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Posts Tagged ‘romance’

unlikelySure, some of you are headed back to school and work, and you have my sympathy. But others are headed out to the pool or back to the beach to savor what has been a summer for the books. There have been so many that I actually lost track of what I’ve reviewed. I wonder what I was doing in June that was so important that I forgot to write about Judy Blume’s  In the Unlikely Event (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley), a novel that thoughtfully explores the impact of a series of plane crashes on the townspeople of Elizabeth, N.J., in the winter of 1951-52. As usual, Blume’s writing is assured and accessible, her sympathetic characters flawed in familiar ways. The story is studded with period details: hats and gloves, wood-paneled rec rooms, cocktails and cigarettes. I quite liked it.

darkdarkMaybe I was distracted by a couple of thrillers I read back-to-back, S.J. Watson’s Second Life (HarperCollins, digital galley) and S.K. Tremayne’s The Ice Twins (Grand Central, digital galley). Watson’s follow-up to Before I Go to Sleep features a woman who goes on an online dating sight in attempt to solve the murder of her sister and becomes caught up in an erotic affair. I remember reviews commenting on the surprise ending. Didn’t surprise me. Neither did Tremayne’s implausible tale of a grieving mother on a remote island puzzled as to the true identity of her surviving twin daughter. For some eerie psychological suspense, I recommend Ruth Ware’s In a Dark, Dark Wood (Gallery/Scout Press, digital galley), in which a crime writer tries to remember the events of a girls’ weekend at the secluded Glass House after waking up in a hospital. There was snow. And there was blood.

lakeroadWare’s writing reminded me of Sophie Hannah when she’s at the top of her game. Alas, Hannah’s latest, Woman With a Secret (Morrow, digital galley), is kind of a mess, with an unreliable narrator narrating too much of the story of a murder of a controversial columnist. Detectives Waterhouse, Zailler and crew have a difficult time sorting out all the many unpleasant suspects, and the narrative is stuffed with tiresome e-mails, Twitter exchanges and online rants. Really didn’t care for Naughty Nicki and her secret cyber affairs. Secrets from the past, of course, are a staple of beach books. In Karen Katchur’s atmospheric The Secrets of Lake Road (St. Martin’s digital galley), a missing girl at a lakeside resort stirs up Jo’s carefully guarded memories of her high school boyfriend’s drowning 16 years ago. But Jo’s daughter, 12-year-old Caroline, about to leave childhood behind, steals every scene she narrates. Wendy Wax temporarily abandons her beachside setting in A Week at the Lake (Berkeley, review copy), but she’s still writing about female friendships, loyalty and betrayal. Emma, Mackenzie and Serena all have show-business connections and secrets, which give their story a glossy, dishy patina.

moviestarReal stars, including Clark Gable and Martina Dietrich, appear in Peter  Davis’ first novel of 1930s Hollywood, Girl of My Dreams (Open Road, review copy), but the focus is on a young screenwriter in love with a glamorous actress — the improbably named Palmyra Millevoix — who is also pursued by a studio tycoon. The tale of this triangle unreels with an overlay of nostalgia for celluloid dreams. Feel free to speculate as to which contemporary stars inspired celebrity memoirist Hilary Liftin’s Movie Star by Lizzie Pepper (Viking Penguin, digital galley). It’s to Liftin’s credit that this faux memoir is more than tabloid fodder as young Lizzie recounts her courtship and marriage to mega-star Rob Mars, whose attachment to a cult-like spiritual group interferes with their relationship. Living a seemingly luxurious life for all the world to see, Lizzie has to decide if she’s going to become the heroine of her own story.

lawyerSometimes in summer, a girl just wants to have fun, which is when I read Susan Mallery’s Fools Gold fluffy romances. She offered a trilogy this year: Hold Me (Harlequin, digital galley), in which secret singer Destiny and Olympic skier Kipling work search-and-rescue together; Kiss Me (Harlequin, digital galley), the love story between city girl Phoebe and cowboy Zane; and Thrill Me (Harlequin, digital galley), where Maya returns to town and runs into former flame Del.  Court and spark. But the book I fell hard for was Lee Robinson’s engaging Lawyer for the Dog (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley), in which 49-year-old Charleston attorney Sally Baynard is appointed by a family court judge — also her ex-husband — to represent a miniature schnauzer in a custody dispute between a divorcing couple. Trying to figure out what’s best for adorable Sherman also means Sally has to figure out what’s best for her dementia-afflicted mother and for her own heart. Will it be the ex-husband, the Johns Island vet, or maybe a dog all her own? There’s real substance beneath the fluff; call this one more than puppy love.

