoing mystery of the person behind the attacks on Perdita and the other women and the tension between Perdita’s love for Archer and her conviction that she cannot marry a man she loves. Fans of the earlier books will be happy to see that Isabella and Trevor and Georgina and Coniston make appearances in this one. Collins includes them in a way that seems organic and unforced. The mystery is resolved with some unexpected twists, one of which may hit the ick button for some readers, and, as befits a good romance series, all three couples are set to live happily ever after.

Collins once again demonstrates her deft hand with characterization. Perdita’s reluctance to allow someone else to make decisions for her and her doubts about her judgment of men make sense in light of all she experienced with Ormond. Despite this logic, however, I confess I grew impatient with her stubbornness. My reaction was doubtless colored by my allegiance to Archer whom I adored. I loved everything about him—from his large and loving family to his “shining gold hair” to his unfaltering commitment to Perdita. My favorite passage in the novel is this one in which Perdita sums up Archer’s character: “Men like Archer stayed the course until what they saw as their duty was done. And if it meant putting himself in danger, he would do it. It was the way he was made.”

Why Lords Lose Their Hearts may be read as a standalone, but since it is the conclusion not just of a romance trilogy but also of the overarching mystery that runs through all three books, nuances concerning the mystery and relationships among the characters may be lost. Even readers who guess the avenger’s identity will be surprised at some of the revelations that accompany the denouement. I admit to being a wimpy reader, and so it should not be surprising that I found icky the particularly unpleasant death of one of the villains and one thread in the mystery. However, this response did not interfere with my appreciation of the characters.

If you have been following the Wicked Widows, you definitely don’t want to miss this conclusion to the series. If you have not read the earlier books, I highly recommend the series as a stellar blend of romance and mystery.

Do you like your romance served with a side of suspense? What’s your favorite combination of historical romance and romantic suspense?

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Wild Iris Ridge

Wild Iris Ridge
By RaeAnne Thayne
Publisher: Harlequin HQN
Release Date: June 24, 2014

Lucy Drake has returned to Hope’s Crossing. It’s certainly not what she planned to do, but when her high-powered career as marketing director of a top software company crashed as spectacularly as it had risen, she had nowhere else to go. Subleasing her condo and packing up all her worldly belongings, Lucy left Seattle for Hope’s Crossing and Iris House, the silver baron mansion and home of her great-aunt that had sheltered a rebellious teenager seventeen years ago when Lucy’s emotionally distant father and stepmother had been delighted to find someone else to accept responsibility for a troubled adolescent. Annabelle opened her home and her heart to Lucy, and Jess became not just Lucy’s cousin but also her best friend. Annabelle and Jess are gone now, and Iris House belongs to Lucy. Maybe she will fulfill Jess’s dream of turning the house into a bed and breakfast, or maybe she will sell it. Either way, the house will give her a bolt-hole while she figures out what to do with the rest of her life, that is, if she doesn’t burn it down first.

Fire Chief Brendan Caine is astonished to see Lucy Drake when his department answers a call to Iris House late one April night. He’s grateful it’s only a chimney fire that his team can contain. Somehow chaos seems to follow in Lucy’s wake plus Brendan always feels stupid and awkward around her. She may have been his late wife’s relative and best friend, but even though Jess has been dead two years, Brendan can’t forget that Lucy thought Jess could have done better than tie herself to a “dumb jock.” Then there are his kids, Faith and Carter, who adore their Aunt Lucy. Brendan has no doubt that Lucy loves them as well, but he also has no doubt her presence will disrupt their peaceful routine. But he takes comfort in the thought that Lucy’s stay will be a short one in Hope’s Crossing will be short.

Lucy is unsurprised to find Brendan less than welcoming. Despite their shared love for Jess, animosity has always simmered between the two of them, with Lucy telling herself Brendan was more muscles than brain and Brendan telling himself that Lucy is a self-important, career-centered city girl who likes to boast of her achievements. Lucy is surprised the next morning when she confides in Brendan about her job loss, and Brendan is surprised at his impulse to comfort Lucy. These are just the beginning of the surprises in store for them.

