Music in the Hills (Dering Family #2)

by D. E. Stevenson

The view down the valley was wide and free; the winding river, the rounded, rolling hills. The air sparkled so that it was a positive joy to breathe . . . and over the whole place there was a stillness, a peaceful sort of feeling; it was like the feeling one has when the words of a benediction have been uttered and have died away.

Rhoda had quite a good brain (and knew it), but even she found the sermon “a bit stiff,” for Mr. Sim’s theme was the ethical interpretations of history and the varying interactions of the temporal and spiritual powers. As Rhoda looked round at her fellow-worshippers she could not help wondering whether they were taking it all in or whether their rapt expressions were due to pre-occupation with domestic affairs.

“So, Becky, What are you reading?”
Music in the Hills by D.E. Stevenson.”
“What’s it about?”
“It’s about a young Englishman, disappointed in love, who goes to Scotland and learns to be a sheep farmer. In the 1950’s”
“Oh.”

Whenever I finish a D.E. Stevenson novel, half the time, it seems like I am declaring it the best I have read yet. Music in the Hills is the second in a trilogy begun with Vittoria Cottage, and it has supplanted Katherine Wentworth as my favorite so far (other than the Miss Buncle books). After proposing to Rhoda, the strong-minded and captivating artist we met briefly in the first book, and being turned down, James Dering, the beloved son of Caroline, the heroine of Vittoria Cottage, goes to live with her sister and her husband’s Scottish estate and sheep farm, Mureth. He has his mind and heart set on being a farmer after being stationed in Malaya during the war. James is one of D.E. Stevenson’s strong, upstanding, handsome, and kind heroes. He was lovely, although on at least two occasions I wanted to slap him silly.

We meet lots of interesting characters at Mureth and the environs. The main characters, self-deprecating, vague, but wise Mamie, strong and straight Jock, pretty vivacious Holly, fairy-like Eleanor, Daniel the shepherd, and community and duty-obsessed Lady Shaw, would all take pages or at least paragraphs to describe satisfactorily. Even the ones who put in the briefest of appearances have something distinctive about them for good or bad. The ones we are meant to scorn, I disliked intensely (narcissistic bully Sir Andrew, Lady Shaw’s husband, and the self-important entitled Londoner who buys a neighboring estate. He doesn’t understand his house, the people, or the land and doesn’t care to.)

There are quite a few plot threads to keep things interesting. Lady Shaw’s conniving niece Holly’s pursuit of James, for one. We know she is not right for him right away.

You don’t *like* London do you?”
“No, of course not. I’m really a country person.” She did not look like a country person. Even James, who knew very little about women’s clothes, had a feeling that Holly’s green frock was a town rather than a country garment and her shoes had been made to walk upon London pavements rather than in country lanes. He took her hand to help her down the uneven steps.

It takes James, naive in the ways and wiles of women quite some time for the light to fully dawn. We fear for him. When the vibrant unconventional Rhoda tears up on her motorcycle and knocks on Mureth’s door, we breathe a sigh of relief. We also fear for Eleanor, Lady Shaw’s young daughter. Though surrounded by family, she is virtually alone in the world with her books, dreaming her life away. James takes to her immediately and enlists reluctant Mamie to help rescue her. What will happen when sweet and timid Mamie gets up the gall to talk to the self-important human steamroller who is Lady Shaw about her parenting? I was on the edge of my seat. Meanwhile, someone is rustling the Mureth sheep. Suspicion falls on a likable character we know has got to be innocent. What is going on? James gets on the bad side of the powerful new neighbor who unbelievably shoots at a sheepdog. When he throws a citified party to introduce himself to his country neighbors, danger lurks everywhere. By the end, the good and strong are set apart from the bad or weak. Then we have the petty feuds and rivalries, Lizzie the housekeeper and her detachment from her children, the gossip, a country party that almost leads to disaster, stalking sheep rustlers, hunting, fishing, and traipsing through the hills. I for sure started to cringe at the direction the James and Eleanor relationship seemed to be briefly going, but it didn’t. What was he thinking?

