Review: St. Francis Society for Wayward Pets by Annie England Noblin

Review: St. Francis Society for Wayward Pets by Annie England NoblinSt. Francis Society for Wayward Pets by Annie England Noblin
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: women's fiction
Pages: 384
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on January 14, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

If you love Susan Mallery and Jill Shalvis, you won’t want to miss this new novel of second chances, dogs, and knitting, from the author of Pupcakes and Sit! Stay! Speak!

Laid off, cheated on, mugged: what else can go wrong in Maeve Stephens’ life? So when she learns her birth mother has left her a house, a vintage VW Beetle, and a marauding cat, in the small town of Timber Creek, Washington, she packs up to discover the truth about her past.

She arrives to the sight of a cheerful bulldog abandoned on her front porch, a reclusive but tempting author living next door, and a set of ready-made friends at the St. Francis Society for Wayward Pets, where women knit colorful sweaters for the dogs and cats in their care. But there’s also an undercurrent of something that doesn’t sit right with Maeve. What’s the secret (besides her!) that her mother had hidden?

If Maeve is going to make Timber Creek her home, she must figure out where she fits in and unravel the truth about her past. But is she ready to be adopted again—this time, by an entire town…?

My Review:

This isn’t quite the book I was expecting from the blurb. It was much better than that.

On the surface, this looked like a story about second chances. And it is. But not all of those second chances belong to Maeve, the main character of this story. And some of those second chances are in the past and not the present. Or they are an unexpected and unknown present, in the other sense of the word. The present that doesn’t look like a present, the gift that Annabelle gave her daughter when she gave Maeve up for adoption.

A chance for a better life than Annabelle expected for herself – and a much better life than she could have given her daughter if she’d kept her.

But Maeve knows nothing of that past when she comes to tiny Timber Creek to attend her birth mother’s funeral. All she knows is that the woman gave her up as an infant, never answered the letters Maeve sent as a teenager, and has died leaving her everything she owned. Including a small house, a wandering cat and a fully-restored classic VW Beetle.

Along with an empty hole where the truth needs to be.

But Annabelle also left her daughter a circle of good friends, a reputation as a rescuer of last-chance animals, and just enough clues to figure out the secrets of Maeve’s origins – and the seeds that truth sowed all those years ago.

Maeve is 36, and at a crossroads in her life. More than one. Her childhood was relatively idyllic but the present is a whole other matter. Not anything terrible, but she’s just not adulting the way she expected to be in her mid-30s. She’s just lost her job – journalism is not a great career choice these days – and she discovered her boyfriend was cheating on her along with the entire rest of the world – on YouTube. Ugh.

So the trip to her birth mother’s funeral comes as Maeve has reached a big fork in her road – and doesn’t know how, or which way, to take it. There seems to be a place ready-made for her in Timber Creek – the place left achingly vacant by the sudden death of Annabelle – the mother she never knew.

Flailing at the current mess of her own life, Maeve steps hesitatingly, and sometimes more than a bit angrily, into Annabelle’s. Everyone loved the mother who gave her up. It’s awkward and sometimes even painful to feel just how much the entire town loved the woman who didn’t love her enough to keep her. It makes no sense. And it hurts.

But as Maeve gingerly becomes part of Timber Creek, she discovers the truths that lie hidden. The truth about the town, the truth about her birth mother, the truth about herself – and just how much her mother’s love and pain bound those truths together.

Escape Rating A-: I was expecting a small-town feel-good women’s fiction-type story. And it has elements of that, but the St. Francis Society for Wayward Pets isn’t just that – no matter how cute the dog and cat sweaters knitted by the society are.

Instead, this book, like last year’s The Oysterville Sewing Circle, is about a group of women who are doing their best to rescue victims of domestic abuse. It’s the dark and barely hidden underbelly of life in Timber Creek – and everywhere else.

But these women, Annabelle and her friends, are doing something about it. Whenever they can. Whenever a girl or woman is willing to ask for help. Because there was no one to help them when they were abused. Because Annabelle knew that when she became pregnant that if she kept Maeve both she and Maeve would be abused by Maeve’s grandfather – and that they’d have no weapons to fight back and no support.

So Annabelle gave Maeve up for adoption, for a better life than she knew she could give her, and spent the rest of her life rescuing as many girls and women as possible from the situation she had faced – along with rescuing a few “wayward pets” along the way.

The story is told on two levels. The main story is Maeve’s story as she comes to Timber Creek, decides to stick around rather than go back to Seattle to live with her adopted parents – again – and try to figure out where her future lies. The longer she stays in Timber Creek, the more she falls in love with the place – and the more it reaches out and enfolds her in its arms.

And the more she discovers its secrets – and her own.

But we also see bits and pieces of Annabelle’s life. I’ll admit that at first it looked like Annabelle’s story was going to be different – and even more cruel – than it actually turned out to be. Just how Annabelle became pregnant and why she gave Maeve up hung like a Sword of Damocles over much of the story. I actually read those bits ahead because I couldn’t stand the suspense and didn’t want it to turn out to be the worser of two evils. Which it was not – and was a better story for it.

The St. Francis Society for Wayward Pets has a similar storyline to The Oysterville Sewing Circle, at least in the important bits. Meaning that if you liked one you’ll like the other and vice versa. Considering that the issue that underlies both stories is an important one that needs to be dealt with, more such stories, told well, are an excellent thing.

And both of these stories are told very well indeed.

TLC
This post is part of a TLC book tour. Click on the logo for more reviews and features.

Review: The Prince of Broadway by Joanna Shupe + Giveaway

Review: The Prince of Broadway by Joanna Shupe + GiveawayThe Prince of Broadway (Uptown Girls, #2) by Joanna Shupe
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical romance
Series: Uptown Girls #2
Pages: 376
Published by Avon on December 30, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In the second novel in Joanna Shupe's the Uptown Girl series, a ruthless casino owner bent on revenge finds his plans upended by a beautiful woman who proves to be more determined than he is—and too irresistible to deny.

Powerful casino owner.Ruthless mastermind.Destroyer of men.

He lives in the shadows...

As the owner of the city's most exclusive casino, Clayton Madden holds the fortunes of prominent families in the palms of his hands every night. There is one particular family he burns to ruin, however, one that has escaped his grasp... until now.

She is society's darling...

Florence Greene is no one's fool. She knows Clayton Madden is using her to ruin her prestigious family... and she's using him right back. She plans to learn all she can from the mysterious casino owner—then open a casino of her own just for women.

With revenge on his mind, Clay agrees to mentor Florence. However, she soon proves more adept—and more alluring—than Clay bargained for. When his plans are threatened, Clay must decide if he is willing to gamble his empire on love.

My Review:

I picked this up because I loved the author’s Four Hundred series, of which the Uptown Girls are a spinoff. Admittedly I picked this entry in the series up in spite of not being all that fond of the first book, The Rogue of Fifth Avenue. That was a book where I really loved the hero but had serious problems with the heroine. Still, I liked the setting enough to try again.

And I’m glad I did. It helped that this time I liked spending time with both the hero and the heroine – and in spite of this being a sequel that happens mostly in parallel with the first story, I didn’t see much of that heroine – who happens to be this heroine’s sister.

Also, the series title always gives me an earworm for Billy Joel’s song Uptown Girl – and in spite of the near-century separating the song and the series, there is a surprising amount of resonance between the two.

This is a story about two people who have done their best – or worst – to wall themselves off from ever relying on anyone else ever again. It’s both ironic and the heart of the story that they are fighting this same battle from opposite corners because they are reacting to the same man robbing them both of their choices.

