Saturday, August 31, 2013

Saturday Review: The Next Best Thing

The Next Best Thing
By Kristan Higgins
Publisher: Harlequin HQN
Release Date: August 27, 2013
(reissue of February 2010 release)

Lucy Lang is the youngest widow in a family in which being widowed young has become a family tradition. Her grandmother was widowed young, and her mother and two aunts, Rose and Iris, are known in Mackerly, Rhode Island, as the Black Widows, a nickname that plays on their maiden name (Hungarian Fekete translated into English as Black) and references the fact that they were all widowed before they turned fifty. Lucy’s husband, Jimmy Mirabelli, died in an automobile accident before they celebrated their first anniversary. More than five years later, Lucy still has not really moved on with her life. She has the training and the talent to make her one-time dream of becoming an award-winning pastry chef a reality, but she has given up that dream to become the bread expert in Bunny’s, the family bakery where her mother and aunts work. She creates desserts for classes she teaches and for friends and family, but she can’t eat them herself because they taste like ashes.

Ethan Mirabelli is the younger brother of Jimmy. He and Lucy are long-time friends. In fact, it was he who introduced Lucy to Jimmy. In the months following Jimmy’s death, Ethan was her rock, the only one who seemed to understand the intensity of Lucy’s grief. A couple of years earlier, the friendship that had sustained Lucy through her most difficult days added another dimension. Lucy and Ethan became lovers. She trusts Ethan to understand that their friendship with benefits doesn’t change her feelings for Jimmy. In fact, it doesn’t even slow down the frequency of her re-viewing her wedding video or enable her to visit Jimmy’s grave. Ethan, who has been in love with Lucy forever, is endlessly patient and nurturing, trusting that in time Lucy will let go of her grief and realize what the two of them share.

When Lucy’s younger sister Corinne gives birth to a daughter, Lucy is made aware of how much she longs for children of her own. So great is this longing that Lucy decides she will reject the family pattern of remaining a widow and look for a second husband. Her primary criterion is that he be a nice guy for whom she will feel a tepid affection but who will not inspire the kind of all-encompassing love that she felt for Jimmy. Such a relationship will provide a father for her children but will not affect Jimmy’s status as her One True Love or put her heart at risk for another shattering. Her new plan requited that she end the benefits stage of her friendship with Ethan, but she is unprepared for how great the loss will be when Ethan accepts her decision by distancing himself from her or for how troubling she finds the idea of Ethan with another woman.

Like all of Kristan Higgins’s books, The Next Best Thing is eminently readable with characters who are believable and generally likeable, family dynamics that are charged with loyalties, friction, twists, and quirks, and humor balanced with some darker emotions. The ethnic references to Lucy’s Hungarian ancestry and to the Mirabelli’s Italian heritage add color and seasoning to the mix. Her trademark animal companion plays a less prominent role than is sometimes the case, but Fat Mickey, the curmudgeonly cat who was a gift to Lucy from Ethan, will surely have his admirers. Lucy’s desserts are so scrumptious that I’m persuaded the descriptions alone sent my scale edging up several pounds.

Despite all these reasons for liking The Next Best Thing, it is still not one of my favorites among Kristan Higgins books. I reread it with the hope that returning to it after seeing Lucy and Ethan’s HEA in process in the second Mackerly book, Somebody to Love (2012), would give me a greater appreciation for it. It didn’t. Lucy still impresses me as neurotic, her epiphany about Ethan’s role in her life still seems too late, and I still worry that Ethan deserves more. I remain an ardent Kristan Higgins fan, but I will reserve my unreserved raves for other Higgins books. Stay tuned for bells and balloons when I review her October release, The Perfect Match, in a few weeks.

Are you ever disappointed in a book from a favorite author? I make a distinction between a disappointing book, one in which I see clear strengths but that still fails to reach the standard I expect from the author, and a book that is either a failure or a Did Not Finish. Do you make such a distinction?

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Tuesday Review: A Most Devilish Rogue

A Most Devilish Rogue
By Ashlyn Macnamara
Publisher: Random House/Ballantine
Release Date: August 27, 2013

 George Upperton gives every evidence of being a typical, bored, self-indulgent young aristocrat. He wastes his time and substance drinking and gambling and paying the bills of his extravagant mistress. When his luck turns, it does so with a vengeance. Gambling debts are accumulating beyond his means to meet them, and his mistress announces that she is pregnant. Her brother appears to enforce her exorbitant demands with his fists. When his mother presses him to attend a house party where she plans to introduce him to eligible young women, George agrees, hoping to win enough money in high stakes card games to meet his debts, pay off his mistress and provide for the child, and pay the debts and provide for the family of a friend who committed suicide. It is the last purpose that suggests there may be more to George than appearances indicate.

Isabelle Mears and her young son Jack live in the village near the country estate of George’s friend Benedict Revelstoke (A Most Scandalous Proposal). The daughter of a duke, Isabelle was seduced and abandoned by a rake and cast out by her family when they discovered she was pregnant. Only the hospitality and friendship of a servant Biggles, a healer and herbalist, save her from prostitution. Isabelle is tolerated by the villagers as she helps Biggles prepare and dispense her cures and rears Jack.

