Review: Shelter My Heart by L.G. O’Connor

Review: Shelter My Heart by L.G. O’ConnorShelter My Heart (Caught Up in Love, #2) by L.G. O'Connor
Format: ebook
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: contemporary romance, women's fiction
Series: Caught Up in Love #2
Pages: 348
Published by Collins-Young Publishing LLC on May 16th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads


Two Weeks. One Life-Changing Proposal.

Devon, an ailing, young CEO-in-training due to inherit his dead father's conglomerate saves the day for Jenny, an engaged young woman on her way home to see her family. To repay his kindness, she agrees to be his date for his family's annual society gala and convince the board that he's healthy and going to marry. Two weeks are all Devon needs, and two weeks are all Jenny can give--until the stakes rise, forcing Jenny to answer the question: How far is she willing to go to save Devon's life?


Shelter My Heart is a Kindle Scout Winner

Contemporary Romantic Women's Fiction - New Adult, Billionaire Romance

My Review:

I picked this book because I absolutely loved what turned out to be the first book in this series. Caught Up in Raine was a terrific younger man/older woman romance, and if you like that trope I recommend it highly.

Although that book was Jillian and Raine’s story, the author decided to continue to follow the women in Jill’s family after Jill found her HEA. Shelter My Heart is her niece Jenny’s story, and the third book in the series will hopefully answer all the questions about whatever happened between Jenny’s mother Kitty (Jill’s sister) and family friend John Henshaw. We’ll see in a couple of weeks, as I’m scheduled to review that book, Surrender My Heart, in a couple of weeks.

But Shelter My Heart is Jenny and Devon’s story, and it’s a doozy.

As this story begins, Jenny is trying to rush all the way across the country to be there for Jillian when she has her baby. And things keep getting in her way. Not just the fight she has with her fiance on her way out the door, but even her airline connections are against her.

Jillian’s been rushed to the hospital, and Jenny is stuck in the middle of nowhere because her incoming flight and her outbound flight missed each other. It happens. But there are no coach seats on any of the remaining flights outbound, and tomorrow might be too late. Jillian’s is a high-risk pregnancy, and there are complications. Jenny needs to be there.

A knight in bespoke suit armor comes to her rescue, paying for her first-class ticket home. And, as it turns out, the seat right beside him. And that’s where our story really begins, with Devon Soames and Jenny Lynch on a plane together, discovering that they each have the ability to take the other one out of themselves, in spite of everything that is going wrong in their lives.

Jenny’s problems, in spite of the current scare over Jillian and her baby, are mostly either of her own making or completely beyond her control. She knows her engagement should be over, she’s just having a difficult time formalizing the ending, both to her family and to the douchebag in question.

She’s also lived through a lot of death. Four people close to her have died in the past few years, one every other year. And even though none of those deaths are remotely her fault, the events that surround the first one have made her feel cosmically responsible for the others.

Devon, on the other hand, is pretty much in the middle of a crap sandwich that isn’t his fault. But that white-knight syndrome of his won’t let him do anything but sacrifice himself and all he has in the hope of making things better for his sister and his invalid mother, if not for himself.

Jenny has the feeling that death is following her around. Devon, on the other hand, is very definitely dying. He survived cancer, but the chemotherapy he needed did a permanent number on his kidneys, and they’re failing fast. He needs a transplant to survive.

The problem is that pretending that he is completely healthy is absolutely required to keep his repulsive half-brother from taking over his late father’s company. And taking over that company is the only way to provide enough money to give his mother the care that she will need for the rest of her life.

Devon feels as if he has no future. And he might not. But meeting Jenny makes him dream about happy endings again – no matter how much he tries to convince himself that they are not for him.

Until they very nearly aren’t. The end. Almost.

Escape Rating B+: This is the kind of melodramatic, soap-opera-ish, angsty romance that you just want to eat up with a spoon. And I very nearly did – I finished in a day. As crazy as some of the situations are, there is a lot of heart in this story and I just could not stop reading until the end.

This is a story where pretty much everything piles on. There are so many points where it is angsty well past the point of melodrama, because just so much happens, and it is all a bit over the top.

And most of it happens to poor Devon.

Jenny did have a tragedy in her past, but it looms bigger in her memory than she is actually responsible for. And while her about-to-be-ex-fiance is a douche, but there’s absolutely nothing stopping Jenny from kicking him to the curb, with or without Devon in the mix.

