Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Tuesday Review: Can't Hurry Love

Can’t Hurry Love
By Molly O’Keefe
Release Date: July 31st, 2012
Publisher: Random House Publishing

Except for her brother and her son, Victoria Schulman has been unfortunate with the men in her life. Her father was a total jerk who not only failed to give his daughter the love and encouragement that should have been her birthright but who actively undermined her confidence. Her husband was a cold, impossible-to-please workaholic who stole from friends in a Ponzi scheme and killed himself when he was caught. Then she fell for a con man who ended up taking her son hostage. The ranch that belonged to her father now belongs to her brother, Luc Baker (Can’t Buy Me Love), and he agrees to let Victoria run it during the year it’s in escrow and then buy it from him. There is one small problem: Victoria knows nothing about ranching.

But she wanted to learn. Needed to. Because she’d utterly failed at everything else in her life, and this place seemed like her last chance to make a home and a future for her son.

To succeed at ranching, Victoria needs Eli Turnbull, the ranch foreman, but Eli’s whole life has been focused on reclaiming the Crooked Creek Ranch and the land that once belonged to his family. Furious when he learns that all Lyle Baker left him in his will is half interest in the cattle, Eli decides that if he has to be a jackass to get the ranch, he will be. With a wealthy uncle to back him, he offers Victoria $2 million for the ranch. But when she refuses to sell, he sells the cattle. His half of the proceeds will give him the money he needs to begin the horse breeding that is his dream. Without the cattle to bring in money for taxes and operating expenses, Victoria will be forced to sell eventually.

Victoria is smarter than he gives her credit for being. When a visit to her lawyer makes clear exactly what Eli has done by selling the cattle, she leases land, including the plot Eli was expecting to buy. The war is on. It ends with Eli using Victoria’s son to strike at her. She fires him. But when her plan to turn the ranch into a resort and spa requires a cash infusion, she offers to sell Eli land. The attraction that sparked between them on the ranch becomes a consuming fire, but both Eli and Victoria have to let go of the parts of their pasts that keep their wounds festering before they can hope for a future.

Reading Can’t Hurry Love, I was reminded of one of my favorite Flannery O’Connor quotations: “There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored.”  Molly O’Keefe’s Crooked Creek books feature deeply flawed characters who need redemption. For Luc and Tara Jean in Can’t Buy Me Love, despite their real faults, I found something likeable in them early on. It took me much longer to like Victoria and Eli and even one of the secondary characters--Luc’s mother, Celeste. There is humor in the book, but at the heart of it, there is darkness because these are characters who dislike themselves.  When Eli makes choices that will hurt Victoria, he dislikes the man he is becoming. Victoria hates the weak, needy woman that she has been. Celeste hates her coldness and snobbery. It was not until they began to change and their vulnerabilities were exposed that I began to care about their happiness.

Victoria’s love for her son Jacob softened my feelings toward her, but the moment I saw her as an engaging character whom I wanted to see achieve her happy ending occurred when she first confronted Eli directly.

For years in her other life, she’d lived on innuendo, backhanded compliments, letting rumors do the hard work for her in terms of letting people know how she felt about them. Telling Eli he was an ass, straight and plain, filled her with both anxiety and elation. She felt mean and righteous both at once.

My reaction to these words? You go, girl!

It took me longer to warm up to Eli. I thought he was gradually becoming less of a jerk, but the moment just after he discovers the architect Victoria has hired is his mother and the child he was surfaces totally melted my resistance.

And he was just a boy, suddenly, lost and grieving. Wondering what he’d done that was so wrong that his mother had left him behind. Wondering why he was so unlovable that she hadn’t taken him with her.

I loved the secondary romance between Celeste and Gavin, and the feelings Gavin inspired in her certainly went a long way toward making her more human and thus more sympathetic. She would have been on my list of most detestable characters of 2012 had she resisted Gavin. I adored him. He and Jacob and Ruby the housekeeper were the sunshine in this dark book. It’s another measure of O’Keefe’s storytelling gift that she knew they were needed. Most of all I loved that I ultimately I believed all these characters deserved redemption and I believed all the facets of love that redeemed them.

Readers who are familiar with O’Keefe’s category romances won’t be surprised by the complexity and realness of the characters, the twists and torrents of family dynamics, or the emotional power of the story. If these are qualities you look for in the romances you read, I highly recommend Can’t Hurry Love. If you read Can’t Buy Me Love and fear that O’Keefe can’t make a weak-kneed whiner and a revenge-obsessed loner into a heroine and hero whose love you can believe in, trust me when I say she can. I finished the second book in the series hoping for Madelyn Cornish and Billy Wilson’s story. I checked and their book, Crazy Thing Called Love, is scheduled for release on January 29, 2013. I know one book I’ll be reading next February.

I can't think of many books I've read past a few pages without falling in love with at least one character. Can't Hurry Love may be unique in that respect? What about you? What books have you read that took you a while to like the hero and/or heroine? What kept you reading? 

