Review: The Lady Travelers Guide to Larceny with a Dashing Stranger by Victoria Alexander

Review: The Lady Travelers Guide to Larceny with a Dashing Stranger by Victoria AlexanderThe Lady Travelers Guide to Larceny with a Dashing Stranger (The Lady Travelers Society, #2) by Victoria Alexander
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical romance
Series: Lady Travelers Society #2
Pages: 544
Published by Hqn on November 28th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Join the Lady Travelers Society in their latest romantic misadventure, from #1 New York Times bestselling author Victoria Alexander


She must secure her future

A lady should never be obliged to think of matters financial! But when Lady Wilhelmina Bascombe’s carefree, extravagant lifestyle vanishes with the demise of her husband, her only hope lies in retrieving a family treasure—a Renaissance masterpiece currently in the hands of a cunning art collector in Venice. Thankfully, the Lady Travelers Society has orchestrated a clever plan to get Willie to Europe, leading a tour of mothers and daughters…and one curiously attentive man.


He must reclaim his heritage

Dante Augustus Montague’s one passion has long been his family’s art collection. He’s finally tracked a long-lost painting to the enchanting Lady Bascombe. Convinced that the canvas had been stolen, he will use any means to reclaim his birthright—including deception. But how long before pretend infatuation gives way to genuine desire?


Now they’re rivals for a prize that will change everything

Willie and Dante know they’re playing with fire in the magical moonlit city. Their common quest could compromise them both…or lead them to happily-ever-after.

My Review: 

This Lady Travelers Guide is a fitting successor to the first book in this delightful series, The Lady Travelers Guide to Scoundrels and Other Gentlemen, even though both the hero and the heroine are opposites from those in the first book.

Unlike India Prendergast, Lady Wilhelmina Bascombe is quite likeable, and more than a bit uncertain of herself. Which does not stop her from being absolutely determined to find a way to rescue her fortunes without resorting to marrying for money.

As a widow, Willie has a bit of latitude in her behavior. As the widow of a young man who seems to have had zero funds but was determined to have oodles of fun, Willie has few means at her disposal, particularly after she paid off her late husband’s many (many) debts.

She may have eloped with George in a cloud of scandal, but she’s discovered over the two years since his death that she doesn’t miss him very much. And she’s outgrown the constant thrill-seeking that used to be their existence. But she does miss all the friends she thought she had.

And where Derek Saunders certainly had lived up to being the “scoundrel” of the title in that first book, Dante Montague has become a bit too staid and respectable for his sister Rosalind’s comfort. Not that respectability isn’t a good thing, but it seems as if Dante has lost the spirit of fun that he used to have, between managing his investments and managing the down-at-heels art museum he inherited.

But Willie and Dante have something in common, something that is going to bring them together, and very nearly tear them apart.

Once upon a time, Dante’s grandfather owned a beautiful triptych of paintings by one of Titian’s students. And dear grandfather either gave the center painting in the set to Willie’s grandmother – or Willie’s grandmother stole it.

Willie’s late and less-and-less lamented husband pawned it to an Italian collector. She plans to go to Venice to pay back the loan and redeem her painting, so that she can sell it for enough to provide her with financial independence.

But Willie is pretty much flat broke, and the only way she can manage the trip to Venice is to take over as tour host for one of the tours arranged by her godmother’s little enterprise, the Lady Travelers Society.

Dante wants to take back what he believes is “his” painting, and the only way he can do that is to follow Willie to Venice. He contacts the brilliantly idiotic scheme to accompany his sister and her daughter on the Lady Travelers Society tour.

And that’s where everything goes terribly right and horribly wrong, all at the same time. Even before they are forced to flee Venice one step ahead of the polizia.

Escape Rating B+: As Dante discovers, it is impossible not to like Willie Bascombe. Her life was completely overthrown, but she is determined to make the best of the situation that she admits she stuck herself in. George was charming, but neither steady nor trustworthy. Sooner or later, they would have come to financial grief, with or without his death.

Willie is independent, whether she wants to be or not, and she is determined to make the most of it. Not by remarrying for money, but by finding a way to achieve independence on her own. She’s having a difficult time of it, and she’s finding out she has more inner strength and resources than she ever imagined. And that independence can be very, very hard.

