Friday, December 29, 2017

Favorite Romances of 2017

This year we were blessed with some outstanding new books which made 2017 a great year for reading but sure didn't help Janga and me whittle our "best of" lists down to ten titles. I'm adding a few bonus books to my list because there were titles that, while they didn't make the top ten cut, still needed to be mentioned. There were just so many good books! 

PJ's Top Ten for 2017

Between the Devil and the Duke by Kelly Bowen (Jan 31)

One of the things I most enjoy about 2017 RITA award winner Bowen's books is her skill in creating complex, intelligent, fascinating characters who are outside the norm. Alex and Angelique, hero and heroine of Between the Devil and the Duke are perfect examples of that skill. Gifting them with sparkling dialogue, sizzling passion, family secrets, heartwarming emotion, and a mystery with twists and turns aplenty showcases this brilliant match, landing Alex and Angelique on my list of all-time favorite couples. Secondary characters, both good and bad, shine vibrantly in their respective roles, moving the story along without taking the focus off the hero and heroine. Readers of the series will delight in catching up with characters from the first two books while those new to the series will have no difficulty reading Between the Devil and the Duke as a standalone.

STOLEN:A Cassidy & Spenser Thriller by Carey Baldwin (Feb 14)

Baldwin is an expert at crafting intricately-woven psychological thrillers filled with twists and turns that always keep me reading late into the night and guessing until the very end. Just when I think I have everything figured out, she throws in another twist that leaves me gasping. I love that! Her skills as a medical doctor, a psychologist, and a gifted writer are put to good use in the creation of complex, compelling characters - especially villains - and the perilous circumstances in which she places them. I eagerly look forward to every book she writes. STOLEN is part of a continuing series but can easily be read as a standalone.  

My Kind of You by Tracy Brogan (Apr 18)

I had so much fun reading Brogan's first book in her new Trillium Bay series that I was still awake reading at 2:30 am and laughing so loud I thought I was going to wake the people in the condo next door. It's a funny, heartwarming tale with a wonderful cast of characters, intriguing family dynamics, and Brogan's signature humor. If you're looking for a contemporary romance that will touch your heart and tickle your funny bone, I highly recommend My Kind of You

White Hot / Wildfire by Ilona Andrews (May 30 / July 25)

The magical universe Andrews has created within present-day Houston and the characters that populate it are so vivid and realistic that they, their magical abilities, and their fictional world seemed normal as I lost myself within these two books, the second and third in Andrews' Hidden Legacy series. These characters stayed in my mind for weeks after reading these books. The suspense! The action! The romance! Andrews reeled me in hook, line and sinker and I went willingly, captivated from beginning to end.

Day of the Duchess by Sarah MacLean (June 27)

I laughed, cried, winced, sighed, and cheered as I traveled this unexpected journey of MacLean's creation. Sera and Mal (Haven) are flawed, complex characters who won my heart and I assure you that before starting this book, I was absolutely certain "won my heart" and "Duke of Haven" could never coexist in the same sentence. If you enjoy historical romance rich with humor, deep emotion, complex characters, and hard-earned happy endings, give this one a try. 


Devil's Cut by J.R. Ward (Aug 1)

The third and final book in Ward's Bourbon Kings trilogy was all I had hoped for and more. Filled with love, lust, murder, betrayal, mystery, and more, this saga set within the rich and powerful Kentucky bourbon-making Baldwin family is complex, compelling, fast-paced, and supremely satisfying. Also addictive. I turned the final page at 4:30 am after reading all - night - long. If you enjoyed TV's Dynasty or Dallas then you'll want to get your hands on Ward's Bourbon Kings trilogy. Read the books in order: The Bourbon Kings, The Angel's Share, and Devil's Cut

Dirty Dancing at Devil's Leap by Julie Anne Long (Aug 29)

Julie Anne Long continues to hit my 'best of' lists with the third book in her Hellcat Canyon series. It's funny, endearing, emotional, and oh, so romantic. The final chapter had me sighing, crying, and sighing some more. Long's command of the English language is breathtaking while her characters are exquisitely drawn, beautifully flawed, continually evolving, and vividly realistic. I'm in love with this series and eagerly anticipating the next installment: The First Time at Firelight Falls, due out May 29, 2018.

Montana Heat: Escape to You by Jennifer Ryan (Aug 29)

If you're looking for riveting romantic suspense with a western flair that grabs hold and refuses to let go, you need to be reading Jennifer Ryan. Montana Heat:Escape To You is a truly chilling tale that I could not put down. I lost count of the number of times I gasped, ached, sighed, and, finally, cheered as I read this book. The twists and turns kept me engaged, the action had my pulse racing, and the emotional intensity of complex, multi-layered characters Beck, Ashley, and Adam's journey captured my heart. I can't wait to see what Ryan brings readers next. 