Their mutual love for Faith and Carter forces them into one another’s company often enough for them to get to know one another better, often enough for a powerful attraction to grow. But Brendan is uncertain if he’s ready to make a commitment, and there’s the question of whether Lucy can settle in Hope’s Crossing. Of course, the citizens of Hope’s Crossing are not shy about expressing their opinion about the twosome. Lucy’s situation is complicated by an extended visit from her half-sister Crystal who is a near-clone of Lucy’s attitude-burdened teenage self. Throw in a couple of puppies who need a loving home, and you have the makings of a new family--or an emotional disaster.    

Wild Iris Ridge is the seventh book in the Hope’s Crossing series. There is nothing groundbreaking in this book, but it offers the likeable characters and warm, realistic setting that have made Thayne a favorite with many readers. Brendan is one of the sons of the appealing, large-hearted Dermot Caine, whose own romance moves forward in this story. Lucy has long been a favorite with Dermot, so predictably he approves of a relationship between her and Brendan.  

I have grown weary of the commitment-phobic hero who runs away from the heroine only to have an epiphany that his life without her is worthless. I found it refreshing that Brendan’s reluctance to commit is rooted in his lingering grief over Jess’s death and in his conviction that Lucy will never settle in his small town, a conviction based on a decade of her largely avoiding said town. I also appreciated that Lucy’s return is not a flight from the evil city to the perfect small town. Hope’s Crossing is not perfect, and Lucy’s return made sense because home is where many people instinctively head when their life falls to pieces. Thayne not only makes me like Brendan and Lucy; she also makes me believe in them.

Nine-year-old Faith and five-year-old Carter are not paper-doll kids. They too behave in believable ways, and each has a distinct personality. Teenage Crystal is an interesting character in her own right, and helping her is part of Lucy’s growth. Readers who have followed the series will likely enjoy the glimpses of other Hope’s Crossing characters, whose appearances seem more organic than contrived.

Although Wild Iris Ridge is not my favorite book in this series, it is another satisfying visit to one of my favorite fictional small towns. It can doubtless be read as a standalone, but I recommend that you read the series.

This novel marks the end (at least temporarily) of a series I have enjoyed without exceptions, and I’m sad to leave Hope’s Crossings. However, I’ve already read Snow Angel Cove, the first book in Thayne’s new series by the same title, and the hero is Aidan Caine, brother to Charlotte (Willowleaf Lane), Dylan (Christmas in Snowflake Canyon), and Brendan. Hurray for connections even amid change!

Thayne, like Robyn Carr with her Grace Valley, Virgin River, and Thunder Point series, links a popular series to a new one. Some call it good world building; others call it smart marketing. What do you think?

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Beekeeper's Ball

The Beekeeper’s Ball
By Susan Wiggs
Publisher: Harlequin
Release Date: June 24, 2014

Isabel Johansen is feeling overwhelmed. She wants the wedding she is planning to be perfect in every detail. Not only is it the wedding of Tess Delaney, the half-sister Isabel has only recently discovered, and Dominic Rossi, a long-time neighbor and family friend (The Apple Orchard), but it is also a prelude to the opening of Isabel’s destination cooking school. Once Isabel dreamed of becoming a celebrated chef at an elite restaurant, but she has exchanged that dream for one rooted in the place that has been her home and her sanctuary for all her life. The discovery of a family treasure has given her the funds to turn Bella Vista, the family hacienda near Archangel, California, into a place where she can teach people to cook, using her recipes made with ingredients grown locally, most on Bella Vista land, and share the beauty of Sonoma country with her students.

Her desire to use Bella Vista products sends her to the beehives. When she finds a hive swarming, she puts on the beekeeper’s protective gear and prepares to capture the hive, hoping that expert help, which she has requested via text, will arrive in time. She thinks her hope has been realized when someone shows up. Unfortunately, the someone is not a bee expert but a stranger, one moreover who is allergic to bee stings. The need to administer an epi-pen and get the stranger to medical help ASAP take precedence over Isabel’s other concerns.