Francine’s father, Duncan Greene. Not that Clayton Madden really explains the situation to Francine – at least not until it is nearly too late.

Once upon a time, Duncan Greene bought up all the houses on Delancey Street, giving the families who owned and lived in those houses only a fraction of what they were worth. Clayton and his family ended up in the tenements, his father left, his brother died, and Clayton and his mother did their best to survive.

Now he owns one of the most successful gambling houses in New York City. And he has the money and influence he needs to get his revenge on Greene.

But Francine Greene, Duncan’s middle and seemingly most reckless daughter, has been invading his casino on a regular basis, not knowing Clayton’s past history with or present plans for her father. Francine has come to this high class gambling parlor because she wants to learn how to run one of her very own. And just as Madden’s Bronze House caters only to men, Francine intends that her establishment will cater only to women.

She’s a woman determined to control her own life – and quite possibly more than a bit ahead of her time. She’s definitely gotten under Clayton Madden’s skin.

But she wants a future and Madden is stuck getting recompense for the past. She wants a partner and he’s looking for a distraction. They are not remotely on the same page. Until they figure out that they are.

Not that either of them can admit until it is nearly too late.

Escape Rating B: This is a mixed feelings kind of review. Howsomever, I definitely liked this one way more than The Rogue of Fifth Avenue, because I liked Francine a whole lot more than I did her sister Mamie. I loved Frank, but something about Mamie drove me bananas.

(BTW you definitely do not need to read that first book to get into this second one. The action in the two stories is going on at the same time so one does not really come before the other.)

Francine and Clayton are absolutely combustible together. Their very much resolved sexual tension is off the charts every time they are in the same room. And all of the other kinds of tension between them crackle in every scene.

Part of the fun of this story is the way that Francine sets every single one of Clayton’s assumptions about women of what he believes are “her kind” on their ear and then stomps them down – hard. The whole point of Francine’s desire to open a casino for women is to take control of her own destiny. That includes not marrying, not being dependent on any man including – perhaps especially including – her own father, owning her sexuality and not pretending to be anything like what society expects her to be. At All. Ever.

Clayton is much more of the typical brooding romantic hero who doesn’t believe he’s worthy of the heroine’s love. We’ve met his type before in plenty of romances and not merely historical ones.

But Francine feels like a breath of fresh air in so many ways, because she is so very much herself. Part of what makes her so real is the way that she knows her own mind but always feels like she’s not quite acceptable and has never been enough. People interpret her actions a certain way because she’s a young, beautiful and rich woman. All she wants is to be accepted for herself as she is – without allowing herself to be molded the way that society forces women to be.

At the same time, as her sister Justine reminds her, so much of Francine’s attitude, and particularly her reaction to Clayton’s machinations, are very much “first world” problems.

Clayton’s plan to hurt her father by buying her grandmother’s house – the house that her father grew up in and that both she and her grandmother love – may be emotionally painful but not devastating. Her grandmother owns three other houses! It will hurt to lose the memories that are practically baked into the place but life will very definitely go on at the same level to which they are all accustomed. The family won’t even be damaged financially.

There are too many people in the New York City of the Knickerbocker Era – and today for that matter – who would be thrilled to be in the position her grandmother is in.

Justine’s accurately flung bucket of cold water douses much of the ire that Clayton’s actions arouse and blunts the emotional impact. That he lied to Francine about his plans is definitely a roadblock to their future happiness and he needs to – and does – an appropriate amount of groveling to win her back.

But the tension in the story loses some of its bite with Justine’s sharp reality check. But it IS a reality check that feels like it needs to be delivered.

I’m glad that the next story in the series features Justine. Because I think she’s going to find both love and a way to help a whole lot of people who need it in The Devil of Downtown. Probably with the only semi-willing assistance of that selfsame Devil.

~~~~~~ TOURWIDE GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

To celebrate the release of THE PRINCE OF BROADWAY by Joanna Shupe, we’re giving away a paperback set of the Four Hundred series by Joanna Shupe to one lucky winner!

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GIVEAWAY TERMS & CONDITIONS:  Open to US shipping addresses only. One winner will receive a paperback set of the Four Hundred series by Joanna Shupe. This giveaway is administered by Pure Textuality PR on behalf of Avon Books.  Giveaway ends 1/31/2020 @ 11:59pm EST. 

Review: The Secret She Keeps by HelenKay Dimon + Giveaway

Review: The Secret She Keeps by HelenKay Dimon + GiveawayThe Secret She Keeps (Whitaker Island, #2) by HelenKay Dimon
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: romantic suspense
Series: Whitaker Island #2
Pages: 384
Published by Avon on December 30, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads


No matter where you run to…

Connor Rye seeks solace on remote Whitaker Island. When his first quiet evening ends with a blow to the head, it’s clear that nothing—and no one—is as it seems. Still haunted by his sister’s murder, he’s buried himself in work while trying to hold his family together. Now, when he has a minute to breathe, he knows better than to get involved with a stranger, but it might be too late to keep his distance.

Desire will find you...

For years she’s pretended to be someone else, but Maddie Rhine is done living in the shadows. Old habits are hard to kick however, and when her past follows her to Whitaker she’s forced to hide once more. Except with Connor. Effortlessly sexy Connor makes it difficult to ignore him. He sees right through her…and senses her fear.

Someone is watching her. And waiting for the right moment to strike. This time Connor vows to be ready.

My Review:

Whitaker Island is a very strange place. Not creepy, exactly, but definitely strange. And the population seems to self-select for weird. It’s so odd that it makes me wonder if it’s off the coast near Fogg Lake – but Whitaker isn’t quite THAT strange. Still strange, as are the people it attracts.

The Secret She Keeps continues the story of the isolated and very quirky Whitaker Island that began in Her Other Secret, as well as keeping up with the Rye family whose personal tragedy came to such a spectacular finale in the first book. I don’t think you absolutely HAVE to read the first to enjoy the second, but they are both the same kind of fun. If you like the one, you’ll like the other.

This time the action revolves around Connor Rye, now that his brother Hansen has cleared his name and returned to Seattle to pick up the pieces of his life with his fiance, the heroine of the first book.

The Rye family suffered a tragedy when Hansen and Connor’s sister was murdered by her husband – and the douchecanoe nearly got away with it. But that has finally been resolved, so the family is left to pick up the pieces.

While Hansen lost control, Connor got himself into too much control, suppressing his grief and burying himself in the work needed to keep the family business going. But now that the situation has been resolved, his coping methods have become a huge problem. To the point where he is literally working himself into an early grave.

And to the point where his family stages an intervention and sends him to Whitaker Island to relax, get his head on straight and deal with everything he’s suppressed for the past two years. In other words, he’s supposed to go on vacation and heal.

Instead he gets beaned on the head on his first night on the island, while being warned to leave ASAP. A relaxing start to vacation this is not.

But it is fascinating. And it certainly does take him completely out of himself – even once the concussion has healed.

There’s something about elusive, reclusive Maddie Rhine that intrigues Connor from their second meeting. And that fascination isn’t totally wrapped up in their first meeting – the one where she brained him with a chunk of firewood. It’s the “why” of that first meeting that feels like a mystery that Connor HAS to solve.

Maddie is on the island hiding from something, or someone. So, for that matter, is Connor. But Connor is hiding from himself, from dealing with his own emotions and processing his own grief. Maddie is hiding because someone really is after her. And they’re closing in.

Escape Rating B+: I picked this up because I enjoyed the first book in the series, Her Other Secret, quite a bit. It was excellent and absorbing mind candy. A whole lot of fun while reading if not necessarily memorable afterwards. But a good reading time was certainly had be all – or at least by moi.

I decided at the last minute to get on this tour because HelenKay Dimon has been one of the outspoken and appalled romance writers who provided sage counsel and rallied the forces of good during the ongoing Romance Writers of American implosion/explosion/salting-of-the-scorched-earth. She’s been one of the bigger sane but sad voices in this mess. Which made me want to read and review her latest book.

And, as I said, the first book was a whole lot of reading fun. Speaking of which, I’ll get down off my soapbox so I can get back to that.

As a place, Whitaker Island is an absolute hoot. The folks who have ended up living there seem to have self-selected for just slightly weird. No one is creepy or scary but everyone is at least a half-step off from the world outside of the island. The elderly couple who con people into walking their dog so they can get some “alone time” is both sweet and funny, and the way that the rest of the island’s inhabitants go along with the charade is peculiarly heartwarming.

I particularly love the way that the residents both gossip incessantly and stay out of each other’s real business at the same time. It has to be a gift.

But the story of this book really revolves around three characters, Connor, Maddie, and Maddie’s mysterious stalker. And that’s where things didn’t quite gel for me.

I get Connor and his walled off emotions. I’ve dated guys like that – although never ones so hot that I’d think of them of McHottiePants as Maddie does Connor. Still, that kind of emotional “walling off” is a phenomenon that I’ve run into – and generally away from. But it reads as all too real.

Maddie’s initial situation felt more like it veered into sensationalism. It was obvious pretty early on that she was in Witness Protection, so her reclusiveness and paranoia made logical sense. She was paranoid because she’d been trained to be that way by experts – because there really were people out to get her. With guns.

But her stalker, well, I knew who it was the minute he appeared on the page in person. And his motives didn’t quite make sense, or at least they didn’t to me. It felt like an attempt to add the stress and menace of a sexually obsessed stalker without the motive being actual sexual obsession. Admittedly the sexual obsession stalker as a way of putting a heroine in jeopardy is a trope I’m tired of, but this felt like an attempt to both have the cake and eat it. At the same time, his machinations and manipulations did a lot to ramp up the tension of the story as it raced towards its conclusion.

On my third – or is that fourth – hand, I did love the way that Maddie refused to continue a relationship with Connor unless he dealt with his own personal mess. She refused to be all in on a relationship where the other party was holding their real self completely back. She earned that HEA by standing for herself and holding out her hand for him to grab the lifeline, but being willing to step back if he couldn’t reach out. That ending was made of win.

I hope that there are future books in this series. We got a hint of a possible next romance – one that comes with some potential suspense already built in. And I’d love to see more of the quirky residents of this very off the beaten path – in more ways than one – island.

