Mini-Review: Jackie Ashenden’s HOME TO DEEP RIVER

We can add Jackie Ashenden to the queendom of the small-town contemporary romance duo of Maisey Yates and Caitlin Crews/Megan Crane to make a triumvirate. Which means you get more of the same if you’re a fan of Yates, or Crews-Crane. I’m not a fan anymore. I’m tired of the formula: former military heroes are now suspect, small-towns are scary “off the grid” loony-territory, and tough-talking heroines hiding lonely vulnerabilities aren’t quite believable when “they doth protest too much”. If these characters turn your crank, then you’re the reader for Ashenden’s first “Deep River, Alaska” romance, Home to Deep River.

Ashenden establishes her series setting with a romance that sees hero Silas Quinn return home when his best friend, RIP Caleb West, the town owner, bequeaths him, well, the town. It’s been thirteen years of bad memories of Deep River, except for Silas’s love for Hope Dawson:

Deep River, Alaska, boasts a fiercely independent though small population. The people who live here love it, and they don’t much care what anyone else thinks. Until the day Silas Quinn comes back and tells them an oil reserve has been found below the town and now it’s neighbor vs. neighbor. Some want to take the money and run, while others want to tell the oil company to put its rigs where the sun don’t shine.

Hope Dawson never expected to leave Deep River. Her mom needs her. Her grandfather died and left her the local hangout to run. Her dreams of college and adventure died long ago. Until Silas comes back to town, holding the key to set her free. But freedom means she loses him again, and he’s the one she’s really always wanted.

As a matter of fact, no oil company shows up, there’s no neighbour vs. neighbour and the oil reserve is a minor plot point in this day and age of climate change and alternative energy to bring Silas and Hope together. Does it matter? Not really. Because the town shenanigans and oil reserves and what the town will decide are the background to Ashenden’s purpose: her protagonists waffling on about their tormented feelings while having a lot of sex, lotso’ sex and lotso’ internal distress and denial.  Continue reading

The Great Betty Read #36: Neels’s A MATTER OF CHANCE (1977)

A_Matter_Of_ChanceAh, beloved Betty, your Matter of Chance took me through many a bathtub reading session and kept me annoyingly flipping pages. You broke the bank with your hero’s inscrutable meanness and heroine’s puckered-brow peevishness. I admit to an eagerness to read my Betty #36 because of the sheer delight I took in your protagonists’ names, as evidenced from the blurb:

Cressida Bingley needs a fresh start, so moving to Holland for a new job seems perfect. Until she finds herself lost in Amsterdam and accepts help from a charming knight in shining armor — who turns out to be her new boss’s partner! Dr. Giles van der Tiele can’t forget the alluring young woman he rescued, and longs to make her his bride. But Cressida refuses to marry for anything less than love.

Hmm, the blurb is deceptive because Giles doesn’t propose to Cressida until near the end and the blurb moves this into the preamble to MoC territory, which it isn’t. As a matter of fact, I hate to say this, but Giles spends most of the novel being so incredibly unkind that I came as close to being mad at precious Betty as I ever have. I loved Cressida: she’s smart, competent, beautiful, and hard-working. So what gives, Giles, why you gotta be so mean? Continue reading

REVIEW: C. S. Harris’s WHAT THE DEVIL KNOWS

What the Devil Knows is C. S. Harris’s 16th Regency-set Sebastian St. Cyr mystery. Always leery of a series losing its reading-lustre, I’m amazed how each one keeps me in thrall for the one or two days in which I devour it. Part of it is thanks to Harris’s rich historical setting, focussed on the injustices of a society where the privileges of wealth and birth are in turn the exploiters of the poor, vulnerable, and low-born. Most of it, however, is due to Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin; wife, Hero (adorable son, Simon), a slew of sleuthing-helpers (among my favourites, Irish surgeon Paul Gibson and Sebastian’s “tiger,” Tom) who care: they care about justice being done, they care about the downtrodden; they care about the precarious lives of the ordinary people who make up Regency London. If you come looking for the verve and froth of Bridgerton‘s London (I loved it, but this is a different animal), you won’t find it. Instead, the steadiest, most loving of couples and Harris’s meticulously researched world, more in service of great fiction than exactitude (always read the author’s note). In What the Devil Knows, London’s port and the publicans who serve her is her setting; past murders and mysteriously connected new ones set Sebastian on the path to untangling past and present:

It’s October 1814. The war with France is finally over and Europe’s diplomats are convening in Vienna for a conference that will put their world back together. With peace finally at hand, London suddenly finds itself in the grip of a series of heinous murders eerily similar to the Ratcliffe Highway murders of three years before.

