Review: ‘You Say It First’ (Happily Inc #1) by Susan Mallery

You Say It First

Famous sculptor Nick Mitchell decides to live with his brothers in Happily, Inc, “an entire town devoted to the destination wedding,” for a while before a huge international commission that he is confident he will get (He is a ‘Mitchell’, after all) will whisk him off to Dubai for two years. There, he decides to take up a temporary job with wedding planner Pallas Saunders. Little did he know that his first gig would be to bronze up and carry a palanquin for a ‘Roman-themed’ wedding.

Local girl and newly-minted owner of ‘Weddings in a Box,’ Pallas Saunders is struggling to figure which direction to take her life in after her old boss died and left his wedding planning business to her. The plan was to go to college and work in the bank with her mother. Eight years later, Pallas is armed with a degree in finance but no real desire to follow in her mother’s footsteps. When the sexy and thoughtful Nick focusses his charms her way, she is bewildered by what she feels for a man she has done nothing for.

While Nick and Pallas fall into an easy relationship, both of them come into it with a lot of baggage. Growing with a disapproving mother was very hard for Pallas, who could never understand why she had to earn her only parent’s love. That hole is filled by her circle of supportive friends, who will obviously be protagonists in subsequent books, and her family. Nick grew up in the shadow of a famous and abusive father, which made him swear off passion because he does not “want to destroy someone or be destroyed.” He likes Pallas well enough, but he is sure that there can never be anything long-term for him here. When Nick and Pallas receive some unexpected news that forces them to re-evaluate their long-held beliefs, will they have the courage to make it or not?

From what I gather, Ms. Mallery’s new series is linked to her Fool’s Gold series. However, since I haven’t gotten around to reading those yet, I am sure I missed out on the pleasure that longtime fans will get from the characters that recur. While this book has a lot of elements of contemporary romance, for me it veered more into the “women’s fiction” or “chick lit” genres. Nick and Pallas’s romance, while sweet, was nothing memorable. The best plot development happens when the protagonists are with their friends and family. It was the joy to see the group come together for Pallas every time she had a big event, giving me serious Bride Quartet (Nora Roberts) vibes. Since this is my first Susan Mallery, I can only imagine how she managed to lay out a convincing love story while simultaneously sowing the seeds for another 3-4 books, at least. For me, the best part of the book was watching Pallas become a confident woman who could take on the world with a new kickass business and the hunky Nick by her side.

Though a shaky start to the series, I will definitely read the rest of the books in the Happily Inc universe to see how all the characters I learned of in You Say It First end up.

I was provided an ARC through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

 

Review: ‘Lady Be Good’ (Rules for the Reckless #3) by Meredith Duran

Lady Be Good

Even though I absolutely adored the last Meredith Duran book I read, my experience with her writing has been pretty erratic to date. Still, I had my finger crossed when I read Lady Be Good and, luckily, I wasn’t disappointed.

London, 1882. Lily Monroe is a precocious thief working for her uncle in return for her sister Fiona’s medical treatment. While she is used to a life of hard knocks and dangerous encounters, she is not prepared for her only sibling’s untimely death. Meanwhile, Major Christian “Kit” Stratton is being tortured by a Russian madman somewhere in the Hindu Kush mountains. The Russian, Bolkhov, blames Kit and his men for the deaths of his family (read: captors he raped and impregnated) and vows to exact revenge by killing everyone Kit holds dear.

The story then takes a four-year leap. Back in London, Christian, now a viscount after the sudden deaths of his father (riding accident) and elder brother (house fire), is a celebrated war hero. Suspecting foul play, he is determined to save the lives of his mother and sister from a megalomaniacal Bolkhov. Christian meets Lily, now calling herself Lilah, at Everleigh’s Auction House. Now a ‘hostess’, Lily gets caught by him as she attempts to steal Peter Everleigh’s correspondence as a last favor for her Godfather/Robin Hood uncle. Instead of ratting her out, Christian decides to use Lily to get to Catherine Everleigh, the beauty co-owner of Everleigh’s who has had contact with a mysterious Russian antique dealer that Christian suspects to be Bolkhov. He blackmails Lily into spying on Catherine, telling her that he just wants help in wooing the icy proprietress. In return, he insists that he will return Peter Everleigh’s letters to Lily when her job is done.

Lily has been trying to fulfill her sister’s dream of living a respectable life. She was living on the straight and narrow when her uncle threatened to expose her sordid past to her new employers if she didn’t steal the letters. Now, she is being blackmailed by two men, and in order to pay the first, she has no choice but to obey the second.

The story then shifts to a country estate that Christian has inherited from a distant cousin. After some expert maneuvering, he has made sure that Catherine, and not her brother, will accompany him to the property to assess the valuables in the house for an auction. Lily is forced to be her assistant-cum-chaperone. Though she hates the fact that she is being blackmailed by Christian, the new job is an opportunity for Lily to learn from Catherine and maybe move up in the world. Unfortunately, Catherine Everleigh is too sharp and exacting in life, making both of Lily’s jobs difficult.