Cormac O'Neill is a man accustomed to danger. He just didn’t expect to encounter it on a peaceful farm. An award-winning investigative journalist who has covered stories in some of the world’s most volatile spots, Mac, sidelined temporarily with a knee injury, has agreed to write the story of Magnus Johansen, Isabel’s Grandfather and a hero of the Danish Resistance. Mac expects to remain at the farm just long enough to gather the information he needs from Magnus, but he falls under the spell of the lovely Isabel, the food she prepares, and e beauty and serenity of Bella Vista.

As Magnus tells Mac the story of the Johansen family in Denmark, of the disappearance of Magnus’s parents, of Magnus’s activities with the resistance during World War II, and of Eva, Isabel’s grandmother, and their immigration to America, Isabel and Tess discover family secrets that have been protected for decades. But even as Magnus reveals these long-held secrets, Isabel and Mac work to keep their secrets buried.

The simmering awareness that exists between Isabel and Mac deepens into a relationship that changes both of them. Mac reawakens Isabel’s sense of adventure and spirit of fun, and Isabel has the nomadic Mac considering what it would be like to see all four seasons in one place. But is even love enough to make possible a happily ever after between a man who never stays and a woman who cannot bear to leave her home.

The second novel in Wiggs’s Bella Vista series offers the same strong sense of place that characterized the first book. The scenes and the scents and the textures of life at Bella Vista give the reader the sense of having visited this idyllic spot. Both Isabel and Mac are likeable characters, and watching them fall in love is a delight. They have enough in common to enable the reader to believe that more than their desire for one another unites them, and yet the difference between Mac, a diplomat’s son who has spent his entire life wandering the globe, and Isabel, whose heart and memories are inextricably entangled with Bella Vista, is great enough to cast doubt on a happy resolution.

Magnus’s story is compelling and poignant on many levels, and it contributes to the richly developed theme of the intrusion of the past on the present. Readers who enjoyed The Apple Orchard will be happy to see more of Tess and Dominic. Some threads are resolved, and others are left tantalizingly unresolved. One particular twist Wiggs tosses in left me beyond eager for the next Bella Vista book.

Sometimes a book that leaves me wondering what now irritates me. Sometimes it fascinates me and makes me impatient for the next book. How do you feel about loose threads and cliffhanger endings?

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Lady Windermere's Lover

Lady Windermere’s Lover
By Miranda Neville
Publisher: Avon
Release Date: June 24, 2014

Drunk on an excess of spirits, emotional and alcoholic, Damian, Viscount Kendal, lost Beaulieu, a property left to him by his mother on the same day he inherited it, his 21st birthday. Dismayed when he finds out that Robert Townsend, the friend to whom he lost Beaulieu, has already lost it himself, Damian has little choice but to confess his rash behavior and its consequences to his father. During the session with his father, Damian pledges to distance himself from his wild friends and to seriously apply himself to a career in diplomatic service.

Six years later, Damian, now Earl of Windermere, finally regains Beaulieu, but its owner, a wealthy Birmingham merchant, sets an exorbitant price on the property: marriage to his niece, Cynthia Chorley. Damian, seething with anger and resentment, agrees to pay the price. His feelings intensify when he finds himself with a provincial wife who possesses none of the poise and presence required of the wife of an ambitious man in Foreign Service.

Cynthia is ignorant of her uncle’s machinations. Aware only that she has escaped marriage to a bestial man in her uncle’s employ and is instead marrying a handsome aristocrat with a devastating smile, she dreams of happiness with him. She is soon disillusioned. Damian treats her with a total lack of consideration in bed and out, and two weeks after their wedding, he leaves for a diplomatic mission to Persia.