George and Isabelle meet when George escapes the house party for a stroll on the beach just as young Jack, a mischievous six-year-old, is caught by a wave and in danger of drowning. George rescues young Jack, but he is surprised when Isabelle responds to the rescue with a mix of gratitude and hostility. She is understandably wary of charming strangers, regardless of how helpful or attractive they are, and George knows that however beautiful the boy’s mother may be, she is a complication he does not need.

The relationship might have ended there had Jack not been kidnapped and a desperate Isabelle approached Revelstoke’s manor house for help. Despite a humiliating scene when one of the guests exposes Isabelle’s shame, George and others commit to searching for Jack. The next day Biggles also disappears. George is Isabelle’s only support during the difficult days that follow with no trace of Jack. The spark of attraction that was between them from their first meeting grows and deepens as they spend time together. But George can’t ignore his other responsibilities, and Isabelle’s pride is an obstacle as great.

Both George and Isabelle are promising characters. I found it refreshing that George is an untitled gentleman, and his suppressed love for music added another interesting dimension to his character. Isabelle’s status as a single mother whose past is common knowledge makes her an unusual heroine, and her years surviving in a world far different than the one into which she was born demonstrate her strength and tenacity. The kidnapping plot was a credible way of placing them in one another’s company and creating an opportunity for intimacy. But I was bothered when character development and the fate of young Jack and Biggles, the only friend Isabelle has had since she was disowned by her family, became mere background for sizzling scenes between George and Isabelle. The Most Devilish Rogue is not a bad book, but for me it is a disappointing one.

Kidnapping plots are common in romance fiction. Sometimes they work wonderfully well, and sometimes they are too clearly contrived. Do you like kidnapping plot? What romance authors have used it most effectively?

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Romance Matters to Me

August is Read-a-Romance Month. Now I know as dedicated romance readers, we typically read more than one romance a month. In fact, many of us read more than one romance a week. But Read-a-Romance Month is not about numbers. It’s about celebrating a genre that is read by nearly 75 million people—and that statistic is from 2008. The audience for romance fiction may have grown in the past five years. Romance fiction topped $1.4 billion in sales last year, far more than the other most popular categories of genre fiction: mystery ($728.2) and science fiction/fantasy ($590.2). And although the literary elitists don’t want to admit it, sales of romance fiction help to fund the publication of literary fiction. I haven’t seen any statistics on this, but based on my reading habits and those of other romance readers I know, my guess is that a nice chunk of the sales in literary fiction and other genre fiction comes from the wallets of romance readers who, being generally more broadminded than their critics, also read mystery, science fiction/fantasy, and even literary fiction.

Bobbi Dumas, a freelance writer, Kirkus reviewer, and avid fan of romance fiction, founded where this month 93 writers are sharing their thoughts on why romance matters. I’ve checked out their comments every day so far. Some of them have made me laugh, some of them have made me cry, some of them have made me cheer wildly, some of them have left me amazed at their insight, and all of them have made me proud to be part of a community that includes so many gifted, intelligent, gracious women. There are writers on the list whose books I’ve been reading for nearly three decades, writers that I’ve discovered only recently, and writers whose books I’ve yet to read, but I’m grateful to them all and to Bobbi for giving me the opportunity to read what they have to say.

If you haven’t visited, eight days remain for you to stop by, leave a comment, and enter the great contests.  Cathy Maxwell, Jill Barnett, and Molly O’Keefe, three writers who have given me many hours of reading pleasure, are on the schedule for today, and you can click on the names of those who commented on any one of the 23 previous days and read their comments. I can guarantee you will find some of your favorite writers there.

I’ve been a romance reader for more than half a century, and I can look back and see that it has mattered during all the seasons of my life. It mattered when I was a ten-year-old, bored and complaining, and my mother put Pride and Prejudice in one hand and an Emilie Loring novel in the other and said “Read these.”  It mattered when I was fifteen, insecure, suffering from unrequited love, and convinced that only beautiful girls found True Love, and Jane Eyre reminded me that plain girls did too. It mattered when I was twenty-two and my life was shattered and “happy ending” seemed a cruel mockery, and Mary Stewart took me to Corfu and helped me believe again. It mattered when I was in grad school and Old English had me ready to pull my hair out and counting performances of a Colley Cibber play left me loathing the 18th century until Patricia Veryan’s Golden Chronicles showed me an 18th century filled with danger, intrigue, and passion. It mattered both times I spent endless hours in a hospice facility watching a beloved parent die by degrees and novels by writers such as Mary Balogh, Jo Beverley, Mary Jo Putney, Christina Dodd, Nora Roberts, Kathleen Gilles Seidel helped me escape to worlds where HEAs were assured and return to my own stronger. It matters today when the novels I read by several dozen autobuy authors make me laugh and cry and fall in love every day.

When I was still in academia and a covert reader of romance, a colleague caught me reading a romance novel on my lunch break and sneered, “You know those books will rot your brain.” He was wrong, of course. A couple of thousand romance novels later, my brain is doing fine, in no small part due to the things I learn and the hope that is replenished from reading “those books.”