Despite the fact that I had another book waiting to be read, I had to pivot and go right on to the sequel, Winter and Rough Weather. It was too soon to leave the world of Mureth and its people. I had to keep accompanying them on their journeys for a little while longer. I hope we see Eleanor completely sorted in book #3.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Artistic License

by Elle Pierson (Lucy Parker)

“Well, you will make mistakes. And people will get hurt. Unfortunately, that’s life. But that doesn’t automatically negate all the good stuff. And it doesn’t mean that you should make some sort of pre-emptive strike against taking the risk in the first place.” Sophy let out a sigh, examining the toes of her shoes as they scuffed in the gravel. “You’re a wise woman, Ma,” she said lightly after a moment. “I think so,” agreed Marion serenely. “Did you get that last bit from Oprah?” “A magazine at the hair salon.”

**4 1/2 stars.** For what it is, a light harlequin-style romance this was excellent. This was Lucy Parker’s first book, and it was self-published under what I assume is her real name. I’m used to her glittery sophisticated London-based books revolving around the theatre and other rarefied venues. Her ability to drop the reader right in the middle of her world has been part of her appeal for me. This one is set in New Zealand, and I was impressed that this setting seemed as authentic as her London milieu. I was surprised but not surprised to find she is a native New-Zealander, when all this time, based on her books, I thought she was a native Londoner.

This is an unapologetic romance with a bit of mystery thrown in to keep things moving. Sophy is very shy to the point that she suffers from debilitating social anxiety. With people she knows she is smart, funny, and cute. With people she doesn’t, she “shrinks in both size and personality” like a “spooked turtle.” An artist, she meets the very large, muscular, and very dangerous-looking Mick, a security specialist, while he is in charge at an art exhibit.

And look at them, for Christ’s sake. It was as if someone had mixed up the casting calls for a flowery chick flick and Terminator 5. He felt three times larger and at least twice as ugly as he actually was just standing near her. The chances of her reciprocating anything other than wary reluctance seemed to hover around zero.

When she finds herself in the middle of a domestic terrorist incident, Mick rushes to her aid when she is knocked down and has an asthma attack. Despite his reserve with women due to his looks (not attractive) and her shyness, it’s basically love at first sight.

This started off slow. At one point, I was going to temporarily put it down to start a book I was anxious to read. I gave it 20 more minutes and it came through for me. We learn that Mick does not like his family and that he comes from a very wealthy and privileged background. Interesting. Then Sophy starts getting anonymous gifts from someone who knows her tastes. It starts to get creepy. Hmmm. I loved Sophy’s family, whom we spend a day with. The Lucy Parker wit and sparkling banter seemed to get better and better as the book went on. Some of the humor is based on her talent for including apt cultural references. There were several engrossing scenes including Sophy meeting Mick’s heinous family. I liked that Sophy’s and Mick’s characters were true and consistent throughout. I enjoyed their warm and tender relationship. He was protective but respected her and didn’t try to “fix” her. I dreaded the point where Mick or Sophy’s hang-ups would endanger their relationship but the bump in the road was understandable based on their firmly established characters and was nipped in the bud quickly. The secondary characters were engaging. And it had a great ending. Really couldn’t ask for more from a light romance and it’s just what I was in the mood for.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Vittoria Cottage

By D. E. Stevenson

We don’t stand still, thought Robert. We are travellers upon the path of life. No traveller can bathe twice in the same stream. He bathes and goes on his way and, if the road is dusty and hot, he may look back longingly and think of the clear cool water with regret … but presently he may come upon another stream, different of course, but equally delightful to bathe in.”

This is a quintessential D.E. Stevenson novel which means I really liked it. It features a little family headed by a young widow living in a charming abode in the English countryside. Wandlebury, home to Miss Buncle, or rather, Mrs. Abbott, is frequently mentioned as in the vicinity. Caroline Dering is very nice, very capable, and the mother of three children. James, her oldest and the child most like her, is serving in Malaya. Leda takes after her petulant late husband and is beautiful, selfish, and entitled. Bobbie, the youngest, is lively, tomboyish, and just a good kid.

