Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Super Tuesday January 28 Releases: Review 2

Why Earls Fall in Love
By Manda Collins
Publisher: St. Martin’s
Release Date: 
January 28, 2014

The second book in Manda Collins’s Wicked Widows trilogy continues the mystery of the threats Isabella, the current Duchess of Ormond; Perdita, the young dowager Duchess of Ormond, and Georgina Mowbray are receiving concerning their roles in the death of the abusive Duke of Ormond.  In the first book, Why Dukes Say I Do, Isabella is the target of the self-appointed avenger’s death. In the second book, his--or her--attention turns to Georgina.

Georgina Mowbray is finding her new position as companion to the aging but lively Lady Russell surprisingly pleasant until Lady Russell summons her extended family to Bath to celebrate her seventieth birthday. Among the relatives who gather is Lady Russell’s favorite nephew, Dominic, Earl of Coniston, familiarly known as Con. Georgina met Con when he was betrothed to her friend Perdita, then the widowed Duchess of Ormond, and despite his obvious charm and good looks, she didn’t think highly of him. He reminded her too much of the spoiled young officers she knew as a military wife. Her opinion of him has not changed.

Con is skilled at reading people’s reactions, and he knows full well that Georgina is unimpressed with him. He confronts her directly, asking if he has done something to offend her. His openness is the first thing that has Georgina questioning her own conclusions about him. For his part, everything Con learns about Georgina just intensifies his attraction to her. Her understated beauty, her independence, and her essential goodness are all part of her growing appeal for him. When he realizes that Georgie is in danger, he is determined to use all his resources to protect her and to find the mysterious man who is tormenting her.

Georgie’s experience with her late husband makes her reluctant to trust any man. Even after she recognizes that Con is very different from the brute she married, she is slow to take him completely into her confidence. Gradually he wins her trust and her love, but she remains troubled by the social gulf that exists between the daughter of one army officer and the wife of another and a wealthy earl. Can Con both defeat an unknown enemy and overcome Georgie’s reservations to win the woman who has won his heart and his respect?

Collins, who promises her readers “romance spiced with mystery,” has upped the stakes and the tension of the mystery element in Why Earls Fall in Love, and she manages to do so without sacrificing the centrality of the romance. In Georgina and Con, Collins creates likeable protagonists whose choices preserve the integrity of their characters. Georgina grew up with her father away with his military duties much of the time, a pattern that was repeated with her husband. She is accustomed to making decisions unaided, to taking action when necessary, and to taking care of herself. This is the character the reader encounters the evening of the duke’s death, and her character remains consistent through both novels. Even as she takes comfort in Con’s care for her, she insists on her autonomy.  I can’t say much about the denouement without including spoilers, so I’ll just say that I was elated that Georgie stayed true to herself all the way.

Con is a charmer, not in the pejorative sense of a shallow person who uses his personal attractiveness to use and manipulate people but in the sense of a person blessed with qualities that effortlessly win the liking and admiration of others. His charm plus his wealth and social position have made him a man conditioned to being in control. Because he is a man of compassion and honesty, his control is benevolent. But it is not easy for him to accept Georgie’s right to make decisions even when he feels they endanger her. The tension that exists between his belief that he knows best and his respect for Georgie as an independent spirit not only made him more real to me but also allowed me to believe fully in his declaration of love for a woman very different from him in social status and in personality.

Sometimes suspending disbelief for the course of a novel is more than I can do, but I found it easy to enter fully into the world of this book. I believed in Georgie and Con as individuals, and I believed in them as a couple who could build a happy life together. I also believed that the threat to Georgie was real, and the killer’s identity caught me by surprise. So did the number of victims.

I loved the big things about this book—characters in whom I was invested, a plot that kept me turning pages (and buying into the red herrings), historical accuracy in setting, action, and the role of women, and an authorial voice in which I delighted. I also loved the little things—Con’s bad art, the nod to the Ugly Ducklings from Collins’s first series, and the affection and loyalty between Georgie and Perdita, and Isabella.  I’ve been falling in love with Manda Collins’s stories since before she was published, and I think this one may be her best yet. I highly recommend it.

Do you like your historical romance mixed with mystery?  How do you feel about mystery threads that run through several books?

