Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Review - - The Perfect Recipe for Love and Friendship

The Perfect Recipe for Love and Friendship
By Shirley Jump
Publisher: Forever
Release Date: July 11, 2017
Reviewed by Janga

Bridget O’Bannon Masterson’s marriage was the beginning of her three-year estrangement from her mother and sisters, but when Bridget’s husband, Jim, is struck by a drunk driver as he steps from a taxi, her mother and two of her sisters are there to help Bridget through the shock and grief and to insist she resume her life when Bridget wants to “crawl into bed and shut the blinds and drink until [she] forget[s] what day it is.” Bridget had just begun to realize how short the reality of her marriage fell from the marriage she wanted when Jim was killed. Now in the weeks and months after his death, she begins to discover the secrets he harbored, including a lapsed life insurance policy and an overdrawn checking account. Returning to work at Charmed by Dessert, the family bakery, is no longer merely her mother’s plan to push Bridget back into normal life; it has become a necessity for Bridget to pay the bills.

As Bridget rediscovers the joy she once found in baking, she also rediscovers the warmth and closeness she once shared with her sisters. Nora, the rule-follower among the O’Bannon sisters, is the only one who has remained at the bakery. It is she with whom Bridget first restores the relationship, discovering a new appreciation for Nora’s gift as a cake decorator and an understanding that Nora’s life is less perfect than it has seemed. Margaret “Magpie” the youngest of the O’Bannons, is a freelance journalist who travels around the globe, moving in and out of her family’s lives between assignments. She has a knack for showing up or contacting Bridget with a phone call or a text to offer a bit of advice, pose a question, or give a verbal nudge just when Bridget most needs it.

Abby, the sister to whom Bridget was closest growing up, is also the one from whom Bridget has been most deeply estranged. On Bridget’s wedding day, Abby warned that Jim was not the man Bridget thought he was, revealed a secret to Bridget and imposed a vow of silence on her, and had a shouting, cake-throwing argument with their mother that ruined the wedding reception. Bridget has hardly spoken to Abby since, but, realizing the hole Abby’s absence has left in her life, she takes the first step toward reconciliation. However, as Bridget’s relationship with her sisters grows warmer, her relationship with her mother grows more tense. Bridget finds it more and more difficult to tolerate her mother’s need to control her adult daughters and to understand her mother’s refusal to forgive Abby and welcome her back into the family. When her mother’s estranged sister shows up for a visit with Bridget, more family secrets are uncovered. Will love of family prove strong enough for these women to forgive and move beyond the revelations that threaten to tear them apart?

Shirley Jump’s latest offering is a moving women’s fiction tale of the tenderness and turmoil that characterize sisterhood and the mother-daughter bond in one family. These characters are fully human with deep flaws and resilient strengths. Bridget is the central character, and she is highly relatable as she comes to terms with the gap between fairy tale dreams and the life women live. The gap she must face may be wider than the norm, but the experience is a common one. Jump’s portrayal of women’s relationships overall feels true, but I found the religious issue of particular interest since it is one that is rarely touched upon with such fairness and authenticity. Colleen O’Bannon, the mother of four daughters, is perhaps the most complex and the most interesting character. Widowed as a young woman with her children all under ten, she survives by holding her secrets close, maintaining a stoic façade, and demanding much of her daughters. A devout Catholic who has been sustained by her faith, she is angry and troubled when her daughters make choices that violate the teachings of the Church.

Fans of Jump’s romance novels should be aware that this book is clearly women’s fiction. Although there is a budding romance for Bridget and even the suggestion of one for Colleen, the focus is on Bridget’s journey and on the relationships between sisters and mothers and daughters. If you like women’s fiction that offers an honest and sympathetic look at the lives of a group of ordinary women in one family, I think you will enjoy this one. I did. It is the first in a series. The second O’Bannon Sisters book, The Secret Ingredient for a Happy Marriage, will be released in the spring.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Review - - Here Comes the Bride

Here Comes the Bride
By Hope Ramsay
Publisher: Forever
Release Date: August 29, 2017
Reviewed by Hellie

I do love a jilted bride story. I’m not sure why--I’ve never gotten close enough to the altar to be be jilted--but I think it has to do with my fear of rejection and being jilted at the altar is the ultimate rejection. Anyway, it’s like what a secret baby trope is for other readers: kryptonite.