Thursday, July 26, 2012

RITA Reads: Part II

Tomorrow night the 2012 RITA and Golden Heart winners will be announced. I plan to be online, eagerly awaiting the announcement of the winners.

Contemporary Single Title, and Novel with Strong Romantic Elements are the second two of the four categories that most of my RITA reads from among the 2012 finalists fall into, and I have the same ambivalence about choosing a single book to champion that I have with the books in the Historical and Regency Historical categories.

This is another strong field with a group of books that would be splendid additions to keeper shelves. These are the finalists:

At Hidden Falls by Barbara Freethy (Pocket Books)
Black Ties and Lullabies by Jane Graves (Grand Central Publishing Forever)
Boomerang Bride by Fiona Lowe (Carina Press)
Heartstrings and Diamond Rings by Jane Graves (Grand Central Publishing Forever)
Silver Sparks by Starr Ambrose (Pocket Books)
Slow Dancing on Price’s Pier by Lisa Dale (Berkley Publishing Group)
Summer at Seaside Cove by Jacquie D’Alessandro (Berkley Publishing Group)
The Welcome Home Garden Club by Lori Wilde (Avon Books)

I’ve read seven of the eight finalists in the Contemporary Single Title category. I read the seventh one this week as I was preparing this post. I checked it out, liked the summary, bought it, and was ready to read it five minutes later. I love my ereader.
  • At Hidden Falls shows the same mix of light paranormal elements and romance that made her RITA-winning debut novel, Daniel’s Gift (1996), such a success, and it adds the small-town setting that is so popular now.
  • Jane Graves, who is among the best I know at combining humor and heart, competes against herself with two books in this category. I’d give Black Ties and Lullabies the edge because I’ve wanted to see Jeremy Bridges hit hard by love since I read Hot Wheels and High Heels (2007). I love Graves’s titles too.
  • Boomerang Bride by Fiona Lowe is the one I just read. Both author and book were new to me when I read the lists of finalists, but I’ll definitely be looking for more single-titles from Lowe. Boomerang Bride is funny and sweet with a great secondary romance, and the small town is in Wisconsin. How rare is that?
  • Slow Dancing on Price’s Pier combines a woman’s journey to self-discovery with a compelling love story. It was my first book by Lisa Dale; I’ve read three more since reading it.
  • Summer at Seaside Cove is a fun read with characters that are easy to like. It’s a book that had it been published anonymously would have inspired me to say this is the kind of book Jacquie D’Alessandro would write.
  • The success of The Welcome Home Garden Club offers more evidence that a writer can take tired elements—estranged, illegitimate son, bad-boy/good-girl romance, secret baby (with a twist)—and with skill create a story that makes readers fall in love with the characters and believe in their story.
My ballot is marked, and I reiterate that like my political ballots, it will remain private. But all of these books are deserving of recognition. If I were selecting the finalist, I’d add Angel’s Rest by Emily March. I adored Gabriel Callahan, a man who lost two lives but gets a shot at a third after love and Eternity Springs work their healing miracle.

Novel with Strong Romantic Elements is one of my favorite categories because I love what I call hybrid books, those that combine romance with women’s fiction, mystery, science fiction, or some other genre. Look at these finalists.

The Dark Enquiry by Deanna Raybourn (Harlequin MIRA)
Death Magic by Eileen Wilks (Berkley Publishing Group Sensation)
First Grave on the Right by Darynda Jones (St. Martin’s Press)
Goodnight Tweetheart by Teresa Medeiros (Gallery Books)
How to Bake a Perfect Life by Barbara O’Neal (Ballantine Bantam Dell)
The Rose Garden by Susanna Kearsley (Sourcebooks Landmark)
Shadow Walker by Allyson James (Berkley Publishing Group Sensation)
Song of the Nile by Stephanie Dray (Berkley Publishing Group)
Spider’s Revenge by Jennifer Estep (Pocket Books)

I’ve read six of this year’s eight finalists, a bit on the low side for me in this category.
  • The Dark Enquiry, the fifth book in Raybourn’s Lady Julia Grey series, is the third in the series to be named a RITA finalist. The first one, Silent in the Grave won in 2008. The Dark Enquiry is filled with more of Lady Julia’s adventures, more of the enigmatic Nicholas Brisbane who is now her husband, and more of Raybourn’s superb writing. I love the series! 
  • I read First Grave on the Right by Darynda Jones, which is outside my usual reading range, because of conference swag. I have great friends, and every year for the past several years, one or more of them has sent a me, the perennial stay-at-home, a conference goodie box from Nationals. Last year my gift package from Romance Dish PJ included a terrific notebook with the cover of Darynda Jones’s second novel on it. Now the cover said not-your-kind-of-book, but I loved the notebook. It was a perfect size for writing scenes, it was the good kind of spiral-bound that folds over easily, it had thick paper that my preferred gel pen flowed over in a way that made me feel super productive. And every time I used it I saw the cover and the author’s name. When I saw First Grave on the Right as I was browsing in a bookstore one day, I felt honor bound to buy it because I had enjoyed that notebook so much. I did, I read it, I thought Charley was a wonderful character, and I’ve continued to read the series. It just goes to show that swag can win a reader.
  • Goodnight Tweetheart by Teresa Medeiros has its critics, but I enjoyed it. I also admire authors who take chances, and Medeiros definitely moved away from the subgenre that’s made her famous with this one. She’s an eight-time RITA finalist, and I’d certainly cheer happily to see her win one of the golden ladies.  
  • Barbara O’Neal writes books that I read and ruminate on and rave about to anyone who will listen. How to Bake a Perfect Life is vintage O’Neal/Samuel with language that delights the mind and the senses, characters that are so real I can almost grasp their hands, and an emotional punch that leaves me dizzy with its power. She’s won six RITAs and been a finalist an additional seven times. A win this year in this category would place her in the RWA Hall of Fame, an overdue honor.
  • I’m not a fan of time-travel books generally, including some that are high favorites of most romance readers, but The Rose Garden by Susanna Kearsley is a beautifully written book with a rich, evocative sense of place that is also a time-travel story within a book that defies easy classification.
  • I’m a big fan of historical fiction that gives voices to women silenced by history. Song of the Nile, the second book of a trilogy based on the life of Cleopatra’s and Mark Anthony’s daughter, Selene, is such a book. The characterization is complex, and the story is compelling.