Duke of Desire by Elizabeth Hoyt (Oct 17)

This darkly emotional historical romance brings Hoyt's Maiden Lane series to a conclusion and, in my opinion, is one of her best books. Raphael, one of my favorite Hoyt heroes, is also one of her most tortured with a past that is complex, compelling, and heartbreaking while Iris, his heroine, has the tenacity, intelligence, sensitivity, and heart to not give up in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Hoyt breathes life into these complex characters, creating a harrowing story with danger around every corner, a heart-wrenching, emotional journey that affected me at a visceral level, and a hard-won triumph of love over evil that filled me with hope and joy. This is not an easy story to read but is one that is exceptionally well written and destined to stay with me for a long time.  

Wilde in Love by Eloisa James (Oct 31)  

You know that feeling you get when you discover a fictional family that is destined to find a special place in your reader's heart? It's how I felt when introduced to Julia Quinn's Bridgertons, Johanna Lindsey's Malorys, and, now, to the Wildes of Lindow Castle. James brings readers a smart, witty, romantic story with an eclectic, blended family that piqued my interest, engaged my emotions, and is well on its way to capturing my heart. I'm excited to find out what adventures James has planned for all of them. If Wilde in Love is any indication, I should probably start clearing off more space on my keeper shelves. 

Bonus Titles: The Duchess Deal by Tessa Dare, Scandalous Ever After by Theresa Romain, Marry in Haste by Anne Gracie, The Woman Who Couldn't Scream by Christina Dodd, The Highlander's Princess Bride by Vanessa Kelly, Starlight Bridge by Debbie Mason 

Janga’s Top Ten for 2017

Note: My list is in chronological order according to publication date. If I had had to number these wonderful books 1-10, I would still have been deciding, second-guessing, and reordering on January 1, well past PJ’s deadline. I should also mention that there are another couple of dozen books that I ranked 4.5-5 stars. Each one helped make 2017 a glorious reading year for this romance reader.

       On Second Thought, Kristan Higgins (Jan. 27)

Kristan Higgins always makes me laugh. In this one, she also makes me cry. I think the wake scene shows her genius as well as anything she has ever written. Her description of grief is so real and powerful that reading a passage like this one—"And every day takes you further from the time he was alive, slicing you with the razor-sharp realization that these days would never be celebrated again. . . . All those dates that held no meaning for anyone on the outside, but were slashed into the hearts of those of us who’d been left behind.”—hurts and heals my heart.

  A Lady’s Code of Misconduct, Meredith Duran (Feb. 28)

Compelling characters (an intelligent heroine and a hero ripe for redemption), tropes I like given a twist, and conflict (internal and external) demanded my attention from beginning to end—all these plus Duran’s lovely, lucid prose made this one a winner. I called it “a novel as close to perfect as any historical romance in my memory” when I reviewed it. Ten months later, I still feel that way.

         Lady Be Bad, Megan Frampton (July 25)

I love Frampton’s humor, and I found the combination of physical humor and witty dialogue a real delight. I also loved the realness and the complexity of the sisters’ relationships. Alexander and Eleanor are so good together—funny and vulnerable, sweet and sexy, smart but without all the answers.This was a wonderful first book in a series that left me highly anticipating the books to come.


      Map of the Heart, Susan Wiggs (Aug. 22)

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 have a special place in my heart and on my bookshelves for books that show the past impinging on the present, that deliver a big, multilevel emotional punch, and that conclude with happy resolutions for characters I love. This one qualified on all counts.

       Dirty Dancing at Devil’s Leap, Julie Anne Long (Aug. 29)

I can’t get enough of this series! I especially loved Avalon and Mac’s first conversation about their past (intense), their first kiss as adults (Julie Anne Long writes great first kiss scenes), the first consummation scene (which sent the sizzle meter soaring), the Grand Gesture that precedes the HEA (totally sigh-worthy), and of the declaration: “Three words that contained worlds and the past and the future. They were as beautiful and intricate as the house...” Dirty Dancing at Devil’s Leap left this reader with a blissful smile and increased eagerness for the next Hellcat Canyon book.

       The Summer That Made Us, Robyn Carr (Sept. 8)

“Dysfunctional family” has become a cliché, but Carr shows how dysfunction happens—and the results are anything but cliché. This story of women and their relationships to one another and how these relationships define, balance, support, wound, and heal these women made me cry and left me thinking about these characters and the truths their story holds. This was another Robyn Carr book that left me grateful I’m a reader.

