REVIEW: Susanna Kearsley’s THE VANISHED DAYS

The_Vanished_DaysReading my umpteenth Kearsley novel, I noticed something in her narrative I hadn’t beforehand: a common emotional trajectory that may be characterized as melancholy mood to joyful conclusion. Because they are the most historical of historical romances, their melancholy comes from Kearsley’s initial presentation of her characters as trapped by history. But she builds their strength, intelligence, and virtue and proves to us how these qualities can sometimes defeat history’s choke-hold. She writes about ordinary people (when considered through the lens of big-name, big-battle, big-power sweep) but extraordinary in how they wrest happiness out of what appear to be insurmountable obstacles determined by history and its cruel, expedient masters, men of power over honour. At their centre are women and child characters who are victimized but not victims, exercise agency within constricting circumstances and yet are often trapped by forces beyond their capacity to fight back. In the end, characters escape to a happy life by circumventing evil using wiles without losing their essential goodness. The Vanished Days‘ Lily Aitcheson and her helpers are such. Her story is told in a dual-timeline alternating between childhood/youth and the novel’s “present-day”, the early 1700’s. Her story is narrated by one Adam Williamson, who is tasked to investigate Lily’s claim for compensation as the widow of a man who perished in Scotland’s 1698-Darien-colony-bound fleet. The blurb fills in historical detail further: 

There are many who believe they know what happened, but they do not know the whole of it. The rumours spread, and grow, and take their hold, and so to end them I have been persuaded now to take my pen in hand and tell the story as it should be told… Autumn, 1707. Old enemies from the Highlands to the Borders are finding common ground as they join to protest the new Union with England, the French are preparing to launch an invasion to carry the young exiled Jacobite king back to Scotland to reclaim his throne, and in Edinburgh the streets are filled with discontent and danger. When a young widow, Lily Aitcheson, comes forward to collect her lost husband’s wages, former soldier Adam Williamson is assigned to investigate her petition. As Lily tells her story, Adam has only days to discover if she’s being honest, or if his own feelings are making him blind to the truth. But sinister figures lurk in the background – is Adam being used as a pawn in an increasingly treacherous game?

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REVIEW: Jenny Holiday’s SANDCASTLE BEACH (Matchmaker Bay #3)

Sandcastle_BeachI’ve enjoyed every one of Holiday’s Matchmaker Bay novels. Looking back at the three titles (hoping for more), I admire how she set a different tone to each couple, balancing the familiar and whimsical with the fresh and heart-tugging. Of the three, Paradise Cove chewed my heart to bits. Sandcastle Beach made for a nice contrast: low-stakes romance, likeable hero and heroine with supportive family, friends, and town rooting for them and, my favourite bit, a nod to one of Shakespeare’s great comedies, Much Ado About Nothing. If Mermaid Inn brought us reunited high school sweethearts and Paradise Cove saw a tragedy healed in its love story, Sandcastle Beach had the frothy fun and banter of Shakespeare’s delightful paen to love’s headiness, but also to how we resist it and fight against it.

We watched Ben Lawson and Maya Mehta snark at each other through the first two series books. Like to their friends and family, that they were in love was obvious. This does not make their romance journey any less engaging for being so apparent. (I also enjoyed Holiday dialing down the sexy times and going for slow burn with this one: she nailed it.)

The blurb offers further detail:

Maya Mehta will do anything to save her tiny, beloved community theater. Put on musicals she hates? Check. Hire an arrogant former-pop-star-turned-actor? Done. But what Maya really needs to save her theater is Matchmaker Bay’s new business grant. She’s got some serious competition, though: Benjamin “Law” Lawson, local bar owner, Jerk Extraordinaire, and Maya’s annoyingly hot arch nemesis. Let the games begin.