After ten years together, Laurie Wilson is finally marrying her first love, Brandon Kopp, except instead of saying I do, the groom says “I don’t.” Unfortunately he decides to say this in front of the guests and the minister rather than coming forth with his cold feet in a less public setting. Brandon flees; and the best man, the unflappable Andrew Lyndon, Brandon’s best friend and a lawyer at Laurie’s father’s firm, whisks Laurie away and takes care of her in the aftermath. Andrew does such a good job in fact that Laurie’s father has another job for him: get Laurie and Brandon back together. How? By making Brandon jealous by showing Laurie having a great time with other men. (Incidentally this was Brandon’s suggestion to her when he announced he couldn’t marry her--that she should date other people. A lot of other people.)

Laurie, lying in the wreckage of her new single life, is now realizing how much she was giving up to be with Brandon. Not the dating other men part. No one actually likes dating--it’s brutal out there--but the fact she passed up a job that would have been great for her and her career to be with him. She bought a house she didn’t really want because he insisted on it--and the mortgage is in her name. The relocation to this small town of Shenandoah Falls is also a step down. Oh, and Brandon also went on their honeymoon without her--which she had paid for. Of course, in this stage of grief, she’s not sure she wouldn’t take Brandon back if he came to his senses, but on paper, she’s beginning to see he might have done her a favor.

Andrew Lyndon has a bad habit of doing a job so well, he keeps getting tasked with it. Such is the case with being so efficient at helping Laurie out of her humiliating position, now her father wants Andrew to find appropriate men for Laurie to date--and to make sure Brandon sees it. Andrew is one of two lawyers at the firm that is vying for a partnership within the company. Therefore when his boss, Laurie’s father, says do something, he has to do it, regardless how distasteful, ethically questionable, or awkward in regards to his social relationships, he finds the task.

Eventually Andrew convinces Laurie to her father’s scheme; and soon Laurie is going out on dates (really bad ones)--but more importantly, Brandon sees this going on and he is jealous. After all, he didn’t actually think Laurie would go through with it. Then Brandon decides she’s only dating to make him jealous and that’s never going to work. But he keeps tabs nonetheless; and he’s certainly upset every time she’s out with someone new, having a good time.

The story is an interesting blend of complications you may have always wondered. Who gets the friends when you and a significant other break up? When you meet their friends out in public, are you allowed to talk to them or are you supposed to act like you didn’t see each other to prevent awkwardness? What do you do about the sister-in-law that never was who you were looking forward to being sisters with--and now you can’t be friends because her allegiance belongs to her idiot brother? The girlfriend relationships are forged almost immediately--and just as strong as if they were forged at birth.

It was a compelling story with very likable characters, with the notable exception of Brandon, obviously. Who I don’t mind saying does not win Laurie back because she clearly deserves so much better. But the story of how Laurie got her groove back, set some healthy boundaries, and has her own little montage of Sisters Doing It For Themselves as she becomes a heroine to root for--that’s worth reading. I look forward to finding the first book in this series (A Small Town Bride) and the others in this series. I especially want to see the story with Courtney--now her story is going to be a reckoning.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Review - - Until You Loved Me

Until You Loved Me
By Brenda Novak
Publisher: Harlequin Mira
Release Date: July 25, 2017
Reviewed by Janga

Ellie Fisher is an intelligent woman with an important job, but in the aftermath of finding her fiancé in bed with his best friend since college, she ends up in bed with a stranger. She thinks it was a one-night stand and the best sex of her life, but that one night will change her life forever. Ellie, a bookworm since childhood, holds a PhD in biomedical engineering from Yale and is currently working as a postdoctoral fellow at the Banting Diabetes Center in Miami, a premier site for diabetes research. Her ex and his lover also work there. Ellie’s social experience lags far behind her intellectual accomplishments. She has been with only two men, one of them was her fiancé, and both long-term relationships. She is not the type to frequent nightclubs, but she is reeling with the realization than the man whom she expected to marry and with whom she expected to rear a family was only using her as a cover to hide his sexual orientation from his conservative, religious family. When her best friend urges her to join her for a night at Envy, a ritzy South Beach bar, with the intent of meeting someone, Ellie agrees. However, Ellie is just about ready to leave when she meets a big, incredibly handsome man who is clearly interested in her. She has no idea that he is a superstar athlete; she only knows he makes her feel like a different woman, someone very different from the pathetic, deceived fiancée who is the focus of gossip at her workplace.