       Chasing Christmas Eve, Jill Shalvis (Sept. 26)

Spence and Colbie are likable, intelligent characters, a bit battered by life but loyal to those they love, passionate about their work, and possessing a keen sense of humor. Spence’s tribe all have parts to play in this story, and I loved their interactions. This is my favorite book in this favorite Shalvis series. And it’s a Christmas book that deserves that description.

       Wilde in Love, Eloisa James (Oct. 31)

I'm a huge fan of intelligent romance. I love humor done with wit and style. I love meeting characters that interest me and charm me and earn a spot in my heart. All these are reasons enough for this book to earn a place on my list. Then there is the fact that reading it was such fun—and getting the literary allusions makes me feel smart. I loved this book from the Darcyesque cover to the Caribbean island epilogue. I am wild about the Wildes of Lindow Castle!

       Someone to Wed, Mary Balogh (Nov. 7)

After all these years, Mary Balogh can still surprise me. She did with the pairing of Alex, an almost perfect beta hero, and Wren, as uncommon a romance heroine as her name suggests. But I loved them as individuals and believed in them as a couple and became more engaged than before with the Westcotts and their world. It does not surprise me that this Balogh book left me superlatively eager for the next one.

     A Duke in Shining Armor, Loretta Chase (Nov. 28)

A runaway bride and a difficult duke and Loretta Chase’s inimitable wit and heart—how could this story fail? Olympia and Ripley are smart and funny and perfect for each other and for this Chase fan, who thinks everything this author writes is amazing but found this one required reordering my top favorite Loretta Chase books. 

Special Mention: Before We Were Yours, Lisa Wingate (June 6)

This book is not a romance, but it is a haunting, heartbreaking read with a sweet ending that leaves enough questions to keep the story credible. I read it in August, and I’m still thinking about it. I think it is Wingate’s best work, and I have to include it on any list of my best reads of 2017.

What were your favorite books of 2017?

Four people who leave comments before 11:00 pm (Eastern), December 31st will each receive one print book from my conference stash. (U.S. only)

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Remembering Miranda Neville

PJ here. The first time I met Miranda Neville she was a newly published author and I had yet to read her book. I was captivated by her friendly smile, her quick wit, her crisp British accent, and her whip-smart intelligence. I vowed to read Never Resist Temptation at my first opportunity. It didn't take long for me to be captivated by her writing and I eagerly anticipated each of her subsequent releases. Over the years, I've had the pleasure of getting to know Miranda better through romance conferences, social media, and her visits here at The Romance Dish. She was a shining light to all who knew her, a good friend with a wonderful sense of humor who could rock a fascinator like nobody else. She was also one of the most talented historical romance writers out there, in my opinion. Her final book, Secrets of a Soprano was one of my favorites from last year and one of my favorites of all her books. I mourn the fact that it is the last book she will gift to her readers but rejoice in the fact that she was able to publish this wonderful story - the self-proclaimed book of her heart. It's still hard to believe she's gone, taken from us much too soon. I mourn her passing but rejoice in the fact that her words will live on through her stories. 

Following are Janga's remembrances of Miranda:

I always think of Miranda Neville as sophisticated, not with the harsh, artificial brilliance that is unfortunately a common connotation of the word but rather in the larger sense of subtle, discriminating, cultured versed in the complexities of a subject. Her books impress me with those qualities too. She wrote intelligent romances, but they never lacked heart as well.

I began reading Miranda’s books with her debut, Never Resist
Temptation (2009). It begins fairly conventionally, but then the author gives things a twist. The reader is soon deep in a plot that involves cross-dressing (Jacobin runs away and becomes Jacob Léon, a French pastry chef at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton) and murder (Candover is poisoned by food served at one of the Prince Regent’s dinner, and Jacob is in danger not only of having her identity exposed but of being arrested). The novel was well-crafted with a fresh touch. I liked what I read and was interested in seeing more from this new author.

More turned out to be The Wild Marquis (2010), the first of Neville’s Burgundy Club series about an exclusive clique of young aristocrats who are rare-book collectors. She hooked me with that description, and I bought the book, liked it, and looked forward to the next in the series.

