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REVIEW:  Suddenly Last Summer by Sarah Morgan

REVIEW: Suddenly Last Summer by Sarah Morgan

 

Dear Sarah Morgan:

I’m pretty sure DA’s readers know that you are an autobuy author for me, but just in case, I’ll open this review by reminding everyone how much I loved the first book in the O’Neil brothers trilogy. So needless to say, I have been looking forward to the next two stories. This installment takes place in the summer, as the title indicates, and features Sean and Élise’s romance. While it doesn’t have the holiday backdrop that you do better than just about anyone writing romance today, it’s an enjoyable and satisfying read, with layers that emerge as the story progresses.

Morgan Suddenly Last SummerSean is the brother who got away; while Jackson runs the business side of the family resort, Snow Crystal, and Tyler organizes the sports side with longtime family friend and Snow Crystal employee Brenna, Sean practices orthopedic surgery in Boston and comes home as infrequently as he can. This pattern is upset at the beginning of the novel, when the grandfather and patriarch, Walter, suffers a heart attack. Sean accompanies him back to the resort and stays for a few days to monitor his recovery. This brings Sean back into close contact with Élise, Snow Crystal’s French chef. Sean and Élise had a passionate one-night stand the previous summer, but both are adamant that they are not interested in more than that with anyone, and they keep reiterating that despite the attraction that sizzles between them.

Sean is the family member who has put himself on the outside, while Élise is the outsider who has become a beloved member of the extended O’Neil clan. She runs the restaurant and frets about the new café, whose opening falls behind schedule when Walter’s illness makes him unable to complete the work. Sean impulsively agrees to finish the deck so that the grand opening can take place as planned, and proximity to Élise leads exactly where you think it will.

Caught off guard, she lost her balance and fell against him. She put her free hand on his chest to steady herself, met his eyes and almost drowned in a flash of intense blue, heat and raw desire.

“Sean—”

“You asked me to let you know if there’s anything else I need.”

“I didn’t mean—” She couldn’t breathe properly. The attraction was so shockingly powerful it almost knocked her off her feet. “You promised you’d finish the deck.”

“You’ll get your damn deck.” His voice was rough. “You think about it, don’t you?”

“What?”

“You know what.” His eyes were on her mouth. “Last summer. Us.”

All the time. “Rarely.”

He smiled. “Yeah, right.”

“Arrogance isn’t attractive.”

“Neither is pigheadedness. Want me to remind you what happened? Who cracked first last time?”

Her heart was pounding. “I didn’t crack.”

“Honey, half of that shirt I was wearing is still lying somewhere in the forest. We never did find it. Maybe next time we shouldn’t let it build up.”

“It’s not building up. I make that sort of decision with my head, not my hormones.”

“Really?” His eyes were back on her mouth. “In that case your head was in one hell of a hurry to get me naked.”

The first half of the novel is basically Sean and Élise throwing themselves at each other but swearing nothing more can ever, ever, happen between them. Buttons fly as shirts are ripped off, lovely dresses get drenched in the rain, and the Snow Crystal forest sees a lot of hot and heavy action. The contrast between their relationships to the resort couldn’t be more marked; Élise has burrowed into Snow Crystal thoroughly and works hard at suppressing memories of her Parisian past, while Sean has a fast car to get him back to Boston whenever he starts to feel as if he might want to hang around for longer than an afternoon.

This opposites-attract, I-want-you-but-I-don’t-can’t-shouldn’t dance could get tiring in less skilled hands, but Morgan infuses Sean and Élise’s relationship with enough mutual liking and non-lustful interaction that their personalities emerge over the course of the story and I can see what they have in common besides the sizzle. The scenes in which they open up to each other about their pasts are great, and they have enough conversations and interactions with other O’Neils and resort visitors that the reader gets a feel for who they are apart from the romance arc.

As was the case in the first novel, this is a romance that is embedded in a larger world of characters, so we spend a fair amount of time with Jackson and Kayla (from Sleigh Bells in the Snow) and especially with Walter O’Neil. He is pivotal for both Sean and Élise, Sean because his fraught relationship with Snow Crystal is embodied in his tense interactions with his grandfather, and Élise because Walter as much as anyone represents the family she longs to have but denies herself. If you find revisiting happy couples annoying, Tyler is right there with you and adds comic relief counterpoint to the HEA shared by Kayla and Jackson. We see less of the women family members here than in the previous story, which I was sorry about, but it makes sense for the storyline. I should also add here that you’ll get more out of the subsidiary storylines if you’ve read Sleigh Bells in the Snow, but you don’t need it to understand and enjoy what’s going on here.