Monday, January 27, 2014

Super Tuesday January 28 Releases: Review 1

Romancing the Duke
By Tessa Dare
Publisher: Avon
Release Date:
January 28, 2014

Isolde Ophelia Goodnight is an expert on fairy tales. After all, she is the daughter of the man famous for keeping England enthralled with tales of fair ladies, brave knights, and daring adventures. Izzy is beloved by fans as her father’s daughter and as a character in the Goodnight Tales, the emerald-eyed little girl for whose delight her loving father wove his stories. But life has taught the real Izzy that she is no Cinderella, no transformed duckling, no Sleeping Beauty.  She accepted that she was meant for prosaic reality from an early age, but she didn’t expect to be left penniless after her father’s death. With no inheritance, no home, and no money, Izzy’s future looks grim. But just when all seems hopeless, her godfather dies and leaves her a castle, Gostley Castle, in Northumberland, to be precise. But even this unexpected gift comes with a problem. Izzy’s castle is occupied.

Ransom William Dacre Vane, the eleventh Duke of Rothbury, retreated to Gostley Castle, one of his many properties, following a scandal that left him scarred and blind, because it gave him the seclusion he sought. The castle is his, and he is not about to yield it to this intruder. He doesn’t expect Izzy to be a problem. He thinks one night in the decrepit castle with the bats and the ghosts will send her running. But just when his victory is assured and Izzy is retiring from the battle field to regroup, she mentions the names of his solicitors, and Rothbury realizes he has a bigger problem than his unwelcome guest. The answer is likely in the stack of correspondence he can’t read. So he hires Izzy Goodnight as his secretary, and the maiden who was too plain and poor to be a princess and the blind beast with a heart scarred more terribly than his face began a journey filled with danger, revelation, humor, fear, and passion that leads to a happily-ever-after better than a fairy tale.

Romancing the Duke introduces Tessa Dare’s new series, Castles Ever After.  This novel gives a hard twist to the fairy tale and the gothic romance, using elements of both in a manner that both pays tribute and gently mocks the genres. Throw in the Moranglian Army, a Regency version of rabid fans engaged in convocation and cosplay, and the result is a wholly delightful story that is sweet, sexy, smart, funny, and definitely different. Dare proves that she belongs in that rare company of writers like Julia Quinn who create stories with humor and heart and a contagious joy that unites author, characters, and reader in a superlative reading experience.

Izzy and Ransom will make you laugh and sigh as they win your heart, and secondary characters such as the faithful Duncan, the sunny-natured Miss Pelham, and Snowdrop, the sharp-toothed ermine each add something special to the story. The book is filled with Dare’s humor that ranges from broad to subtle, and she also provides thematic richness with the blindness theme that encompasses Ransom’s physical blindness, Izzy’s blindness to her real beauty and worth, and Ransom’s insight that leads him to see an Izzy that sighted men have missed.

All this plus one of the best kissing scenes ever, a detail that will catch some readers by surprise, and a big-sigh-worthy ending. Once more Tessa Dare gives readers a story that has keeper written all over it. I highly recommend this book.

I love fairy tale romances, but my favorites usually give a twist to the traditional tale in some way. Dare gives several twists in this book.  What’s your favorite fairy tale romance? Is it strictly traditional, or does it give tradition a twist?

Look for five more Super Tuesday January 28 Releases to be posted over the next several days.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Bonus Review: Love on Mimosa Lane

Love on Mimosa Lane
By Anna DeStefano
Publisher: Montlake
Release Date:
January 21, 2014

Kristen Hemmings, an assistant principal at the elementary school in Chandlerville, Georgia, has found a real home in the suburban town northeast of Atlanta. Kristen has made friends in the community, she is invested in seeing her students develop their potential in all areas, and she is looking forward to being promoted to principal. She manages to conceal the scars she carries from growing up with her critical, emotionally distant diplomat father and without the mother who abandoned her for the last in a long line of lovers. Kristen has been fascinated with Law Beaumont since he moved to Chandlerville with his family three years ago, but she is content to watch him from a distance because in the beginning he is married and more recently because she recognizes the threat he poses to her policy of no dramatics and limited emotional involvement with men, however attractive they may be.

