Review: Lilac Lane by Sherryl Woods

Review: Lilac Lane by Sherryl WoodsLilac Lane (Chesapeake Shores #14) by Sherryl Woods
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, small town romance, women's fiction
Series: Chesapeake Shores #14
Pages: 352
Published by Mira Books on October 17th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

No one writes about friends, family and home better than Sherryl Woods. Told with warmth and humor, Lilac Lane is a brand-new story in her beloved Chesapeake Shores series, one readers all over the world have waited two years to read!

At the heart of Lilac Lane is Keira Malone, who raised her three children alone after her first marriage broke apart, and who, after years of guarding her heart, finally finds love again. But that love is short-lived when her fiancé suffers a fatal heart attack. Grieving and unsure of what’s next, Keira agrees to move from Dublin to Chesapeake Shores, Maryland, to spend time with her daughter, Moira, and her new granddaughter, Kate, as well as to help her son-in-law, Luke, with his Irish pub, O’Briens

Not wanting to live underfoot, she rents a charming cottage on Lilac Lane, replete with views of the ocean and her neighbor’s thriving garden—not to mention views of the neighbor himself. The neighbor is none other than Bryan Laramie, the brusque and moody chef at the pub, with whom Keira is constantly butting heads. But things get real when Bryan’s long-lost daughter, whom he hasn’t seen since she was a baby, shows up out of the blue. As Bryan and Keira each delve into their pasts, reopening wounds, the rest of the town is gearing up for the Fall Festival Irish Stew cook-off, and making no bones about whose side they’re on. It’s Kitchen Wars meets This is Your Life—a recipe for disaster…or a new take on love?

You won’t want to miss this epic return to Chesapeake Shores, a place we’re betting you’ll want to stay forever.

My Review:

Chesapeake Shores sounds like an absolutely magical little town, at least if you don’t mind a whole town full of nosy and interfering neighbors. Not that the collective O’Brien clan doesn’t mean terribly well, and not that they don’t seem to generally do well in their meddling, but Keira Malone is used to being the boss of her own life, thankyouverymuch.

Which doesn’t mean that her life doesn’t get a much needed makeover when she arrives from Dublin to visit her father, her daughter, and her new grandbaby. The ostensible reason for her visit is to help take care of her new (and only) grandchild, and to “consult” for her son-in-law about the authentic “Irishness” of the traditional Irish pub he’s opened in Chesapeake Shores.

Keira has spent her entire adult life working in and managing Irish pubs in Ireland, so she certainly has the right experience for the job. But it’s a made-up job. Her daughter and her father, both now living in Chesapeake Shores, fear that Keira will turn in on herself after the death of her fiance.

After all, that’s exactly what Keira did after the breakup of her marriage. She turned inward and pretty much stayed inward – and exhausted, raising three children on her own with zero help from her drunken ex-husband. And just when she finally let herself open up – boom, another disaster.

So the family, not just Keira’s daughter Moira and Keira’s father Dillon, but the entire O’Brien clan that they have both married into, plots and schemes to get Keira to Chesapeake Shores. And once she’s there, and they all observe the sparks that fly between Keira and the pub’s resident chef Bryan Laramie, they all keep right on scheming, with an eye towards matchmaking between the chef and the “consultant” who seems to question his every move. Or at least he feels that way.

Bryan is just as alone as Keira, and the whole town seems to be more than willing to conspire to get these two together – from manipulating Keira into renting the cottage next door to Bryan’s house to cooking up a cooking contest to finish off the local Fall Festival – a cooking contest that pits Keira’s authentic Irish Stew recipe against Bryan’s hand-me-down version.

The winner of their contest will take all, not just the prize, but also the other’s heart. If they can both figure out what it really, truly means to “win”.

Escape Rating B+: Lilac Lane is a sweet and savory mix of contemporary romance, women’s fiction and small town magic.

Not magic as in Harry Potter, but just the magic that seems to permeate so many small town romances. Chesapeake Shores is just a lovely little town where good things happen to good people – and where there don’t seem to be any bad people – if maybe a few misguided ones – who do not appear in this story. Chesapeake Shores is just a great place to live.

Keira Malone and Bryan Laramie are an interesting and slightly different protagonists for a romance. Both are a bit older – while it’s not specified precisely, both have adult children and seem to be on either side of 50 – with Keira a few years older than Bryan.

They are both people who have been seriously wounded by life and love, and in ways that are similar underneath some rather startling surface similarities. Keira left her husband because he was an alcoholic, Bryan’s wife left him because he was ambitious, self-absorbed and absent. But Keira kept in touch with her ex – not directly, but enough that he could have visited his children anytime he wished – if he wished. Bryan’s wife, on the other hand, just disappeared with their daughter. She vanished. He’s spent years, and countless thousands of dollars, trying to locate them both. It’s not that he wants the marriage back – and who would, but he wants to regain contact with the daughter he still loves.

Neither of them is good at letting people in. Keira because her two attempts at romance have ended in disaster, and Bryan because he’s never bothered to divorce his missing ex.

Both of them need resolution in their lives – and there’s something about the way that they spark each other that makes them both reach for it.

The romance is of the squeaky-clean variety (the hero and heroine have only a few kisses between them when he proposes) but it works for this story and setting. Both Keira and Bryan are tentative about love, and that hesitation is expressed wee in their non-courtship, two-steps-forward-one-step-back relationship.

Although, speaking of two-steps-forward-one-step-back relationships, Keira’s relationship with her daughter Moira, and Moira’s relationship with her husband in specific and with the universe in general feels just a bit “off”. As a reader, I couldn’t figure out why Moira acted the way she did, and in real life I’d feel more than a bit sorry for her husband and her mentor.

Chesapeake Shores does seem like an absolutely marvelous place. The large O’Brien clan is deeply interwoven into the fabric of the town, which seems to have been created by one of them as a tourist destination – and it has flourished.

O’Briens seem to be everywhere. Keira’s father has remarried into the family, as has her daughter. The other women of the O’Brien family both meddle in Keira’s life with abandon and become the circle of sisterhood that she never had – and dearly appreciates now.

Lilac Lane is the 14th book in the Chesapeake Shores series. I’ve not read the earlier books, but was able to get into the story easily. Enough of the family’s previous connections and romances were explained in a way that meant I didn’t feel left out. It probably helped that Keira herself comes in as an outsider, so things have to be explained a bit to her – and we get the benefit of that.

But I certainly enjoyed Lilac Lane more than enough that I’ll be happy to visit Chesapeake Shores again soon!

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Review: Christmas at Little Beach Street Bakery by Jenny Colgan

Review: Christmas at Little Beach Street Bakery by Jenny ColganChristmas at Little Beach Street Bakery by Jenny Colgan
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: holiday fiction, women's fiction
Series: Little Beach Street Bakery #3
Pages: 320
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on October 10th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

New York Times-bestselling author Jenny Colgan dishes up another delightful holiday story about the residents in an idyllic Cornish village who must join forces to save Christmas.

In the Cornish coastal village of Mount Polbearne, the Christmas season has arrived. It’s a joyous time for family, friends, and feasting as decorations sparkle along the town’s winding streets and shop windows feature buoyant, festive displays. And in Polly’s Little Beach Street bakery, the aromas of gingerbread cookies and other treats tempt people in from the cold.