I’m impressed by the variety among the group. Taken together, they show how romantic elements can be woven effectively into almost any kind of story. What’s missing? I’d cast an enthusiastic vote for The Beach Trees by Karen White, one of my top reads of 2011.

Congratulations and best wishes to all the finalists in all the categories.

So how many of these have you read? What favorites didn’t make the finalists this year? Will I see you on Twitter tomorrow?

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Tuesday Review: One Mountain Away

One Mountain Away
By Emilie Richards
Publisher: Harlequin Mira
Release Date: July 31, 2012

Charlotte Hale has position and power and great wealth, things she has spent her life working to acquire not just for themselves but because they made her feel in control. In the process of acquiring these things, she has also lost much. She is divorced, she has been estranged from her only child for ten years, and she has a ten-year-old granddaughter with whom she’s never spoken. She is a force within her real estate development company and within the city she has called home for all of her adult life, Ashville, North Carolina. Sometimes she is a force for good but always she can see only one point of view—her own. She is admired and respected, but she is essentially alone, a state she realizes when, confronted with her own mortality, she begins to examine her life. She determines that in whatever time remains to her she will atone for the mistakes she has made.

As Charlotte begins her journey on this new path, her life intersects with the lives of others, most of whom she has wounded directly or indirectly. First, there is Analiese Wagner, pastor of the Church of the Covenant, where Charlotte is a member. Charlotte didn’t feel that Analiese was the right choice to pastor the church and voted against her. The two disagree about many things, but as Charlotte shares some of the truths of her life with Ana, she grows to depend upon her honesty and compassion. And Ana comes to value Charlotte.

Harmony Stoddard, with sun-bleached hair, freckles, and a gold ring in her nose, may look like an All-American girl with an edge, but she is a young woman with burdens almost too heavy for her slender shoulders. She is a waitress at Cuppa, the coffee shop that Charlotte frequents. When Charlotte finds Harmony sleeping in her car, she offers the young woman first a place for a night and later a home. Charlotte, a mother estranged from her daughter, and Harmony, a daughter whose mother is too beaten down to be there for her child, fill empty spaces in one another’s lives.

Georgia Ferguson was once headmistress of Covenant Academy, the school Charlotte’s daughter attended. Charlotte used her influence to see Georgia fired after her daughter Samantha is involved in a drunk-driving accident. Samantha, now a nurse and the mother of a young daughter, is also the best friend of Charlotte’s daughter. All of these lives are interwoven with Charlotte’s and with one another, offering Charlotte ways to make amends, ways to make a difference, and ways to make memories of a woman warmer and more giving than the Charlotte Hale she was.

The most significant relationships are those with Charlotte’s family. Her former husband Ethan, who has spent a decade trying not to think of Charlotte, sees her at the park where their granddaughter Maddie is playing. He wonders what she’s doing, he questions whether he should tell his daughter about Charlotte’s appearance, and he remembers the Charlotte he first met, the one with whom he fell in love, the one he’s never been able to forget.

Taylor Martin teaches yoga and Pilates. Her salary and the child support Maddie’s father pays make it possible to support herself and her daughter. She has a degree in health and wellness promotion, but the kind of job she wants can’t be found in Ashville. She depends upon her father not only for additional financial support but also for emotional support. She needs him, and she believes Maddie, an epileptic, needs to be surrounded by people who love her—her grandfather Ethan, her father’s parents, Samantha and her daughter Edna, who is Maddie’s friend. Taylor can’t bring herself to leave Ashville. She can’t bring herself to let go of the anger she feels toward her mother either. A relationship that was made difficult by what Taylor saw as her mother’s unrelenting need to control her was shattered by a remark that Taylor cannot forget and will not forgive.   

