REVIEW: Caitlin Crews’s SECRET NIGHTS WITH A COWBOY (Kittredge Ranch #1)

Secret_Nights_With_a_CowboyWhen I started Secret Nights, I thought I would end up DNF-ing; instead, it sucked me in and I read into the wee hours and again at dawn. I’m groggy and tired, but trying to understand why I enjoyed it as much as I did. To start, I think the reason I thought I would DNF is there’s something about Crews’s narrative voice that grates. When I start one of her novels, I’m instantly turned off by the feeling she’s leading me along her narrative; I can see her composing on a computer. If I end up enjoying the novel, then it’s because, despite that intrusive storytelling voice, the sheer romance-y-ness of it is compelling. In this case, it was (in others, not) and I don’t even enjoy marriage-in-trouble romance:

Riley Kittredge has always known exactly what he wanted. His land, his horses. His woman. He met and married Rae Trujillo far too young, and their young love combusted right after they said their vows. But their passion has never managed to burn itself out. Yet when Rae shows this time, it’s not a night of pleasure she demands, but a divorce. Rae should have moved on a long time ago. She knows she and Riley just don’t work. They might make great lovers, but that doesn’t make a marriage. And now Rae wants a new life, complete with a baby. But when her husband offers to be a father, to give her the family she’s always secretly desired, she and Riley will both have to face demons from their past—and choose love over fear at last.

Riley and Rae were high-school sweethearts and their young love didn’t exactly combust until “something happened” and Rae left Riley to move back in with her parents. Then, for the next eight years, Rae drove to Riley’s horse ranch, to the house he built for them, to fight and have sex. Eight years of yelling and sex doesn’t seem plausible to me because surely a person needs some peace and friendly conversation? What do I know, though, spinster that I am? A friend of mine once told me that her 30-year marriage consisted of yelling and great sex, so maybe? In any case, when the novel opens, Rae asks Riley to divorce because she wants to have a baby. Her friend Abby’s baby, Bart, has set all hormones firing. This is less of a plot point, in the end, than the blurb suggests and that was a good thing. I’m glad baby-making didn’t play such a great role, instead the working out of a relationship where’s there’s a lot of love, but not much by way of understanding, forgiveness, or communication. (more…)

REVIEW: Susie Steiner’s PERSONS UNKNOWN (Manon Bradshaw #2)

Persons_UnknownAfter a run of great books, Matthews’s Gentleman Jim, Griffiths’s Stone Circle, Bliss’s Redemption, I could not settle for less, so I grabbed Susie Steiner’s Persons Unknown from the night-stand. If it could be half as good as Missing, Presumed, I was in for another winner. It was and wasn’t. I still gave up sleep and human companionship to read non-stop, resisting the pull of obligation and meals. I still loved the characters, though Manon grated in this one, but Davy was as lovable as ever. I still loved how Steiner made her “coppers” pursue justice and even occasionally mercy and manage to have messy, at times pathetic, personal lives. (By the end, Davy’s speed-dating!) But the crime and Manon’s place in it were wrenchingly difficult to read about; Manon was difficult to read, weepy, hugely pregnant, cumbersome emotionally and physically.

Now to the blurb-summary to get the procedural details (my reviewer’s Achilles’ heel, I am rubbish at keeping track and am the reader ever-duped by red herrings):

As dusk falls, a young man staggers through a park, far from home, bleeding from a stab wound. He dies where he falls, cradled by a stranger, a woman’s name on his lips in his last seconds of life.

DI Manon Bradshaw can’t help taking an interest — these days, she handles only cold cases, but the man died just yards from the police station where she works. 

She’s horrified to discover that both victim and prime suspect are more closely linked to her than she could have imagined. And as the Cambridgeshire police force closes ranks against her, she is forced to contemplate the unthinkable: How well does she know her loved ones, and are they capable of murder?   (more…)

The Great Betty Read #39: Betty Neels’s PINEAPPLE GIRL

Pineapple_GirlIt was a pineapple given to her by a grateful patient that led Eloise Bennett to meeting the Dutch doctor Timon van Zeilst. Shortly after that, Eloise went to Holland to nurse a patient and there was Dr. van Zeilst again! Thrown into his company, Eloise soon realized that she loved him. But Timon was going to marry the beautiful Liske—so why would he look twice at Eloise?

