Interview with J. Arlene Culiner, Author of All About Charming Alice

Please welcome J Arlene Culiner to the virtual offices today! She’s here to chat about her book All About Charming Alice.

[Manga Maniac Cafe] Please tell us a little about yourself.

[J. Arlene Culiner] I was born in New York, raised in Toronto, but for most of my life, I’ve been living in England, Germany, Holland, Turkey, France, Greece, Hungary and the Sahara. At the moment I’m in a very dull French village, in a 300-year-old former inn that I open to the public on Heritage Day. My wildlife garden is a reserve for butterflies and birds and, like my heroine in All About Charming Alice, I also protect spiders, snakes, any living creature. As far as character goes, I’m suppose I’m rather unconventional. I do love well-written books of any genre, rousing discussions, and having a roaring great laugh, but I’ve never owned or wanted a television and, aside from the very occasional documentary, never go to see films. And I’d far rather walk from village to village than drive there.

[Manga Maniac Cafe] Can you tell us a little about All About Charming Alice?

[J. Arlene Culiner] All About Charming Alice, is the story of two warm, rather wary but intelligent people falling in love. Both lead interesting lives, both are passionate, idealistic, and both are somewhat older than the usual romance heroes and heroines. My heroine, Alice, because of a past she’d rather forget, has to learn how to trust again, whereas my hero Jace has to become flexible. And although the budding – and sometimes hopeless-sounding – romance is the main story, quite a few quirky, often amusing, secondary characters also make their appearance. And there’s even some fascinating but little-known history of the American far west.

Here’s the blurb:  

Alice Treemont has given up hope of meeting the right man and falling in love. Living in depopulated Blake’s Folly, a quirky community of rusting cars, old trailers, clapboard shacks and thirsty weeds, she spends her time cooking vegetarian meals, rescuing unwanted dogs and protecting the most unloved creatures on earth: snakes. What man would share those interests? Certainly not Jace Constant whose life in Chicago includes elegant women, fine dining and contemporary art.
Jace has come to Nevada to research the new book he’s writing, but he won’t be staying; as far as he’s concerned, Blake’s Folly is hell on earth. He’s disgusted by desert dust on his fine Italian shoes, dog hair on his cashmere sweaters and by desert bleakness. As for snakes, he doesn’t only despise them: they terrify him.
So how is it possible that each time Alice and Jace meet, the air sizzles? That she’s as fascinated by him as he is by her? That they know their feelings go deeper than raw desire? Still, it looks like this relationship is doomed before it starts: Jace won’t be around for long, and Alice wants to avoid the heartbreak of a short fling.

In need of some juicy romantic gossip, the other 52 residents of Blake’s Folly have decided Alice has been alone for long enough. The attraction between her and Jace is obvious to everyone, so why worry about essential differences? If you trust in love, solutions do appear. But don’t those solutions call for too many compromises, too much self-sacrifice? 

[Manga Maniac Cafe] How did you come up with the concept and the characters for the story?

[J. Arlene Culiner] Many years ago, I spent a few days in a crumbling Nevada community of shacks, old trailers, and one dilapidated old hotel/bar/restaurant. I loved the place, and the atmosphere has stayed with me throughout my rather itinerant life. I have, of course, gone back to Nevada and looked for that community but, strangely enough, I’ve never found it. Therefore, I decided to recreate it in my book, All About Charming Alice, to name it Blake’s Folly, and to populate it with all the original and strange folk you’d find in out-of-the-way places. Of course, my heroine Alice is also a rather strange character – you’d have to be if you lived in Blake’s Folly -  but she’s endearing as well.

[Manga Maniac Cafe] What three words best describe Alice?

[J. Arlene Culiner] Alice is definitely determined. And a giving sort of person, one who wants to please – despite her prickly exterior and her need to protect herself. And she respects all living creatures.

[Manga Maniac Cafe] If Jace had a theme song, what would it be?

[J. Arlene Culiner] I’m certainly not good at naming theme songs, however, one morning, my hero Jace tells Alice he’s going walking in the desert with her. Desperate to keep some distance between them, Alice refuses, although she knows Jace is a pretty determined guy and he’ll win in the end. And as she furiously storms back into her house, she hears Jace whistling: You’ll Never Walk Alone.  