Hudson King was found abandoned under a hedge in an upscale Los Angeles neighborhood and named for two intersecting streets in the area. He grew up in foster homes, most of which cared little about the unwanted boy. Getting sent to the New Horizons Boys Ranch in Silver Springs, California, as a young teen proved his salvation. It was there his talent for football was developed, a talent that led him to UCLA and the Heisman Trophy and to his current position as starting quarterback for the LA Devils. He has fame, fortune, and a few good friends, but he does not trust easily. He is particularly wary of women because so many have been more interested in his wealth and star status than in him. He finds Ellie’s failure to recognize him refreshing, but his interest in her is cut short when she disappears before he awakens the morning after their night together without leaving a note or a phone number.

Seven weeks after Ellie’s night with the hunk she knows only as Hudson, she discovers that she is pregnant. She is preparing for life as a single mother when during a Super Bowl party, a familiar face appears on the television screen. Since Ellie now knows who Hudson is, she feels morally bound to tell him that she is pregnant.  She is nervous, but she is unprepared for the anger, suspicion, and accusations that her news provokes. She wants nothing to do with this man who seems so different from the man she met in that club. But once Hudson believes the child is his, he is determined not to expose a child he fathered to the abandonment that shaped him. He pressures Ellie to move to his home in Silver Springs so that he can be actively involved from doctor’s visits through delivery, the first months of the child’s life, and beyond. Ellie eventually agrees, but she has reservations about her decision and about Hudson. Hudson still doesn’t fully trust Ellie either. With the combination of distrust and a chemistry neither can deny, the future promises complications that make an HEA seem remote.

One of the things that has kept me reading Brenda Novak over many years is her ability to take the tritest conventions of romance and give them twists that make them seem fresh and intriguing. Both the pairing of brain and brawn and the unplanned pregnancy are common tropes in romance fiction, but Ellie and Hudson emerge not as types but as distinctive individuals with specific histories that account for the baggage they carry. Ellie is the more sympathetic character, but she is also less damaged than Hudson. Their story is engaging with unexpected turns. And the added thread of Hudson’s quest to discover his origin adds its own twist.

Novak is also a writer who takes risks. Here she risks showing the hero behaving like an out-of-control alpha jerk in a key scene. Readers will draw their own conclusions about whether he redeems himself. I had some doubts initially, but after his reaction to the nursery, I began to believe that he would prove his violent response (not directed toward another person) in the hotel an aberration. His feelings for his unborn child, his mentoring of boys at New Horizons, and ultimately his love for Ellie weigh more heavily in defining him. Hudson is not the only one who behaves like a jerk. Ellie’s ex does as well. His jerkiness is a matter of character and is unrelated to his being gay. He uses Ellie, and his self-absorption afterwards compounds his error. But he too has finer moments.

Until You Loved Me is the third book in in the Silver Springs series, but it is only loosely related to the first two books. The New Horizons Boys Ranch and its founder serve as the primary connection. This book can be read easily as a standalone. If you like your romance novels with a high degree of emotional intensity and a realistic world where flaws are the norm, I suggest you add it to your TBR.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Review - - Map of the Heart

Map of the Heart
By Susan Wiggs
Publisher: William Morrow
Release Date: August 22, 2017
Reviewed by Janga


Camille Adams lost more than her husband when he was killed in a climbing accident five years ago. Before Jace’s death, Camille had been adventurous and daring. She and Jace had traveled, eager to try the next risky sport, to test their powers, and to meet each new challenge. But after his death, Camille became cautious and fearful of risks for herself and for those she loved. She is overprotective of her fourteen-year-old daughter, Julie, doing her best to protect Julie by eliminating risks from her life. Once a gifted and enthusiastic photographer, Camille stopped taking photographs and becomes known for her work with found film, winning fame for salvaged images of a shy First Lady, a species of penguins now extinct, and a murder in progress. Unwilling to let go of her idealized memories of Jace, she has moved through her years of widowhood controlled by her grief and fear, a shadow of the woman she used to be.

Julie is troubled by more than the restrictions her mother imposes. The target of a mean girl’s bullying, she has grown isolated from her former friends. School is a torturous experience for her, and her grades have dropped. Finding solace in food she has gained weight and is convinced she is fat and freakish. She is an adolescent in crisis. Camille is slow to recognize Julie’s problems and can do little to help once she does become aware of them.