Law loves nothing more than getting under Maya’s skin, and making those gorgeous eyes dance with irritation. But when he discovers the ex-pop star has a thing for Maya, too, Law decides he’s done waiting in the wings-starting with a scorching-hot kiss. Turns out there’s a thin line between hate and irresistible desire, and Maya and Law are really good at crossing it. But when things heat up, will they allow their long-standing feud to get in the way of their growing feelings?  (more…)

MINI-REVIEW: Julia Justiss’s THE BLUESTOCKING DUCHESS (Heirs in Waiting #1)

Bluestocking_DuchessThis isn’t my first foray into reading Justiss, but it will be my last. What a slog of a read The Bluestocking Duchess was. But the promise of a premise can deceive, true of Justiss’s late-Georgian? early Victorian? 1834-set romance. The blurb will show how potentially attractive The Bluestocking Duchess appeared:

Her good friend…
Is suddenly a duke’s heir!
Miss Jocelyn Sudderfeld is working at Edge Hall, indulging her love of translating ancient texts with her librarian father—and evading the need to marry! She’s always enjoyed a teasing friendship with estate manager Mr. Alex Cheverton. Until he unexpectedly becomes the duke’s heir. Now his first duty is to marry a suitable debutante, not consort with an earnest bluestocking like her… So where does that leave their friendship?

I do enjoy a friends-to-lovers romance and a translating heroine sounded fresh and compelling. With the exception of a few scenes in the British Museum, this romance never came alive, the hero and heroine moving across the narrative board like wooden chess pieces. (more…)

MINI-REVIEW: Elly Griffiths’s THE POSTSCRIPT MURDERS (Harbinder Kaur #2)

Postscript_MurdersElly Griffiths’s second Harbinder Kaur mystery tells us more about her love of Golden Age mystery writers, Murder She Wrote, and Georgette Heyer than it stands as exemplary crime fiction. I did not give an owl’s hoot about this, but to the tightly-plotted-is-best mystery reader, Postscript Murders is a sprawling mess, an octopus of great characters going nowhere in a plot meandering towards the improbable. Still, I liked it. I’m a fan of character-driven mystery, especially when the characters, amateur and professional, work together to solve the crime.

The blurb will lead us by setting things up:

The death of a ninety-year-old woman with a heart condition should not be suspicious. Detective Sergeant Harbinder Kaur certainly sees nothing out of the ordinary when Peggy’s caretaker, Natalka, begins to recount Peggy Smith’s passing. But Natalka had a reason to be at the police station: while clearing out Peggy’s flat, she noticed an unusual number of crime novels, all dedicated to Peggy. And each psychological thriller included a mysterious postscript: PS: for PS. When a gunman breaks into the flat to steal a book and its author is found dead shortly thereafter—Detective Kaur begins to think that perhaps there is no such thing as an unsuspicious death after all. And then things escalate: from an Aberdeen literary festival to the streets of Edinburgh, writers are being targeted. DS Kaur embarks on a road trip across Europe and reckons with how exactly authors can think up such realistic crimes . . .

Um, there’s actually no road trip “across Europe”, unless you count the characters’ miles-long foray from Shoreham-by-Sea to Aberdeen? Truth be told, Griffiths’s plethora of characters, plenty of them “found dead” like Peggy Smith, and convoluted plotting left me confused and indifferent to the goings-on. What did I enjoy? Her detecting crew, made up of adorable eccentrics. (more…)

Review: Kate Clayborn’s LOVE AT FIRST

Love_At_FirstIn Love At First, Kate Clayborn penned a perfect romance. How did she manage to keep me engrossed in a novel where nothing happens? Tension and conflict dissipate (the heroine’s feud is silly and it is to her credit she sees it as such). Instead, Clayborn lets her romance stand on characterization, setting, scene, and mood. There has also been an authorial decision on Clayborn’s part that I think has made for her best book yet: she abandoned her previous books’ first-person narration for third. This adds depth and maturity to the writing and removes her reliance on her characters’ first-person voices to provide it, which they don’t. And can’t, given the first-person dependence on personality. As I said, not much happens; here’s the blurb to start us off on the glorious details:

Sixteen years ago, a teenaged Will Sterling saw—or rather, heard—the girl of his dreams. Standing beneath an apartment building balcony, he shared a perfect moment with a lovely, warm-voiced stranger. It’s a memory that’s never faded, though he’s put so much of his past behind him. Now an unexpected inheritance has brought Will back to that same address, where he plans to offload his new property and get back to his regular life as an overworked doctor. Instead, he encounters a woman, two balconies above, who’s uncannily familiar . . . No matter how surprised Nora Clarke is by her reaction to handsome, curious Will, or the whispered pre-dawn conversations they share, she won’t let his plans ruin her quirky, close-knit building. Bound by her loyalty to her adored grandmother, she sets out to foil his efforts with a little light sabotage. But beneath the surface of their feud is an undeniable connection. A balcony, a star-crossed couple, a fateful meeting—maybe it’s the kind of story that can’t work out in the end. Or maybe, it’s the perfect second chance . . . (more…)

Audiobook Review: Helen Hoang’s THE HEART PRINCIPLE (Kiss Quotient #3)

The_Heart_PrincipleThere was much to love about Hoang’s The Heart Principle and not. The blurb has a rom-com vibe and not. Neither com nor angst fit the novel, solid romance for two-thirds and then a long-winded “something else”.

For what it’s worth, here’s the blurb and let’s see where it takes us:

When violinist Anna Sun accidentally achieves career success with a viral YouTube video, she finds herself incapacitated and burned out from her attempts to replicate that moment. And when her longtime boyfriend announces he wants an open relationship before making a final commitment, a hurt and angry Anna decides that if he wants an open relationship, then she does, too. Translation: She’s going to embark on a string of one-night stands. The more unacceptable the men, the better.

That’s where tattooed, motorcycle-riding Quan Diep comes in. Their first attempt at a one-night stand fails, as does their second, and their third, because being with Quan is more than sex—he accepts Anna on an unconditional level that she has just started to understand herself. However, when tragedy strikes Anna’s family she takes on a role that she is ill-suited for, until the burden of expectations threatens to destroy her. Anna and Quan have to fight for their chance at love, but to do that, they also have to fight for themselves. (more…)

Mini-Review: Elly Griffiths’s THE NIGHT HAWKS (Ruth Galloway #13)

The_Night_HawksI avoided coming to the point where I must wait for the next Ruth Galloway (next June, folks), but here I am after tapping the last Kindle page of The Night Hawks. What I concluded was: with every Ruth Galloway, I care less about the mystery and more about the characters. (If you love the series, the review might be fun to read; if not, it’ll definitely have an insiders feel to it.) It’s great to have Ruth and twelve-year-old daughter Kate back in their Saltmarsh cottage: Ruth, now head of archaeology at the University of North Norfolk, the usual gang circling them, especially the complicated relationship with “the love of her life,” DCI Harry Nelson of King’s Lynn police and Kate’s father. DC Judy Johnson, still married to Ruth’s friend, Cathbad, is back; Harry’s family: wife Michelle; baby George, now three; adult daughters, Laura and Rebecca; and my favourite still makes an appearance, DCI David Clough, “Cloughie”. The murder is complicated and atmospheric and involves amateur archaeologists, illegal medical experimentation, and the eponymous “night hawks” discovering a washed-up body at Blakeney Point. Nelson calls Ruth and she is once again part of a police investigation as forensic expert. Their personal lives’ dangerous currents are the narrative’s focus as much as the investigation. The blurb provides further details:

Ruth is back as head of archaeology at the University of North Norfolk when a group of local metal detectorists—the so-called Night Hawks—uncovers Bronze Age artifacts on the beach, alongside a recently deceased body, just washed ashore. Not long after, the same detectorists uncover a murder-suicide—a scientist and his wife found at their farmhouse, long thought to be haunted by the Black Shuck, a humongous black dog, a harbinger of death. The further DCI Nelson probes into both cases, the more intertwined they become, and the closer they circle to David Brown, the new lecturer Ruth has recently hired, who seems always to turn up wherever Ruth goes.