[Manga Maniac Cafe] Name one thing Alice is never without.

[J. Arlene Culiner] A camera

[Manga Maniac Cafe] What three things will you never find in Jace’s bedroom?

[J Arlene] You’ll never, ever, find men’s perfume or aftershave or cologne of any kind; you’ll never find hair gel; and you’ll certainly never find Viagra.

[Manga Maniac Cafe] What is Alice’s greatest regret?

[J. Arlene Culiner] She regrets that she allowed herself – many years before – to be dominated by her unfaithful, ambitious and manipulative first husband. He bullied her into an acting career she’d never wanted, into a Hollywood lifestyle she hated, and forced her to spend her energy hiding his infidelities from the press. After much scandal and losing a baby, she eventually ran away, started doing what she really wanted – working as a herpetologist in the desert. But she is sorry she compromised for so long.

[Manga Maniac Cafe] What are your greatest creative influences?

[J. Arlene Culiner] Hearing new ideas, finding new ways of looking at things. Social criticism particularly stimulates me, but so do landscapes – especially lonely, out-of-the-way places like deserts or flat plains, or groves, or sleepy old towns with their original architecture. All these things inspire me to create, work, think.

[Manga Maniac Cafe] What three things do you need in order to write?

[J. Arlene Culiner] 1. Solitude. I can’t be sitting next to someone I know. I need the peace of my own work space. But I can – and do – also write in train stations, on trains or in cafés. Yes, sure there are other people all around me in such places, but I don’t know them so the solitude is definitely there.

2. A need to communicate with the world: I want to share a good story, amuse people, make them weepy or get them chuckling.

3. My inner voice: it wakes me up in the early morning; it has dialogue racing through my head; it sends me bright images, sly characters and snappy tales. It’s a strange kind of electricity, that inner voice.

[Manga Maniac Cafe] What was your biggest distraction while working on All About Charming Alice?

[J. Arlene Culiner] I suppose my dogs are always a terrible distraction. Dogs are forever lying around at your feet, watching your every move. You know that all they want is to be touched, talked to, taken out for a walk. You are their whole life, and you certainly have to get up from time to time, give in to their wishes – even if you’d much rather stay put and keep writing. And then there are the cats… They come strutting by, and if you ignore them, they’ll roll over the computer keyboard, bump and rub against you until you pay attention to them and give them some love.

[Manga Maniac Cafe] What is the last book that you read that knocked your socks off?

[J. Arlene Culiner]]  Limonov by the French writer Emmanuel Carrère. This brilliantly written book is not only the portrait of a Russian dissident, one of society’s rebels, it also presents 20th-21st century Russia, is an analysis of Russian literature and Russian authors. Limonov is even more than a book: it’s a whole journey.

[Manga Maniac Cafe] If you had to pick one book that turned you on to reading, which would it be?

[J. Arlene Culiner] I  can’t think of one book only. There were several that, as a child, opened the window to life, gave it another dimension. One, Magic by the Lake, had a turtle that granted wishes, and ever after I always hoped I’d find the right lake so that adventure would come to me too. Then there was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis in which, by simply walking into a closet, four children find themselves in an alternate world. Believe me, after devouring that, I tried out every wardrobe, closet and closed door in every single house I passed through. But perhaps it was those Trixie Belden books that taught me that there were adventures and mysteries to be found in even the most boring, domestic settings.

[Manga Maniac Cafe] What do you like to do when you aren’t writing?

[J. Arlene Culiner] I’m an amateur musician. I play the oboe, English horn, oboe d’amore, flute, piccolo and bombarde, and I play every chance I get – with four different bands, two orchestras, two chamber music groups and a double reed group. I go on workshops, travel all over France to play with different musicians and give concerts. If that isn’t an obsession, I don’t know what is.

[Manga Maniac Cafe] How can readers connect with you?

[J. Arlene Culiner] They can come visit my site and write to me there:

They can come see my blog, read the – sometimes provocative – articles I write, and tell me what they think:

And they can also write to me at

[Manga Maniac Cafe] Thank you!