The catalyst for change in Camille’s and Julie’s lives arrives in a trunk sent to Camille’s father from his native France. Photographs of her father as a child and of the mother who died when he was an infant reawaken old memories and raise questions about Henri Palomar before he became Henry Palmer. Henry decides to return to Bellerive and the farm he inherited for the first time since he emigrated to America at eighteen. Diagnosed with cancer two years ago, Henry is in remission, but the likelihood of a recurrence has given him a strong sense of his own mortality. He is determined to spend the summer in Provence, and he wants Camille and Julie to go with him. When Julie’s problems at school escalate, a summer in France sounds like the best idea for her, and Camille, already concerned at the idea of her father traveling alone, reluctantly agrees.

The summer leads Henry to truths about his past, provides Julie with the acceptance and friendship she needs, and allows Camille to reconnect with Malcolm Finnemore, an American expert on tracing the provenance of lost soldiers and a visiting history professor at Aix-Marseille University in Aix-en-Provence. Not only does Finn possess the skills Camille needs to help her uncover her father’s past, but he is also the first man to remind her of all that she is missing by refusing to move on with her life. Woven into this mix of romance and family stories is the story of Lisette Galli Palomar, Henry Palmer’s mother, and her life during the Nazi occupation of Bellerive.

Susan Wiggs has proven her talent for seamlessly linking stories of a family’s past and present in her Bella Vista Chronicles (The Apple Orchard and The Beekeeper’s Ball). She does so once again in Map of the Heart.  Lisette’s story adds poignancy to a novel saturated with loss and recovery. All of the primary characters are dealing with loss on some level. Henry never knew his parents, and he has avoided connections to his past for more than half a century. Camille and Julie have lost their husband and father and their real selves. Julie has lost the smart, funny girl she used to be in the alienation and self-hatred that are byproducts of bullying. Camille has lost the sense of adventure and joy in living that were essential parts of who she was before she became paralyzed by fear. Finn’s preoccupation with recovering the remains of lost soldiers is intimately linked to the disappearance of his own father, a combat strategist and communications specialist who was declared MIA before Finn’s birth. But the book is also about healing and restoration and the power of love—romantic and familial.

I’ve been a Susan Wiggs fans since the days when she was a writer of historical romance, and some of my Wiggs keepers date from that period. But I think her recent books that are essentially women’s fiction with elements of historical fiction, romance, and mystery are among her finest work. I loved Map of the Heart. Wiggs made Bethany Bay, Delaware, and Sauveterre, the Palomar farm in Provence, real to me. Not only Henry, Julie, Camille and Finn but also other characters in both the twentieth and twenty-first century sections of the novel come alive in these pages. I was invested in all their stories from beginning to end, and I turned the final page satisfied emotionally and intellectually. If you like novels that show the past impinging on the present, that deliver a big, multilevel emotional punch, and that conclude with happy resolutions for three generations, I highly recommend this book.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Review, Q&A, & Giveaway - - Maddy's Phoenix

Maddy's Phoenix
By Patricia Yager Delagrange
Publisher: Ravenswood Publishing
Release Date: August 3, 2017
Reviewed by PJ

Maddy has not had an easy life. Abused by her mother as a child, abandoned by her as a young teen, then abandoned by the boy who impregnated her, Maddy found herself scorned by her fellow students, even after she miscarried the baby. Still, she dedicated herself to her studies and excelled in school while waitressing at the local cafe only to fall for another wrong guy who disappeared as soon as she told him she was pregnant. But Maddy is determined to make a good life for the baby she carries. She's saving her tips, determined to leave her small hometown and go to college to become a nurse. Then tragedy strikes. But, on the heels of tragedy, comes what seems to be a miraculous event. She finds an abandoned baby and Maddy does something wrong...for all the right reasons. 

With Cheryl, an older co-worker who has been like a mother to her, the three leave for the big city. Maddy earns a scholarship to study nursing, the baby thrives, and Maddy finally meets a man who treats her with kindness and respect. All of her dreams are coming true...until they aren't...and Maddy must face the actions of her past if there is to be any hope of happiness in her future.

