Sunday, December 29, 2013

Extending Christmas: Reviews of a Few More Christmas Books

There’s still a bit over a week before Twelfth Night marks the end of the Christmas season, just enough time to read one or more of the following Christmas books guaranteed to leave you smiling at the HEA.

Holiday for Two
By Maggie Robinson and Elyssa Patrick
Release Date: December 9, 2013

I love cabin romances, and I love Christmas books. Combine those two pluses with the fact that the authors of Holiday for Two are friends and former fellow Bon Bons, and I knew this one would be a winner. I was right. Both stories are delightful.

“All Through the Night”

This novella is Maggie Robinson’s first published contemporary romance. Thus, it seems particularly appropriate that the hero, Griffin Archer, is a viscount with an English accent and a likeness to Mr. Darcy that make him a fantasy come to life for the heroine. She is Carrie Moore, personal assistant to a successful mystery writer, who also happens to be the hero’s aunt.

The two miss the last ferry to an island off the coast of Maine where said aunt is expecting both her nephew and personal assistant. The snowstorm that closed the ferry makes travel hazardous, and Carrie and Griffin end up taking shelter from the storm in a carriage house conveniently winterized to protect a vintage Jaguar. A lot of chemistry and a bit of role playing make one snowed-in Christmas Eve a night to remember.

Both Carrie and Griffin are engaging characters. I found Carrie’s blend of pragmatism and imagination strongly appealing, and Griffin was a delightful mix of stuffiness and sexiness. I rank Robinson’s contemporary debut a smashing success, and I’ll definitely be among her eager readers if she writes more in this subgenre.

“While It Was Snowing”

Felicity Evans and Harry Walsh have been friends since they were children, but some looks Felicity has been receiving from Harry have her thinking there might be more than friendship to their relationship. Since Felicity is a confident, modern woman, she has no hesitation in deciding an intimate weekend in a Vermont cabin will be the perfect setting. But Harry, who has loved Felicity since he entered his teens, is a self-proclaimed geek who thinks Felicity deserves someone better.

Felicity is primed for seduction, and Harry wants to talk. Misunderstandings ensue, but the special connection these two have is strong enough to survive the awkwardness, the missteps, and the risks of friends becoming lovers.

A beta hero par excellence, a friends-to-lovers plot that is endearingly credible, and an opening scene that ranks with the funniest I’ve read make Patrick’s novella a standout.  The epilogue is the perfect finishing touch. The author says that this is a standalone work, but I bet I’m not the only one who would love to read Nora and Ben’s story.

The Wrong Christmas Carol
By J. A. Ferguson
Publisher: Belle Books
Release Date: December 28, 2013
(Reissue of 2006 novel from ImaJinn Books)

Mr. Shepard has spent two years doing his best to foster a match between his tenants Gabby D’Angelo and Dr. Mike Archer, but they have stubbornly resisted all his efforts. His last resort is a prayer that arrives at the heavenly Prayer Care Center at a moment when the angel in charge is distracted. He sends an answer only to realize too late that he acted too quickly.

Gabby is surprised when the police recover her stolen car so quickly, but not nearly as surprised as she is when the officers also return to her an infant born one minute after midnight on Christmas Day. Her name according to the hospital bracelet she still wears and according to hospital records is Carol D’Angelo. Gabby knows that the baby cannot be hers; nevertheless, she feels an instant connection with her.

Life with a new born is more exhausting than Gabby expected, but she manages with the help of her landlord, Mr. Shepard, who ransacks his attic where his granddaughter has stored all the baby paraphernalia an infant needs; with the cooperation of all the people, staff and residents, of the senior center where Gabby works, who christen Carol “CeeBee” for “cute baby” and eagerly offer to take turns providing on-site childcare; and with the assistance of good neighbor, Mike Archer, who provides take-out meals for the busy mother, expertise as the oldest of a large family, and kisses filled with tantalizing promise.

The baby accomplished what Mr. Shepard’s efforts did not. It brought Gabby and Mike together, but a union between artist Gabby who has no problem believing in angels and miracles and medical researcher Mike who trusts only in logic and empirical evidence proves fraught with complications. Meanwhile the angel who made the error is sent to earth to correct the problems he created, but he only seems to complicate matters.

If this were not a Christmas story, I would label it saccharine, but my tolerance for sweet stories increases tenfold or more at this season. I loved the premise of the story, adored the baby, and found the conscientious, awkward angel with a fondness for chocolate cake and the matchmaking landlord endearing. I’m adding this one to my holiday reread list.

The Surprise Holiday Dad
By Jacqueline Diamond
Publisher: Harlequin (American Romance)
Release Date: January 7, 2014

Private detective Wade Hunter returns to Safe Harbor as soon as he learns that the mother of his son has died. There is nothing Wade wants more than to be a real father to his son, and he is determined to begin immediately. He may not have as much to offer as the doctor aunt who has been young Reggie’s primary caretaker and is eager to adopt him, but he can be the father his son needs, the one thing the doctor aunt can’t give Reggie.

Adrienne Cavill, an obstetrician at the Safe Harbor obstetrical hospital, loves her sister’s son as if he were her own child. She has already begun the adoption process to make him hers by law as well as by love. She is shocked when Wade Hunter turns up demanding to be part of his son’s life. Frightened that she will lose Reggie to his father, she prepares to fight—only to discover Wade Hunter is quite different from the man she has been led to believe he is.

Given that the protagonists are both good people who genuinely love Reggie, the plot of this story is predictable from the first. But it is a pleasure to see characters who really do place the needs of the child first and who learn that compromise is possible. This is a sweet story, the twelfth in Diamond’s Safe Harbor Medical series—with three more in the works. I had no difficulty following the story, and I liked it well enough that I plan to check out others in the series.

This week I’m reading some spring 2014 releases and rereading some favorites by Georgette Heyer. What are you reading during the last days of 2013?

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

May your holiday be merry and blessed. 

I'm spending Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with my family. I'll be back Saturday, December 28 with a final review for 2013.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Best of the Rest: Great Reads from 2013 That Are Not Romance Novels

Last week I shared my top romance reads of 2013, but while I read more widely in romance than in other genres, my reading tastes are fairly eclectic. I prefer my mysteries cozy, or at least lacking the gore and graphic violence that gives me nightmares, but I have a considerable list of auto-buy mystery authors too. Historical fiction, women’s fiction, memoirs and biographies, poetry—I read them all. I don’t read as much YA as I used to, but I still find a gem or two. So, with the caveat that these have been chosen from a considerably shorter list of books read than were the thirteen romances, here’s my rest-of-the-best list for 2013.

