REVIEW: Kate Clayborn’s LOVE LETTERING

Love_LetteringI never start a first-person-narrated romance with any confidence that I will enjoy it. I’m old-ish and old-fashioned and with the exception of Jane Eyre want my romances to be thirdly-centred. While I didn’t love Clayborn’s mannered “Chance of a Lifetime” series, I did enjoy it and thought her a thoughtful romance writer, trying too-hard to bring a self-conscious emotional complexity to the romance novel (while not sacrificing the HEA). Like the third-person, I prefer a more definitive HEA, but I wasn’t dissatisfied with Love Lettering‘s ending, thanks to its nod to Austen’s Persuasion.

As a non-fan of planners and pens and gel-vs-ink aficionados, I wasn’t keen on Love Lettering‘s premise: calligraphic heroine Meg Mackworth, with some kind of vague woo-woo sense, weaves the word M-I-S-T-A-K-E into hero Reid Sutherland’s wedding program. One year and a broken engagement later, Reid appears at Meg’s sometimes-paperie-employer, Cecelia’s, with an accusatory tone and the said wedding program. As a genius-IQ, Wall Street quantitative analyst, Reid sure can read a pattern where others might not and he wants to know how Meg knew his engagement would end. 
Continue reading

MINI-REVIEW: Meg Cabot’s NO JUDGMENTS

No-JudgmentsI’m way too old to have read Cabot’s Princess Diary books, but glad I’m old enough to enjoy her contemporary romance. Despite its rom-com cover, No Judgments, though often droll, tackles sombre issues for its protagonist and narrator, Sabrina “Bree” Beckham. Bree has divided her life between when-she-was-Sabrina and lived in Manhattan as a law student with a famous mom and a trust fund and, at present, Bree, living humbly in Florida’s fictional Little Bridge Island, waitress, art-dabbler, and cat owner. (Indeed, Bree’s imperious former-shelter-cat Gary is one of the most charming of the island’s denizens, feline, canine, or human.) But darker events than law-school-dropping-out brought Bree to Florida: her ex-boyfriend’s betrayal, oh, not with another woman, but by excusing his best friend’s execrable behaviour, behaviour that left Bree with uncertainty, fear, and mistrust. But there’s one man who breaks through her wariness, sexy Drew Hartwell, her bosses’ nephew and resident renovation-king-and-heartthrob. When Hurricane Marilyn bears down on Little Bridge Island, Drew and Bree, despite their initial banterish dislike (which we always know masks healthy-lust-like), work together to ensure evacuees’ left-behind animals are cared for, while falling into love and between Drew’s bed-sheets.  
Continue reading

MINI-REVIEW: Ruth Ware’s THE TURN OF THE KEY

Turn_KeyI side-eyed Ruth Ware’s The Turn of the Key because it nods at James’s “The Turn of the Screw,” one classic I’ve abhorred since I had the misfortune to read it in a 19th century lit class. I hate James’s twisted, labyrinthine sentences, his dunce of a narrator, and the creepy setting. I like my gothic with a good streak of romance, like Jane Eyre, and female protagonists with a brain in their head, like Jane, like Stewart’s, Kearsley’s, and St. James’s. But I’d heard and read reviewers and Twitter friends praise Ware’s The Woman In Cabin 10 and The Death of Mrs. Westaway that I wanted to try one of her books. In The Turn of the Key, I got a fairly satisfying hybrid between atmospheric James and contemporary feminist gothic. Had the first-person narrator/voice been anything like James’s governess, I would’ve DNF-ed. As it stands, narrator Rowan Caine is what you’d get if Bridget Jones was trapped in a horror-gothic-thriller, which made her a heck of a lot more likeable than the anonymous prig James created.   Continue reading

MINI-REVIEW: Wendy Roberts’s A GRAVE SEARCH (Bodies of Evidence #2)

Grave_SearchI’m loving these two contemporary murder mystery series I’m following. I don’t look forward to the day I can only await the next book rather than my present glom of Griffiths’s Ruth Galloway mysteries and Wendy Roberts’s Bodies of Evidence. I finished #2, A Grave Search, today. The Roberts series, unlike Griffiths’s, has a healthy dose of an ongoing romance, which I’m especially enjoying.