Being part of Read-A-Romance Month is one way we as readers can say, “Yes, romance matters to me.”  Why does romance matter to you?

Note: All statistics cited are from the Romance Writers of America site.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Bonus Review: It Takes Two to Tangle

It Takes Two to Tangle
By Theresa Romain
Sourcebooks Casablanca
Release Date: 
September 3, 2013

Henry Middlebrook has returned from the Napoleonic War a changed man, externally and internally. The most obvious change is that he has lost the use of his right hand, a devastating loss to an artist. His attempts at painting with his left hand have been less than stellar, and his frustration at daily adding to the list of things he can no longer do gracefully such as present flowers to a lady or write a response to a letter is mounting daily. Worst of all, Henry no longer feels at ease in the society that he left behind when, over the objections of his older brother, the Earl of Tallant, he became a soldier three years ago.

His brother and sister-in-law are persuaded that a wife is just what Henry needs to ease his adjustment back into tonnish activities, and on this issue at least, Henry is in total agreement. When he meets Caroline, Countess of Stratton, a beauty who has taken England by storm since her own return to London after the death of her elderly husband, he decides she will be the perfect wife. Given the number of gentleman in Caroline’s court, he enlists the help of her companion, Frances Whittier, a woman whose honesty presents a marked contrast to the mannered moves of most other guests.

Upon the urging of his sister in-law, Henry makes the acquaintance of Caroline, Lady Stratton, a widow and one of the most sought-after catches of the season. One look at Caroline and Henry knows that he needs Caroline: he needs her confidence, connections and, most especially, her popularity. Seeing the competition for Caroline's attention, Henry employs the assistance of Caroline's companion, Frances Whittier, a woman of wit and acumen in whose company he feels surprisingly at ease.

Frances Whittier, daughter of a baronet and six years a widow herself, has accustomed herself to blending into the background as companion to her cousin, the beautiful Caroline. The handsome Mr. Middlebrook wins her interest and her sympathy when they meet, and she agrees to aid him in his courtship of the popular Caroline. When Henry’s first visit to Caroline ends awkwardly, she sends him an encouraging letter that he concludes was penned by Caroline. He asks for Frances’s help in writing a response, and Frances, conscious that correcting his error would embarrass both of them, chooses not to correct his error. As the exchange of letters continues, complications ensue, Henry, whose focus on Caroline is fixed, is slow to realize that it is Frances who is his perfect match.

It Takes Two to Tangle is the first book in Romain's Matchmaker Trilogy. It is a promising start to the series. Henry’s heroism, both in the late war and in his attempt to rebuild his life, evokes ready sympathy. I also found his relationship with his brother and sister-in-law interesting. Their affection and concern for him rang true, as did their inability to fully understand the changes that had taken place within him and their inability to ease his way back into the world. But it is Frances, the more complex character, who wins this reader’s greater allegiance. Her intelligence, her ability to understand those around her, and the past that has shaped her make her an appealing, layered character.

She was always out of step. She had grown up in wealth but married a workingman. Now she served as a companion, yet she raised her eyes to the son of an earl. She did not know for which world she was better suited. At times, both lives chafed, as though she lived in a garment cut wrongly and fitted for another's body.

Romance readers who know Romain through her Christmas romances, Season for Temptation and Season for Surrender (with Season for Scandal scheduled to be released October 1) will find the same charm and blend of humor and darker elements in this book. If you haven’t discovered Romain yet, this first book in a new series is an excellent way to remedy that omission. The second book in the Matchmakers series, To Charm a Naughty Countess, will be released in May 2014. Romain describes it as a marriage-in-trouble romance, one of my favorite tropes. I’m hooked already.

Correction: Ms. Romain tells me that Season for Scandal is the marriage in trouble story. To Charm a Naughty Countess is a take on Pygmalion with a virgin hero. I'm sure I'm not the only one who thinks that sounds like a story I don't want to miss.

Matchmakers seem to be popular in historical and contemporary romance fiction. What’s your favorite matchmaker romance?

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Tuesday Review: I Married the Duke

Note: I'm barely squeaking under the wire to make this a Tuesday Review. I spent a good portion of today in the emergency room and forgot that this had not been posted. My apologies for the tardiness.

I Married the Duke
By Katharine Ashe
Publisher: Avon
Release Date: August 27, 2013

The Caulfield sisters were sent to England by their mother when they were very young, too young to have more than sketchy memories of their mother. When the ship taking them to England sinks, they are the only survivors. They know nothing about their father, and, with no relatives to claim them, they are sent to an orphanage and later adopted by a widowed clergyman. All the girls have from their former lives is a valuable ruby ring. According to a gypsy seer, the ring holds the key to their father’s identity, an identity that will be revealed only when one of the three sisters marries a prince.