Mystery: Speaking from Among the Bones by Alan Bradley

Five books into this series and I find Flavia de Luce as delightful as I did in the first book, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. The dead bodies in this one include that of the Saint Tancred, whose name the local church bears and whose bones are to be disinterred on the 500th anniversary of his death, and that of the missing church organist, who is discovered by Flavia in search of a bat in an organ pipe. As usual, Flavia, now almost twelve, is in the thick of things as the mystery twists through elements that include diamonds, tin soldiers, a leper, and secrets. The real appeal of the series continues to be Flavia and her relationships with her family and other residents of Bishops Lacey. Bradley keeps his young sleuth equal parts old-soul prodigy and credible, needy child. She will make the reader laugh one minute and break her heart the next. Speaking from Among the Bones answers some questions and raises others with its cliffhanger ending. It’s less than a month now until the release of the next book, The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, a reading experience sure to brighten mid-January.

Historical Fiction: Longbourn by Jo Baker

This was a particularly good year for historical fiction. I found particularly compelling The Typewriter Girl by Alison Atlee, The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin, Necessary Lies by Diane Chamberlain, I’ll Be Seeing You by Suzanne Hayes and Loretta Nyhan, and In Falling Snow by Mary-Rose McColl, but using the reread test to select my candidate for best of the year, I went with Longbourn.

Austen-related novels are common enough to practically constitute their own subgenre, and most of them are eminently forgettable. This one is a jewel, keeping the reader aware of the world Austen gave her readers in Pride and Prejudice and at the same time expanding that world to focus on the servants who are faceless, nameless background figures in the P & P world.   From the sleazy Wickham’s effort to seduce the young scullery maid, Polly, to Mrs. Hill, the housekeeper, and her unconcealed displeasure with a decision Mr. Bennett makes, the reader sees the servants at Longbourn as people with histories, secrets, fears, and dreams and the Bennets as people of their class with all the assumptions and prejudices that entailed. I found myself wishing that I were still teaching. I’d love to pair Longbourn with Pride and Prejudice and listen to the discussions the two together would provoke.

YA Novel: Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor & Park is not a comfortable book to read. The brutal world of the mob mentality that leads teens to attack, render miserable, and sometimes destroy those who are different is painfully real, as headlines persistently remind us. I suspect the reading is uniquely painful for adults who are good at burying thoughts of such viciousness, but Rowell makes the cruelties real, intimate, and impossible to avoid because she makes the reader care about these two characters, the half-Korean Park and the red-haired, flamboyantly dressed Eleanor with her body issues and the horrors of her home life. Watching the relationship develop between Park and Eleanor in all its awkwardness and wonder is rewarding, but it also adds to an uneasiness about their vulnerability. After reading the book, I was more than ever amazed by the parents who objected to this book because of the language (directed at the protagonists, not used by them) and the ugliness of Eleanor’s life rather than hoping that reading and talking about the book would make their children think hard thoughts about their own experience—whether they are outsiders or insiders. I’m giving it to some of the teens about whom I care.

Women’s Fiction: You Are the Love of My Life by Susan Richards Shreve

At its center, this is a book about the lies people tell to themselves and to others in order to protect their wounds and to create selves that are larger and brighter and more immune to the slings and arrows life throws at them. The lies exist in the microcosm of the upper middle-class lives on Wichita Avenue in Washington, D.C., where Lucy Painter, a single mother of two children, has just moved into a house she owns but has avoided for much of her life and where Zee Mallory maintains the illusions of her perfect, fragile life. The lies exist in the macrocosm where in 1973 the Watergate hearings have a nation considering secrets and lies and some very important people considering their costs. Watergate serves as mere background for the smaller stories of the fictional characters, but the point at which history and fiction intersect adds subtlety and substance to the novel.

Memoir/Biography: Marmee and Louisa by Eva LaPlante

I think I was eight the first time I read Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Even at that age, while I sighed over Meg’s romance, cried at Beth’s death, and found Amy’s burning of Jo’s stories utterly unforgiveable, it was Jo and the near-omniscient Marmee who knew her so well and gave her such wise advice in whom I was most interested. That interest has not diminished through more than half a century of rereading. I knew as soon as I heard that an Alcott relative with access to newly discovered personal papers was writing a biography focusing on Alcott’s relationship with her mother that this was a book I wanted to read.

Marmee and Louisa shows Abigail Alcott as a practical woman married to a man little suited to the responsibilities of marriage and fatherhood. While Bronson Alcott retreated from his family to read and contemplate ideas, his wife worked as a social worker and sanitarium matron in addition to tackling the heavy domestic tasks of the household and passing her progressive ideas about abolition and gender equality on to her second daughter, Louisa. It was Abigail who challenged Louisa intellectually and who encouraged her writing. The book is a warm and revealing look at a mother’s influence on a writer who is more often portrayed as her father’s daughter.

Poetry:  Dog Songs by Mary Oliver
More and more I discover that the poems I want to read are those by poets with whom I’ve lived for years, whose words are familiar yet always bringing some new revelation. So this year I have read Emily Dickinson, as I have every year since the summer I turned ten. I have read Ellen Bryant Voigt’s Kyrie, a series of linked, blank-verse sonnets about the effects of the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919. I have spent much time with Seamus Heaney in this the year of his death, reading again the early poems from Death of a Naturalist and Wintering Out, his translation of Beowulf, and his final collection, Human Chain. I have read John Donne and Gerard Manley Hopkins and Christina Rossetti and Andrew Hudgins and Kathleen Norris. I have read very few books of poetry published this year. I did read and love Mary Oliver’s Dog Songs, in part because the poems are by a poet who loves dogs and written for people who love dogs, in part because the illustrations are wonderful, and in part because my friends who think they don’t like poetry can look at this book, read the poems, and smile at poems like “The Poetry Teacher” about the speaker’s dog who, according to the terms of her contract, can be in her classroom.

Then they would all
Ben, his pals, maybe an unknown
or two, all of them thirsty and
They drank, they flung
themselves down
among the students. The
students loved
it. They all wrote thirsty, happy

What non-romance books from 2013 do you highly recommend?