Roberts’s heroine, Julie Hall, aka Delma Arsenault, has the power to find dead bodies with dowsing, or divining rods. In book #1, Julie’s supernatural abilities took her into the dark heart of her childhood and ended on a note of high, painful drama. Book #2 sees further resolution to the drama, but also greater peace and yes, even happiness, for Julie-Delma. In Book #1, her romance with older-man and FBI agent, Garrett Pierce, had the desperation of two unhappy, tragic people finding solace in each other. But Book #2 finds Julie and Garrett with an ironed-out relationship, still sexy and bantery, still an overprotective Garrett to a where-angels-fear-to-tread Julie, but they feel like a solid couple, past the first throes of getting to know each other (though the sexy still burns bright). 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. 
Continue reading

REVIEW: Barbara O’Neal’s THE ART OF INHERITING SECRETS

Art_Of_Inheriting_SecretsI both dreaded and looked forward to Barbara O’Neal’s The Art Of Inheriting Secrets, dreaded because I dislike women’s fiction and looked forward to because the blurb offered gothic potential. In the end, the novel’s gothic and romance aspects outweighed the women’s fic. I was one contentedly satiated reader at pages’ end. Be warned, there’s also first-person narration, but the narrator is engaging, funny, self-deprecating, intelligent, and as the hero notes, looks like Kate Winslet (I adore Winslet, ever since I saw her in Heavenly Creatures). Our narrator-heroine is San Francisco-based food writer and editor of the fictional magazine Egg and Hen, Olivia Shaw. When the novel opens, Olivia’s life has taken some spectacularly difficult, life-altering turns. She arrives in Hertfordshire’s Saint Ives Cross having recently learned she has inherited a crumbling estate, Rosemere Priory. She is mourning her mother, only six weeks gone, but she’s also learned that her mother kept her identity as Lady Caroline Shaw secret. The drippily unhappy heroine, the rain, the English countryside, the quaint village, down to the country-accented friendly cab-driver who drops her off at the local inn, absorbed me. I loved the premise of the family secrets, the crumbling priory, Olivia’s voice, and the notion of a heroine navigating a new place, culture, community, and her own new-found, strange identity.
Continue reading

REVIEW: Beatriz Williams’s THE SUMMER WIVES

The_Summer_WivesOne of the many things I love about Susanna Kearsley’s, Lauren Willig’s, Karen White’s, and now Beatriz Williams’s writing is their fidelity to the HEA. They hybridise various forms, historical novel, romance, gothic novel, mystery, murder or otherwise, social novel, they mash it up and produce novels that never fail to end up among my year’s favourites. Like their closest predecessor, Mary Stewart, they write in the first person (which used to be a romance-rarity but not so these days), creating a young, female protagonist who moves from innocence to experience during the narrative’s course. All this can well describe Beatriz Williams’s The Summer Wives, a novel that had me in its thrall over two days, waking up at dawn today to finish it. Initially, the novel impressed me as convoluted, with a plethora of characters and three historical narrative strands, but the voice of its central character and first-person narrator, Miranda née Schuyler Thomas, offered an Ariadne ball as I made my way through Williams’s labyrinth of love, hate, revenge, and betrayal. Underlying it was the susurration of Shakespeare’s Tempest, not only thanks to the eponymous heroine, but an island with native and visiting denizens, the sea’s ever-present beauty and danger, and a mystical, outside-of-time atmosphere. I would read it, stopping for a cup of tea and a biscuit, and whisper to myself, “Full fathom five thy father lies … ”   Continue reading

MINI-REVIEW: Jennifer Ashley’s DEATH BELOW STAIRS

Death_Below_StairsI’m a fan of the kind of book Ashley’s written: historical setting, central mystery, a romance to follow from book to book. I LOVES’EM! My favourites are C. S. Harris’s Sebastien St. Cyr historical mysteries and Deanna Raybourn’s Veronica Speedwell. 2018 is turning out to be a global crapfest in so many ways, but it’s good for having two additions to these series to look forward to. Add the time travel historical-mystery-romance of a Susanna Kearsley and life doesn’t get better. So, you’d rightly say, dear reader, where does Ashley’s fall in your category of reading bliss? Argh, must I add another series to the ones I already follow? It appears I must. Ashley’s premise captured me (and not only because I was a sucker for Downton Abbey). Her cast of characters stays pretty much below stairs, except for one compelling example and a hero who seems to be a class-chameleon.