Purchase link

About the book:

Alice Treemont has given up hope of meeting the right man and falling in love. Living in depopulated Blake’s Folly, a quirky community of rusting cars, old trailers, clapboard shacks and thirsty weeds, she spends her time cooking vegetarian meals, rescuing unwanted dogs and protecting the most unloved creatures on earth: snakes. What man would share those interests? Certainly not Jace Constant whose life in Chicago includes elegant women, fine dining and contemporary art.

Jace has come to Nevada to research the new book he’s writing, but he won’t be staying; as far as he’s concerned, Blake’s Folly is hell on earth. He’s disgusted by desert dust on his fine Italian shoes, dog hair on his cashmere sweaters and by desert bleakness. As for snakes, he doesn’t only despise them: they terrify him.

So how is it possible that each time Alice and Jace meet, the air sizzles? That she’s as fascinated by him as he is by her? That they know their feelings go deeper than raw desire? Still, it looks like this relationship is doomed before it starts: Jace won’t be around for long, and Alice wants to avoid the heartbreak of a short fling.

In need of some juicy romantic gossip, the other 52 residents of Blake’s Folly have decided Alice has been alone for long enough. The attraction between her and Jace is obvious to everyone, so why worry about essential differences? If you trust in love, solutions do appear. But don’t those solutions call for too many compromises, too much self-sacrifice

Review: Big Sky Summer by Linda Lael Miller


Title: Big Sky Summer

Author: Linda Lael Miller


May Contain Spoilers

From Amazon:


The "First Lady of the West," #1 New York Times bestselling author Linda Lael Miller, welcomes you home to Parable, Montana—where love awaits.

With his father’s rodeo legacy to continue and a prosperous spread to run, Walker Parrish has no time to dwell on wrecked relationships. But country-western sweetheart Casey Elder is out of the spotlight and back in Parable, Montana. And Walker can’t ignore that his "act now, think later" passion for Casey has had consequences. Two teenage consequences!

Keeping her children’s paternity under wraps has always been part of Casey’s plan to give them normal, uncomplicated lives. Now the best way to hold her family together seems to be to let Walker be a part of it—as her husband of convenience. Or will some secrets—like Casey’s desire to be the rancher’s wife in every way—unravel, with unforeseen results?


I haven’t read a book by Linda Lael Miller in a long while, so when I saw this on Netgalley, I grabbed it.  The premise sounded interesting, and I was curious as to how everything would pan out for rancher protagonist Walker.  He has two teens that don’t know he’s their father. Now that superstar Casey Elder has settled down in town, Walker is going to see a lot more of those kids of his, but he can’t tell them that he’s their dad!  I had a hard time sympathizing with Casey, because she expected him to stay silent about his kids, and because she was denying them all a chance to  be a family.

I loved Walker, even though he’s a go with the flow kind of guy.  He appreciates the simple things in life; a good horse, his land, the beauty surrounding him.  He is lonely and doesn’t easily make connections with others.  His on again off again mess of a relationship with Casey is like a train wreck.  They met  on the rodeo circuit just as Casey’s music career was about to take off, and after she discovers she’s pregnant, she lies and tells him that the baby isn’t his.  She’s worked long and hard to make it to the big time, and she’ not about to become some rancher’s wife. 

After Walker gets her pregnant again (!) she has to fess up.  She insists that Walker’s participation in her strange little family remain a secret, and shame on him, he agrees.  This is the one less than noble decision that he makes, and he spends the rest of the book regretting it with every breath he breathes.  He realizes how much he is hurting both his kids and himself by obeying Casey’s demands, and as he is torn up over it.  He has missed out on watching his kids grow up, and he’s become resentful of Casey for locking him out of so much of their childhoods.  When she settles down in Parable, he begins to see just how much of their lives he has missed out on, and it doesn’t make him happy.