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Tuesday Review: His Ideal Match

His Ideal Match
By Arlene James
Publisher: Harlequin (Love Inspired)
Release Date: 
December 17, 2013

Carissa Hopper has endured a series of knockout blows. When she was left with a young widow with three small children, she worked to keep their lives as normal as possible. When she realized her husband had left her with nothing but her kids, sweet memories, and a load of debt, she did her best to deal with the difficulties. When she lost her business and her home and was forced to move into her dad’s small apartment, she worked as hard as she could to save enough to start over. But when her dad died and Carissa and her children had to vacate his apartment, she was forced to admit she couldn’t handle things without some help. She just wished God had sent the help through someone other than Phillip Chatam whose good looks and easy charm pose a threat to her heart even though he clearly is not husband and father material.

Phillip Chatam has steadfastly refused to follow his siblings into some responsible, productive career that makes his doctor parents proud. His adult life has been a series of adventures, sometimes risky and always temporary. His latest vocation as a mountain climbing guide for tourists in Washington State had lasted longer than most, but after an accident left a tourist and two of Phillip’s fellow guides dead, he had lost his enthusiasm for mountain climbing. He’d walked away from another job and wound up in Texas at Chatam House, owned by his seventy-five-year-old triplet great-aunts. He seems to have lost all sense of direction for his life, and no matter how attractive and admirable he finds Carissa Hopper, she and her kids—adorable Grace, mischievous Tucker, and angry Nathan who is struggling to be the man of the family—deserve someone more responsible and competent than Phillip. He vows to help them all he can, but then he will move on as usual.

However, change is on the way for Phillip and for Carissa as they discover that God’s answers to their prayers are not always what they expect.

The seventh book in James’s Chatam House series is a sweet, slight, easy-to-read romance. Although these are characters whose faith is important to them and who believe in a personal God who hears and answers prayer, the tone is not excessively preachy. The characters are likeable, and it’s easy to root for their HEA.

This was the first book I have read in the series, and I was bothered by the reminders that all the other young Chatams who appear with their spouses had stories that I didn’t know. I also got the feeling that the family relationships which I found too thinly developed for my taste might seem more substantial seen in the context of the full series. I had only a vague sense of the town and never got a sense of how it is different from a dozen other small Texas towns. So, overall, this is a pleasant novel but one that will probably be more appreciated by readers familiar with the series.

I missed a distinctive sense of place in this book, but I know some readers don’t pay much attention to place. How important is a sense of place to you?

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Janga’s Top Thirteen Romances of 2013

As usual, I look back at a reading year and think what a wonderful year it was. This year I read 336 romances, most of them published in 2013. (I didn’t count rereads.) Were some of them disappointments? Of course, they were, and frankly, some of them were not books I’d recommend to anyone. But most of them were books I enjoyed, books that left me feeling as if the time I invested in reading them was well spent. About 20 percent of them were keepers, books I know I will read again—or, in some cases, have already read a second time. And those keepers were scattered throughout the year, so there was never a period longer than a week or so when I was not happily reading romance.

 Pardon me for waxing sentimental, but this reading retrospective also reminded me of the huge debt of gratitude I owe to the many authors whose books enriched my life, expanded my world, and moved me to tears, laughter, and reflection. So from those that I’ve been reading for three decades or close to it to those who debuted in 2013 and all those between those two points, thank you. I look forward to the books you will bring your readers in the new year.

Before I comment on my top thirteen, I should add that I broke my own rule this year. When after much thought, I cut my keeper list to ten, I realized that I cut three from the list not because I thought they were less worthy of a “best” recognition than the ten that remained but because they were written by dear friends. I decided that wasn’t a good enough reason to refrain from saying these were among my favorite reads of the year, and each is a book I love doubly: once because it is a story that captivated and delighted me and once because it was written by someone I am privileged to call my friend. Anyway, it seemed fitting to have a top thirteen for 2013 (presented in order of publication). Maybe next year I’ll have a top fourteen.

The Autumn Bride, Anne Gracie (February 5)

Nobody combines humor and poignancy better than Gracie. I loved everything about this book—the “sisters” who create a family out of affection and need, the hero as disillusioned boy and as honorable man, and the gallant, all together wonderful Lady Beatrice, who almost steals the book from the lovers.

The Best Man, Kristan Higgins (February 26)
Kristan Higgins gives readers a story that combines scenes worthy of a twenty-first-century Lucille Ball with scenes that will have readers reaching for a hanky to catch the tears. And it’s a reunion romance with a twist! I love that. Higgins just keeps getting better

Sweet Madness, Heather Snow (April 2)
The best book in a strong series! I especially like Heather Snow's heroines, not a cookie-cutter miss in the group. Lady Penelope Bridgeman combines pragmatism, empathy, and a rare knowledge of early psychological theory. An original heroine, a heart-capturing hero, and a fresh approach—that’s a recipe for a winner.

Meant to Be, Terri Osburn (May 21)
Beth and Joe are both truly honorable people. They don’t merely give lip service to the idea of honor; they make difficult choices based on it. The attraction between them is immediate and powerful, but they refuse to act on it. Integrity is a quality I value in life and in fiction, and these characters have it, in both its meaning, in rich measure.

Once Upon a Tower, Eloisa James (May 28)
No matter what else I love about a romance novel, it can never reach my top tier of favorites if the ending fails to leave me believing that the love of the H/H is the kind that can survive all the blows life will deliver. The ending of OUAT leaves me with this feeling with no reservations. The romantic gesture is perfect, the luscious frosting on the very best cake.

It Happened One Midnight, Julie Anne Long (June 25)
The heroine Tommy makes a distinction between love and romance. She, like the hero Jonathan, has come to understand that love ennobles the giver and renders meaningful small, daily expressions.  It Happened One Midnight is deeply romantic, but even better, it is a heart-shatteringly beautiful love story with a sigh-evoking HEA.

In the Arms of the Heiress, Maggie Robinson (July 2)
Funny, poignant, and sexy, this book has all the charm of a classic screwball comedy with more substance. Charles is a tortured hero, a type that Robinson creates with great skill, but the specifics of his working-class history, the horrific details of his experience in South Africa, and his unique combination of angst and humor make him distinctly individual. Louisa is a darling. I fell for her on the second page.