One of the lovely bits of this story is the way that the women on Willie’s tour band together and develop a true and sincere friendship, in spite of their many differences. That they all end up first fostering Willie’s relationship with Dante and then uniting against the common enemy is a terrific testimonial to the power of real friendship.

Dante is used to being in control. His investments are successful because he does his research and controls his emotions. While he may have done his research on Willie, he is never, ever in charge of his emotions. Part of what makes the story so much fun is the way that Dante’s sister Rosalind manages to burst his bubble at every turn. She’s his older sister, he’s being a complete idiot, and she relishes calling him on it, while still making it clear that she loves him in his idiocy, even though she refuses to save him from the folly of his own actions.

This is my second book in a row to feature Paris as a setting. In this case, a big chunk of the tour is set in Paris during the time of the 1889 World’s Fair, when the Eiffel Tower was new and a marvel of the world. The descriptions of Paris in general and the Tower in particular are lyrical and moving. It’s astonishing to think that the icon of Paris was originally intended to be a temporary structure.

At the end, this story surprisingly reminded me of the famous short story, The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry. Each tries to give the other something that they once wanted desperately but no longer need. The little bit of mystery at the end is the icing on a very fine cake.

There’s one more book in this series at least so far. The Lady Travelers Guide to Deception with an Unlikely Earl will be published next May. And it looks like another treat!

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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
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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: Close Contact by Lori Foster + Giveaway

Review: Close Contact by Lori Foster + GiveawayClose Contact (Body Armor, #3) by Lori Foster
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance
Series: Body Armor #3
Published by Harlequin Books on November 28th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

There’s no resisting a desire like this…

MMA fighter Miles Dartman’s casual arrangement with personal shopper Maxi Nevar would be many men’s fantasy. She seeks him out, they have mindblowing sex, she leaves. Rinse, repeat. Yet lately, Miles wants more. And when Maxi requests his services via the Body Armor security agency, he’s ready to finally break through her defenses—and protect her day and night.

Receiving a large inheritance has brought chaos and uncertainty into Maxi’s life. Her ex has resurfaced, along with lots of former “friends,” and someone is making mysterious threats. Then there’s Miles, who doesn’t ask for anything…except her trust. Pleasure is easy. Now Maxi has to give her heart as well as her body…or risk losing a man who could be everything she needs.

My Review: 

The Body Armor Agency needs a new motto. Perhaps something on the order of “We’ll protect your body, and we’ll steal your heart.” Because this series, so far, is all wrapped in the trope of the bodyguard and his protectee falling for each other while dodging whatever is after her.

The start of Close Contact is a bit different from the other books, because MMA fighter turned bodyguard Miles Dartmann and personal shopper Maxi Nevar already know each other, in the Biblical sense, before the book begins.

That Maxi is the one who cut and run from their no-strings-attached fling still bothers Miles. A lot. And not just because he’s usually the one who leaves. It felt like they were really starting to get somewhere, and not just between the sheets, when Maxi disappeared without a trace.

But when she wakes up in the middle of the night, out in the middle of the field next to the house she inherited from her grandmother, with no recollection of how she got there, she remembers that Miles was about to start his new job as a bodyguard when they hooked up.

Because Maxi needs a bodyguard. She’s not sure who she needs guarding from, or even why, but someone keeps messing with her, her house, her stuff, and her life. At first, she chalked up the tiny incidents as misremembering or accidents, but waking up by the pond could only have happened the way it did if someone put her there.

The question is why. And for answers, she turns to Miles, his boss Sahara Silver, and Body Armor.

At first, only Sahara believes Maxi. Miles, still stinging a bit from Maxi’s rejection, is certain that there’s another jilted lover in there someplace who decided to get some payback. It’s not until he comes out to Maxi’s rather remote little farmhouse and witnesses things for himself that he finally gets on board.

And just as he does, the incidents ramp up. Whatever is happening is escalating, and Maxi still doesn’t know why.

It could have to do with her inheritance of the farmhouse and her grandmother’s surprisingly large assets. After all, her brother and sister both believe that they should have gotten a bigger share, and that Maxi should sell the property and just give it to them.

It could be her cheating ex-fiance, who suddenly seems to want her back now that she’s come into her inheritance, and won’t take no for an answer.

