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…)

REVIEW: Elly Griffiths’s THE CHALK PIT (Ruth Galloway #9)

The_Chalk_PitIf there’s one thing I love about being on summer break, it’s catching up on my favourite contemporary mystery series, Elly Griffiths’s Ruth Galloway. If you haven’t read them, what are you waiting for when you can have the perfect combination of archaeological (bones!) detail, northern England coastal descriptions, a wonderful, smart, funny heroine, a broody, old-fashioned-copper hero, his engaging team, and literary allusions, wonderful writing, great pacing? With every mystery, Griffiths intertwines it with parallel literary references; needless to say, I love this. In The Chalk Pit, Ruth’s daughter, Kate, has a tiny part in an Alice In Wonderland production. Alice, with its subterranean nightmarish surrealism, reflects Ruth’s recent excavations in Norwich’s chalky tunnels, the world of people who “sleep rough”, lives swept under the rug by society, and DCI Harry Nelson’s pursuit of those who are murdering them and snatching, “disappearing”, Norfolk’s women. The blurb provides further details:

Far below Norwich is a maze of old mining tunnels. When Ruth Galloway is called to examine a set of human remains in one of them, she notices the bones are almost translucent, a sign they were boiled soon after death. Once more, she’s at the helm of a murder investigation. Meanwhile, DCI Nelson is looking for a homeless woman who he hears has gone “underground.” Could she have disappeared into the labyrinth? And if so, is she connected to the body Ruth found? As Ruth and Nelson investigate the tunnels, they hear rumors of secret societies, cannibalism, and ritual killings. And when a dead body is found with a map of what seems to be the full maze, they realize their hunt for the killer has only just begun—and that more bodies may be underfoot.

While this description does credit to Griffiths’s mystery, it doesn’t capture what the series’s fans enjoy as much: the complex relationship between Ruth and Harry, Griffiths’s shifting perspectives as investigations occur, making the mystery more compelling, the likeable secondary characters with fully-formed personalities, including the children, and Griffiths’s ability to create fascinating, multiple settings, whether police headquarters and its interview rooms, Ruth’s isolated coastal cottage, a school-playground, a cathedral, a homeless drop-in centre and shelter, a hospital waiting-room, and a narrative seamlessly immersive in action and introspective in the glimpses we get of the characters’ inner lives. (more…)

MINI-REVIEW: Jenny Holiday’s A PRINCESS FOR CHRISTMAS (Royal Christmas #1)

A_Princess_for_ChristmasI’m not a fan of the holiday Hallmark movie, but I am a Holiday fan *snigger* Despite my worst imaginings: will it be insipid? Will it read like a first-person voice-over? *gasp* Might it be written in the first-person present-tense … *runs away screaming* … nope, nope, nope, Holiday’s foray into Hallmark territory was tongue-in-cheek funny and carried her sexy brand of tender, funny love to a tee. More Roman-Holiday riff than Hallmark, add cussing and sexy times, the most interesting convention-breaking that Holiday does is actually in the reverse-Cinderella-ing. Cue a genuine cross-class contemporary romance, with a financially-strapped, Bronx-born-n-bred cab driver falling in love with an honest-to-God blue-blooded European princess. The publisher’s blurb will give you the details I’m too lazy a reviewer to outline:

Leo Ricci’s already handling all he can, between taking care of his little sister Gabby, driving a cab, and being the super of his apartment building in the Bronx. But when Gabby spots a “princess” in a gown outside of the UN trying to hail a cab, she begs her brother to stop and help. Before he knows it, he’s got a real-life damsel in distress in the backseat of his car.

Princess Marie of Eldovia shouldn’t be hailing a cab, or even be out and about. But after her mother’s death, her father has plunged into a devastating depression and the fate of her small Alpine country has fallen on Marie’s shoulders. She’s taken aback by the gruff but devastatingly handsome driver who shows her more kindness than she’s seen in a long time.

When Marie asks Leo to be her driver for the rest of her trip, he agrees, thinking he’ll squire a rich miss around for a while and make more money than he has in months. He doesn’t expect to like and start longing for the unpredictable Marie. And when he and Gabby end up in Eldovia for Christmas, he discovers the princess who is all wrong for him is also the woman who is his perfect match.

