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Harlequin Romance

REVIEW:  Christmas at the Castle by Marion Lennox

REVIEW: Christmas at the Castle by Marion Lennox

Dear Marion Lennox:

I fell behind reading your releases in 2013, but when I saw you had a Christmas novel out in December I jumped on it. From the first couple of chapters I could tell that this was going to be a vintage Lennox, combining a fairy-tale holiday setting and story with a likable, no-nonsense heroine and a sympathetic, aristocrat hero.

Christmas at the Castle

Angus Stuart, Earl of Craigenstone and Lord of Castle Craigie, has a problem. The unwilling inheritor of his horrible father’s Earldom, he wants only to sell up the Castle and its land and get back to New York, where he has lived almost all his life. But his young half-siblings want one last Christmas at the Castle, and with the way their father mistreated them and their mother, he’s having a hard time saying no.

Scottish-Australian chef Holly McIntosh also has a problem. Her worthless fiancé stole money from their restaurant and ran off, leaving Holly with a mountain of debts and maxed out credit cards. She returns to Scotland and her beloved grandmother for a break and a frugal Christmas.

Angus needs a chef and housekeeper, and Holly needs money and a job. They strike a bargain, but that bargain almost immediately becomes more complicated when Angus tries to reassure his father’s widow, Delia, that the children will be fine at the Castle because Holly will look after them, he goes too far and blurts out that Holly is his fiancée. Holly agrees to the deception but on strictly business terms, and our tale is off and running.

Angus is not your average Earl; he hates being the Earl, he hates having to take responsibility for a Castle, family, and tenants he doesn’t know, and he just wants to get things settled and return to his investment banker American life. But he’s a very decent person, and while he’s just the Lord and not the Laird, as Holly’s grandmother Maggie observes, he’s not actively malevolent like the previous Earl.

Holly is forthright and unimpressed by Earls. She takes pride in her accomplishments as a chef even as she berates herself for having falling for her worthless ex-fiance’s deceptions. But although she agrees to the engagement pretense for the children’s and her grandmother’s sakes, she won’t turn herself into what the Earl thinks an Earl’s betrothed should be. Their trip to an exclusive boutique in Edinburgh (Maggie’s suitcases are, of course, lost by the airline) is a great sendup of the scene in Pretty Woman: the boutique’s salespeople are more than happy to kit her out, but she doesn’t want their twinsets and pearls:

She flicked over a price tag and gasped. ‘If you’re serious about spending thissort of money, or, if you’re serious about letting me be a fiancée, then I reckon I ought to be my sort of fiancée. Does that make sense?’

‘Yes,’ he said cautiously. ‘I think so.’

‘But you like this?’

‘It’s suitable.’

‘You haven’t exactly chosen a suitable fiancée,’ she reminded him.

‘I haven’t exactly chosen…’ But then he looked at the manager’s dour face and he decided enough was enough. He wasn’t about to discuss temporary engagements in public.

‘My mother will probably be coming over…for the wedding,’ he told the man consolingly. ‘She’s American but this style of clothing is exactly what she’d love. That’s why I brought Holly here. If I can leave my car here now, I’ll bring my mother—and her friends—in for a pre-wedding shop as soon as they get here.’

‘Certainly, My Lord,’ the man said heavily, casting a look of dislike at His Lord’s intended. ‘So your mother has taste?’

‘Yes, she does,’ Angus said and Holly smiled her sympathy at the poor man.

‘That’s put me in my place properly,’ she said and she reached out and took the manager’s hand and shook it with such warmth that the man’s disapproval gave way to something that could almost be a smile.

Their next stop is a more appropriate store, where Holly finds:

black leggings, blue leather boots that reached above her knees, a gorgeous oversized scarlet turtleneck sweater and a cute scarlet beret that should have screamed at her copper curls but didn’t.

Much better.

Of course Holly wins over Delia (and vice versa) and of course the children love her, and of course Maggie and her helpers from the village are able to turn a dark, miserable Castle into an inviting, Christmasy home. And of course Angus looks incredibly hot in his kilt. It’s a Christmas fairy tale, so you know how these things work. But the relationships feel real, and Holly and Angus don’t just fall into lust with each other, they talk and share confidences and become friends.

Not everything works perfectly; sometimes the Christmas spirit is a little thick. There is a dog, who belongs to the forcibly retired gamekeeper. They get their happy ending too. Everyone gets their happy ending, except the villain, whose villainy is played for understatement and who doesn’t get punished as badly as he deserves.