It could be the local law enforcement officer who seems to be waiting for Maxi to fall into his arms. A plan that is definitely thwarted by Miles’ presence in Maxi’s life – and eventually her bed.
But the longer that Miles spends with Maxi, the more of the potential suspects he is able to eliminate. And the closer that he gets to the woman who has staked out a place in his heart.

The hotter their romance gets, the more the suspense ratchets up. When the villain is finally revealed, it’s a surprise to everyone involved. Very nearly a deadly one.

Escape Rating A-: Close Contact is every bit as much fun as Hard Justice, the previous book in the series. And I absolutely loved that one.

One of the things I enjoyed about Close Contact was definitely Maxi. And not just because she feels not merely duty-bound, but actually enjoys taking care of all of her grandmother’s many, many (many) cats.

Don’t worry, she’s not a hoarder. The cats live outside, and mostly in the barn. But her grandmother loved them and Maxi cares for them – especially after one of them sticks by her the night she wakes up by the pond.

But what I really liked about Maxi was the way that she takes her life by the horns and learns to stand up for herself. She’s always felt like a bit of a failure, because she isn’t as ambitious and hard-driving as her siblings. But even though she’s used to jumping when they say jump, she still doesn’t give in or change what she believes is right, although she tries to keep the peace between them. It’s interesting watching that dynamic change over the course of the story.

Also, Maxi is right, at least about who isn’t her tormentor. Miles wants to suspect both her siblings and her ex, and they do all have reasons that foster that suspicion. But Maxi knows it isn’t them. I’m also glad it isn’t the ex, because that trope has been done to death.

And something else that was really well done was the forthright way that Miles dealt with the end of his MMA career and the reasons for that ending. I wish that the real-life NFL was half so honest about the risks of concussions and CTE.

The suspense part of this story ratchets up nicely. Or chillingly. It’s done well. The perpetrator is the person everyone least suspects, and the reasons for the whole mess are utterly tragic but at least began from a place that is easy to empathize with, even if the current results are well beyond the pale.

The romance in Close Contact is a bit fast, but it makes sense in context. They were already on their way to falling for each other when Maxi disappeared, so it makes sense that once they are forced into each other’s company, things eventually pick up where they left off. And it is right that they do.

If you like bodyguard romances, the Body Armor series is a winner. And you don’t have to read them all to get into them, but they’re fun, so why not?

We also get a chance to see hints of the next book in the series. It looks like Body Armor owner Sahara Silver may have finally met her match. And I can’t wait to read all about it in Fast Burn.

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

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Review: Hiddensee by Gregory Maguire

Review: Hiddensee by Gregory MaguireHiddensee: A Tale of the Once and Future Nutcracker by Gregory Maguire
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fairy tales, fantasy, historical fiction, mythology
Pages: 304
Published by William Morrow on October 31st 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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From the author of the beloved #1 New York Times bestseller Wicked, the magical story of a toymaker, a nutcracker, and a legend remade . . .

Gregory Maguire returns with an inventive novel inspired by a timeless holiday legend, intertwining the story of the famous Nutcracker with the life of the mysterious toy maker named Drosselmeier who carves him.

Hiddensee: An island of white sandy beaches, salt marshes, steep cliffs, and pine forests north of Berlin in the Baltic Sea, an island that is an enchanting bohemian retreat and home to a large artists' colony—a wellspring of inspiration for the Romantic imagination . . .

Having brought his legions of devoted readers to Oz in Wicked and to Wonderland in After Alice, Maguire now takes us to the realms of the Brothers Grimm and E. T. A. Hoffmann—the enchanted Black Forest of Bavaria and the salons of Munich. Hiddensee imagines the backstory of the Nutcracker, revealing how this entrancing creature came to be carved and how he guided an ailing girl named Klara through a dreamy paradise on a Christmas Eve. At the heart of Hoffmann's mysterious tale hovers Godfather Drosselmeier—the ominous, canny, one-eyed toy maker made immortal by Petipa and Tchaikovsky's fairy tale ballet—who presents the once and future Nutcracker to Klara, his goddaughter.

But Hiddensee is not just a retelling of a classic story. Maguire discovers in the flowering of German Romanticism ties to Hellenic mystery-cults—a fascination with death and the afterlife—and ponders a profound question: How can a person who is abused by life, shortchanged and challenged, nevertheless access secrets that benefit the disadvantaged and powerless? Ultimately, Hiddensee offers a message of hope. If the compromised Godfather Drosselmeier can bring an enchanted Nutcracker to a young girl in distress on a dark winter evening, perhaps everyone, however lonely or marginalized, has something precious to share.