The middle sister Arabella takes the gypsy’s message to heart. Thirteen years later, after having worked several years as a finishing governess and having established a reputation as being particularly skilled at preparing young ladies for their debuts and seeing them through their first season, Arabella is on her way to Saint-Nazaire in France where she is to prepare the younger sister of the Prince of Sensaire for her debut in London. Arabella hopes that she will be able to attract the Prince’s attention and through him fulfill the prophecy. It’s not impossible; after all, she has been fighting off the attention of male employers throughout her career. But when she misses her ship, her most pressing need is to get to her destination by September 1 when her employment is supposed to begin. Her best hope of doing this is securing a place on board the ship commanded by Captain Andrew.

Lucian Westfall, former commander of HMS Victory, Comte de Rallis, and heir apparent to the Duchy of Lycombe, for the past year has been known to many simply as Captain Andrew of the merchant brigantine Retribution. He has the boldness of a pirate, an effect intensified by the eye patch he wears, and the arrogance of a lord. He is not at all amenable to the request for passage on his ship from the sharp-tongued young woman he identified as a schoolteacher at first sight. His first response is a resounding no, but she is persistent. Her reason for missing her ship and the fact that her destination is a castle that belongs to him persuade Luc to consent to accept her as a passage.

What follows is a romantic adventure that encompasses a variety of romance tropes, including shipboard romance, marriage of convenience, and secrets—dangerous and deadly. More than once their barely cheat death. Arabella and Luc are all wrong for each other. She cannot lose her chance with a prince when it is finally within her grasp. She believes this is the only way to find out who she is and the only route to securing her sisters’ happiness. He needs a blue-blooded wife to provide the heir he is desperate for in case he does become the Duke of Lycombe. For the sake of his beloved brother and all the hundreds of people dependent upon the duchy, he must have an heir. It is the only way to finally defeat the Reverend Absalom Fletcher, his mad, abusive, hypocritical guardian. However, reason proves no match for the irresistible, sizzling attraction between the governess and the piratical lord. But before they can attain an HEA, they must learn to trust one another and work together to defeat the powerful enemy who wants Luc dead.

I Married the Duke is the first book in Ashe’s new Prince Catchers series, and the story of the mysterious ring and the identity of the three orphan sisters is tantalizing bait for series addicts. I knew as soon as I read the prologue that I was fairly caught and would not be satisfied until I turned the final page of the third book.

Arabella and Luc are each interesting characters in their own right, and their banter, their chemistry, and the healing they offer each other make them a couple guaranteed to appeal to a romance lover’s heart. If Arabella seems rather too rash at times and Luc seems foolishly reluctant to share truths with her, these are forgivable flaws in a compelling story with complex characters and more than one moment of heart-stopping suspense. I think Ashe has a winner!

If you like your romance with plenty of action, lots of heat, and characters, both primary and secondary, who capture your interest and affection, I recommend this book.

I love quiet romance novels, but I also like to mix them up sometimes with romances high in action. What’s your preference?

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Saturday Review: Blue by You

Blue by You (enovella)
By Rachel Gibson
Publisher: Avon Impulse
Release Date: 
September 3, 2013

Blue Louretha Dare Toussaint Butler’s ancestors in the female line might have been scandalized to see her living in the overseer’s cottage, wearing jean shorts, and drinking Purple Jesus (a combination of grape juice, ginger ale, and vodka) on the Lord’s Day, but Blue thinks she’s done well to hang on to Dahlia Hall, the home that has been in her family for nearly two hundred years by turning the big house into a tourist attraction. Blue used her divorce settlement to do the renovations that made Dahlia Hall self-supporting. The only other River Road plantation still in the hands of the original owners is nearby Esterbrook, the ancestral home of the Penningtons, Toussaint enemies for generations.

Kasper Pennington returned to New Orleans five years ago. After a successful career in the Marines and two unsuccessful marriages, he’s back where he started. A construction business that’s has expanded rapidly in post-Katrina New Orleans, renovations on Esterbrook, and keeping an eye on his idiosyncratic grandmother are enough to fill a man’s time. A busy man doesn’t have time to think about his past and the choices he made more than two decades ago.

Once long ago, Blue ignored her mama’s advice to “stay away from those morally corrupt, sugar-mouthed Pennington boys.” Fresh out of high school and eager to show she was a woman, Blue allowed Kasper Pennington to charm her. Twenty-two years later she still hasn’t forgotten exactly how charming he proved to be, but she’s wiser now. Too bad that Kasper Pennington is as tempting as ever, and this time he’s not leaving.

I loved these characters. Blue and Kasper are both funny and smart-mouthed and believably Southern, and the chemistry between them sizzles. I loved that they are both over forty and that, although they have lived full lives, they have not forgotten their brief time together. In fact, I love Blue and Kasper and their story so much that I think they deserve more than five chapters. I want them to have their HEA, but this HEA happens too quickly for me to believe in it.

For readers who have never read Rachel Gibson, “Blue by You” is a quick, inexpensive introduction to her style. My guess is that many such readers will be delighted with her characterization skills and her ability to craft a sizzling love scene and will be ready to check out her upcoming novel Run to You. But I suspect most Gibson fans will share my longing for Blue and Kasper’s story to be more.