Devon, on the other hand, seems to have drawn most of the rotten cards out of the deck. He is rich, and that’s the one thing that falls mostly right for him, except his wealth is threatened and may even be temporary.

Devon’s Dad was a real, honest-to-goodness (or make that honest-to-badness) douchecanoe of epic proportions, and it’s those proportions that Devon is dealing with, in addition to caring for his invalid mother, imminent kidney failure, and staving off a corporate takeover.

When Devon, who is not yet 25, was undergoing cancer treatment, douchecanoe daddy changed his will to leave the family corporation to Devon if and only if Devon was pronounced healthy and able to provide an heir to the family on his 25th birthday. If he dies, can’t pass a physical or doesn’t have a sperm count (Devon had testicular cancer, so this is more relevant than it seems), the company will go to his half-brother, who is an even bigger asshat than dear old dad. Which is saying something since said half-brother is the product of daddy’s adulterous affair, not a previous or subsequent marriage.

And oh by the way, this “boys club” arrangement completely disregards the existence of Devon’s twin sister, who is an absolute shark as far as executive material is concerned. She is a better CEO for the company than either Devon or the bastard, a fact which Devon fully acknowledges but that dear old dad refused to admit on account of her gender. Like I said, Daddy was a douche.

There also turns out to be enough corporate skulduggery going on to fill an entire season of a soap opera like Dallas or Dynasty, but it does mostly take a back seat to the romance between Jenny and Devon – even though he refuses to open up about all the shit that’s going down in his life until generally the last possible moments. Over and over again.

In the end, it’s the love story that carries this tale. The reader is caught up in the two of them, as they fall in love, and its the real deal, in spite of how brief a time they’ve known each other and all the crap that they are forced to wade through. You want them to find their HEA, even though Devon is frequently too boneheaded to let Jenny in.

His sister Lettie blames that on a combination of white-knight syndrome and testosterone poisoning, with an emphasis on the testosterone poisoning. She is often the person pushing them together, and definitely the one pushing Devon to reveal all before it’s too late.

Lettie really deserves her own happy ending. She’s earned it. And I hope the series extends long enough for her to get one. But wrap Shelter My Love and it’s story up in a very pretty, neatly tied bow. In spite of the long arm of coincidence, and the octopus tentacles of family greed and corporate shenanigans, this one is like dark chocolate, yummy and gooey with just that touch of bitter to make the sweet really pop!

Review: Sisters Like Us by Susan Mallery

Review: Sisters Like Us by Susan MallerySisters Like Us (Mischief Bay, #4) by Susan Mallery
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, women's fiction
Series: Mischief Bay #4
Pages: 432
Published by Mira Books on January 23rd 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The grass is always greener on your sister’s side of the fence…

Divorce left Harper Szymanski with a name no one can spell, a house she can’t afford and a teenage daughter who’s pulling away. With her fledgeling virtual-assistant business, she’s scrambling to maintain her overbearing mother’s ridiculous Susie Homemaker standards and still pay the bills, thanks to clients like Lucas, the annoying playboy cop who claims he hangs around for Harper’s fresh-baked cookies.

Spending half her life in school hasn’t prepared Dr. Stacey Bloom for her most daunting challenge—motherhood. She didn’t inherit the nurturing gene like Harper and is in deep denial that a baby is coming. Worse, her mother will be horrified to learn that Stacey’s husband plans to be a stay-at-home dad…assuming Stacey can first find the courage to tell Mom she’s already six months pregnant.

Separately they may be a mess, but together Harper and Stacey can survive anything—their indomitable mother, overwhelming maternity stores and ex’s weddings. Sisters Like Us is a delightful look at sisters, mothers and daughters in today’s fast-paced world, told with Susan Mallery’s trademark warmth and humor.

My Review:

This story is quintessentially women’s fiction. The story revolves around the women of the Bloom family; sisters Harper and Stacey, Harper’s daughter Becca, Stacey’s soon-to-be-born daughter Joule, and their mother Bunny. Definitely their mother Bunny. OMG Bunny.

The men in this story revolve around the women. One of the men definitely believes that he’s a planetary body in his own right, and that some of the Bloom women are his satellites, but he is so, so wrong.

