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REVIEW:  Hidden Paradise by Janet Mullany

REVIEW: Hidden Paradise by Janet Mullany

Dear Ms. Mullany,

I’ve had great success reading your Regency-set romances, and a bit less success with a couple of your other books. Still, the blurb for Hidden Paradise drew me in:

Louisa Connelly, a recently widowed Jane Austen scholar, needs some relief from her stifling world. When a friend calls to offer her a temporary escape from her Montana ranch, she is whisked into a dizzying world of sumptuous food, flowing wine…and endless temptation. She’s an honored guest at Paradise Hall, an English resort boasting the full experience of an authentic Georgian country-house weekend. Liveried servants tend to the every need of houseguests clad in meticulous period costume: snug breeches, low-cut silken gowns and negligible undergarments.

Hidden Paradise by Janet MullanyLouisa, usually called Lou, is still grieving the sudden death of her husband Julian and thus understandably a bit wary of the romantic (or even just sexual) entanglements that are rife at Paradise Hall. The story actually follows a number of characters, most of whom seem to be lusting after and/or sleeping with various other characters: Chris and Peter, the gay couple (and friends of Louisa’s) who own Paradise Hall, Mac, who is writing an article on Paradise Hall for a magazine, Rob and Di, hired from the local village to act as footman and maid, and Alan and Cathy, a married couple who won a stay at the resort in a newspaper contest, just to name a few.

Even though I was intrigued by the set-up, after reading a bit I’m not sure why someone would be that interested in staying at a place like this. The charms of 19th century England don’t really make up for the drawbacks, in my opinion, which include uncomfortable clothing and primitive plumbing. Though some concessions are made to the comfort of 21st century guests, I think if it were me I’d rather go all in or just forget the whole thing (and if it were me, I’d honestly choose the latter). Of course, there are plenty of people who go in for reenactment societies and the like, and I suppose this isn’t so different.

There are various lessons and group activities offered at Paradise Hall, meant to recreate the time period – dancing and horseback riding, for example – but the hosts don’t seem to really make an effort to be “in character” nor do they expect the guests to be. People seem mostly sit around and talk about sex. I started to get confused about whether Paradise Hall was actually supposed to be some sort of a hedonistic sex club with a Georgian twist, or the preoccupation with getting it on was just one of those suspension of disbelief things one has to expect with an erotic novel (the way you don’t question why the pizza delivery guy is never just there to deliver pizza in a porn film).

Though the story follows a number of different characters, the main focus is really on Lou and Mac and their burgeoning relationship. I didn’t see any real impediment to them forming a relationship, save the fact that Louisa was still grieving for Julian. Granted, that’s not a small obstacle, but it didn’t always seem to account for how much the two of them dither over the state of their connection. Chris and Peter are going through their own relationship woes; the stress of opening their resort has taken a toll on them and their intimacy, and Peter finds himself mooning over the footman Rob, who is both straight and mooning himself, over the maid Di (at least at first).

The combination of realism and erotica is not one that always works for me. Not that Hidden Paradise is “realistic” in every sense; again, all of the random hookups are outside of my everyday ken. But the sex scenes in Hidden Paradise don’t have the fantasy-flow that I’m used to in other erotica I’ve read, and I’ve come to realize that with this genre specifically, I prefer the fantasy. I’m a little embarrassed by that; it doesn’t seem very sophisticated of me. But there you have it. It’s not that I dislike the sex scenes in Hidden Paradise; that’s not the case at all. It’s just that they often have a sort of real-world awkwardness, and the characters involved have a realistic ambivalence, that keeps the whole thing from being all that sexy to me. It’s still interesting, it’s just not hot.

Perhaps it’s also that for me, Louisa’s grief over her husband just doesn’t mix well with the other, lighter elements of the story. That’s definitely an issue of personal preference and I can see another reader feeling differently about it.

The other relationships that were less fraught with the baggage that accompanied Lou and Mac’s worked better for me. Lou also develops a sexual and eventually emotional relationship with the hunky footman, Rob. I liked Peter and Chris’ subplot, as well as the non-romantic subplot having to do with Rob’s troubled family and his plans to go away to Cambridge in the fall. Mac seems like a familiar character from the Mullany books I’ve read – manly and attractive (he gets plenty of action in the course of the story, and nearly everyone lusts after him at one point or another), but slightly hapless and incompetent at relationship stuff. In some ways that makes him very appealing – he’s a hot hero without the macho alpha bullshit attached – but it also makes him somewhat annoying at times. Like, dude, you’re in your 30s (I think); maybe you could stop screwing up your relationships in such dumb ways? But, to be fair, his saving grace is that the reader knows from his POV that he really does like Lou – the ambivalence I mentioned is much more on her part than his.