The publisher’s blurb seemingly says it all; and yet, there’s so much more to this Neels romance than at first appears. To start, it was perfection until one terrible, of-its-time moment at the end. Unlike most of Neels’s romances, which have a fairly narrow scope, Pineapple Girl has a great sweep of setting changes and scenes of breathtaking romantic élan, starting with the meet-cute, possibly Neels’s best accidental “meets.” There have been so many Neels romances where the hero and heroine meet thanks to an accident of some sort, motor or otherwise, something, or someone is smashed up and they work together to put things aright. In this case, when Eloise is gifted the pineapple and is hurrying through the hospital with it, it is “smashed” by Timon’s shoe: “She frowned and lifted her chin because he has begun to smile a little, and that was a great pity, because she took a step which wasn’t there and fell flat on her face. The knitting cushioned her fall, but the pineapple bounded ahead and landed with a squashy thump on the man’s shoe, denting itself nastily.”

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REVIEW: Karina Bliss’s REDEMPTION (Rock Solid #5)

RedemptionOne of the first great category romances I ever read was Karina Bliss’s What the Librarian Did, making me a category-convert for life. Bliss’s Special Forces series was also among the best I’ve read and the first and last, Here Comes the Groom and A Prior Engagement, among the best romance I’ve read, category, or otherwise. Reading Redemption brought back their goodness and reminded me what wonderful writers some category authors were. I’m so glad Bliss kept writing and publishing romance (after the sad loss of the Superromance line) because reading her is always a pleasure.

Redemption and its “Rock Solid” predecessors have a connection to that among-the-first category I read: What the Librarian Did‘s hero, Devin Freedman, is Rise‘s and Redemption‘s hero, Zander Freedman’s younger brother, also connected by having experienced the rise and fall of their uber-successful, world-famous rock band, Rage. What was Elizabeth and Zander’s HEA in Rise continues in Redemption. While not a marriage-in-trouble romance, it is a relationship-growing-pains romance. Zander and Elizabeth are not estranged, but trying to be vulnerable, work through their fears, and love and support each other. They make mistakes and, out of self-doubt, don’t always communicate. Bliss’s blurb fills in further details:

Like every woman emphatically in love, academic Elizabeth Winston figured she’d fix her rockstar lover’s emotional problems with her shiny, all-encompassing acceptance. Oh boy. Even though she’d heard her minister father counsel couples throughout her childhood, she forgot the take-away. You can’t force someone to heal before they’re ready. Now she’s five thousand miles from the man she loves and hawking intimate details of their relationship to salvage his iconic legacy. Struggling to keep her own identity, and increasingly unsure whether Zander’s even on board. Can she redeem his reputation while holding onto her career, or is she making things worse on all fronts? And that’s before she makes a mistake that changes everything.

He gave up the world for love. The world isn’t ready to let him go. Fame is a destroyer. Which is why Zander Freedman quit music. These days its moderation in all things, except Elizabeth Winston. But building an ordinary life with an extraordinary woman isn’t easy. For one, she’s deep in the snake pit he left behind. For two, he has a stalker that stops him being by her side. Loving her is easy. Letting her love him is something he works on every day. How hard does Elizabeth’s life have to be before she regrets choosing him? (more…)

REVIEW: Elly Griffiths’s THE LANTERN MEN (Ruth Galloway #12)

The_Lantern_MenI am nearing the finish-line to the Ruth Galloway series, with only the most recent left to read, the June-released Nighthawks, before I join the thousands of readers awaiting the next installment. Chatting with a fellow-reader in church today, we agreed it’s time for Dr. Galloway and DCI Nelson to be together, pretty please, Ms Griffiths …

Like the previous eleven, The Lantern Men sees the familiar team, this time initially separated by choice or circumstance, come together to find a serial killer’s missing and murdered women (the women are long-buried and I can vouch, for the squeamish, that nothing gross, or violent appears in the novel; sentiments are terrible, but descriptive physical detail is at a minimum). Here are further details from the publisher’s blurb:

Forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway changed her life—until a convicted killer tells her that four of his victims were never found, drawing her back to the place she left behind.