Though Polly is busy keeping up with the demands of the season, she still makes time for her beekeeper boyfriend, Huckle. She’s especially happy to be celebrating the holiday this year with him, and can’t wait to cuddle up in front of the fireplace with a cup of eggnog on Christmas Eve.

But holiday bliss soon gives way to panic when a storm cuts the village off from the mainland. Now it will take all of the villagers to work together in order to ensure everyone has a Merry Christmas.

My Review:

I got so wrapped up in this one that I shivered right along with the heroine. It’s COLD on the coast of Cornwall at Christmas!

This is a story about friendship and families and relationships and finding your bliss and not letting the baggage of the past drag you down.

It’s also about a miracle at Christmas. Not that one. But the tiny little miracle that saves both a family and a friendship, even if it’s not exactly deserved. But miracles so seldom are.

Polly and Kerenza are best friends, and have been since they bonded like glue as scholarship students at a posh private school. But their friendship is severely tested when Kerenza confesses to Polly that the baby in her eight months’ pregnant belly might not be her husband’s.

Polly is caught on the horns of multiple dilemmas, So she does what she usually does – she buries herself in her work as the owner of the Little Beach Street Bakery, and tries to push it all away.

She’s pushing a lot.

Part of the problem is that Kerenza’s husband Reuben and Polly’s fiance Huckle are also best friends. Kerenza fears that if Polly tells Huckle her big secret, then Huckle will feel duty-bound to reveal all to Reuben, ending their marriage in a gigantic mess.

Polly and Kerenza were scholarship students way back when because they were both raised by single mothers who did not do well financially – or in Polly’s case, emotionally. Kerenza’s dad is dead, but Polly’s sperm donor is just a missing piece in her life. A missing piece she can’t fill in, because he’s a subject her mother refuses to talk about. And neither Kerenza nor Polly is willing to risk putting Kerenza’s baby into the same life that they both only managed to get through because they had each other. Not if there’s any way on Earth to avoid it – at any cost.

But Polly fears, and rightly so, that keeping a huge secret from Huckle will damage their seemingly perfect relationship. A relationship that is only perfect because they both avoid the subjects that neither of them wants to deal with. Most particularly Polly’s complete unwillingness to talk about their future. They love each other, they believe they are each other’s soul mates – but whenever Huck raises the subject of taking their engagement to its next logical step, Polly freezes, and freezes him out.

It’s more than cold enough in Mount Polbearne without that.

As guilty as Kerenza feels, this is one of those times when confession is not the answer. There’s a very strong possibility that the baby is her husband’s. There’s also a strong possibility that she was so drunk that when she thinks she fell on some random guy’s dick that nothing actually happened. She was too drunk to remember. All Kerenza can do it wait and see.

But Polly is the one who is really stuck. When her sperm donor’s wife contacts her to tell her that her biological father is dying and wants to see her, it’s up to Polly to decide what she needs to do. Not just whether to see him or not, but whether to finally pry open her mother’s memory box of “things we do not discuss”. And then to decide how the revelations of the secrets of her own life will affect her and her future.

So it’s Kerenza’s crisis, but it’s Polly’s journey. With her pet puffin Neil riding along with her, every step of the way. And it’s lovely. (Especially Neil!)

Escape Rating B+: The first quarter of the book I remember thinking that it was interesting and cute but not all that compelling. The mess of Kerenza’s life, and the complete narcissistic selfishness of her husband Reuben did not thrill me as a reader. It did rather seem as if her mess was very much self-inflicted.

But I settled in to read after dinner, and just got hooked. I came up for air after an hour and realized not just how much time had passed, but also just how much story I had absorbed. Once the focus shifted fully into Polly essentially in not-dealing-with-multiple-crises mode, I got sucked in and couldn’t tear myself away until the last page.

One of the interesting themes that plays out over the course of the story is about the damage that secrets can do to a relationship. Kerenza spends much of the story punishing herself for her unremembered indiscretion, holding the secret so tightly (and so necessarily) that she becomes a shadow of herself. And yet, she knows that it is vital for her baby’s future that she keep the secret no matter what.

But requiring Polly to also keep the secret damages her relationship with Huckle, almost irrevocably, even though it is not her secret and, as she tries to convince Huckle, not her secret to tell, either. And that it’s really none of their business. Or at least not enough of their business to risk the consequences to Kerenza and to the baby.

The more damaging secrets are the secrets that Polly’s mother Doreen has kept from her about her biological father and their relationship. Because it seems obvious that whatever happened back then, it has kept Doreen from living her own life and helping Polly to both grow her own wings and fly free. That Polly managed anyway, at least to some extent, is a testament to her own strength. But those buried secrets still hold her back and weigh her down, and she needs to know the truth in order to live her dreams. She can’t let her life be ruled by her fears – especially by proxy. Watching her set herself free is one of the highlights of the story.

That Polly has been adopted by a puffin, or more specifically that Neil has Polly wrapped around his bright little beak, is utterly adorable. And adds a marvelous touch of whimsy at just the right moments. I haven’t read the rest of the Little Beach Street Bakery series, and now I want to, if only to find out how Neil and Polly adopted each other. It must be adorable.

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Review: The Sweet Life by Sharon Struth + Giveaway

Review: The Sweet Life by Sharon Struth + GiveawayThe Sweet Life by Sharon Struth
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: contemporary romance, women's fiction
Series: Sweet Life #1
Pages: 216
Published by Kensington Publishing Corporation on September 19th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In Italy, the best attractions are always off the beaten path . . .

Mamie Weber doesn't know why she survived that terrible car accident five years ago. Physically, she has only a slight reminder-but emotionally, the pain is still fresh. Deep down she knows her husband would have wanted her to embrace life again. Now she has an opportunity to do just that, spending two weeks in Tuscany reviewing a tour company for her employer's popular travel guide series. The warmth of the sun, the centuries-old art, a villa on the Umbrian border-it could be just the adventure she needs.

But with adventure comes the unexpected . . . like discovering that her entire tour group is made up of aging ex-hippies reminiscing about their Woodstock days. Or finding herself drawn to the guide, Julian, who is secretly haunted by a tragedy of his own, and seems to disapprove any time she tries something remotely risky-like an impromptu scooter ride with a local man.

As they explore the hilltop towns of Tuscany, Mamie knows that when this blissful excursion is over, she'll have to return to reality. But when you let yourself wander, life can take some interesting detours . . .

Praise for Sharon Struth

"Struth has a gift for layering stories within stories while keeping them all connected." --Library Journal

"Struth is an author to watch!" --Laura Drake, author of RITA-award winner The Sweet Spot

"Sharon Struth writes a good story about love and loss. She knows her characters and has a path she wants them to take." --Eye on Romance

"The plot is refreshing and will definitely keep the reader turning page after page." -Fresh Fiction

My Review:

The Sweet Life is a lovely, sweet story about love, and loss, and letting go. And discovering that the life that’s left after the grief has lost its sharpness can still be very, very sweet – if you’re willing to reach out and grab that sweetness with both hands and seize both it and the day.

Mamie Weber lost both her husband and her daughter in a devastating car accident five years ago. And she’s let her grief consume her every single day since. But five years is a long time to pull up the drawbridge and retreat into the castle. She’s finally come to realize that her “safety” is also a trap – and a prison of her own making.