I liked Lou, too, though I felt like I could have/should have liked her better. Her grief informs a lot of her feelings and choices and that left her somewhat muted as a character, for all that the majority of the novel is told from her POV. The writing is stellar (as always), and the story picks up in the last third, when there are some interesting revelations, both historical and contemporary, that move some of the relationships forward. I ended up liking Hidden Paradise at the end a bit better than I had in the middle, and my final grade is a solid B.

Best regards,




REVIEW:  The Other Soldier by Kathy Altman

REVIEW: The Other Soldier by Kathy Altman

Dear Ms. Altman:

I wasn’t sure I was going to read this book but Brie asked me if I would take a look at it after we briefly discussed soldiers marrying their friends’ widows. That’s not what this story is about. It’s about a storyline I’ve never read before. Corporal Reid Macfarland sought out Parker Dean on his first leave in over a year to apologize. Tim Dean, Parker’s husband, was killed by a drone under friendly fire. Reid was the one who sent the drone.

The other soldier Altman

Parker responds with anger because she loved her husband and she’s just struggling to put the death of her husband eighteen months ago behind her. Her daughter has just recently stopped having nightmares. Neither of them need, Parker believes, to have bad memories stirred up nor is she ready to forgive.

Reid would like to write a check to Parker and give her all of his money and the amount of a personal loan he was able to convince a bank to underwrite but Harris Briggs, Parker’s older friend and father figure, convinces Reid to stay. And in the thirty days of leave, Reid helps Parker, her daughter, and Harris, make the greenhouse that Tim Dean had always wanted to own, into a reality.

There is a secondary romance between Harris Briggs and Eugenia, an older divorcee, enjoy a romance too. Eugenia has a lot of money and likes to spend it on those she cares about. Harris is full of a lot of pride and is threatened by Eugenia’s money.

I liked the spiciness of the romance between Briggs and Eugenia. Both are presented as attractive individuals and their attraction for each other is, in part, a physical one. Eugenia thrills at Briggs’ muscular arms. Eugenia is acknowledged as beauty enough to attract men twenty years younger. Many times older romances are presented as sedate, a meeting of the minds. I actually wished the Briggs/Eugenia romance was more torrid but that wasn’t the tone of the story.

It’s a slow developing romance where two parties fall in love against their best intentions. Parker learns to forgive and love again and Reid learns to forgive himself. Reid feels like a criminal. Every time someone thanks him for his service, he cringes. He can barely stand to be around Nat, Parker’s daughter, particularly when Nat mistakenly believes that Reid and her father were friends and goes on to wax rhapsodic about her sweet memories with her father:

Takes grumpy to know grumpy, kid. “Maybe.”

She fiddled with the bracelets on her wrist. “My mom said you came to help ’cause my dad died.”

He didn’t say anything. There was nothing he could say.

“And you didn’t even know him.” She tucked her hands into the back pockets of her bright pink jeans. “I could tell you about him, if you want. Whenever he came home from being deployed he always had to have my mom’s banana muffins. And her meat loaf. He’d ask her to make tons of it and we’d have it with mashed potatoes and peas. I never ate the peas. If she tried to make me I’d feed ‘em to Chance. Anyways she’d make him meat loaf sandwiches with ketchup and cheese for when he went fishing. Sometimes she’d put hard-boiled eggs inside to surprise him. Daddy didn’t like to fish with worms, he used these squiggly, feathery, funny-looking things called flies and—”
Reid closed his eyes. He was in hell. Forget the searing flames and writhing bodies and agonized screaming. This was true damnation, having to listen to a lonely little girl chatter on and on about the father she’d worshipped.

Parker resents how easy it is for Reid to gain acceptance in her small town and how it seems like he is living the life Tim deserved to live. He strikes up friendship with another man who just bought the town’s inn. He has the respect of Harris. Yet, Reid’s tireless work ethic, his ability to shoulder some of the burden, and his persistence breaks down her anger, her resentment and turns it into love.

I loved the way Reid and Harris interacted. Reid reminding Harris of the gift of forgiveness that Harris was always pushing onto him. Parker’s love and respect for her husband isn’t diminished. Tim wasn’t unfaithful or abusive or any thing but loving and genuine which makes Parker’s grief all the more poignant. It also makes it understandable why Parker would want to remarry, to fall in love again even though she fights it early on.

It’s actually a very sweet and tender romance told in an understated but touching fashion. B

Best regards,