I’m finding the current trend for authors to offer shorts between novels or as preludes to a new series a mixed blessing. I can’t resist those by my favorite authors, but, while I’ve found some to be wonderful, others leave me singing “Is that all there is?” Are you a fan of novellas? What about shorter-than-usual-novellas?

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Tuesday Review: The Hero

The Hero
By Robyn Carr
Publisher: Harlequin Mira
Release Date: August 27, 2013

Devon McAllister never imagined herself captivated by a charismatic cult leader, but that’s exactly what happened. But she’s fully aware now that this place is not where she belongs, and when an opportunity opens to escape the compound with her three-year-old daughter Mercy, she gratefully takes it. With only a backpack filled by those who helped her escape and a few dollars in cash from the same source, Devon and Mercy have been walking down a highway for eight hours with no destination in mind other than a highway number when Rawley Goode spots them and offers them a ride as far as Thunder Point.

Rawley recognizes Devon as being from the Fellowship by her dress and hairstyle. He has seen members at their roadside produce stand: “Beautiful, young, smiling softspoken women apparently watched over by big, silent men who were clearly in charge.”  He has been on the receiving end of charity often enough to want to pass it on, and clearly Devon needs help. Along with the assurance that he’s never seen anyone from the Fellowship in Thunder Point or its immediate environs, he offers Devon and her daughter plenty of food, a safe place to stay, and a new identity as the daughter and granddaughter of his second cousin. Rawley’s looks don’t predispose someone to view him as trustworthy, but Devon remembers her error in judgment when she trusted a man who did look as if he could be trusted. When Rawley buys a car seat for Mercy during a Wal-Mart run, Devon decides that she can trust him to offer exactly what he proposes and no more.

Spencer Lawson is also a newcomer to Thunder Point. Recently named Athletic Director and coach at the local high school, he hasn’t even found a place to rent as a home for him and his ten-year-old son, Austin. For the time being, they are living in Hank Cooper’s fifth wheel and enjoying life on the bay with Cooper’s place handy for meals. It also gives Austin more time with Cooper, his newly discovered biological father.Spencer senses Devon’s vulnerability at first sight and feels drawn to protect her, to offer her a refuge.

The warmth and friendliness of Thunder Point gives Devon the feeling that she’s found a home. Soon she even has a job she loves, and Rawley in fact is becoming the family he claims to be. When the attraction between her and Spencer blossoms from just friendship to include romantic love, she dares to dream of forever, but Spencer has baggage of his own. A widower with painful memories of his wife’s long, heartbreaking illness, he is leery of opening himself to more hurt. And Devon has grown strong enough to refuse to settle for less than all she deserves.

I freely admit that I am an unabashed Carr fan, one who has read and reread all her Grace Valley and Virgin River books and expects to do so again. I think The Hero is an excellent addition to Carr’s oeuvre. I thought Devon was a wonderful heroine, one who moves from near helplessness and dependence to strength and independence in a believable manner. I found Spencer an essentially likeable character, despite moments when I wanted to throw rotten tomatoes at him. The title suggests a single hero, but both Devon and Spencer act heroically, and the aged, cards-close-to-his-chest Rawley is a hero from beginning to end. His character is my favorite part of the book.

I loved that Carr allows us to see the HEAs in progress of other characters. Mac and Gina are enjoying married life. Sarah and Cooper are headed toward a wedding. For fans of the younger contingent, Landon and Eve are as in love as ever, and things are progressing nicely with Ashley and her adorable nerd Frank. Ashley’s biological father, Eric Gentry, is paired with undercover FBI agent, Laine Carrington, in the next Thunder Point book, The Chance (February 2014). I can’t wait to see their story play out and to revisit old friends.

The Hero is the third book in Carr’s Thunder Point series, following The Wanderer and The Newcomer. It has the strong, supportive community, the stable of characters who are family and friends, and the credible conflicts that are resolved on the way to happily-ever after that have become the trademarks of Carr’s books. If you are a fan of Carr’s or if you have never read Carr’s books but like novels that offer slices of life in an idyllic, picturesque small town where most people soon know not only your name but much of your business, I highly recommend this book.

The Hero made me freshly aware that my favorite heroines are women who are strong enough to do things on their own when they can but are smart enough to accept help when they need it. What characteristics do your favorite heroines share?

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Creating My List of All-Time Top Ten Romance Novels

All About Romance announced back in April that, beginning on October 1, they will open the polling for their sixth AAR Reader’s Top 100 Romance List. Since I’ve cast my 100 votes in every poll except the first one, I immediately started considering my list. I know going in that most of my favorites won’t show up on AAR’s final list. I believe I matched 39 of the 100 titles on the 2010 list, and that was my highest match among the four polls in which I have cast my votes. But somehow that doesn’t matter. I’m always fascinated by the results, if a little grumpy because some of my favorite authors are no-shows on the list, and I feel that I’ve demonstrated my loyalty by seeing that what I call my Velvet Rabbit books (because like Margery Williams’s rabbit from her children’s classic most are “loose in the joints and very shabby” from being much loved) will have a place on the master list. I experience a great sense of satisfaction in having declared in a quasi official manner that I think books such as Second Star to the Right by Mary Alice Kreusi (aka Mary Alice Monroe) and Kidnap Confusion by Judith Nelson deserve to be known as favorites, even though their merits seem to have been overlooked by all but a very few readers on GoodReads who share my enthusiasm, .