My Review:

Hiddensee is about the creation of a myth. Or perhaps it’s a myth itself, and just includes the creation of an entirely different myth.

And it’s a story wrapped around a fairy tale. It begins with the Brothers’ Grimm, off in the distance, collecting folktales for future sanitization into fairy tales. It ends with a fairy tale, the story of the Nutcracker and the Mouse King, just in time for this Christmas season.

But mostly Hiddensee is the story of a boy, who begins as a foundling in the midst of a folktale, and who drifts through his long life to become the toymaker who makes the Nutcracker, and gives it to his goddaughter.

Dirk, who is initially just Dirk and not even Dirk Drosselmeyer, spends his early years in a remote woodcutter’s cabin in the Bavarian forest, raised by an “old man” and an “old woman” who he knows are not his parents.

It’s a simple life that comes to an abrupt end, when it is time for the old man to teach the boy the job of woodcutting. Or so it seems. It is possible that either the boy killed the old man by accident, or the old man killed the boy on purpose. But either way, someone was supposed to end up dead.

Instead, young Dirk begins his travels with an adventure. On his way to the nearest village he finds himself caught up in the story of the “Little Lost Forest”, forced to choose between order and chaos, between life as a hermit or life among people, and between the mythological figures of Pan and the Pythia. It’s a decision that colors his entire life – even if he spends most of it never really making a choice of his own.

Until the Christmas night, late in his long and often passive life, when he gives his dying goddaughter the gift of the original Nutcracker. The old toy contains a piece of Pan’s knife – a tiny bit of magic and the start of his own adventures, so long ago.

In the magic of Christmas, or perhaps the magic of the Nutcracker, or even a little bit of both, young Clara witnesses the great battle between the Nutcracker and the Mouse King – and her life is saved.

Escape Rating C+: I have a ton of mixed feelings about this story. The Nutcracker, of course, is a holiday classic. But I have to confess that I am not as familiar with the story as I might be.

And I’ll also confess that I have never read Wicked, which may not have been the author’s first book, but which is certainly the book that made his reputation for taking stories that everyone knows and giving readers a look behind the curtain to see what happened before the story. Or after it. Or while the more familiar story is going on elsewhere.

Hiddensee certainly fits in that tradition. And readers who either love the story of The Nutcracker, or who are fans of this author’s work, will probably eat this one up with a spoon.

As a story on its own, Hiddensee didn’t quite gel for this reader. Dirk may be the protagonist of the book, but he is a character who has little to no agency in his own life. He doesn’t act. He doesn’t move the action forward. He drifts, and things happen to him and around him. He reacts, and sometimes he doesn’t react very much. Certainly never very forcefully.

But, as little as Dirk takes any control of his own story, the story of what happened to him definitely pulled me along. Each individual chapter felt like a tiny story of its own, and I felt compelled to read from one to the next in spite of the passivity of the hero of the story.

However, I got to the end and wondered if there shouldn’t have been more. The Nutcracker tale itself, while it is the crescendo to the entire tale, also felt a bit tacked on. It’s not Dirk’s story at this point, it’s Clara’s. And there is a certain sense that it was all a dream. Or that it all happened in a dream.

It’s not quite real, which seems true for much of Dirk’s life.

There were so many fascinating ideas that were briefly touched on within the confines of this story. I’d love to have seen more about the Little Lost Forest and the Pan and the Pythia. It felt like there was a terrific myth in there that always hovered just out of reach. Just as it was for Dirk during his life.

Perhaps that was the point. Hiddensee is a haunting tale, but I just expected more.

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Review: Christmastime Cowboy by Maisey Yates + Giveaway

Review: Christmastime Cowboy by Maisey Yates + GiveawayChristmastime Cowboy (Copper Ridge, #10) by Maisey Yates
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, western romance
Series: Copper Ridge #10
Pages: 384
Published by Harlequin Books on October 24th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

It's Christmas in Copper Ridge, and love is waiting to be unwrapped…

Falling for a bad boy once is forgivable. Twice would just be foolish. When Sabrina Leighton first offered her teenage innocence to gorgeous, tattooed Liam Donnelly, he humiliated her, then left town. The hurt still lingers. But so does that crazy spark. And if they have to work together to set up her family winery's new tasting room by Christmas, why not work him out of her system with a sizzling affair?