~~~~~~ TOURWIDE GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

To celebrate the release of THE SECRET SHE KEEPS by HelenKay Dimon, we’re giving away a paperback set of the Whitaker Island Series by HelenKay Dimon to one lucky winner!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

GIVEAWAY TERMS & CONDITIONS:  Open to US shipping addresses only. One winner will receive a paperback set of Her Other Secret and The Secret She Keeps by HelenKay Dimon. This giveaway is administered by Pure Textuality PR on behalf of Avon Books.  Giveaway ends 1/31/2020 @ 11:59pm EST. 

Review: The Country Guesthouse by Robyn Carr + Giveaway

Review: The Country Guesthouse by Robyn Carr + GiveawayThe Country Guesthouse (Sullivan's Crossing #5) by Robyn Carr
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, small town romance, women's fiction
Series: Sullivan's Crossing #5
Pages: 336
Published by Mira on January 7, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A summer rental, a new beginning…

Hannah Russell’s carefully crafted plans for her life have been upended without warning. When her best friend died suddenly, Hannah became guardian to a five-year-old named Noah. With no experience at motherhood, she’s terrified she’s not up to the challenge. She and Noah need time to get to know each other, so she decides to rent a country house with stunning views on a lake in rural Colorado.

When they arrive at the house, they are greeted by the owner, a handsome man who promises to stay out of their way. But his clumsy Great Dane, Romeo, has other ideas and Noah immediately bonds with the lovable dog. As Hannah learns to become a mother, Owen Abrams, who is recovering from his own grief, can’t help but be drawn out of his solitude by his guests.

But life throws more challenges at this unlikely trio and they are tested in ways they never thought possible. All three will discover their strengths and, despite their differences, they will fight to become a family. And the people of Sullivan’s Crossing will rally around them to offer all of the support they need.

My Review:

It has been my experience that bosses who LOVE sending their staff on lots of “team building” retreats have other bad habits. Especially the ones who send the “team” but not themselves. Hannah’s boss seems to be the exception that proves the rule – lucky for her!

In the end, the only important thing about that team-building retreat is its location. Because it’s held in photographer Owen Abrams’ beautiful house across the lake from Sullivan’s Crossing. And as much as Hannah hates the retreat, she adores the house. Her escape by way of Sully’s general store only sweetens the deal and makes her long to return.

So she does, after two crises that would make anyone need to schedule a getaway from at least parts of the real.

Hannah returns home early from that retreat to find her about-to-be-ex fiance banging Hannah’s assistant in not just their house – that Hannah pays for – but their bed. She tosses them both out on their asses, him from her life and her from her job.

But that’s not the real crisis. In the end it’s just a blip on the radar. (He’s a blip, too.) Hannah’s best friend for nearly two decades, through college and beyond, dies suddenly of complications from pneumonia. Leaving Hannah as the grieving and scared but willing instant mother of her BFF’s 5 year old son.

So Hannah and Noah “escape” for two weeks in Sullivan’s Crossing. Hannah has rented Owen’s house while Owen is supposed to be on a photo shoot in Vietnam. But the shoot has been cancelled and Hannah needs the escape too badly to take a raincheck on the Airbnb rental.

She and Owen both expect to not see much of each other while she and Noah are there. Owen expects to live in his studio, as he often does when his plans fall through but the Airbnb doesn’t.

Instead, Owen’s dog Romeo and Noah bond instantaneously – and so do Owen and Hannah.

The surprising friendship blossoms rapidly, not just between the boy and the dog – or even the one between the two love-scarred adults. In two short weeks they are well on their way to being a family – even if none of them had the remotest thought such a thing could happen.

Extending Hannah’s vacation into an entire summer only makes it clearer that this family is meant to be – and meant to be in Sullivan’s Crossing. But every paradise has its own particular snake – and Sullivan’s Crossing is no different.

But Hannah is. She’s determined to make the best life possible for Noah, no matter what ugliness from his birth mother’s past tries to take it away. With the entire town of Sullivan’s Crossing standing squarely behind her.

Escape Rating B+: Sullivan’s Crossing and the nearby town of Timberlake just seem like a great place to live. Also a nice place to visit, as Hannah discovers during her escape from that disastrous team-building retreat.

One of the things I love about this type of small-town women’s fiction/contemporary romance is just how terrific these tiny towns are. Timberlake seems to have just enough of everything to make it a great place to live. And it’s within a half day drive of Denver – at least in good weather.

Hannah brings Noah to Sullivan’s Crossing because they need to get away from the location of their recent grief – even though the grief itself comes along with them. In Owen Abrams’ house they are not confronted with every single memory every single minute. They need this chance to bond as well as this respite to heal.

One of the things that makes this story special is the way that the town rallies around them when trouble comes calling. As it inevitably does. The past may be reaching out to grab them, but everyone in town stands ready, willing and able to help them beat it back.