Given that I have more than 1500 books on my keeper shelves, plus a couple of hundred or so on my Kindle for which I have no paper copies, narrowing my list to 100 is no easy task. I could probably list a top 100 published since the last poll more easily, and even selecting my personal top 1000 to match the list compiled by Myra Hawkins, Julie Davies and Lisa Harlowe in 2012 would require omitting books that left me replete with readerly satisfaction. You will understand why I started preparing my ballot for the 2013 poll shortly after AAR made the announcement when I tell you that, after more than three months of intermittently considering titles, I now have a list of my top 500 books. And it keeps changing as I remember something I particularly loved about a book that I omitted or as I fall in love with just published or soon-to-be published books such as Kristan Higgins’s The Perfect Match, an October 29 release.

AAR staff members have been sharing their top ten, and I seized on that idea as a practical way to continue narrowing. Surely I could select my top ten. I tried, but like the musical countdowns of my youth, I ended up with a top forty instead. I scheduled a blog post on my top ten for August 10 to force myself to make a selection. I pondered and considered and pulled books from shelves to reread sections, and I culled my list to thirty. At 10:00 p.m. yesterday, I decided the only way I would ever arrive at a top ten to post today was to make my top ten a post-Heyer list. That allowed me to cut Jane Austen’s Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice and Georgette Heyer’s Frederica, The Grand Sophy, Venetia, and The Unknown Ajax. I deleted titles that might be thought more women’s fiction than romance and thus removed Barbara Samuel’s No Place Like Home and Emilie Richards’s Prospect Street. Then I decided I would limit myself to one book per author and eliminated another eight titles, leaving me with a top fourteen. Finally, at 12:05 this morning, I had  my top ten—or, more accurately, ten books I really, really, really love and have reread at least twice and plan to reread again and recommend highly to other romance readers every chance I get and think about writing fan letters to the authors saying thank you for the gift of this book that fills me with delight (which is one of my ten favorite words because it encompasses pleasure, joy, and gratification felt in high degree and which charms me with its erroneous spelling that makes it seem oxymoronic). But however accurate, all that is too long for a title, and so I give you my All-time Top Ten Romance Novels (sort of)

  1. Pleasure for Pleasure (2006), Eloisa James
  2. Lord of Scoundrels (1995), Loretta Chase
  3. Till the Stars Fall (1994), Kathleen Gilles Seidel
  4. Gallant Waif (1999), Anne Gracie
  5. In the Midnight Rain (2000), Ruth Wind
  6. Reforming Lord Ragsdale (1995), Carla Kelly
  7. Simply Love (2007), Mary Balogh
  8. Shattered Rainbows (1996), Mary Jo Putney
  9. A Notorious Countess Confesses (2012), Julie Anne Long
  10. Sea Swept ( 1998), Nora Roberts

(And I do love contemporary romance too even though seven of these ten books are historicals.)

Do you plan to vote in the AAR poll? What books make your top ten? Would your list include beloved books that many of your friends may never have heard of?

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Tuesday Review: Homecoming Ranch

Homecoming Ranch
By Julia London
Publisher: Montlake Romance
Release Date: August 13, 2013

Madeline Pruett has a busy, organized life in Orlando where she is building a reputation as a successful realtor. Except for business colleagues, her only real relationships are with her self-absorbed, irresponsible mother and Trudi, her bossy but well-meaning best friend. Chaos erupts into Madeline’s carefully controlled life when a Colorado lawyer arrives with the news that the father who has never been more than a name to Madeline has died and left her one-third interest in a ranch in Pine River, Colorado. Each of the two half-sisters that Madeline didn’t even know existed has also inherited one-third of the ranch. Since she wants nothing from the father who ignored her, Madeline’s first inclination is to refuse the inheritance, but at the urging of her mother, who has a self-interest in the outcome, and Trudi, who feels this is the perfect opportunity for Madeline to step “outside the bubble” of her carefully circumscribed life, Madeline allows herself to be persuaded to visit Pine River. Almost before she has time to realize what has happened, she has flown to Denver and in a rental car is making her way to Homecoming Ranch.

Luke Kendrick has spent his adult life sacrificing for his family. When his younger brother Leo, a college football player, is diagnosed with a motor neuron disease that will eventually kill him, Luke is there for his family. When his mother is diagnosed with breast cancer, Luke leaves college and returns to Pine River. When his fiancĂ©e dumps him because his family’s needs demand too much, Luke gets over it and goes on. Now, two years after his mother’s death, his life is beginning to come together. Although it took him six years, he has a degree in architecture. He has remodeled the home he bought in Denver. He’s enrolled in an MBA program, and the first three of what he hopes will be many houses built to his designs under his name are under construction. But then he learns that his father and Leo are no longer living on the ranch that has been in the family for four generations. Luke’s father sold the ranch to a friend when Leo’s medical expenses left him desperate for cash, with a verbal agreement that the Kendricks could buy the ranch back at the sale price. Unfortunately, the friend died and left the ranch to his three daughters, and the verbal agreement had no legal standing. Regardless, Luke is determined to fight for Homecoming Ranch.

