REVIEW: Lucy Parker’s THE AUSTEN PLAYBOOK

Austen_PlaybookLucy Parker writes one of my favourite contemporary romance series, “London Celebrities,” with heroes and heroines as denizens of London’s West End theatre scene. In the series’ fourth volume, however, the West End is in the background. Heroine-actress Freddy Carlton (for Frederica, a nod to Heyer?) joins the cast of a “digital mash-up of characters from different Jane Austen books, transplanted into a murder-mystery, house-party scenario. Outcome guided by the choice of the player,” that is, the televison and app audience. All taking take place on a estate, à la Downton Abbey. The estate, 16th-century Highbrook Wells, magnificent and crumbling, is the mortgaged-to-the-gills family home of acerbic theatre critic and Freddy nemesis, James “Griff” Ford-Griffin. Griff can’t afford to say no to the “digital mash-up” and the company of actors, Freddy too, arrives at Highbrook as if it’s Elsinore. Put Griff and Freddy together in this enforced intimacy and let sparks fly: antagonists to lovers, opposites-attract denying their attraction. Not really. This isn’t a criticism. Parker hasn’t written what at first appears to be your romance trope of antagonists-to-lovers. No matter how witty and thick the banter ( it is fabulous), Parker juggles three simultaneous narratives, of which the romance between Freddy and Griff is the gentlest, the most assured of a positive outcome.
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MINI-REVIEW: Michelle Smart’s A CINDERELLA TO SECURE HIS HEIR

Cinderella_Secure_His_HeirI’m enjoying Michelle Smart’s conceit in her latest HP series: “Cinderella” heroine and wealthy hero, especially because the Cinderella brings the “prince” to his feet. In Smart’s latest, A Cinderella To Secure His Heir, the Cinderella in question is 24-year-old Beth Hardingstone, a product of the foster system who made a career out of event planning. She has fallen on hard times, however, because she had to leave her job to care for baby Dom, entrusted to her after the death of best friend and fellow fosteree, Caroline Palvetti. Dom’s father, Domenico, also dead, in a motorcycle accident, is the hero’s, Alessio Palvetti’s, estranged older brother “RIP”.

When the novel opens, Alessio has deceived Beth into coming to Vienna, for quite a sum of money, to organize a Viennese ball for Alessio’s business partner and friend. Under the guise of working as Alessio’s assistant, Valente Cortada, aka Alessio himself, arranged for Beth’s job and transport, with baby Dom in tow. Thankfully, Valente reveals his identity pronto and moves to Phase 2 of his plan: threaten Beth with fighting her for Dom’s custody (a nebulous claim, but hey, it’s an HP and I’ll bypass laws and last wishes if I want to) unless she marry him. Continue reading

MINI-REVIEW: Maisey Yates’s NEED ME, COWBOY

Need_Me_CowboyThere are two romance authors I read for the sake of sinking into their familiar world: Betty Neels (I’m in the process of reading ALL her books, presently on 24 of 134) and Maisey Yates, incredibly prolific both. Do their books blend together and I don’t remember hide nor hair of any particular one? Absolutely. And yet, I can’t quit them. Neels and Yates, unlike in every way, share a deep, profound, abiding theme: no matter how chaste the Neels romance or carnal the Yates, the connection between hero and heroine is mystical, inevitable, and sacred. They are meant for each other: their bodies know this before reason accepts and acknowledges. Love is a realization arriving in an epiphanic moment. In Neels, the heroine believes the hero couldn’t possibly love her undeserving self, but she loves him; the hero, older, wiser, and more knowing, knows from their introduction the heroine will be his wife. In Yates, love is an agon, a passion, a difficult birth, many layers of ego, hurt, and lack of faith and hope must be divested for a character, more often than not the hero, to admit his love and need for the heroine. Once he does, however, his devotion, love, and protection are his sole purpose. The Neels and Yates worlds? One quieter, on the surface more conservative; the other, created out of the passions of the flesh and a tender antagonism.
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MINI-REVIEW: Janice Preston’s HIS CONVENIENT HIGHLAND WEDDING

His_Convenient_Highland_WeddingThough I’m suspicious of new-to-me authors, I was willing to give Janice Preston a try because: a) MOC is my favourite trope and b) the word “highland” in the title always evokes a frisson of excitement and anticipation. What I found was an enjoyable, uneven romance. But, first, to the plotty details!

