The Last Hellion

By Loretta Chase

This was my second book by Loretta Chase and it does measure up to Lord of Scoundrels. I listened to it on audible read by the very talented Kate Reading who has a voice perfectly matched to both of the dynamic couples in the books. I wearied of Historical Romances quite some time ago, but Loretta Chase reminds me of why I used to gobble them up. When I finished the first novel, I was hoping that it wouldn’t be the last I saw of the unforgettable Lord and Lady Dain so I was very pleased to see them again in this, and not just in passing. Not to mention the large and very surprising role the dutchess’s hapless silly brother Bertie has in it!

In 1820s London Lydia Grenville is a crusading journalist who also writes best-selling serials in secret. She meets our bad boy hero Vere Mallory, Lord Ainsworth, after practically running him down in her carriage while in hot pursuit of a bawd who has kidnapped still another young innocent country girl for nefarious purposes. He follows her with mayhem in mind and they face off in a dark alley which ends with the Amazonian Lydia, as always accompanied by her mastiff Susan, knocking him down in the mud. In full public view. Coralie temporarily escapes Lydia’s wrath but the rescued country girl, genteel and well-educated Tamsin, becomes Lydia’s girl Friday. There are many subplots in this which makes the book a bit episodic. It is very action-packed. Lydia continues to pursue and outwit Coralie, the infamous and evil madam, steals back Tamsin’s stolen rubies, rescues a pitiful new mother from prison, participates in a dangerous and exciting carriage race, and foils a kidnapping. Somehow Ainsworth always seems to be around to either lend a hand or to complicate matters, to Lydia’s frustration. It is a passionate battle of wills and they are evenly matched. They fall in lust, then love, quarreling and fighting every inch of the way right up to the altar (she lost a bet). Meanwhile, we learn about their tragic backstories and uncover the mystery of Lydia’s parentage. Tamsin is no slouch either and has her own story and romance as well.

It’s a wild ride and very entertaining with lots of caustic and amusing banter, comedy, adventure, and drama. Social conditions and women’s issues are given due attention. To top it off, the passionate and satisfying romance was free from silly misunderstandings, deceptions, and stupidity. They were made for each other for many reasons, but mostly because they both hide hearts of gold.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Penny Plain

by O. Douglas (Anna Masterson Buchan)

I couldn’t take any pleasure in myself if my face were made up.” Pamela swung round on her chair and laid her hands on Jean’s shoulders. “Jean,” she said, “you’re within an ace of being a prig.

“Jean, I’m afraid you’re a chirping optimist. You’ll reduce me to the depths of depression if you insist on being so bright. Rather help me to rail against fate, and so cheer me.”

This started off fairly promisingly with the rich and fashionable but very likable and down-to-earth Miss Pamela Reston retreating to the small Scottish village of Priorsford because she has become bored with the social whirl of London and wants to rest and rediscover herself and the joy of living. Her exotic ways have quite an impact on the villagers there and vice versa. Of particular interest is the very well-read Jean Jardine, her next-door neighbor, and her little family who are genteelly poor, but very happy and delightful. Some of the initial exposition, Pamela’s description of the town and her new neighbors takes place in letters to her brother, Biddy, Lord Bidborough, who is on business in India. The tone reminded me of the letters compromising 2 Jean Webster books, Daddy Long Legs and Dear Enemy. Of course, we know that Pamela’s description of her new friend and her charming family is going to intrigue Biddy to no end and that he will come to Priorsford the first chance he gets to visit his sister and proceed to quickly fall in love with both Jean and her family. Unfortunately, the letters ceased way too soon. As the book’s focus shifted to Jean and her three brothers, It wasn’t long before it started to remind me of the children’s classic, Five Little Peppers and How They Grew.

This book was a mainstay of my childhood reading history. I read it over and over, loving it very much, although I was an adult before I could ever find the longed-for sequels to the original story, in which Polly Pepper and her family (3 brothers, and the youngest little sister Phronsie) grow up into upstanding citizens and get married. I won’t go into all of the parallels, but the main one is the utter and unremitting goodness of both Polly Pepper and Jean Jardine, the two heroines, and their self-sacrificing devotion to their brothers. But I am no longer an innocent and naive little girl appreciative of a stellar role model like Polly Pepper. Jean was just too good for me.

I was led to the author of Penny Plain by her association with a favorite “old-timey” author, D.E. Stevenson. Loving her novels, I am no stranger to lovely, kind, and good heroines. But I am afraid that Jean was just too much. I started to lose touch with her when she gave a bedraggled sad stranger a valuable and treasured book when he confides that it contains a song that his mother used to sing to him when he was a child. She pretty much lost me when she turned down Biddy’s inevitable marriage proposal because “We belong to different worlds” and also,

“My feelings,” said Jean, “don’t matter at all. Even if there was nothing else in the way, what about Davie and Jock and the dear Mhor? I must always stick to them—at least until they don’t need me any longer.”