In the meanwhile, Christian and Lily are attracted to each other despite the many reasons they shouldn’t be. For all their differences, they have both lost an older sibling and in some ways are living the lives those people were meant to lead. Christian has no desire to be a peer of the realm; Fiona dreamed of becoming an Everleigh hostess while Lily trained as a typist.

There is nothing stellar about Lady Be Good. As with most Meredith Duran books, its strength lies in its execution, through strong prose and extensive characterization, leading Christian and Lily to emerge as more than stereotypes. Sure, he’s ruthless, but Christian is also deeply conflicted. He feels like he’s playing a role–‘the hero of Bekhole’ to an adoring British public–but it’s not really him. He was once the carefree spare heir, then the disciplined military man, but neither of these labels fit him anymore. As for Lily, she has tried really tried to shake off her past, but not without regret. Her cunning uncle and her other friends and family from the London underworld make her feel ashamed of wanting to be something different, someone more respectable. And she can never quite the lose the fear that one day the truth about her past will come out and her carefully constructed new world will come crashing down.

Lily and Christian’s relationship develops slowly and gradually–from intrigue and attraction to respect and liking and then to love. There were times when I felt that the characters could have overcome the mental constraints imposed on them by their antiquated time period. Also, Bolkhov was woefully underdeveloped as a villain. He maintains a menacing background presence for most of the book, but the actual confrontation with him was rather anti-climactic.

Lastly, Lady Be Good left me very eager to start its sequel Luck Be A Lady, which pairs Lily’s uncle Nick O’Shea with Miss Catherine Everleigh. It will be interesting to see how Ms. Duran manages to redeem him. (Catherine’s a piece of work, too, but she softens considerably in this book.) Another fun read by Meredith Duran.

Review: ‘Me Before You’ & ‘After You’ by Jojo Moyes

Romance novels have happy endings. The hero and heroine kiss and/or marry and/or ride into the sunset. They live happily ever after, or in the genre shorthand, HEA. Having grown up reading romance novels, I used to believe love was the most important thing. But no major literary critic has ever treated romance as a serious genre. Happiness is a frivolous dream; reality is harsh and serious, like a Dickensian novel. As a skeptical Harper’s article puts it, “Bad Romance: One genre and a billion happy endings.”

(WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD)

Me Before You

If happy endings define crappy romance for critics, the Jojo Moyes’ now-a-major-motion-picture best-seller Me Before You poses an interesting case. The novel is about the relationship between Will Traynor–a former high-powered executive put in a wheelchair by a motorcycle accident–and his caregiver, Louisa Clark. The two do fall in love, but they don’t live happily ever after. Will, paralyzed from the neck down, is miserable, and even Louisa’s love can’t reconcile him to the limitations of his wheelchair. At the book’s conclusion, he goes to Dignitas, the assisted dying organization in Switzerland, and ends his life. as Louisa, grief-stricken, looks on.

Not the upbeat love-and-marriage ending you expect from a romance. And yet, putting the ending aside, Me Before You has almost all the characteristics of a romance novel. As with most heroes in romance novels, Will is wealthy, powerful, controlling, and emotionally distant. Even beyond the damaged hero, though, Me Before You functions as a romance because it’s about two people falling in love, and becoming more complete, and more themselves, while doing so.

Louisa, at the start of the novel, is a lower-middle-class woman afraid to dream beyond her small English town and bland, exercise-crazed boyfriend. Will, before his accident, was, in his own words, a self-centered “arse” and a callous womanizer; after his accident, he is consumed with bitterness. Over the course of the book, Will broadens Louisa’s horizons. He introduces her to opera (very Pretty Woman), travel, and her own potential. Louisa, for her part, helps Will overcome his self-centeredness, his bitterness, and even his depression. “I watched you these six months becoming a whole different person,” he tells Louisa, “someone who is only just beginning to see her possibilities. You have no idea how happy that has made me.” Will wants to die not because he is sad, but because he won’t accept the limited life he has, and the prospect of things getting worse. He even asks Louisa to help him die. “Give me the ending I’m hoping for,” he says.

The novel is heartbreaking because the HEA is right there, tantalizingly within reach. As I read the novel, I saw how it could work and how they could be happy together. At Will’s ex’s wedding, they share a dance together, Louisa sitting on Will’s lap in his motorized wheelchair, spinning together on the dance floor. Louisa, formerly a timid underachiever, transforms into a compulsive researcher who organizes a complicated last-minute trip to a seaside resort with Will. “I have learned so much, so much about how to make this work,” she says, “so I can do that and just be with you.”

But that’s not enough. “This could be a good life,” Will says when Louisa declares her love. “But it’s not my life.”Louisa professes her love in true romance novel fashion, and the hero not only rejects her, he decides to commit suicide. A more thorough refutation of the romance novel tropes is hard to imagine.