This is the fourth book in the Swoon-Worthy Cowboys series, and other than the first confusing chapter, where we are reintroduced to previous couples in the series, I didn’t have any trouble diving in to this installment.  I did go back and grab the rest of the books because I enjoyed this one so much.  The writing is engaging, and I enjoyed all of the characters, though it took a while to warm up to Casey.  If I have to pick one aspect of the story that didn’t work for me, it’s that Walker is a baby-making machine, and every single time he and Casey hook up, she ended up pregnant.  Even though they used protection.  Somebody needs to sue the condom company for so many quality control failures!

If you are looking for a quick and surprisingly emotional read, Big Sky Summer is a perfect title to pack up in your beach bag.   It even gets some extra brownie points for featuring some many dogs so prominently. 

Check back later today for a chance to win a copy of  Big Sky Summer!

Grade:  B

Review copy provided by publisher

Review: A Risk Worth Taking by Victoria James


Title:  A Risk Worth Taking

Author: Victoria James

May Contain Spoilers

From Amazon:

Interior designer Holly Carrington worked hard for her success. Then tragedy struck, leaving Holly the sole guardian of her infant niece. Now she’s swapped her designer purse for a diaper bag, and is going ahead with plans to renovate—and sell—her childhood home in Red River. But facing her past also means coming face-to-face with Quinn Manning all over again…Quinn was the object of her girlhood crush—and heartbreak— and is more gorgeous than ever. He’s also the only person qualified to oversee the renovation. Now they’re butting heads every step of the way… and their attraction is more electrifying than ever! But once the house is sold, Holly needs to return to her real life. And falling for Quinn all over again is one risk she can’t take…


This book had me invested in Holly’s life by the end of the first chapter.  It was heart-breaking.  It’s her big day at work, and she has worked the last ten years for this moment.  Her wardrobe was carefully picked out, and she is glowing with happiness. She is finally going to be made a partner at the prestigious design firm where she’s employed when she gets the call that makes her realize how pointless her achievement really is.  Her sister and brother-in-law have been killed in an accident, and now she’s left reeling, the guardian of her infant niece.  How can she raise a child alone?  How will she recover from yet another loss?  Everyone she has loved has died – her parents,  the grandparents who raised her and her sister, and now her sister’s gone, too.  It’s just too much, and Holly is devastated.

Returning to her rural hometown to renovate and then flip her grandparents’ house, she is confronted with painful memories of her past.  She has loved Quinn for a lifetime, but he rejected her when she was eighteen.  Now she has to put on a brave front and face him, and all of her childhood memories.  All she wants to do is get the house finished and get out of town, and back to her life in the city where she’s so busy she doesn’t have time to dwell on the emptiness of her life.

I enjoyed A Risk Worth Taking very much.  I loved the interactions between Holly and Quinn, and even enjoyed Ella, Holly’s little niece.  I usually am not a big fan of babies in romances, but Ella wasn’t just window-dressing here.  She was central to the storyline, and she helped both Holly and Quinn’s hearts to heal.  Despite her best efforts to not get caught up in her feelings for Quinn, which still burned bright, Holly’s resolve crumbled as he became an important addition to her new family.  And Quinn, though he didn’t feel worthy of Ella’s love or trust, was able to put his painful past behind him with the baby and Holly’s help. 

A Risk Worth Taking is a feel good read.  You’ll get caught up in Quinn and Holly’s romance, and cheer along as they both learn to trust again.   As Holly puts aside her sadness, she begins to remember all of the happiness she has turned her back on. As she remembers what is really important in life, she is willing to face the risks, and the rewards, of loving Quinn. 

Grade:  B+

Review copy provided by publisher

Edited to correct Ella’s name – oops!

Review: Lucky Break by Kelley Vitollo


Title:  Lucky Break

Author:  Kelley Vitollo

Publisher: Entangled – Bliss

May Contain Spoilers

From Amazon:

One lucky break is all struggling actress Sidney Williams needs. But when living the LA life becomes too much, she heads back to the small town of Shamrock Falls for the vacation she needs to get her life on track—and immediately runs into Kade Mitchell, her former best friend and the boy next door she’s always regretted leaving behind.