That the nature of the trouble is not dissimilar to previous events in the series doesn’t mean that this time around isn’t just as heartwarming. The nature of the place just seems to bring it out of everyone who stays. (And this story stands alone, but the series is simply lovely, starting with What We Find. Just saying…)

The romance between Hannah and Owen feels like it happens just a bit too quickly, especially in a situation where Hannah is in the throes of re-figuring out her entire life. Owen’s response makes more sense – he’s been carrying his baggage for over a decade and Hannah and Noah are the catalyst that finally allows him to let some of it go.

But she’s just picked hers up, along with picking up Noah and working out their new life together. She’s grief-stricken at her friend’s death, she’s scared about being an instant mother, and she’s grateful for Noah’s presence in her life. But adding a romance feels like something that she would either shy away from or would be a bit co-dependent. Possibly both.

Which doesn’t mean that the romance between Owen and Hannah isn’t sweet, because it certainly is.

The blast from the past is frightening in a very real way. One thing that was very well done was the way that the reader initially thinks the problems will be coming from Hannah’s ex-fiance. That turns out to be a bit of easily resolved misdirection. The true threat is also carefully hidden. We know that Noah’s bio-family have never been part of his life, we think we know why, then we discover that the situation is both not quite what we thought but even more dangerous than we expected.

And the dog is a delight. Owen’s big, clumsy, adorable Great Dane, Romeo, steals hearts at every turn. Romeo and his person find their Juliet in Hannah – without the messy ending of his namesake.

I always adore visiting Sullivan’s Crossing, and my trip to The Country Guesthouse was no exception. I hope my next visit will be soon!

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

I’m giving away a copy of The Country Guesthouse to one very lucky US commenter on this tour!

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Review: A Trace of Deceit by Karen Odden

Review: A Trace of Deceit by Karen OddenA Trace of Deceit (Victorian Mystery #2) by Karen Odden
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Victorian Mystery #2
Pages: 416
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on December 17, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

From the author of A Dangerous Duet comes the next book in her Victorian mystery series, this time following a daring female painter and the Scotland Yard detective who is investigating her brother’s suspicious death.

A young painter digs beneath the veneer of Victorian London’s art world to learn the truth behind her brother’s murder...

Edwin is dead. That’s what Inspector Matthew Hallam of Scotland Yard tells Annabel Rowe when she discovers him searching her brother’s flat for clues. While the news is shocking, Annabel can’t say it’s wholly unexpected, given Edwin’s past as a dissolute risk-taker and art forger, although he swore he’d reformed. After years spent blaming his reckless behavior for their parents’ deaths, Annabel is now faced with the question of who murdered him—because Edwin’s death was both violent and deliberate. A valuable French painting he’d been restoring for an auction house is missing from his studio: find the painting, find the murderer. But the owner of the artwork claims it was destroyed in a warehouse fire years ago.

As a painter at the prestigious Slade School of Art and as Edwin’s closest relative, Annabel makes the case that she is crucial to Matthew’s investigation. But in their search for the painting, Matthew and Annabel trace a path of deceit and viciousness that reaches far beyond the elegant rooms of the auction house, into an underworld of politics, corruption, and secrets someone will kill to keep.  

My Review:

“I think all our memories have a trace of deceit in them,” at least according to Inspector Matthew Hallam, the hero of our story – and of the previous book in this series, A Dangerous Duet.

He’s not wrong, not in the context of the story, and not in real life, either. It’s been said that looking at a memory is like opening a page in a book, and that every time we do so, we change it just a little bit – blur the edges, smudge a section, make it sound better – or worse – until the original memory has been altered into the memory of the story we tell ourselves – and everyone else.

Sometimes we remember things, situations, people being better or happier than they really were. And sometimes we remember them as worse. It all depends on whatever story we want – or need – to tell ourselves.

Annabel Rowe has spent most of her adult years telling herself the story of how her brother Edwin abandoned her. And he did. Edwin fell into drink and eventually drugs at school, and didn’t quite manage to fall out until after a prison sentence made him rethink his life. It probably helped that the man Edwin was rebelling against, their father, was dead.

But Edwin and Annabel had been best friends and close companions as children. And when Edwin was sent off to boarding school, things changed – and not for the better. He did more than leave her behind – as was inevitable. He stopped communicating. And then, like so many addicts, he started making promises he couldn’t – or wouldn’t – keep.

He seemed to have turned over a new leaf after prison. Now Annabel and Edwin, both artists, both living on their own in London, had begun a tentative friendship. Annabel was beginning to trust again – but just couldn’t let go of her old hurts. Hurts which were real and legion. She feared, reasonably so, that Edwin would slide back into his old habits and abandon her again.

They were both young, there was plenty of time to get back to where they used to be – or at least an adult approximation of it.

Until the day that Annabel went to Edwin’s flat and found the police, in the person of Inspector Matthew Hallam, inspecting the scene of his death.

Time has run out for Annabel and Edwin to repair their relationship. But it has just begun on Annabel’s opportunity to provide justice for the brother she still loved. If she and Hallam can manage to figure out exactly why Edwin was killed.

At the heart of this case lies yet another deceit of memory.

Escape Rating A-: I liked A Trace of Deceit better than its predecessor, A Dangerous Duet. The first story was very plot driven, and it felt like the characters, particularly its central character Nell Hallam (Matthew’s sister) was a vehicle for the plot rather than a fully-fleshed out person. (That all being said, it feels like the link between the two books is fairly loose, and this book can definitely be read as a stand-alone.)

A Trace of Deceit, on the other hand, was very much Annabel’s story. She feels like a more rounded person as we explore not just where she is now, but her childhood, her relationship with her brother, with their parents, and her conflicted feelings about who she is and where she’s been.

While I did figure out what happened to Edwin in the past, what made him change, fairly early in the investigation, this is not after all Edwin’s story. And I understood and empathized with Annabel’s need to finally figure out the person her brother had been and what made him that person – and what led to his death.

The title of the story is ironic in a way. Annabel had remembered her childhood with Edwin as being less bright than it was in order to sustain her caution and mistrust. In her investigation of his murder she reclaims the brighter memories of their childhood. Even as she wonders whether they have only become so bright because she needs them to be, or whether she suppressed them because they only made Edwin’s frequent betrayals sharper.

But Edwin’s death is the result of someone else’s deceitful memories. Someone who has cast Edwin as the villain of their story rather than tarnish the image of someone they held dear.

So, I enjoyed the story and found the mystery fascinating. But what made the book for me was the character of Annabel and the way that she fit into her setting. One of the things that can be difficult about female protagonists in historical fiction is the need for the character to have agency and yet not seem out of her time in either attitudes or opportunities. Annabel feels like she belongs. Her story was set at a time when women could just manage to have an independent life if circumstances aligned. She has just enough income to keep herself, but has to be frugal about her expenses. She lives on her own and that’s accepted and acceptable. She doesn’t expect anyone to rescue her or take care of her – and she’s right not to do so. Nothing is easy for her as a woman alone – but it is possible in a way that feels right.

I read this one in a single day and felt like the story closed properly and yet I was a bit sad to see it end. Not that I wanted Annabel’s travails to go on a moment longer – more that I was hoping there would be an opportunity to visit her again.