This one is all about the relationships between the women, especially the relationship between the sisters in the title, Harper and Stacey.

Harper and Stacey are in their late-30s, and they are certainly opposites. But then, they always have been. Harper became the perfect Ms. Susie Homemaker, just as their mother Bunny wanted. But Harper can’t please her hypercritical mother, no matter how much she overdoes.

And it’s overdoing that she no longer has time for. Harper’s marriage failed, leaving her to raise her daughter Becca mostly alone. With no training for any regular job, Harper has turned her super-organized, super-crafty, super-creative energies into her own Virtual Assistant company – but it isn’t quite working. She needs a not-so-virtual assistant of her own to manage her over-scheduled time and keep her from undercutting her own worth.

She already has her mother for that.

Stacey, on the other hand, is happily married, six months pregnant, and scared to death to tell her mother. If Bunny has been hypercritical of Harper’s perfect Ms. Susie Homemaker personality, she has been even more censorious of Stacey’s success as a molecular biologist. As far as Bunny is concerned, there is something wrong with Stacey and her laser-focus on her career. Actually, as far as Bunny is concerned, Stacey is just not normal and she’s not shy about letting Stacey know that at every opportunity.

But Stacey and Harper have always supported each other, possibly as a result of being united against the common enemy – their mother.

As this story unfolds, they both need all the help they can get. Stacey, faces her impending motherhood absolutely certain that she will be unable to bond with her child. Harper faces Becca’s junior year in high school feeling that she’s lost touch with her daughter, and feeling that she is a failure in her business, her life, and her relationship with her daughter.

Standing together, just like they always have, helps them both find a way forward. With just a little help from their friends.

Escape Rating B: I absolutely adored Stacey. I completely understood her focus on her career, her fascination with her work, and her extreme social awkwardness. She was a character I could really relate to.

At the same time, while Harper’s Ms. Susie Homemaker shtick would drive me crazy, her courage at starting her own business and the way that the desire to please that had been ingrained in her (by her mother) kept holding her back, also felt very familiar.

And I totally envied Stacey her close relationship with her grandfather the astronaut, and how that relationship didn’t just change but absolutely made her life. (I have a thing about the space program)

Even Becca’s trials and tribulations felt real and familiar, even though it has been a very long time since I was a teenager.

This is, of course, leading up to a great big BUT. I hated Bunny. She set up both of her daughters for failure, and continued to reinforce those feelings of failure at every turn. Whenever she appeared in the story I wanted to cringe. The terrible mother seems to be a stock character in women’s fiction, and it’s not a stock character I ever enjoy seeing.

(Yes, Bunny reminds me of my own mother, and right now I have enough unresolved feelings in that direction to fill my own book. Seeing those feelings reflected in fiction was a bit cathartic, but also quite annoying the longer it went on. Your reading mileage may vary.)

Harper and Stacey’s stories, while complicated by Bunny, also do a marvelous job of showing a range of women’s choices and how they can go both right and wrong. But mostly right. Stacey’s husband Kit in particular is a real gem of a husband and a great character. As is Harper’s business partner Dean.

Harper’s ex-husband is more than a bit of a tool, not surprising. But so is Lucas, the man she finally falls for. The difference is that Lucas gets better – even if he doesn’t grovel nearly enough. Still I liked the way that their romance does not become the focus of the story, and that Lucas forges a friendship with Becca separate from whatever relationship he does or does not have with Harper.

In the end, a good time was had by all, and I liked both Harper and Stacey and really enjoyed seeing them both figure out their lives.

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Review: Now That You Mention It by Kristan Higgins + Giveaway

Review: Now That You Mention It by Kristan Higgins + GiveawayNow That You Mention It by Kristan Higgins
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, women's fiction
Pages: 384
Published by Harlequin Books on December 26th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

One step forward. Two steps back. The Tufts scholarship that put Nora Stuart on the path to becoming a Boston medical specialist was a step forward. Being hit by a car and then overhearing her boyfriend hit on another doctor when she thought she was dying? Two major steps back.

Injured in more ways than one, Nora feels her carefully built life cracking at the edges. There's only one place to land: home. But the tiny Maine community she left fifteen years ago doesn't necessarily want her. At every turn, someone holds the prodigal daughter of Scupper Island responsible for small-town drama and big-time disappointments.