Madeline intends her visit to Pine River to be brief. She’s interested only in meeting her sisters, securing their agreement to sell the ranch, and returning to her ordered life in Orlando where the biggest deal of her career is pending. Luke intends his visit to Pine River to be brief. He plans to get things straightened out, see his father and Leo back on the ranch, and return to living his dream in Denver. Unfortunately, the situation is too complicated for easy resolution. One of Madeline’s sisters wants to keep the ranch, and the other is disposed to let her have her way. Neither shares Madeline’s idea of a quick sale. Luke’s father is weary of the responsibility of the ranch, and Leo likes living in town. Neither shares Luke’s concern with preserving the Kendrick heritage for the next generation. At the very least, Homecoming Ranch is legally bound by a contract to provide the setting and amenities for a destination family reunion of two hundred plus people.

Madeline finds herself involved with the preparation for the reunion, even extending her stay. She also finds she can’t stop thinking about sexy Luke Kendrick whom she seems to run into every time she turns around. Luke finds himself involved in the reunion preparations too, and the buttoned-up city girl has him thinking about unbuttoning and releasing the Maddie he is sure exists within the proper Madeline. She even has him thinking about words like “forever,” bur Madeline has to learn to trust in what she can’t control and to believe that deserves a man who stays before she can accept what Luke is offering.

As much as I enjoy Julia London’s historical romances, it is her contemporary romances that have provided me with some of my most memorable, emotionally satisfying reading experiences. Homecoming Ranch follows this pattern. Madeline and Luke are likeable, engaging characters with complexities enough to be interesting and real and chemistry sizzling enough to provide sigh-worthy romance. The secondary characters have presence and purpose, and just enough is revealed about Madeline’s sisters to leave readers eager to know more. The lawyer too is particularly interesting, seemingly all surface but with an indefinable something that suggests depth and secrets. But Leo is the true scene-stealer and heart-stealer. His courage and humor in the face of adversity are the highlight of the book. I highly recommend Homecoming Ranch, and I look forward to return visits.

London is one of a handful of authors whose books I consider must-reads, regardless of the subgenre. Are there authors who write in more than one  subgenre whose books you enjoy equally ?  

Monday, August 5, 2013


The Randomizer selected Sharlene as the winner of the July 30 New Releases Giveaway. Sharlene, if you will contact me at jangarho at gmail dot com, I'll get your books to you ASAP.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Saturday Review: Staying at Joe's

Staying at Joe’s
By Kathy Altman
Publisher: Harlequin (Superromance)
Release Date: August 6, 2013

Allison Kinkaid is in Castle Creek, Pennsylvania, only under duress, and she can’t wait to take care of business and get back to Virginia, where she belongs. Her boss in Tackett & Pike, the Washington, D. C. area PR firm where she works has charged her with convincing her former colleague and former lover Joe Gallahan to return to the company because a major client is refusing to sign unless Joe is given his account. Allison knows this may be the toughest pitch she’s ever made since she and Joe parted ways with each convinced the other was guilty of betrayal, but failure is not an option since Allison’s job and everything that depends on it are on the line.

Joe Gallahan has no regrets about leaving the D. C. firm where he garnered an impressive reputation and hefty salary but lost sight of the things that were most important. It may be too late to fulfill the dream he had shared with his brother, but Joe is renovating more than old buildings as he reclaims and restores an abandoned motel. Leaving wasn’t his choice, but going back is. Everything in him rejects Allie’s proposal that he return to his old life, but it’s not so easy to forget what the two of them were together. His motives for countering Allie’s offer of a $10,000 bonus for two months at T & P with his own proposal that she give him two weeks of hard labor on his motel restoration for his giving four weeks to the firm are mixed. He doesn’t think for a moment that city-girl Allie will last two weeks in Castle Creek, and he’s not willing to consider why he wants her there.

Allie rejects Joe’s proposal outright, but her boss refuses to let her rejection stand.  His instructions are for her to do whatever is necessary to bring Gallahan back to save a multimillion-dollar account or consider her own job terminated. A lot can happen in two weeks: lives can change, and hearts can break—or heal. Allie and Joe are about to discover what two weeks will mean to them.

 This book is connected to Altman’s debut novel, The Other Soldier. It shares not only a setting and some characters with the earlier book but also a rare combination of high-tension conflict and genuine humor rooted in situation and characters. Allie and Joe are both damaged people with real problems that are too serious to be resolved with an I-love-you and heated encounters in bed. The passion between the two has not been weakened by almost a year apart, but it soon becomes evident to the reader and eventually to these characters however hot the fire between them raged during their three months together, they never let down the barriers and allowed themselves to be known. Allie knows Joe has a problem with alcohol, but she knows nothing of the demons in his past nor of the guilt that torments him after the devastating loss of his brother. Joe knows Allie feels responsible for her gambling-addicted mother, but he has no idea of what drives her loyalty or the extremes forms that loyalty has taken.