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noraIs the Honeycutt mansion haunted? The summer people who bought the old mountain place and decided to stay for Christmas are beginning to think so. Their fake pink Christmas tree decorated with sea shell and flamingo ornaments keeps keeling over when no one’s around. Best ask neighbor Nora Bonesteel for help. After all, the old woman has the “sight” — she can foretell deaths and commune with ghosts.

Sharyn McCrumb’s holiday novella Nora Bonesteel’s Christmas Past (Abingdon Press, digital galley), takes place in the same East Tennessee town of her popular Ballad series and brings back several familiar characters. While Nora remembers long-ago holidays — and one young soldier in particular — Sheriff Spencer Arrowood and Deputy Joe LeDonne are driving up the mountain on Christmas Eve. They have to arrest an elderly man charged with the hit-and-run of a politician’s car. Still, a winter storm is coming, and the man won’t leave his wife alone in a cabin with no firewood and a broken window.

McCrumb’s gently humorous tale is replete with nostalgia. Nora vividly remembers simpler times gone by, when people were poorer but rich with friends, family and traditions.

hollyroadSheila Roberts has a knack for warm-hearted holiday tales that are sweet without being sappy. I’m especially fond of The Nine Lives of Christmas, which was made into a Hallmark movie this year. There’s a lot of wishin’ and hopin’ going on in picturesque Icicle Falls, the setting for The Lodge on Holly Road (Harlequin, digital galley).

Single mom Missy Monroe brings her two children to the lodge hoping to give them the kind of traditional Christmas she never had, although she knows she can’t fulfill their wishes for a dog and a grandmother. Enter Santa Claus, sort of — Brook Claussen kidnaps her widowed father, James, from his department store Santa job, hoping that a visit to the lodge will cure his grumpy blues. But she didn’t count on Olivia Wallace, the pretty widow who runs the place with her grown son, Eric. Brook thinks Olivia has designs on her dad, and she’s not wrong. But insufferable Eric scolds her for interfering. Among the other guests are a good-guy accountant who plans to propose to his snooty girlfriend, two old friends with opposite natures, a couple of bored teenagers and a prodigal son. What could possibly go wrong?

Roberts gets everything right in this romance — and even includes a recipe for Olivia’s gumdrop cookies.

jerusalemI always like to reread several holiday books from Christmases past. One year it might be Lee Smith’s The Christmas Letters, or Barbara Robinson’s The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, or Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’ Certain Poor Shepherds. Last year it was Mary Kay Andrews’ Blue Christmas, in preparation for its sequel, Christmas Bliss. This year, I reached back 30 years to Martha Grimes’ mystery Jerusalem Inn, with Richard Jury and Melrose Plant investigating a sudden death in wintry northern England. The atmosphere’s a bit melancholy and a whole lot mysterious, and it’s one of my favorites in the Jury series. I’m a longtime admirer of the Scotland Yard detective with the devastating smile, still single after all these years.

Sweet dreams and happy holidays.

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fikryIf bookstores attract you like magnets, you’ll find Gabrielle Zevin’s charming novel The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (Algonquin, review ARC) absolutely irresistible. “No Man is an Island. Every Book is a World.” So says the sign over the door of Island Books, housed in a Victorian cottage on a fictional New England island. Alas, owner A.J. Fikry seems to have forgotten the sign since his young wife died in a car accident and his business took a nosedive. He fends off friends, like the police chief with a taste for crime fiction. He pushes away his sister-in-law, the disappointed wife of a philandering author. He even makes free-spirited Amelia, the new sales rep for Knightley Press, depart in tears. But just like in a storybook (!), A.J.’s pleasure in life, love and books will be renewed with the arrival of an unexpected package. Not all at once, though, and not without tears. Bittersweet proves sweet.