Why Dukes Say I Do, Manda Collins (July 30)
I think the importance of shared laughter receives too little attention in romance fiction despite a sense of humor often showing up among the ideal qualities readers look for in heroes and heroines. Shortly after they laugh together, Isabella and Ormonde also find out that they can talk to one another. By the end of their first extended conversation, they have shared bits of their pasts and their opinions on a variety of topics—the way people tend to do when they are learning to know one another.  How refreshing to spend time with a hero and heroine who laugh together and engage one another in real conversation.

The Passion of the Purple Plumeria, Lauren Willig (August 6)
I loved that this is a love story between two people over the age of forty, multi-dimensional people who have their share of baggage, who have made their share of mistakes, and who have developed quite effective personae that allow the world to see only what they want seen. I love that their romance is sweet and funny and passionate.

Sometimes a Rogue, Mary Jo Putney (August 27)
I loved these characters, and I loved watching their growth. I loved the complex mix of emotions in this book. I loved the flashes of humor and the poignant moments. I thought Rob was a fascinating character in the other Lost Lords books, and I was not disappointed in his development as the hero here. And I adored Sarah. I said in a recent discussion of heroines that my favorite heroines are those who are strong enough to do what they can do and smart enough to ask for help when they need it, and Sarah is just such a heroine.

Christmas in Snowflake Canyon, RaeAnne Thayne (October 29)
This may be the best contemporary heroine redemption story since Susan Elizabeth Phillips gave the world Sugar Beth. Thayne shows her readers the family forces that have molded Genevieve into the pampered, petulant beauty she appears to be; she shows us that there is something worthwhile in Genevieve. She may be ill-equipped for transformation, but from the moment she has an epiphany that allows her to see herself as “small, selfish, and stupid,” she begins a journey that will bring her, the Hope’s Crossing community, and readers to the understanding that she can be great-hearted, giving, and smart in all the ways that matter most.

No Good Duke Goes Unpunished, Sarah MacLean (November 26)
If someone told me that I’d love a story in which the hero was a suspected murderer and the heroine the woman who framed him, I’d laugh in her/his face. Yet such is the wonder of MacLean’s craft in this book that I not only loved the story but rank No Good Duke Goes Unpunished among the very best romance fiction, not just of this year but of all-time. This is historical romance with characters who captivate with every word they utter and every move they make, a story rich in countless shades of emotions, and prose that makes the reader want to linger over its glorious texture if only she were not compelled to keep turning pages.

No Place for a Dame, Connie Brockway (December 1)
I love the relationship between Giles and Avery. They challenge each other in a way that makes for wonderful dialogue, and it is clear to the reader that this couple enjoys the time they spend together. They make each other laugh, they share interests, and they grow in their understanding of one another. The reader can easily see them growing old together, still finding one another interesting and exciting after decades together. From the opening page to the practically perfect epilogue, I knew I was reading vintage Brockway—smart, emotionally satisfying, and addictive.

How many of these have you read? Are any of them on your best of list?

Next Saturday: The Rest of the Best—Non-Romance Favorites


Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Tuesday Review: Through the Evil Days

Through the Evil Days
By Julia Spencer-Fleming
Publisher: Minotaur Books
Release Date: 
November 5, 2013

It is winter in Miller’s Kill, New York, and newlyweds Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne are finding marriage no less complicated than the other stages of their long and complex relationship. Clare’s pregnancy is creating problems in both her personal and professional life. Russ is not at all happy with his impending fatherhood and the changes it will bring. Clare’s bishop is as unhappy as Russ with the pregnancy. Clare is five months pregnant and three months a wife, making it clear to Clare’s congregation, just in case any of them have doubts, that their priest has been engaging in sex outside the bonds of church-sanctioned marriage. Clare is left in no doubt that her job is in jeopardy. Russ is faring no better. The Millers Kill city council is considering paying the state for police protection and disbanding the town’s police department. Neither Clare nor Russ is ready to talk to the other about the job issues.

This is the situation when Clare and Russ leave town on a belated honeymoon at an isolated lakeside cabin. Just to make things more interesting, a major ice storm is headed toward New York, and the arson case Russ left for others in the department to handle in his absence has turned into a double murder with a missing child involved, a child who is a transplant patient who will die without her immunosuppressant medication.

Hadley Knox and Kevin Flynn, two Miller’s Kill police officers, find it difficult to work together as partners when the sharp edges of their broken relationship make them uncomfortable with one another. And Hadley’s past with all the secrets she thought she had left in California is casting an ominous shadow over her life in Miller’s Kill.

Through the Evil Days is the eighth book in Spencer-Fleming’s Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne mystery series, and she extends her stellar record for weaving a suspenseful tale wrapped in substantive social issues (drug addiction, meth labs, long-suffering parent-troubled adult child relationship in this one) with a central pair relationship of psychological depth and romantic tension. This translates into a mystery compelling enough to appeal to readers who prefer that genre and a romance with enough chemistry and complexities to appeal to dedicated romance readers.

I admit that while I enjoy the mystery element, it is the relationship between Clare and Russ that keeps me eager for the next one. Fans who may have worried that the Clare-Russ pairing would suffer from the Maddie-David (Moonlighting) syndrome can rest assured that the tension between Clare and Russ has lost none of its intensity. Their very different reactions to Clare’s pregnancy are perfectly in character with the people they have revealed themselves to be in earlier books, and kudos to Spencer-Fleming for not dodging the thorny questions and for showing that love far from providing all the answers sometimes just makes the questions weightier.

Hadley and Kevin’s relationship, which has become more intriguing with each book, does not disappoint in this one. In fact, there’s a cliffhanger ending concerning them that left me muttering words my mother would have declared unbefitting a lady. I figure that with all they are facing plus the question of whether the baby will have problems as a result of Clare’s heavy drinking and use of prescription drugs during the first trimester, the lifestyle changes an infant will bring to two people with demanding professions, and how Russ, whose identity is so entangled with who he is as police chief, will deal with the continuing threat to his job, this series is far from finished. That assurance makes me very happy.

If you are a fan of Julia Spencer-Fleming, you’ve probably already read this book. If you are a mystery reader who has yet to discover this series, I urge you to rush to your nearest book outlet and remedy that lack immediately. She is superlative! You can start with Through the Evil Days, but I strongly recommend the full series. If you are a romance reader who never reads mysteries, this series is one that will convince you that some mysteries are written for romance readers too. I give Through the Evil Days my highest recommendation.