The Dangerous Viscount (2010) remains one of my top three Miranda Neville books. I knew going in that it was a male-makeover tale, a trope I’ve loved since I first read Georgette Heyer’s Powder and Patch and fell under the spell of Philip Jettan. I fell hard for Sebastian. I rank him with Jack Langdon in Loretta Chase’s Devil’s Delilah as favorite bookish hero. I feared Diana was going to be a shallow character, but she soon redeemed herself, showing that she had courage, a sense of humor, and an admirable streak of pragmatism. And I adored her family, the Montroses. The Dangerous Viscount put Miranda Neville on my auto-buy list before I knew the best was yet to come.

The Amorous Education of Celia Seton (2011) is my #1 Neville
book, and it is one of my all-time top 100 romances. Celia has the kind of strength in which I can believe. She refuses to be daunted by all that life throws at her. A lesser person would be paralyzed by self-pity, but Celia soldiers on through dismissal, kidnapping, hunger, and heartbreak. Tarquin is just as dimensional. He is a dandy, an aloof soul, and a wit who is carelessly cruel, but there are reasons for the image he presents to his world. I fell in love with him when he looked at Celia, found her “neither plain nor pretty,” doubted that he could ever have fallen in love with her at first sight, but acknowledges that he could have fallen in love with her after knowing her long enough to appreciate her courage, her quick wit, and her humor. That sounds to me like a promising foundation for a lifetime together. A Publishers Weekly reviewer described this one as a “mix of hilarity, mystery, and passion.” I agree, and I found the mix most palatable.

Confessions from an Arranged Marriage (2012) completes the Burgundy Club series, and I confess I had some reservations about this one. Because Minerva Montrose’s intelligence, humor, youthful confidence, and undisguised ambition to be a political hostess made her a particularly appealing secondary character in The Dangerous Viscount and The Amorous Education of Celia Seaton, the last person I expected to see her paired with was the insufferably superior Marquis of Blakeney. The opinion Sebastian Iverley (The Dangerous Viscount) expressed of Blake, his cousin and enemy, was one that seemed accurate to me: “He was an arrogant ass at the age of ten, with very little reason I may say, and he never got any better. He’s an idiot without a worthwhile thought in his head.”

But as Minerva’s perception of her husband changes, so does the reader’s. First, she begins to value what he does well. Minerva’s deepening respect for the man Blake is empowers him to become more, and he is able when she needs him most to be commanding and powerful, to be every inch the duke with generations of dukes behind him. Perhaps the greatest evidence of the changes in Blake is his acceptance of what he is and what he is not, a self-acceptance tempered by his regret that he cannot be the man Minerva wants. And Minerva’s response to his self-acceptance is a lovely reminder that these two have grown into two people who like and respect one another as well as healthily lusting after one another.

“I’m not going to lead the party and I’ll never be a member of the government, let alone Prime Minister. I wish I could be the man you want, Minnie, but I don’t have it in me.”
“You are the man I want. You don’t have to be anyone different.”

Sigh! I’m a believer. Happily ever after all the way. And an author who can effect such a transition in a reader is worth a price beyond rubies.

The Wild Quartet followed the Burgundy Club. The Importance of Being Wicked (2012) was the first novel, although a novella The Secret Seduction of a Lady (2012)—a terrific reunion tale--introduced the series and Caroline Townsend, the heroine of this first novel. I’m a big fan of the stuffy hero paired with a heroine who shakes his world. Both these characters have a sense of humor too, another reason I love them and this bit of dialogue:

“I don't like to be particular,” Thomas went on, “but that really should be the Duke of Stuffy, you know. Or, if you insist on ceremony, His Stuffiness.”

Her smile stretched into a delighted grin. “No formality between friends, surely. I shall simply call you Stuffy.”

The Ruin of a Rogue (2013) was next, and it delivers all the title promises. Some roguish heroes are little more than wild oats-sowing boys who must grow up in order to become heroes, but Marcus Lithgow is the real thing. Although the reader learns early on that he is capable of courage and kindness and even of experiencing a stab of guilt for his choices, Marcus acts in his own interests whether that violates moral codes or not. When luck turns against him, he feels no remorse in targeting the heiress Anne Brotherton, confident that he will either force her guardian to approve their marriage or secure a sizeable payoff from said guardian to disappear from her life. When Anne chooses to walk into Marcus’s lair, he thinks “The pigeon would be plucked, the shrew would be tamed.” But Marcus fails to understand that his own taming is in process. Later, when he warns Anne, “I’m a rogue and I’ll take advantage of anything that might give me entrée to those who can be of use to me,” the reader knows that the very act of revelation signals that the ruin of the rogue is almost complete. When Marcus is confronted with a moral crisis, he finds that he can “no longer be happy as a scoundrel.” For Anne’s sake and for his own, he rejects the expedient choice to do the right thing for the right reason, the very definition of an honorable man. The rogue has been ruined, and the hero is headed for an HEA with the woman who helped to ruin the man he had been.