Charlotte can only hope that these relationships can be mended in some way. She is afraid to act for fear of doing the wrong thing. When Ethan makes an effort, she can meet him halfway gratefully. But she is uncertain that she will ever talk with Taylor again or get to know Maddie. Time might heal all wounds, but time is one gift that Charlotte has only in limited measure.

I’ve been reading Emilie Richards books since she was writing category romances back in the 1980s and 90s. When she moved to single titles, I followed, and I followed again when she began writing women’s fiction and mysteries. I’ve read most of the seventy books she’s written, from Sweet Georgia Gal (1985) through the Happiness Key books (2009-2011). I always include The Trouble with Joe (1994) and Prospect Street (2002) on my all-time favorite one hundred list, and my love for her Shenandoah Album books inspired my heroine’s profession in my first manuscript. So when I say, no Emilie Richards book has moved me so powerfully as did One Mountain Away, I speak from the perspective of a long history with this author.

This is the first book in a new series, Goddesses Anonymous, It sets up the series beautifully with a rich and varied cast of characters that win the reader’s heart and capture her imagination. But it is not merely a setup of the controlling premise; it is foremost the poignant, tender story of Charlotte Hale, a woman who reclaims her life and makes it one worth having lived. I found the novel engaging from the first page, but these words at the end of the first chapter had me heart, mind, and spirit.

I’m struck by how many possibilities confront us each moment of our lives, possibilities we rarely notice. We move on to the next decision by habit, then the next, and we never look around to see all the paths leading to other places, other lives. . . .

As always there are too many choices to contemplate fully, but as I stand and turn in the other direction, I know I’m making the only one I can.

I highly recommend this book, but I do so with one caveat. One Mountain Away is women’s fiction. It includes a wonderful love story with a hero who is easy to love, but the focus is Charlotte’s journey. The ending, although uplifting and life-affirming, is not the conventional HEA. I was relieved that I had a box of tissues handy. But if you can move beyond the expectation of the sacrosanct HEA, you will find a book to cherish, one with characters who will linger in your mind after you’ve turned the final page, one that may even inspire you to look at your own life with eyes that see more truly.

Have you ever read a book that totally captivated you with one moment or one paragraph? How do you feel about books that may require the judicious use of a hanky or tissues to wipe away the tears?

Friday, July 20, 2012

RITA Reads: Part I

A week from tomorrow, the 2012 RITA and Golden Heart winners will be announced. It’s been four months since Facebook and Twitter were buzzing with news of who this year’s finalists were. I spent a lot of time online that day, reading posts and cheering when a favorite author or book was recognized, muttering imprecations when another was overlooked. I plan to be online again next Saturday, eagerly awaiting the announcement of the winners.

I already have my ballot prepared with my choices highlighted. I am a flag-waving partisan when I feel a personal connection. For me, the most exciting moments will be the Golden Heart winners in two categories. “Meant to Be” by Terri Osburn is a finalist in the Contemporary Single Title category and “The Suspicions of Cairo Jones” by Mary Danielson is a finalist in the Young Adult category. My support for these two is undiluted and totally biased. I don’t know the other finalists, and while I wish them all well, I am an unabashed fan of these two friends in whose talent and merit I believe without reservations.

Even though I’ve read a respectable forty of the ninety-five finalists (a much better percentage than I had with the Oscar-nominated films I had seen), twenty-seven of them are in four categories: Historical, Regency Historical, Contemporary Single Title, and Novel with Strong Romantic Elements. I’ve read no paranormal finalists and from one to four books in the other seven categories. What this means is that my interest is mild and non-partisan in more than half the categories.  In Romantic Suspense I’ve read a single book, but it’s by a long-time favorite author. I’ll be delighted if Secrets of Bella Terra by Christina Dodd wins in that category and La Dodd takes home her second Rita. Candle in the Wind won in 1992 for Best First Novel. She’s was also a Golden Heart Winner in 1990.

I had a hard time selecting a winner in the four categories in which I’ve read most of the books. I continue to be ambivalent because so many of my favorite books of 2011 and my favorite authors are represented. Look at the finalists for Best Historical.

Always a Temptress by Eileen Dreyer (Grand Central Publishing Forever)
The Black Hawk by Joanna Bourne (Berkley Publishing Group)
The Danger of Desire by Elizabeth Essex (Kensington Brava)
Heartbreak Creek by Kaki Warner (Berkley Publishing Group Sensation)
The Many Sins of Lord Cameron by Jennifer Ashley (Berkley Publishing Group Sensation)
Scandalous Desires by Elizabeth Hoyt (Grand Central Publishing)
Silk Is for Seduction by Loretta Chase (Avon Books)
Unveiled by Courtney Milan (HQN Books)