But, at the same time, the tropes are fulfilled. Because Will stays with her–in Louisa’s memory of him, and in the changes she has made in herself: her determination to go to school, to leave her tiny hometown, and to live a larger life. At the book’s end, as she reads his last words to her in a Paris cafe he asked her to visit for him, the two are together on the page. Which is, after all, where all romance novel happy endings live.

After You

I assume the unfulfilled romance of Me Before You irked a lot of readers who pestered Ms. Moyes about Louisa’s fate. She wrote a sequel, After You. Louisa, struggling with her own grief, tries to move on with her life in London, in part through a new relationship with Sam, and in part through a new job prospect in New York.

After You is a more conventional romance than Me Before You–which is to say, it has a happy ending. But just as the painful end of Me Before You is shadowed by the almost-happy conclusion, the happiness of After You is reached only after multiple suggested tragedies.

The first of these comes right at the beginning of the novel. Louisa accidentally falls off her roof and for a moment thinks she is paralyzed, like Will before her. The parallel is very direct: Louisa’s accident is recounted in a foreword, just as Will’s is. And Louisa herself asks the paramedic if she paralyzed. After You explicitly toys with the idea that it is the same sad story as Me Before You–and explicitly rejects it.

After You offers other wrong turns and unhappy, or mixed, endings, though. In fact, in some ways, the whole novel is a failed HEA. “Man dies, everyone learns something, moves on, creates something wonderful out of his death,” Louisa bitterly tells her grief-support group. “But that’s just a fairy-tale ending, isn’t it?” After You is about the way that the first book’s version of a happy ending failed–not just in that Will died, but in the sense that Louisa didn’t grow and change as Will, and the book’s readers, thought she would. Will’s death was supposed to leave her with a bigger life; instead, it turns out, it diminished her.

The HEA for After You is complicated, too. This is especially the case because the most resonant relationship in the novel, in many ways, is not Louisa and Sam, but Louisa and Will’s troubled teenage daughter, Lily. Lily, deeply unhappy, is desperately in need of love. Louisa needs her in return, both for herself and in order to stay true to Will. But caring for Lily interferes with both Louisa’s job prospects and her new romance. Would caring for Lily be a sad ending? Or is being a foster mother a happy enough ending to count in a romance? “That’s life,” Sam tells her. “We don’t know what will happen. Which is why we have to take our chances while we can. And…I think this might be yours.”

What chance is Sam referring to there? Part of what’s delightful, and pointed, about Ms. Moyes’ novels is that you’re not sure until the very end. After You isn’t as ruthless as Me Before You, but Ms. Moyes is a master of the wavering possibilities of good enough and is always aware of the limits that sometimes make even good enough impossible. Her other books suggest that acute awareness of failure is linked to her sensitivity to class and working-class British life. Ms. Moyes book The One Plus One is a harrowing record of the drip-drip-drip slow-motion desperation of poverty, a chronicle of how life at the bottom of the class ladder is a constant reiteration of ‘you can do neither.’ Happiness teeters over a precipice, and when it’s snatched from the edge, it’s almost a physical relief, not least because unhappiness is such a vividly presented option.

In Me Before You, and in her other romances, Ms. Moyes layers defeat over victory. But in that, she’s not somehow subverting romance. That’s what romance is.

Romance novels always have sad endings before their happy endings. There’s always a moment, or a lot more than a moment, of despair—a recognition that things could go horribly wrong, and probably did, or would. Ian McEwan’s Atonement is notorious for providing two endings, only one of them “real,” and only one with an HEA for the couple at its center. That’s supposed to make it tricky literary fiction. But really it just makes it an unusually meta romance. Everybody has imagined Romeo and Juliet happy; everyone who reads Pride and Prejudice gets through the bit where Elizabeth’s refusal of Darcy stands. And to read Me Before You is to imagine a shadow fiction next to the real fiction, where Will, instead of saying, “It’s not enough,” says, “Yes, it’s enough. I love you; let’s live.”

In fact, those happy endings and sad endings only have meaning because they exist together. The HEA (or even the happy for now) takes on moral and emotional force because it insists that happiness is deserved, in the full knowledge that often it isn’t possible. And those sad endings are heartbreaking because happiness is fully imagined, and sometimes attainable. Ms. Moyes’ novels, and romance novels in general, don’t gloss over despair, or pain, or sadness. Rather, they take happiness seriously precisely because they know heartbreak is always a possibility when you turn the page.