Lady Windermere’s Lover (2014) is another great title, but I just could not like the Earl of Windermere despite his eventual redemption. I did like the heroine and I was so intrigued by Julian, Duke of Denford, that I thought he stole the book. He is the hero of the final book in the series, The Duke of Dark Desires (2014), another five-star read for me. Denford and his heroine,
Jeanne de Falleron, aka Jane Gray, meet when she joins his household as governess to the duke’s charges. In Jane and Julian, Neville has created two of her most complex, vital characters. He was only twenty when he allowed ambition to overrule his instincts and unwittingly played a role in the deaths of the Falleron family. Hedonism allows him to bury his guilt over that piece of his history. He finds sensual pleasure in his liaisons with many women, but his deep feelings are reserved for the art he buys and sells. The survivor’s guilt that haunts Jane is layered. Not only is she the only one to have escaped death but she did so by clinging to the identity of Jane Gray assigned to her by her father, thus denying her family. At fifteen, she chose to become the mistress of a French soldier rather than have him reveal her identity and send her to her death. Later she finds a measure of peace and pleasure as the mistress of a politician. Recognizing the pragmatism of her choices, she still views herself as a whore. Once they meet, Jane and Julian, who have controlled their feelings when they could control nothing else, begin to lose some of that control.

Sometimes the hero and heroine in romance novels are so consumed by lust that they seem to become totally physical beings. I often wonder how they will spend their time together when they are not lust-slaking. Miranda Neville avoids this trap. The heat between Jane and Julian is strong and blessedly mutual. But these are two people who genuinely like one another and enjoy one another’s company. Their pleasure in one another is not only physical. At one point, Jane’s “heart fluttered wildly at [Julian’s] nearness and her mind blossomed at the pleasure of his conversation.” (Those words struck me as a most accurate description of time with a beloved.)

Between 2013 and 2015, Miranda wrote five novellas: “P. S. I Love You” in At the Duke’s Wedding and “The Best Laid Planner,” her only contemporary, in At the Billionaire’s Wedding, both anthologies with Katharine Ashe, Caroline Linden, and Maya Rodale; and “Licensed to Wed” in Christmas in the Duke’s Arms, “Duchess of Scandal” in Dancing in the Duke’s Arms, and “The Rake Who Loved Christmas” in Christmas on Duke Street, all three with Grace Burrowes Shana Galen, and Carolyn Jewel. Each one is special, but “The Rake Who Loved Christmas” is my favorite. It is as sweet as it is sexy, and is has a powerful poignancy. It also has a bit of a Heyeresque feel, which seems appropriate given Miranda’s admiration for the author who introduced her to romance.

In 2016, Miranda self-published Secrets of a Soprano, which she called “the book of my heart.”  It was on my top-ten list last year, and it is the third book in my top trio of Miranda Neville books. This reunion story of a celebrated soprano and the man who captured her heart and broke it puts a new spin on the celebrity romance. Neville gives her readers not only an emotionally rich romance but also a look at the world of opera at a time when the public’s fascination with the stars of opera paralleled contemporary obsession with rock stars and top box-office draws. Neville honors the unwritten contract with her readers and gives Tessa and Max their HEA, but their journey to a blissful reunion is a fraught one—and Tessa’s celebrity is a realistic complication and a reminder that ours is not the first age to create and destroy idols. A reunion romance with a diva heroine (in the original sense “distinguished female singer”) plus a delightfully unexpected secondary romance and cameo appearances by Jacobin and Anthony, the Earl and Countess of Storrington from Neville’s debut novel, Never Resist Temptation, make this book a winner in every sense. Secrets of a Soprano was Miranda’s final novel.

How to Find a Duke in Ten Days and At the Christmas Wedding are both on my Kindle, but I haven’t been able to read either of them. I see the three authors listed on the cover, and I think of the one who is missing. Lady Scandal, planned as the first of the Ladies in Disgrace series and scheduled for a May 29, 2018 release, is still on my Goodreads want-to-read list. I’m sad that I’ll never read that book or the other Ladies in Disgrace novels. But I am grateful for all the wonderful stories Miranda left us. Each time I reread one—and I will reread them all—I will remember Miranda and be glad that for a space, she graced this romance community we all share with her warmth, intelligence, and humor. She is missed.

PJ, again. Thank you, Janga for that beautifully written tribute to Miranda and her books. 