The way Angus resolves his obligations to the village and the earldom requires the greatest suspension of disbelief, and it will undoubtedly cross over into sugar-overload-territory for some readers. But this is Marion Lennox’s story, and she manages to balance the sweetness with a few down-to-earth characters. And I’m a sucker for a Christmas story, so it worked for me. Go into expecting to read about a Christmas miracle and it may well work for you too. Grade: B

~ Sunita

 

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REVIEW:  Ballroom to Bride and Groom by Kate Hardy

REVIEW: Ballroom to Bride and Groom by Kate Hardy

Dear Ms. Hardy:

I’ve read Kate Hardy’s Medicals and Presents novels for years, and the Posh Docs series is on my keeper shelf. When I saw a new novel in the Harlequin Romance line, I was intrigued, because it seemed a good fit in terms of voice and style.

Ballroom to Bride and Groom

Polly Anna Adams has just been dumped by her fiance, a week before the wedding, and she’s resigned her job on a children’s TV show, left the flat they shared, and is spending her time taking care of cancelling all the wedding details. Her agent gets her an audition for a Dancing-With-the-Stars type TV show, where she is partnered with Liam Flynn, a professional dancer who is returning after 18 months of rehab for injuries he suffered in an auto accident. Liam’s life fell apart after the accident; he wasn’t sure he could ever dance again and his dance-partner wife left him for a new partner. So Polly is shell-shocked and Liam has decided he won’t get emotionally involved again.

Polly’s bright and cheerful personality and always-on smile protects her from showing her true feelings. She perfected the technique after a crisis in her teens (we figure out pretty quickly what the crisis was). Liam sees through it and they develop a tentative friendship as they train for the competition, with an undercurrent of mutual attraction running through their time together. Polly is sure that she is too clumsy and awkward to be able to dance properly, but Liam is persistent and his alternately bracing and sympathetic attitude gives her confidence:

She’d never, ever experienced anything like this. And when he guided her effortlessly round the corners and danced her all the way back down the room again…

‘Wow,’ she said when the song ended. ‘I never thought I’d be able to do that.’

At the beginning of their lesson, he’d had his doubts, too. But she’d worked hard. Made the effort. And, from the look of wonder in her eyes, he was pretty sure that she’d just got what he loved about ballroom dancing. OK, it was tiny, as far as breakthroughs went, but it was a start. Part of him wanted to pick her up and spin her round. But the sensible side of him remained in control. Just.

‘Told you so,’ he said laconically.

‘Smugness,’ she said, ‘is not a good look on you, Mr Flynn.’

It was the first time she’d really answered him back—teasing, confident, and incredibly sweet. Liam couldn’t help responding to the glint in her eyes: he smiled at her.

Polly is appealing and sympathetic, and while she’s a bit of a doormat at the beginning, you can understand why she took the actions she did. She has almost no relationship with her parents, she has a circle of loving and supportive friends. Liam is more of a stock character at the beginning: the ambitious, gifted professional who shuts up his emotions and places everyone at arm’s length until he meets the woman who unwittingly pierces his defenses. The twist here, though, is that Polly is more reluctant to act on their mutual attraction than he is. There’s an utterly over-the-top but lovely interlude set in Vienna, where Liam takes Polly when she is having trouble getting the hang of the waltz. But after a wonderful night together, Polly is the one who draws back, not Liam. Their career plans put them on different paths, and at no point does Polly do that annoying romance-heroine thing of deciding that she’s willing to give up everything for her man.

The first half of the story involves introducing the characters and the dance competition plot. The scenes with Liam teaching Polly to dance and their weekly performances are a lot of fun, although they focus primarily on the two of them and don’t show much of the rest of the competitors (the snippets with the judges are amusing). The second half develops the relationship and deals with the fallout when the details of Polly’s teenage crisis are revealed. The scene where Polly faces her past and talks frankly about what happened is very moving. The last few scenes and the ending, though, like so many categories, feels rushed, and the Big Gesture at the end is one of those that readers either love or hate. Since they hadn’t resolved the believable issues that were blocking an easy HEA, I wasn’t quite sure I could believe the ending. I did believe that they really loved each other, though, which is probably more important.

Since this is in the Sweet line, the heat level is very low. I’m fine with that, but readers who don’t want to stop at the bedroom door will likely be a bit frustrated. I found the repeated use of one word to describe what the French call a coup de foudre to be a bit tiring (there’s a reason we borrow so much from French, as it turns out). I know you can’t explain coup de foudre feelings, and I understood not only why Polly was willing to marry her fiancé without it, but also why he felt something was missing. But the emphasis on Polly’s discovery of that feeling and its importance didn’t quite work for me as written. At a more technical level, there are also a lot of POV shifts within scenes that were sometimes difficult to follow.

In spite of those issues, though, I enjoyed the book. The arcs of character growth for Polly and Liam were believable, and I liked that they were not just falling in love because they were physically attracted to each other but because they liked each other as people. The backstage scenes about the dance training and competition were nicely woven into the romantic progression. And no one was a pure villain, not even the person who triggered the public revelations about Polly’s past. I think the HR line suits Hardy’s voice well, and I’m looking forward to seeing what else she does within it. Grade: C+

~ Sunita

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