A colleague steps in and offers her a way out – just a bit. All that she needs to do is get on an airplane and fly to Italy for a two week vacation as part of a tour group to which she does not belong. But a tour that her employer will pay for if she writes her friend’s “Covert Critic” travel book about the tour.

No one knows who the Covert Critic really is. And Mamie is contractually obligated not to reveal that, for just this one tour, she’s it.

The problem is that the tour is for a group of Woodstock “survivors”. Her friend Felix really was one of the thousands who went to Yasgur’s Farm in 1969, but at 39, Mamie is more than a generation younger. The “Woodstock Wanderers” don’t care. They are all more than happy to adopt her as a temporary replacement for the daughter or niece that none of them see enough of at this point in their busy lives.

But the tour guide, Julian Gregory, has some serious problems with Mamie’s intrusion into the tour. For one thing, it’s against the rules. Very much against the rules. And Julian needs to follow those rules. Not just because he needs the job, but because following the rules is what’s keeping him going – more or less. Being strict about the rules is the way that Julian is pretty much not dealing with the griefs and regrets that have piled up in his own life.

As Mamie tests her own limits, she also tests Julian’s resolve to stay on the straight and narrow at any cost. He starts out thinking that limits make life safer, only to eventually come to the same realization that Mamie has – that limits are just plain limiting.

It’s only when they both step outside, far outside, their comfort zones that they are able to finally reach for happiness – and each other.

Escape Rating B: If Eat, Pray, Love and If It’s Tuesday This Must Be Belgium had a love child, it would probably be this book. The Sweet Life has that element of searching for one’s bliss mixed in with the whirlwind tour aspects (but not quite as much of a whirlwind) as that long-ago comedy movie.

Come to think of it, the Woodstock Wanderers are probably the right age to have seen that movie on dates – it’s the right time and the right kind of movie. And the guy does get the girl in the end, in spite of all the rules against it – as well as his own original intentions.

The travel portions of The Sweet Life are a love letter to the Italian countryside. If you finish this book and don’t want to sign up immediately for a tour of Tuscany, you’re probably not paying attention. It all sounds absolutely yummy, and now I have a yen to travel somewhere I hadn’t been thinking that seriously about. A good book will do that.

But the story is about Mamie and Julian both getting over all the things that are holding them back, and discovering that a grief shared is a grief halved – because they both have plenty. Their relationship has a lot of fits and starts, as they both, for very different reasons, try to resist the attraction they feel, and resist the need to tell each other their whole truth even longer.

A bit too long, of course, as that’s what’s sets up the final conflict of the romance.

While the two-steps-forward one-step-back of their relationship goes on a bit longer than it might, and they both do a bit too much wallowing to make the book a page-turner, this is still a very sweet story that provides a lovely and deserved happy ever after for its likeable protagonists.

And leaves the reader desperately seeking good pasta.

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

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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Review: Fool Me Once by Catherine Bybee

Review: Fool Me Once by Catherine BybeeFool Me Once by Catherine Bybee
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, romantic suspense, women's fiction
Series: First Wives #1
Pages: 348
Published by Montlake Romance on September 19th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

From Weekday Brides to First Wives, a dazzling series about four women and their alliance of newfound friendship, unexpected love, and second chances.

Cynical divorce attorney Lori Cumberland lives by one motto: Love is grand, but divorce is a hundred grand. With one failed marriage under her own personal belt, Lori had fallen hard and early—and it isn’t something she plans on repeating. She’s content focusing on the temporary marriages of her rich and famous clients. When she joins some of her recent divorcées on a celebratory cruise, her only vow is fun, sun, and new friends. But Lori finds herself tempted by a jury of one.

For Reed Barlow, falling into the world of private investigation was easy. He knows the law and knows how to avoid breaking it—all while doing his job. His rule to live by? No emotion, no involvement…until Lori. His charming smile and cocky attitude distracts Lori and lowers her guard, which is exactly what Reed desires.

But what appears as a one-time-only flirtation may be a plot orchestrated by Reed. As he’s taking his investigation to a dangerous level, it’s Lori who could end up in jeopardy. Reed has only one shot for Lori to grant him a second chance. But if he comes clean with her, he blows his cover. And that just might cost him the opportunity for an alliance of family…and of love.

My Review:

As the old saying goes, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on ME.” I still hear those words in Jimmy Doohan’s inimitable Scottish brogue, as the first time I ever heard this adage was in Star Trek: The Original Series in the episode “Friday’s Child”.

Although Fool Me Once is the first book in a spinoff series from Weekday Brides, you don’t have to read any of the first series to jump into the second. There are enough explanations about Alliance to get new readers right into the thick of things. But the Weekday Brides are awesome, so if you like Fool Me Once, you’ll love them, too.

The women featured in Fool Me Once and the First Wives Club are all Alliance veterans. Shannon, Avery and Trina were all contract brides, married to rich and/or powerful men in name only, for a year or so, in return for huge payouts at the end, when the inevitable divorce occurred. As intended. As contracted for by both parties.

Except it only works some of the time. Lori, the heroine of this story, is the legal brains behind Alliance. She writes those iron-clad pre-nups and sees all her clients from initial interviews to after-care when the divorce is final and the gossip inevitably hits the fan.

It doesn’t always work. About a quarter of the Alliance-arranged contracts have turned into real marriages. Considering that the divorce rate for non-arranged marriages is 50%, these are not bad odds. But Shannon, Avery and Trina are special cases.

Shannon made the mistake of falling in love with her ex. Two years later she still hasn’t gotten over it. Avery just got her divorce, and is ready to party. Trina’s situation is the one that ends in tragedy, and that sets this story in motion. Trina’s husband-in-name-only committed suicide while they were still married. As if that wasn’t enough, his mother died a few days later, leaving her entire fortune, not to her family, but to Trina. Who is overwhelmed with guilt and constantly in the cross-hairs of the paparazzi – and her father-in-law.

Lori may not believe in love and marriage after years as a divorce lawyer, but she does believe in taking care of her friends. And all of these women are her friends as well as her clients. Trina needs a getaway. And she needs company to help her get out of her funk, as well as to shield her from the press. It seems like a brilliant idea to get away for a week on a high-class cruise in the Mediterranean – but that just puts them in the midst of a whole new set of problems.

And that’s where Reed Barlow comes in. He seems like one of the solutions – not for any of the former Alliance brides, but for Lori herself. He looks like the perfect end to her very long dry spell, and the chemistry they ignite feels more than just physical. That he lives close enough to Lori’s home base in LA to make a continuation of their shipboard romance possible seems perfect. And so does Reed. Maybe just a little too perfect.

Because Reed isn’t part of the solution, he’s part of the problem. At least until he re-discovers his inner hero and changes sides. Too late to save their relationship, and possibly even too late to save Alliance and its secrets.

Or is it?

Escape Rating A-: Fool Me Once is a marvelous cross between romantic suspense and women’s fiction, and I loved every minute of it. As I have all of Catherine Bybee’s books that I have read so far. The number of kindle locations in Fool Me Once made me think that the book was a bit longer than the 350 pages it claims to be, and I didn’t care.

