I’m still reading across different genres and choosing books on a whim, so the last two months have featured romance, historical fiction, and SFF, with story lengths ranging from novella to doorstop. I wound up writing mini-reviews/reflections, so here are the first set. More to come!
Four Nights to Forever by Jennifer Lohmann
Lohmann submitted her first self-published story to DA for review a few weeks ago, and while I’m not taking ARCs as a rule, I have been wanting to read another book by her since I read her debut SuperRomance. Lohmann and I have tweeted and emailed about books in the past, but I didn’t know she was working on this until I saw the blurb.
This novella is in the style of others I’ve read, where there is a very tight focus on the romance and there isn’t much plot to speak of. Cassie Sumner is a recently divorced mother of a college-age daughter. She’s about to turn 40, and her best friend has persuaded her to celebrate it with a skiing week in Utah. Skiing is one of the many things Cassie stopped doing when she married very young. The Best Friend breaks her leg on the first day of ski lessons, so Cassie is suddenly on-on-one with the younger, hot, ski instructor, Doug Vanderholt.
Doug has sworn off flings with his students, not only because the ski lodge frowns on them, but also because a previous fling put the nail in the coffin of his already failing marriage. Now Doug is focused on his job and being a good parent to his two young children. Lohmann is very good at writing not-entirely-admirable men in the hero role, and while I didn’t think she pulled it off in the HSR I read, I liked Doug and thought he worked. The age difference thing was also well handled.
I like Lohmann’s books because they are intelligent as well as romantic. Not showoff smart, but the characters are thoughtful and reflective. And they have friends! And families! Even in the relatively short space of a novella, Cassie has meaningful interactions with her daughter and her friend, and the reader gets the sense that Doug is embedded into the life around him.
My negative is the usual one: I prefer stories that have more plot. This has a fair amount of sex (all nicely written and fitting the story), which I guess is the point, since it’s about a week-long fling that becomes something more. I believed in the possibility of the more, I just wanted more non-romance stuff. But that’s asking a lot for a novella. Grade: B.
First Time in Forever by Sarah Morgan
This is the first installment in Morgan’s new single-title trilogy, set in Maine and involving a trio of women who have been close friends since college, and Kaetrin did a proper review for DA when it was released. Each of them comes to a cottage on Puffin Island when they need to get away or have a life crisis, and of course they find romance. I read Morgan’s HP earlier this year, which was a prequel of sorts. It involved a different heroine but introduced two of the trio who are featured in this series. I loved that book, it ranks up there with my favorite Morgan HPs (please note that Morgan is one of my favorite authors, so this is as much a within-oeuvre comparison as anything).
I liked this book a lot too. Morgan takes a couple of standard character tropes and subverts them. We have a hero, Ryan, who is allergic to commitment and children, but it’s because he was one of the primary parental figures to his siblings at a young age after his parents’ death. We have a heroine, Emily, who is allergic to commitment and children, also because of too-early responsibilities, but hers left her with more trauma. Manhattan-based management consultant Emily winds up on Puffin Island to get her niece, Lizzy, away from the paparazzi after Lizzy’s mother (Emily’s sister), a famous actor, is killed in a plane crash and Emily becomes the sole guardian. Emily is sure she will be a terrible parental figure but there’s no one else.
Of course neither Ryan nor Emily want to become serious with anyone, and of course they are hot for each other as soon as they meet. So the plot is basically Emily learning to take care of and feel confident about her new relationship with Lizzy, Emily and Ryan falling in love, and Lizzy avoiding being discovered by the paparazzi. Along the way all three of them grow to love and trust each other and Emily overcomes her various traumas (so does Ryan, but his are more manageable and Emily is the focus here). Ryan does a bit of the magical-cure-through-sex thing, but for the most part Emily navigates and overcomes her issues on her own, and in her own time.
Morgan does settings so well, and Puffin Island is a character in its own right. There are mini-crises that move the story along and develop Emily and Ryan’s relationships, but no Big Misunderstandings or Idiot Plot points. If you’ve spent any time in US east-coast ocean communities, you’ll recognize the feel of Puffin Island. By the end of the story we’ve met all the characters that will be featured in the upcoming books, but they don’t crowd the pages as much as in Morgan’s Vermont-set trilogy. This is partly because everyone’s not related and they’re not all in one place. It’s a very nice start to the series. Grade: B+
Death Without Company by Craig Johnson
This is the second installment in the (Sheriff Walt) Longmire series; I’ve been watching the TV show based on the books since it began a few years ago, but I’m just catching up with the novels. It was good, without any big twists like the first one, and more of a straightforward mystery. We get more backstory on Lucian Connelly, Walt hires a new deputy, and we see more of Walt and Henry Standing Bear’s relationship. There’s a bit of mysticism, but not as much as in the debut installment.
The story is about a Basque woman in a nursing home whose death turns out to be homicide, and who was married very briefly to Lucian. Finding out what happened means delving into the past and finding lots of connections with people in the present. I liked the integration of Basque settlers in Wyoming (and the west more generally), and Lucian’s subplot was pretty good.
I’m developing a love-hate with Johnson’s series. Walt feels a bit too much like wish-fulfillment. All the interesting women are attracted to him (if they’re not then they’re usually not people we’d like), he gets shot, beat up, etc. and recovers at TV-show speed, and he’s just a bit too good to be true. I’m starting to appreciate TV Walt more because he (and Henry) feel more Everyman to me. Henry here is almost as superhuman as Walt. And the writing isn’t quite under control. Sometimes it’s strong, other times the lyricism veers dangerously close to overwrought.
Still, I’m sure I’ll go on to the next novels at some point. I sound unenthusiastic, don’t I? It’s more that I’m conflicted. They’re not meh books, they’re more like good/annoying/good/annoying. Grade: B-
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
I’m still working my way through this one. I started it last year and put it aside, and then after watching the BBC series I had to pick it up again. I thought Mark Rylance was brilliant as Cromwell and now I hear his voice when I read Cromwell’s dialogue, but I don’t find that to be a bad thing.
Even though the novel is very immersive, I have to be in the mood to read it because Mantel’s voice is so singular and so powerful. She pulls off the rare feat of making the book feel both of its time and utterly relevant to the contemporary world; I don’t know how she does it. Jennie has a great review here at DA, so I won’t recap the very complex plot, but I’m completely enthralled by the small- and large-scale machinations of the various characters. Cromwell is neither lovable nor admirable when viewed with any objectivity, but he’s endlessly fascinating to me. Unlike a lot of historical romance readers, I’m not a big reader of Tudor history or historical fiction, so Mantel’s views of the characters aren’t warring with previous depictions in my mind.
In some ways the pace of the story is glacial, but there’s always something interesting going on. At this point Anne is still (supposedly) barring Henry from her bed, and yet I’m trying not to read too fast because I don’t want to miss anything. Grade so far: A.