The story centers around Caroline’s friendship with a newcomer to the village, an attractive widower she had coincidentally had a pleasant encounter with on her honeymoon with the habitually peevish and thankfully now-dead Arnold. Robert, a spy, was imprisoned in Germany and is still recovering from the aftereffects of both that and the tragic death of his wife during the blitzkrieg. They fall in like and are smoothly transitioning to love until things are shaken up by Caroline’s younger sister, famous actress Harriet Fane, who comes for an extended visit. She sets her cap at Robert, and what man, Caroline thinks, could resist? Harriet is my favorite character. She is worldly, amusing, and speaks her mind without fear or favor. She and Caroline are devoted to each other.

The other main focus is Leda’s engagement to the lazy and weak Derek, the son and heir of the leading family in their community. If possible, he is even more unlikable than Leda. Both Caroline and his father, the Admiral and local squire, are in favor of a long engagement because Derek is still at University and they have no means of support. Derek and Leda are not happy. Both are foolish and immature, though Leda, thanks to her raising, is slightly more sensible.

The fates of both romances reach a crisis and form the conclusion of the novel. On the way we have Caroline’s visit to London, James’ return home from Malaya, his nascent romance with Derek’s likable independent sister, painful news from Robert’s young son in America, a few medical crises, a few parties, and various encounters with well-drawn townspeople and neighbors. Particularly noteworthy is the fate of Comfort, Caroline’s lovable housekeeper who worships the ground Caroline walks on, but is dangerously overweight.

The protagonists are so “pro” and the antagonists so “anti” that you just want the book to go on forever so you don’t have to leave their world. Instead, it ends very abruptly with a lot of loose ends, which brought my rating down. It was read by Lesley Mackie who was simply perfection. I am so happy that this is only the first in a trilogy. Even though the next book follows lovely James to faraway Scotland, I hope we hear a lot more about our friends in and around Vittoria Cottage.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Unequal Affections

By Lara S. Ormiston

Why did he have to be so charming in some ways and so insufferable in others? She was sure she had hurt far more than just his pride. Would it always be so hard?

I admired and enjoyed this alternative imagining of Elizabeth and Darcy’s romance very much. Very. What if Elizabeth took the more practical approach of her friend Charlotte and accepted Darcy’s proposal at Hunsford?

She had been proposed to by a stranger. A very rich, very handsome stranger who was very much in love with her. She could not possibly accept him—but, suddenly, she could not possibly refuse him either, not now. This was, she knew clearly, a chance unlike any other she would ever receive. She could not turn him down for the satisfaction of it. She had to think.

You will need fear nothing as my wife, neither poverty nor loneliness, dishonor, or disloyalty, unkindness, neglect . . . you will be the most cherished wife in all of England.”

Who could resist such a declaration? She’s only human. After a week of soul-searching, she accepts Darcy. Not only for the good she can do her family, especially Jane, but because she starts to see Darcy in a new light. She thought he despised her. She was so wrong. How else has she misjudged him? Before she can truly come to love Darcy as he ardently wishes, he has to change. And changing the habits and attitudes of a lifetime is by necessity slow going. But I never found it tedious. It really felt like this is how it would have gone. In the original, Elizabeth’s words in summarily rejecting Darcy’s proposal shake him to the core, and he starts to change. Just as ”the letter” starts Elizabeth on her path. In this book, it is a much different process. How Elizabeth finally gets through to him is a great scene.

As for Darcy, he had been completely unable to speak. Elizabeth’s words had cut through him like knives, shaming him deeply, and shame was not an emotion he was accustomed to experiencing…Was it possible that he, who had studied throughout his life to improve his mind and character, had overlooked such an essential flaw?…He had not understood her then, but he did now. His refusal to talk was an active unkindness, a deliberate slight on the value of those he had thought beneath him. He had not thought their feelings even worth the effort of a few polite remarks and a smile or two. He certainly had not been willing to consider lowering his own dignity to promote theirs. Nor . . . his brows furrowed deeply in pain . . . nor to promote Elizabeth’s happiness either.

This book includes many high points of Austen’s novel. Particularly delicious is this version of Lady Catherine De Burgh and Elizabeth’s confrontation in the garden. And in this one, we have Darcy’s reaction to his aunt’s unmitigated gall and ill manners “which rather threw anything anyone in the Bennet family had ever done in the shade” when he walks into the middle of the fray. All of the characters remain true to Austen’s creations. And the more time we spend with Mr. Bennet and Lydia the more contemptible they are revealed to be. I liked how Lizzie started seeing her father more clearly and lost a lot of her respect for him. At one point, she even intervenes and protects her mother from Mr. Bennet’s mockery. There is even a dramatic rescue of Lydia and an exciting confrontation with Wickham as well, but in entirely different circumstances than the original.