Girl. But praise be, it turns out that the poor stranger was in fact a very wealthy but dying man who leaves his entire fortune to Jean because of her little act of generosity. Even though Jean and her little family have been living pretty much hand to mouth, she views this windfall not with joy and gratitude, but with suspicion and fear. She doesn’t want it. She is persuaded to see the value of her legacy (she can use the fortune to do good works and give to charity! Yay!) Eventually, she even buys a spiffy car and buys some nice clothes in Glasglow. Another big plus is that now she is worthy of Lord Biddy!

There were enough enjoyable things about this novel that kept me going to the end fairly happily. Most of the character sketches of the Jardines and their neighbors were well done and engaging. Most of the townspeople were very lovable and even the two flies in the ointment the snobby Mrs. Duff-Whalley and her shallow, fashionable, but surprisingly self-aware daughter were entertaining and had a few layers to their personality. I loved the wise and gentle parson and his merry big-hearted wife, Mrs. Macdonald, and their little story. She liked the place kept so tidy that her sons had been wont to say bitterly, as they spent an hour of their precious Saturdays helping, that she dusted the branches and wiped the faces of the flowers with a handkerchief. I was moved by how Jean helps Miss Abbot the dour local seamstress who is going blind but is too proud to ask for help. But sometimes the book took off on short tangents that had nothing to do with anything and added nothing to the plot or character development. Peter the beloved family dog going missing for example. It was further hampered by the use of archaic words and long passages written in the Scottish vernacular and in dialect, which unlike in most books set in Scotland that I have read, was largely indecipherable without a lot of effort and research. In addition, the book is littered with cultural and literary references that were no doubt familiar to readers of the day (World War I era) but which have since been lost to obscurity. (a song called Strathairlie, “Mary Slessor of Calabar”, Mrs. Wishart, Maggie Tulliver, Ethel Newcome, Beatrix Esmond, Clara Middleton, John Splendid, the Scylla of affectation nor the Charybdis of off-handedness, King Cophetua, and on and on. I looked up everything I didn’t “get”, or tried to. As an aside, Mary Slessor needs to have a movie made about her life.

If I had had a daughter, I would have given her this book to read as a child and been very happy if she liked it. But in the future, when I next want to read a wholesome old-fashioned novel, I’ll just stick with D.E. Stevenson or Elizabeth Cadell.
**2 1/2 stars**

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

P.S. In looking up Five Little Peppers for this review, I discovered that there was a series of movies based on their adventures and some of them are available on YouTube. Can’t wait! And I just may re-read the book.


by Jennifer Crusie

Most of the books I read aren’t exactly mentally or emotionally taxing, however well written and enjoyable most of them are. But I was in the mood for something even less challenging than usual. I picked up this one by the lauded award-winning Jennifer Crusie knowing that this one was one of her early “category” romances re-marketed as a mainstream if short novel. Its first iteration was as Harlequin Temptation # 463 way back in 1993. Digression Warning! So many best-selling novelists first got their start writing old Harlequins and Silhouettes, Candlelights, or Loveswepts. I am sure they must be gratified when their publishers bring back their old very lightly regarded series or category books as “legitimate” novels. Pro tip: if you are a former reader of these “catagories” be sure to do your research before purchasing an unfamiliar-looking book by Debbie Macomber, Jayne Ann Krentz (or her many pen names), Nora Roberts, Sandra Brown, or many others. You may have already read it. In fact, I probably had read this particular book 30 years ago, but of course, I didn’t remember any of it this go-round, so it didn’t matter.

He shuddered. Kate reminded him of Valerie and his ex-wife, Tiffany. Women like that always got what they wanted no matter what it took, not caring who they trampled on to get their way. Efficient. Calculating. Manipulative. Most likely she’d come to the resort to sharpen her golf game, get a tan, snare a husband, and improve her stock portfolio. God preserve me from a woman like that, he thought, and grinned again. God wouldn’t have to preserve him from a woman like Kate Svenson. She’d made it very clear that she wasn’t interested.

