Alexander, Tamera. To Whisper Her Name. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012. ISBN-13: 978-0310291060. $15.99 USD.
Tamera Alexander presents another nuanced, multifaceted story about post-Civil War Tennessee in To Whisper Her Name, this time looking more closely at the lingering conflicts between the Union and the South in a way that feels both realistic to the times and refreshing to see the different perspectives that existed during the period.
I love that this story and the setting at Belle Meade presented an opportunity to further explore the freed slaves’ experiences, examining both how much changed for them and how much did not in terms of the opportunities for black workers and the way they were treated.
I was quickly drawn to Ridley and his reasons for making the decision to fight for the North during the war, with him presenting things he witnessed firsthand that motivated his decision. But I also came to feel for those who lived at Belle Meade and their acquaintances, and was touched how Alexander discussed how much everyone lost fighting this war.
Though I wasn’t sure about Olivia at first, she grew on me over time as she evolved over the course of the story. She overcomes quite a few challenges, many of which stem from her difficult marriage to her first husband, and through it all, Ridley is there for her. And even though I’m not a massive fan of stories with deception at its heart, I love the way it played out here, with it working itself out in a way that felt realistic to all their characters, including Olivia.
Robb, J.D. Ceremony in Death. New York: Berkley Books, 1997. ISBN-13: 978-0425157626. $7.50 USD.
This is yet another great installment in the In Death series, even if it does have some of the same flaws as the others in its lack of real character development for Eve and I still don’t see the appeal that many readers do in Roarke. But as a mystery and continuation of the relationship between the central cast, it works.
The mystery is different from those in the prior books, and had more appeal to me, as I enjoyed how it looked at the occult and the different layers of the various practitioners, from those on those who practice white magic to those who practice dark magic. And while the mystery concludes with the culprits being who you expect, the power dynamic is different than what is initially insinuated, meaning that there are still curveballs thrown at both Eve and the reader.
As for the relationship between the cast, I find I love when a case really comes between two of them, as is the case here. It shows that, despite the fact that there is a level of professional trust and personal friendship, sometimes the job of being a police officer can lead to conflict in that area, especially when one of those in the conflict is intimately connected to the case. But along with the tension, there are still plenty of light moments, and of course, some sweet moments between Eve and Roarke. I especially love the moment when Roarke is making breakfast for a teenage boy, and I can’t help but get on the train of thought about what he and Eve would be like as parents.
Kleypas, Lisa. Hello Stranger. New York: Avon Books, 2017. ISBN-13: 978-0-06-237191-1. $7.99 USD.
While Hello Stranger seemed to have so much potential, the execution fell flat, especially in comparison to its predecessors. And part of the problem is the way it handled the depiction of the heroine. Both the blurb for the book (“A woman who defies her time”) and the historical note citing Garrett’s trailblazing inspiration seem to suggest that the story could have focused a lot more on that. But aside from a few moments of opposition, we don’t get the sense that she has those struggles that her real-life inspiration would have faced. I know from Devil in Spring that Kleypas can fictionalize a real-life unconventional woman and focus on the issues she would have faced, so why were they not a major part of the plot here?
Danger in Ransom’s career is made a plot point instead, and while I don’t deny that these were the most interesting parts of the book, they were interspersed with the developing romance between him and Garrett that I failed to understand. Funnily enough, West even points out his own lack of understanding of the pairing at one point, and despite having spent more time with them than West, I was inclined to agree.
Speaking of West, he was the only thing that kept me reading for as long as I did, as I had enjoyed his character arc since Cold-Hearted Rake. It’s great to see that his reform has stuck, and despite my dissatisfaction with this book, I do look forward to reading his book…and getting more crossover with the Wallflowers!
Larkin, Emily. Claiming Mister Kemp. [Place of publication not identified]: Emily Larkin, 2017. ISBN-13: 9780994138477. $8.99 USD.
Prior to reading this book past the first few pages (my first attempt), I thought this book was not for me. I believed everyone deserved to love who they wanted, yes, but I didn’t know if it was within my comfort zone to read about a homosexual relationship.