Are you a mystery reader? What are your favorites? How do you feel about cliffhanger endings?

Saturday, December 7, 2013

The List of Lists: The Best Romance Novels of 2013 According to . . .

We’ve made it through the first week of December, and most of the annual lists of the best romance novels of 2013 have been announced by their compilers and analyzed by romance readers who have celebrated the inclusion of their favorites and decried the presence of novels they disliked or of which they have never heard. Some of us have even found books to add to our mountain—or mountain range—of to-be-read books. I admit that I love lists of books, and I have fun checking them to see how many I have read and how closely the compilers reflect my views. The results of this year’s lists gave me reason to conclude that some romance experts are clearly persons of intelligence, discernment, and commendable taste while others are at the least less impressive. 

I must say I liked Amazon’s list. I have read ten of the twenty books on the list, with Nora’s most recent on my Kindle waiting to be read, and I know people who have read those that I haven’t read. Although I loved both Kristan Higgins’s The Best Man and Julie James’s Love Irresistibly and thought The Rosie Project was delightful, in this year when I have seen the death of historical romance regretted and celebrated, I was particularly pleased to see five historical romances on the list. Each of the four I’ve read—No Good Duke Goes Unpunished by Sarah MacLean, Any Duchess Will Do by Tessa Dare, Once Upon a Tower by Eloisa James, and The Heiress Effect by Courtney Milan—is a gem.

Booklist always opens the best books season. This list was announced in mid-September. It’s always an interesting list, and a varied one that usually gives me some books to add to my check-these-out list. This year it sent me to download Jen Turano’s charming historical, A Most Peculiar Circumstance with its suffragette heroine and chauvinist hero (and Turano’s other books). I overlooked that this list included one of my major-fails of the year because they gave historical romance so much love, including some for Tessa Dare and Sarah MacLean, both popular choices on this year’s lists. And I was very pleased to see Lisa Wingate’s The Prayer Box on the list.

I can’t say much about the Goodreads list since I haven’t read a single one of the twenty on the list. In fact, I have never even heard of most of them. The list shows no love for historical romance or for the contemporary romances that I read. Clearly these readers and I inhabit different spheres within the romance-reading universe.

My reaction to the Kirkus list was just the opposite. I loved this list! There are only six books on it, but I read and enjoyed each one. Jayne Anne Krentz’s Dream Eyes is included; it’s another book that made several lists. I not only applaud its inclusion because it’s a great read but because it’s wonderful to see an author whose books have brought me much pleasure over three decades still winning accolades. I also cheered to see a new author, Juliana Gray, represented with A Duke Never Yields. I thought her entire Affairs by Moonlight series was terrific. And wild applause erupted when I say Susan Wiggs’s The Apple Orchard on the list, a book I though got much less attention than it deserved. It, along with Kirkus’s other choices—Kristan Higgins’s The Best Man, Sarah MacLean’s No Good Duke Goes Unpunished, and Sherry Thomas’s The Luckiest Lady in London—also earned a spot on other lists. 


Library Journal merits special recognition because they published two best romances of 2013 lists—oner traditionally published books and one for eBooks. Although Ruthie Knox’s books are the only ones I’ve read from the second list, I was still pleased to see eBooks and romance get this recognition. LJ’s standard list shows excellent taste. :) I have read nine of the ten books on the list, which includes six historical romances—Mary Balogh’s The Arrangement, Connie Brockway’s No Place for a Dame, Tessa Dare’s Any Duchess Will Do, Anne Gracie’s The Autumn Bride, Sarah MacLean’s One Good Earl Deserves a Lover, and Sherry Thomas’s The Luckiest Lady in London, all books I loved. All but the Balogh appear on others lists as well.  The contemporaries from three of my auto-buy authors that made the list—Robyn Carr’s The Wanderer, Kristan Higgins’s The Best Man, and Brenda Novak’s Take Me Home for Christmas—also received high ratings from me. I’m sure the only one I haven’t read, Heart of Iron, a steampunk romance by Bec McMaster, is just as deserving of a “best” label as the others.

The list from Publishers Weekly is another that contains few books that I’ve read, but I certainly concur that The Typewriter Girl, the debut novel of Alison Atlee, and A Hero to Come Home To, the first novel in the Tallgrass series from Marilyn Pappano, a long-time favorite of romance readers, are among the year’s best (although I consider The Typewriter Girl as a novel with a strong romantic element rather than a romance). But I can’t help wondering why PW recognized only six romances but twelve mysteries.

I saved my favorite for last (and thus am ruining my alphabetical order presentation), and it’s not really a conventional list. NPR rather than creating a best of list presented a bountiful bouquet of books their staff and critics loved this year. The site is a joy for any book lover to explore with genre fiction and literary fiction, novels and biographies, collections of poems and explorations of social issues all rubbing shoulders with one another and inviting the attention of curious readers. I greeted the appearance of books I loved with delight and made notes like mad of books I missed and am now eager to read, books like Chasing Utopia, a collection of poems and essays by the glorious Nikki Giovanni, and A. Scott Berg’s political biography Wilson.

Readers can also search by category, one of which is love stories. We know, of course, that love stories and romances are not synonymous since the former does not require an “optimistic ending,” but the love story category includes some romances that deserve the recognition. Most of the romances are repeats from other lists: The Autumn Bride by Anne Gracie, A Duke Never Yields by Juliana Gray, The Best Man by Kristan Higgins, Dream Eyes by Jayne Ann Krentz, One Good Earl Deserves a Lover by Sarah MacLean, The Luckiest Lady in London by Sherry Thomas, and The Apple Orchard by Susan Wiggs. And it also includes Crazy Thing Called Love by Molly O’Keefe, a best book in any year in my opinion.  Love Stories also includes non-romance books I loved like I’ll Be Seeing You, a WW II women’s fiction novel with an epistolary element by Suzanne Hayes and Loretta Nyhan and Eleanor & Park, a YA book by Rainbow Rowell that I highly recommend even if you don’t usually read YA.

Then there is my own list, but that is next Saturday’s post.

Are you a list lover? Do you compile your own best of list? What book do you think the compilers of these lists were wrong in failing to include?