I also found the dialogue, vocabulary, and narrative very authentic to Jane Austen’s style. The book is too long and repetitive but it rarely got tiresome. I admit that I found Elizabeth’s change from confusion to liking, to loving Darcy way too gradual to be believable or sympathetic. But Ormiston’s treatment of Darcy, I thought, was brilliant. His admiration, love, and passion for Elizabeth remain steadfast throughout. In this, he proves, again and again, the ardent words of his proposal in Austen’s work. Even when Elizabeth’s fearful secret is revealed to him: that not only did she not love him, but how much she actively and publicly disliked him, he doesn’t blame Elizabeth but himself. Elizabeth has to accept the fact that her actions and manners were not above reproach either and have caused great pain.

This is easily the best reimagining of or sequel to Pride and Prejudice, I have ever read. I hate to call it Fan Fiction, although it is, because it doesn’t do it justice. When I looked for more of Lara Ormiston’s books, I was so disappointed to learn she hasn’t written anything else.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Ghosted

by Rosie Walsh

“The letters, Tommy, all those letters I sent him via Facebook. Calling his workshop, writing to his friend Alan. What was I thinking?” “A silent phone brings out the very worst in us,” he said. “All of us.”

As I was reading this, I found it to be a real page-turner. I went into it thinking it was going to be a romantic suspense-type novel: a story about a woman whose lover has disappeared and her search for him leading to danger and intrigue. The down-to-earth guy she fell in love with not being what he seemed on the surface. Perhaps involved with organized crime, witness protection, or being a secret agent who disappeared because he was killed or kidnapped? Or perhaps deliberately going out of her life without a trace to protect her from harm? I did not see the twist around the middle coming at all and was blown away by the real story.

But no. Ultimately, I had too many problems and frustrations, particularly with Eddie (did she have to name him Eddie?). I bought the love story and the soulmate connection that happened in a week. I understood Sarah’s obsession with finding him, her terror, and then her pain and bewilderment. I was as bewildered as she was, and I really felt for her. Despite her emotional somewhat unhinged behavior, I didn’t blame her. I wanted her to keep going and find Eddie. 

**Spoiler**

What I didn’t get was the hatred and hostility directed at 17-year-old Sarah for the accident. It. Wasn’t. Her. Fault. I didn’t understand her sister Hannah hating and not speaking to her for 19 years for choosing to save Hannah’s life at the expense of another. And it wasn’t even a choice. It was an involuntary instinct. A reflex in the horror and panic of the moment. If anything, it was Hannah’s own fault for running off and getting in scumbag Bradley’s car to begin with! It was just so unjust and I couldn’t understand. What added to that frustration was she was never blamed for her stupidity and blindness in letting lowlife Bradley into her life at all. In that way, yes, she was indirectly responsible for the tragedy. A more immature, half-witted, and blinder than usual teenager could not be imagined. But she was still only a kid. And Eddie. I lost all patience with him and his cruel ghosting of Sarah when it became obvious that it was a choice, not something forced on him. After the twist, I was initially sympathetic, but ultimately there was no excuse for his cowardly irrational behavior. I just couldn’t forgive him even at the end when he went through so much pain and remorse. He got off way too easy. I felt like his obsession with his sister was a little over the top and, shall we say, off-putting. **end spoiler**

The second twist, I felt, was clever and well done. 

**spoiler**especially given the title of the book . **end spoiler**

It kept me turning the pages, let me tell you! Despite my problems with one of the protagonists and the core motivations, I really liked how it all turned out. So overall, I would recommend this to most people, especially to romantics at heart. But you gotta like melodrama too. I hovered between a 3 and a 4, but the problems I had nagged at me all the way through. So my annoyance rounds it down from a 4.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

October 11, 2022

Pretty Face

“As he marched her to the second level, he heard muttering behind him. She really was going to have to work on her vocal range. If she wanted to make an impact when she called someone a “bossy prat,” she needed to project.”