The women’s fiction angle comes in because so much of the backbone of the story is the relationship between the four women. They call themselves the First Wives Club because they’ve all been divorced, including Lori. But instead of the usual version, where the first wives got thrown over for the newer, younger model, these women ended up mostly where they thought they would, with a few kinks in the road. Instead, went into the arrangement intending to trade their contracted sugar-daddy husbands for newer, probably younger models who are their own choices.

Of course, the best laid plans of mice, men, and women often go astray. But the relationship that forms between these sisters-of-choice is forever. Readers who like Shannon, Avery, Trina and Lori will fall right in with them. They are all strong women with their own distinct personalities, but they are all different. It’s easy to identify with one or all of them, and that’s what makes the book.

The romantic suspense angle has its moments of extreme danger, but also plenty of intrigue and mystery. It’s clear at the beginning that Reed enters into the story with an agenda that is funded by someone else, someone who does not have the best interests of any of the women in mind. Although Reed changes sides (he has to or this wouldn’t be a romance) the person who set him in motion is not happy or satisfied, and will probably come back to haunt Shannon in particular and Alliance in general.

But the real mystery and danger in this story comes not from Lori and Reed, but from Trina’s case. Trina’s entanglement with her late husband’s family has caused a lot of resentment, and someone is willing to go through Lori to get to Trina, putting both of them in danger. The threat is very real and nearly catastrophic. At the same time, Trina’s unexpected inheritance provides her with a way forward that no one expected at the beginning. The ongoing story of her new adventures looks like a lot of fun.

When a hero screws up as much as Reed does (and sister does he ever) I usually need for the hero to do a really, really good grovel for the heroine to justify taking him back. While I’m not sure Reed groveled quite enough, he did save her brother’s life. That makes up for a lot of grovel. This HEA is earned!

At some point in this series, there might be a real “fool me twice” possibility. Shannon is, after all, in love with her ex. I can’t help but wonder whether her eventual HEA will be with him, or whether she’ll manage to finally wash that man right out of her hair. And I can’t wait to find out.

Review: The Summer that Made Us by Robyn Carr + Giveaway

Review: The Summer that Made Us by Robyn Carr + GiveawayThe Summer That Made Us by Robyn Carr
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print ebook, audiobook
Genres: women's fiction
Pages: 336
Published by Mira Books on September 5th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Mothers and daughters, sisters and cousins, they lived for summers at the lake house until a tragic accident changed everything. The Summer That Made Us is an unforgettable story about a family learning to accept the past, to forgive and to love each other again.

That was then…

For the Hempsteads, summers were idyllic. Two sisters who married two brothers and had three daughters each, the women would escape the city the moment school was out to gather at the family house on Lake Waseka. The lake was a magical place, a haven where they were happy and carefree. All of their problems drifted away as the days passed in sun-dappled contentment. Until the summer that changed everything.

This is now…

After an accidental drowning turned the lake house into a site of tragedy and grief, it was closed up. For good. Torn apart, none of the Hempstead women speak of what happened that summer, and relationships between them are uneasy at best, hurtful at worst. But in the face of new challenges, one woman is determined to draw her family together again, and the only way that can happen is to return to the lake and face the truth.

Robyn Carr has crafted a beautifully woven story about the complexities of family dynamics and the value of strong female relationships.

My Review:

This is a story that will get you right in the feels. It certainly did me. And it will probably make you feel all the feels as well, as the story runs from tragedy to hope, if not to triumph, and hits every emotional stop along the journey.

Most of all, it’s a story about one particular extremely dysfunctional family, and their attempt to get to the heart of at least some of their dysfunctions and heal, before it’s too late.

And it’s about one final gift that one member of that family gives to herself, and to everyone that she has to leave behind.

The story begins with Charley and Megan, who seem more like sisters than cousins – possibly because they sorta/kinda are. Once upon a time, a young mother began bringing her two daughters to Lake Waseka, one of the 10,000 lakes of Minnesota, every summer. The two Hempstead girls, Louisa and Jo Anne, had the time of their lives. When those girls grew up, they continued the family tradition, bringing their daughters to the lake, until the summer when it all went smash.

Lou and Jo married Chet and Ray, two sisters marrying two brothers. Continuing to outwardly mirror each other’s lives, they each had three daughters, alternating years, so that the six girls looked more like stair-step sisters than cousins. Even double-cousins.

But their lives weren’t as similar as they seemed. And neither were they. Lou’s husband was boring but responsible and respectable, while Jo’s was every woman’s bad-boy dream, in more ways than one. Ray was an alcoholic and a conman, and every woman’s bicycle – not that he would have thought of it quite that way. Lou was strong and decisive, while Jo was soft and often needed direction. Apart, they drifted into the extremes of their natures, with Lou turning sharp and angry, and Jo being the world’s doormat.

Those summers kept them grounded, and they helped each other stay strong in their broken places. Until they shattered, one summer night, when Lou’s youngest daughter, 12 year old Bunny, drowned on the lake in a tragic accident.

Twenty-seven years later, the cottage is still closed up, Lou and Jo are still estranged, and every single one of the remaining girls, their now grown up daughters with children of their own, are, in one way or another lost or dysfunctional.

Megan decides to spend her very last summer trying to patch the broken places in her family. With her waning energy, she gets everyone back to the lake for one last summer, in the hopes that if they can go back to where it all went wrong, they’ll have one last chance to patch things back together.

To be each other’s strength in all their broken places once more.

Escape Rating A-: As much as I deride the term, The Summer That Made Us is a stellar work of women’s fiction. The story is all about this group of women, their feisty grandmother, their battling mothers, the troupe of sister-cousins, and even their own daughters, and all the myriad ways that those relationships have played out over time, both good and bad.

The men in this story are merely supporting characters, and spend most of the story off-stage, whether in another city or a cemetery. There’s plenty of trauma that relates all the way back to the Judge, Grandma Berkey’s husband who was Lou and Jo’s father. He’s certainly dead, and thank goodness for that!

While there is a romance in this story, the romance itself is a sub-sub-sub-plot. But it is important both as part of one sister’s healing, and as part of clearing up one of the mysteries of Charley’s last time at the lake.

At the beginning of the story, ironically, the one thing that seems marginally hopeful is Megan’s final, experimental cancer treatment, and the one thing that seems beyond all possibility of healing is Charley’s contentious relationship with her mother Lou. In that regard, nothing is as it seems.

But at that beginning, all the relationships seem to be going to hell in a handcart, and it’s a bit of a hard read to get through. Nothing seems to be looking up, and some of the interactions are downright painful.

As things begin, every single member of the family is damaged in one way or another. And all in ways that seem to trace their origins back to Bunny’s death and the abandonment of those idyllic summers at the lake. But the girls were all girls at the time, ranging up from Bunny to somewhere in their teens. They all saw those lake summers as perfect, and were not necessarily aware of all the tensions running underneath, especially the roiling tensions between Lou and Jo.

Bunny’s death was not the only thing that went wrong that summer. But after it, nothing went right. And unfortunately for everyone, one of the underlying dysfunctions of the entire family was that no one ever talked about what was really wrong.

One of the things that is so terrific about this story is that even though it all went wrong and the same time and in the same place, for each one of the women that wrongness burst out into entirely different directions. All of the women, even in the end Lou, appear as ultimately sympathetic and surprisingly unique characters. They never seem alike, they are not cookie-cutters of each other. Each one is distinct, both in their voice and in their manifestation of the family dysfunction.

