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estranged marriage

REVIEW:  Wildfire at Midnight by Mary Stewart

REVIEW: Wildfire at Midnight by Mary Stewart

Dear Ms. Stewart:

Among my first and most beloved romantic novels are the novels of Mary Stewart. Although probably best known for the Merlin fantasy trilogy, I first discovered the romantic suspense novels. When I saw that at least one was being rereleased I quickly asked to review, despite the fact that it was a print book and I haven’t read a genre book in print form in quite a while. Wildfire at Midnight was never my favorite (that spot goes to The Ivy Tree, with Airs Above the Ground close behind), but I liked it enough to reread over the years, and the depiction of the Isle of Skye has always stayed in my memory. I wondered how well the novel would hold up, and I was pleased to find that while it is most certainly a product of its time, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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Giannetta Drury is a divorced fashion model in her late 20s who impulsively decides to go to a remote lodge on the Isle of Skye to recuperate from the demands of her job and the madness of London during the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. When she arrives she discovers that not only has a young woman been brutally murdered earlier in the month, but her former husband, Nicholas,his is also a guest at the lodge. She quickly removes her wedding ring (which she still wears) and registers in the hotel book under her maiden name.

The small lodge has about a dozen guests, and the types will be familiar to readers of mid-century murder mysteries. The unusual characteristic is that given the location of the lodge and the time of year, the majority of the guests have chosen it for its excellent fishing and mountain climbing opportunities. There are two married couples, give single men, a beautiful actress and her young, handsome chauffeur, a pair of women schoolteachers, and the locals who own and staff the lodge and provide fishing and mountain climbing expertise. Giannetta quickly gravitates toward the actress, Marcia Maling, and Roderick Grant, a handsome Scotsman who loves the mountains and is extremely knowledgeable about local folklore.

The murder plot ramps up fairly quickly and takes a well-trodden path. Two more murders are committed within a day or two of each other, and practically all the men are suspects. You’ll probably guess the murderer by process of elimination, but the motive for the murders is less predictable. The evocation of the setting is expertly done; the reader feels embedded in the wild, beautiful Scottish setting without ever feeling like she’s reading an infodump:

At half past nine on a summer’s evening in the Hebrides, the twilight has scarcely begun. There is, perhaps, with the slackening of the day’s brilliance, a somber note overlying the clear colors of sand and grass and rock, but this is no more than the drawing of the first thin blue veil. Indeed, night itself is nothing but a faint dusting-over of the day, a wash of silver through the still-warm gold of the afternoon.

The evening was very still, and though the rain-threatening clouds were slowly packing higher behind us in the southwest, the rest of the sky was clear and luminous. Above the ridge of the Sgurr na Stri, above and beyond the jagged peaks of the Cuillin, the sun’s warmth still lingered in the flushed air.

The style of the writing, the dialogue, and the characters’ behavior are very much of their time; a bluntly spoken character (a woman) is depicted as rude and aggressive, the women are almost all wives (or sultry sirens) first and individuals second. And everyone smokes like a chimney, despite all the physical activity.

Giannetta is one of Stewart’s more naive characters, which makes her naive indeed, but at least she is well aware of it. She is lovely, but we never hear that from her, and it’s a relief to have a beautiful heroine who isn’t constantly being told how beautiful she is by everyone else in the novel. Although she is divorced and has no expectations of getting back together with her ex-husband, she still has feelings for him, and he appears to have feelings for her.

Readers who cannot stand cheating might do well to take a pass. It is pretty clear that the trigger for Giannetta and Nicholas’ divorce was his adultery, which Giannetta at least partly attributes to their incompatibility and her youth, so self-blaming heroine ahoy. And then in the first few chapters, she discovers Nicholas locked in an embrace with the beautiful actress. We can’t be sure that Nicholas is the hero because Roderick is quite attractive and clearly smitten, but there’s plenty of unfinished business between the estranged couple.

The book should probably be categorized as a novel with romantic elements; the mystery is more important that the development of the romantic relationship, and while the couple do wind up together in the end, it’s not obvious who the hero is until almost the end. When we do find out, it’s the last chapter, the mystery is solved, and the book is over.

I don’t mean to sound less enthusiastic about the novel than I am. I had a terrific time revisiting it, but I know that the issues I’ve outlined can be deal breakers for some readers. Giannetta isn’t TSTL, by any means, but she still feels very young and naive despite being almost thirty, and since the book is written from the first person POV, we spend a lot of time in her head. I found her quite appealing, though; after reading so many contemporary romances where the heroine is either beautiful and incredibly gifted at one extreme or extremely lacking in confidence at the other, her unselfconsciousness is refreshing. There aren’t many books written today where a well-known model would be depicted as a relatively normal person.