I didn’t warm to Sean and Élise and quickly as I did to Jackson and Kayla, but that’s a taste not a quality issue. They’re so brittle-feeling, and all the pushing away they did to each other had the effect of distancing me too. But they won me over in the last third of the book. There is a Chekhovian gun in the first act that goes off in the third, and it propels the romance arc forward, deepens the characterizations, and enriches the way the characters interact with each other. Watching two tightly wrapped people slowly unfurl and relax by the end is very satisfying indeed. I’m still not entirely convinced by the ending (not the romance but the practical decisions that seem to be on the horizon). But I guess that means I have to read the third installment and see how they’re doing, doesn’t it! Grade: B+

~ Sunita

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JOINT REVIEW:  Lady Windermere’s Lover by Miranda Neville

JOINT REVIEW: Lady Windermere’s Lover by Miranda Neville

Janine: Rose and I read Lady Winderemere’s Lover, the third book in Miranda Neville’s Wild Quartet series, around the same time, so we decided to review the book together.

Lady-Windermeres-LoverRose: On his 21st birthday, Damian inherited his late mother’s property Beaulieu – only to promptly lose it to his friend Robert in a drunken wager. By the time Damian recovers from his stupor, Robert himself has lost the property. Horrified by his actions and upset with Robert and their friend Julian, who had done nothing to stop the events from unfolding, Damian confesses all to his father, and decides to break away from his friends and enter the foreign service.

Several years later, Damian, now Lord Windermere, is finally able to regain Beaulieu, but at a steep price: he must wed Cynthia Chorley, the niece of the prosperous Birmingham merchant who owns the estate.

In the short time the two spend together, Damian is resentful and cold to Cynthia, who lacks the skills and polish he considers valuable for a diplomat’s wife. He accepts a posting to Persia and leaves Cynthia behind, a provincial nobody with few friends and no connections in society. Eventually she is befriended by Robert’s young widow, Caro Townsend, who takes her under her wing and introduces her to what is considered a fairly fast artistic set.

Janine: Cynthia also acquires elegant clothes and town polish. She allows Julian to court her – whether because she’s drawn to Julian or because she hopes Damian will hear rumors that will irk him into coming home, Cynthia herself doesn’t know.

As it happens, Damian does return, but at the Foreign Office’s request. There is now a great deal of bad blood between Damian and Julian, but Damian doesn’t yet know Cynthia has become involved in the conflict.

Damian’s superior orders him to do everything possible to help the crown acquire an art collection thought to be in Julian’s possession, so Damian must make nice with Julian whether or not he likes it.

That night, Damian attends he theater with a former mistress, Lady Belinda. Seated across from them are Julian and Cynthia, who erroneously assumes Belinda and Damian are still lovers. Damian doesn’t recognize Cynthia until he returns home to witness an embrace between her and Julian in Julian’s adjoining garden. Damian leaves the house unseen and resolves to get the paintings from Julian and only then confront his wife and the ex-friend he thinks is her lover.

To Damian’s credit, he knows his treatment of Cynthia has been shabby, and as their history is revealed in flashbacks, we see just how much. Damian insisted on speaking only French to Cynthia as a way of putting distance between them, and he didn’t exert himself much in the bedroom. Two weeks into their marriage, he left his wife, little realizing she was pregnant.

Cynthia wrote to Damian about her pregnancy and subsequent miscarriage, but his reply was perfunctory and distant, and Caro and her friends were Cynthia’s only real source of support.

Now Damian moves back into his house, and to wait until he’s certain she isn’t carrying Julian’s child yet prevent anymore illicit trysts, he claims his mattress is uncomfortable and he share hers. As the two lie next to each other for a few nights, they become better acquainted. Damian realizes Cynthia’s not the grasping social climber he thought. Cynthia, too, is attracted to her spouse, and tempted to begin to like him.

But can they overlook the “affairs” each thinks the other is having? Can they heal the wounds of the past? And will Julian stand by while their marriage gets stronger, or will he interfere?

Rose: Obviously, there is a lot here for both the hero and the heroine to work through and some way for them to go in order to build any sort of relationship or to trust one another.

Janine: Yes. It wasn’t until I started writing this plot summary that I realized how many issues complicate Cynthia and Damian’s marriage. One thing we didn’t go into is how gambling Beaulieu away led Damian to shut down emotionally. His Foreign Office mentor then taught him not to reveal his feelings. I thought that aspect of Damian was really well done.

Rose: I liked that Cynthia had not spent her time alone being miserable: she worked hard to improve her taste, her facility with languages, and her social skills, and has acquired a circle of friends along with considerable poise and polish. Julian tempts her, but not enough to stray from her wedding vows – though she does come close.

Janine: I liked that too. I was reminded of a totally different book with a similar plot, Judith McNaught’s Something Wonderful. That book too has an abandoned wife who blossoms into a sought-after beauty just as her husband return from a long absence. The two books couldn’t be more different, but there’s a great “She showed him!” satisfaction to the trope itself.

Rose: There really is. In this case, Cynthia also finds time for charitable works, and sets up a home for young unwed mothers. This is financed by having a merchant overcharge her for hideous furniture and art for Damian’s home and her pocketing the change, which was an entertaining form of revenge on her part.