Kade, the new owner of Lucky’s—once the most popular bar in Shamrock Falls—is determined to bring the place back to its former glory, and seeing Sidney again is a distraction he doesn’t need. Sure, the chemistry between them is explosive, but Kade can’t let himself fall into a fling with his best friend—not when he knows she’s soon heading back to the glitter of Tinseltown.

Now, with the possibility of her first major acting role looming, Sidney must decide if her lucky break is in Hollywood or right where she left it—in Shamrock Falls.


I am always geeked for new category romance imprints, and when I saw that Entangled was launching their Bliss line, I was eagerly awaiting my introduction to the first three books.  Lucky Break is the second book from the Bliss line that I’ve read.  It is a very fast read, featuring my favorite tropes – second chances and friends to lovers.  This title was a mixed bag for me, though, for a couple of reasons.

First, I had a hard time feeling a connection with Sydney.  She’s carrying a lot of baggage around, all stemming from her mother’s abandonment of her.  After dumping her off at her Aunt Mae’s when she was a young girl so she would be free to pursue her acting career, Sydney was left with a heart full of justified bitterness and anger.  If her own mother considered her too much of a burden and didn’t want her, how could anyone else?  Sydney decided that the only way to prove her worth to her mother was to make it big as an actress herself, so she abruptly leaves for LA after graduation, leaving her best friends, Rowan and Kade, without even a word of goodbye. 

The story starts with Sydney blowing another audition, soon after having her car stolen.  She’s running late for her big break, so naturally she is further inconvenienced by a horrible ride on a city bus, followed by a shoe malfunction during her walk to the audition.  She bombs her chance, returns home in a huff, only to discover that her live-in boyfriend, Steve is dumping her for his big break in New York City.  Ugh! The day couldn’t get any worse!  Sydney takes the opportunity to leave her miserable life as a wanna-be starlet and takes a breather back in her childhood home in Shamrock Falls.  She needs desperately to de-stress, and quiet of Shamrock Falls beckons.  Only when she arrives at her aunt’s house, she discovers that Mae has rented the small cottage on the property to none other than Kade, the boy she dropped like a hot potato without even a word.  Her best friend in the world.  Now she has to man up to her guilt and reconcile both her feelings and her relationship with Kade.

Sydney was hard for me to like, and I failed to find her compelling.  I think it’s because to me, she seemed too young.  She reminded me of a teenager, and her reconciliation and courtship with Kade just didn’t push any buttons for me.  They did young things, like go to movies and hang out at the swimming pond.  Kade even taught her how to drive her aunt’s beat up old truck, which had a manual transmission.  I did not find these activities interesting.  I also didn’t warm up to their romance.  It lacked sizzle, and was too predictable.

I did enjoy Kade and his inner struggle to overcome his guilt at not being able to protect his mother from his abusive father.  Watching his mother suffer ate at him, and made him a fixer.  He wanted to fix everything and everyone.  He naturally felt an impulse to protect, as well, and no matter how heartbroken Sydney’s abrupt departure left him, he can’t deny his impulses to protect her when she’s suddenly back in his life.  Because he was always hyper aware of how others were feeling, he was ready to forgive Sydney for the selfish way she left him.

I am really disappointed that this story didn’t gel for me.  The characters read too young for me to relate to.  While this book didn’t work for me, it will appeal to new category romance readers, and young adults looking for a break from a high school set romance.  The sensuality level is on the sweet side, with kisses and sex behind closed doors, so there isn’t much objectionable for younger readers who are ready to start exploring adult romances.

Grade:   C

Review copy provided by publisher

Review: Slow Dance with the Sheriff by Nikki Logan


Title: Slow Dance with the Sheriff (Harlequin Romance)

Author:  Nikki Logan

Publisher:  Harlequin

May Contain Spoilers

From Amazon:

Ex-ballerina Eleanor Patterson is the darling of Manhattan society—until she discovers her pedigree background is a lie. So she heads to sleepy Larkville for answers….

Sheriff Jed Jackson never expected to rescue a stunning woman from a herd of cattle, or to be so fascinated by the vulnerability beneath Ellie’s tough city veneer. Yet watching her unwind is irresistible, and as he helps her learn to dance again he wants to give both Ellie and himself a new beginning….