In 1881 London, Mrs. Kat Holloway arrives at her new position as cook in Lord Rankin’s household, which includes wife Lady Emily, and sister-in-law Lady Cynthia. Kat acquaints herself with the downstairs staff: butler Davis; housekeeper, Mrs. Bowen; and recruits kitchen-maid Sinead as cook’s assistant. Before she knows it, handyman Daniel McAdam shows up too, as a house-staff member. It is immediately obvious that Kat and Daniel have a history, a flirty, attracted manner to him and a “get away, you pest, come hither, big-boy” to hers. Continue reading

REVIEW: Juliana Gray’s A MOST EXTRAORDINARY PURSUIT

A_Most-Extraordinary_PursuitThere’s a certain kind of novel Miss Bates adores and it appears Juliana Gray has written one in A Most Extraordinary Pursuit. Maybe it’s the summer Miss Bates spent in Greece reading Elizabeth Peters. Maybe it’s the heroines: feral spinsters, independent, prickly, and devoted to their work. A hero who may or may not be “heroic,” a combination 007, Indiana Jones, and Lord Peter Wimsey; he’s ambiguous, as are the heroine’s feelings for him. Nevertheless, hero and heroine must work together to solve a mystery, a mystery set in a locale east of their western European English setting, a place hot and difficult to navigate linguistically and culturally, where the narrative isn’t easy to read, Egypt, India, or Greece. Not since Deanna Raybourn’s first Veronica Speedwell mystery has Miss Bates found and enjoyed a novel of this ilk, not until Gray’s Pursuit.

Our heroine and narrator, Miss Emmeline Rose Truelove, has faithfully served the Duke of Olympia and his Duchess, Penelope, for six years. Emmeline and her employers’ relationship is a close and protective one. Sadly, Emmeline’s beloved Duke died while trout-fishing and his now-Dowager Duchess entrusts her with finding the missing heir, grand-nephew Mr. Maximilian Haywood, off studying Knossian ruins in Crete. Miss Truelove seems to have, at least initially, two companions on her voyage aboard the Duke’s yacht “Isolde” and throughout her journey-pursuit of Mr. Haywood: the charming “reprobate,” Freddie, Marquess of Silverton and Queen Victoria’s finger-wagging, admonishing ghost! Continue reading

REVIEW: Susanna Kearsley’s NAMED OF THE DRAGON

Named_Of_DragonNamed Of The Dragon is another manifestation of Susanna Kearsley’s magic, a writerly witch’s pot of goodness, a virtuoso mix of gothic romance, amateur-sleuth mystery, and historical fiction mixed with legend and chronicle. On entertainment level alone, Named Of The Dragon will please – but, oh, there is so much more to think about and enjoy. Kearsley’s novel is signature and, with Simone St. James and Deanna Raybourn, the best in this hybrid genre the Ritas identified as novels “with strong romantic elements”. Atypical of the romance genre but typical of the hybrid, Kearsley’s novel has a first person narrator. Lynnette “Lyn” Ravenshaw is a London-based literary agent accompanying one of her writers, Bridget Cooper, to Christmas hols in rural Wales. This is no “child’s Christmas in Wales,” but children figure prominently in a narrative that alternates between Lyn’s vivid, anxiety-ridden, prophetic dreams of evil in a sterile wasteland where a lady in blue and blond, blue-eyed boy call for help and the waking world of temperamental authors amid village Christmas preparations. Lyn’s own loss of her newborn son five years ago fools the reader into thinking she is mourning and her dreams an expression of unresolved grief. But when she arrives in the Welsh town of Angle, with its rich history in Tudor England and connections to Merlin and Arthur, when she meets a fey young mother, Elen, who recognizes Lyn as her baby son’s, Stevie’s, savior and protector, when she meets the brooding playwright Gareth Morgan who figures in Elen’s life, and when she settles (Bridget’s friends) chez two brothers, James and Christopher Swift, who are also mysteriously involved with Elen and Stevie, her dreams take on dangerous, waking-world proportions.
Continue reading