Janine: Agreed. I’ve gotten cynical about heroines with charitable works but Cynthia’s very personal reasons for empathizing with the unwed mothers and feeling responsible for their fates made this aspect of her character work.

Rose: I’m not sure that the timeframe quite makes sense for the transformation that Cynthia underwent, or allows enough time for travel and the letters that went back and forth between Cynthia and Damian, but I decided to accept it as it was.

Janine: Good point that Cynthia’s transformation happens a bit too quickly. However I think if Damian had abandoned her for two or more years, I would have found it almost impossible to forgive him.

Rose: Cynthia is attracted to Damian, but he has treated her very badly and his efforts to make amends are at first driven mainly by his desire to keep her away from Julian. As the book progressed, I began to feel that Damian’s insistence on clinging to the belief that Cynthia had wronged him had gone too far; for a supposedly astute diplomat, he was rather obtuse.

Janine: I didn’t feel that way since evidence against Cynthia kept piling up.

Spoiler: Show

Between seeing Cynthia and Julian attend the theater alone together, witnessing them share a “tender embrace” in the garden, discovering a financial scheme the two crafted together, catching them in what appeared to be another meeting, knowing their houses adjoined and knowing Julian’s reputation, as well as knowing how badly he himself treated Cynthia, I felt Damian had solid enough reasons for reaching that conclusion.

Rose: At the same time, I could accept Cynthia’s attraction to her husband but had more difficulty accepting any further depth of feeling considering his treatment of her.

Janine: I wasn’t sure Damian entirely deserved Cynthia’s forgiveness, but I could accept her developing feelings for him because (A) he started treating her so much better , (B) she couldn’t have found a another husband without the scandal of divorce and (C) a lot of women find it hard to separate sex and love. Those may not be the best reasons for loving one’s husband, but they are reason enough to give him a chance to prove himself, which Damian did.

With all that said, I would have liked to see Damian work for it even harder than he did.

Rose: I would have liked that as well. Damian does eventually come to his senses and realize that he has wronged his wife, but it takes some time before this is reflected in the way he treats her (though with less external intervention than I’d expected, which was good).

Janine: I thought he knew he wronged her pretty early on, but putting his heart on the line is what took him longer.

Rose: Something I appreciate in Neville’s writing is that her characters usually have interests that play a large part in the books – rare books and politics in her Burgundy Club series, art and archaeology in her current series. Both Cynthia and Damian enjoy art and draw as a hobby, Damian with some talent; the portraits they draw of one another at different stages in the narrative show how their perceptions of the other change over time.

Janine: Yes. I also liked that art was an interest Damian and Julian shared. Despite Julian’s role as the spoke in the wheel of Damian and Cynthia’s relationship, I was glad of the way Damian’s conflict with Julian got somewhat resolved.

One work of art I could’ve done without was the pictorial sex manual Damian brought back with him from Persia. Has there ever been an Englishman who visited a gulf state in a historical romance without bringing back a Kama Sutra style book? I don’t know if the sex manual in this novel was based on a real one or not, but it’s still a cliché and a stereotypical one at that.

Rose: Maybe one or two… she also included a pornographic European book in a previous novel, so maybe it’s just something she likes to throw in on occasion?

Ultimately, I felt that Cynthia and Damian were headed in the right direction at the end, but they still had quite a bit to work through when Neville threw in a wholly unnecessary (and fortunately brief) plot twist. This is not the first of her books to feature what I considered a fairly unneeded suspense subplot, and I wish she’d leave those out; the stories rarely need them. In this case, the plot twist mainly serves to set up the next novel in the series, and has little purpose in the resolution of this one.

Janine:

Spoiler: Show

I thought this plot turn served to help resolve the Damian/Julian conflict as well as to push Damian to make a romantic declaration to Cynthia.
It worked for me.

What did you think of the appearances or mentions of characters from the other books in the Wild Quartet series? I liked seeing them and I thought the characters we saw on stage were well integrated into the storyline, but there were enough of them that I also wondered if a reader who hadn’t read the earlier books would be lost.

Rose: Other than Julian, who is really necessary for the story to work, I felt that past characters didn’t play so large a role as to confuse new readers. I see the Wild Quartet as being not only the romance but also the characters repairing their relationships with each other – they had been very close once, and their lives apart were really quite lonely. So it makes sense to me that their stories aren’t only about the romantic relationships but also about rebuilding their friendships and trust.

Janine: “Lost” might not have been the best word for me to use, but I think this is the kind of series I’d rather read in order.  I look forward to Julian’s upcoming book, The Duke of Dark Desires.

Rose: My issues with some of the pacing of Damian and Cynthia’s relationship, as well as the resolution, kept this book out of the A-range for me, but it was an enjoyable read and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it. My grade is a B+.

Janine: It’s a B and a recommended read for me.

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