Thirteen years ago, Liam's boss at the winery offered him a bribe—leave his teenage daughter alone and get a full ride at college. Convinced he wasn't good enough for Sabrina, Liam took it. Now he's back, as wealthy as sin and with a heart as cold as the Oregon snow. Or so he keeps telling himself. Because the girl he vowed to stay away from has become the only woman he needs, and this Christmas could be just the beginning of a lifetime together…

My Review:

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, particularly in Copper Ridge, Oregon.

Falling for a bad boy once is not merely forgivable, but probably a rite of passage to adulthood. We all do it at least once, and usually learn that the wild ride isn’t worth the inevitable fall. Falling for one twice is a pattern. Falling for the same bad boy twice is usually well beyond foolish.

But not for Sabrina Leighton. In this second-chance-at-love romance, there are a whole ton of, let’s call them mitigating circumstances.

The first time she fell for Liam Donnelly, she was all of 17 and he was 20. There was a certain amount of young and stupid involved on both of their parts. And the fact is that while the emotions may have been very, very real, nothing actually happened outside of those emotions.

Thirteen years ago, the one real thing that they had was friendship – a friendship that Liam broke, along with Sabrina’s heart, when he left. Not without a word, but with a whole lot of words that have continued to haunt Sabrina all these years.

And most of those words weren’t even true. But the scars they left still hurt.

Now that Liam is back in Copper Ridge, as part of the Donnelly brothers return to town in the wake of their grandfather’s death (see Slow Burn Cowboy, Down Home Cowboy and Wild Ride Cowboy for the full story) Liam and Sabrina keep running into each other, whether Sabrina wants to or not. (You don’t have to read the entire Copper Ridge series for the Donnellys’ piece of it to make sense, but it probably helps to read this quartet)

Copper Ridge is a very small town.

That Sabrina and Liam have unfinished business is pretty obvious to pretty much everyone, even if not everyone knows all the gory details. So whether Sabrina’s boss (and ex-sister-in-law) Lindy sets Sabrina up to deal with her unfinished business, or whether that’s just a happy side-effect, Sabrina is stuck. It’s part of her job to work with Liam on setting up a tasting room in town that will feature wines from her winery and cheeses from his ranch – as well as trap a whole bunch of tourist dollars and funnel customers back to both their businesses.

It’s a great business idea – even though at least initially it feels like a really lousy personal one.

But the chemistry that Liam denied all those years ago, and that Sabrina wasn’t quite mature enough to understand, hasn’t abated one little bit in the intervening years. The only way that they can manage to work together is not to get past what happened in the past, but to go through it.

To hash out all the stored resentments, explore all that bottled chemistry, and attempt to get each other out of their systems.

Like that’s ever going to happen.

Escape Rating B: Christmastime Cowboy feels like the cherry on top of the Donnelly Brothers subseries of the Copper Ridge ice cream sundae.

Also a real “cherry”, as Sabrina has never managed to find a man who even gets close to turning her crank after Liam ran off all those years ago.

I love the way that this author does angsty heroines, but Sabrina’s angst didn’t quite have the deep, tolling bell ring of angst of the heroines of Down Home Cowboy and Wild Ride Cowboy. Not that Sabrina hasn’t been hurt, but her wounds seem a bit more self-inflicted that either Alison’s or Clara’s.

While the story loses a bit of depth in comparison with the others because of that, one of the good parts of Christmastime Cowboy is the way that Sabrina finally manages to figure that out for herself, with only a couple of glancing blows from the clue-by-four administered by Liam.

Not that he doesn’t have plenty of his own baggage to deal with. But his baggage was dropped on him by his dysfunctional parents. Not that he hasn’t added plenty of extra pieces along the way all by himself. But he needs multiple hits from that clue-by-four, not just administered by Sabrina, but also by his brother Alex, before he finally figures out what’s been staring him in the face all along.

So the story, as it has often been in this series, is one where the hero is just certain that he hasn’t got a heart, or if it’s still in there it’s three sizes too small and that he’s just not worthy of giving it to anyone else. Ever.

The heroine, on that other hand, figures out how to dump enough of her own baggage to start a real life for herself, one that she’d much prefer to have with the hero, but that she knows she can manage to make on her own once her stomped on heart finally heals.