However, I was quickly proven wrong when I sat down to read this novel again, quickly becoming invested in the relationship between Tom and Lucas. My main objection was that I didn’t know if I would be able to relate to them, but I quickly found something to like and empathize with in each of them: Lucas and his struggles to reconcile his desires with what society considers proper and legal, and Thomas with his passions for art and his desire to pursue the relationship with Lucas more freely.
Larkin imbues the story with awareness of the stakes during the historical period she was writing about, as well as giving the characters close to the two leads a compassion for them being themselves and being happy that, while feeling a bit ahead of its time, allows for a convincing happily-ever-after for a couple who would face have faced a lot of scrutiny to be who they are and love who they wish to love.
Roberts, Nora. Dance Upon the Air. 2001. New York: Berkley Books, 2015. ISBN-13: 978-0-425-27814-7. $17.00 USD.
I had heard from a number of people that the Three Sisters Island Trilogy was one of her best, and despite only having finished book one, I agree. Despite the fact that this series does contain some of the Nora hallmarks, like an overlapping series arc and sections from the POV of the heroines of the next two books in addition to Nell and Zack, this one felt more like a cohesive story on its own, especially in terms of the romance.
I was incredibly moved by Nell’s story, as she managed to get away from an abusive husband, especially when we were given insight into the life she left behind from Evan’s perspective. From the outside, it looked like a life of luxury, but it came at the cost of being held in the thrall of someone else who had total control over her, and who did not respect her as a person, only as a possession. I found myself in awe at how Roberts was able to convey not only a narrative of a survivor, but the dark, twisted mind of an abuser.
Nell finds someone who does respect and truly love her in Zack, who is so understanding of her. Despite a misunderstanding over her deception, once they talk it out, he is as supportive as he has been at the beginning, with enough alpha tendencies to stand up for her when she really needs it.
And like some of her other works I’ve read, the platonic friendship is a prominent part of the story, which is more than appropriate, given that the three heroines descendants of witches, as well witches in their own right. I love how Roberts developed their personalities and their bond with one another, whetting my appetite for the next two books in the series.
Willig, Lauren. The English Wife. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-1-250-05627-6. $26.99 USD.
Lauren Willig has long been one of my favorite historical fiction authors, and she did not disappoint with her latest, The English Wife, which begins with a situation that presents one image, but as the layers unfurl, presents a completely different one regarding the vast chasm that exists between the truth of one’s self and the “self” one presents to the world — even to one’s own family — in the last decade of the nineteenth century, a time when the old traditions of high society would eventually crumble in favor of new, more modern ideas, even as the older generation desperately try to cling to the old ways, often to the detriment of the family and legacy they are trying to preserve.
And it is the family’s legacy and reputation that are at the heart of the mystery of the novel, with questions about what happened on the fateful night that opens the novel that will impact the family going forward. And like many a mystery, while the culprit seems obvious in hindsight, the red herring seems almost as believable, given the stakes there and the clues planted in that direction.
The romance in this book also highlights the way the world was changing, with several of the relationships being governed by modern notions, such as divorce, love across class lines, and tolerance of homosexuality. And it is through these relationships that we see that the characters are much happier being themselves than bending over backwards to try to please their elders and society.
Roberts, Nora. Blood Brothers. New York: Jove, 2007. ISBN-13: 978-0515143805. $7.99 USD.
This is a hard book to give a rating to, as while it was a good book, in the vein of many of Roberts’ trilogies, this is only the introduction to the story, with the story continuing in the next two installments. Therefore, the end, while feeling like something of a wrap-up to the romance for this couple, does feel a bit anticlimactic.
However, Roberts proves herself to be a master of world building, creating a compelling and creepy concept of a looming evil that has been a threat for centuries. The lore she establishes for her heroes and heroines and their connection to what happened centuries ago is incredibly well-done, providing just enough that the reader will be curious as to what comes next.
And while platonic friendships are definitely not uncommon in romance novels, Roberts excels at crafting these, forming a bond between the “blood brothers,” Caleb, Fox and Gage that we understand from the first chapters exploring their childhood. And the friendships between Quinn and the other women involved feel equally realistic, even if they’re not as well-defined.
As for the romance, while it is there, and Caleb and Quinn do have chemistry, it is hardly the most compelling romance, but based on what I’ve heard, I can guess that it does get a bit better as the trilogy goes on.