The romance is easily divided into terrific first-half in Manhattan and less-belivable-more-Hallmark-y-thank-the-romance-gods-for-the-love-scenes second half. (more…)

MINI-REVIEW: Lisa Kleypas’s MARRYING WINTERBORNE (Ravenels #2)

Marrying_WinterborneI continue my rediscovery of the new, possibly-better Kleypas with her second in the Revenel series, Marrying Winterborne. We met hero Rhys Winterborne and heroine Lady Helen Ravenel in the first book, Cold-Hearted Rake. Though Rhys was laid up injured for most of that encounter, it definitely established a connection between the genteel, gentle, ethereal Lady Helen and the rough-and-tumble, self-made-man hero. When the present volume opens, Rhys and Helen’s engagement has been severed: Helen was shocked by his punishing kisses and reacted to hurt his sensitive working-man’s pride. But she arrives at his department store, unattended, to convince him to reestablish their engagement-of-convenience, $$$ for her family and an illustrious, blue-blood name for him. Except neither of those “facts” are valid any longer: Lady Helen’s family has stumbled on a financial boon and Helen’s name had nothing on Rhys’s desire for her, which, like Kleypas heroes of long memory, borders on the pathological. To fill in the pub’s version, here’s the back-cover blurb:

Savage ambition has brought common-born Rhys Winterborne vast wealth and success. In business and beyond, Rhys gets exactly what he wants. And from the moment he meets the shy, aristocratic Lady Helen Ravenel, he is determined to possess her. If he must take her virtue to ensure she marries him, so much the better… Helen has had little contact with the glittering, cynical world of London society. Yet Rhys’s determined seduction awakens an intense mutual passion. Helen’s gentle upbringing belies a stubborn conviction that only she can tame her unruly husband. As Rhys’s enemies conspire against them, Helen must trust him with her darkest secret. The risks are unthinkable… the reward, a lifetime of incomparable bliss.

Hmmm, Rhys doesn’t “take” Helen’s “virtue”, she rather uses her virtue to win and keep him. No enemies conspire against Rhys, but they definitely conspire against Helen. And I was pleasantly surprised to see that Kleypas kept the hero-to-the-heroine’s rescue nicely balanced with a once-shy, developping-a-spine heroine’s ability to take care of herself. (more…)

MINI-REVIEW: Andrea Penrose’s MURDER AT QUEEN’S LANDING (Wrexford & Sloane #4)

Murder_at_Queen's_LandingThough I’ve only recently started to read Penrose’s Wrexford and Sloane Regency-set mysteries, they quickly became favourites, with anticipation for the next book to drop into my e-reader. Though beset by the clean-up/book orders/final reports weeks of another school-year end, I joyfully crawled into Charlotte and Lord Wrexford’s world (whose first name still eludes, by the way, but a strong hint in this volume) during my meagre leisure time.

Wrexford and Sloane #4 is as reader-sigh-worthy satisfying as were the previous ones. In this case, I admit to muddle-headedness concerning the financial machinations surrounding the murder (never a head for the numbers, that’s me). The publisher’s blurb will elucidate way better than I:

When Lady Cordelia, a brilliant mathematician, and her brother, Lord Woodbridge, disappear from London, rumors swirl concerning fraudulent bank loans and a secret consortium engaged in an illicit—and highly profitable—trading scheme that threatens the entire British economy. The incriminating evidence mounts, but for Charlotte and Wrexford, it’s a question of loyalty and friendship. And so they begin a new investigation to clear the siblings’ names, uncover their whereabouts, and unravel the truth behind the whispers.

As they delve into the murky world of banking and international arbitrage, Charlotte and Wrexford also struggle to navigate their increasingly complex feelings for each other. But the clock is ticking—a cunning mastermind has emerged . . . along with some unexpected allies—and Charlotte and Wrexford must race to prevent disasters both economic and personal as they are forced into a dangerous match of wits in an attempt to beat the enemy at his own game.

Hmmm, all is correct, except for “Charlotte and Wrexford also struggle to navigate their increasingly complex feelings for each other” … um, nope, it’s obvious they’re in love. With Charlotte’s past of a if-not-failed-then-disappointing marriage and Wrexford’s emotional reticence, maybe they have a tad trouble admitting their feelings, but what they are and who they’re for, clear as a lake on a windless day. (more…)

REVIEW: Sonali Dev’s RECIPE FOR PERSUASION (The Rajes #2)

Recipe_For_PersuasionI admit I was super-pumped to read Dev’s second “Rajes” romance because I adored Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavours. Moreover, though I can never quite come to a conclusion, it’s possible Persuasion, with its older, melancholic hero and heroine and their second-chance-at-love romance, may be my favourite Austen. And Recipe For had that rom-com publisher designation and a compellingly-Bollywood-ish storyline, signature Dev. From the back cover blurb:

Chef Ashna Raje desperately needs a new strategy. How else can she save her beloved restaurant and prove to her estranged, overachieving mother that she isn’t a complete screw up? When she’s asked to join the cast of Cooking with the Stars, the latest hit reality show teaming chefs with celebrities, it seems like just the leap of faith she needs to put her restaurant back on the map. She’s a chef, what’s the worst that could happen? Rico Silva, that’s what. Being paired with a celebrity who was her first love, the man who ghosted her at the worst possible time in her life, only proves what Ashna has always believed: leaps of faith are a recipe for disaster.