Maddy's Phoenix is a poignant tale that engaged my interest and my emotions. Though there is a romantic element - and happy ending - in this book, there is no doubt that it is Maddy's story. Delagrange takes her from her lowest point and patiently guides her through the evolution that follows, exploring a multitude of relationships. There's Maddy's relationship with baby Judith, her budding romance with Bryce, her familial relationship with Cheryl, Cheryl's own relationship with her estranged daughter, Maddy's fractured relationship with the mother who abused and abandoned her, and, finally, Maddy's relationship with herself. The treatment she was subjected to in her childhood and teens has had a deep impact on her psyche, robbing her of her self-esteem and leaving her feeling unworthy. At times, she seems impossibly young but, by the end of the book, her growth and internal strength is evident. 

I enjoyed Maddy's Phoenix and was in Maddy's corner the entire way. I also liked Bryce and the role he played in Maddy's evolution. I adored Cheryl, the woman who devoted herself to Maddy and Judith, even as she battled her own demons and guilt over her daughter's estrangement. I did, however, have a couple issues with the book that brought my rating down. The beginning of the relationship between Bryce and Maddy hit a hot button for me and though I found their HEA believable and satisfying, and turned the final page confident of their happy future, I still couldn't quite forget how their relationship began. Also, the resolution of Maddy's relationship with her mother seemed a bit too easy considering their history. Those issues notwithstanding, the characterizations are strong, the author's storytelling is engaging, and the ending, satisfying. I'll be reading this author again.


In the Q&A below, Ms. Delagrange talks about her earliest memory. What's your earliest memory? What's your earliest book memory?

Two people who leave a comment before 11:00 PM, August 18, 2017 will receive a digital copy of Maddy's Phoenix

With her dog, Annabella

Patricia Yager Delagrange grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, the daughter of a homemaker and fireman. The author of four women’s fiction novels, including the just-released MADDY’S PHOENIX, Patricia was among the first 400 women to attend what had been an all-male college. The mother of two (almost) grown children, she now writes full-time, except when she’s playing with her pups or riding her Friesian horse, Maximus.

Q&A with Patricia Yager Delagrange

Patricia, did you always want to be an author?

Patricia:  I’m a latecomer to the author ranks. I had planned on becoming a psychiatrist. However, during a college internship at Napa Mental Hospital my sophomore year, I was cured of that interest while working with abused teens. I’ll never forget learning how one of my favorite patients had been put into a frying pan when she was a baby. I am an empath, and I became physically ill working with these poor young people. I couldn’t separate myself from their pain, couldn’t compartmentalize it enough to help them. Sometimes you’re just not made for things you think you want to do!

This business of being an empath explains your ability to connect with your characters who have undergone the worst kinds of tragedies one could experience—the death of a baby at birth the death of a spouse and an adoption gone wrong. And in MADDY’S PHOENIX, a young woman who has had two miscarriages late term, then discovers an abandoned baby left to die in a dumpster.

Patricia:  Yes, I’m always thinking, “How would I feel if that happened to me?”

So you switched from psychiatry to—?

Patricia:  Spanish. I spent my junior year in Madrid, living in a Spanish dorm and taught by Spanish-speaking professors. I spent my senior year at U.C. Santa Barbara, where I graduated with a B.A. in Spanish. Ultimately, I earned my Master’s Degree in College Student Services Administration from Oregon State University and got a job as a Financial Aid Counselor at U.C. San Francisco.

Which is why you able to write the character of college professor Bryce in MADDY’S PHOENIX so convincingly.

Patricia: Well, I hope I did. I worked in academia. And MADDY’S PHOENIX is women’s fiction, but she does find romance in her life. After all, romance is a part of everyone’s life at one time or another!

Were you always an avid reader?

Patricia:  My mom read to me when I was a child and enrolled me in the Book of the Month Club. I recall the first book I received—a story about the ocean and fish, with a blue-green picture on the front. I thought it was the coolest thing ever that I owned a book and would own a new book every single month. That’s when I started reading books. I never stopped. I don’t ever NOT have a book by my side. I go to bed every night reading a book, or I can’t sleep.

In MADDY’S PHOENIX, Cheryl is an older woman who waitresses with Maddy at the little truck stop in Monte Rio, California. She’s much like a mentor to Maddy. Have you had an older woman, like Cheryl, who has mentored you?

Patricia:  My mother. I was very, very close to her. I adored her. She taught me what it is to be loved even when you’re not perfect. We’d talk on the phone all the time. Then I became her caretaker when she was going through chemo and radiation for ovarian cancer, a battle she fought for ten years. Even when she got Alzheimer’s, she never forgot who I was. She’d listen to all my stories, time after time, with as much enthusiasm as she had the first time.