 

Review: ‘Fool Me Twice’ (Rules for the Reckless #2) by Meredith Duran

Fool Me Twice

I don’t know why I’ve been so bipolar when it comes to Meredith Duran’s books. I absolutely adored her novella Your Wicked Heart. And then I really didn’t like That Scandalous Summer. With Fool Me Twice, I am happily back in the “Love Her” camp. Probably because it has a tortured hero and a redheaded heroine, but moving on. For fans of Ms. Duran, the title makes it obvious that this story is about Alastair de Grey, the Duke of Marwick, who spectacularly lost the plot after news of his late wife’s betrayal hit him. Of course, he had to be paired with the mysterious Ms. Olivia ‘Mather’.

Olivia Holladay is the proverbial damsel in distress. A powerful man wants her dead and while she may not know why, she knows who he is (Cabinet Minister Baron Bertram), and how to make him pay for it. Sick of looking over her shoulder, Olivia decides to protect herself. To that end, she gains employment in the Duke of Marwick’s household, hoping to find something that she can use to blackmail the baron. The Duke’s reputation as a political mover and shaker is well-known, but, as only Olivia knows, he also has a good reason to hate Bertram.

While her plan may have been to deceive and steal from the man, Olivia is a punctilious person at heart and she is shocked at the state of disarray she finds in the duke’s house. Marwick hasn’t left his suite in months. Things are so bad that a desperate butler hires her as the temporary housekeeper. And although she’s supposed to be concentrating on her search, Olivia finds herself at the mercy of her worst flaw, a need to “interfere and manage and fix things.” Not just the state of the house and the insolent servants, but the master of the house too.

Alastair’s state of mind is extremely dark, especially when we discover that his agoraphobia is based on the fear that if he goes anywhere near the people who helped his wife betray him,  he’ll kill them. As he becomes more rational, it is also obvious that he is a self-involved asshole. Ironically, Marwick’s thwarted pride and legitimate pain combine to make him simultaneously both infuriating and sympathetic. It is dishonest to pretend that mental illness provokes only kindness and understanding in those who deal with its victims, so kudos to Ms. Duran for striking that delicate balance. Besides, butt-headedness makes a character seem more real than pathos does.

The interactions between Marwick and Olivia begin as hostile confrontations and evolve into convoluted negotiations often prefaced by him asking “Didn’t I sack you?”  Their relationship is complicated and subtly hilarious. Olivia’s campaign to roust Marwick consists of serial invasions of his space, each more entertaining than the last. Whether she is rescuing his books, critiquing his grooming, or admiring a nipple, Olivia is a hoot. Marwick’s responses range from rage to incredulity as he resists the change that Olivia impels.

Yet, change is inevitable. I love this trope and the way Ms. Duran employs it here. The give and take between Olivia and Marwick is pivotal to the plot and enables a slow reveal of their checkered pasts. But there is far more going on than lively banter and extended internal monologues. There is a point in the story when the action shifts from private to public in a way that almost draws a line through the middle of the narrative. Here is the point where Marwick evolves into Alastair for me. This dichotomy isn’t necessarily a flaw but it is very strongly defined. Edgy banter gives way to darker themes, and the emphasis shifts from Marwick’s emotional health to his moral choices just as Olivia’s situation is further imperiled. The danger to Olivia is real as is Marwick’s fear of disgrace, and there are a number of twists before the story winds to a close. However, emotional and intellectual sparring take center stage through most of the novel, and the usual quick shedding of clothes and inhibitions is replaced by welcome restraint. The only striptease is of the soul-baring sort that builds the very best kind of tension.

In spite of her cleverness and down-to-earth pragmatism, Olivia is an innocent, and the author conveys the normalcy of this state by making it something Olivia herself is indifferent to. After all, she is fighting for her life. Virginity is just the default position, so to speak, and we only become aware of it when Alastair does. When the Duke recognizes her innocence, it pleases him but it doesn’t really affect her value to him. Virginity is more an incidental attribute than virtue incarnate. Ultimately, it is Olivia’s utter isolation and her ability to maintain her self-respect in the face of real danger that moves and impresses Alastair. Although their attraction is undeniable, it is never separated from their emotions.

He grabbed her wrists and bowed his head to kiss each one, like a vassal paying tribute. She watched him do so and felt, for a dizzying moment, taller than him, a presence larger and grander than her flesh could contain. By his own account, he had seen her, recognized her, as brave, intelligent, resourceful. And he wanted her, against his will. Yes, let him bow his head; let him admit to being conquered.  

When Olivia and Alastair finally have sex, the act is deeply passionate and convincingly unique to them. In a relationship characterized by intermittent bullying and an often brutal frankness, they are honest when it counts the most. Ms. Duran writes a gorgeous sex scene that is beautifully integrated into the story, and then follows it up with some sparkling humour.

She felt a glimmer of mischief.

“You’re not feeling shy, are you?” To her amazement–and, yes, her delight–the color rose in his face.

“Shy, by God–”

“You’re avoiding my eyes,” she said. “You could not have hustled me out of that flat more quickly this morning. And now you’re refusing to have a conversation. Are you afraid that you disappointed me? For I assure you, it wouldn’t have been possible. I wasn’t expecting much-”

He made a choking sound.