northangerJane Austen had some fun writing Northanger Abbey, but Catherine Morland always struck me as a ninny. I like her much more as Cat Morland in Val McDermid’s clever update of Austen’s Gothic satire, Northanger Abbey (Grove Atlantic, digital galley). This home-schooled daughter of a Dorset minister loves novels, especially paranormal fiction like Twilight and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (wink wink). Cat’s horizons broaden when family friends invite her to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where she becomes BFF  with socialite Bella Thorpe, who is crushing on Cat’s brother, and meets enigmatic Henry Tilney and his sister Eleanor. Gee, she’s awfully pale, and something weird is going on at the Tilney family estate, Northanger Abbey. McDermid, an award-winning crime novelist, sticks to the bones of Austen’s plot but fleshes it out with modern details. If it reads a bit like a YA novel, that’s ok; Cat is just 17. Still, I could have done without slang expressions like “Totes amazeballs.” So last year.

chestnutFans of the late Irish writer Maeve Binchy will welcome Chestnut Street (Knopf Doubleday, digital), a collection of stories about the neighbors of a middle-class Dublin street. Binchy wrote the stories over a period of years, sticking them in a drawer with the idea of a book in mind. Approved by her husband, the writer Gordon Snell, the stories vary in length and complexity, but the characters are familiar types from previous Binchy books, ordinary folks facing domestic crises and misunderstandings. There’s the teenager who’s unexpectedly pregnant like an aunt before her, who went to America and visits once a year. There’s the divorced mum who minds her tongue and allows her grown daughter to make her own decisions. There’s the mistress who belatedly realizes her predicament, the stingy uncle and his estranged niece, the spiteful woman who resents her friendly new neighbor, the four strangers who meet in a takeaway on New Year’s Eve and reunite every year thereafter. Several stories beg to be longer. Oh, it would have been grand to have a Binchy novel about the visiting friend who becomes the street’s favorite fortune teller after picking up on the local gossip.

Nohopestreett everyone can see the titular building in The House at the End of Hope Street (Viking Penguin, paperback review copy), a whimsical literary confection by Meena van Praag. But young Cambridge grad student Alba Ashby, overwhelmed by a stunning personal and academic betrayal, is welcomed to 11 Hope Street by landlady Peggy Abbot, who tells her she can stay 99 nights. As former residents whose portraits hang on the walls — Agatha Christie, Daphne du Maurier, Dorothy Parker, among them — can attest, the house will work its peculiar magic during this time. Van Praag reminds me of Alice Hoffman as she recounts Alba’s time at Hope Street, which overlaps with that of actress Greer, disappointed in love, and singer Carmen, who has buried a dark secret in the garden. Did I mention the portraits talk to one another and a pretty ghost hangs out in the kitchen?

jasmineDeanna Raybourn, author of the popular Lady Julia series, has another smart heroine in aviatrix Evangeline Starke, who narrates the winning City of Jasmine (Harlequin, digital galley). Five years after losing her husband with the sinking of the Lusitania, Evie is flying around the world in her plane The Jolly Roger, when she receives a recent photograph of the presumed-dead Gabriel Starke. She immediately heads for Damascus, with her eccentric aunt and a parrot in tow, to find Gabriel, who once worked an archaeological dig in the area. If he’s alive, she just might kill him — for abandoning her after four months of marriage. Action and adventure, romance and history, secrets and spies! Ah, good times.