Law Beaumont, bartender, musician, athlete, and former bad boy, moved to Chandlerville with his wife and daughter shortly after he was released from prison, determined to make a new start and to save his marriage. The last proved impossible, but as long as his daughter is in Chandlerville, Law will be there too, trying to protect her and ensure her stability and happiness. He has all he can handle with two jobs, caring for Chloe, his eight-year-old daughter on the two days he is allowed with her, and coping with a vindictive ex-wife devoted to destroying his reputation and peace of mind. Thoughts of Kristen Hemmings may keep intruding, but for many reasons, he can’t afford to do more than think about her.

Kristen asks Law to coach Fin Robinson, one of Chloe’s classmates, a troubled foster child with a heartbreaking past and an attachment disorder. The window for saving him from a destructive future is narrowing, and Kristen is convinced that Law, a gifted soccer coach, will be able to reach young Fin. Law refuses at first, but he feels compelled to talk to Fin. When he sees himself in the boy, he can’t resist trying to help him. Their shared concerns about Fin and Chloe, who is having difficulties dealing with her parents’ divorce, her mother’s secret alcoholism, and the lies her mother is telling about her father, draw Kristen and Law closer. As they allow themselves to move beyond a careful friendship to greater intimacy, Law’s ex-wife loses all control. Chloe and Fin suffer collateral damage, and the story seems headed for a tragic ending rather than an HEA. But love finds a way to meet all the challenges.

As she has in her two earlier Seasons of the Heart novels, Christmas on Mimosa Lane (2012) and Three Days on Mimosa Lane (2013), DeStefano combines richly layered characterization with contemporary problems and a small-town setting that portrays a community with heart but also with its share of troubled souls and shattered lives. In addition to an emotionally powerful romance between two complex people with complicated pasts, this third novel in the series looks at the effects of divorce on children, the sometimes volatile situation between former spouses, and the foster care system. I was particularly impressed that the author showed both the damage the system can do to children who are moved from home to home to home and the selfless, heroic efforts of the best foster parents to love their foster children and make a lasting, positive difference in their lives. Love on Mimosa Lane is about romantic love, but it is also about the love between parent and child, between friends, and within a community that cares for its own.

If you are a fan of small-town romances but sometimes feel that the towns are just too good to be true, DeStefano’s Mimosa Lane books are the perfect antidote. Chandlerville experiences all the problems that are being faced in most real small towns. It is a town with its share of self-indulgence, shallow values, and mean spirits, a town that is not exempt from violence, substance abuse, and materialism, but it is also a town with a core of decent people who want to protect their children, care for their neighbors, and nurture the real sense of community that exists there. In other words, it is a town in which the reader can believe.

My only quibble with the books is that Chloe and Fin and their classmates thought and behaved in ways that seemed older and more sophisticated than typical third graders to me. Still, that is a small complaint in what I found to be a compelling story with engaging characters. I recommend this book. I think DeStefano is something of a buried treasure.

“Buried treasure” is a term All About Romance began to use in the last century to refer to authors whose books readers rave about and who readers believe should be swelling the ranks of rising stars and bestseller headliners. Do you have buried treasure authors among your favorites?

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Tuesday Review: Be Mine Forever

Be Mine Forever
By Marina Adair
Publisher: Montlake
Release Date: 
January 21, 2014

When he receives a series of calls that make him think his grandmother is critically ill, Trey DeLuca returns to St. Helena, California, as fast as modern transportation can get him there from Paris, but he finds his irrepressible grandmother practicing dance steps in preparation for the town’s annual Winter Garden Gala rather than fighting for her life. The only emergency is that ChiChi Ryo has decided that Trey, her youngest and only unmarried grandson, should be her dance partner for the Valentine’s Day event. The last gala Trey attended was the one four months before his parents’ death. He has avoided them for the past decade. In fact, he avoids spending time in St. Helena generally, a task made easier by his position as vice-president of sales in the family wine business. Trey loves his family, but the guilt he feels over the death of his parents has left him with a deep need for emotional distance even from them. Trey is confident that he can con one of his brothers into partnering their grandmother. As soon as he can do so, he plans to leave town again.