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Review: The Wicked Redhead by Beatriz Williams

Review: The Wicked Redhead by Beatriz WilliamsThe Wicked Redhead: A Wicked City Novel by Beatriz Williams
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, timeslip fiction
Series: Wicked City #2
Pages: 432
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on December 10, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In this follow-up to The Wicked City, New York Times bestselling author Beatriz Williams combines past and present in this delicious Jazz Age adventure featuring a saucy redheaded flapper, the square-jawed Prohibition agent who loves her, and a beautiful divorcee trying to remake her life in contemporary New York.

New York City, 1998: When Ella Gilbert discovers her banker husband is cheating on her, she loses both her marriage and the life she knew. In her new apartment in an old Greenwich Village building, she’s found unexpected second love with Hector, a musician who lives upstairs. And she’s discovered something else, just as surprising—a connection to the mesmerizing woman scandalously posed in a vintage photograph titled Redhead Beside Herself.

Florida, 1924: Geneva “Gin” Kelly, a smart-mouthed flapper from Appalachia, barely survived a run-in with her notorious bootlegger stepfather. She and Oliver Anson, a Prohibition agent she has inconveniently fallen in love with, take shelter in Cocoa Beach, a rum-running haven. But the turmoil she tried to leave behind won’t be so easily outrun. Anson’s mother, the formidable Mrs. Marshall, descends on Florida with a proposition that propels Gin back to the family’s opulent New York home, and into a reluctant alliance. Then Anson disappears during an investigation, and Gin must use all her guile and courage to find him.

Two very different women, separated by decades. Yet as Ella tries to free herself from her ex, she is also hunting down the truth about the captivating, wicked Redhead in her photograph—a woman who loved and lived fearlessly. And as their link grows, she feels Gin urging her on, daring her to forge her own path, wherever it leads.

My Review:

I picked up The Wicked Redhead because I absolutely loved this author’s A Certain Age, and liked the predecessor to this, The Wicked City well enough. So I signed up to see what happened next.

Unlike most of this author’s books, which are loosely connected with some of the same people slipping in and out of the story, The Wicked Redhead is a direct sequel to The Wicked City. The action in this book picks up immediately where the other left off – broken bones, bruises and all.

Meaning that while most of this author’s books seem to stand well alone – the connections between them are quite loose – it feels really necessary to have read The Wicked City before The Wicked Redhead – and possibly recently at that – otherwise the story feels very much like it starts in the middle. It took me a bit to feel like I had caught up – or back – to where this story begins as I read The Wicked City almost three years ago..

But one of the other differences between the Wicked City series and the author’s other books is that the connection all the others share – along with these two, is a setting among the glitterati of New York City during the Roaring 20s. A period that roared because of all the illegal booze coming into the city and being fought over both in and out of it.

In other words, during Prohibition. (BTW there is an absolutely fantastic Prohibition Museum in Savannah – but I seriously digress.)

What makes this series different is that unlike the author’s other works, this is a time slip story. In both books, the framing story revolves around Ella in the late 1990s, about to divorce her seriously slimy soon-to-be-ex and living in the building next door to the Speakeasy where the 1920s action of that first book takes place.

As Ella can hear the music of the past – literally – her story frames that of Geneva Kelly, the redhead of the title. Also the step-daughter of one of those rumrunner kingpins and the lover of an FBI agent out to fight the trade in illicit booze – albeit mostly because of the even worse crime that surrounds it.

At the end of The Wicked City, Geneva, now former FBI agent Anson Marshall, and Geneva’s little sister Patsy are on the run after the death of her stepfather at their hands. (The two adults’ hands, not little Patsy!)

They run to Cocoa, Florida, straight to Anson’s friends Simon and Virginia, the protagonists of Cocoa Beach.

And that’s where the story really begins, as the FBI reaches out its rather dirty – at least in this instance – hands to grab Anson back again. And then proceeds to lose him.

Gin Kelly isn’t a woman for sitting around and waiting for other people to take care of her business for her. With the help of, of all people, Anson’s mother – a woman who hates Gin’s from the top of her redhead to the bottom of her low-class (at least according to Mrs. Marshall) feet, Gin sets out to find and rescue the man she loves.

While back in the 1990s, Ella works to discover who Gin really was and why the rare, beautiful and quite salacious “art” photos of “The Redhead” have landed in her lap.

Escape Rating B-: The difficulty with time slip fiction usually revolves around how to handle the two separate timelines. When the slip in time revolves around the main character moving back and forth – as in Outlander – focusing on that character takes care of the dilemma. But in most timeslip fiction the story slips between two interconnected time periods – with separate casts in each.

That’s the case here as Ella’s story in 1998 connects to Gin’s story in 1924 through that photograph of “The Redhead” and Ella’s residence in the NYC apartment building that Gin used to own, as well as a connection through a whole lot of people in 1998 whose past back in the 1920s is connected one way or another to Gin Kelly – connections that Ella uncovers – or that they uncover to her – in the course of this story.

And that’s where this one fell down for me. I found Gin’s story absolutely fascinating – as I did in The Wicked City. But Ella’s story was much less interesting – but with all of those discoveries it  was more of it than just a framing story. If we had stayed back in 1924 with Gin and her lovers, friends and enemies – as we did in the marvelous A Certain Age with Anson’s mother! – I’d have been a happy reader.

But Ella’s story – which I found unnecessary in The Wicked City – I just didn’t care for at all this time around. Having her discover that she was pregnant by the ex-husband she left in the first book seemed like just a way of screwing up her life – a life which had plenty of problems already without adding a very untimely pregnancy into the mix. Your reading mileage may vary.

Gin’s story on the other hand was a wild thrill ride complete with epic betrayals, high highs, low lows, boat chases, pirates and a desperate race against the odds. I could have followed her story all day – or at least most of a night of good reading. And I wish this story had stuck with her – because, as one of the characters says – Gin draws all eyes to her the instant she steps into the room and keeps them focused there until after she’s left.

So read this one for Gin and the rumrunners. Her story is worth a book all of its own.

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Review: Hanukkah at the Great Greenwich Ice Creamery by Sharon Ibbotson

Review: Hanukkah at the Great Greenwich Ice Creamery by Sharon IbbotsonHanukkah at the Great Greenwich Ice Creamery by Sharon Ibbotson
Format: ebook
Source: author
Formats available: ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, Hanukkah romance, holiday romance
Pages: 210
Published by Choc Lit on December 4, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
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A heart-warming Christmas romance with a lovely twist!

Hanukkah days, Christmas nights and strawberry ice cream …

Cohen Ford is a man who could do with a little bit of sweetening up. It’s no surprise that when he walks into The Great Greenwich Ice Creamery on a typically gloomy London day before Christmas, he insists on a black coffee rather than his childhood favourite – strawberry ice cream.

But then he meets River de Luca, the woman behind the flavours. After their first encounter, Cohen begins visiting the ice creamery every Tuesday, gradually learning more about the intriguing River. Could her influence encourage cynical Cohen to become the man who embraces Christmas, Hanukkah and even strawberry ice cream?

My Review:

I picked this book because it was a Hanukkah romance – and there are entirely too few of them. There a oodles of Xmas romances – and they are often quite lovely – but it’s always nice to see oneself and one’s own culture represented in stories.

There wasn’t quite as much Hanukkah as I was hoping for, but there were plenty of the mixed feelings associated with being Jewish in the midst of what feels like the entire universe celebrating an entirely different holiday.

And the romance that begins at the Great Greenwich Ice Creamery is definitely a sweet and delicious scoop of love at first sight – with strawberry ice cream on top..

Cohen Ford comes to the Great Greenwich Ice Creamery not long before the holidays because, frankly, he’s been guilted into it by his mother. But he keeps coming back because he’s fallen in love with the daughter of the proprietor – and can’t keep away no matter how much her mother disapproves, both of him and of any possibility of a relationship between the disappointing son of one of her oldest and dearest friends and her daughter, who is deaf.