“Oh dear.” She reached for her discarded cup of tea, brought an hour ago by the obsequious conductor. “Would you like some of this? And don’t misunderstand me; it was quite nice. Last night, I mean.”

  And that is one of the reasons why I absolutely adore Fool Me Twice. The preceding story in this series painted Alastair in a very negative light, so it was a bit weird to accept him as a hero in the next book. Olivia, however, runs completely true to form. While I suppose each of the three Meredith Duran novels I’ve read so far more than stands alone, Fool Me Twice is my absolute favourite of the lot.

I would recommend it to avid fans of historical romance who enjoy complicated relationships with a lot of edgy banter, who aren’t nit-picky about the level of historical detail in the story but still expect a sense of authenticity and good writing.

 

Review: ‘All the Light We Cannot See’ by Anthony Doerr

All The Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is a World War II novel about children, the kind of undertaking that requires a lot of work to rise above emotional manipulation. For the first hundred or so pages, the book seems to rely on ready signifiers of heartbreak and grandeur: a motherless blind girl, a white-haired orphan boy, a cursed diamond, lots and lots of bombs.

But once he hits his stride, Anthony Doerr takes these loud parts and builds a beautiful, expansive tale, woven with thoughtful reflections on the meaning of life, the universe, and everything.

Marie-Laure LeBlanc (introduced as “the girl”) is the daughter of a master locksmith for the Museum of Natural History in Paris. She loses her vision at 6 years old and spends the rest of her childhood studying mollusks, reading Jules Verne novels in Braille, and navigating her neighbourhood with the help of a faithful wooden model built by her loving, storybook-wonderful father.

When she is 12, the Germans occupy Paris, and she and her father flee to Saint-Malo, a walled city on the Brittany coast, where her great-uncle owns a six-story home he hasn’t left since the last World War. They carry with them a 133-carat stone that is either the Sea of Flames, the museum’s most valuable diamond, or one of three convincing replicas. The stone attracts the attention of the novel’s primary antagonist, Nazi Sergeant Major van Rumpel, a treasure collector for the Third Reich. Van Rumpel, who is dying of cancer, becomes fixated with the Sea of Flames, which is rumoured to protect its owner from death while drawing disaster on his or her loved ones.

Werner Pfennig serves as the corresponding boy to Marie-Laure’s girl–a young orphan with a scientist’s mind and all the grim opportunities available to a brilliant youth in Nazi Germany. He grows up with his little sister in the orphanage of Zollverein, a 4000-acre coal-mining complex, where their father died in an accident underground.

The orphanage boys have one known destiny–to go straight to the mines when they turn 15. Werner lives in claustrophobic fear of his fated existence, and when he sees a ticket out, he seizes it. His talent for radio repair attracts attention to his genius, and he leaves Zollverein for a Hitler Youth academy, then for a special assignment that uses mathematical methods to track and destroy the Resistance.

The bulk of the novel takes place between 1934 and 1945, with a particular focus on the siege of Saint-Malo in August 1944, where the two stories finally converge. Despite the time frame, Doerr largely avoids the topic of the Holocaust, focussing more on warfare than on genocide. We are meant to identify with Werner as he slips into his useful role within the Wehrmacht, and perhaps it was better to have him take out enemy combatants than innocent Jewish children.

That said, Doerr never lets Werner off the hook, and Werner’s arc–his increasing tolerance for ugliness and violence, “his ten thousand small betrayals,” his struggle to find volition and redemption in a life that offers few apparent choices–is the most compelling part of the book. The other characters are easier to qualify as good or evil. Marie-Laure’s struggle for survival is captivating, but her journey is more external than Werner’s–we are never forced to doubt the purity of her heart.

Werner and Marie-Laure are the focal points for not only the war but the whole of human existence. Throughout the novel, Doerr draws attention to all that is fine-grained and infinite in the world: barnacles, snowflakes, “the filaments of a spiderweb,” “many thousands of freckles,” “a million droplets of fog,”; even a network of trenches like “the circuitry of an enormous radio, each soldier down there an electron flowing single file down his own electrical path, with no more say in the matter than the electron has.”

The title refers to the endless run of the electromagnetic spectrum, a scale so large that “mathematically, all of light is invisible.” This motif runs through the whole novel, imparting texture and rhythm as well as a thematic tension, between the insignificant and miraculous natures of mankind and all the immeasurable components that make up our lives.

The characters are constantly searching–for forbidden radio transmissions, for the Sea of Flames, for each other–locating tiny points in the chaos of the universe. (“Needles in the haystack. Thorns in the paw of the lion.”) They look for meaning while facing the vastness and “the seismic, engulfing indifference of the world,” and their fates hinge on their ability to act when everything seems to be determined they can only imagine.