And that’s the biggest problem they have to work with. Or against. Until they can finally share all the separate pieces of that broken story, none of them will be able to heal.

At the beginning of The Summer That Made Us, it feels like this one, last summer on the lake is Charley’s gift to Megan. But in the end, this summer turns out to be one final gift that Megan gives to Charley, and everyone in her family.

And it’s beautiful.

(Bring tissues)

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

I’m very pleased to be able to give away a copy of The Summer That Made Us to one lucky US or Canadian commenter. I hope that the winner enjoys the story as much as I did.

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Review: Map of the Heart by Susan Wiggs

Review: Map of the Heart by Susan WiggsMap of the Heart by Susan Wiggs
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: women's fiction
Pages: 368
Published by William Morrow on August 22nd 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Susan Wiggs—an author “who paints the details of human relationships with the finesse of a master” (Jodi Picoult)—returns with a deeply emotional and atmospheric story of love and family, war and secrets that moves back and forth across time, from the present day to World War II France
An accomplished photographer, widow, and mother, Camille Palmer is content with the blessings she’s enjoyed. When her ageing father asks her to go with him to his native France, she has no idea that shes embarking on an adventure that will shake her complacency and utterly transform her.
Returning to the place of his youth sparks unexpected memories—recollections that will lead Camille, her father, and her daughter, Julie, who has accompanied them, back to the dark, terrifying days of the Second World War, where they will uncover their family’s surprising history.
While Provence offers answers about her family’s past, it also holds the key to Camille’s future. Along the way, Camille meets a handsome American historian who stirs a passion deep within her she thought she’d never experience again.

My Review:

I picked up Map of the Heart because I absolutely adored last year’s Family Tree. And while I did like Map of the Heart, it just didn’t suck me into reading it in a single non-stop day the way that Family Tree did.

I want to say that Map of the Heart is two stories blended into one. But that happens on more than one axis, making me wonder if I should describe it as two stories, or perhaps four.

First, it’s a time-slip story. While most of the action takes place in the 21st century present, there are significant chapters that occur in the mid-20th century past, in the midst of the Italian, and subsequently German, occupation of southeastern France during the dark days of World War II. And much of the 21st century action revolves around discovering the connections between that old history and today in the lives of the story’s protagonists, particularly Henry Palmer, nee Palomar, his daughter Camille and her daughter Julie.

But the story also has its 21st century “before and after”. The beginning of the story takes place in Camille’s tiny hometown of Bethany Bay, Maryland. And all is far from well. Five years previously, Camille’s husband Jace was killed in a tragic accident, and the formerly adventurous Camille retreated from the world into her safe space in her small town. Jace’s death left her afraid to risk, not just for herself, but also for her daughter Julie. Julie was 9 when her father died, and is now 14, ready to begin stretching her wings while still having a nest to fly back to. Instead, Julie’s life seems to be on hold while Camille retreats in fear from the universe. And in her continued self-absorption, Camille doesn’t recognize that Julie is suffering from the hell that is mean-girl high school bullying.

And as if her fears for Julie are not enough, Camille is still reeling after her beloved father’s year of cancer treatment. Henry’s cancer is currently in remission, but they all know that this is only a reprieve and not a cure.

In the midst of the mess she already has, two events burst the safe shell of Camille’s little world. Professor Malcolm Finnemore needs Camille, in her professional capacity as a restorer of found archival film, to process the photos retrieved from his father’s old camera – the last pictures that intrepid journalist Robert Finnemore took before he was captured by the North Vietnamese Army and never seen again.

And the tenants residing in the old farmhouse that Camille discovers her father still owns back in his native France send him a large trunk filled with mementos of the life that her father left behind – including old photographs of his beautiful but haunted mother and his despicable father, a Nazi collaborator. Henry Palmer wants to go home, to deal with the ghosts these mementos have brought to light.

Julie wants to escape her tormentors by any means available, and France sounds like a great place to go. Camille just wants to keep her little family safe at home, so that she doesn’t have to confront her fears, or anyone’s ghosts.

But the exposure of Julie’s suffering keeps reminding her that even home is not safe. And that her fears should not continue to cripple her daughter, or keep her father from closure of his own griefs.

And if she can heal just a bit of what’s holding her back, the handsome Professor Finnemore is also in France, just waiting to help her the rest of the way. If she can bear to let go.

Escape Rating B: So this story is split along two different axes. We see Camille and her family in the present, and also her grandmother Lisette in the past. A huge part of this story involves Camille’s search to make the two connect. Because at first they don’t. Lisette, just like Camille, was a photographer. And her photographs of herself and of her disgusting husband lead Camille to an inescapable conclusion – blond and blue-eyed Lisette and her equally blond and blue-eyed husband could not have been the parents of black-haired and brown-eyed Henry. Genetics don’t work that way. Since Lisette died giving birth to Henry, her part in his parentage is not in question, leaving her husband’s part in grave but oddly hopeful doubt. Finding out that one is not the son or the granddaughter of a despicable Nazi collaborator would, after all, come as a great relief.

Camille is hunting for the truth of her own heritage. Most of her hunt takes place after she bows to the inevitable and accompanies her father and her daughter to France. And it is at that point, when she finally, reluctantly boards that plane, that the story itself takes wing.

Unfortunately, that point is literally at the halfway point. The first half of the story, back in Bethany Bay, felt like a slog for this reader. Seeing the situation that Camille, and Julie, are escaping from is necessary, but for this reader it went on much too long. It’s not just that it is all depressing, although Julie’s situation certainly is depressing, it’s also the way that Camille drags her feet just drags down on the story. Her almost-pathological resistance slows the story to a crawl until she finally gets on that damn plane.

At first, the brief trip back to Lisette’s past, while interesting, doesn’t change the tone. Her part of the story is dark, because her history was dark. And while all of these issues are important to the story as a whole, they just didn’t move much. I didn’t need them to be happy, that wouldn’t have been appropriate, but I did need more of a sense that they were moving the story forward and not just wallowing. Your mileage may vary.

Once the action moves to France, the story kicks into gear. Camille’s hunt for her family’s history was fascinating, and the involvement with and explanation of the uses of “found film” was very interesting. There are quite a few projects and specialists who deal with these issues in the real world, and what they discover often brings to light first-person perspectives on events that were thought to be lost. (If this part of the story grabs you, check out The Rescued Film Project)

Reviewer’s note: One thing that this book does well is to convey the sheer and utter hopelessness that happens when one is the victim of bullying. Anything that you do, or that your family attempts to do, just makes it worse. It always happens away from adult supervision, and the packs of bullies are very good at protecting themselves. Because they are often led by the popular kids, and because other kids want to be part of that in group and not become victims themselves, the one being bullied is left with nowhere to turn. And the more isolated the victims become, the less likely anyone on the outside is to believe them. I am speaking from brutal experience, which made me both empathize deeply with Julie and desperately want that part of the story to move on – fast. That Henry was still scarred by his own experiences of bullying, even though those events were more than a half-century in the past, rang entirely too true.