As formulas go, this one is always a winner.

Christmastime Cowboy is the final book in the Copper Ridge series. But the romance is just moving a bit down the road to neighboring Gold Valley in Smooth-Talking Cowboy. No one needs to smooth-talk this reader to jump back to this author’s next series. All of this author’s next series!

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

I am giving away a copy of Christmastime Cowboy to one lucky US/CAN commenter:

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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
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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
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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: Last Christmas in Paris by Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb

Review: Last Christmas in Paris by Hazel Gaynor and Heather WebbLast Christmas in Paris: A Novel of World War I by Heather Webb, Hazel Gaynor
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical romance
Pages: 400
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on October 3rd 2017
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New York Times bestselling author Hazel Gaynor has joined with Heather Webb to create this unforgettably romantic novel of the Great War.

August 1914. England is at war. As Evie Elliott watches her brother, Will, and his best friend, Thomas Harding, depart for the front, she believes—as everyone does—that it will be over by Christmas, when the trio plan to celebrate the holiday among the romantic cafes of Paris.

But as history tells us, it all happened so differently…

Evie and Thomas experience a very different war. Frustrated by life as a privileged young lady, Evie longs to play a greater part in the conflict—but how?—and as Thomas struggles with the unimaginable realities of war he also faces personal battles back home where War Office regulations on press reporting cause trouble at his father’s newspaper business. Through their letters, Evie and Thomas share their greatest hopes and fears—and grow ever fonder from afar. Can love flourish amid the horror of the First World War, or will fate intervene?

Christmas 1968. With failing health, Thomas returns to Paris—a cherished packet of letters in hand—determined to lay to rest the ghosts of his past. But one final letter is waiting for him…

My Review:

Last Christmas in Paris is a bittersweet tale of World War I. Much of that bittersweet flavor is in the title. It’s not so much last Christmas in Paris, as in we spent last Christmas in Paris, although the protagonists certainly did, as it is, this is our last and final Christmas in Paris, because we shall not pass this way again.

The heart of the story is correspondence. Most of the story is told through letters, and occasionally telegrams, between Tom Harding and Evie Elliott, with occasional letters between Evie and her best friend Alice, Evie and her brother Will, and Tom and his father, and eventually between Tom and his father’s business manager.

What we see through their four years of letters is that life changes people, and that life in war changes people all that much more.

At the beginning, in those glorious and naive first months of World War I, Tom and Will volunteer to go off to war. Everyone thinks it will be over by Christmas. Christmas of 1914, not Christmas of 1918 as it nearly turned out to be.

Evie, Will’s younger sister, is stuck at home in the gilded cage that was wrapped around all young women of the upper classes prior to the war. She wants to volunteer, to do something for the war effort, and she is old enough to do so. But her parents won’t LET her, and at the beginning, that means everything.

So she stays home, badly knits gloves and socks, and begins her correspondence with her brother and with Tom, who has been a friend to them since childhood.

Will is an indifferent correspondent at best, but Tom certainly is not. Evie has plans of becoming a writer, and Tom had begun studying English literature at Oxford, with plans of becoming an Oxford don. His father wants him to buckle down and take over the family newspaper, the London Daily News.

But all hopes and dreams and plans are set cock-eyed by the war as it drags on, and on, and on. And eventually drags Will Elliott into its maw, spitting out his bullet-riddled corpse.

Tom and Evie go on. Their letters become each other’s lights in very dark places, as they pour out their minds, hearts and souls to each other over the months and the miles. They tell each other everything, except that somewhere amid the ink and the paper, they have fallen in love with each other – if not long before.

But as peace finally begins to fill the horizon, all the decisions that have been delayed by the war must finally be reckoned with. And all the secrets that have been hidden come to light.

Escape Rating A: Last Christmas in Paris is a beautiful story from beginning to end. It is also ultimately a sad story, but appropriately so.

Epistolary novels such as this one are difficult to write. There is no omniscient third person who sees all and has the ability to tell all. Even if they don’t always do so. In a novel that consists nearly entirely of letters, we see events as they happen, but only what the writer chooses to tell the intended recipient. If they don’t put their thoughts on paper, we don’t know what they are – unless they put them on paper to someone else.