What’s something readers would be surprised to learn about you?

Patricia:  I am an elephant maniac. I even have a new tattoo on my right forearm of a mommy elephant with her baby that my daughter and I recently got at the same time.

How did you meet your husband?

Patricia: I’m the third of six sisters. My sister who is 10 years younger than I am had a girlfriend who was getting married, and my sister invited me to the wedding—to set me up with a guy she knew would be there. Well, when I got there, I was drawn to the brother of the guy she wanted me to meet instead. After a couple of hours, I said to myself, “He’s the man I’m going to marry.” We’ve been together ever since.

A couple of fun questions now. Earliest memory?

Patricia: Sliding down the pole at the firehouse with my father.

First pet?

Patricia:  A duckling. But when it grew into a full-fledged duck, we had to take it to a lake and set it free. Sad moment!

Favorite family heirloom?

Patricia: A baby blanket that was my mother’s. It hangs over the chair that was my mother-in-law’s when she rocked her five kids.

What book are you working on now?

Patricia: I just finished the draft of a story about four sisters and a family fractured by divorce until their mom dies after a long battle with cancer. I’m calling it MENDING FENCES.

And how would you like readers to contact you?

Patricia: My Facebook page is a good place—and I’d love for readers to sign up to receive my monthly newsletter so I can share fun stuff with them—like the latest news about my pups and my honey of a horse! They can do that on www.PatriciaYagerDelagrange.com.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

On Second Thought - - Reforming Lord Ragsdale

Reforming Lord Ragsdale
By Carla Kelly
Publisher: Cedar Fort
Release Date: March 10, 2014
(Originally published by Signet, 1995)
Reviewed by Janga


John Staples, Marquess of Ragsdale, once a young man of purpose and promise, has over the decade since he inherited the title become a drunkard who lives a life of indolence and indulgence with little thought to his responsibilities. The only strong emotion that he can summon is hatred of the Irish. It was during a fight in Ireland that he lost one eye and saw his father killed by an Irish mob. He deals with his guilt over his inability to save his father by drinking himself into a stupor deep enough to blot out his memories. He is not pleased when the visit of his American cousins, Robert and Sally Claridge, requires some exertion on his part. Robert is to be enrolled in Ragsdale’s own college at Oxford, and Ragsdale’s mother will introduce Sally to the ton and find her a suitable husband.

Emma Costello is the Claridge’s indentured servant who has accompanied the brother and sister to London to serve as Sally’s maid. Ragsdale is initially impressed by Emma’s dignity and a degree of knowledge rare in a servant, but when he discovers that she is Irish, he dismisses her as worthless.  Even so, when Robert, who is as addicted to gambling as Ragsdale is to alcohol, attempts to offer Emma’s papers of indenture as a stake in a game during which he has already lost all his money as well as all of Ragsdale’s ready funds, Ragsdale’s essential decency will not allow him to ignore the situation. He interferes, offering his two high-bred horses in place of Emma. Ragsdale is then the owner of Emma’s indenture.

One night when Ragsdale is so drunk he can reach his room only with Emma’s help, he asks her to reform him. Emma draws up a contract and persuades the drunken Ragsdale to sign it. She will reform him as repayment for the two thousand pounds (the cost of the horses) he paid for her indenture and thus earn her freedom. Emma is no ordinary servant. She is a beautiful, cultured, educated woman whose strength has been tested by the losses she survived. She has no more love for the English than Ragsdale does for the Irish, and her reasons are at least as just as his. Nevertheless, she is determined to carry out the reform of Lord Ragsdale. She secures the help of his mother and begins her program of reform by ending Ragsdale’s access to alcohol. She pays his bills, dismisses his mistress (but only after befriending her and devising means for the woman to respectably earn her living), and she oversees Ragsdale’s makeover into an acceptable husband for a proper wife, Miss Clarissa Partridge.

During the process Emma and Ragsdale become friends. He shares with her the horrors that have tormented him for ten years, and Emma eventually shares with him her own horrific tale of torture and loss. Friendship turns to love, but neither Emma nor Ragsdale have any illusions about their future. There can be no shared future for an English marquess and a formerly indentured Irish servant, no matter her origin. 