Okay, so I somehow got sucked into the Larkville Legacy series, and after reading the first two books, I am quite eager for the third.  I don’t remember reading anything by Nikki Logan before, though I do have a few of her Harlequin Romances that I picked up during the final days of Borders’ going out of business sales.  Glad I grabbed them now, because Slow Dance With the Sheriff pushed all of the right buttons with me.  It had some humor, some sizzle, and a whole lot of powerful emotional responses from me.  Why?  There is a dog.  He is damaged.  There are two people.  They are damaged.  Because they both find it in themselves to love the dog, they all get a happy ever after.  How freakin’ cool is that?  There aren’t even any horses in this one, and since it takes place in a small Texas town, I expected at least one or two.  Nope, just a bunch of stupid cattle.

Ellie Patterson is seeking a home.  She needs someplace where she fits in, and in 30 years, she has yet to find one.  It seems that her entire life is one of disappointment.  She quit  ballet after discovering that her wealthy father was making huge donations to the company.  She couldn’t live with the humiliation of knowing that he bought her place with the dance troupe, instead of earning it herself.  She is still single and emotionally detached from any man, much to her mother’s dismay.  If she won’t keep dancing, she should at least marry in the spotlight.  Then, when she discovers her mother’s secret, she’s  shocked, but also hopeful.  Her mother was already pregnant with Ellie and her twin brother when her mother married, and she is doesn’t share one drop of blood with her father.  Even though she has never fit in with her New York family, maybe she will finally find a place to belong in Texas with the Calhouns.  Without a second thought, she rents a car and drives to Texas to meet the family she didn’t even know she had.

Problem?  First, Jess Calhoun is on her honeymoon, and she be gone for a few weeks.  Second, she is ambushed by an errant herd of cattle.  Third?  The oh-so-sexy sheriff who saves her is just as damaged as she is.  He is distanced from everyone and everything but his dog.  He likes things that way, too.  After making a life altering mistake when he was in charge of the canine unit in a big city, he has sworn off emotional entanglements.  He is happy being the sheriff of a small town, patrolling his county and keeping the law and the peace in his little corner of the world.  Life is quiet.  Life is calm.  Life couldn’t get any better.  Until he has to save Ellie from that errant mass of bovine stupidity.

What I liked best about this story is how both characters, despite their overwhelming fear of emotional, and in Ellie’s case, physical, contact,  both pushed each other to take risks.  These were baby steps, but each successful nudge pushed them closer together, until they had developed a strong bond, with trust firmly at the foundation.  Jed’s strength allowed Ellie to feel comfortable and content for the first time in her life.  Ellie’s wariness and vulnerability, coupled with her unbridled joy at finally discovering the courage to get out there and live, gave Jed a  much needed push to start living himself.  Even when he takes the overused plot devices to heart and tells Ellie that theirs is just a  temporary attachment, you know, to the depths of your soul, that Jed is only fooling himself.  Once he and Ellie begin to trust each other, you know that it will only be a matter of time, despite the rages and the denials, before they stop fighting and recognize how perfect they are for each other.  Add the unshakable approval of one traumatized police dog, and Jed and Ellie really had no chance to escape from that devious thing known as true love.  Their chance of escape?  Zero percent.

I immediately connected with the protagonists, and I constantly urged them to overcome their fears, to stop fighting against the inevitable tide that would eventually buffet them together.  Plot devices that normally drive me nuts worked here, without question.  And interwoven through everything was Deputy Dawg, that poor battered soul who needed nothing other than a warm pat and a kind word.  I think that this sliver of the story touched more more deeply than it would have otherwise, because I know how comforting and soothing a dog’s presence can be.  Now that it’s not there, I know how devastating it is when it’s not there.  At the end of this story, when all Ellie and Jed wanted was love and forgiveness, all they had to do was look to Deputy for an example of how that is done.  Nothing can bridge that chasm of unconditional love and forgiveness like a dog. 