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blissOne of my favorite holiday-themed tales is my friend Mary Kay Andrews’ Blue Christmas, which is warm, sweet and funny, complete with a hilarious turkey-carving disaster. So I blissfully gobbled up Christmas Bliss (St. Martin’s, purchased e-book), which is the diverting follow-up, featuring more of Weezie and Bebe’s excellent adventures. It’s the week before Christmas and Weezie is prepping for her small Christmas Eve wedding to Daniel, Savannah’s hottest chef. Except Daniel’s showing off his culinary expertise to the sultry owner of a chi-chi restaurant in Manhattan. Meanwhile, bestie Bebe is happily and heavily pregnant, juggling her job on Tybee, renovations on a new house, and worries about her charter-boat captain beau Harry’s career. As Weezie hops on a plane for a surprise trip to New York, Bebe is left with mischievous mutt Jethro and the burning secret that she is still married to her snake of an ex-husband. All sorts of complications ensue — including Weezie losing both her coat and shoes in separate big-city mishaps, and Bebe enduring a baby shower — but Andrews neatly wraps up the intersecting storylines into a package that’s merry and bright.

starryDebbie Macomber’s Starry Night (Random House, digital galley) is about as improbable as me shedding pounds over the holidays, but at least it’s a no-cal treat. Chicago reporter Carrie Slayton hopes to trade the society beat for hard news with an exclusive interview with best-selling wilderness author Finn Dalton. Only the reclusive Finn never gives interviews, not even when Carrie eventually tracks him to Alaska and hires a bush pilot to drop her off  at Finn’s isolated cabin with a snowstorm howling at her heels. Forced together in close quarters, the odd couple find some common ground, but their mutual attraction isn’t great enough to overcome Finn’s issues with love-’em-and-leave-’em women like his mom and his ex. Carrie returns to Chicago without her scoop or Finn — until he comes looking for her. Awwww. 

fourthA snowstorm also plays Cupid in Susan Mallery’s Christmas on 4th Street (Harlequin, digital gallery), another winning entry in her Fool Gold’s series of contemporary romances. It’s only slightly more realistic than Starry Night, but Mallery’s fans are used to almost-magical events in the small California town. Putting tragedy behind her, Noelle Perkins forsakes her law career to open the Christmas Attic shop on 4th Street. She’s brimming with holiday cheer, unlike Army surgeon Gabriel Boylan, coming off a hard tour overseas to visit his brother. Gabriel is undecided about his next move, although his exacting drill sergeant dad expects him to continue in the military. Lovely Noelle has him considering his options, but their romance craters until the aforementioned storm and an ensuing avalanche intervene. Sweet.

flynnKatie Flynn’s A Christmas to Remember (Random House Adult Trade, digital galley) is one of several books by popular British authors to be released globally as e-books. Flynn’s warm-hearted tale is a bit soapy and predictable, covering seven years after World War II as young Tess Williams grows up in Liverpool, where food is still rationed and times are hard. Living with her grandmother Edie above a hat shop, bright Tess makes friends with widower tobacconist Albert Payne, tangles with mean girl Marilyn, is torn between the affections of farmer boy Jonty and city boy Snowy, and wonders whether to go to university or get a job. An accident and then a stray cat set her on an unexpected path. All’s well that ends well with another memorable holiday. More for fans of East Enders than Downton Abbey, although I like both.

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penthouseYou know how characters in rom-coms meet cute? The likeable threesome in Elinor Lipman’s The View from Penthouse B (Houghton Mifflin, digital galley) live cute. After Margot loses her divorce settlement to Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi-scheme, she asks her widowed sister Gwen-Laura to share expenses in her Greenwich Village penthouse. To economize even further, they then rent out the maid’s room to Anthony, a gay man in his 20s who has lost his job at Lehman Bros. and makes wonderful cupcakes. All three have man trouble: Margot’s ex, a fertility doc who went to prison in an infamously sleazy fraud case, is paroled and moves into a studio in their building; Gwen cautiously re-enters the dating world via online sites with decidedly mixed results; and Anthony’s on the lookout for a good guy after his current boyfriend moves on.  Some of the antics, especially Gwen’s online dating woes, have a been-there, done-that Sex in the City feel, but Lipman’s writing sparkles and her characters charm.