In 1811, two entire families were viciously murdered in their homes. A suspect–a young seaman named John Williams–was arrested. But before he could be brought to trial, Williams hanged himself in his cell. The murders ceased, and London slowly began to breathe easier. But when the lead investigator, Sir Edwin Pym, is killed in the same brutal way three years later and others possibly connected to the original case meet violent ends, the city is paralyzed with terror once more.

Was the wrong man arrested for the murders? Bow Street magistrate Sir Henry Lovejoy turns to his friend Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, for assistance. Pym’s colleagues are convinced his manner of death is a coincidence, but Sebastian has his doubts. The more he looks into the three-year-old murders, the more certain he becomes that the hapless John Williams was not the real killer. Which begs the question–who was and why are they dead set on killing again? Continue reading

Mini-Review: Kaki Warner’s ROUGH CREEK

Rough_CreekIf you are looking to read great historical Western romance, you’re in for a treat with Kaki Warner’s Blood Rose Trilogy. Because I’d loved it and despaired of seeing more from Warner, I was delighted to see she was back with contemporary Western romance. I’m not keen on cowboys and I hate horsey stories, but, hey, Warner! And I happily plunged into Rough Creek. The blurb made me nervous there would be too many horsey details and I was right, but the protagonists are always what’s best in Warner. The blurb was encouraging:

 
I do love me some simmering “heart-pounding tension”. Sadly, it’s not what I got: instead, a story about two careful, caring people who hadn’t exercised their heart muscles, or any others for that matter, in ages, a drawn-out dance of closeness, then distance, and a halting pace to the HEA.

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Mini-Review: Deanna Raybourn’s AN UNEXPECTED PERIL

An_Unexpected_PerilAn Unexpected Peril is the sixth “Veronica Speedwell” Victorian-Era-set mystery Raybourn has penned and as solid an addition to one of my favourite series as any. While the mystery component didn’t engage as well as the previous two volumes, the marvelous A Dangerous Collaboration and A Murderous Relation, Veronica and lover-and-fellow-sleuth, Stoker, were as charming, sharp, and funny as ever, with, on Veronica’s part, a tenderness and vulnerability that made me like her even more. As for Stoker: his candy-eating, Keats-quoting, animal-obsessed nerdiness, broad shoulders, and good looks, are easy to love. His love for Veronica and one heart-stopping avowal in this volume would make him irresistible to any romance reader. But first, to the mystery, best recounted by the novel’s descriptor:

January 1889. As the newest member of the Curiosity Club–an elite society of brilliant, intrepid women–Veronica Speedwell is excited to put her many skills to good use. As she assembles a memorial exhibition for pioneering mountain climber Alice Baker-Greene, Veronica discovers evidence that the recent death was not a tragic climbing accident but murder. Veronica and her natural historian beau, Stoker, tell the patron of the exhibit, Princess Gisela of Alpenwald, of their findings. With Europe on the verge of war, Gisela’s chancellor, Count von Rechstein, does not want to make waves–and before Veronica and Stoker can figure out their next move, the princess disappears. Having noted Veronica’s resemblance to the princess, von Rechstein begs her to pose as Gisela for the sake of the peace treaty that brought the princess to England. Veronica reluctantly agrees to the scheme. She and Stoker must work together to keep the treaty intact while navigating unwelcome advances, assassination attempts, and Veronica’s own family–the royalty who has never claimed her.

That final element, the family “who has never claimed her” and her love for Stoker make for a new facet to Veronica: the young woman who never belonged suddenly belongs to someone, the child who yearned for family has it in her grasp. But the years of solitude, solitary adventure, and a certain steeling of the heart have rendered Veronica uncomfortable with attachment, and Stoker, loving, funny, astute, gorgeous Stoker, drives a stake through the heart of Veronica’s strikes-out-on-her-own existence and scares her more than any villain. And this is the best part of An Unexpected Peril. Continue reading