I was occasionally jarred out of the story by some unfamiliar, and to my ears, awkward turns of phrase.  Both Ellie and Jed are supposed to be American, but they didn’t always  sound like it.  This is my one nitpick.  Nikki Logan is Australian, and every now and again, her characters sounded like they were too.  I wasn’t expecting this deep in the heart of Texas, so I do feel obligated to mention it. 

So, volume two in the Larkville Legacy has kept me engaged in the continuity of the series.  Curse you , Harlequin!  Check back for my review of the next book in the series, Taming the Brooding Cattleman.

Grade:  B+

Review was purchased from Amazon

Review: Blaze of Winter by Elisabeth Barrett


Title:  Blaze of Winter

Author: Elisabeth Barrett

Publisher:  Random House

May Contain Spoilers

From Amazon:

Winter heats up in this hot new Star Harbor romance, as another sexy Grayson brother, a wickedly handsome writer, plots his happily ever after with a sweet stranger.

Frustrated with her job in Boston, social worker Avery Newbridge welcomes the opportunity to reassess her life when family asks her to help manage the Star Harbor Inn. Trying to figure out her future is overwhelming enough, but she doesn’t count on distraction in the form of one Theo Grayson, the gorgeous, green-eyed author who she knows is trouble from the moment he saunters into the inn.
Not only does he have a talent for writing swashbuckling adventures, but Theo also has a soft spot for big-hearted damsels in distress, especially a woman who’s great at helping everyone—except herself. Avery’s demons challenge him, but for desire this hot, he isn’t backing down. With every kiss and heated whisper Theo promises her his heart . . . if only Avery is willing to open up and accept it.


I have mixed feelings about Blaze of Fire, and most of them are because I have a love-hate relationship with Theo.  Of all the Grayson brothers, he somehow ended up my least favorite.  I don’t know why, exactly.  Maybe I don’t find bespectacled authors of historical yarns intriguing.  Maybe I’m jealous that he was able to live in a bed and breakfast indefinitely,  never having to worry about making his bed or cleaning the bathroom.  Or maybe it’s because I found him a bit too inconsistent.  For most of the book, he is sweet and mild-mannered, with infinite amounts of patience to support Avery during her moments of insecurity.  But like Clark Kent, once those glasses come off, he changes, but not always for the better.  He could be a smug jerk, and I didn’t feel quite so fond of him then.

I did enjoy the tempo and tone of this story.  Avery is emotionally bruised after finding one of her therapy patients dead from an overdose.  Upset with herself for not realizing that she was being lied to and not able to forgive herself for not being able to keep Mia from harming herself, Avery is hiding out in Star Harbor.  Helping run her aunt’s business while the older woman recovers from her battle with breast cancer, Avery is moving from one day to the next, trying to stay on the fringes of Star Harbor society.  It drives her nuts that everyone in the small community knows everyone else’s business, and she doesn’t like feeling like she’s under a microscope.  She just needs to be left alone so she can come to terms with her feelings of inadequacy, and figure out what to do with the rest of her life.

Theo is struggling, too, but his internal strife is based on his inability to write.  He’s under pressure to complete the next volume in his privateer adventure series, but he’s stuck.   He can’t write a word.  He has no inspiration, and he feels empty.  Leaving his meaningless life in San Francisco behind, he heads back to his childhood home to rediscover his writing roots.  Instead, he discovers Avery, and one glimpse of her vibrantly hued hair has him captivated.  He has discovered his muse, and he’s not going to let her out of his sight.

I liked Theo when he was gently wooing Avery, giving her the emotional support she needed so desperately, but backing away when she needed space.   He taught her how to have fun and take risks, while teaching himself how to open his heart at the same time.  His courtship methods were occasionally questionable, and I didn’t know whether to be amused or appalled as he basically stalked her to her favorite hangout in Boston.  That was a little creepy.  He also showed an epic lapse in judgment that almost destroys his relationship with Avery, and for such a smart guy, I was disappointed with his behavior.  Of course it’s all set up so the good folk of Star Harbor could meddle in his business, but for him to completely disregard everything he knew about Avery and to push back like he did didn’t make sense to me.