From the time I first read Carla Kelly’s earliest traditional Regencies back in 1989-1990, I have sung her praises to anyone who would listen to me. When I encounter another reader who loves Carla Kelly’s books, I add a name to my tribe. My print copies of the fifteen trads she wrote between 1989 and 2002 have been reread until the covers are tattered and the pages are loose. The anthologies that include her novellas have fared no better. I was elated when her books became available in digital versions in 2012. I was thrilled to have Kindle copies of Miss Drew Plays Her Hand, Libby’s London Merchant, One Good Turn, and others, but I had to wait two years to add my #1 favorite Carla Kelly book, Reforming Lord Ragsdale to my digital collection. I have reread it once a year since then.

I consider Reforming Lord Ragsdale as close to perfect as any romance I have ever read, and I have read thousands. First, the characterization is superb. Romance readers talk a great deal about strong heroines. Emma Costello is certainly one of the strongest. Readers see her strength of mind, heart and body not only in her past but also in her dealings with Ragsdale, in her struggle to solve her problems, and in her walks to Newgate Prison. Ragsdale may seem weak initially, but Kelly shows us his intelligence, wit, and core of humanity even then. These are characters who have truly suffered. The distance between the humor of some of the earlier scenes and the darkness of Ragsdale’s revelations—and later Emma’s—is immeasurable, but Kelly makes the light and the darkness fit into her remarkable story. Although Ragsdale’s growth from an indolent drunk to a mature man of action and purpose is greater, Emma too experiences growth. She learns that “it is better to love foolishly than to hate bitterly.”

We romance readers take our HEAs for granted. Rare are the books that make us doubt them, but Kelly casts doubt in this book. The power of the story she weaves is so great that on the tenth reread, my heart still leaps into my throat as I read of the plans for Ragsdale’s June wedding and of Emma’s emigration to Australia. And the final five pages always leave me blissful, with tears in my eyes and a smile on my face.

If you think traditional Regencies are formulaic or lacking in sexual tension, you should read Reforming Lord Ragsdale. It just might send you searching for more Carla Kelly books. If you need more recommendations, I have a list.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Blog Tour Review - - Branded as Trouble

Branded as Trouble
By Delores Fossen
Publisher: HQN
Release Date: June 27, 2017
Reviewed by PJ

Every town needs a bad boy, and Wrangler's Creek's has been gone far too long… 
Getting his high school girlfriend pregnant was just one square in Roman Granger's checkered past, but it changed him forever. When his son's mother skipped town after the birth, Roman decided to do the same, baby Tate in tow, hoping for a fresh start. 
Now Roman fears his teenage son is following in his wayward footsteps, so he returns home to Wrangler's Creek, aiming to set him straight. It's there he encounters Tate's cousin Mila Banchini, the good-girl opposite of Roman who's had a crush on him since childhood. The old spark between them undeniably never died, though Roman worries it'll only lead to heartache. But if falling for Mila is such a bad idea, why does everything about holding her feel so right?

Mila Banchini has a lot going for her. She's smart, pretty, a good friend, and owner of the local bookstore. She also has a wacky mother most people in town steer clear of and, oh yeah, she's most likely the only virgin over the age of 25 in Wrangler's Creek. Plenty of men (of all ages) are willing to help with her "little problem" but Mila's heart has always been set on Roman Granger. Too bad Roman fell for her self-centered cousin in high school. In the years since Mila's cousin left town, abandoning Roman and their baby son, Roman has hooked up with pretty much everyone except Mila. But now, after many years away, circumstances have brought Roman back to Wrangler's Creek and Mila intends to make the most of it while he's there, even if her heart does get broken when he leaves.

I've been intrigued by the absent Granger son, Roman since the first book in this series. We knew he was estranged from his mother, that he owns the Granger ranch but wants nothing to do with it, that he's a successful businessman in his own right, that's he's a motorcycle-riding hottie with a badass attitude and that he's trying his best to be a good father to his troubled son...and failing miserably. What we didn't know was what had happened in the past to bring Roman Granger to this point, why he'd never given Mila a second glance (or had he?) and why he never, ever, under any circumstances, had sex with a woman more than three times. I was more than ready to find out the answers to all these questions and more in Branded as Trouble.   