I’ve read seven of the eight nominated books, and I thought all seven were winners.
  • I thought Dreyer’s Kate was one of the best historical heroines of the year, smart and courageous and fiercely loyal.
  • Bourne’s The Black Hawk was tied for my #1 read of the year; it has everything—fascinating characters, adventure, complexity, historical richness, and one of the most memorable love scenes in romance fiction.
  • Kaki Warner made me fall in love again with Westerns, and I found this one with its post-Civil War background especially compelling.
  • Ashley’s Cameron MacKenzie is a wounded hero par excellence, and Ainsley Douglas is wise enough and strong enough to save him from himself. Gotta love that storyline plus Ashley is due. I still think it was a shame that The Madness of Lord Ian MacKenzie didn’t final in 2010.
  • Hoyt is an amazing writer, writing darkness shot through with light, teaming the puritanical and the uninhibited, and crafting sizzling love scenes that serve plot and character. Charming Mickey won a lot of readers’ hearts.
  • Every book Chase writes is a textbook in how to create characters that come alive and etch themselves into the reader’s memory. The first of her Noirot books is no exception. The description of the clothing is a visual delight, and there’s another unforgettable child.
  • I have a weakness for intelligent romances, and Milan is superb in creating them. Unveiled is both romance and bromance, and it’s exceptional on both levels.

I haven’t read the Essex book, but the strength of the field leads me to think it too is a worth book. My ballot is marked, and like my political ballots, it will remain private. But truthfully, I’d be pleased to see any of those I’ve read receive the RITA. I do think there’s a book missing from the list: A Lady’s Lesson in Scandal by Meredith Duran, one of the best books of the year from one of the best writers in the genre.

The only category in which I’ve read all the nominated books is the Regency Historical.

The Devil in Disguise by Stefanie Sloane (Ballantine Bantam Dell)
Heiress in Love by Christina Brooke (St. Martin’s Press)
How to Marry a Duke by Vicky Dreiling (Grand Central Publishing Forever)
How to Seduce a Scoundrel by Vicky Dreiling (Grand Central Publishing Forever)
Lady Sophie’s Christmas Wish by Grace Burrowes (Sourcebooks Casablanca)
A Night to Surrender by Tessa Dare (Avon Books)
To Seduce an Angel by Kate Moore (Berkley Publishing Group Sensation)
When Beauty Tamed the Beast by Eloisa James (Avon Books)

This is another list of winners.

  • Stefanie Sloane’s debut hooked me for the series even though it was another spy book. It has wit and charm and engaging characters.
  • Brooke gives her readers a central relationship that develops gradually and credibly, and the Ministry of Marriage is an interesting twist.
  • Dreiling is another debut author to watch, as her triple-threat finalists in these awards suggest. Despite a gimmick I found unappealing, I was won over by HTMAD’s engaging characters who actually (gasp!) talk to one another.
  • I think How to Seduce a Scoundrel is even better than Dreiling’s first book.  I loved the Quinnish flavor of the dialogue, and Aunt Hester alone would have made the book a winner for me.
  • I love Burrowes’s Windhams, I love Christmas books, I love cabin romances, I even love babies in books. Lady Sophie’s Christmas Wish has all of these. It’s irresistible. 
  • The premise of Tessa Dare’s Spindle Cove, a place where the women who don’t fit into society for a variety of reasons go to be themselves, is wonderful. Sunny Susanna and stern Bram, equally strong-minded, are deftly drawn, delightfully engaging characters.
  • Every Kate Moore book I read makes me wonder why she’s not among the bestsellers in romance fiction. She’s an extraordinary writer, and the cast of memorable characters in To Seduce an Angel, the conclusion to her trilogy show why.
  • In When Beauty Tamed the Beast, her second fairytale-based romance novel, Eloisa James combines elements of the traditional story with subtle subversions of it to weave a tale rich with humor, high in sizzle factor, and substantive in its portrayal of love as a healing, transforming power.

This is a stellar field representing the most popular subgenre in historical romance. It’s an exciting mix of new authors and veterans who have earned many stars. Whoever wins, there are sure to be thousands of fans rejoicing. I will admit that my rejoicing will be more exuberant with one particular writer as winner, but I will be pleased for whoever wins. Anyone missing? Oh, yes, I couldn’t believe that What I Did for a Duke by Julie Anne Long was not a contender. It was at the top of my Best of 2011 list, a choice that was repeated on a number of lists.

Congratulations and best wishes to all the finalists. I’ll be back next Friday to talk about the finalists for Contemporary Single Title and Novel with Strong Romantic Elements.

How many of the finalists in these two categories have you read? Do you have favorites? What books do you think are missing from the lists?

If you’d like to create your own ballot to check your vote or predictions against the RWA winners, you can copy and paste easily from the list on Barbara Vey’s March 27 Beyond Her Book blog.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Tuesday Review: How to Romance a Rake

How to Romance a Rake
By Manda Collins
Ugly Ducklings #2
Publisher: St. Martin’s
Release Date: July 31, 2012

Lord Alec Deveril has spent the years since he left university living his life in a manner that will prove he is not his father’s son in character and behavior. Once shunned as the offspring of Devil Deveril, he is now the epitome of all that a gentleman should be. In fact, his life is such perfection that he’s beginning to be rather bored with it. But his ennui vanishes once his life becomes entangled with that of Miss Juliet Shelby. First he decides that Miss Shelby’s limp is no reason to keep her from dancing, this evoking the wrath of her mother. Then, he’s pulled into the matter of the mysterious disappearance of Miss Shelby’s friend and former music teacher. He tells himself that Juliet can jeopardize his plans for a civil marriage based on a tepid liking, and he’d best avoid her. There’s certainly nothing tepid about the feelings she inspires.