Kate has a high-powered career as a business consultant to multinational corporations at her father’s firm. She specializes in businesses that are in trouble and she is very very good at it. But she is a little sick and tired of the people she has to deal with and feels like her life is slipping away. She wants marriage and a family along with her career. She has been engaged three times to suitable men (successful and ambitious, handsome, and good guys) but all three times she broke it off. Something wasn’t right. Encouraged by her best friend Jessie, she decides to apply her business acumen to getting a husband. She determines that a resort catering to her type of man in Tobey’s Corners, Kentucky is just the ticket and books a 2-week vacation there. Unfortunately, every time she goes on a date with a man there that fits her profile, he ends up badly injured or almost dying. This is much to the amusement of the resort owner’s laconic and very attractive brother who is the groundskeeper.

“We gave him CPR. He’s going to be all right,” Kate said. “The doctor said so.” “Dating you is like dating death,” Jake said. Kate looked exasperated. “Nobody has died.” “Not yet.”

Later, she couldn’t remember whether she had tried to stop or Donald’s trying to ruin her potatoes the way he’d ruined everything else had made her temporarily insane. Whatever the reason, she stabbed him with the sharp, narrow, old-fashioned fork and hit a vein in the back of his hand. Donald screamed, and she shoved his hand away so he wouldn’t get blood on her potatoes. “I’m so sorry, Donald,” she said and took another bite…
“What’d you do, bite him?” “He should be so lucky,” Kate said. “I stabbed him.” Jake handed her a drink. “Try not to injure anybody else, okay?” “He deserved it,” Kate said. “I’m sure he did. But if you go around wounding every guy who deserves it, you’ll be taking out most of the hotel.”

They actually hit it off and become friends because they are as far away from each other’s romantic types as can be. He is a lazy and unambitious underachiever, and she is the type of woman who will try to change him and make him move to the big bad city.

It pretty much plays out romantically as you think it will but with some interesting side trips. Kate decides to help a local country bar owner increase her profits and ends up bartending there which she is excellent at, thank you very much. She unexpectedly makes friends with a young Barbie Doll-like fellow vacationer who is there to sow her wild oats before settling down with her rich much older fiance. Things don’t go according to plan. Of course, we have an antagonist, Valerie, who is sleeping with Will, Jake’s brother. She is the ambitious social director who has a much-inflated opinion of herself and her future both with Will and the resort.

“…I’m indispensable.” “Lucky you,” Kate said uneasily. She felt a sudden need to get far away from Valerie, as if she had something contagious that she might catch. Like maybe ruthless ambition and a total lack of humanity. 

Times have changed a lot since 1993. Some aspects of Jake and Kate’s relationship are dated and will not sit well with modern sensibilities. Some are quite ahead of their time and would warm the hearts of progressive feminist-leaning type readers. I was really surprised when Kate takes up for Valerie when her “just deserts” time arrives near the end. She is a bitch and Kate very much dislikes and disapproves of her and her schtick but it didn’t negate the fact that she was treated shabbily by nice Will. When she delivers some home truths to the brothers, it leads to some drama and complications which weren’t easily or totally predictably resolved. But Kate always has the high road and doesn’t back down.

It met all my expectations. It was very funny with a hero and heroine who were well-developed and somewhat unusual. It wasn’t what I would call “gripping” or a page-turner by any means. You pretty much know how it will play out, with some surprises and tensions here and there in the journey to the happy ending. Leisurely read in between other activities, it took me 2 1/2 weeks to finish it. And the book was an enjoyable pressure-free 2 1/2 week “something to read” which really hit the spot.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The Dancing Floor

by Barbara Michaels

I listened to this on audio read by the great Barbara Rosenblat. I had read the story many years ago and may have read it more than once. It was Barbara Michaels’s last novel under this pseudonym. I would give the story a 3, but Barbara R.’s reading a 5. I loved the heroine, but in the end, the plot was kind of all over the place. Although Heather, our funny, caustic, and indomitable heroine ends up with the guy I wanted her to, I’m not sure how it happened exactly. She seemed to be going in another surprising direction, and it wasn’t until the end that that attraction was explained, and it kind of made sense. I was happy and even relieved at the pivot.

American school teacher Heather Tradescant is touring the gardens of England in honor of her gentle scholarly father. They had planned the pilgrimage together, but he has since died in an automobile accident. She arrives at what was to be the highlight of their tour, the estate of Troyton House, the site of a famous 17th-century garden long since grown over and all but vanished. When she is locked out of the grounds, Heather being Heather forges through a thick overgrown hedge which mysteriously seems almost alive and malevolent. She bursts through, scratched and bloody, and lands at the feet of the famous and fabulously wealthy Mr. Karim, the current owner. To her surprise and incredulity, he enlists her amateur aid in restoring the important garden. He learned her last name, Tradescant, is coincidentally (?) the same as the original designer. Also, he likes her because, unlike everyone else in the world, she refuses to be bossed or bullied and gives as good as she gets. She is a breath of fresh air.