Men have taken advantage of River de Luca before, and her mother is determined to prevent it this time. Because she’s heard all about Cohen Ford from his mother and is just certain that her friend’s cold-hearted, self-centered, disappointment of a son is definitely the wrong man for her daughter. Not that she believes that any man is good enough for her daughter.

But Cohen and River fall in love the moment they meet – when she’s bandaging him up because he banged his head on their door. And even through their communication barrier – they manage to convey to each other that they are both on the exact same page – even if they’re both in the middle of scribbling on that page as fast as they can so they can learn everything they need to know about each other. Which is everything.

That Cohen is supposed to leave London in a few short weeks to return to his high-pressure job and empty life in New York is just one more obstacle that they have to overcome.

In the end, Cohen’s choice is easy – and River’s has already been made. Home is where the heart is – and his is with River.

Escape Rating A-: Hanukkah at the Great Greenwich Ice Creamery turned out to be a holiday story with just the right mix of flavors. It’s sweet with just a bit of bitter and salt, like the best dark chocolate with sea salt sprinkles.

The sweet comes from the romance itself. The bitter comes from Cohen, and his memories of his childhood with his feuding and often absent parents. There are deep wounds there that he has to get over before he can move forward with River. The salt is from tears, tears of grief that Cohen never healed his relationship with his father, and tears of joy that he does finally set himself on the road to healing his strained relationship with his mother.

I do feel the need to say OMG – or perhaps oy vey – about the stereotype that is Cohen’s mother. And as much as I want to make negative comments about the stereotyping, she’s a bit too much like my own mother for me to make that claim. I want to and I just can’t. It made a bit of hard reading, but in the end it felt right – and made me wish for things that are no longer possible.

Returning to Cohen and River and their holiday romance. I’m not totally sure this needed to be a holiday romance. Usually the holiday trope is used to compress the time available for the story to move quickly from meeting to loving to HEA. But Cohen’s impending return to New York created that same tension. On the other hand, the Hanukkah season added poignancy to Cohen’s reconciliation with his mother.

In the end, this story has two wonderful threads running through it. One is the holiday romance, which was lovely every step of the way. The way that they reach towards each other and find ways to communicate and to get on the same page in spite of their very real communication issues was very well done.

But the other thread was all Cohen. He comes into the story as Scrooge, cutting himself off from all emotion and living for his well-paid but soul-destroying job. This story is his journey. He needs to grow up and learn what he really wants to be when he grows up. He needs to learn to live his own dream instead of somebody else’s. The spirits don’t do it all in one night. But they do manage it all the same.

Review: My Fake Rake by Eva Leigh + Giveaway

Review: My Fake Rake by Eva Leigh + GiveawayMy Fake Rake (Union of the Rakes, #1) by Eva Leigh
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical romance
Series: Union of the Rakes #1
Pages: 384
Published by Avon on November 26, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In the first book in Eva Leigh's new Union of the Rakes series, a bluestocking hires a faux suitor to help her land an ideal husband only to be blindsided by real desire…

Lady Grace Wyatt is content as a wallflower, focusing on scientific pursuits rather than the complications of society matches. But when a handsome, celebrated naturalist returns from abroad, Grace wishes, for once, to be noticed. Her solution: to "build" the perfect man, who will court her publicly and help her catch his eye. Grace's colleague, anthropologist Sebastian Holloway, is just the blank slate she requires.

In exchange for funding his passage on an expedition leaving London in a few months, Sebastian allows Grace to transform him from a bespectacled, bookish academic into a dashing—albeit fake—rake. Between secret lessons on how to be a rogue and exaggerated public flirtations, Grace's feelings for Sebastian grow from friendship into undeniable, inconvenient, real attraction. If only she hadn't hired him to help her marry someone else...

Sebastian is in love with brilliant, beautiful Grace, but their bargain is complete, and she desires another. Yet when he's faced with losing her forever, Sebastian will do whatever it takes to tell her the truth, even if it means risking his own future—and his heart.

My Review:

In nature, it is often the male of the species who displays the bright plumage, while the female sports shades of beige and grey and is capable of hiding in the shadows. Just look at the difference between a peacock and a peahen for an obvious example.

Examples from the natural world feel like “natural” parallels for this story as both the hero and the heroine of this tale are natural scientists, as the term was in their time. Sebastian Holloway studies the behaviors of people – at least when he can get the funds, and Lady Grace Wyatt studies reptiles and amphibians – at least as long as her parents will let her.

The story in My Fake Rake tiptoes through several romantic tropes on its way to reaching its happy ending. But it begins in the past – or at least in Sebastian Holloway’s past. A time when, at Eton, the son of a rich manufacturer and not a son of the aristocracy like his schoolmates, the scientifically bent Sebastian found himself in all day detection for, of all things, defacing library books. Which I admit, should be a crime.

But he served that detention with some of those scions of the aristocracy who usually shunned him – and found himself in a lifelong friendship with his fellow sufferers. The Union of the Rakes that provides the title for this series reads a bit like a Regency version of The Breakfast Club!

Now Sebastian is an adult, as are his friends. And his penchant for arguing with the contents of his library books has turned into a lifelong love of science that his practical father refuses to support. He has to scrape pennies to fund his bookish habits and his anthropological expeditions.

It’s at his favorite scientific subscription library that Sebastian became friends with Lady Grace Wyatt, daughter of the Earl of Pembroke. Lady Grace, like Sebastian, is a scientist, but her specialty is herpetology, the study of amphibians and reptiles. So far, her family has supported her bluestocking tendencies, but her father’s sudden illness has made her parents rethink – not their support – but the need for someone to secure their daughter’s future.

They want her to marry. She wants to marry Mason Fredericks, a fellow scientist, a member of the aristocracy, and a man who seems to have no end of funds with which to pursue his many expeditions. Marrying Fredericks will allow her to continue her own scientific endeavors as his partner – where most men would tolerate her proclivities at best and forbid them at worst.

All she needs to do is to get Fredericks to notice her as a woman and not just as a fellow scientist. And for that, she needs the help of her good friend Sebastian. If Sebastian can pretend to be both interested in Grace and a man to be envied by other men – in other words – a confident rake – Fredericks will find her more “valuable” because another man values her.

It’s an idea that makes Grace a bit sick, but she knows it will work. If Sebastian is willing. And able to set aside his crippling shyness. And if both of them can manage to ignore anything they might feel for each other beyond friendship.

The shyness should be the most difficult thing for Sebastian to overcome. It isn’t. The heart wants what the heart wants, no matter what the head is telling it – or how loudly.

Escape Rating B: After that “Breakfast Club” opening, the pursuit of My Fake Rake, and the fake rake’s pursuit of his lady, runs through four different romantic tropes on its way to its happy ending – and does so with a certain amount of aplomb.

Some of that aplomb is supplied by Sebastian’s friend the Duke of Rotherby, who provides the money for Sebastian’s rakish wardrobe as well as the lessons needed for Sebastian to acquire a veneer of the confidence that a true rake wields without a moment’s thought.

But at its heart My Fake Rake is a friends into lovers story. Grace and Sebastian have known each other for four years when the story takes place. They share a love of scientific exploration and discovery and a shared bent for intelligent conversation and quiet reading. They like each other, they spend time together, and they enjoy each other’s company.

And they know each other well enough that Sebastian knows that Grace has a tendre for Fredericks and she doesn’t hesitate to ask him for what is really a rather huge favor.