Given the darkness and the demons, one would expect Staying at Joe’s to be an angsty, heart-twisting read, and there are certainly moments when that description fits. But this is also a book that features a quirky community with a delightful cast of characters ranging from a kid and a kitten to busy, bossy, big-hearted senior citizens. I loved seeing Allie and Joe reach their HEA, all the more because sometimes I wondered if they could. I was left with a satisfied sigh at the ending and a desire to return to Castle Creek to see Parker and Nat reunited with Reid and to see Marcus get his HEA.

I must add that as much as I liked the book, I was bothered by the simplistic equating of small town with healthy, wholesome values and supportive community and big city with materialism, greed, and dog-eat-dog mentality. I’d like to see characters decide they belong in a small town without writing off city life as the choice of the unredeemed. Still, this concern didn’t stop me from adding Castle Creek to my list of terrific small towns and Kathy Altman to my list of authors to keep an eye on for upcoming releases.

The popularity of small-town romances seems to have passed the trend stage and settled into an established sub-genre. Why do you think small-town settings are so appealing? Have you reached the point where you would like to see big-city settings get more attention?

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Bonus Review: Picture Perfect Wedding

Picture Perfect Wedding
By Fiona Lowe
Publisher: Carina Press
Release Date: August 12, 2013

Erin Davies dreams of owning her own studio, seeing her photographs in bridal magazines, and winning a coveted award. All of these things may well be in her grasp if only every detail comes together perfectly for the very expensive wedding of one demanding client who has  decided that she wants a field of sunflowers in Whitetail, Wisconsin, as the backdrop for her wedding photographs. The only problem is that the farmer who owns the field keeps saying no to the request to use his field. But Erin is determined that one stubborn farmer will not block her dreams. She sets out for Whitetail in her vintage vehicle with a sexy-voiced GPS and an unshakable conviction that one stubborn farmer will not prove an insurmountable obstacle.

Luke Anderson has enough on his hands managing the family farm that has been his responsibility since his father retired six months ago and left him in charge. Not only is his work load relentless, but being the decision maker is just not bringing Luke the peace and satisfaction that he thought it would. He is where he has wanted to be since childhood, but he has an empty feeling, as if there should be something more. He doesn’t need some city-girl photographer and her bridezilla client complicating his life. His refusal is to rent out his sunflower field is non-negotiable.

Their first meeting leaves Erin frustrated with the intransigence of one grouchy farmer who is too sexy for her comfort and Luke eager to see the last of the airhead city girl whose curves make him all too aware that he’s been celibate too long. Scientists may insist that in our universe there are no irresistible forces and no immovable objects, but romance writers know that in the dimension of emotions, the paradox can certainly appear to be true. And when it occurs, things get interesting—and explosive. With Erin Davies and Luke Anderson in one small community, Whitetail, Wisconsin is about to see some fireworks.

Picture Perfect Wedding is the second book in Fiona Lowe’s Wedding Fever trilogy, following Saved by the Bride (April 2013). Whitetail is an appealing community filled with interesting characters who are devoted to their city and to taking care of each other. Luke is one of their own, and they welcome Erin both because they need her photographic skills for the wedding business that is putting Whitetail on the map and because they value her warmth and creativity.
Watching Erin and Like skirmish and flirt and fight a losing battle against this backdrop is a delight. But despite the fun and games, hearts and lives are on the line, and both Erin and Luke have real issues that must be resolved before they find their way to the HEA. It’s not surprising, given that Luke has the foundation of a stable, loving family, that his issues should be less complex that Erin’s.

I really enjoyed the details about Erin’s photography and Luke’s farming. The jobs of these characters were not just necessary inclusions but vital parts of their identities. I also like the context of family dynamics in my romance novels, and Lowe provides rich contexts with conflict and power struggles even with a family in which all the members really do love one another, and she includes a villain who is completely believable because he is not evil personified but rather a man whose weakness and greed are greater than his desire to do the right thing. The relationship between Erin and Luke is sizzling hot with good measures of humor and sweetness.

The secondary romance between widow and Whitetail wedding planner Nicole Lindquist and Tony Lascio, the town’s new fire chief, adds another layer of sexy sweetness, although it provides my only major dissatisfaction with the novel. I would like to have seen their story more fully developed--perhaps in their own book, or at least in a novella. I thought they deserved more than the rushed treatment.

Picture Perfect Wedding didn’t prompt me to send emails recommending it to friends as Lowe’s RITA-winning Boomerang Bride did, but it is a terrific addition to any contemporary romance collection. If you like small-town contemporary romances with heat, humor, and heart-winning characters, I think you will enjoy it as much as I did. I recommend this book.

Boomerang Bride was the first book I read by Fiona Lowe, and it’s freshness and mix of character-based humor and credible complexities impressed me. Perhaps unfairly, I will probably always measure her books by that one. Has the first book you read by an author ever set a standard that subsequent books could have difficulty meeting?