Unfortunately not much restoration is accomplished because Heather is too busy dealing with local witches, mysterious fogs, trying to rediscover how she got through the impenetrable hedge in the first place, the jealous wife of the former owner of the estate, and her spoiled little boy who has all of the makings of a future serial killer with a history of pyromania to boot. Not to mention being the romantic target of two attractive men despite the fact that she is just average looking with an overweight though athletic build. The third man in the picture is Mr. Karim’s sarcastic grouchy son who is a university professor working on a book and doesn’t seem to like her at all.

There is really not much of a plot and not even a mystery to solve unless you count why Mr. Karim is so hateful to his son. Bobby, the future serial killer, disappears and is feared dead but that is a matter for the police and his unhappy parents and is not any of Heather’s business. Not that anyone misses the horrid child anyway. Heather is poisoned and has two other exciting escapes at the end. The story ends with a shocking development but the reasons behind it all didn’t really make a lot of sense.

This is the last of a long line of Barbara Michaels novels, and she might have been a little tired. She was also keeping up with her yearly and very popular Amelia Peabody adventures under “Elizabeth Peters,” and an occasional Jacqueline Kirby or Vicky Bliss thrown in. Most of her earlier “Barbara Michaels” books were true Gothics which featured haunted houses, witchcraft, and other paranormal activities: Werewolves, fairies, timeslips, and possession included. The latter novels are immersed in fascinating and arcane aspects of various professional and hobbyist pursuits. This one is steeped in the lore of formal gardens and mazes with a healthy dose of witchcraft and ancient curses. Previous books have also tackled vintage fashion, quilting folklore, antique jewelry, old rose cultivation, deciphering damaged manuscripts, and archeology. Barbara Michaels’s scholarly and feminist approach shines throughout all of them. To qualify as “Romantic suspense” each has a sometimes perfunctory sometimes charming romance thrown into the mix. I always loved her Barbara Michaels novels having grown a little weary of Amelia Peabody over the years. I have learned a lot from her books and this one was no exception.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Romantic Comedy

by Curtis Sittenfeld

This is a quite sophisticated Romance. I generally like books that primarily center around family dynamics, conflict, developing friendships, intrigue, conquering adversity, etc. etc., with romance included as icing on the cake. This one brought enough to the table, despite being firmly in the Romance category, that it kept my interest and I really liked it.

The story is divided into 3 parts. In the first, we meet Sally, a writer for The Night Owls, which is a fictional version of Saturday Night Live. The reader is immersed in the culture and process of bringing a cutting-edge live comedy sketch show to the air every week, and our heroine’s part in that. We can assume that Sally’s friends and colleagues are pretty accurate representations of real people. It was fascinating and educational. The plot launches when Sally learns that her good friend and fellow writer, funny and intelligent but not at all physically attractive, and a dweeb, is the latest of a long line of fellow SNL (oops TNO) male cast members who have hooked up with beautiful and talented women. The Danny Horst Rule stipulates that men can and do all of the time “date above their station” but women can’t and don’t ever. Witty and sharp but average-looking women are never the romantic target of handsome, successful and talented men their same age.  Annoyed, she writes a satirical sketch about it and it is chosen to air. How ironic that the musical guest host is a singer/songwriter lauded for his sexy looks as much as his considerable talent. And though he is known for dating only beautiful models and such, he seems curiously interested and attracted to Sally! Sally really likes Noah and develops a crush on the darling of millions who is as nice and down to earth as he is handsome and popular. But she cannot accept that he could possibly be interested in her, so she self-protectively sabotages the relationship just when it is starting to get interesting.

Two years later, the country is in the middle of the panic over Covid, and business and society are at a standstill. Sally is back in her hometown of Kansas City sheltering with her beloved 81-year-old stepfather. She gets an email from Noah out of the blue. In the next chapter (part two), they get to know each other and fall in love over the internet. By the time this part comes to an end, we know both Noah and Sally, with their histories, quirks, foibles, and strengths very well. Noah invites Sally to Los Angeles for a visit.

Although in Chapter 3, the course of true love doesn’t always run smooth, it is very romantic. I even loved the way Curtis Sittenfeld stretched out the anticipation of their finally meeting in person again by devoting quite a few pages to her drive to L.A.  When Sally finally arrives at Noah’s beautiful gated mansion off of Topanga Canyon Drive (yes, I Google Earthed it), they are both awkward and unsure despite their intimate emails. Their riding of the ups and downs of getting to know and love each other before the “consummation devoutly to be wished” is not tedious, as it can be with many romantic comedies sometimes. And it is not tedious after either while we read along wondering when and why the big bust-up is going to occur. Of course, Sally does her best to screw it up, but refreshingly, Noah doesn’t let her. He gives her a good talking to which was epic and the highlight of the book, for me. And she listens and believes him, much to my relief and wonderment. What finally threatens to part them was a real-life dilemma I understood and related to. It was not a silly misunderstanding, stupidity, or failure to communicate. What brings them back together is touching and utterly believable, given their well-established characters.