The prose is lovely, with the sort of wondrous, magical, humour-free tone that could be cheesy in the wrong hands. Doerr’s novel is ambitious and majestic without bluntness or overdependence on heartbreak–which is not to say it won’t jerk those tears right out of your head.

 

Review: Come Sundown by Nora Roberts

Come Sundown

As a rule, I had decided never to review books by authors that have been lifelong favourites. This was mostly because I often found my choices not holding up under any sort of critical scrutiny, Also, I believe that overthinking why you like something a lot just takes away from the simple joy of it. I broke that rule when I reviewed a few Judith McNaught books and was pleasantly surprised by the positive response. But I still never thought of reviewing a Nora Roberts romance until last week when I picked Come Sundown as a holiday read/to celebrate 11 years of reading NR. If this post comes across as too restrained considering how I am obsessed with the woman, please know I would write a 10-star review in all caps if I wasn’t worried about losing all but two of my readers.

Come Sundown opens in 1992 with a disheartened 21-year old Alice Bodine hitchhiking her way back home after a runaway bid for independence three years ago ended in shattered dreams and disillusionment. Unsure of whether she will be welcomed back, she hitches a ride from a nice-looking middle-aged man just miles outside her family ranch, unaware of just how much this action will change her life.

The story then takes a 25-year leap and we find ourselves in present-day Montana. Bodine Longbow, the niece of the long-lost Alice, is the manager and boss of her family’s upscale resort. The latest in a long line of entrepreneurial bad-ass women who get shit done, Bodine is smart, self-reliant and loyal to her amazing and loving family. Her two brothers, her loving parents, and kickass grandma and great-grandma are all secondary characters I fell in love with instantly and was only slightly disappointed at Come Sundown not being Book 1 of a trilogy.

When Bo’s childhood crush and her brother’s best friend, Callen Skinner, comes back into town to work at the ranch after making a name for himself in Hollywood, she is surprised by the instant attraction that flares up between them. Being a consummate professional and his boss, she tries to push her feelings for Cal aside as circumstances keep forcing them together.

It’s not my fault you grew up so damn pretty. How about this: You and me make a date. First of May, that’s a good day. Spring’s come around, and you won’t be my boss anymore. I’ll take you dancing, Bodine.”

The fire crackled in the old potbelly, a reminder of heat and flame. 

“You know, Callen, if you’d given me that flirtatious look and that smooth talk when I was twelve going on thirteen, my heart would’ve just stumbled right out of my chest. I had such a crush on you.”

Now his grin didn’t flash. The smile came slow and silky. “Is that so?”

“Oh my, yes. You with your skinny build, half-wild ways, and broody eyes were the object of my desperate affection and awakening hormones for weeks. Maybe even a few months, though at the time it seemed like years.”

Callen Skinner, like almost every Nora Roberts hero,  is a walking feminist dreamboat. He left home shortly after his father gambled away his birthright and killed himself. When he returns to work the land his family once owned, he holds no resentment toward the Longbows. Growing up, he was considered an honorary son by them and they were the only family he had outside of his mother and sister. Most importantly, Cal respects Bo’s authority as his boss and doesn’t try to undermine her just to show that he is the hero in the equation. This, the way her protagonists always have relationships where they view the other as a true equal, is why I love Nora Roberts. And the fact that the banter is top-notch doesn’t hurt a bit.

“You ought to have your eyes on a woman.”

“As they keep roaming your way, are you offering, Miss Fancy?”

She let out a hoot. “It’s a damn shame you were born fifty–oh, hell, sixty years too late.”

“But I am an old soul.”

She laughed agin, patted his cheek. “I always did have that soft spot for you.”

“Miss Fancy.” He took her hand, kissed it. “I’ve been in love with you all my life.”

The women rode through, a sedate walk. Then Miss Fancy looked back, sent him a wink. And leaped into a gallop.

“That’s all right,” Cal mumbled. “I didn’t need that year of my life.”

Things take a sinister turn when two women are found dead not far from the Bodine property, and it becomes obvious that a serial killer is loose in the Montana countryside. A police deputy with a long-held grudge casts suspicion Cal’s way, but Bo and her family remain steadfastly loyal to him. I really loved the way the characters pull together here, rather than allowing mistrust to get in the way of what they know is right. And then, a link is found to Alice’s disappearance, plunging the family into a web of darkness that will threaten everything they hold dear.

Most of the story takes place in the present, but flashbacks offer some insight into Alice’s plight. Eventually, the two storylines merge, and this is where the novel really starts to shine. Come Sundown contains a darkness and intensity that isn’t present in all of Ms. Roberts’ books. She doesn’t shy away from exploring the darker side of humanity here, and, while some readers might find this off-putting, I loved it. I like my suspense on the gritty side, and Ms. Roberts definitely delivers.

Perhaps this novel’s greatest strength is its characters. Most of them, especially the grandmas, are the kind of people I’d love to hang out with in real life and the author’s depiction of family life is heart-warming and authentic. These are not the kind of people who let silly miscommunications and misunderstandings get in the way of their love for one another. They argue sometimes, as all families do, but the reader never doubts they’ll be there for one another when the going gets rough.