For a look back at some of Miranda's visits to The Romance Dish over the years, click on the following links:

Q&A: May 3, 2016
Q&A: June 27, 2014
Guest Post: June 17, 2013

Readers, have you read any of Miranda Neville's books? Do you have a favorite?

Two randomly chosen people who leave a comment before 11:00 PM (Eastern), December 31st will receive a Kindle copy of Secrets of a Soprano

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Review - - The Highland Guardian

By Amy Jarecki
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing / Forever
Release Date: December 19, 2017
Reviewed by Hellie

The third in Jarecki's Highland trilogy, THE HIGHLAND GUARDIAN introduces Reid, the Earl of Seaforth, and Audrey Kennet, an English heiress, who is as shy as she is rebellious. On a return trip from France, after meeting with King James of Scotland (a treasonous offense), Reid's ship is attacked, and Audrey's father, Nicholas, is killed when the ship is sunk off the coast. With his dying breath, Nicholas begs Reid to look after his daughter, and Reid agrees. 

Reid's belief he has taken on the guardianship of a wee lass is abruptly corrected when he meets his nineteen-year-old ward, the fair and beautiful, Audrey. His plans immediately turn to finding a husband for the girl so he can go back to his true duties, the cause, putting the rightful heir, King James, back on the throne of England and Scotland. Audrey, recently back home from completing finishing school, is devastated to learn her beloved father has died and horrified to learn she is to be married off to the nearest man with a pulse as soon as it is convenient for the earl.

Of course it proves challenging to marry off a gorgeous nubile young woman with more money than Croesus, and there are various issues that cause the young couple to be in each other's company time and again until the unthinkable happens, and the earl realizes he's in love with his own ward. Audrey is equally vexed when she realizes the same for herself. And because the road to true love hasn't run smooth so far, Reid also has to wheedle himself out of a lifelong family betrothal in order to marry the woman he loves. Breaking off a betrothal with the excuse you're in LOVE is always eyebrow-raising prior to 1850, and breaking off a betrothal to say you're in love with an ENGLISHWOMAN when you're a Jacobite Scottish nobleman is akin to sheer lunacy. Still, not impossible.

For me, the story is 2 stars - and I feel I must explain why the story was not my cup of tea. I started
reading this book no less than three times (the third in which I 'finished' only to complete the review.)
While the young and noble Reid was no challenge to like and fall in love with, I found Audrey more
frustrating. While she is a sheltered, spoiled young heiress, doted on by her father, she feels younger than her nineteen years, especially nineteen year old women in the 18th century. While Jarecki does a wonderful job of creating heroines who are authentic to their time period (I enjoyed the first two in the trilogy), I felt Audrey was more improbable. While it's possible to be painfully shy, yet bold while riding a horse or picking out a heartstopping red ballgown, it felt improbable. I don't know - the painfully shy factor seemed incongruous with someone who was loved and spoiled by her father, encouraged to think and have opinions, and seemed to think it was shocking her father was planning to find her a husband, when she's nineteen, the only child of a coal-mining fortune, and living in a century where that was what women grew up knowing was their outcome as soon as they were of age. Someone who is as intelligent as the heroine proves to be cannot be that dim-witted about the realities of her time. 

One of the first things she does when introduced in the story is ride off alone on her trusted gelding to clear her head. She doesn't take a groomsman with her to protect her. She doesn't tell Reid she's going out - she's escaping him - and no one questions it. Not impossible, I remind myself, but improbable. She could be kidnapped for ransom or killed by outlaws, but it seems not to cross her mind at all. In fact, she doesn't learn from the first time she rides out alone - she does it again a chapter or two later, but this time Reid happens upon her and tells her to take a groomsman with her from not on. Perhaps I've spent my time reading too many Regency novels where if an unmarried girl leaves her house without the proper retinue of protectors and keepers, her reputation is mud, and maybe things were more lax a hundred years prior, but I don't think so. If she had been anyone but the rich sole heiress of a recently deceased businessman, I would have bought into it more. After all, in the first of Jarecki's books, the heroine travels a lot by herself...but her family is poor and she is the breadwinner. She also has a few more skills for protecting herself than Audrey does.

The camel straw for me was when Audrey was afraid that the ball she was going to would be a disaster because she couldn't dance and no man would possibly find her desirable. She. Who is a fair English rose...and the heiress to a king's ransom? Granted, Audrey had a few mortifying experiences at Court and some balls she was forced to attend that would lend to her mindset, but in a world - which Jarecki alludes to with the scene with the solicitor - where women should be rarely seen and not heard, a beautiful young woman with a fortune and who is so shy she doesn't like to talk or share her opinions can only seem like a 18th century man's wet dream in my opinion. 