I requested this book because I really loved her Eligible, a reworking of Pride and Prejudice set in modern-day Cincinnati. While the main appeal to that one was my attraction to Jane Austen homages, it was clever, insightful, and entertaining. It wasn’t perfect plot-wise, but the characters and writing were engaging. This one reaffirmed Curtis Sittenfeld’s talents to me. I was intrigued by the concept and it was as juicy, amusing, and as authentic as I had hoped. Both Noah and Sally’s characters were drawn in depth and were both lovable in their own ways, even though I got mad at Sally a few times.  My only quibble with this book is that Sittenfeld’s politics were just a bit too on display and kind of smug. It is a very very small quibble and probably very true to what the attitudes of a New York comedy writer and a successful Hollywood celebrity would really be. So I can’t really complain, I just wish it had been left out completely or balanced up a bit. Also, could we have had a bit less neurotic engagement with pooping and peeing? Pretend I didn’t say that but I had to.   

Like all Romantic Comedies this one starts with a meet-cute and ends with a happily ever after, but in between there is a lot of good stuff both expected and unexpected in addition to the romance. But the romance is the thing, make no mistake about that.

Many Thanks to NetGalley and Random House for providing me with a free copy of this novel in return for an unbiased review. The book will be published on April 4, 2023.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

The Cuckoo in Spring

by Elizabeth Cadell

“Why don’t you settle down with a nice husband?” “Husband?” The horror in Rowena’s voice could have warmed the heart of any feminist. “Husband? My dear, I can’t afford one! Look what they cost to feed nowadays!”

“Kitty Long—you remember her?—is going to have yet another operation.” “Another! She’s had two!” “Yes. She says she enjoyed the last two so much that she’s looking forward to the third. I forget what they’re slicing off this time, but it’s coming off from her inside, but as I told her, there can’t be much left to hack off. The woman must be a mere shell. Doctors!” Rowena’s scorn filled the large kitchen. “I’ve told Kitty that every time this doctor of hers wants to take his family off for a holiday, he gets the money by advising all his women patients to have operations. How else do you think surgeons live in the style they do? By chopping up all these rich, idle and half-witted women like Kitty. Every time she eats something that disagrees with her, that man hacks out another bit of her inside. And diet! First he got her off decent meals and on to nuts and carrots and shredded horse-food. Then when all that chewing made her teeth wear out, he switched her on to fruit juices and disgusting-looking squashy vegetable mixtures. Then he put her on to bread that’s got nothing in it but cement and chaff. All between operations, of course.

That quote is long and has nothing to do with the plot, but was just one example of the delightful treasures that this book is full of.
I think this may now be my most favorite Elizabeth Cadell, supplanting The Corner Shop. The romance was better in TCS, but the mystery, character development, complexities, humor, family dynamics, and the quirky secondary characters were so good in this one.

Julian Hurst is from a very conventional background where the family law firm has provided a good and respectable living for generations. But he had a talent for art and eventually became an art dealer which he is very good and successful at. All of the characters in this novel are deftly drawn to a “T” with affection and humor. James is a pretty good guy, raised in a common sense manner, but he is very “cock-sure”. He is not used to being anything but successful and getting whatever he wants with a minimum of effort. Yes, things have come easily for Julian and he leads a very nice footloose and fancy-free kind of life and plans to continue to do so until he is 30, at which time he will find a wife and settle down. But, as John Lennon said, “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” The family law firm asks him to go to Yorkshire to catalog a Mr. Randall’s art collection. He reluctantly complies when he hears that the collection reportedly includes some “good” Clauvals. Clauval is an artist who is experiencing something of a renaissance but is quite mysterious due to the lack of knowledge about him and because he is responsible for painting both masterpieces and valueless junk. He figures he will just suck it up, stop there for a few days, do his work, and continue up to Scotland to visit his godmother who is throwing one of her fun house parties.

Mr. Randall proves to be mean and hard and conditions at the rambling old house are spartan which Julian is not used to and does not like. But he does like the miserly client’s young, beautiful, and charming new cook. In fact, much to his surprise and consternation, he falls head over heels in love with her. She is the one. And she loves him too, despite Julian noticing that she sometimes looks at him, not as a knight in shining armor, but with secret amusement as if she sees all of his faults and foibles. Julian proposes and Alexandra, after a few kindly expressed reservations, accepts. He can’t wait to introduce her to his loving family. But first, he decides to take a kind of breather to get used to the idea that his well-laid comfortable plans for his life have been dramatically upturned. He might be just a bit unsure, despite his happiness. So he adheres to his original plan to visit his Scottish godmother and her house party, leaving Alexandra behind. He can hardly introduce his fiance to his godmother before his own mother, can he? She says she is fine with that. When his godmother sees how miserable he is without Alexandra she gets the whole story.