That favor tips the story into the second and third tropes, the fake relationship combined with the extreme makeover/Pygmalion/My Fair Lady trope. One of the refreshing things about this story is that it’s really “My Fair Gentleman” as it’s Sebastian who needs to be made over in this scheme. Grace is just fine as she is. She’s hidden her beauty behind her mind, not a pair of spectacles – although Sebastian certainly hides his handsome face behind his.

When their scheme works, and a bit too well, they also separately discover that the parts they have played have become real – as so often happens in stories based on a fake relationship. The issue for Grace and Sebastian is that they then trip headlong into an epic misunderstandammit that takes him to Northumberland and nearly takes her to Greenland.

While it feels as if it’s more like societal expectations have pushed them into their costly and painful silence, I always find the angst involved in a misunderstandammit a bit hard to take. In this case it takes an epic rescue worthy of any rake reformed to get this romance back on track.

So even though they nearly lost each other when a simple honest conversation would have gotten them past their stumbling block, I did understand why they both felt like they weren’t in a position where they could have that conversation.

It takes the Duke of Rotherby, a romantically inclined yacht and a desperate climb up a wet, swaying rope to get our hero and heroine back where they belong.

A terrific time is finally had by all – except the Duke of Rotherby. Lucky for him, the next book in the series, Would I Lie to the Duke, will give him his own happy ever after. He’s certainly earned it by his efforts in this story!

~~~~~~ TOURWIDE GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

To celebrate the release of My Fake Rake by Eva Leigh, we’re giving away three paperback copies of the book!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

GIVEAWAY TERMS & CONDITIONS: Open to US shipping addresses only. Three winners will each receive a paperback copy of My Fake Rake by Eva Leigh. This giveaway is administered by Pure Textuality PR on behalf of Avon Romance. Giveaway ends 12/15/2019 @ 11:59pm EST. Avon Romance will send the winning copy out to the winner directly.

Review: An Alaskan Christmas by Jennifer Snow + Excerpt

Review: An Alaskan Christmas by Jennifer Snow + ExcerptAn Alaskan Christmas by Jennifer Snow
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, holiday romance
Series: Wild River #1
Pages: 379
Published by Hqn on September 24, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In Alaska, it’s always a white Christmas—but the sparks flying between two reunited friends could turn it red-hot…

If there’s one gift Erika Sheraton does not want for Christmas, it’s a vacation. Ordered to take time off, the workaholic surgeon reluctantly trades in her scrubs for a ski suit and heads to Wild River, Alaska. Her friend Cassie owns a tour company that offers adventures to fit every visitor. But nothing compares to the adrenaline rush Erika feels on being reunited with Cassie’s brother, Reed Reynolds.

Gone is the buttoned-up girl Reed remembers. His sister’s best friend has blossomed into a strong, skilled, confident woman. She’s exactly what his search-and-rescue team needs—and everything he didn’t know he craved. The gulf between his life in Wild River and her big-city career is wide. But it’s no match for a desire powerful enough to melt two stubborn hearts…

My Review:

This holiday romance combines a frenemies into lovers romance with a bit of a second chance at love romance, and wraps it all up in a sparkly bow.

A bow that occasionally seems to be pulled in two directions (and tied in a strangled knot) by two strong-willed workaholics, neither of whom are good at stopping to smell the candy canes and hot cocoa. But then, both Ericka and Reed have spent years working all the hours available in order to keep them too busy to let any of their griefs and fears catch up to them even for a second.

Until Ericka is forced to take a two week vacation – and decides to spend it in Wild River where she grew up with her childhood best friend Cassie – and Cassie’s very hot but exceedingly annoying brother Reed. Ericka and Reed have always seen the worst – and brought out the worst – in each other at every turn. But the sudden sexual chemistry between them adds a new and frustrating aspect to their rocky relationship – in more ways than one.

What at first seems to Ericka as an interminable stretch of time to be away from her high-pressure life as a surgeon at one of Anchorage’s big hospitals turns out to be much, much too short as she and Reed manage to get past their stubborn animosity to explore their intense chemistry.

Only to have her two week vacation abruptly cut in half, just as they figure out that under all that heat – was a whole lot more heat along with an emotional connection that neither of them has found with anyone else – not that either of them left much time in their lives for looking.

But once Ericka is back at work – and under the constantly disapproving eye of her emotionally distant father – who also happens to be her boss – Ericka falls back into her old patterns and lets Reed go – no matter how much she misses him, the connection they share and the much more balanced life she discovered in Wild River.

It takes a crisis of epic proportions – and very nearly a re-enactment of that famous Christmas story The Gift of the Magi – to bring Ericka and Reed to their holiday happy ever after – with just a bit of an assist from her dad the Grinch.

Escape Rating B: I picked this book because I lived in Anchorage for three years, leaving me with a fount of Alaska stories that I’m still telling 15 years later and a love for books set in “The Last Frontier” that persists to this day. That love is at least partially fueled by an equally endless need to figure out what matches the Alaska I remember – and what feels as far off the unbeaten path as Cicely was in the TV series Northern Exposure. (There is no Cicely AK, but local collective wisdom decided that Cicely was meant to stand in for Tok.)

So, I have a few quibbles. There is no Alaska General Hospital in Anchorage or anywhere else. The three “general” hospitals in Anchorage are Providence Alaska Medical Center, Alaska Native Medical Center and Alaska Regional Hospital.

Only two rail lines run all winter and one only runs once a month – the other and more likely runs once a week, the Aurora Winter Train, beginning in Anchorage and stopping in Wasilla, Talkeetna, Hurricane Flagstop Area (Chase, Curry, Sherman, Gold Creek, Canyon, Twin Bridges, Chulitna, Hurricane, Denali), Healy, Nenana and Fairbanks. Based on the description of Wild River, it’s likely between Wasilla and Talkeetna – or would be if it existed..

Also, contrary to the blurb, Anchorage is no one’s definition of a big-city, except in Alaskan terms. The current population of Anchorage is 380,000. It’s actually one of the smallest cities I’ve ever lived in. It only seems large compared to places like Wild River because it is the largest relatively “big” place that’s closer than Seattle WA or Vancouver BC which are about 700 miles away – basically a 3.5 hour flight.

Setting all that aside – no matter how much it drove me crazy during the story – An Alaskan Christmas is a lovely holiday romance that has a bit more to it than just the romance.

The romance happens fairly quickly, as is often the case in holiday romances. But it doesn’t feel rushed this time around, as Ericka and Reed had known each other for years – although admittedly they didn’t seem to like each other very much. But they were tied together not just by growing up together, but by an important moment that they shared, and a special bond over their lost parents.

Ericka’s mother died at about the same time when Reed and Cassie’s father disappeared. Ericka’s dad retreated into his work and left 15-year-old Ericka to grieve alone with the help of her friends.

Something else they share is missing fathers. Reed and Cassie’s dad is still missing, and Reed is still searching for him. Ericka’s dad, even though he is her boss – or perhaps especially because he is her boss – is a distant and disapproving figure in her life. She runs herself ragged trying to both please and emulate him – and she fails at every turn. Not because she’s not capable – because she’s actually excellent and any parent would be proud to have her as a daughter – but because the man has become so emotionally disconnected that he’s incapable of approving of anything or anyone but especially his own daughter. It IS his way of coping with the loss of his wife but it’s left Ericka quite literally out in the emotional cold. Ericka’s journey in this holiday tale is to finally figure out what SHE wants out of her own life – before she finds herself trapped in her work just like her father. That part of her story was heartbreaking. Ericka deserved better for herself and a big part of her happy ending is that she finally reached out and grabbed that better with both hands.