David Brown is irritating and arrogant, though an interesting addition to the cast of characters Griffiths is constantly shifting and developping. Equally compelling is Griffths’s homage to Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles as the farmhouse murder-suicide has Ruth and Nelson sight the Black Shuck on several ominous occasions!    (more…)

Mini-Review: Sophie Pembroke’s AWAKENING HIS SHY CINDERELLA

Awakening_His_Shy_CinderellaI wanted to read, not necessarily Awakening His Shy Cinderella, but Sophie Pembroke because Wendy the Superlibrarian loved one of her books. Pembroke’s writing and some scene setting can be lovely, but her “awakening Cinderella” was uneven. It started out great and I was excited to find a new category author to follow. Here is the blurb to set us off:

Can a festive flirtation last…
After the final cracker has been pulled? Damon knows Rachel’s always prioritized her family’s needs above her own. But one close encounter between them changes everything… It’s time for Rachel to step out of her comfort zone! Damon usually steers clear of commitment, but neither can resist indulging in a very temporary affair! Only, when the time comes, can he walk away from the captivating woman he’s discovered?

There are way too many question and exclamation marks in the blurb, offering a tenuous description. Damon Hunter and Rachel Charles have known each other for years. Rachel is Damon’s older sister’s BFF. Their lives have intertwined, but Rachel, who’s carried a torch for Damon, is plain-Jane curvaceous to his player good looks. In the background are Rachel’s family, her step-mother and -sisters, putting her down, giving her the lowliest tasks in the world-famous department store family business, her ineffectual father doing nada to help her. This made Rachel into a hard-working mouse of a woman, toiling but never asserting or asking for anything for herself (hence, the Cinderella title).   (more…)

Review: Cara Bastone’s FLIRTING WITH FOREVER (Forever Yours #3)

Flirting_With_ForeverNow I’ve come to the end of Bastone’s Forever Yours series and must say I’ll miss her world and the characters she creates. I hope to see more from Bastone: she’s a wonderful combination of familiar-contemporary-romance groove and something fresh, new, and, at times, subtly subversive. On the surface, one thinks typical contemporary rom-com, as the blurb suggests:

Mary Trace is bright, bubbly and back in the dating pool in her midthirties. All of her closest friends are in love, and she refuses to miss out on romance. So when a regular customer at her trendy Brooklyn boutique wants to set Mary up on a blind date with her son, she gives a hesitant yes. John Modesto-Whitford is gorgeous and well-groomed, so maybe dinner won’t be a total bust—until he drops a less-than-flattering comment about Mary’s age.
Desperate to be nothing like his snake of a politician father, public defender John Modesto-Whitford prides himself on his honesty and candor. But his social awkwardness and lack of filter just blew it with the most beautiful woman he’s ever dated. Luckily, Mom’s machinations keep Mary and John running into each other all summer long, and soon they resort to fake dating to get her to back off. When their pretense turns to real friendship—and some surprisingly hot chemistry—can these two stubborn individuals see past their rocky start to a rock-solid future together?
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Mini-Review: Elizabeth Hoyt’s WHEN A ROGUE MEETS HIS MATCH (Greycourt #2)

When_A_Rogue_Meets_His_MatchI didn’t expect to enjoy Hoyt’s When A Rogue Meets His Match as much as I did. Greycourt #1 wasn’t super-great and great is what I expect of Hoyt, The Raven and Leopard Princes being some of the first enthrallingly good romances I read when I returned to the genre. (Their only match, IMHO, is Duke of Sin.) I read When A Rogue Meets His Match in less than two days, partly because I greatly enjoyed the cross-class romance, reminiscent of Marrying Winterborne, and partly because it fell short, pun intended, in the conclusion department. To start us off, some blurbish summary:

Ambitious, sly, and lethally intelligent, Gideon Hawthorne has spent his life clawing his way up from the gutter. For the last ten years, he’s acted as the Duke of Windemere’s fixer, performing the most dangerous tasks without question. Now Gideon’s ready to quit the duke’s service and work solely for himself. But Windermere wants Gideon to complete one last task, and his reward is impossible to resist: Messalina Greycourt’s hand in marriage. Witty, vivacious Messalina Greycourt has her pick of suitors. When Windermere summons Messalina to inform his niece that she must marry Mr. Hawthorne, she is appalled. But she’s surprised when Gideon offers her a compromise: as long as she plays the complacent wife, he promises to leave her alone until she asks for his touch. Since Messalina is confident that she’ll never ask Gideon for anything, she readily agrees. However, the more time she spends with Gideon, the harder it is to stay away.    (more…)