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REVIEW: Mimi Matthews’s GENTLEMAN JIM

Gentleman_JimI have a hard time finding historical romance to enjoy, most are trite and tired, but not Matthews. She never fails to engage and I easily immerse myself in her fictional world. It was so with The Work of Art and “Fair As a Star,” and it was certainly so with Gentleman Jim. I stayed up late and woke up early to read; groggy as I am, I’m here to praise it. The blurb will launch us by filling in some details of character, plot, and setting:

Wealthy squire’s daughter Margaret Honeywell was always meant to marry her neighbor, Frederick Burton-Smythe, but it’s bastard-born Nicholas Seaton who has her heart. Raised alongside her on her father’s estate, Nicholas is the rumored son of notorious highwayman Gentleman Jim. When Fred frames him for theft, Nicholas escapes into the night, vowing to find his legendary sire. But Nicholas never returns. A decade later, he’s long been presumed dead.

After years spent on the continent, John Beresford, Viscount St. Clare has finally come home to England. Tall, blond, and dangerous, he’s on a mission to restore his family’s honor. If he can mete out a bit of revenge along the way, so much the better. But he hasn’t reckoned for Maggie Honeywell. She’s bold and beautiful–and entirely convinced he’s someone else. 

As danger closes in, St. Clare is torn between love and vengeance. Will he sacrifice one to gain other? Or, with a little daring, will he find a way to have them both?

Hmmm, I’m not sure St. Clare is concerned with restoring his family’s honour so much as his grandfather is. With a scoundrel son, notoriously reputed to be the highwayman Gentleman Jim, the Earl of Allenby has put his energy and vast fortune into ensuring grandson St. Clare inherits. Rumours simmer about John Beresford: who was his mother? Were his parents married? Is he legitimate? To Maggie, after a long illness and years of mourning her father and aunt, her beloved Beasley Park is bound to her marrying her hated neighbour, Frederick Burton-Smythe, the very man who exiled her beloved Nicholas from her love and protection. (more…)

REVIEW: Elly Griffiths’s THE STONE CIRCLE (Ruth Galloway #11)

The_Stone_CircleAfter that at best forgettable romantic suspense, it was great to be back with Ruth, Kate, DCI Harry Nelson and his team, and the delicious complications of their personal lives amidst a series of crimes, a decades-long missing child, the murder of a King’s Lynn eccentric, and thank the reading gods after the last book’s Italian setting, Norfolk-set in the fog, rain, and cold.

The Stone Circle is definitely a Ruth Galloway which sees the past impinge on the present like the tides that rise near Ruth’s cottage, both in terms of the crime and the lives of its detecting figures. The publisher’s blurb will provide further detail:

DCI Nelson has been receiving threatening letters telling him to ‘go to the stone circle and rescue the innocent who is buried there’. He is shaken, not only because children are very much on his mind, with Michelle’s baby due to be born, but because although the letters are anonymous, they are somehow familiar. They read like the letters that first drew him into the case of The Crossing Places, and to Ruth. But the author of those letters is dead. Or are they?

Meanwhile Ruth is working on a dig in the Saltmarsh – another henge, known by the archaeologists as the stone circle – trying not to think about the baby. Then bones are found on the site, and identified as those of Margaret Lacey, a twelve-year-old girl who disappeared thirty years ago.

As the Margaret Lacey case progresses, more and more aspects of it begin to hark back to that first case of The Crossing Places, and to Scarlett Henderson, the girl Nelson couldn’t save. The past is reaching out for Ruth and Nelson, and its grip is deadly.

The bearing the past has on the present is treated in a more reflective fashion than the blurb’s somewhat sensationalist final sentence. Ruth often ruminates how the past plays its role in the present, how it should be studied and respected. Griffiths’ themes are always about solving a crime to put the past to rest, offer restitution to lives lost unjustly, and let their rest-in-peace give way to the living being able to carry on, even thrive. (more…)

MINI-REVIEW: Nicole Helm’s CLOSE RANGE CHRISTMAS (Badlands Cops #6)

Close_Range_ChristmasI continue in my nostalgic pursuit of finding category romance. In this case, I read Nicole Helm, an author whose longer-form contemporary romance I enjoyed. And … nope. It wasn’t terrible, except for one puerile bit, but it also isn’t going to send me running to read more of this category. It didn’t help that I came in at #6: there were A LOT of previous book couples, with convoluted family histories, fostered, biological, and adopted, AND, it appears, six? seven? brothers from one ranch marrying the various sisters from the neighbouring one. Yeah, it was Seven Brides for Seven Brothers without the humour, music, or, well, the fun. Without overburdening my poor readers with the endless backstory, let’s give it over to the blurb for some plot and character filler:

Dev Wyatt’s worst fear has come true. Someone from the Wyatts’ dangerous past is stalking his family—and his best friend, Sarah Knight. When she asked Dev to help her have a child, Sarah did not expect her pregnancy would place her in danger, but now Sarah must take shelter on the Wyatt ranch. As she and Dev battle escalating threats, will they survive long enough to become a family?