“Did she oppose the idea of your coming here?” “No. She was wonderful.” He found the grey, wise old eyes raised to his with what he saw, to his astonishment, was a look of worry. “She—? What did you say, Julian, my dear?” “I said she didn’t mind.” “She—” His godmother took off her glasses once more and polished them absently. “Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear,” she said softly. “Oh, my poor, poor Julian!”

She declares that no woman of intelligence and spirit would stand for such a “selfish trick” and throws Julian into a panic. The frightened and chastened Julian rushes off on a nightmare journey back to Alexandra while the Scottish winter decides to teach this “insolent Londoner” a thing or two, in a bit of whimsical and delightful writing. After Winter throws all its hostility and caprice at him, sure enough, when he arrives back at the old mansion he finds the mean owner dead of a heart attack, and Alexandra gone. With the 4 valuable Claudels that he discovered. The London address she gave him does not exist.

For the rest of the book, we follow Julian in his desperate search for his fiance. The Clauvals start to appear on the market one by one, but strangely, only in places that Julian is sure to hear about or see them. One is even brought to the Hurst family home when Julian is out. What is Alexandra up to? He (and we) know that she is incapable of stealing or doing anything bad. He follows clue after clue, and he learns that Mr. Randall’s deaf, frail, and scrupulously loyal and honest old butler of 40 years is involved somehow. As one step leads to another away from his old habits and ways, we travel across England with Julian, share in his adventures, and meet a number of amusing English eccentrics, each more entertaining and dotty than the last. Julian’s sister has a baby, he is thrown out of the hospital by an irate nurse, we attend a horrifying to Julian, but hilarious to the reader, lunch with 80 schoolgirls where he is the only male for miles around. We learn a lot about each member of his family and Julian. In one scene, he sweetly agrees to babysit his young nephew, who wants a bedtime story about “cheeses.” Julian cooperatively starts on about dairy maids and Gorgonzola only to be admonished by little Danny that he meant “Jesus,” not “cheeses.” It was an unexpected and funny scene. And Julian learns a lot and develops some much-needed strength of character. When the light finally dawns, we wonder what took him so long, as does Alexandra, and so she tells him.

“Could I help it,” asked Alexandra, “if you were stupid? Could I?”…“Are you really going to marry him, Alexandra? asked Rowena. “Yes, I am, I think,” said Alexandra. “He isn’t what I hoped for, but I’ve always heard that a clever girl can mold a man.”

But even the reader isn’t prepared for a couple of final twists. At least I was a bit blown away. The book is full of whimsical descriptions, lovely people, wisdom, and entertaining side trips. Julian and Alexandra are apart for 90% of the book, but I was never impatient or bored. But those who prefer one of Ms. Cadell’s more conventional romances or family stories might want to skip over this one. But don’t, you will love it.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Unexpected Grace

Past is Prologue

When I read what this was about, I started watching it fully expecting to turn it off.  It is about a mother whose teenage daughter has passed away who befriends the daughter of a single widower. Before she died, Toni, the daughter,  released a balloon in the air with a short letter searching for a best friend. It is found by 13-year-old Grace two years later who was forced to move into their new town by her father because of his job. He didn’t consult her about the move, and she is resentful. Their relationship has suffered over and above normal teenager/parent friction. She is having trouble fitting in at school and making friends. When Grace follows the notes invitation to write back, I thought I saw where this might be going. I was on high alert and expecting to pull the plug as I did not want to get entangled in a maudlin grief fest and a mother trying to replace her dead child with a vulnerable live one.