Sara Reed moved to St. Helena because it was the kind of town in which she wanted to raise her son. Between caring for her son and struggling to build the reputation and enrollment of her dance school, Sara hardly has a minute for herself. Widowed for two years, she has no expectations of finding the kind of love she shared with her husband Garrett, a Marine killed in battle, and she has been reluctant to even begin dating.

When Sara and Trey meet, both their lives begin to change. Suddenly St. Helena seems much more appealing to Trey, and Sara is reminded that she is a woman, not just a dance studio owner and a single mother. Their attraction is instantaneous, powerful, and mutual. The understanding that they are all wrong for each other is mutual as well. Trey knows that Sara is a forever kind of woman, and Sara soon recognizes that Trey is allergic to commitment. But resisting gets more difficult as layers of genuine liking and a rare rapport are added to the simmering physical attraction. Trey finds that not only Sara but also five-year-old Cooper and Trey’s young nieces are effortlessly bridging the emotional space he has preserved since his teens. Sara knows that Trey can give her only February, but her heart persists in hoping for more. It’s a recipe for heartbreak unless Trey is willing to risk giving himself without reservations to the possibility of living happily ever after.

Be Mine Forever is the fourth book in Marina Adair’s St. Helena Vineyard series, and it has the all the humor, sweetness, and sizzle that characterized the earlier books. Trey is a charmer with a vulnerability less hidden than he believes, and Sara, a real sweetheart, is the perfect heroine for a Valentine’s story. The honesty, the shared humor, and the revealing conversations that the two of them shared allow readers to see them falling in love, not merely lusting for one another’s bodies. Trey’s relationship with Cooper is particularly endearing.

Readers who read the other DeLuca books will enjoy seeing Reagan and Gabe and Lexi and Marc and their growing families and catching glimpses of Frankie and Nate’s wedding preparations. ChiChi and her posse are as funny and outrageous as ever.

I fall a little more in love with St. Helena and the DeLucas with each visit. If you are a fan of series with rich family dynamics, likeable characters, and a setting that is memorable and distinctive, I recommend you add the latest Marina Adair book to your TBR list. According to the author’s website, there are two more books in this series: From the Moment We Met, the story of the Deluca brothers only sister, in July 2014, and Need You Now, a Winter 2014 release. I’ve added both to my book calendar.

I’m always surprised that there are not more Valentine’s romances. In fact, most of the ones I know are traditional Regencies. What’s your favorite Valentine’s Day romance?

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

A Mourning Break

Mourning Cloak

 “Lost love is still love. . . . It takes a different form, that's all. You can't see their smile or bring them food or tousle their hair or move them around a dance floor. But when those senses weaken, another heightens. Memory. Memory becomes your partner. You nurture it. You hold it. You dance with it. 
Life has to end. . . . Love doesn't.”

― Mitch Albom, 
The Five People You Meet in Heaven

My only brother died unexpectedly last Thursday. My grief makes it difficult to concentrate on writing, and so I am taking this week off from the blog.  I plan to return with a new review Tuesday, January 21.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Tuesday Review: Island Promises

Island Promises
By RaeAnne Thayne, Marie Ferrarella, and Leanne Banks
Publisher: Harlequin
Release Date: 
January 7, 2014

If you are shivering through these record-breaking January temperatures, as many of us are, this anthology may be just the book to provide a pleasant escape as you join the wedding party and guests in Kauai, Hawaii, for the destination wedding of Nick McNeil and Cara Russell.

“Hawaiian Holiday” by RaeAnne Thayne 

Megan McNeil is accompanying her seven-year-old twin daughters, Sarah and Grace, to Kauai so that the girls can be flower girls in their father’s wedding. Megan and Nick amicably ended their brief marriage five years ago, and they have remained friendly, both dedicated to parenting the twins. Even so, Megan would have skipped the wedding if Grace’s medical needs had not required that Megan travel with her daughter, who has moderate cerebral palsy. She knows the nine-hour flight from Chicago to Hawaii will be exhausting for her and the twins, but she doesn’t expect to share the journey with Shane Russell. Who knew the sexy cop that she flirted with several months ago when a bullet wound sent him to the ER where she works as a nurse would turn out to be the brother of the bride? 