Juliet Shelby has made fading into the background an art since the accident she suffered at fifteen changed her forever. Her mother, a legendary beauty, has made certain that Juliet understands that no man will ever desire a woman as handicapped as Juliet is. But Lord Deveril seems to have appointed himself her champion. He is teaching her to dance, standing up to her mother, and working to solve a troubling mystery, Juliet tells herself that he’s just a friend and he’d surely turn away in disgust if he knew her secret. But no matter how much Juliet insists to herself and to her cousins that Deveril is beyond her touch, her heart keeps right on dreaming.

How to Romance a Rake is the second book in Manda Collins’s Ugly Ducklings trilogy. It has the same blend of mystery with an unexpected twist and romance that combines heat and tenderness that characterized the first book, How to Dance with a Duke.

Juliet is a wonderful character, an original heroine who has been building her strength for years as she copes with a mother who is emotionally and physically abusive, a disinterested father, and a world with a low tolerance for visible imperfections and with sharply honed buzzard instincts. Watching her grow in self-confidence and awareness of her strength made reading this novel a moving and satisfying experience.

I love Deveril too. First of all, he’s a blond hero. And while I share the common susceptibility to the tall, dark, and handsome combination, there’s just something special about a blond hero. First impressions are important, and I fell hard for this hero on the first page when I read this description: “Deveril was a man envied by men and adored by women. And he was bloody tired of it.” Most of all I loved Deveril’s sensitivity to Juliet and his respect for her as her own person even as he acknowledged his need to protect her.

I also enjoyed the deftly drawn secondary characters. Mr. Bock is my favorite, warm-hearted and engaging, and I won’t say more for fear of spoilers. Juliet’s mother is a narcissistic bitch that a reader finds easy to hate, one who definitely earns a place in the Bad Mothers of Romance Hall of Shame. It was a treat to see Cecily and Winterson, and Maddie is a delight. It gladdened my heart to see the beginnings of a relationship between her and Monteith.

If you haven’t read Manda Collins yet, what are you waiting for? I highly recommend How to Romance a Rake. Although this is the second book, I think it works as a standalone. Of course, once you’ve read it, you’ll want to go back and read How to Dance with a Duke as well. And the third in the series, How to Entice an Earl, will be released January 29, 2013. Ah, Monteith, the earl who already owns a chunk of my heart!

Dark heroes have long been most popular in romance, but I seem to be seeing more blond heroes recently. There are even a few red-headed heroes. What’s your preference?

Giveaway: One randomly selected person will be chosen from among those who comment to receive a copy of How to Romance a Rake.

Irish, you're the Randomizer's choice to win the box of books from last Friday's blog. If you'll send me your contact info at jangarho at gmail dot com, I'll send you your books ASAP.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Blasts from the Past

It’s less than two weeks now until the 32nd Annual Conference of the Romance Writers of America opens (July 25-28) in Anaheim, California. Many of my friends are staying home this year, but Terri Osburn, who is nominated for a Golden Heart in the contemporary single title category for Meant to Be (Yay for Terri!), is already talking about packing. My Friday blogs for the rest of this month will be about the RITA-nominated books I’ve read, but I always enjoy looking back at past winners too. And I’m old enough to have read some of these award-winning books from the very beginning.

I should preface the post by saying that this is not a comprehensive view or an objective overview. It’s a strictly personal look that focuses on the writers I read.

The fledgling Romance Writers of America presents their first awards. Then called the Golden Medallions, the awards are presented in a mere four categories: Best Category Contemporary and Historical and Best Mainstream Contemporary and Historical.  Brooke Hastings whose Winner Takes All (Silhouette #102) wins Best Contemporary Category is the only winner I’ve read.

Nora Roberts won the Golden Medallion for Best Contemporary Sensual Romance for The Heart’s Victory; LaVyrle Spencer won for Best Mainstream Historical Romance for The Endearment. Spencer repeated her win in 1983, 1984, and 1985, and Roberts was a dual winner each of the three years. Spencer has since retired from writing, but Roberts is a double nominee again this year.

Anne Stuart, another 2008 RITA nominee, enjoyed her first win for Banish Misfortune, the Best Single Title of 1986. I think she’s won seven now, and that doesn’t count her Lifetime Achievement win in 1996. My favorite of her winning books is Falling Angel, which won for Best Fantasy, Futuristic, Paranormal in 1994. It’s one of my favorite Christmas books too.

Robyn Carr is best known these days for her Virgin River books (Book 20 in the series, My Kind of Christmas is releasing October 23), but she won the medallion for Best Historical Romance  for By Right of Arms, and Sunshine and Shadow, a romance classic by Sharon and Tom Curtis, won for Best Single Title Romance.