Cynthia is devastated when she suffers a miscarriage, her pain increased by Damian’s indifference. When she is at her lowest point, she is befriended by Caro Townsend and becomes part of Caro’s artistic set whose unconventional behavior and disregard for proper appearances scandalizes London society. Cynthia acquires a wardrobe that enhances her beauty, takes French lessons, polishes her social skills, and generally tries to become the kind of woman Damian wants as his wife. She also acquires a close friend in the person of Julian Fortescue, recently and unexpectedly Duke of Denford. Cynthia enjoys Denford’s company, but she is confused by the mix of “attraction and repulsion, fear and longing” that he stirs in her. She is also convinced that he is a better man than he believes himself to be.

Damian returns to London after a year in Persia, summoned home by the foreign office. He is dimly aware that he has treated Cynthia badly but still hopeful of salvaging a reasonably amicable relationship with his wife. Believing his wife at Beaulieu, he is surprised to learn she is in residence in the Windermere London residence. Later when, during a theater visit with his mentor’s wife (a former lover of Damian’s), he sees a blonde beauty in the company of the current Duke of Denford , Damian’s former best friend and the man he holds responsible for the event that changed his life, he fails to recognize the beauty is the Countess of Windermere.

Cynthia does recognize Damian. In fact, she returned to London because she had received news of his return to England. Convinced that his theater companion is his mistress, she determines to show him how little she cares. Damian, after observing a late night embrace between Cynthia and Denford, is equally convinced that his wife and his enemy are lovers. Even though Damian and Cynthia have both reached erroneous conclusions and even though they both long for a real marriage, their suspicions and their lack of knowledge about each other makes building a life together seem impossible. And at every turn Denford is there further complicating their lives.

No summary does justice to a Miranda Neville novel. Much of the joy of reading this author’s books rests on the intricacy of her character building, the intelligence of her writing, and her subtle flashes of humor. She has shown in other novels that she has the skill to take an unsympathetic character and reveal the motivations and vulnerabilities behind behavior the reader wants to condemn in such a way that the reader ends up sympathetically engaged with the character. She does exactly this with Damian. He really does treat Cynthia abominably, and his behavior initially seems inexcusable. It’s hard to forget thoughts like this one: “Some might call the new Countess of Windermere an English rose. More like a wild flower, in his opinion. Or a weed.” But as the losses he suffered are revealed and as the reader recognizes that his own shame and the influence of his father and his mentor have transformed an ardent, artistic boy into a man who has buried his emotions and his ideals, the reader longs to see that which has been buried resurrected and Damian reborn as his mother’s son. It also helps that Damian acknowledges and regrets his treatment of Cynthia early on, and that his regrets deepen as his love for Cynthia grows.

Cynthia is appealing from the beginning. She is a woman of intelligence, integrity, and the kind of courage and optimism it takes to get up and keep going when life delivers a knockout punch. She is also genuinely kind, a quality often underrated in fiction as in life. I really liked that the charity work with which she becomes involved is not just general benevolence but something in which Cynthia has a personal stake, and I thought her means of financing the charity showed her spirit and her sense of humor.

I have found the art connection that runs through this series interesting. Neville does not settle for mere allusions to art. She makes it a real and meaningful part of the lives of her characters. Some of my favorite scenes in this novel were those where Cynthia and Damian drew one another and shared their drawings. It was an original and appropriate way to reveal their growing intimacy. Art was the initial connection between Damian and Denford as well, and it plays a role in their tense resumption of social exchanges.

The black-clad, Heyer-inspired Denford comes close to stealing the book at times, and I’m certain mine is not the only heart he stole. His story, The Duke of Dark Desires, a December 31 release, will complete the Wild Quartet. It’s on my most eagerly anticipated list.

For me, the abandoned bride who transforms herself and amazes her neglectful groom with her newly revealed grace and beauty can be a riveting story or a hackneyed hash. Obviously, I found Lady Windermere’s Lover in the riveting category. Other favorite treatments of this trope include Mary Balogh’s The First Snowdrop (1986) and Eloisa James’s Duchess in Love (2002), which tweaks the trope. Do you like the transformed bride trope? What are your favorite novels that make use of it?