“I’m not bossy.”
He actually sounded like he believed that.
“Okay, Captain Von Trapp. Keep telling yourself that.”
She’d broken the stern director facade again. He was grinning.”

I was a little disappointed in this one, but only because my expectations were so high. It is generally accounted to be her best book, and I just loved the other three in The London Celebrities series. The setting of London’s West end Theatre scene was just as glamorous and the witty quite sophisticated banter didn’t falter either. It is one of the main appeals of a Lucy Parker novel. I love the way her amusing use of pop culture includes references from Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, and Star Wars characters to even Harper Lee’s controversial Go Set a Watchman. It lends authenticity and immediacy to conversations and inner thoughts. Plus it’s very funny.

Sadly, the romance, maybe because it was so similar to the others, did not engage me as much. Luc Savage (that name!) hires Lily Lamprey (that name!) as one of the actors in his latest production, 1553, about Princess Elizabeth, Princess Mary, and Lady Jane Grey. It is to open his own historic theatre which he is also renovating. He has to be talked into even looking at Lily’s audition tape for the role of Elizabeth I because although very high-profile as the sexy bombshell in a very popular prime-time soap opera, she has no experience in the theatre, and has a very soft breathy voice like Marilyn Monroe. Not exactly Virgin Queen material. However, he needs the publicity her casting will bring, and gives her the part when he finally sees her surprising acting talent. Also, he quickly learns she is not the empty-headed floozy she looks like and plays so well on TV. Lucy Parker does opposites attract romance very very well. In my experience, her heroines are usually sweet girl-next-door types and her heroes are powerful and cantankerous. In addition to the unlikely romance between the protagonists set to the drama of putting on the play that will open Luc’s new theatre, we have some side stories. Lily has to come to terms with problematic parents which have saddled her with abandonment issues. As a TV actress with a weak voice, she is under a lot of pressure to defeat expectations and prove herself to the company and the public. To complicate matters we have a prominent tabloid with a personal vendetta against Luc and by association, Lily. Towards the end, there are two crises that rear up. One cements their relationship and then the other (temporarily of course) tears them apart.

My problem with the romance was with the hero. He got on my bad side right away with his prejudging of Lily who is lovable from the get-go. It was not only sexist, snooty, and stupid but considering we are told that he returned to the London *Thee-uh-Tuh* only after selling out in order to direct Hollywood blockbusters, it was exceedingly hypocritical. Also, he was just so “above it all.” I mean, he could barely bring himself to pull a cracker at Christmas dinner with his nice family! And then he removes himself from the room when they start their traditional game of charades. Come on now. He has a lot in common with her heroes in other books, In fact, they, as well as her heroines, are almost interchangeable. Almost. But the others are made more palatable by some vulnerabilities and more of a sense of humor.

So whether it was the hero or I was just tired of the nice girl having to bring to heel a mean boy in an uneven power dynamic, this one was just a shade below the others in the series for me. It was still very good.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

July 22, 2022

Persuasion

It Wasn’t That Bad.

It was not my intention to review the much-criticized new adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion. But such has been the vitriol and bitterness of some of the reviews, that I can’t resist. Because I didn’t hate it. I was confused by it and confounded by some of the decisions that were made particularly concerning Anne’s character, but there was much that I enjoyed. And I certainly didn’t think everyone involved should be “thrown in prison”.

It follows the plot pretty closely. All of the characters are substantially the same people as in the book and the very faithful films.  Except for Anne. Anne is not the same character at all. The mumblings and murmurings started with the miscasting of the gorgeous Dakota Johnson as the mousy beaten-down Anne. And the trailer really got people going. Since Anne Elliott is one of Austen’s most beloved characters, the sneak peak did not sit well with many. Particularly the hyper-vigilant “Janeites”. Because of all the hate, I approached this movie with an open tolerant mind and sat down to be entertained. One aspect of the movie that has incurred much criticism is Anne continually breaking the fourth wall. She makes sarcastic and witty comments to the viewer about the behavior of her family members. Her observations are dead on. “My Father. He’s never met a reflective surface he didn’t like. Vanity is the beginning and end of his character. Also the middle.” She gives the viewers sly glances when one of her fellow characters does or says something particularly absurd. It was clearly an attempt to interject Austen’s own voice into the narrative and simultaneously enliven Anne.