Um, blurb-foiler: this sounds like it has forced-proximity potential. Au contraire, the Wyatt ranch is peopled with a gazillion brothers, their wives, children, and pets. The sexy times, given Sarah is nine months pregnant (not what we see on the cover), days from her due date, are strictly closed-bedroom-door and sparse, which is a-okay by me. As for the mini-village living together, with a grandmother to boot, I did not even try to figure out who’s who and who’s with who, or who begat who.  (more…)

MINI-REVIEW: Elly Griffiths’s THE DARK ANGEL (Ruth Galloway #10)

The_Dark_AngelOf all the Ruth Galloways I’ve read, this is the one I liked least. Not that it would convince me to abandon the series, that, I still adore and anticipate the next read and the one after that, until, alas, I’ll have to wait for the next book to be published.

In The Dark Angel, Griffiths transports her protagonists, Dr. Ruth Galloway and DCI Harry Nelson, to Italy, where they become involved in a murder investigation. The blurb sets out some of the details for us:

It’s not often that you’re called to the Italian countryside on business, so when archaeologist Angelo Morelli asks for Ruth Galloway’s help identifying bones found in picturesque Fontana Liri, she jumps at the chance to go, bringing her daughter along for a working vacation. Upon arriving, she hears murmurs of Fontana Liri’s strong resistance movement during World War II, and senses the townspeople have a deeply buried secret. But how could that connect to the ancient remains she’s been studying? Just as she’s getting her footing in the dig, DCI Nelson appears, unexpectedly and for no clear reason. When Ruth’s findings lead them to a modern-day murder, their holidays are both turned upside down, as they race to find out what darkness is lurking in this seemingly peaceful town.

Be warned, dear reader, that I will discuss the series’ happenings and bring about SPOILERS. If you’re keen on reading from book #1, and I encourage you to do so, you may want to return to the review in future.

I’ve realized that one of my favourite things on the blog is to foil the publisher’s blurb. 😉 Truth be told, Ruth jumps at the chance to go to Italy (accompanied by her friend, Shona, and Shona’s son, Louis, whose relationship with Ruth’s daughter, Kate, makes for the only comic relief) because her relationship with Harry, ever complicated, has become more so. Secondly, though Harry, because reasons, is still with his wife Michelle, he goes to Italy when he sees there’s been an earthquake in the region and is worried about Ruth and, as he calls her to Ruth’s annoyance, their daughter, “Katie”. (more…)

MINI-REVIEW: Shannon Stacey’s THEIR CHRISTMAS BABY CONTRACT (Blackberry Bay #2)

Their_Christmas_Baby_ContractWhen I started reading romance after 30 years away, one of the first romances I read was Sarah Mayberry’s Best Laid Plans. Introduced to the genre with The Flame and the Flower, Mayberry’s romance was revelatory. It told me how much the genre had changed and how wonderful those changes were. I’d never have believed when The Flame and the Flower was the norm to read about an older heroine and hero, professionals both, disappointed by past relationships, agreeing to share a child (and, hey, it’s a romance, so they also fall in love along the way). I was attracted to Stacey’s Their Christmas Baby Contract because I was nostalgic for Mayberry’s romance and because, foolish as this is becoming, I yearn for a wonderful category romance (two attempts with previously beloved authors left me cold). Stacey’s premise captured me. The blurb will set it up for us:

Brady Nash is handsome and anti marriage. And with IVF completely out of her financial reach, Reyna Bishop is running out of time to have the child she so very much wants. Theirs is a practical baby-making deal: no emotion, no expectation, no ever-after. They’ll even “date” through Christmas to silence their hometown gossips. It’s foolproof…till the time she spends with Brady and his warm, loving family leaves Reyna wanting more than a baby…

Brady isn’t anti-marriage, nor a commitment-phobe: he has a reputation, completely unjustified, as a ladies man. Reyna too has an unjustified reputation as a man-killer. Neither of them live up to either and the town, cutesy-Christmas-parade-Hallmark-decorated is unkind in its assessment. But bargain they do and we’re off to the baby races by chapter three, with two calm, responsible introverts falling in love and ever denying it, uncertain of the other’s feelings, hesitant about their own.  (more…)