So we know how Evie feels, not because she tells Tom, but because she tells her best friend Alice. And we can only guess about Tom’s feelings, because he is so very careful not to tell Evie what is in his heart. But what he does tell her is heartbreaking, because Tom tells Evie as much as the censors will allow about the true state of his war. And it’s hell.

So much hell that he is eventually hospitalized for what was termed “shell shock”. Amazingly, he recovers, as much as anyone could, and returns to the front. We now know “shell shock” as PTSD, but that in his time it was considered a “weakness of moral fiber” is enough to make the reader weep.

We also see what many considered the breakdown of the social order from Evie’s perspective. At the beginning, her life is completely restricted by her parents. But as the war goes on, Evie escapes from those restrictions, first by volunteering as a postal worker, then by writing a controversial newspaper column on women’s perspectives of the war, and finally by volunteering for the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps and going to France herself to serve as a telephone operator and secret war correspondent.

Between Tom at the Front and Evie on the Home Front, we see the horrors of war in all their destruction. And it’s brutal in one way or another no matter where they are.

But as I said in the beginning, this story is bittersweet. Not from the contents of the correspondence itself, but from the perspective of when the letters are being re-read. Bracketing each year of correspondence, we have a framing story. It is 1968, 50 years after the end of the war. Tom Harding has set himself the final task of re-reading the correspondence, and returning to Paris for Christmas, one last time. He is dying of cancer, and Evie is already gone.

We find out what happened to Evie as the letters progress. The reader experiences some of those letters with a certain amount of bated breath, as it is more than possible that they didn’t manage to have their happy ever after before it ended. There are so many points along the way where things nearly go smash, and we don’t discover until nearly the end what really happened.

The story is beautiful and quite absorbing. It’s a great book to read if you don’t think you have lots of time at a time, as one can read just a few letters and feel like one has absorbed so much. But I would sit down to read just a few letters and find myself coming up for air at the end of an entire year’s worth of correspondence. I could never resist reading “just one more”.

As much as I loved this book, I kept having the niggling feeling that I had read some of it before. It certainly reminds me Fall of Poppies, last year’s wonderful collection of World War I romances, two of which were written by the co-authors of Last Christmas in Paris. It also reminds me of bits of Jennifer Robson’s lovely World War I stories, as well as a bit of the side plot of one of the later Maisie Dobbs books.

If you love World War I stories, miss Downton Abbey, or just want to read something to commemorate the upcoming 99th anniversary of the end of the war, celebrated as Remembrance Day in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, and as Veterans Day in the United States, Last Christmas in Paris is a gem of a book.

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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
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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: Defending Hearts by Rebecca Crowley + Giveaway

Review: Defending Hearts by Rebecca Crowley + GiveawayDefending Hearts (Atlanta Skyline #2) by Rebecca Crowley
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: sports romance
Series: Atlanta Skyline #2
Pages: 236
Published by Kensington Publishing Corporation on September 19th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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When The Pitch Gets Personal

Atlanta Skyline's star Swedish wingback Oz Terim-or as the fans call him, the Wizard-has an airtight plan for his life, his career, even his meticulously renovated house, but he barely gives a thought to the Islamic faith he inherited from his Turkish parents. So no one's more surprised than he is when he's the victim of anti-Muslim hate crime. Refusing to take the threat seriously, he resists the security detail Skyline insists on . . . until he meets Kate Mitchell. There's no room for her in his plan and she's the exact opposite of what he wants. Then why can't he keep his hands off her?

After ten years in the military-and getting fired from her first post-Army job in Saudi Arabia-Kate Mitchell has slunk home to her Georgia roots. Private security isn't the career she dreamed of, nor is she thrilled to work with an uptight professional athlete who plays a sport she has no interest in. She never expected to be attracted to him-or for him to fall for her, too. As their opposite lives tangle up-and the threat against Oz grows more serious-Kate has to decide who she wants to be in life and in love.

"A well-crafted and very enjoyable sports romance that also delves into a timely subplot of the challenges faced by immigrants to America . . . Crossing Hearts delivers an exciting and passionate read." -allaboutromance.com

My Review:

I picked this one because I live in Atlanta. I always enjoy reading books about the place I live – or places I have lived. I still have a soft spot in my heart for books set in Alaska after three years there.