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Bonus Review: Kisses, She Wrote

Kisses, She Wrote
By Katharine Ashe
Publisher: Avon
Release Date: 
December 3, 2013

Charles Camlann Westfall, the Earl of Bedwyr copes with a painful past by living life on the surface. Incredibly handsome, with more than his fair share of charm, he has found this strategy a viable way of life as he moves lightly through ballrooms and gambling dens and through the hearts and bedrooms of willing widows and dissatisfied wives. Only a few close friends realize that there is more to Cam than the witty charmer the ton knows. For a variety of reasons, Cam finds it convenient to make an extended stay at the Brittany chateau that belongs to his cousin Luc, the Comte de Rallis. Life is much quieter there than in Cam’s usual haunts such as London and Paris. It is restlessness that sets him looking for a deck of cards. Instead, he finds a diary belonging to Jacqueline, Princess of Sensaire. He can’t resist reading a few pages, and once he begins, forgetting all notions of honor, he continues, uncomfortable and intrigued to discover that he figures prominently in the princess’s thoughts.

Jacqueline may be a princess by birth, but she has little in common with princesses of fairy tale fame. She is plain of face rather than beautiful and straight in body lines rather than curvy. Shy and bookish, she also lacks the social skills expected of a princess. There is no villainous stepmother in her life, just a determined mother who has always found Jacqueline less than satisfactory as a daughter and a princess. Jacqueline knows that regardless of her lack of feminine allure and accomplishments, she will soon be wed to an English lord of her brother’s choosing. Reiner loves his sister, and Jacqueline is confident that he will choose a kind husband for her, but he also expects the alliance to be one that will benefit Sensaire. And he has warned Jacqueline that while the Earl of Bedwyr may be a friend of the Prince of Sensaire, he is not husband material for the princess. But Cam, who is her opposite in every way, captures Jacqueline’s heart and imagination. He may have no place in her life, but he has a central role in her fantasies, the ones she records in her diary.

As Cam becomes more and more captivated by Jacqueline’s diary, he makes a point of getting to know Jacqueline the woman and comes to appreciate her intelligence and her honesty. A friendship of sorts develops between the two. When the Brittany party moves to London, Cam finds himself seeking out both Jacqueline and her diary, which is growing more and more filled with sensual details of her fantasies. Jacqueline’s fantasies feed Cam’s own, and they inspire him to capture the story in verse form. Meanwhile, his great-aunt offers him the one thing from his past that he associates with happiness. All he has to do to claim it as his own is marry the coldly proper beauty that his aunt has chosen for him. Separate paths are clearly marked for Cam and Jacqueline, but their fascination and understanding of one another deepens with every encounter. Is the shared world their imaginations create for them individually strong enough to withstand the expectations of reason and reality?

This is a near perfect novella. Part of Ashe’s Prince Catchers series, it can be read as a standalone but will be especially appreciated by readers who liked Cam and Jacqueline in I Married the Duke. Novellas can seem padded as if an author is stretching a slim story to fit the form. I find more often, the story seems too large for the form, leaving the reader, no matter how engaging the characters, longing for more chapters to give a satisfying conclusion. Ashe avoids both these traps. Her novella feels fully developed, and it offers readers a wonderful, sigh-worthy conclusion. Even the title and the cover fit!

Kisses, She Wrote is also a deeply romantic story. I loved the use Ashe makes of the diary and the fact that the seductive hero, who is articulate and graceful in speech, is himself seduced by the power of the written words of the heroine, who can find speech awkward. And I loved that the thread involving the power of the written word is introduced in the beginning and runs through to the end.

I’m adding this to my list of favorite novellas. If you are looking for a quick read with a Christmas setting that features likeable, interesting characters and a sweet, sensual romance with a different twist, you can’t do better than this one. I highly recommend it.

I was thrilled when Cam was revealed as a poet. I’ve known some sexy poets, and I think it’s only just that one gets his day in romance fiction’s hero spotlight. How do you feel about poets as heroes?

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Tuesday Review: Delicious

By Adrianne Lee
Publisher: Forever
Release Date: 
December 3, 2013

Jane Wilson loves her job as a pastry chef creating her mouth-watering pies at Molly McCoy’s Big Sky Pie shop, but her personal life is less satisfactory. It’s bad enough that her mother, Rebel, who has made getting married an avocation, is planning to get married again, but it’s even worse that the groom is recycled. How can Rebel even consider remarrying Romeo Taziano, husband #2, the auto mechanic who broke her heart and the man Jane holds responsible for breaking up her parents’ marriage. If Jane never sees Romeo and his son, the devilish Nick, again, she will be happy.

Nick Taziano arrives back at his home in Kalispell, Montana, hoping that his advertising business won’t require him to make another road trip soon. He’s pleased when his father phones with the news that Romeo has retired from his lucrative business in Las Vegas and will again be sharing a zip code with his son. But Nick is alarmed when he learns that his father is planning to remarry the bitch who broke his heart. Nick has nothing but bad memories of Rebel and her bratty daughter, Jane the Pain.

Just when Jane thinks things can’t get worse, Nick Taziano seems bent in infiltrating her life. He’s at her mother’s party giving her an unforgettable kiss, and it turns out he is her boss Quint McCoy’s best friend. Quint has hired him to plan an advertising blitz for the pie shop, and Nick is determined that Jane, who may still be a Pain but who is certainly not plain, be the center of the ad campaign—the angel who bakes the heavenly pies. Jane is still persuaded that Nick is the next thing to the devil incarnate. If only he were not so attractive . . . If only she could keep her heart and libido under control . . .  

The second book in Lee’s Big Sky Pie series is a mildly entertaining, light-weight novel with lots of heavy breathing—some of it sighs of disgust over the heroine and hero’s shared past of mutual dislike and step-sibling antagonism and more of it over the instant lust they evoke in one another. Nick has a certain roguish appeal, and he shows signs of being mature enough to move beyond the past. I confess that I grew impatient with Jane whom I found much less appealing in her starring role than in her secondary role in the first book in the series.

Overall, I found Delicious less satisfying than its predecessor Delectable, which was sweet and sexy with some engaging humor. Next up, on March 4, is Delightful, the story of Andrea Lovette, a single mother and manager of Big Sky Pie, and Ice Erikksen, the producer of the new Big Sky Pie reality show. I have liked Andrea in the first two books, so I have high hopes for the third book. 