Delores Fossen has become one of my go-to contemporary western romance authors. She creates wonderfully complex families and well-developed, likable characters, giving them challenges to overcome and journeys to love in stories infused with heat, heart, and plenty of humor. She isn't afraid to tackle serious topics - as she does in Branded as Trouble - but does so with compassion and hope. Her books are filled with realistic characters: some quirky, some serious, some annoying, some fun, some shy, and some oozing with sex appeal, playing them against one another like a well-tuned orchestra. I've enjoyed all the books in this series but Mila and Roman's story is my favorite. What can I say? I've always loved a bad boy with a wounded heart. And Mila, what a terrific heroine. I loved her strength, her compassion, and her determination to take control of her destiny and not settle for less than what she deserved. 

If you enjoy western-set, contemporary romances filled with fun, sizzle, humor, and emotion, go no further than Delores Fossen's Wrangler's Creek series: Those Texas Nights (Sophie Granger and Clay McKinnon), No Getting Over a Cowboy (Garrett Granger and Nicky Marlow) and Branded as Trouble (Roman Granger and Mila Banchini). 

Do you enjoy western romances?

Have you read any of Delores Fossen's books? Do you have a favorite?

Do you like your heroes with a bit of attitude but a vulnerable heart?

One person who leaves a comment by 11:00 (EST), August 16, 2017 will receive a print copy of Branded by Trouble from the publisher. (U.S./Canada only)

One person who leaves a comment today will receive a signed copy of Branded by Trouble that I got at the recent RWA conference. (U.S. only) 

Purchase Links

Amazon | Books-A-Million | Barnes & Noble

Connect with Delores

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Sunday, August 13, 2017

Review - - A Most Unlikely Duke

A Most Unlikely Duke
By Sophie Barnes
Publisher: Avon
Release Date: June 27, 2017
Review by Santa

A Most Unlikely Duke is the first of a new series by Sophie Barnes. Raphe Matthews, the unlikely duke in question, is a bare knuckle boxer from St. Giles. He boxes to pay a debt his father incurred and struggles to keep his sisters safe and sound. But he’s been doing it since he was eight when his parents died and they were forced from their home.

He has only one fight left that would free them from all their debt when a letter arrives making him a duke. The former duke failed to provide an heir or a spare and as a distant relation the dukedom falls to Matthews.

He and his sisters move to their London townhouse and work to fit in with the Ton. Not an easy thing to do with a Cockney accent. His secretary becomes an ally as does another duke, the Duke of Coventry. Raphe still needs lessons in deportment and dance.

Enter Lady Gabriella, the Earl of Warwick’s daughter. No stranger to scandal or at least her sister’s scandal. It’s now her duty to lift the family’s name by marrying well along with a sizeable dowry. And she nearly does by becoming engaged while agreeing to help Raphe. Their attraction is mutual but not without a number of wrenches thrown into the mix.

I enjoyed being introduced to the Matthews family and seeing how Raphe finds that as a dedicated and loyal man, he really always had the makings of a Duke in him all along. Dance lessons help but it’s what’s inside that makes the man.

I give this book four out of five stars. I look forward to other books in the series and I see myself picking up some of her earlier books, too.

Review - - Grand Slam

Grand Slam
By Heidi McLaughlin
Publisher: Forever
Release Date: May 23, 2017
Reviewed by Santa

The boys of summer are here in Heidi McLaughlin’s Grand Slam. This is the third book in the series but one that can easily be read on its own. I give this book five out of five stars. There’s a lot of punch in this book. Both the hero and heroine are faced with some pretty immense issues.

Travis Kidd plays for a major league baseball team: the Boston Renegades. He is a shining star on the team and if there’s trouble to be had - he has it. A self-admitted ladies man, Travis enjoys the fairer sex as much as they do him.

That can’t include a publicist on his team, Saylor Blackwell, but it did and with disastrous results. She left so fast he wondered if what happened between them ever did.

Sleeping with him caused a ripple effect in her personal life and could end her career. However, with Travis as a media darling in the off-season, they have no choice but to try and work together. Travis is wrongly accused of rape and Saylor and her team are called in. Travis comes forward to clear his name but the media and a district attorney up for re-election work to prove him guilty and fast. Saylor is the only one who can confirm that he did not do anything at all. To do so could jeopardize her career and personal life. Add to this a disgruntled ex, who after walking out on her and their child, wants back in.

It takes a strong person to withstand these storms. Travis finds that his attraction to Saylor is more than a physical one. Their attraction grows and they find that as a team they can face and conquer anything.

They have quite a road ahead of them to a happily ever after. I really liked the way the story unfolded. I look forward to reading more of Heidi McLaughlin’s books and plan to read some of her other works, as well.