Review: The Innkeeper’s Sister by Linda Goodnight + Giveaway

Review: The Innkeeper’s Sister by Linda Goodnight + GiveawayThe Innkeeper's Sister (Honey Ridge #3) by Linda Goodnight
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: women's fiction
Series: Honey Ridge #3
Pages: 384
Published by HQN Books on July 25th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Welcome to Honey Ridge, Tennessee, where Southern hospitality and sweet peach tea beckon, and where long-buried secrets lead to some startling realizations
Grayson Blake always has a purpose and never a moment to lose. He's come home to Honey Ridge to convert a historic gristmill into a restaurant, but his plans crumble like Tennessee clay when the excavation of a skeleton unearths a Civil War mystery and leads him back to a beautiful and familiar stranger.
Once a ballet dancer, now co-owner of the Peach Orchard Inn, Valery Carter harbors pain as deep as the secrets buried beneath the mill. A bright facade can't erase her regrets any more than a glass of bourbon can restore what she's lost. But spending time with Grayson offers Valery a chance to let go of her past and imagine a happier future. And with the discovery of hidden messages in aged sheet music, both their hearts begin to open. Bound by attraction, and compelled to resolve an old crime that links the inn and the mill, Grayson and Valery encounter a song of hurt, truth, and hope.

My Review:

The Innkeeper’s Sister is a lovely and emotionally fraught story that is told in parallel in two very distinct timelines – and in both stories the heroine is the sister of the owner of the Peach Orchard Inn. Although in the earlier, post-Civil War timeline, the Peach Orchard Inn was still the Peach Orchard Farm. But both Valery Carter in the early 21st century and Patience Portland in the late 19th are sisters to the women who own Peach Orchard, and who have already found a second chance at happiness after a first brush with tragedy.

In the 21st Valery Carter seems to be a good-time girl who can’t be counted on to handle any responsibilities that are handed to her. It’s a picture that is both right and wrong, but if Valery continues on her current self-destructive path, is going to end with that perspective being all right all the time. Until she drowns.

Into her life and her sister’s inn walks Grayson Blake, a one-time resident of Honey Ridge who now develops run-down historic properties into attention-getting five-star restaurants with the help of his brother Devlin. The old gristmill across from the Peach Orchard Inn is one such property, and the Blake Brothers have big plans for it.

Plans that are temporarily delayed when a poke at the rotting basement flooring turns up a human skeleton. The project goes on hold while the wheels grind through the process of determining, if not whose bones they were, at least when those bones were laid down and hidden under the floorboards.

Valery and especially her sister Julia are petrified that the bones might belong to Julia’s missing son Mikey, now lost for nine long, heartbreaking years. And that possibility sends Valery into a tailspin of guilt, grief and remorse.

But the time Grayson is forced to spend at Honey Ridge also unearths the crush that Grayson and Valery unknowingly had on each other back when they were teens. They’re not teens any more, and the mutual admiration and respect they felt then has blossomed into much, much more. Even though Grayson thinks that he’s much too staid and boring for a flirty party-girl like Valery.

And Valery is equally certain that the secrets in her past as well as the problems in her present make her unworthy of the love of a good man like Grayson.

But just as Valery has to reveal her secret burdens in order to reach for healing and happiness, so the secrets buried under the old mill have to come to light, so that the ghosts of that past can finally be laid to rest.

Escape Rating B: This is the third book in the Honey Ridge series, after The Memory House and The Rain Sparrow. I have not read the previous books, but based on their descriptions, they both follow the same pattern – that there is a romance in the present and a mystery to be solved in the past. The past mystery arises because of artifacts that are discovered at the Inn that involve the present day participants in something fascinating that they just can’t let go of.

And both those stories, particularly The Rain Sparrow that features a novelist and a librarian, sound lovely. I haven’t read either of them yet but I’m looking forward to it. That being said, I don’t think it’s necessary to read the series in order – I’m obviously not – but the previous stories, particularly their historical bits, sounded fascinating and I was a bit sorry to have missed them. At least so far.

The two stories in The Innkeeper’s Sister are different in substance, but both have some very serious and angsty issues to deal with. The story in the past is explicitly NOT a romance, but the story in the present is certainly centered around one.

Valery has a ton of issues to resolve, starting with but far from limited to her alcoholism. If she doesn’t get to the heart of her problems, she really isn’t a good match for Grayson, and they both know it. And for Valery to get to the heart of issues, first she has to let them out into the light of day, something that is incredibly difficult for her, for reasons that are made clear within the story. She has a lot of work to do, and it takes her a long and difficult time to figure out how to get to it.

While it is normally a plus when an author is able to misdirect readers away from the heart of a mystery, I will say that it worked a bit too well in Valery’s case. The depth of her guilt over the abduction of her nephew Mike was so searing and so overpowering that I spent a lot of reading time convinced that Mikey had been in her care at the time and had been lost through her neglect. This was not the case, but the way she processed her grief and layered her guilt on top of it made the real reason for this part of her angst feel a bit anticlimactic for this reader.

The story in the past was beautiful and fascinating. Benjamin Portland’s journey to find his long-lost brother, and what he discovered about himself, his family, and the differences between hope and reality for former slaves after the end of the Civil War, was an eye-opener for him and and excellent way of making the past come alive for the reader. I’m looking forward to this element very much in the other books.

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

I’m giving away a copy of The Innkeeper’s Sister to one lucky US/Canadian commenter

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Review: Secrets of the Tulip Sisters by Susan Mallery

Review: Secrets of the Tulip Sisters by Susan MallerySecrets of the Tulip Sisters by Susan Mallery
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, women's fiction
Pages: 416
Published by Harlequin Books on July 11th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The relationship of sisters Kelly and Olivia Van Gilder has been, well… complicated ever since their mother left them as teens, though it's the secrets they have been keeping from each other as adults that have unwittingly widened the chasm. But one thing they do share is the not-so-secret torch they carry for the Martin brothers.
In the small enclave of New Holland, Washington, Griffith and Ryan Martin were demigods. While Griffith was the object of Kelly's high school crush and witness to her mortal teenage humiliation, Ryan was for Olivia the boy who got away-something she's never forgiven Kelly for-and the only person since her mother who appreciated her wild streak.
Now, ten years later, both brothers are newly returned to town. Believing they're destined to be together, Olivia's determined to get Ryan back, until she discovers that she's not the only one keeping secrets…and that perhaps he's not the handsome prince she remembered. And even though Griffith has grown up to be more irresistible than ever, Kelly's impulse is to avoid him and the painful memory he represents, despite his resolve to right the wrong he caused her long ago-and her desire to let him.

My Review:

I want to say that the Murphy family puts the fun back in dysfunctional – but too many of the relationships within this family are all dysfunction and damn little fun. Of course, those dysfunctions add to the drama of the story – and there is plenty of fun outside these very messy family dynamics.

This is a story about three women, Kelly Murphy, her sister Olivia, and her best friend Helen, in their little small town of Tulpen Crossing, Washington. Tulpen Crossing is a lot closer to Spokane than Seattle, on the eastern side of the Cascades – a location that matters a lot in Washington state. Tulpen Crossing, and nearly everything in town, is named for it’s annual tulip crop, the economic engine of the entire town.