Mini-Review: Roni Loren’s YES & I LOVE YOU

yes_&_i-love_youRoni Loren’s series, The Ones Who Got Away, about the grown-up heroes and heroines who share a high school shooting, is one of the best contemporary romance series I’ve read; therefore, any new Loren series comes with anticipation and high expectations. This latest “Say Everything” series sees Loren pull deep from her counsellor background in creating her protagonists. Her heroine, the lovable Hollyn Tate, has Tourette’s, and her hero, the less lovable Jasper Deares, ADHD. Their portrayal, Hollyn’s in particular, is sensitive and knowledgeable. The premise is a tad ludicrous, but aren’t many in romance fiction? The blurb will give you an idea of it:

Everyone knows Miz Poppy, the vibrant reviewer whose commentary brightens the New Orleans nightlife. But no one knows Hollyn, the real face behind the media star…or the fear that keeps her isolated. When her boss tells her she needs to add video to her blog or lose her job, she’s forced to rely on an unexpected source to help her face her fears.

When aspiring actor Jasper Deares finds out the shy woman who orders coffee every day is actually Miz Poppy, he realizes he has a golden opportunity to get the media attention his acting career needs. All he has to do is help Hollyn come out of her shell…and through their growing connection, finally find her voice.

Hmm, this doesn’t quite honour the novel’s attempted complexity: Jasper is the barista in Hollyn’s work co-op. When she learns his acting expertise is improv, they strike a deal to help her prepare to do video using improv games and help him get his theatre troupe off the ground with a Miz Poppy review. In some muddled and muddy way, they also end up agreeing to a pretend-relationship/affair: something about helping Hallyn emerge from her sexual naïveté and give her amorous wings? But the heart will do what the heart will do and Hallyn’s heart, and eventually, I guess, Jasper’s, falls in love. Continue reading

Mini-Review: Jenny Holiday’s PARADISE COVE

Paradise_CoveParadise Cove is Holiday’s second Matchmaker Bay romance, after Mermaid Inn, and, on some level, it may be even better, its theme more complex, though its romance, weaker. As far as tropish goodness is concerned, Holiday moves from reunited-high-school-sweethearts to friends-with-benefits and what makes for Paradise Cove‘s strength, the “friendship” component, weakens the romance. Even the protagonists agree, early on, and maintain the agreement that romance doesn’t enter their relationship. This, for me, skirts women’s fic territory and that’s one country I don’t enjoy visiting. Nevertheless, there is much to love about Paradise Cove. The synopsis-blurb doesn’t give much of the novel’s essence, but it’s a good starting point to learn about Jake Ramsey and Dr. Nora Walsh:

Dr. Nora Walsh has just been dumped in spectacular fashion, making it the perfect time for a major life change. She figures taking over the medical practice in tiny Matchmaker Bay for a couple of years will help her get over her broken heart, and then she can head back to the big city. But when the first man she sees looks like a superhero god, she wonders if maybe there’s something to small-town living after all.

Jake Ramsey also has a broken heart — one he never expects to heal. He doesn’t need people anyway and is content hiding out in his secluded cottage on the beach. But after helping Nora with a medical emergency, he finds himself opening up to the witty, warmhearted doctor. Soon the local matchmakers are working overtime to pair them off, and Jake begins to wonder if his campaign to get Nora to stay is for the town or because he can’t bear the thought of her leaving.

This romance novel’s uniqueness lies in the source of Jake’s “broken heart”; while Nora’s is your standard a-hole, cheating, selfish BF, fellow-doctor, Rufus (I wonder if this is a nod to Rufus Sewell’s a-hole character in The Holiday?), Jake’s is viscerally difficult to read about, his baby son’s death, of the flu, at nine months. (Let this also serve as a CW.) Continue reading

Mini-Review: Marion Lennox’s PREGNANT MIDWIFE ON HIS DOORSTEP

Pregnant_Midwife_on_His_DoorstepMarion Lennox’s Pregnant Midwife on His Doorstep should have, could have, and on some level, probably was a fine romance. It contains many love-worthy elements: forced-proximity, one-bed, puppies, a super-nice hero, and likeable heroine. And yet.

Here is, verbatim, Pregnant Midwife‘s blurb-summary:

Neurosurgeon Josh O’Connor’s isolated island hideaway is on lockdown, but nothing will stop him entering a raging cyclone to rescue mom-to-be midwife Hannah Byrne. Hannah hasn’t found happiness since leaving her beloved Irish village. Yet stepping into Josh’s warm house, she starts to feel she might finally have found a home—for her and her unborn baby. Might Josh’s rescuing Hannah from the storm change both their lives for the better?