mercycloseI suppose I could include Marian Keyes’ The Mystery of Mercy Close (Viking, digital galley) in a crime fiction column, but the mystery’s just the excuse for Keyes to write another “Walsh sister” tale. (Previous include Rachel’s Holiday, and Anybody Out There?) Helen is the fifth of the five sisters, a pragmatic private detective with a sharp wit and past issues with depression. Now that Ireland’s suffering post-Celtic Tiger blues, Helen’s PI business is on the skids; she’s lost her office and now her flat, and facing more unpaid bills, moves back home at 33 with intrepid Mammy Walsh. Her ex-boyfriend Jay, promoting a reunion concert of the once-famous boy band The Laddz, hires her to find band member Wayne, who has disappeared from his Mercy Close house four days before the concert. Looking for Wayne hither and yon, Helen gets help from her current lovely boyfriend Artie, a divorced cop with three kids, and Harry, a mobster who leaves her cryptic messages. Mammy Walsh is also on hand, especially when Helen tries to get in touch with Decker, the Laddz member who went on to pop star fame and fortune a la Bono. A mostly good time is had by all, even as Helen copes with a depressive cycle that seriously threatens her well-being. All of the Walsh sisters are head cases to a degree, but I think quirky, self-deprecating Helen may be my favorite.

whileAre you and your friends still discussing the fate of poor Matthew on the last episode of Downton Abbey? Then you’ll no doubt identify with the four residents of an historic Atlanta high-rise who star in Wendy Wax’s While We Were Watching Downton Abbey (Berkeley, paperback galley). Concierge Edward arranges the screenings, which bring together married-to-old-money Samantha, blocked writer Claire and unhappy divorcee Brooke. As they mull over the upstairs-downstairs lives of the TV characters during its second season, they face their own troubles with a new resolve. I can’t imagine anyone who doesn’t watch Downton Abbey “getting” this book, but we don’t know any of them, do we?! Fans of Wax’s Ten Beach Road and Ocean Beach know Wax knows what breaks and makes friendships.

tableFriendships and marriages are stressed to the breaking point in Whitney Haskell’s Table for Seven (Random House, digital galley), which follows a supper club from its inception on New Year’s Eve through the next 12 months. Here’s what Haskell does well — the mouth-watering menus at the beginning of each chapter; Will and Fran coping with their rebellious teen daughter; Jaime dealing with her tennis prodigy stepdaughter and her thoughtless husband; and everything about elderly widower Leland. Not-so-well is the predictable off-again-on-again affair between widowed Audrey and sexy bachelor Coop, and Fran’s fantasies of leaving Will for Coop. If my supper group — the Cheese Club of Grater Orlando — was this dysfunctional trying to out-gourmet one another, we wouldn’t have lasted for 15-plus years.

whatshewantsIn Sheila Roberts’ light-hearted What She Wants (Harlequin, digital galley), poker buddies hit on a truly novel idea to improve their love lives. At a library book sale, former high school nerd Jonathan picks up a copy of a best-seller by romance writer Vanessa Valentine, ostensibly for his sister. But peeking at the pages, he discovers good advice for getting high school crush Lissa to pay attention to him at their upcoming reunion. At first, his friends laugh, but soon vertically challenged Kyle and befuddled Adam, whose wife kicked him out, are also reading Vanessa Valentine. Readers of Roberts’ Icicle Falls series (Better than Chocolate), will recognize local landmarks and references to familiar characters, but it’s Roberts channeling Vanessa Valentine that steals the show.

whimseyKaye Wilkinson Barley’s Whimsey: A Novel (self-published, review copy from author) takes its name from a  fictional artists’ colony on a Georgia sea-island founded by the late, legendary Elizabeth Calhoun. Now, her great-niece Emma, an Atlanta  jewelry designer who thinks her talent has deserted her, is resisting her Aunt Zoe’s invitation to become a resident artist at her new upscale gallery on Whimsey. Emma knows going home will mean coming to terms with her childhood best friend Olivia, her girlhood love Eli, and the ghosts of her past, including the opinionated, cigar-smoking Great-Aunt Elizabeth who materializes at both opportune and inappropriate moments. Barley’s fanciful, Southern-flavored tale also includes a chatty imaginary friend named Madeline and a high-heeled pixie named Earlene, which is perhaps two too many supernatural characters.  The imaginative story entertains, but it could use a strong editor.