As Sir Walter Elliot, Richard E. Grant could not have been better. In fact, all of the actors except one were good to excellent. But things started to get weird almost immediately. Instead of keeping Anne’s outspoken and barbed observations between herself and the audience, she calls out her relatives directly to their faces. Anne is shown to be publicly full of verve and spirit. If they had kept this facet of her personality a secret between Anne and us, her confidants, they could have kept much of the integrity of her character. They missed an opportunity to show how Anne’s true feelings and opinions are at odds with the way she is forced to navigate her world. She acts out and in the process makes her character eccentric and at times, incomprehensible.  There are many examples but most jarring was Anne spouting off out of the blue and unprovoked during a dinner party to all and sundry that she herself was the first choice of Charles, her sister Mary’s husband. Needless to say, she brings the merry party to a standstill. However true, even the most socially inept meanest mean girl wouldn’t do that! It was almost Tourettes-like. I can’t think of why this was done, as well as the many many other examples of weird behavior Anne displays such as the octopus speech and drinking way too much wine right from the bottle. The director replaced Anne Eliot with Bridget Jones. Remember Bridget’s response at the dinner table full of couples that all singletons having scales? And as Bridget Jones, Dakota Johnson was charming and funny. She just wasn’t Anne Eliot in a work that is supposed to be all about the character regaining her bloom and spirit long suppressed by sorrow and regret. There is nothing to prevent This Anne from going after her heart’s desire right from the get-go.

There was little to no chemistry between Anne and Captain Wentworth, who looked decidedly grungy throughout the production. I didn’t care for him. Henry Golding’s shady and scheming William Eliot actually falls in love with the common and unattractive Mrs. Clay and marries her at the end. Just weird and nonsensical. Back to the good. The cinematography was beautiful and the scenery and fashions were both lovely. I actually liked the contemporary pop-culture parlance (“playlist,” “fashion forward,” “you’re a 10,” “we’re exes”, “I’m an empath,” etc.) I thought it was fresh, whimsical, and definitely brave. I was drawn in as I always am by Jane Austen’s regency world however askew this one was. In fact, I rather enjoyed the off-center vibe.

I was able to tolerate the strange choices by the writer and director while I was looking at it. It was only later upon reflection that my feelings started to sour. I hated that they could have made Anne a modern kick-ass heroine, while still maintaining the integrity of one of Jane Austen’s most interesting creations and her truly moving character arc. I hear that Netflix is (or was) planning to bring more of Austen’s novels to the screen. If they decide to go ahead with this despite the fact that “everyone” hates this one, I will be very curious and interested.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

July 20, 2022

Book Lovers

By Emily Henry

“You seem pretty pleased with yourself,” he says, “for a woman who just found out she was the inspiration for Cruella de Vil.” I scowl at him. Charlie rolls his eyes. “Come on. I’ll buy you a martini. Or a puppy coat.”

Mom and Libby liked the love stories where everything turned out perfectly, wrapped in a bow, and I’ve always wondered why I gravitate toward something else. I used to think it was because people like me don’t get those endings. And asking for it, hoping for it, is a way to lose something you’ve never even had.

I suspect that many romance authors put the word “book” in the title in order to increase their sales, so I vet a book set in a bookstore or involving novelists very carefully. This one was a no-brainer though because I enjoyed two of Emily Henry’s previous books, Beach Read and People We Meet on Vacation. I was immediately drawn in by the heroine, Nora, comparing herself to “the other woman” in a small town (read Hallmark) romance. That would be the hard-charging, cold and manipulative, career-oriented city-centric woman that the hero dumps for love and marriage with the sweet small-town heroine. Libby, Nora’s beloved sister, a happy but harried and exhausted mom, thinks that she and Nora need a reset in their lives. She, to get some rest and relaxation, Nora to re-examine her lifestyle and perhaps find love. Nora agrees to the plan because she cannot deny her sister anything. Libby decides to take her sister to a highly fictionalized (it turns out) version of the small town in the mountains of North Carolina in which one of Nora’s authors/clients set her recent best-seller (soon to be a major motion picture.) There, Libby presents a list of small-town romance cliches that Nora is to do (attend a festival, save a local business, etc.) before the end of their stay. Being a reluctant and slightly embarrassed Hallmark aficionado, I was hooked. Libby is trying to engineer the flipside of the Hallmark romance trope for Nora: The workaholic big city girl who finds love in the country and changes her ways. But that’s boring. Luckily, a fly in the ointment appears in the form of  Charlie, a city acquaintance of Nora’s who is kind of a male version of her and thus not suitable to force Nora out of her rut. Their initial antagonism, based on a past encounter and their mutual reputations, quickly leads to sharp and clever banter,  funny wisecracks, and lust.