Well, it didn’t go that way at all. The mother,  Noelle, does respond to Grace’s letter, but under her own name. It is true that she does not tell Grace that Toni has died nor that she is her mother but I felt it was out of empathy and sensitivity and that she did not want to hurt or discomfort Grace. She responds to Grace’s emails a couple of more times, but, realizing that this is heading down a dangerous road, tells Grace the truth about who she is and kindly tells her that there will be no more emails.  She thinks that is the end of it, But to Noelle’s consternation, Grace shows up at Noelle’s door still wanting to be friends with Toni.  Noelle still can’t bear to tell her right then that her daughter has passed away. But shortly thereafter, along with Grace’s dad, Jack (Michael Rady), who she has gotten to know and like thanks to a series of coincidences, does tell her the truth about Toni’s passing. This decision of not to prolong the misunderstanding flies in the face of how things usually go with  Hallmark stories. Grief is to be wallowed in, and open communication is to be avoided at all costs.  So instead of the plot getting stalled over a prolonged deception and lack of truth-telling, the plot explores other aspects of the characters’ progress toward peace and happiness. We follow Grace’s path towards success in school and making friends, Her father’s possible romantic entanglement with a neighbor, Jack and Grace’s continuing frustrations with each other and how they resolve them, and Noelle coming to terms with her imminent divorce.  And of course Noelle and Jack possibly making a romantic connection. There is another crisis later in the story where it looks like Grace and Michael may have to move away again, negating the progress toward healing that, together, all three of the main characters have made. How it is all resolved brings all of the threads together in a touching way.  It hints that it was more than just coincidences that brought these three together for their own good and the good of the community. Perhaps a little celestial magic and angelic guiding hands were at play as well. “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” There is a lot of Shakespeare in this as well.

All of the actors did a wonderful job, but special kudos go to  Erica Tremblay, a serious young actress who has appeared in several other Hallmark movies. I’ve always liked Michael Rady. Erica Durance not so much, but she is a good actress.

Rating: 7 out of 10.

Hello Stranger

By Katherine Center

So funny. So witty. So romantic. So enjoyable. I had read two Katherine Center books before this one, and enjoyed them but with reservations. The stories and concepts were good, but I found the heroes boring and almost nondescript although they were both lovely. The heroines were, in one case, flat-out annoying and in another just meh. In both cases, their situations seemed intriguing and the stories full of possibilities but they ended up seeming a bit contrived to me. They were both immensely popular highly rated books, so it was a personal problem, apparently.

But this one! Yes, the heroine was flawed and frustrating at times and had some major issues to conquer and grow past. At first, I found her a little off-putting and I had a hard time getting a handle on her. But I liked her. She really spoke to me. Literally. Sadie tells her story in the first person and she establishes a close relationship with the reader. It is as easy and natural as if she is talking to her best friend (you). I was drawn in immediately. You listen to her telling you her side of the story, but you can also see her flaws and things she may be wrong about. Early in the book, I thought we might be dealing with an unreliable narrator situation. As it turned out, she wasn’t really, but confirmation bias is a theme.

“Anyhoo.” (and I quote.) As a result of minor brain surgery, Sadie develops face blindness. When she looks at a human face the features do not come together as such. It is as if they are “puzzle pieces spread out on a table.” Difficult and disconcerting for anyone, but alas she is a struggling portrait painter who has secured a place in a prestigious contest and is on a deadline to complete a traditional portrait. Even being asked to compete is an honor. Doing well will finally give her choice of profession much-needed validation. Sadie had a very painful childhood thanks to the death of her beloved mother, who was also a painter, and her subsequent relationship with her father, stepmother, and stepsister. She was victimized. It has caused her to always put on a brave face, never admitting vulnerability or need for others’ help. As Sadie works to deal with her new disability and complete the portrait to enter the contest, she learns and grows. Unfortunately, The North American Portrait Society folks cater to the Norman Rockwell set rather than the Pablo Picasso crowd. Her condition forces her to treat other people differently and accept help. The self-protective layers start to peel off. Meanwhile, we meet some interesting characters, both good and bad. Her long-term friends and landlords, the Kims, their daughter Sue, her wise doctor, her beloved old dog, Peanut, and his veterinarian, who she decides will be her future husband. Her troublesome family arrives on the scene and we learn that some step-sisters really are evil. And we meet Joe, who turns out to be the, at first, unlikely love interest. He is quirky, funny, and adorable.

Near the conclusion, there is a surprise appearance and an interesting twist I did not see coming but probably should have. But no, I take that back. It was so well disguised that when I started to suspect what was going on, I went back to review some parts to see if it could be true. Yes, the clues were all there, but I still didn’t see how it could be. To Katherine Center’s credit, the exposition of all of the reasons I (wrongly) didn’t believe it made sense. I bought it. Or chose to buy it. It made the ending even more satisfactory and joyful. No, her life and family relationships weren’t all perky sparkles, but as I’ve said before in a previous review, Katherine Center really knows how to end a book. My ratings of both of her books I read previously were bolstered by her climaxes and wind-ups. This one didn’t need bolstering.

There are two Author’s Notes at the end. One is about acquired prosopagnosia. The other is a defense and appreciation of The Romance Novel as a genre. Any reader who has ever felt belittled or apologetic about their tastes in reading such novels needs to read this. Anyone who has thought less of someone’s tastes in reading “Chick-Lit” or romance needs to read this as well. Though they probably wouldn’t. Brava Katherine Center.