Have you ever liked a character in a secondary role, but been disappointed by the character in a lead role?

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Saturday Review: Two Heartwarming Holiday Tales from Harlequin

A Cold Creek Christmas Surprise
By RaeAnne Thayne
Harlequin (Special Edition)
Release Date: 
November 19, 2013

The day after his only sister’s wedding to veterinarian Ben Caldwell, Ridge, the eldest Bowman sibling, is left with the detritus of the wedding and the empty space, literal and figurative, in his life now that Caidy will be living with her new husband and his two children. Ridge knows that he and his eleven-year-old daughter, Destry, will adjust. Perhaps he has depended on Caidy too much all these years since he was left alone with a baby to rear and Caidy stepped in to help. Eating wedding reception leftovers for breakfast certainly makes him realize how much he will miss the pancakes, bacon, and hash browns that Caidy cooked in the mornings. But he has too much work to do to get caught up in reflection. If only the clean-up crew he hired would show up to do their job, he could get started on his job. When the crew of one does arrive, however, the sight of her sparks an attraction that sends Ridge running scared.

First-grade teacher Sarah Whitmore is not happy about her journey to the Bowman ranch, but she has something that belongs to the Bowman family, one of their mother’s paintings, a particularly treasured one It’s not Sarah’s fault that Ridge Bowman jumps to the conclusion that she is employed by the cleaning company Caidy has hired, and he doesn’t really give Sarah an opportunity to explain before he disappears. Still, she didn’t have to start cleaning. If she hadn’t, she would not have tripped on the stairs and ended up with a concussion and a broken arm. Then Ridge would not have insisted that she recuperate at the ranch, and Sarah would never have fallen in love with Ridge, with his daughter, and with ranch life and the whole Bowman family and the Pine Gulch community. Ridge and his world offer everything Sarah has ever wanted, but the secret she is keeping means that she can never really belong in this world. Perhaps she can have Christmas, but only if she hides the truth a little longer.

A Cold Creek Christmas Surprise is book 12 in RaeAnne Thayne’s Cowboys of Cold Creek series that was introduced in April 2006. It also marks the conclusion of the four Bowman siblings’ stories (following Christmas in Cold Creek, A Cold Creek Reunion, and A Cold Creek Noel) and provides the resolution to the mystery of their parents’ murder. Fans of the series will be happy to see Ridge finally get his HEA—even if it does come with complications. For those new to the series, Thayne provides ample details to follow Sarah and Ridge’s story. And these two wounded, great-hearted people deserve happiness. It’s easy to root for them to overcome the one barrier that could keep them apart. This shorter tale lacks the substance of Thayne’s single titles, but it is a sweet, cozy Christmas read nonetheless.

Sugarplum Homecoming
By Linda Goodnight
Harlequin (Love Inspired)
Release Date: 
November 19, 2013

Paige Turner, almost ten, and her eight-year-old brother Nathan know the legend of their hometown Whisper Falls, Arkansas: prayers whispered behind the falls are always answered. They have a really important request of God, so when their widower dad falls asleep on a family picnic, they take the challenging climb to the special spot and ask God to send them a new mom, one with brown hair like their first mom, and preferably by Christmas.

Lana Ross left Whisper Falls, back when the town was still Millersville and before the legend brought a name change and crowds of tourists. An eighteen-year-old party girl the small town expected to come to a bad end, she had dreams of hitting it big as a country singer and headed for Nashville as soon as she could legally leave home. Thirteen years later, she has returned to the house where she and her twin sister Tess grew up, a house haunted by memories darker than the haunted house tales the local kids tell to frighten themselves. The house her mother left to Lana and Tess is one of the reasons Lana has returned. Owning the house gives her a head start on giving nine-year-old Sydney the stable life she needs and deserves.

But memories are long in small towns. Lana knows that God has forgiven her mistakes, but she also knows human creatures are not so merciful. Some people don’t believe in second chances, and Lana has secrets to protect. Davis Turner proves himself a good neighbor, but Lana’s fears, Davis’s pride, and the relentless prejudices of some Whisper Falls residents threaten the new relationship that is developing between the two. Lana and Davis both must discover that God is bigger than all their fears and flaws before they can claim the happiness waiting for them

This is a tender story, the third in Goodnight’s Whisper Fall series, all of which center on the theme of a new life after an old one filled with bad choices. It is a Love Inspired book, so the Christian faith of the characters is central to their experience and to the story. But the story of a woman who turns her life around and the “Mr. Upright and Righteous” who discovers how far short he falls of his own standards is one that will touch hearts of readers regardless of whether they share that faith. The three kids are endearing without being unbearably cute and precocious, and the town is a believable mix of good people, small-minded people, and people who are a contradictory mix of the admirable and the deplorable.

I think have two more holiday reviews to write for this year. What is your favorite Christmas book of 2013?

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Tuesday Review: No Place for a Dame

No Place for a Dame
By Connie Brockway
Publisher: Montlake
Release Date: 
December 1, 2013

Giles Dalton, the Marquis of Strand, has returned to Killylea, his home in Cornwall, with a prospective bride and father-in-law in tow. He has no illusions about the integrity of either, but he has accepted the marriage, thinking that at least it will provide the necessary heir. He finds himself wondering what his sophisticated, mercenary bride-to-be will think of his father’s protégée, Avery Quinn, for whom Giles has inherited responsibility.  Giles knows Avery is a genius, but even so he is unprepared for her plan to rid him and Killylea of his unworthy fiancée. When Avery makes her appearance in disguise, the fiancée, who is repulsed by anyone who lacks the appearance of normality, can’t quit Giles and Killylea fast enough.

Avery Quinn is the daughter of the former gamekeeper at Killylea. Educated according to her phenomenal intelligence and far beyond her station, as payment for her father’s saving the life of the old marquess, Avery has become a woman without a neat label that boxes her into an easy classification. The class into which she was born mandates an unbridgeable social gap between her and the world to which Giles belongs. Her knowledge and interests create a gap perhaps even greater between her and the world of her birth. Giles accepts his father’s command that he look after Avery, but Avery yearns to be independent. She has a plan that will fulfill one of her dreams as a scientist and provide her with the means to continue her research independent of support from Giles. The only catch is that the annual Hipparchus medal and attendant monetary award granted by the Royal Astrological society is given to the man who makes “the most significant contribution to astronomical study in the preceding year.”