A new decade saw the Golden Medallions become the RITAs, named for RWA’s first president, Rita Clay Estrada. Jennifer Greene, Lifetime Achievement winner in 2009, won Best Short Contemporary Series for Night of the Hunter. Other winners included fan favorites Julie Garwood, Best Single Title Historical for The Bride and Mary Jo Putney, Best Regency for The Rake and the Reformer, two more that became romance classics.

Another romance classic, Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander was RWA’s Best Romance of 1991. Christina Dodd, a 2012 nominee for Secrets of Bella Terra, won Best First Book for Candle in the Window, and Jo Beverley’s Emily and the Dark Angel was named Best Regency, a win that she repeated the following year with An Unwilling Bride, the first of her Rogue books.

Best Romance of 1993 win went to Susan Wiggs’s Lord of the Night. Anne Stuart won again, this time for Best Futuristic/Fantasy/Paranormal (see Falling Angel reference above), and Jo Beverley entered the RWA Hall of Fame when Deidre and Don Juan became her third Best Regency win. Beverley also won Best Historical Series for My Lady Notorious, the first of her Malloren books. Her 2012 book A Scandalous Countess is the twelfth book in this series.

Susan Elizabeth Phillips made her first appearance in the winners’ circle with It Had to Be You, RWA’s Best Romance of 1994. Other favorites who carried home gold included Mary Jo Putney for Best Long Historical (Dancing in the Wind, Book 3 of the Fallen Angel series), Carla Kelly for Best Regency (Mrs. Drew Plays Her Hand), and Jennifer Crusie for Best Short Contemporary Series (Getting Rid of Bradley).

Nora Roberts continued to collect gold with dual wins for the first book about the Irish Concannon sisters, Born in Ice (Best Contemporary Single Title and Best Romance of 1996). And the book that consistently shows up at or near the top of all-time favorites lists, Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels, was named Best Short Historical.

Susan Elizabeth Phillips repeated Roberts’s 1996 feat when Nobody’s Baby But Mine was voted Best Contemporary Single Title and Favorite Book of 1997. Elizabeth Boyle’s Brazen Angel took Best First Book honors.

Suzanne Brockmann was the big winner this year as RWA celebrated the end of the millennium; she won Best Contemporary Single Title (Body Guard) and Best Long Contemporary (Undercover Princess). Judith Ivory’s The Proposition (still the only book I’ve ever read—and loved--with a rat catcher as hero) was named Best Short Historical.

The new millennium began with recognition going to writers who had already proved themselves to be among the best in romance, SEP’s First Lady was declared Best Contemporary Single Title and Jo Beverley’s Devilish, the reward for all those fans who “waited for Rothgar,” won Best Long Historical.

Three more authors who have become perennial favorites were winners this year. Rachel Gibson’s True Confessions was named Best Contemporary Single Title and Lisa Kleypas’s novella “I Will” from the anthology Wish List won for Best Novella. Connie Brockway won her second RITA for The Bridal Season (Best Long Historical).

Appropriately, RWA marked its 25th anniversary by giving gold to two books destined to join the ranks of classic romances: Jennifer Crusie’s Bet Me (Best Contemporary Single Title) and Laura Kinsale’s Shadowheart (Best Long Historical).

Diane Gaston’s A Reputable Rake was honored as the Best Regency of 2005. It carries the distinction of being the last winner in the traditional Regency category.  Linnea Sinclair’s win for a science fiction romance (Gabriel’s Ghost) in the paranormal category proved Nora Roberts was right about the big umbrella of romance. And Barbara Samuel added to her RITA count with a win for Lady Luck’s Map of Vegas in the book with strong romantic element category.

Bridgerton fans around the world cheered when Julia Quinn won in the Best Long Historical category for On the Way to the Wedding, the conclusion to a much beloved series. And Roxanne St. Claire won for best novella with “Tis the Silly Season” in A NASCAR Holiday just weeks before her second Bullet Catcher book released.

Another win for Julia Quinn as The Secret Diaries of Miss Miranda Cheever won for Best Regency historical. Deanna Raybourn’s win for Silent in the Grave (Novel with Strong Romantic Elements) sent the uninformed searching for the book that had already ensured some of us lost our hearts to Nicholas Brisbane.

Pam Rosenthal made RWA history when her erotic romance The Edge of Impropriety won as Best Historical. Not Another Bad Date won Rachel Gibson her second RITA for best single-title contemporary. Joanna Bourne’s win for My Lord and Spymaster (Best Regency Historical) was her first—but maybe not her last. She’s a finalist again this year for The Black Hawk in the Historical category, which is loaded with wonderful writers.

Both Kristan Higgins, who won in the best single-title contemporary category for Too Good to Be True, and Sherry Thomas, who won in the best historical category for Not Quite a Husband, were crowd-pleasing winners throughout Romancelandia. Molly O’Keefe won for best novella with “The Christmas Eve Promise” from The Night Before Christmas. Since I had added it to my list of favorite Christmas stories, I was delighted.  Barbara O'Neal won her first RITA; it was for The Lost Recipe for Happiness (Novel with Romantic Elements). It was her sixth if you include those she won as Barbara Samuel and Ruth Wind. And Julia Quinn set the EJ/JQ bulletin board cheering wildly when she became the twelfth member of the RWA Hall of Fame with her win for What Happens in London (Regency Historical). Note: There are fourteen members if you count Nora Roberts for each of the three times she’s entered the list in three categories.