The Murphy family have been growing tulips in Tulpen for generations. Kelly Murphy and her dad Jeff are continuing the family tradition. They also still share the Murphy family house, in spite of Kelly being well-past the age where most young adults fly out of the family nest – Kelly is 28. And seems to not think that love and marriage are for her. She watched her parents’ marriage implode, explode and every other ‘plode when she was in her early teens, and wants to stay as far away from that kind of mess as possible.

Until it comes looking for her.

Griffin Burnett is the prodigal son – he returned to Tulpen Crossing to set up his very successful Tiny House business. He’s had his eye on Kelly for a long time. He likes her no-nonsense no-games attitude, and he thinks her no-fuss, no muss style is beautiful, as is she. But he’s not interested in love and marriage either, just a long-term relationship of friendship, respect and, of course, benefits.

Kelly, whose self-esteem issues know very few bounds, thinks he’s nuts. But she’s willing to try.

And that’s where all the dysfunction in the Murphy family comes home to roost – and to stir up trouble. First Olivia comes back, after over a decade of absence. She got sent to boarding school when she was 15, not long after their mother abandoned the family – after seducing every single post-pubescent male for about 100 miles around Tulpen Crossing – and being far from discreet about it.

Just as Olivia and Kelly begin to rebuild their very strained sibling relationship, Marilee returns to Tulpen Crossing in Olivia’s wake, not because she’s missed either of her daughters, but because she wants to stir up as much trouble as possible.

She nearly succeeds beyond even her wildest expectations.

Escape Rating B+: As much as I hate the label, Secrets of the Tulip Sisters falls squarely into that category so awfully named “women’s fiction”. While there are not just one but three romances in this story, it’s really about the relationships between Kelly, Olivia and Helen, how they support each other and sometimes how they sabotage each other, and their relationships with the town and the way that all of them step forward, sometimes hesitantly and sometimes boldly, into their own futures.

One of the themes of the story is about the keeping of secrets. Olivia arrives in Tulpen Crossing with a huge secret. Every time she and Kelly begin to get their relationship back on track, a piece of that secret gets let out of its bag and derails their relationship. That the derailment is intended makes it all that much more heartbreaking.

Kelly also has plenty of secrets. A whole lot of it is self-blame – she has persisted in the belief that it is all her fault that her mother left, and even more damning, all her fault that Olivia was sent to boarding school. She was 15 when she and her mother had the supposedly fateful argument, and 18 when she convinced her father to send Olivia to boarding school. As much as she needs to tell Olivia about her part in some of the worst parts of Olivia’s life – Kelly was not the adult in either situation. Her mother was always going to leave – and it was her father’s choice to send Olivia to boarding school. It helps a lot that, in retrospect, Olivia realizes that Kelly was probably right, no matter how selfish her motivations seemed at the time.

And then there’s Helen. She too, has a secret that impacts the Murphy family. Helen, who is a few years older than her best friend Kelly, owns the local diner. And she’s been in love with Kelly’s dad for years. Jeff Murphy is clueless about Helen’s feelings, but well aware of his own – and can’t imagine that Helen, 16 years his junior, could possibly be interested in him.

Of course he’s wrong. He’s wrong about a whole lot of things, as we discover when Marilee breezes back into Tulpen Crossing to screw with everyone’s heads and screw up everyone’s life. She’s irredeemable. But everyone else, learning to cope with the crises she leaves in her wake, finally rise to the challenge to find their happy and boot her out of their lives, and especially out of the headspace she’s taken from all of them over the years.

At the end, everybody stands taller and stronger. And it’s wonderful.

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Review: The Light in Summer by Mary McNear

Review: The Light in Summer by Mary McNearThe Light In Summer by Mary McNear
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook
Genres: women's fiction
Series: Butternut Lake #5
Pages: 384
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on June 20th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Mary McNear brings you home to Butternut Lake and a novel filled with irresistible characters who you will want to call your friends.
It’s summertime on Butternut Lake, where the heat of noon is soothed by the cool breezes of the evening, where the pace grows slower, and sometimes, just sometimes, the summer light makes everything clearer...
For the lovely Billy Harper, Butternut Lake is the place she feels most at home, even though lately she feels the only one listening to her is Murphy...her faithful Labrador Retriever. Her teenage son, Luke, has gone from precious to precocious practically overnight. Her friends are wrapped up in their own lives, and Luke’s father, Wesley, disappeared before his son was even born. No wonder she prefers to spend time with a good book, especially ones where everything ends in perfection.
But Billy is about to learn that anything is possible during the heady days of summer. Coming to terms with her past—the death of her father, the arrival of Cal Cooper, a complicated man with a definite interest in Billy, even the return of Wesley, will force her to have a little bit of faith in herself and others...and realize that happiness doesn’t always mean perfection.
“Butternut Lake is so beautifully rendered, you’ll wish it was real.”—Susan Wiggs, #1 New York Times bestselling author  
“This triumphant story had me reading until the wee hours of the morning.”—#1 New York Times bestselling author Debbie Macomber on The Space Between Sisters
 
 
 
 

My Review:

I love the Butternut Lake series. I really, really do. But, and it’s a very big but, in spite of the heroine being a librarian, I did not love this particular entry in the series.

The Butternut Lake series so far have all been contemporary small-town romances with more than a smidgen of what is dreadfully labelled Women’s Fiction. I hate that term but it has become a handy catch-all descriptor for stories that include a slice of women’s lives and often their strong friendships and other relationships.

I’ve also referred to Butternut Lake as “Second Chance Lake” because so many of the romances feature second chances at love, sometimes even with the original love-interest.

The series is stand-alone-ish. Each entry is complete, and the reader usually doesn’t have to know much about what came before to become familiar with the town and its residents. The Light in Summer may be the exception to that rule. The hero in this book is the brother of the heroine in the first book, Up at Butternut Lake.

But as much as I have enjoyed this series, this one did not work for me. While in most of the books there has been a lot going on in the life of the protagonists, the stories have usually given equal weight to whatever those other crises might be and the romance.

For this reader, the romance between Cal and Billy (very short for Wilhelmina) takes a far back seat to all of Billy’s quite justifiable angst over the behavior of her son Luke, who seems to be entering adolescence with a vengeance. Billy is right to worry. Luke is hanging out with the wrong crowd, getting into serious trouble, lying to her and letting his grades slip. His attitude has also dived into the toilet, but the problem isn’t the attitude so much as all the bad things and people that the attitude is leading him towards.

The recent death of Billy’s father, the only father-figure that Luke has ever had, has thrown them all into a tailspin. And Billy is caught in the age-old dilemma of how much she needs to be a parent vs. how much she wants to be a friend and confidant.

But all of Luke’s issues, and Billy’s issues with Luke, completely overwhelm the story. The romance gets such short shrift that we really don’t see it develop. We don’t have enough interactions between Cal and Billy to buy into their chemistry.

Escape Rating C: I’ll admit that I’m probably in a minority on this, but the focus on Billy’s problems as a parent, as real as they are, just don’t hold my attention. There’s a lot of teenage angst in this story, and if that was what I was looking for, I’d have found it. But it is not something that I look for, and certainly didn’t expect to find it in this book or this series.

I’m still looking forward to more in this series, but for this reader, The Light in Summer didn’t have nearly enough romantic heat. Your reading mileage may vary. But if you are looking for an entry in this series that does a much better blend of family drama with romance and small-town feels, go back to The Space Between Sisters, which was terrific. More like that, please!