If you haven’t read Mary Stewart before, this is a good place to start. It’s a relatively short novel (less than 220 printed pages), the story is linear and compact, the mystery is interesting. The book takes place over a few days and the fictional mountain climbing storyline takes place during the first successful ascent of Everest, which gives the story an added depth. Grade: B

~ Sunita

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REVIEW: Colorado Dawn by Kaki Warner

REVIEW: Colorado Dawn by Kaki Warner

Dear Ms. Warner,

I am a big fan of Western romances and your books have been praised by many of my trusted reviewers. So when I was offered the opportunity to review your latest, the middle book in the Runaway Brides trilogy, I was happy to accept. Although I haven’t read the first book, I felt this novel largely stood on its own. My reading experience was very mixed, but by the end I understood why your work is so popular. Be warned, readers, this is going to be a long review, but Colorado Dawn is a long, rich, book, the kind we often complain that publishers don’t offer anymore.

The book is set in the Colorado Territory after the Civil War, but the prologue takes place in England. This is because the main characters, Maddie and Ash, are English and Scottish respectively. Maddie married Angus Wallace, an officer temporarily billeted near her home, soon after meeting him. He went back to his regiment and she went to Scotland and lived with his family. In the prologue, Maddie has just come back to England to bury her parents after they were killed in a carriage accident. Feeling unhappy and abandoned by Angus, she decides to pursue her love of photography. She receives a commission to photograph the American West, sets off across the ocean, and doesn’t look back.

Chapter 1 begins two years later, when Angus, now known as Ash, is searching for Maddie in Colorado because he has become heir to his brother’s earldom and he needs her to come back to Scotland and take up her duties. Maddie is fulfilled by her photography and mostly content. But when she sees Ash again, her long-repressed feelings for him re-emerge.

There are two primary conflicts in the book. The internal conflict between Maddie and Ash first arises because each feels abandoned by the other and resentful, and then it continues because Maddie genuinely doesn’t want to give up the life she’s built and Ash feels duty-bound to return to Scotland and his family responsibilities. The external conflict involves a very obvious villain. Both conflicts play out over the entire course of the story.

I had real trouble warming up to Maddie. I couldn’t understand why a woman (even a young, inexperienced one) would think that when her husband returned to his officer duties it would constitute abandonment. The lack of letters from him offers some justification, but not much, frankly, given the places he was posted (we get the real reason for the lack of letters soon after they are reunited). She complains about her treatment by Ash’s family, but again, we don’t get much evidence beyond what Maddie tells us, and she came across as spoiled and demanding rather than neglected. Until quite late in the book, where she makes a short and unsatisfying apologia, Maddie shows little or no awareness of the responsibilities she assumed when she married him.

Maddie definitely improves as she spends time with Ash, and her growing maturity and the way she agonizes over her dilemma is well portrayed. By the end I liked her quite a bit, which is testament to your characterization. I just wish the setup to make her a Runaway Bride had been more convincing.

Ash is much more likeable. He is a career officer whose injuries have invalided him out of that life and who never expected, as a third son, to be in a position to succeed to the earldom. He shows considerably more understanding for Maddie’s perspective than she does for his, and he genuinely respects her talent and ambition. That respect didn’t feel modern to me, but rather the way a man in any era might take seriously the things that make the woman he loves the way she is.

The first section of the book, where Ash finds Maddie and her right-hand man, Mr. Satterwhite, and the villain is introduced, unfolds in a leisurely way. When Ash and Maddie return to Heartbreak Creek we are introduced to her friends and the town community and the pace picks up. This part of the story is more of an ensemble piece, but since we have spent a lot of time with the main couple already, I felt it enriched the book without taking too much away from the central relationship. There is plenty going on: Ash and Maddie try to work out their difficulties, a secondary couple’s romance is sketched out, the villain subplot intensifies, and there are trips back and forth to Denver because of the statehood debate.

Aside from the over-the-top villain (not only does he verbally and physically abuse his mentally challenged brother, he abuses his horse), I found most of the Heartbreak Creek setting enjoyable and well portrayed. You know your Colorado geography and history. The American Indian character, Thomas Redstone, veered a little close to a Noble Warrior stereotype for my comfort, but I’m probably hyper-sensitive to multicultural depictions compared to many readers.

What made this a mixed read for me was the portrayal of Maddie and Ash’s backstories and Ash’s “highlander” culture. We begin with a prologue where Maddie is in her parents “small, stone cottage” near London. The family is apparently so poor that the house has to be sold to pay for their funeral and she has no other family. But her father is a baronet; there was no heir to be found anywhere? This combination of circumstances is certainly possible, but it isn’t likely, and I would think it unusual enough to warrant an explanation, or at least a passing reference to the baronetcy reverting to the Crown.