However, my issues with how young women should behave - when I'm well past nineteen and unwilling to dwell on what a prat I could be like - is mine; and as a third in the trilogy, it ties up loose ends well enough, closing a door on an interesting chapter in Scottish history. Reid is heroic and delightful; and for some, Audrey's shyness will be a welcome change from the slew of Lara Croft-like heroines who star in many current historical romances. 

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Review - - No Place Like You

No Place Like You
By Emma Douglas
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Release Date: December 5, 2017
Reviewed by Janga

Zach Harper, only son of rock legend Grey Harper and at least a twinkle in the rock universe himself, is returning home to Cloud Bay, an island off the California coast where his father and his Blacklight bandmates all built homes at the height of their fame and where Zach’s sisters and the stepmother who mothered him for most of his life still live. Zach is ambivalent about his return. When the lead singer of Fringe Dweller, the band to which Zach has devoted three years of his life decided to take a year’s break just as the band seems poised to reach their goal, Zach is left frustrated and adrift. He is planning his first solo album but uncertain about how things will work out and fully aware that he has fences to mend with his sister Faith. His most recent betrayal was backing out on her at the last minute when he had agreed to appear at last year’s CloudFest.

Leah Santelli, Faith Harper’s long-time best friend, runs Harper Inc.’s recording studio, works often as a sound engineer, and does a little producing. Recently divorced, she has become more ambitious about taking the producing to a new level. When she learns from Faith that Zach plans to stay on the island to work on an album, she sees that as a chance to move her career in the direction she wants it to go.  But she and Zach have a history—eighteen years of her being his younger sister’s best friend, a few years less than that of Leah having a huge crush on him, and one night of sexual fireworks after which Zach left. He broke her heart, but Leah is over him now. Or so she keeps telling herself.

When the chemistry between them proves to be volatile, it is Leah who proposes a no-strings affair with a built-in expiration date, the day Zach leaves the island. They both know he will leave. Predictably, hearts become involved and things get complicated—on the personal and professional level. Can Leah see that even if her heart breaks, she can find wholeness? Will Zach discover that he has thrown away what he needs most?

This is the third book in the Cloud Bay series, and if Zach had been less of a jerk, I’d consider it a solid read, even if not quite up to the middle book, A Season of You. I like Leah. She is funny, good at what she does, honest, and fiercely loyal. But I thought both Faith and Leah forgave Zach too easily. He wonders early on if he is a “self-centered prick.” He is. He has a pattern of putting his own interests before those of people he professes to love. I understand he experiences a Revelation and is a changed man, but I’m not sure I trust that the change will prove permanent.

I expected this book to end the series, but a cliffhanger ending almost certainly assures that there will be at least one more book. There are also several other characters who seem to be interesting types who deserve their own story, so other possibilities abound. I eagerly await more info about the fourth Harper sibling. If you are a fan of second-chance stories in contemporary romance and a tad less cynical about transformed heroes than I am, you will likely enjoy this well-written story.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Merry Christmas!

Wishing all who celebrate a very Merry Christmas! 

I hope your hearts are filled with joy, 

your homes are warmed by love, 

and your stockings are overflowing 

with good books!

Friday, December 22, 2017

Review - - Right Where We Belong

Right Where We Belong
By Brenda Novak
Publisher: Harlequin / Mira
Release Date: October 31, 2017
Reviewed by Janga

Savanna Gray’s life as an ordinary, small-town wife and mother ends when her husband is charged with a series of rapes and arrested. At first, Savanna refuses to believe that he is guilty, but as evidence against him mounts, she is forced to accept his guilt. Even then, she is not prepared for the way people in Nephi, the Utah town where she has lived for the nine years of her marriage, turn on her. After a confrontation with one of the rape victims in a supermarket leaves eight-year-old Branson and six-year-old Alia fearful and filled with questions about their father, Savanna decides that she must forge a new life for them and for herself. With her lawyer’s assurance that her divorce will be final soon, she, Branson, and Alia move to Silver Springs, California. All Savanna knows about the town is that a ranch her father bought before his death is located there. With no mortgage payment or rent to worry about, she can create a home there.

Gavin Turner knew that Savanna and her children needed help as soon as he saw them. For starters, the only bridge that provides access to the ranch where she plans to live has been washed out. A part-time musician who also works with his adopted mother at the New Horizons Boys Ranch, Gavin understands what it is to need a helping hand, and he eagerly offers his help to his sad-eyed neighbors, whether it is to build a bridge, literal or metaphoric, to restore a house in desperate need of repairs, or to listen to Savanna’s traumatic story.