It doesn’t do justice to Lennox’s fine writing, her ability to capture landscape and stormy weather, to draw the reader in with a knight-in-shining-armor, breath-holding rescue scene, one of Lennox’s favourite openings. Put the heroine in danger, match her with a knight-hero, have her be rescued and then, have her, in turn, emotionally rescue the hero. It’s a lovely theme and it should have appealed more than it did. Together, Josh and Hannah are lovely. They’re not given to sentimental dialogue, nor do they snap and banter their way to a reluctant liking and truce. They’re gently humourous, no-nonsense, and good at their work. They make a great team when they have to rescue another family stranded in the storm on the other side of the island. So, what made this a desultory read? Continue reading

Mini-Review: Mimi Matthews’s “Fair As A Star”

Fair_as_a_StarThough I don’t read as much historical romance as I used to, Mimi Matthews is one histrom author whose books I’d never miss. They’re elegantly written, with finely-drawn characters, and thoughtful themes; her protagonists’ journey to the HEA is sigh-worthingly romantic. Her heroes and heroines are beautifully compatible, showcasing Matthews’s ability to match characterization to plausible future happiness. Her ethos agrees with mine and mine with hers.

Matthews’s novella, “Fair as a Star,” (“A Victorian Romance”) is a wonderful introduction to her work if you’ve yet to read her and thoroughly satisfying an addition if you have and are a fan. Matthews’s Victorian Era is neither idealized, nor villified; if the HEA is an argument for the idyllic over the realistic/pragmatic, this is why I read romance. To follow, verbatim, the blurb-ish summary of “Fair as a Star”:

After a mysterious sojourn in Paris, Beryl Burnham has returned home to the village of Shepton Worthy ready to resume the life she left behind. Betrothed to the wealthy Sir Henry Rivenhall, she has no reason to be unhappy–or so people keep reminding her. But Beryl’s life isn’t as perfect as everyone believes. As village curate, Mark Rivenhall is known for his compassionate understanding. When his older brother’s intended needs a shoulder to lean on, Mark’s more than willing to provide one. There’s no danger of losing his heart. He already lost that to Beryl a long time ago. During an idyllic Victorian summer, friends and family gather in anticipation of Beryl and Sir Henry’s wedding. But in her darkest moment, it’s Mark who comes to Beryl’s aid. Can he help her without revealing his feelings–or betraying his brother? Continue reading

Mini-Review: Megan Crane’s DELTA FORCE DEFENDER

Delta_Force_DefenderThere is much to abhor in the former-military, “band of special ops” brothers romance, but I also cannot take away how compellingly satisfying Crane’s fourth Alaska Force romantic suspense novel, Delta Force Defender, was, the long-awaited story of the Force’s leader, Isaac Gentry, and the curmudgeonly owner of Grizzly Harbor’s restaurant, the shadows-in-her-eyes-and-scowl-on-her-face Caradine Scott. My reading experience alternated between eye-rolling annoyance and page-tapping eagerness, I’m embarrassed to say, but there you have it. There is absolutely nothing terribly original about the premise and, if it were not for Crane’s writing chops, this nears the Kristen-Ashley-badness territory.

Caradine Scott’s past catches up with her one night in her Alaskan-anonymity town, peopled by your run-of-the-mill small town “characters” and the ice-men that make up Alaska Force, a security service solving the world’s ills from their isolated state-of-the-art compound. Her restaurant is bombed and ne-er may be found of her except footprints leading to the water. What can I say, there are monitors. (Given the zip-tie horror of the America Capitol attack, no zip-tie carrying hero can ever be that heroic again. The former-military hero romance, with a protective, San-Andreas-fault-sized man-handling protective streak of said hero incites shivers of anxiety rather than frissons of excitement.) Leader of the he-man pack, Isaac Gentry, who does carry zip-ties, former marine, occasional-Caradine lover, is, atypically, emotionally affected by Caradine’s disappearance, terrified, though he’d never show it to his ribbing mates. Has she been kidnapped, or left for dead, or will soon be? Isaac follows her trail as Caradine takes a round-about driving route from Seattle to Maine, throwing off her pursuers but never losing Isaac, though she doesn’t know it … because he’s that good, better than anybody in the world. 
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