With a tough islander mother who's always been distant and a wild-child sister in jail, unable to raise her daughter--a withdrawn teen as eager to ditch the island as Nora once was--Nora has her work cut out for her if she's going to take what might be her last chance to mend the family.

But as some relationships crumble around her, others unexpectedly strengthen. Balancing loss and opportunity, a dark event from her past with hope for the future, Nora will discover that tackling old pain makes room for promise...and the chance to begin again.

My Review:

Robert Frost said that “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” He said nothing about them having to like it. Or you.

Nora Stuart feels like she has to return home, to tiny Scupper Island, to see if she can get her life back on track after an accident. And a wake up call.

Nora’s life has been gray for a while now. She’s been going through the motions after something she refers to cryptically as the “Big Bad Event”. She figures that she’ll snap out of it eventually, and go back to being bright, sparkling, electric Nora, who escaped her tiny island home, her broken family, and her history as the high school “troll” to become a successful doctor.

But when the Beantown Bug Killers van mows her down and nearly kills her outside the hospital, it’s kind of a cosmic kick in the pants. As is waking up in recovery to see her boyfriend telling her nurse that he was planning to break up with her but now can’t as she’ll need help after her accident.

Nora decides she doesn’t need his help THAT bad. She can always go home to her mother on Scupper Island, and face all the demons she left behind. And while that might seem a bit melodramatic, the fact is that in high school, the other students pretty much were demons in the way they tormented fat, lonely, miserable Nora.

Going back will give her the chance to mend fences with her extremely capable but emotionally distant mother, reconnect with the niece that she has been ruthlessly pushed away from, and hopefully discover what really happened the day her father left the island and his family forever, and seemingly took all the bright happiness of her childhood with him.

But Nora left Scupper Island 17 years ago with the town scholarship to Tufts University, and no one seems to have forgotten that Nora “stole” the scholarship that should have gone to the town’s golden boy, That scholarship was given to the high school senior with the highest GPA, and Nora won fair and square. Not that anyone believes that, not even Nora.

Even though small towns have long memories, Nora discovers that some things (and people) have changed. A lot. And some not at all.

The question is whether Nora has changed enough to let herself be, not the miserable child she was, nor the bright, sparkly person she chose to be, but the person she really is. And to discover the best life to make that person, her real self, happy.

Escape Rating A-: Kristan Higgins writes quintessential “women’s fiction”, and as much as I hate the term, I love her storytelling.

The story of Now That You Mention It is all about Nora and her relationships with the women in her life; her unapproachable mother, her lost sister, and her disaffected niece, but it’s also about Nora’s relationship with the person she used to be. Part of her journey is for Boston-Nora-the-Doctor to make peace with Scupper-Island-Nora, formerly known as the troll. And it’s not going to be easy for those two people to meet in the mushy middle and make up Nora-who-is-just-Nora.

There is a romance as part of Nora’s journey, but it’s not the focus of the story. The focus is on Nora making peace with her own past and taking charge of her own present.

Her past has a lot of crap in it that needs to be uncovered and worked through. Nora’s memories of life on Scupper Island after her father left are as painful to read as they would have been to experience. In the wake of that unresolved tragedy, Nora threw herself into academic overachievement and self-comforting overeating, while her sister turned into a bitchy member of the in-crowd of Nora’s tormentors and her mother just kept things together as best as she could.

Now it’s up to Nora and her mother to make some kind of peace, and for the town to make its peace with Nora. And for her to do for her niece what she was never able to do for her sister, and to find out why.

In the end, this is the story of a healing journey for those who can be healed, like Nora and her mother Sharon and niece Poe. It’s also about the acceptance of the things that can’t be changed. Like the past. And her sister.

Nora’s memories of her past on the island make for hard reading. Anyone who remembers being bullied at school may also find them triggering, and I’ll confess I skipped a bit through those parts. But they add depth and poignancy to Nora’s difficult but ultimately rewarding journey.

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

I’m giving away a copy of Now That You Mention It to one lucky (US/CAN) commenter.

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Review: The Paris Secret by Karen Swan

Review: The Paris Secret by Karen SwanThe Paris Secret by Karen Swan
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, historical fiction, women's fiction, World War II
Pages: 416
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on November 14th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Somewhere along the cobbled streets of Paris, an apartment lies thick with dust and secrets: full of priceless artworks hidden away for decades.