The entertaining snark flows thick and fast, but I realized, around the 30% mark that nothing else was happening. Nora’s dates with the local swains don’t count because we know those are going nowhere. Her small-town adventures are just amusing window dressing. Nora’s growing lust for Charlie and vice versa is described over and over. Their personal relationship develops while working together on a new book. But it just didn’t seem to be going anywhere.  

Things did pick up a little over halfway when it became obvious that Libby, whom I came to like, was hiding something from Nora. Something not good. So the intrigue and mystery of that kept me going. Also getting a lot of pages are Nora and Libby’s childhood, the death of their mother, and how that molded their current dysfunctional relationship. Charlie’s past struggles with his family, and why Nora and Charlie, obviously made for each other, can’t have a sexual fling, let alone a long-term relationship, also get a lot of words.

In the end, it turns out that if everyone had just had frank and honest conversations with each other we wouldn’t have had a book. And why that didn’t happen didn’t make sense. And isn’t that just the ultimate Hallmark cliche? The bottom line is, that if this had been a TV romance movie, this would have been 5 stars. As a novel, it was maybe a shade over 3 stars. There were just too many times that, if this had been a movie, I would have been yelling at the screen, throwing the remote, and rolling my eyes. That’s fun when looking at a Hallmark, not so much in a novel.

According to Emily Henry herself, she wanted to portray what happened “after the credits” to the dumped city girlfriend who is joyless, ruthless, and as Nora is described, shark-like. We are told that is how Nora is, but we never see it. She is kind, nurturing, and patient throughout. Yes, she wants to go back to the city in the end, but she also has a lot of fun in the small town while she is there. So despite the fact that I enjoyed Nora, she was kind of a fail. I would have liked to see her being scary even if just in one token scene.

However, Libby’s secret and the big misunderstanding turned out to be a good one and really made perfect sense out of everything. I really liked the final chapters of the book, and the epilogue was one of the most charmingly written I can remember reading. It was very very well done. To sum up, the banter was good, the wisecracks were funny, Emily Henry is a good writer, the concept was great, I liked the characters with the caveat that we should have seen Nora’s “shark” side and we didn’t, the balance between the romance and the other threads was good, and the last 15% I enjoyed greatly. But see paragraph 4.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

July 3, 2022

Finlay Donovan is Killing It (Finlay Donovan #1)

By Elle Cosimano

“You told me to bring plastic wrap.” “I told you to get plastic sheeting.” “Same thing.” “No, it’s not. Plastic wrap goes around sandwiches. Plastic sheeting goes around dead people. It’s bigger and sturdier. More like a shower curtain.” “You told me not to bring a shower curtain because it would make us look guilty!” “Because nothing screams innocent like a rotting corpse in three thousand feet of Cling Wrap!”

…“She chuckled darkly. “And to think you were worried about a damn shower curtain. Nothing says ‘serial killer’ like a chest freezer in a garage.”

This was a fun comic mystery, based on a really good idea for a fun comic mystery. It kind of reminded me of the Stephanie Plum books and this one is also the first of a who-knows-how-long-it-will-be series of books. Finlay is a recently divorced financially strapped single mother of two pre-school children. Her only source of income is her career as a not very successful writer of romantic suspense novels. While discussing some plot ideas and being pressured by her agent to satisfy her contract, they are overheard and misunderstood. Finley finds herself being hired to kill a strange woman’s husband. Of course, as much as she needs the money, she has no intention of following through, but one thing leads to another, and (you know how it goes) she finds herself burying a Russian mobster’s dead body on her ex-husband’s sod farm. As she tries to cover her tracks and, aided and abetted by the irrepressible Vero, her friend/nanny/accountant/housekeeper she digs herself deeper and deeper (pun intended) into trouble and danger. With both the police and the Russian mob closing in, not to mention her literary agent, I had to keep reading to see how she was going to extricate herself from her predicament(s). It reminded me of a surreal I Love Lucy episode. Or a game of whack a mole.