FIFA winning soccer star Rico Silva isn’t too happy to be paired up with Ashna either. Losing Ashna years ago almost destroyed him. The only silver lining to this bizarre situation is that he can finally prove to Ashna that he’s definitely over her. But when their catastrophic first meeting goes viral, social media becomes obsessed with their chemistry. The competition on the show is fierce…and so is the simmering desire between Ashna and Rico.  Every minute they spend together rekindles feelings that pull them toward their disastrous past. Will letting go again be another recipe for heartbreak—or a recipe for persuasion…?

This “rom-com” publisher hint may drive me batty. Hear this, fellow readers, Dev’s novel is light on rom and zilch on com. I had issues with Recipe for Persuasion, but I don’t fault the author on how publisher’s choose to market books. (more…)

REVIEW: David Stafford’s SKELTON’S GUIDE TO DOMESTIC POISONS (Skelton’s Guides #1)

Skelton's_Guide_to_Domestic_PoisonsDavid Stafford’s Skelton’s Guide to Domestic Poisons is what you get when you cross a Golden-Age mystery with P. G. Wodehouse, which would be high praise indeed if not for caveats.

Set in a 1929 England ignorant of the economic cataclysm to come, Stafford’s mystery centres on a loveable, of-working-class-stock barrister and his efforts to exonerate Mary Dutton, accused of poisoning her abusive husband; the novel’s blurb offers some further details:

Before propelled to front-page fame by winning the case of the century, Arthur Skelton was a fairly unremarkable barrister. Now, he is enjoying the attention that being dubbed a hero by the press brings – namely practising his distinguished pose and his autograph – much to the amusement of his wife.

But January 1929 brings another high-profile case. Mary Dutton is accused of murdering her husband, although there are few people who dispute her guilt. The case is considered unwinnable; however, despite the odds, Skelton agrees to defend her – a decision that has absolutely nothing to do with her resemblance to a beautiful Hollywood actress …

With an army of flappers set to cast their inaugural votes in the looming general election, both sides of the political divide are keen to secure their support by turning the case to their advantage and begin to lean on Skelton. Aided by his trusty clerk Edgar, Skelton faces mounting pressure to find the truth. But will that be enough to save a young woman’s life?

Stafford’s quasi-comic, quasi-tragic mystery may be divided into disparate parts: the marvelously comic characterization and dubious mystery. (more…)

The Great Betty Read #38: Neels’s GRASP A NETTLE

Grasp_a_NettleThe quotation opening Neels’s Grasp a Nettle is quite the thing: “Tender-handed stroke a nettle/And it stings you for your pains;/Grasp it like a man of mettle/And it soft as milk remains,” attributed to Aaron Hill and eponymously referring to the romance’s heroine, Jenny Wren, her surname suggestive of bird-like cuteness. Well, there’s nothing “cute” about Jenny, or her hero, the acerbic, temperamental Professor Eduard van Draak te Solendijk. Jenny is, like the majority of Neels’s heroines, a nurse, but she is independently wealthy, of a storied estate family, and has neither a need to work, or marry to ensure a living. Her parents are long dead, but she may go home whenever she likes to Dimworth House, where her Aunt Bess, aka Miss Elizabeth Creed, would welcome her any time, indeed, would prefer that Jenny remain with her, take care of the estate as it receives visitors and be at her beck and call. Aunt Bess is loving, but imperious, expecting Jenny to care for her and marry her neighbour’s son, Toby. But Jenny is Neels’s attempt at a more modern heroine: Jenny wants to work at her nursing because she loves her work and is devoted to it, is ambitious for herself, and willing to wait until she meets “the one”: “There would be someone in the world meant for her; she had been sure of that ever since she was a little girl, and although there was no sign of him yet, she was still quite certain that one day she would come face to face with him, and he would feel just as she did — and in the meantime she intended to make a success of her job.” How beautifully Betty sets us up for The Man’s entrance. Aunt Bess takes ill, Jenny leaves her job to devote herself to her aunt’s care … and thus encounters and spars with Draak, through England, a cruise, and Holland. (more…)