Shane has not forgotten Megan or the sting of rejection when the phone number she gave him turned out to be fake. The initial spark between them is even stronger now, and he appreciates her honesty about why she gave him the fake number. He is also captivated by the charms of the twins. But Megan thinks her responsibility to her daughters doesn’t leave room in her life for a romantic relationship, and Shane, with his parents and their serial spouses, swore long ago never to date women with children because he didn’t want other children hurt as he and Cara were. Are the romantic setting and the bliss of Nick and Cara enough to persuade these two to believe in a love that lasts a lifetime, not just for a holiday?

I loved the warmth and sweetness of this story. It was refreshing to see exes who sincerely wished each other the best and worked together for their children’s best interests. Sarah and Grace came across as real and appealing, and I especially liked seeing a special-needs child whose health issue did not define her as a person. Thayne is an author whose work I find consistently engaging, and I thought this novella was the best in the anthology.

“Hawaiian Reunion” by Marie Ferrarella

Devlin Marshall, Nick’s best man, does not want to spoil his friend and fellow firefighter’s wedding with the news that Devlin’s own marriage is ending, so he strikes a deal with his estranged wife: if she will attend the wedding with him and play the role of the happily-married Mrs. Marshall everyone thinks she is, then Devlin will sign the divorce papers.

Amy Marshall is eager for her divorce to be final before Devlin discovers a secret she is determined to keep from him as long as possible. Cara and Nick’s happiness reminds her of how deeply she and Devlin were in love once, and sharing intimate space with Devlin again reminds her that she finds him as sexy as ever. But she stubbornly refuses to accept Devlin’s assurance that she is the only woman he has ever wanted and that he has always been faithful to her.

Marie Ferrarella has written some terrific stories over the past three decades, but I regret to say this is not one of them. Devlin is a dream hero—handsome, tender, and faithful with a sense of humor. But I actively disliked Amy. I thought her jealousy was irrational and obsessive, and I thought the reunion came too quickly. The jealousy issue was resolved too simplistically to be credible, and I didn’t believe in this HEA. Frankly, I thought Devlin deserved better.

“Hawaiian Retreat” by Leanne Banks

Gabi Foster is the half-sister of the groom. She and Nick have always been close, and she knows she can’t miss his wedding. But she is not enthusiastic about attending. First, it is an awkward time for her to be away from work where she thinks she is on track to finally win a promotion and the approval of the CEO, who also happens to be her father. She also has reservations about Cara and her ability to measure up to Megan. Finally, she is not at all looking forward to meeting her ex, a friend of Nick’s and a fellow fighter, or the ex’s pregnant wife. To make things worse, the friend who agreed to be her date for all the wedding festivities can’t get out of Chicago because of the weather. Things start to look more promising when she meets a surfing instructor who volunteers to be her date.

Finn Beckett left a successful Wall Street career to move to Hawaii when he became the guardian of his orphaned nephew Kai. He though Kai needed the security of a familiar place and his mother’s extended family, and so Finn exchanged his suit and laptop for shorts and a surfboard. Finn knows workaholic Gabi is headed back to Chicago, and he tries to protect his own heart and Kai, who bonds with Gabi right away—to no avail. Finn and Kai both fall fathoms deep for Gabi, who finds they are both occupying her thoughts to the exclusion of things that have been all-important to her. But neither Finn nor Gabi is expecting her to start questioning whether she really wants to leave Paradise after all.

I really liked these characters. Gabi is an endearing mix of confidence and vulnerability, and Finn’s big heart and high degree of self-knowledge coupled with his good looks make him a hero who appeals on many levels. Kai is a heart-stealer. This is also the most sensual of the three stories. My only complaint about this story is that it just moves too quickly. I wanted to see more of how the relationship between Finn and Gabi developed. I wanted this one to be a novel.

Overall, I liked the way the wedding theme connected these three novellas. With one excellent story and one good one, I recommend Island Promise as a quick, easy read with some characters contemporary romance readers will delight to see achieve their HEA.  

Destination weddings have become increasingly popular in romance fiction over the past several years. If you were writing a destination wedding story, where would you send the wedding party and guests?