And like the Grinch, her dad’s heart did seem to grow three sizes at the end – but he still has a long way to go. Ericka, with Reed’s help, has made it.

Excerpt from AN ALASKAN CHRISTMAS by Jennifer Snow

He tossed the blanket over her quickly and stood. “Okay, so you’re all good?”

She nodded, but her gaze was on his midsection. And her unblinking stare was full of unconcealed attraction. The same way she’d checked out his biceps in the bar.

He glanced down to see that his T-shirt had risen slightly on the right side, exposing his stomach.

Obviously his abs were to her liking.

“Erika.”

“Huh?” Still staring.

“It’s been a while, huh?”

She frowned, finally pulling her gaze back to his. “For what?

“Since you’ve had sex.”

Her mouth gaped.

“I mean, that’s why you’re staring at my stomach like I’m a piece of chocolate.”

“I was not,” she said, but her cheeks flushed. “And I’ll have you know, I have plenty of sex…all the time. Men beating down my door for it…” she mumbled.

That he wouldn’t doubt, except he knew from Cassie that she was a reclusive workaholic and he was willing to bet the only penises she saw were her naked patients.

“And anyway, even if that was the case, you’d be the last guy I’d want to break my dry spell.”

Okay, now he was intrigued. Especially since he’d made no motion to fix his shirt and her eyes were glued on his abs again, betraying her words. He crossed his arms, making sure to flex his biceps for her viewing pleasure, as well. She wasn’t going to get him, but all of a sudden, he wanted her to want him. “Oh yeah, why’s that?”

“Because I don’t think you’d be any good.”

What?

“Hot guys are rarely good in bed. They don’t think they need to be. They are selfish and rarely leave a woman satisfied.”

She’d obviously been with the wrong dudes. “In your expert opinion?”

She nodded. “As a doctor and woman. Yes.”

Damn, he’d like to kiss that smug expression right off her face, but the voice in his head told him to leave her drunk ass alone. “Okay, then. Good night.”

“What? Not even going to try to prove me wrong?”

In two strides, he’d reached her. Pulling back the blanket, he lifted her and, seating himself on the couch, he set her down on his lap. A leg on either side, she straddled him. “You sure you want to eat your words?”

Instead of answering, she gripped his face and kissed him. Hard. His surprise faded fast as his mouth suddenly craved hers. The taste of tequila mingled with her cherry lip gloss and he forgot he was the one teaching her a lesson. Her legs gripped his and she pressed her chest against him, the feel of her breasts beneath the soft cashmere making his heart pound against them.

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Review: Meet Me on Love Lane by Nina Bocci + Giveaway

Review: Meet Me on Love Lane by Nina Bocci + GiveawayMeet Me on Love Lane (Hopeless Romantics, #2) by Nina Bocci
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, romantic comedy, women's fiction
Series: Hopeless Romantics #2
Pages: 304
Published by Gallery Books on December 10, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

From the USA TODAY bestselling author of On the Corner of Love and Hate comes a romantic comedy about a woman who grudgingly returns home to small-town Pennsylvania, only to find herself falling in love—not only with the town, but with two of its citizens.

Charlotte Bishop is out of options in New York City. Fired, broke, and blacklisted by her former boss, she’s forced to return to her hometown of Hope Lake, PA to lick her wounds. Although she’s expecting to find a miserable place with nothing to do, she is pleasantly surprised to discover it is bustling and thriving.

She’s only supposed to be in Hope Lake temporarily until she can earn enough money to move back to New York. She’s not supposed to reconnect with her childhood friends or her beloved grandmother. She’s not supposed to find her dream job running the local florist shop. And she’s definitely not supposed to fall for not one but two of Hope Lake’s golden boys: one the beloved high school English teacher, the other the charming town doctor.

With a heart torn between two men and two cities, what’s a girl to do?

A perfect blend of humor and heart, Meet Me on Love Lane is the second in a new series from USA TODAY bestselling author Nina Bocci that is sure to charm fans of Josie Silver and Sally Thorne.

My Review:

There are two literary versions of home. One is the Robert Frost version, the one that says that “home is the place that when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” There’s also the Thomas Wolfe version that says that , “You can’t go home again.”

There’s also the romantic version, the one that says that “home is where the heart is.”.

In a way, Meet Me on Love Lane is a story about crossroads. The story is firmly parked at the corner of contemporary romance and women’s fiction, as it’s partly about Charlotte Bishop’s choice between a romance with the new “Dr. Hotness” in town, and something sweeter but more elusive with someone from her past.

It’s also at the intersection of two of those versions of home. Charlotte has returned to Hope Lake because she needs a place to regroup and recharge, and that takes her back to her childhood home in Hope Lake with her father and grandmother. A home that her mother wrenched her away from when she was 10.

She’s returned to Hope Lake because she has no place else to go, and because she hopes that her family will take her back in – no matter that it has been 20 years since she was last there.

It turns out that the story is about Charlotte discovering that her home is where her heart is, and that, in spite of all the years gone by and all the memories that she’s deliberately suppressed, her heart and her home are in Hope Lake – along with all the love – of all kinds – that she left behind.

All she has to do is squelch the bitter voice of her mother that still rings in her head even years after the woman’s death – and let herself remember all the good things her mother wanted her to forget.

Because her heart has found its home – no matter what her head – and the voices from her past – have to say about the matter.

Escape Rating B+: In spite of the title, Meet Me on Love Lane feels like it’s more about Charlotte and all of her relationships – with her dad, her grandmother, her best girlfriend, her other childhood friends and everyone in her former/future hometown than it is about her romantic escapades.

Particularly poignant is Charlotte’s relationship with her grandmother Gigi – who is an absolute hoot. We all wish we had a grandmother like Gigi – while at the same time feeling for Charlotte and everything she’s missed.

She’s also not really in the “torn between two lovers” situation that the blurb implies. Every woman in town – of every age – seems to drool at least a bit over “Dr. Hotness”, but there’s never any spark there. Charlotte may want there to be, but there’s never even a hint of a need to make a decision on that front.

However, Charlotte is much more torn over the choice between returning to New York City and staying in Hope Lake. Some of that is because of her mother’s disparaging voice in her head, and some of that is just because these are very different kinds of places and they represent very different lives. There’s not a right or a wrong answer to that question, but the adjustments to her life will be profound no matter what she chooses – and it is a choice worth serious consideration.

The sweetness in the story comes from Charlotte’s rediscovery of Henry, the man who once upon a time was a 10 year old boy and her absolute best friend in the whole world. The boy who it hurt so much to leave behind that she made herself forget him. Completely.

The way that Charlotte works her way back to Henry, and reconnects with her own past, is her journey in this story. It lets her relearn just how much she loved this place and these people, and just how much of herself she cut off and left behind in order to survive life with her mother.

Exactly what was wrong with her mother is never completely resolved. No one actually knows. That there is no closure for Charlotte to explain so much that needs explaining leaves Charlotte bewildered but coping (and recommending therapy all around) and leaves the reader with a lack of resolution in that part of the story. While admittedly that’s real life – we don’t always get the explanations we need or want or are due – but in fiction most readers, myself included, expect a bit more satisfaction in our happy ever afters.

But Charlotte – and Henry – certainly earn theirs. With everyone in town cheering them on.

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

I’m giving away a copy of Meet Me on Love Lane to one very lucky US commenter on this tour!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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