Robb, J.D. Rapture in Death. New York: Berkley Books, 1996. ISBN-13: 978-0-425-15518-9. $7.99 USD.
After not being all that wowed with the prior book, Immortal in Death, I debated whether the series was worth continuing. But this book changed my mind. While there are some minor issues, this one held my attention much more than the previous installment.
The standout as always is Eve, serving as a kick-ass heroine with some rough edges that I continue to root for. While there isn’t a lot of inner development on her part (and based on my research, there isn’t much deeper development over the course of the series) it’s not a major deal-breaker.
This book was especially fun, particularly in the beginning, as Eve is a newlywed, and a lot of the laughs come from those in her inner circle pestering her about the honeymoon. The inside jokes in general are a ton of fun in this one, and I have grown to love the extended cast, including Feeney, Mavis, and Dr. Mira.
Roarke is the one sore spot in this book (and the series so far) for me. I can’t deny that he and Eve make a lovely couple, but this book once again presents a past lover of his who is entangled in the case Eve is working on, the third time this has happened. I do hope it does not become a cliche over the next fifty-ish books. However, I do like that we got to see some vulnerability from him in this book, connected to the mind control thing that was behind the crimes.
Alexander, Tamera. A Lasting Impression. Bloomington, MN: Bethany House, 2011. ISBN-13: 978-0-7642-0622-1. $14.99 USD.
This is my first book my Tamera Alexander, and my first purely Southern historical read. I was apathetic to the genre and setting due to the fact that I was one of those people who believed some of the stereotypes about the South, not to mention that I did not know how you would make Southern characters in the aftermath of the Civil War sympathetic. But Alexander changed my perspective on both counts.
This is a rich book with well-defined characters who you can root for. The female characters in particular shine brightly. Claire is an example of someone who was in an awful situation, but shows she has a conscience and doesn’t approve at all of what the people around her were doing, when she made her escape. And she shows her potential for more through her work at Belmont Mansion, both as Adelicia Acklen’s liaison and as an artist in her own right. And Adelicia Acklen herself is wonderful to read about, as we see a woman who is not only wealthy and well-respected in society, but is compassionate toward those less fortunate than herself.
One thing that did make me nervous was the way Alexander would deal with the concept of race. The book is not PC, which I appreciate, as it gives insight into how these people would have actually thought, including the usage of the N-word in dialogue. And while Sutton expressing that their freed slaves should have stayed on as hired hands to support them in the tragic events that followed did make me angry at him for a while, it only adds greater emphasis the author’s focus on historical accuracy.
Other than that, Sutton is a great hero, and I love that he is different from a lot of the heroes I have read in that the war has left him insecure financially, to contrast with all of his super-rich/titled counterparts. And I love that the plot allows for a different approach from the conventional one when it comes to the relationship. The romantic tension is evident throughout, but the main story concludes with things left unresolved in terms of the romance, leaving it to the epilogue. While this is not a structural choice that always works, I feel like it was successful here.
Roberts, Nora. The Witness. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2012. ISBN-13: 978-0-399-15912-1. $27.95 USD.
This is the first Nora Roberts book under her own name I finished, and I found I really enjoyed it. One of the major strengths comes from the characters. Elizabeth/Abigail is a character who the reader can sympathize with, especially since we get a real sense of what she went through in the opening chapters. Even if at times she feels a little too gifted, her flaws come from the fact that she was raised in a loveless environment and then the traumatic events she witnesses leads her to close herself off.
Brooks is a breath of fresh air for me. From what I’ve heard, Roberts tends to make her heroes and heroines slightly different from the norm, and she definitely does so here, making him not the standard alpha billionaire that is so popular, but a compassionate police officer who can both support Abigail and protect her when she needs it. It was sweet to read about how he managed to penetrate through Abigail’s defenses, and some of their conversations had me laughing, which I did not expect.
However, this book isn’t perfect. I did feel that the book was a bit too long, especially as Roberts begins to incorporate different stories of people from within the town, as well as making the case surrounding a juvenile delinquent and his family in the town. While it was initially nice to see the type of work Brooks would be involved in, I found myself growing bored with some of these subplots as they went on, especially since the resolution to the mafia plot still had a few loose ends.