But while the impoverished baronet who had no heirs to the baronetcy seemed odd, it wasn’t enough to keep me from suspending disbelief. Then I reached the description of Ash’s position as heir to the earldom:

Turning to the old man, Ash said in a friendly tone, “In the future, Satterwhite, you willna call my wife ‘missy.’ She is a viscountess and should be addressed as my lady or Lady Madeline or Viscountess Ashby.”

“Oh, rubbish,” his wife interjected. “And I suppose next you’ll insist I call you Lord Ashby. Don’t be such a stick. Missy is fine, Mr. Satterwhite. We are friends, after all.” Turning back to Ash, she added as if he were a blithering numptie, “Americans do not recognize titles, Angus. And as I have not yet accepted yours, I choose not to use it.”

He managed to keep his voice calm. “It’s not a matter of choice, Maddie. I am Viscount Ashby. You are wedded to me. Thus, you are Viscountess Ashby. And even though it’s customary for peers to be addressed by their titles rather than their given names, if Ashby is too lofty for you, I’ll answer to Ash.” He punctuated that with a wide grin.

Let’s count the errors. (1) Lady Madeline is incorrect address for a Viscountess unless she is the daughter of a Earl, Marquess, or Duke and chooses to retain that form. (2) Courtesy titles do not elevate the holder to the peerage. (3) As the current Earl’s brother, Ash is the heir presumptive, not the heir apparent; therefore he wouldn’t become Viscount Ashby because only sons and grandsons of title-holders may use courtesy titles. If the Earldom is Scottish (pre-1707), then Ash could be termed “Master,” but Maddie would still be the Hon. Mrs. Wallace.

These errors wouldn’t have grated on me so much if they weren’t reiterated throughout the book. Maddie says several times that Ash is a “member of the peerage” and refers to her privilege as the wife of a peer. His nickname, Ash, is given him by his fellow officers (who are British and would know better, and would probably keep calling him Wallace anyway). While I can skate over occasional miscues, this one is central to Maddie and Ash’s relationship, conflict, and interaction, and it is repeated over and over again.

The misconstruction of their social rank was compounded by the use of “Scottish” words. I have little patience for “dinna fash yerself lassie” language of Ochlassieland (TM Maili) at the best of times. In this book Ash is constantly substituting dinna, willna, wasna, and “bluidy” in place of their generic English equivalents. Since the book is written in third person omniscient POV, with much of the narrative from Ash’s perspective, we get a lot of passages like this:

Ash blinked at the old man, deafened by the ring of truth in his words. That joy in life was what had attracted him to Maddie in the first place. Attracted him, still. But a member of the peerage couldn’t go haring about in disreputable places just to pursue a hobby. It wasna safe. Or proper. Or acceptable. Such behavior would make her the laughingstock of society, and he dinna want that for the lass.

I know there are readers who like dialect in their historical romances. For those who don’t, the dialect detracts from some really lovely writing. Indeed, the writing and the western setting are strong enough that at times I was swept up in the romance and the story despite the dialect. The scenes where Maddie and Ash are trying to work out how they can stay together made me understand why your previous books have had such ardent fans:

He looked away, afraid she would see the wanting in his eyes. He would bargain with the devil himself to keep Maddie by his side. But he couldna let her give up her art. She would end up hating him for it.

He felt her hand cup his cheek and gently force his head around until their eyes met. “It’s all right, Ash. This is what I want to do. My decision. Just give me a little more time, that’s all I ask.”

Tipping his head into her hand, he kissed her palm. Then he gave her a smile he hoped would hide his doubt. “As it happens, love, time is all I have right now.” Then before she could see the despair in his eyes, he pulled her hard against his chest. He took a deep breath and let it out, knowing what he was about to do was wrong, but unable to keeping himself from clutching at any reprieve he could find.

“All right. I’ll stay here with you, lass. As long as I can.” But he wasn’t convinced it was the right decision. In the end, she still wouldn’t be able to leave, and duty wouldn’t allow him to stay.

She reached up and pulled his head down and kissed him hard. Then again, gentler, her tongue sweeping the seam of his lips.

That was all the invitation he needed.

Regular readers of Dear Author know how pedantic I can be about historical errors, but I am often able to gloss over inaccuracies. Several circumstances prevented me here: first, the mistakes weren’t brief or superficial; they were repeated and they were integral to the plot and relationships. Second, there was some excellent historical contextualization, so the missteps stood out. And finally, I’m more easily able to overlook howlers in a fluffy book than a serious one, and this is in many ways a serious book.

I dithered and waffled over my grade. How do I reconcile the wallbanger parts, the parts I dislike but know other readers will enjoy, and the really well done parts? In the end I have to give it a C. But it’s not a “meh” C. It’s a “good + bad = split the difference” C.

~ Sunita

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