Avery believes that the favor she has done Giles in ridding him of his unsuitable bride deserves a favor in return. The favor she asks is that he support her masquerade as a man so that she can gain membership into the astrological society. She is confident that once she is a member and able to submit her research concerning her discovery of a new comet that her work will earn the award on its own merits.

Giles has his doubts that the curvaceous Avery will be able to persuade anyone that she is a male, but he agrees to her daring scheme. He has his own reasons for being in London since his friend Jack Seward and Jack’s wife Anne have disappeared. Giles fears for their safety and is prepared to use all the contacts he developed during his years as an agent for a covert government organization to discover what happened to them. He tries with varying degrees of success to juggle keeping an eye on Avery with his search for the Sewards, but Avery can’t seem to abide by his rules for the unobtrusive, plump, pigeon-shaped Mr. Avery Quinn, boy genius. Giles has trouble following his own rules concerning the exasperating, brilliant, all too tempting Avery, who is busily uncovering Giles’s secrets and laying claim to his elusive heart.

I’ve been waiting for Giles’s story since I first read All Through the Night (Jack and Anne’s story) in 1997. (I read Promise Me Heaven, the book in which Giles is introduced, later.) No Place for a Dame was worth the sixteen-year wait. Even as a long-time Brockway fan, I was amazed by her ability to make this an audacious romp, a chick-in-pants tale that is original and captivating enough to rank with Georgette Heyer’s The Masqueraders as among the very best such stories, while at the same time allowing Giles to retain something of the dark edge he needed to stay true to his character.

I love No Place for a Dame! I love the relationship between Giles and Avery. The conversations between them are a delight. They challenge each other in a way that makes for wonderful dialogue, and it is clear to the reader that this couple enjoys the time they spend together. They make each other laugh, they share interests, and they grow in their understanding of one another. The reader can easily see them growing old together, still finding one another interesting and exciting after decades together.

One of my favorite scenes is the runaway curricle. Not only is it a marvelously funny scene, but it also serves a purpose beyond amusing the reader. Brockway uses it to reveal important things about Avery and Giles and to show how their relationship is changing. That’s great writing, my friends.  But that is what I expect from a Connie Brockway book. From the opening page to the practically perfect epilogue, I knew I was reading vintage Brockway—smart, emotionally satisfying, and addictive. By the time I finished, I knew I wanted to read this book again—and soon.

You don’t have to have been waiting sixteen years for Giles’s story to love this book. I think you will find that it is a gem to cherish whether it is your first encounter with Giles Dalton, the Marquis of Strand, or even your first book by Connie Brockway. I highly recommend that you grab a copy of No Place for a Dame ASAP. And I know some of you are going to be so hooked that you want to read Promise Me Heaven and All Through the Night as well. Lucky for you, Montlake recently reissued them both.

And if you are interested in more Connie Brockway recommendations, I have a list.

Sometime a highly anticipated book fails to meet expectations; sometimes they exceed them. What’s the last book you read that left you thinking that the book was even better than your highest expectations?

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Saturday Review: Lost in a Royal Kiss

Lost in a Royal Kiss
By Vanessa Kelly
Publisher: Zebra
Release Date: 
November 26, 2013

Linnet St. Clare may look like an angel, but there is nothing angelic about her temper or her determination. She has had to be strong. When her father’s death meant her mother’s accepting a position as sub-governess in the royal household, Linnet assumed responsibility for her younger brother and sister. Linnet’s mother may be gently pushing her towards marriage, but Linnet herself has accepted that she is destined for spinsterhood because she can’t leave her siblings. So fierce has she become in her role as caretaker and protector that she frightens off prospective suitors. What Linnet doesn’t yet know is that one man refuses to be frightened off. Indeed, he has decided Linnet is exactly whom he wants as his wife.

As King George’s liaison to the Home Office, Sir Anthony Tait is a powerful man at Court. He is a man accustomed to seeing his plans reach fruition, and no plan is more important to him than making Linnet his wife. Linnet’s independence and competence that make others look askance just make Sir Anthony all the more certain she is the one for him. If gaining her hand requires subterfuge, he is persuaded that his and Linnet’s happiness will be worth the unusual exercise of his skills.

Linnet is comfortable taking charge, but when Dominic Hunter, the orphaned son of a butcher who has been reared with the royal princes due to the queen’s misguided efforts at a social experiment, attacks Prince Ernest, Linnet knows she must have help to protect young Dominic from the consequences of his folly. She turns to Sir Anthony for help because she trusts his integrity and compassion, she knows he will understand Dominic’s isolation, and she believes he has the power to act.

As Linnet and Sir Anthony work together to solve the problems of Dominic and others, they must balance the call on their consciences with the need for pragmatism and avoiding offense to the royal family. Can they find the time to respond to the call of their own hearts in the midst of their maneuvering for the good of others?

Lost in a Royal Kiss is a prequel to Vanessa Kelly’s new series The Renegade Royals. Set in 1786, a quarter century before the Regency, it introduces fourteen-year-old Dominic Hunter and the events that shaped him into the man readers will encounter in the first two books of the series. It also gives readers a delightful Georgian love story. Linnet is an endearing heroine—strong without becoming a modern miss in costume, caring, and stubborn with a willingness to sacrifice for what she considers the right thing. Anthony is a man at ease with his power but uncorrupted by it. He understands himself, and he understands Linnet. One of the things I liked best about the story is that both Linnet and Anthony understand the other better than anyone realizes.
Because the two are so tied to court life, readers get an unusually close look at the privileges and precariousness of those who are part of court circles. It is a different setting and one I really enjoyed.

A good prequel should give the reader an engaging story on its own merits and whet the reader’s appetite for the larger story. Lost in a Royal Kiss succeeds on both counts. I give the novella high marks, and I eagerly await the Regency-set historicals Secrets of a Royal Bodyguard (January 7, 2014) and Confessions of a Royal Bridegroom (April 1, 2014).

I’ve been a fan of Georgian romances since I read Georgette Heyer’s These Old Shades. I have since read and loved Georgians by Patricia Veryan, Jo Beverley, Eloisa James, and Elizabeth Hoyt among others. What’s your favorite Georgian romance?