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Review: The Hideaway by Lauren K Denton

Review: The Hideaway by Lauren K DentonThe Hideaway by Lauren K. Denton
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, large print, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, small town romance, women's fiction
Pages: 352
Published by Thomas Nelson on April 11th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

When her grandmother’s will wrenches Sara back home from New Orleans, she learns more about Margaret Van Buren in the wake of her death than she ever did in life.
After her last remaining family member dies, Sara Jenkins goes home to The Hideaway, her grandmother Mags's ramshackle B&B in Sweet Bay, Alabama. She intends to quickly tie up loose ends then return to her busy life and thriving antique shop in New Orleans. Instead, she learns Mags has willed her The Hideaway and charged her with renovating it—no small task considering Mags’s best friends, a motley crew of senior citizens, still live there.
Rather than hurrying back to New Orleans, Sara stays in Sweet Bay and begins the biggest house-rehabbing project of her career. Amid Sheetrock dust, old memories, and a charming contractor, she discovers that slipping back into life at The Hideaway is easier than she expected.
Then she discovers a box Mags left in the attic with clues to a life Sara never imagined for her grandmother. With help from Mags’s friends, Sara begins to piece together the mysterious life of bravery, passion, and choices that changed Mags’s destiny in both marvelous and devastating ways.
When an opportunistic land developer threatens to seize The Hideaway, Sara is forced to make a choice—stay in Sweet Bay and fight for the house and the people she’s grown to love or leave again and return to her successful but solitary life in New Orleans.

My Review:

The Hideaway turned out to be an unexpectedly lovely read for me. I’ll talk about the ‘lovely’ first and get to the ‘unexpected’ parts at the end. You’ll see why, I promise.

The Hideaway fits very well into a particular sub-sub-sub-genre of women’s fiction/small town romance. This is one of those stories where a woman finds herself obligated to return to the small town she grew up in, after years away in some big city, to take care of some family something-or-other that is left behind when an elderly relative dies (or occasionally has a health crisis). And in the process of taking care of whatever-it-was, she discovers that the relative she sincerely loved but didn’t visit enough had some big secrets that she finds out about much too late, when that person is gone. And that her new knowledge of those secrets both changes the way she views that person, and makes her rethink quite a lot of her own life.

Especially since her return home usually forces her to confront whatever baggage she left behind – because it’s all still waiting for her back at what used to be home.

And for whatever reason, taking care of that final obligation always takes way more time than she planned, and in that time she has a chance to rethink her current life in whatever big city she now resides, the opportunity to fall back in love with her hometown, and the chance to fall in love with someone completely new.

Which also brings her to a major life choice; return to the life she left behind in the city, or stay in the small town she never wanted to return to with a new purpose and a new love.

This particular plot has become a classic for a reason – in the hands of a good writer, it makes a powerful (and lovely) story, as it does here in The Hideaway.

What makes The Hideaway (the book) and the Hideaway (the place) are the people and their stories. Especially Sara and her grandmother Mags. Mags has just died, and has passed the ownership of the run down Hideaway Bed and Breakfast, along with its slightly run down permanent residents, to Sara.

Sara, the proud but workaholic owner of a successful decorating shop in New Orleans, expects to wrap Mags’ estate up in a week, only to discover that it is going to take months to carry out Mags’ final wish that she restore the Hideaway back to its original splendor, and then either sell it or continue to operate it, however she sees fit.

The long-term residents of the Hideaway pretty much HAVE a fit. The four older residents discovered the Hideaway as a safe harbor 30 or more years ago. It’s their home as much as it was Mags’, and they all feel bereft, even though they all know that Mags did the right thing. It was, after all, her house.

But as Sara dives into the renovations, she discovers that there was a whole lot more to Mags’ past than she ever imagined, and that the things she believed, both about Mags and about herself, are not quite what she thought they were.

Knowing now what she didn’t know then, and what Mags didn’t know then, sets Sara free.

Escape Rating A-: The Hideaway is a sweet and lovely take on a tried-and-true trope, and it works very, very well.

The story (and its perspective) flips back and forth between Mags’ arrival at the Hideaway in the late 1950s, and Sara’s return to the Hideaway and Sweet Bay Alabama in 2016. Both stories have a lot of heart. They also mirror each other. Mags has a good life, but she misses her happy ever after. Sara still has a chance at hers – she just has to drop her old baggage and grab it.

On the one hand, there’s that saying about the past being another country, that they do things differently there. There’s also the saying that specifically refers to the South, that the past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past. Both those versions come into play in this story.

The world, and the options for women in it, were rather different in the 1950s than they are today. That Mags managed to carve a life of her own even somewhat away from the expectations of her parents was a major accomplishment for her and a huge disappointment for them in ways that seem almost quaint in 2017 – but were real at the time. That she fell short of the ultimate goal due to other people’s beliefs and expectations does turn out to be a tragedy, but not as big a tragedy as it might have been.

Sara, on the other hand, has the possibility of having, if not “it all”, then at least most of it. Her journey felt easier to identify with, but Mags’ story had more depth. Mags did the best she could in the circumstances she had, and managed to make a life and world for herself mostly according to her own desires. We wish better for her, but it is surprising that she got as much as she wanted.

And for readers, both Mags AND Sara’s journeys are at turns heart-rending and heart-warming, and we feel for both of them and want them to be happy. That Mags came so close but didn’t quite make it is heartbreaking because we care.

I loved this book. It made a neverending day at an airport absolutely fly by. But I was surprised that I enjoyed it so much, and by this point you’re wondering why. Most readers don’t pay a whole lot of attention to the publisher of a book, and with some exceptions, I usually don’t either. But there are a few genres that just don’t interest me, and one of those genres is inspirational literature, whether romance or nonfiction. The publisher of The Hideaway, Thomas Nelson Publishers, is a well-respected publisher of inspirational literature, specifically Christian inspirational literature. When The Hideaway was offered for tour, as much as the description of the book appealed to me, I just wasn’t interested if it was inspirational. I was assured it was not, and after reading it I completely concur, it isn’t. (There is nothing wrong with inspirational literature, it just isn’t my cuppa, and life is too short to read books that you know upfront are just not your jam.) The Hideaway is not an inspirational romance. It doesn’t have any of the characteristics that make a book an “inspie”. The romances in this book are both squeaky clean, but a well-done “fade to black” is a tried-and-true method of handling romance scenes. And I’d much rather read a well-done fade to black than a horribly or laughably written sex scene. But the lack of sexual scenes does not make a book inspirational. And The Hideaway isn’t. It’s just an excellent women’s fiction/contemporary romance story.

This does all lead up to something. At first, based on the publisher, I was expecting an inspie, and was pleased to discover that this book isn’t. But because I enjoyed it so much, I’m now concerned about it. My concern is about whether this book will find the audience it deserves, because of the publisher. People who look at Thomas Nelson for an inspie are going to be disappointed. And people who stay far, far away from inspirational fiction aren’t going to even look at this book, because of the publisher. It’s definitely a dilemma.

So go back to ignoring the publisher. If you like southern fiction, or small town romance, or stories where there’s a choice to be made between the life you have and the life you’ve come to love, read this book!

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