But this story isn’t really about the city, and the city doesn’t feature much in the story. Instead, this could any big city in the U.S. that is trying to get FIFA-level soccer established in the U.S. And there are lots of medium-to-large cities that could host a team.

The story in Defending Hearts is about more than soccer. Oz Terem could be a star player in any major league sport, and this story would still work. Because underlying the romance there’s a surprisingly in-depth story about irrational hatred and unthinking prejudice, and that’s the part that sticks with readers in the end.

Oz is not just the star player for the Atlanta Skyline. He’s also a practicing, admittedly somewhat loosely and extremely secular, Muslim who is seen visibly praying before each game. And some nutjob out there riding the current wave of Islamophobia has decided that Oz’ somewhat casual adherence to his faith means that he must be a terrorist or at least aiding and abetting terrorism.

When he’s really a soccer player who is otherwise doing a decent job of living his life and observing as much of his faith as he finds comfortable. While he may be of Turkish descent, he actually sees himself as Swedish, because that’s where he was born and raised.

But there’s someone targeting Oz with increasingly virulent threats on all of his social media accounts. The escalation has got his manager worried, enough so that the team decides to get security for Oz.

And that’s where our heroine, Kate Mitchell, comes in. Kate is ex-military, and is currently working for one of Atlanta’s frankly lesser lights in the personal security business. But she’s the agent available when a reluctant Oz and his manager come into the office, so she’s the agent they get.

Kate and Oz strike sparks off each other from the very beginning, even though neither is anything like the other’s type. Kate has a taste for big guys with bigger trucks, and Oz is working from his master plan – he’s not interested in anyone who isn’t wife material. Kate’s more of a Ms. Right Now type, and she’s trying her best not to keep settling for Mr. Right Now. Her track record with men mostly consists of disappointment.

Even though they may not fit each other’s ideas of what they thought they wanted – they are absolutely what each other needs. But as the threats to Oz escalate, and they turn towards each other, neither is certain whether the bond they are forging can survive either the resolution of the crisis or the vast differences between them.

And whether or not it should.

Escape Rating B: There’s something about Defending Hearts that gives it a bit of a “New Adult” feel, and it’s not just that Kate pops Oz’ cherry. While both protagonists are in their mid-to-late 20s, the decisions that they are making and their positions on their life plans (or lack thereof) give the story a New Adult vibe.

The romance also has elements of the “opposites attract” trope that really work. I would say that Kate is from the wrong side of the tracks, but I don’t think that Jasper, Georgia is big enough to even have tracks. It really does exist, and looks like it’s exactly the kind of small rural town that typifies Georgia in the popular mind outside of the big cities of Atlanta and Savannah.

Kate is also interesting because she’s not a typical romance heroine. Not just because of her military service, but because of the reasons behind it. She enlisted to get the hell out of tiny Jasper, got chewed up and spit out, and now that she’s back, she’s come to the realization that as much as she wanted to leave, and as much as her mom and her sister drive her crazy, they are her people and she loves them, and they love her, no matter what.

They need her, and not just because her contributions are what tides both of them over between men. And she needs them as well, even though she desperately wants to make sure she doesn’t fall into the same trap.

Oz on the other hand had a relatively privileged, upper middle class life in Sweden. Yes, he’s a rich diva because he’s a talented man at the top of a world-class sport, but even without soccer he comes from a far more educated and definitely privileged world. His parents are both professionals, and they were able to afford the coaching and training he needed to get him where he is at the time of the story. And unlike Kate, Oz didn’t merely graduate college, he graduated from Harvard, and that’s the rarified (at least from Kate’s perspective) atmosphere from which he draws his friends and his worldview.

Everyone indulges Oz, and he doesn’t even realize just how much they do. He needs Kate in his life because she doesn’t. She grounds him. And he gives her wings.

The crisis that throws them together, the anti-Muslim propaganda and hate-speech that escalates into stalking and violence, is integral to the story. It feels well-done and gives what might otherwise be a fluffy romance quite a bit of depth. And it’s instructive to see the male sports star, someone who is so obviously the good guy, as the victim of a hate crime. He has done nothing to bring any of this on himself. That the haters are so clearly the villains of this piece (and batshit crazy) may give at least a few readers some insights that might not have otherwise penetrated their bubble.

And that’s a good thing in any book, but especially in a good one.

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

I’m giving away a digital (ebook) copy of Defending Hearts to one lucky commenter on this tour.

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