High-flying Fine Art Agent Flora from London, more comfortable with the tension of a million-pound auction than a cosy candlelit dinner for two, is called in to asses these suddenly discovered treasures. As an expert in her field, she must trace the history of each painting and just who has concealed them for so long.

Thrown in amongst the glamorous Vermeil family as they move between Paris and Antibes, Flora begins to discover that things aren't all that they seem, while back at home her own family is recoiling from a seismic shock. The terse and brooding Xavier Vermeil seems intent on forcing Flora out of his family's affairs - but just what is he hiding?

My Review:

This is not the first book to fictionalize the history of the very real Parisian Time Capsule apartment, or even the first book using this apartment that I have read. That would be Paris Time Capsule by Ella Carey – and the fictionalization of its history hews a bit closer to the actual history than does The Paris Secret.

But in spite of the similarity of their origins, the stories are completely different. And also a bit the same, but not so much the same that The Paris Secret does not stand on its own – because it does.

The real Paris Time Capsule apartment

In this version, the “lost” apartment belongs to the wealthy and philanthropic Vermeil family, and they are as surprised as anyone else when their lawyer informs them that someone has broken into this apartment that they never knew they owned. It’s even more surprising that the apartment turns out to be a virtual treasure-trove of modernist art, including paintings and sketches by Renoir, Picasso and others. These art treasures have not seen the light of day since the apartment was closed up during the dark days of the Nazis occupation of Paris during WW2.

Our heroine, Flora Sykes, is the art history expert who is tasked with cataloging the vast collection and researching its provenance for the Vermeil family. But her involvement with the family gets off to a rocky start, and stays rocky throughout the book. Sometimes because of the family, but mostly because of what Flora discovers about them.

Their present is gossip-worthy enough on its own. The two adult children of the family, Xavier and Natascha. They are at the top of every gossip site – their exploits and tantrums are legendary. And something about Flora seems to rub both of them absolutely the wrong way, to the point where they both act out every time they are around her.

But it’s the past of the family that Flora uncovers, and that is where history comes in. In order to sell the treasure trove, or even to donate it to museums, Flora must determine its provenance, in other words just how all those paintings came to be in that apartment in the first place.

That search takes her back to the war, and unearths a terrible secret that everyone wishes had never come to light. But once it does, there is no going back. Only forwards. Because the whole truth has been buried under layer after layer of lies and deceits, and it is past time for everything to finally be revealed.

Not in black or white, but in terrible shades of gray.

Escape Rating B: It was fascinating to read a book that used the exact same premise as something I’d already read, and see where this author used the inspiration in an entirely different way.

Paris Time Capsule focused more on uncovering the history. The Paris Secret revolves around the art. History gets uncovered, but it uses the art as a focus in a way that made the two stories very different.

The Paris Secret also illuminates one of the murkier (and often nastier) facets of the Nazi occupation of Paris. The ownership of the paintings traces back to an art dealer who was reviled for his cooperation with the Nazis. He was instrumental in the forcing of many Jewish families to sell their precious collections at gunpoint for bargain-basement prices in the families’ belief that they were buying freedom for themselves – when all they received was betrayal while the dealer made a fortune.

The betrayal was even more heinous because the dealer himself was a Jew. If he hadn’t died in 1942, after the war he would certainly have been tried as a collaborateur and ultimately convicted.

But of course this is not the whole story, and the revelation of all the truths involved adds depth to the contemporary parts of the book. Not that there are not plenty of revelations there as well.

Because the more that Flora interacts with the family, the more she sees beneath the surface. The tragic events in Natascha’s own past have bearing both on her present and on the current real-life revelations of the sexual misconduct of prominent figures in the entertainment world today. That resonance is more profound than might even have been intended at the time this book was first published over a year ago in Britain.

Layered on top of the history and the present-day traumas there is a romance between Flora and the Vermeil’s adult son and all-around bad boy, Xavier Vermeil. For this reader, the romance fell just a bit flat, as did Flora’s own family drama. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

There is at least one other book that revolves around the discovery of the real-life apartment, appropriately titled A Paris Apartment by Michelle Gable. And it looks worth checking out too. The story of the lost apartment is just so fascinating that more interpretations seem irresistible!

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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 ~~~~~~

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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.