The writing is so lush and atmospheric, I felt like I was right there in the story. Ranches have played prominent roles in a few of Ms. Roberts’ other books, and it seems she must have quite a bit of first-hand experience with ranch life because she always brings them to life beautifully.

A word of caution, though. If you’re someone who is troubled by graphic violence, you might want to give this a pass, as a large part of the story is spent detailing the horrific abuse that Alice suffered for over 25 years.  But whether you’re already a mega fan of Nora Roberts’ writing, or someone picking up one of her books for the first time, I can’t recommend Come Sundown highly enough. The suspense is engrossing, the romance is delightful, and the characterization is superb.

 

Review: That Scandalous Summer (Rules for the Reckless #1) by Meredith Duran

That Scandalous Summer

A single indiscreet dalliance notwithstanding, Michael de Grey, the younger brother of the powerful Duke of Marwick, is a hard-working physician who runs a charitable hospital with one of the lowest mortality rates in the country. Living off his brother, Alastair, who has been his protector and confidant since they were children, Michael is stunned when Alastair threatens to cut him and his hospital off unless Michael marries a woman approved by him and carries on the Marwick line. In response, Michael decides to go into hiding in Cornwall. Why that doesn’t result in the immediate shutdown of his precious hospital is not explained. So, our hero is now masquerading as a simple country doctor in Bosbrea where he stumbles upon a beautiful woman passed out in his rose bushes.

Lady Elizabeth Chudderley, notorious society beauty and merry widow, is tired of keeping up appearances when, in fact, she is nearly broke and has just been dumped by her latest lover for a young heiress. Drowning her sorrows in whiskey and passing out in the handsome new doctor’s gardens was not part of the plan, of course. While the attraction between them is instant, they both have their reasons for not acting upon it.

Liza thinks Michael is a middle-class doctor at best, putting him one step above a peasant in terms of respectability.  She needs to find a rich husband fast. Michael, on the other hand, knows of Elizabeth’s reputation and doesn’t want to be distracted by his lame plan to make his brother come after him to Cornwall. Of course, they bond over country bazaars and long walks and when Liza assists Michael in delivering a baby. Things come to a head when Liza plans a house party filled with prospective suitors and spiritualists as entertainment.

And that is where I have my biggest problem with the book. The party floods the story with new characters who have appeared in Ms. Duran’s previous books. However, since this was my first full-length Meredith Duran novel, I had no idea who all these people were and I just kept feeling that I had been dropped in the middle of a conversation where I didn’t know any of the parties. Trying to make sense of those chapters in the middle messed with my head so much, that it just took away from Michael and Liza’s love story and whatever convoluted stunt they pulled with Alastair in the end to get their HEA.

As a rule, I am an avid fan of historical romances. After Your Wicked Heart, I was really excited to read the rest of the Rules for the Reckless series. Ms. Duran’s stories highlight issues like mental illness, grief, and alcoholism but never end up dealing with them satisfactorily. To me, the characters came across as mediocre and the story was an absolute drag. The writing was mostly okay, with flashes of wit getting drowned out by pages of bitter sarcasm. In the end, after having read one great and one horrible Meredith Duran novel apiece, I’m not sure if I will read any more of her work.

Review: “It Happened on Love Street” (Everland, Georgia #1) by Lia Riley

It Happened On Love Street

At first glance, it seems too schmaltzy to be true. And in the beginning, it was. The town is called Everland. The address is actually Love Street. The hero is named Rhett Valentine. And, in theory, I should have been gagging and/or derisively snorting while reading this book, but Lia Riley’s small-town contemporary romance is so charmingly adorable that, despite my horrible mood, I couldn’t stop awwing and laughing out loud while reading it.

It Happened on Love Street opens with recent law-school graduate and big city girl, Pepper Knight, relocating to fanciful Everland, Georgia, only to find out that the job she moved halfway across the country for has been given to someone else. Having always been the responsible one in her family, Pepper refuses to ask for help until she bumps into local vet and hottie, Rhett Valentine.

Rhett Valentine, (yes, of course, the name made me swoon) was left at the altar by his first love a few years ago and now he spends his time trying to build a local animal shelter while feuding with his father, and keeping his personal life from again becoming local gossip. When his new sexy, dog-fearing neighbor needs help, he jumps to her rescue and obviously sparks fly and they start a steamy affair.

As I said, it all seems very sweet on the surface, so sweet that it’s cloying. But as I read It Happened on Love Street, I fell in love with the protagonists and the kooky town of Everland, Georgia. While the “Southernness” of it all seemed a bit too much at times, Ms. Riley has peppered (LOL) the story with hilarious dialogue and endearing secondary characters. There are a couple of plotlines that seemed out of place, like a lifelong cynophobe becoming a dog walker overnight just because the cute guy asked her, and the completely unneeded Psycho scenario that popped up in the middle.