The isolation of their neighboring ranches and the time Savanna and Gavin spend together working on the house quickly fosters an emotional intimacy that is accompanied by a strong physical attraction. Gavin also bonds with Savanna’s children. But Savanna has trust issues, and her past is not as finished as she had hoped. Gavin has some demons of his own, and a complication from his past threatens to end his relationship with Savanna. Can these two overcome these obstacles and claim the happiness they deserve?

Novak’s fourth Silver Springs novel is part small-town romance, part suspense. I give the romance high marks. Savanna is a mix of strength and vulnerability. Her strength is clear in the decisions she makes to divorce her husband and to move to a place about which she knows little. Her vulnerability shows in her concerns about her children and in her doubts about her own judgment. Branson and Alia are sweet and sad, but still very much real kids with decided charm. Like all the heroes in this series, Gavin has a troubled past. He was abandoned at a gas station when he was five, but his experience at New Horizons--and more particularly as one of Aiyana Turner’s adopted sons—gave him stability and a family. He has become a sensitive, responsible, and caring man. It doesn’t hurt that he is also a sexy, tattooed musician. Readers will find all these characters appealing and root for their happiness.

Readers should note, however, that this book has definite triggers, including abduction and murder as well as rape. Even though the crimes lack the level of detail found in the typical thriller, some will find them disturbing. Some readers may also find that the relationship between Savanna and Gavin develops too quickly. Others will feel that Savanna’s wounded heart needs Gavin’s healing touch.

I’m a longtime Novak reader, and one of the things I most admire about her is her willingness to take risks in her storytelling. I prefer my contemporary romance without the darker edges this novel has, but that is a comment on my taste, not on the quality of Novak’s writing. This is another skillfully crafted book with engaging characters. Readers who like suspense thrown into the mix will likely appreciate it without my reservations.

Review - - Home for Christmas

Home for Christmas
By Holly Chamberlin
Publisher: Kensington
Release Date: October 31, 2017
Reviewed by Janga

Six years ago when Nell King’s husband left her for a younger woman, she left her “perfect life” in a Boston suburb behind and moved to Yorktide, Maine, to start a new life with her daughters, Molly and Felicity, then fifteen and eleven. Nell found healing and happiness in Yorktide, but as this Christmas approaches, she is overcome with sadness at thoughts of her soon-to-be-empty nest. With Molly planning to marry shortly after she graduates in June and Felicity looking forward to college in the fall and planning to spend next Christmas in Switzerland with her father and celebrity stepmother, Nell realizes this Christmas may be the last one her family of three will share.  She determines to make this Christmas one her daughters will always remember, their best Christmas ever.

As Nell struggles with concerns about who she will be once her daughters no longer need her, she begins decorating the day after Thanksgiving. By the second week in December, the house is filled with Christmas trimmings, including three Christmas trees, one so big that it required two men to move it into the house. Her kitchen is filled with holiday cookies and candies, and every spare minute from her job as office manager of a local veterinary practice is taken up with her Christmas handcraft du jour.

Despite her efforts, the season is not measuring up to expectations. Her daughters are begging off participating in some of the family’s cherished traditions. Molly is planning to break up with her longtime boyfriend to avoid losing herself in marriage and motherhood, a decision that Nell sees as a critique of her own life. Felicity, influenced by her stepmother, is displaying a disturbing materialism. And the reappearance of Eric Manville, now a successful novelist and the man Nell loved madly at twenty-one, is forcing her to question choices she made long ago.

This has been a good year for heartwarming Christmas stories with the sentiment and seasonal packaging of a Hallmark movie. Add Holly Chamberlin’s Christmas novel to the list of those that do this sort of story well. Although this is women’s fiction with Nell’s journey to a rediscovery of self at its center, the romantic element is strong enough to make the book appealing to romance readers. The characters are relatable, and Nell’s decorating, baking/candy making, gifting frenzy will strike a familiar note with many readers. So too will her fears that the reality of the holiday will not measure up to her dreams of what it should be. Themes of second chances, forgiveness, and reconciliation add greater substance.

This is a sweet story that manages to avoid the saccharine. There are no villains here. Even the ex-husband is a man with strengths as well as weaknesses and a father who loves his daughters. If you like quieter stories without high drama or sizzling sensuality, I think you will appreciate this one. I did, and I give it an unqualified recommendation for readers who are more sentimental than cynical.