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Every year, I gather up my favorite holiday books for rereading: Lee Smith’s The Christmas Letters, Mary Kay Andrews’  Blue Christmas (e-book on sale this week for $1.99), Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’ Certain Poor Shepherds and Barbara Robinson’s Best Christmas Pageant Ever. They make me laugh or cry, sometimes both, and they’re nifty stocking stuffers.

This year, I discovered Sheila Roberts’  lighthearted The Nine Lives of Christmas (St. Martins Press), attracted by the orange cat on the cover who bears a striking resemblance to my Giant Peach.

Ambrose, the cover cat, fears his brief  ninth life is about to come to a dead end in the jaws of a nasty dog. Hanging on to the bare branches of a tree for dear life, he strikes a bargain with his creator. If someone will please save him, he’ll  devote the rest of his life to helping the rescuer.

Enter firefighter Zach, who does his best to keep the scruffy stray out of his house, and, when that doesn’t work, vows to find Ambrose’s former owner. But Ambrose has other plans for Zach. The commitment-phobic hunk just thinks he’s happy in a casual relationship with the lovely Pet Palace heiress. But she hates cats, unlike pretty, shy Merilee, who volunteers at the animal shelter and works at Pet Palace, at least until Cruella DeVille takes notice. It’s a cat fight that can only end in Merrilee’s tears.

Ok, pretty standard plot. But Roberts spins an amusing story before the fur falls from the erstwhile lovers’ eyes. Zach has real issues with family, especially his mother, who left his father when he was a kid. Now remarried with two more kids, she wants to be part of Zach’s life again.

Merrilee has a great family, but she feels like the dowdy runner-up to her two glamorous, successful sisters. And when she can’t convince her Scrooge of a landlord to let her keep her cat any longer, she’s really in a pickle. 

Fortunately, Ambrose has wiles aplenty, learned from his eight previous lives. Not the he couldn’t use a little Christmas miracle as well.

Ahh. Here’s to happy endings, smart cats and holiday fluff.

Open Book: I bought the digital copy of The Nine Lives of Christmas after first downloading a sample to my new Nook Tablet. (Note to publishers, samples should include actual pages of the story and not just an overview and blurbs. Are you listening, Random House?!)

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So, Valentine’s Day may have come and gone, but I’m still feeling the romance, on the page at least.  Yesterday, I received a box of a dozen classic romance paperbacks from Avon Books because I entered a Facebook contest on a whim — and won! Then I went to send a thank-you this a.m. and found that Avon was sponsoring a LiveStream chat with a handful of romance authors at a virtual booksigning at Turn the Page bookstore in Maryland.

What fun! Romance readers from around the world — yes, world — were asking questions right and left of Nora Roberts, Jeaniean Frost, Pamela Palmer, Mary Burton, Grace Burrowes and Stephanie Dray. Who’s your favorite character? How do you get inside a villain’s head? Do you have a playlist when you write? What do you to do for relaxation? Who are your favorite writers? Do you have an e-reader?

Avon’s Pamela Spengler-Jaffee did a fine job at moderating the answers, which were as different as the authors and their romance subgenres — contemporary, historical, paranormal, suspense, mythological. You can watch/listen to the discussion http://avonromance.com/romancelive  (I’m tuned in again as I write.) 

 Surprise! The writers read to relax. “We’re all story junkies.” So some also watch TV series and movies. But they also do yoga, bake, play with pets, garden.

What comes through in everybody’s answers is an enduring love of books, writing and romance, from classics (Jane Eyre) to YA (Wicked, Lovely) to all-time favorites Mary Stewart and Georgette Heyer. (My favorites, too). “It’s all about passion,” someone pointed out.

If you’re looking for your next romance to read, I recommend you listen in. You’ll not only want to read the books by these authors, but the books they like. I’m a long-time Nora Roberts/J.D. Robb fan, and I’ve read several books by other panel members, with the exception of newcomer Burrowes. Nice to know, she has embarked on an eight-book series.

Be sure to stick around for the near-end discussion about the popularity of romance.  It’s a once, future and present thing, the writers all agree, because romance never goes out of style. Says Burrowes: “As long as people need happily-ever-afters, as long as we need dreams to come true. . .romance will have its charms.”

Indeed. Isn’t it love-erly?

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