But I would recommend It Happened on Love Street to all readers of contemporary romance. It is sexy. It is funny. For some reason, it has a treasure hunt. It is peppered  (I can’t stop!) with hilarious pop culture references. And it has dogs named after authors and a hero named Rhett. If that doesn’t sell it, I don’t know what will.

Review: “Royal Affair” (Royals in Exile #2) by Marquita Valentine

Royal Affair

So despite not being a huge fan of the opener in this series, I decided to give Royal Affair a shot straight away. The premise was a bit cliched and, TBH, I wasn’t a huge fan of the story for about half of it. But I stuck wth it and I’m glad to say I was pleasantly surprised. #AlwaysFinishABook

Princess Charlotte Sinclair has always been the wallflower. The traumatic death of her parents and the subsequent exile in North Carolina has left her socially awkward and desirous of wanting a normal life. But when journalist Brooks Walker exposes her family, instead of being outraged like the rest of her siblings, Charlotte is fascinated by his take-no-prisoners, brash style of journalism. When they meet at a charity ball, she propositions him to have an affair with her in exchange for access to her secrets.

Despite coming from an illustrious family, Brooks Walker carved a name out for himself by building a media empire based on honest journalism, no matter how many people it pissed off in the process. When the sweetest of the Sinclairs suggests they have an affair, he readily agrees. However, he soon finds himself overwhelmed by the passion they share and starts to care for Charlotte. When an old enemy of the royal family resurfaces and gives Brooks the biggest scoop of his career, he must decide where his loyalties lie.

Again, I have to reiterate that I did not like this book in the beginning. I thought Charlotte was too naive and Brooke was too much of a wolf. Also, I believed there wasn’t any building up to the affair itself. Ms. Valentine writes like the first chapter is the fifth and the readers are supposed to know things not even mentioned in the previous books in the series.

However, in the later half of the book, there is a lot of character development. The motivation behind the protagonists’ unnatural obsession with each other is explained. Secondary characters are introduced to humanize Brooks, who I still think was portrayed as too jaded to convincingly fall in love with the princess he was supposed to use a source. As usual, there is a flurry of shocking revelations about the Sinclair family. There is A LOT of sex throughout the story, but it really doesn’t add anything to the plot.

Thankfully, this time the banter, as well as the inner monologues, were hilarious and made me actually like the characters. The conflicts were still superficial and resolved too quickly and easily to be of any consequence. But when Brooks and Charlotte finally got together, it seemed largely believable. I was fascinated by the hints dropped about Theo’s and Imogen’s upcoming stories. Hopefully, the next books in the series will actually be great and not fizzle out into mediocrity like the first two.

Review: “Royal Scandal” (Royals in Exile #1) by Marquita Valentine

Royal Scandal

At 19, Crown Prince Colin St Claire–sorry, Sinclair–is forced to go into hiding in small-town America with his siblings after a violent uprising in his homeland results in the death of his parents. There he meets spunky Della Hughes, 17, who treats him with a candor he finds refreshing. So, obviously, he doesn’t tell her he’s royalty. Moreover, he lets her believe he is the father of his two youngest siblings. A decade passes and now Colin is taking steps to reclaim his family’s rightful place. For that, he is required to marry a woman of the Parliament’s choosing but he has someone else in mind.

Della Hughes has been in love with her best friend Colin for as long as she can remember. Practically a co-parent to his “boys” and a part of the Sinclair family, she feels taken for granted because Colin has shown no interest in her as a woman over the past ten years. Imagine her surprise when she finds out he’s a prince and needs her to marry him to secure a real-life throne for his siblings.

Their deep friendship and love for each other (which is blindingly obvious to the rest of the world but not to them) makes them enter into a marriage of convenience, which quickly turns into a passionate union. However, as Colin and Della open up their hearts to each other, both are hiding secrets from the other which they think can destroy their relationship. Set against the backdrop of a litany of shocking revelations about the St Claire family and kingdom, this is, first, a story of how the St Claire family come to terms with their place in the world and then, a modern fairytale romance.

The book has a very contemporary feel to it, with numerous references to Beauty and the Beast and Stranger Things. Colin and Della are fairly progressive protagonists. They do, however, overthink the hell out of their problems, creating barriers where none were necessary on their path to finding true love. The book was unexpectedly sexy and it was slightly disconcerting (but not unenjoyable :P) to read graphic scenes when there was so much family drama in the air. Since Royal Scandal is the opening book in a series, Ms. Valentine laid the ground for a lot of subplots that would be developed in the upcoming stories. However, they sometimes took away from the centrality of Colin and Della’s romance.

Overall, Royal Scandal was an entertaining, if slightly messy, take on a modern fairytale romance. I am excited to see what lies in store for the rest of the St Claire family.