Because His Convenient Highland Wedding is the first of a four-book, four-author series centring around a mystery, Preston’s novel opens with a silly scene of the heroine’s discovery of a creepy tower and mysterious brooch. Flash-forward seven years and heroine Lady Flora McCrieff, having refused the lecherous old goat her father had arranged for her to marry (important to saving the straitened family estate) is in disgrace with fortune and her family’s eyes. To make up for her refusal to save the family fortune and marry within her class, her father compels her to marry second-best, wealthy but from lowly beginnings whiskey-baron Lachlan McNeill. Lachlan is looking to make inroads to the aristocracy for his whiskey and hopes Flora will help him achieve his goal. Little does he know, Flora is in social purgatory …
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REVIEW: Elizabeth Kingston’s DESIRE LINES

Desire_LinesThough I appreciate a medieval-set romance, I’m aware of its challenges. It is difficult for a romance author to capture the strangeness of the medieval world and still make the romance familiar. Thus far, only two romance authors I’ve read achieve this successfully (mind you, I haven’t read much medieval romance, these are the ones who work for me): Blythe Gifford (Secrets At Court is my favourite) and Elizabeth Kingston. But, like Kingston’s mentor’s books, Laura Kinsale’s, it took me a long time to warm to Desire Lines.
To look to the novel’s opening, “It began in beauty and in blood.” A beautiful, knife-laden young woman, Nan, rescues a Welshman, originally sent to the English King Edward I as obeisance from the young Welshman’s father, Welsh royalty.
(England’s 13th-century conquest of Wales is the historical context of Kingston’s novel.) Gruffydd ab Iorwerth has been knight, prisoner, and captive. He’s lived in the luxury of the English court, then hid for years in a monastery, made friends and enemies, tamed and hunted with his beloved falcons (his marketable skill, important to English lords) and been chained, starved, and beaten.

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REVIEW: Theresa Romain’s LADY NOTORIOUS

Lady_NotoriousTheresa Romain has the wonderful capacity to sustain a delightfully funny, rompish feel to her romances while underlying them with seriousness. Her latest, Lady Notorious, 4th in the Royal Rewards series and one of her strongest novels yet, exhibits this balance. It’s heartfelt romance, adorable hero, loveable heroine, compelling suspense plot, thematically underlined with the idea that love coupled with purpose make for contented lives. Romain brings together her cross-class heir-to-a-dukedom hero, George Godwin, Lord Northbrook, and Bow-Street-Runner heroine, Cassandra Benton, via the mystery surrounding George’s father’s, Lord Armore’s, involvement in a “tontine”, a monetary agreement whereby a set amount increases on interest and is “won” by the last person left living. But many of the tontine’s members are dying under mysterious circumstances. George fears for his father’s and godfather’s lives and sets Cassandra Benton the task of helping him both protect and discover who’s threatening them. Cassandra joins the Ardmore household disguised as a notorious cousin, hence, how the “notorious” made it to the eponymous “lady”. Continue reading

REVIEW: Alyssa Cole’s AN UNCONDITIONAL FREEDOM

An_Unconditional_FreedomI requested an ARC of Alyssa Cole’s An Unconditional Freedom for the most superficial of reasons: I couldn’t resist the hunk on the cover. I’m a sucker for an open-necked shirt, soulful brown eyes, and the man is holding a scroll and lantern … can it get any better? As for the contents, I was open to them, but didn’t go in with any great expectations. What I found was, finally, FINALLY, someone who can put the history back in historical romance. You can’t historically “wallpaper” a history so unjust and ugly: how Cole managed to make me hold my breath with excitement, stop my heart with fear for her characters, and root for a slow-burn romance is testament to her mad writing skills.