Kaki Warner proved Westerns were in again when she won Best First Book for Pieces of Sky, book 1 in her Blood Rose trilogy. Sherry Thomas moved one step closer to the Hall of Fame with a repeat win in the historical category with His at Night, and Lauren Willig’s win for The Mischief of the Mistletoe (Regency Historical) added the only hero named Turnip to the list of Heroes in RITA-winning books.

How many of my blasts from the past have you read? What’s your favorite Rita-winning book? Do you agree with me that it seems unfair that Anne Stuart with seven RITAs and Barbara Samuel/Barbara O’Neal with six aren’t in the Hall of Fame? (They have to have three wins in the same category to enter.)

This post is an updated version of one I wrote for The Romance Vagabonds in 2008.

And because I made my deadline and am feeling celebratory, I'll have the Radomizer select one person from among those who comment to win a box of books (North American commenters only).

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Tuesday Review: That Thing Called Love

That Thing Called Love
By Susan Andersen
Publisher: Harlequin HQN
Release Date: July 31, 2012

Jake Bradshaw grew up in Razor Bay, Washington, the son of a serial father who played good dad until divorce set him free to move on to his next family. Jake hated the town, he hated being pushed around by a half-brother who used him as a target for his anger, and he couldn’t wait to leave Razor Bay and brother Max behind. Still, when his girlfriend Kari Pierce got pregnant their senior year, he married her, but a marriage between a boy who wanted to leave town and a spoiled girl didn’t have much of a chance. When Kari died shortly after their son was born and her parents offered to care for the baby while Jake took advantage of the full scholarship he had been offered to Columbia, he felt guiltily reprieved. In the thirteen years since then, he’s made a name for himself as a photographer, seen some of the world’s most exotic locations, deposited some hefty checks in his bank account, and tried to bury the guilt he feels over being a runaway dad. Now the Pierces are dead, and he has the chance to find out what it means to be a father to his son Austin. Nothing else would have brought him back to Razor Bay, and even now he can’t wait to pack up his son and get back to New York. Not even sexy Jenny Salazar is going to change his mind. She’s not his type anyway, or so he keeps telling himself.

Jenny Salazar loves Razor Bay, and she loved Kathy and Emmett Pierce. The town offered her sanctuary and friendship when her life was turned upside down by a scandal of her father’s creation. The Pierces gave sixteen-year-old Jenny a job at the Brothers Inn that allowed her to support herself and her mother. But they did much more. When her mother died, they supported and encouraged her while she went to college and welcomed her back as part of the Inn’s staff and as part of their family. She looks upon Austin as a younger brother, and she’d like nothing better than to see her temporary guardianship of him become permanent. She doesn’t have a very high opinion of the man who has decided to play daddy at this late date, even if he's the sexiest thing she's ever seen in Razor Bay. But Jenny is willing to do what’s best for Austin, but she fears that means that her relationship with Jake Bradshaw is becoming dangerously up close and personal.

This is the first book in a new trilogy from Andersen, and if the other books meet the standard set by this one, the Razor Bay trilogy is going to be terrific. I liked Jake and Jenny both. Admittedly, Jake behaved like a jerk when he abandoned his son. Even though his decision was complicated by his youth and the actions of the Pierces, he made some bad choices. But he knows he did, and he doesn’t try to justify himself. He is sometimes at a loss with Austin, but he tries his best to begin building a relationship with his son. Jenny is great. She may be small in size, but she’s mighty in her love for Austin and in the strength and determination with which she tackles whatever life hands her. She’s also sweet and smart and funny. Regular readers of Andersen will find the sexual tension and sizzling scenes they expect from this author, but there is also a lot of sweetness in this book.

Andersen also creates some of the best secondary characters I’ve encountered in contemporary romance in a while. Austin is wonderfully real. He’s a totally credible, smart-mouthed, tender-hearted thirteen-year-old boy who is crazy about baseball, loyal to his best friend, and crushing crazily on a pretty and interesting girl who is new on the scene. The love and security he feels with Jenny is evident, as is the mix of anger, longing, and vulnerability he feels toward his father. I liked Nolan, the best friend, and Bailey, the crush too. And speaking of best friends, Tasha, Jenny’s best friend, is another great character, one I’m hoping to see more of. Then there’s Max, rough and tough, former Marine, current deputy sheriff, and Jake’s half-brother. What an interesting, appealing character he is! I have a strong feeling he'll be making an appearance later in the trilogy.

I look forward to another trip to Razor Bay, and I recommend you sign up for trip #1 with That Thing Called Love.

Some readers want a romance to focus on the hero and heroine and resent being distracted by a sizeable cast of secondary characters. Others prefer romances that show the hero and heroine as part of a family and/or a community. I belong in the latter group. To which group do you give allegiance?