Thank-You to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for providing me with an uncorrected digital galley of this book in exchange for an unbiased review.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Winter and Rough Weather (Shoulder the Sky)

by D. E. Stevenson

“It must be lonely!” she exclaimed. “Loneliness is inside a person,” replied Sutherland. “It is possible to be lonely in a big city. If a person is contented and has enough work to do he will not feel lonely amongst the hills.

I enjoyed this equally as well as the two preceding novels in the trilogy. There was a lot more suspense and drama than in many of the D.E. Stevensons I have read. In between the evocative descriptions of both people and the land, the thoughtful reflections, and entertaining relationships and conversations, there was actually some action-packed adventure and a little bit dark mystery! Of course, of the bucolic gentle Scottish countryside variety. No crime involved. I loved continuing my acquaintance with Mamie and Jock, and James and Rhoda, and meeting the also interesting characters of Flockie, Rhoda’s housekeeper (can I have a Flockie?), and Dr. Henry Ogylvie Smith. The puzzling Lizzie and her son Duggie have important roles in this. Daughter Greta was regrettably left by the wayside, after a promising introduction in Music in the Hills. The odious Sir Andrew and Nestor Heddle each continue to display their deliciously repellent ways in a scene or two, and both get a measure of justice served to them only if just a bit in one case. Still, it was satisfying, even though with one of them, we are just told about what happened after the fact.

After Rhoda gives up her silly notion that she cannot be both an artist and a wife and starts painting again, she discovers Lizzie’s neglected son, Duggie. She uncovers his artistic talent, intelligence, and spirit and begins to mentor him. Her studio, lovingly wrought by lovely James, becomes his second home. He catches the interest of Dr. Henry Ogylvie Smith who is sitting for his portrait as a gift to his charming parents. We also become reacquainted with his friends, Dr. Adam Forrester and his sister Nan.

The main drama of the book is how these two likable siblings achieve future domestic happiness. Dr. Adam is attracted to a woman who would make him miserable. Of course in D.E.Stevenson’s world, if a man and a woman like, or just get along with each other and they are both single and of a certain age, marriage is expected at least by one of them. Even if they spend very little time together. It is very odd. Thank goodness the object of Adam’s desire tells him that any marriage between them is completely off the table. So in Adam’s case, it is more disaster averted than love found. Nan has been suffering from the rejection of a man she is still in love with. It turns out that nice Dr. Henry, Adam’s former boss who paved the way for Adam to practice in Drumberly is the wicked cad. He and Nan seemed to be well on the way to love and marriage until he mysteriously broke it off. When the truth comes out, it is sad and surprising.

This was not a 5-star read for me. I am really frustrated and even confused by how D.E. Stevenson ends many of her books. Sometimes it seems like it is practically in mid-sentence. This one was the worse yet. Genuinely interesting and greatly anticipated doings of characters we have come to be fond of are never gotten to before the book ends. Oh yes, we have every reason to believe everything will work out happily for all, but we are deprived of seeing how exactly they will tackle and be affected by the “rough weather” ahead. We are robbed of the potentially gripping confrontations, joyful revelations, and other hullabaloo that the characters will have to go through in order for happiness and stability to be achieved.

One of the big keys to the story is a certain connection between two previously unrelated characters. When Dr. Henry tells his story, I just didn’t buy it. **spoiler**  It was just totally outlandish that the attractive, well-off, brilliant, and good man could have ever even looked twice at common, dull, stupid (“mental age of 10”), and not even particularly attractive Lizzie. Her only redeeming quality is that she is a good worker. She is not even interested in her own children. Neither could I believe her lack of agency and action in keeping the truth secret. There was no reason for it and it really detracted from the book’s credibility. **end spoiler**

Once the truth is known we see a way forward for Henry and Nan to find happiness at last. Maybe. If everything goes according to plan. But the book is cut off before that is achieved. And unfortunately, this is the last of the trilogy. So no hope of getting a bit of closure in the next book. Because there isn’t one. Would have loved to know more about a certain engagement revealed near the end, as well. Not to mention…but enough.
Up to the ending, or lack thereof, it was shaping up to be my favorite so far. In Vittoria Cottage, Robert Shepperton ponders leaving his tragic past behind him to find love and happiness again in the here and now.

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.”

The author lets the reader experience the cool clear stream and the hot dusty road with her characters. But she leaves us behind too soon when they go on their way and hopefully come to another stream to bathe in. I wish she’d give as much attention to her endings as she so beautifully does to everything that precedes them.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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”

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.