By the end of the book, thanks to a darkly comic twist, she escapes both arrest or being murdered by the mob. She also figures out the real murderer, ends up being financially solvent, pursued by not one but two very hot suitors, snagging two huge advances for two sure-to-be bestselling mystery series, and secures custody of her two children. I forgot to mention that her douchebag husband was threatening her with taking away her children on top of everything else.

Despite the fun, I probably won’t be reading any more in the series. Elle Cosimano has already written the third book, and I didn’t appreciate the ending of this one which was a cliffhanger and nothing but a setup for book #2. I don’t like that. And I see the handwriting on the wall. This series will never end a la Stephanie Plum, and reading never-ending series featuring a “torn between two lovers” scenario is just not my cup of tea. I like closure. Wake me if she decides between the hot young attorney-to-be and the hot detective.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

June 25, 2022

Act Like It (London Celebrities, #1)

By Lucy Parker

I sunk into this book like a favorite easy chair after a hard day’s work. I don’t know what it is about this series by Lucy Parker. It’s light and funny but in a natural authentic way. The writing is sparkly and clever. And although the setting (the West End theatre scene in London) is glamorous, Lucy makes the reader feel part of it all. Romance is job #1 but everything else: the setting, the writing, the characters, and the journey are so exceptional, nothing else is needed. If you need a break from darkness, tension, family drama, shocking secrets, and angsty love, Lucy Parker is your girl.

Lainie is a likable, nice, and funny woman from a large happy family. Richard Troy is “an intolerable prick” who had a troubled childhood. Not that that’s any excuse for his behavior. Richard is angling for the presidency of the conservative and influential RSPA, but his only press is bad press due to his rude behavior, terrible temper, and lack of tact. In order to soften his sharp edges and create some good buzz for a change, it is arranged for Richard and Lainie, who is popular, wholesome, and scandal-free to fake a relationship while castmates in a play. Because anyone Lainie likes can’t be all bad, can he?

“Do you really think you’re the political type?” [Lainie] ventured, trying to think of a way to put it tactfully.
“Meaning?” the inquiry was frosty.
Screw it. “Meaning you have the diplomatic abilities of a tea bag, and a tendency to go off like a rocket at the slightest provocation.”
“I’m aware I’ll have to work on controlling my temper,” he said even more stiffly.…“I wouldn’t have to lose my temper if people weren’t such morons.”
“I would suggest going with a different quote when you open your campaign speech.”

Together, they navigate a pesky jerk of an ex-boyfriend, red carpets, morning show appearances, and an important dinner with the board of the RSPA which features Richard rescuing Lainie from the clutches of a horny vice-president. Meanwhile, Richard is victimized by village fetes including leaking babies, blue-ribbon pigs, and giant gourds, a 5-k race for charity, and Lainie’s large protective brothers and their unruly children. The inevitable opposites attract thing happens, and the fake relationship turns into the real thing.

Also inevitable is the break-up before the (inevitable) happy ending. I really liked Lucy Parker’s fresh approach to the big crisis. Lainie forthrightly admits her mistake and apologizes while explaining how it happened. When Richard (being the temperamental diva he is) does not choose to forgive her, instead of getting all depressed and taking to her bed with a carton of ice cream (as any self-respecting romantic heroine would do), she rolls her sleeves up and goes on a mission to get him back.

The woman she was now knew what she wanted-and she intended to have him. She would pit her personality against his any day. But he had a right to be seriously pissed. And she knew him. Even on his best day Richard couldn’t be described as charitably forgiving. He wasn’t going to make it easy for her.

He actually turns out to be no match for Lainie or his own tender if reluctant feelings for her. But fair warning: Blood and a Hospital are involved before we get to the happily ever after. And we know it is “ever after” because the happy couple makes appearances in at least 3 more of the series.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

June 1, 2022