At the end of the novel, a seasoned revolutionary in the war against slavery advising the heroine on when to hold’em and when to show’em in this righteous war says: ” ‘First thing you learn about being a Daughter — sometimes you gotta be subtle, and sometimes you gotta burn it all down.’ ” As a Daughter of Romance, Cole sure knows how to be subtle and how to burn it all down, navigating American Civil War history with sureness and skill, steering her characters’ inner worlds with insight and sensitivity and though there are moments when she burns it all down with action, she brings the ship to moor with a light touch of love, commitment, hope, and joy. Her narrative is serious, historically fascinating, and in places, even horrific, but it is never sombre, dark, or hopeless. Its movement is ever towards the light of possibility, even though the journey darkens and the way wavers. Continue reading

MINI-REVIEW: Sally Thorne’s 99 Percent Mine

99_Percent_MineHeroine Darcy Barrett is a mess. Hero Tom Valeska is perfect. Author Sally Thorne has a conceit. When the novel opens, Darcy possesses 1% of Tom Valeska; by its end, 99. Isn’t that a neat little metaphor of the genre’s narrative arc and the reader’s journeying along? Thorne also gives 99 Percent Mine a nice “flip”; just as Tom “flips” the cottage Darcy inherited from her grandmother Loretta, Thorne flips the romance convention of perfect heroine (because women must be perfect) and flawed hero (because a man’s embroiling in the messiness of the world must be redeemed by a good, virginal woman): typical HP-fare. Not in Thorne’s funny, heart-clenching romance of the befriended-boy now turned man and the girl and her twin brother who claimed him as their own, as if he was a stray animal turned family pet. Tom Valeska, six-six and perfectly striated muscles, warm, kind eyes, and gentle, rumbly voice has loved Darcy Barrett and her brother Jamie and their parents for giving him a home, their friendship and love, and the stability the poor boy of a single mum didn’t have. Now, he has a chance to give them their inheritance back a hundred-fold by making their grandmother’s cottage a great big ole moneymaker. And he cannot fail them. 
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MINI-REVIEW: Mira Lyn Kelly’s DECOY DATE

Decoy_DateWhenever I start a Mira Lyn Kelly contemporary romance, I always think how silly her premise and then end up loving it … despite the implausible, low-angst, near-non plot, the characters out of run-of-the-mill rom-com, and the Friends-like atmosphere of the secondary characters (I’m probably one of the few who found that show puerile and boring). Decoy Date checked all the above boxes.

Bar-owner Brody O’Donnel (okay, I have been waiting for his romantic comeuppance) is annoyed with his friend Gwen Danes. She carries a torch for childhood boy-next-door friend, Ted Normandy. Brody wants her to move on, to go for other guys instead of mooning over Ted and because Brody, with his easy-going charm, beautiful green eyes, and bruiser-bod always gets what he wants, he convinces Gwen to fake a relationship with him. He hopes that Ted will be jealous and come after Gwen, Gwen will realize that her “crush” is an adolescent vestige and move on to a better guy. Gwen, in turn, hopes that Ted will finally notice her and they’ll live happily ever after. So, the fake relationship is ON not far into the first few chapters. 
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MINI-REVIEW: Susan Cliff’s WITNESS ON THE RUN

Witness_On_the_RunI’d been looking forward to the next Susan Cliff romantic suspense thanks to enjoying her previous one, Navy SEAL Rescue. The locales were fascinating; characters, complex; and the politics, respectful of time and place. I expected and found no less in Witness On the Run. (And who can resist that marvelous cover? Which, BTW, reflects the characters exactly as they should be, a rarity in romance, sadly.) Witness opened with the same acute danger and desperate circumstances as Rescue, with Alaskan cold and ice in place of Afghani heat and dust; a grief-stricken widower and First Nations spousal abuse survivor heroine in place of a disillusioned SEAL and determined Assyrian-Christian heroine. In both cases, the heroines have reasons to run and the heroes are entangled in their brave flights from danger and evil. Cliff renders the settings with sensitivity to their politics and captures the climate and conditions with realistic, compelling detail. 
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