The drug runner plot thread had a bigger role in Blaze of Winter than in the previous book in the series, and I am assuming it will be played up even more in Val and Cole’s books.  They are my favorite characters, but they didn’t get much page time here, only serving as backup for Theo.  I was a little disappointed that they didn’t get to play a bigger part in the story, but that just gives me something to look forward to in the future when they get their own 200 pages.  Bring those on! 

Blaze of Winter is a quick read with a (mostly) sweet hero who occasionally displays a lack of common sense.  Avery is an emotionally wounded heroine who needs a lot of handholding to get through the train wreck in her past that has her questioning every decision she makes.  It was gratifying to see her finally set her fear aside and embrace the love Theo, and her own family, were desperate to give her. 

Grade:  B/B-

Review copy provided by publisher

Review: The Cowboy Takes a Bride by Lori Wilde


Title: The Cowboy Takes a Bride

Author: Lori Wilde

Publisher: Avon

ISBN: 978-0062047755


May Contain Spoilers

From Amazon:

Ex-champion bull rider-turned-cutting-horse cowboy Joe Daniels isn’t quite sure how he ended up sleeping in a horse trough wearing nothing but his Stetson and cowboy boots. But now he’s wide-awake, and a citified woman is glaring down at him. His goal? Get rid of her ASAP. The obstacle? Fighting the attraction he feels toward the blond-haired filly with the big, vulnerable eyes.

When out-of-work wedding planner Mariah Callahan learns that her estranged father has left her a rundown ranch in Jubilee, she has no choice but to accept it. Her goal? Redeem her career by planning local weddings. The obstacle? One emotionally wounded, hard-living cowboy who stirs her guilt, her heartstrings, and her long-burned cowgirl roots . . .,


Spring is in the air (actually, it is more like summer, with unseasonal highs in the 80s), so I have been reading a ton of romance.  I had very good luck with Entangled Publishing’s Indulgence line, which was helmed, briefly, by Lori Wilde.  After she was offered a contract with HarperCollins, she stepped down to devote her time and energy to writing.  When The Cowboy Takes a Bride, the first of her Jubilee, Texas series, hit store shelves, I couldn’t resist snapping it up.  I love cowboys and horses, so this book had my name written all over it.   I had a mixed reading experience, partly because I do love horses, though.

Mariah Callahan is an down on her luck unemployed wedding planner.  When she discovers that her estranged father left her a ranch in Jubilee, Texas, she has no choice but to drive from Chicago to check the place out.  Three months of job hunting has left her in precarious financial straits, so discovering that she’s inherited a house is the answer to her prayers.  Until she sees the ramshackle cabin and meets the surly cowboy who lives next door.  Now she just wants to sell the dump and get on with her life, but can she resist Jubilee’s small town charms?

I loved the start of this book.  Mariah, exhausted after driving from Chicago to Texas, discovers a naked cowboy in what she believes is her horse trough.  Only it isn’t her ranch she’s stopped at, it’s Joe Daniels, her father’s good friend and business partner.  Joe isn’t impressed when he finally meets Dutch’s daughter, and he thinks she is heartless for turning her back on her father.  What Joe doesn’t realize is that Dutch abandoned Mariah and her mother, and her childhood was spent moving from one wealthy household to another, as her mother, a domestic servant, struggled to raise her alone.  Mariah is bitter and resentful that Dutch dumped her and her mother so he could train cutting horses, and now that he’s dead, there is no hope of reconciliation.  She’s also resentful that Dutch treated Joe like a son, while she didn’t receive any scraps of his attention. 

The first half of the book drew me in and kept me engaged in the story.  I love small town settings, and Jubilee, despite all of the drama, seemed like a peaceful place to set down some roots.  I could understand Dutch’s attraction to the town.  The cutting capital of the world, it was immediately clear why he drifted there in the first place.  With big dreams to win big money with his horses, he needed to be right in the heart of cutting horse country.  After selling a promising prospect to Joe, he even had a place to call home, dilapidated as it was.  I could see the old cowboy living in the battered cabin, finally being content enough to try to plant some roots.  Unfortunately, an unexpected illness put an end to his dreams.

Joe is devastated by Dutch’s death, which occurred two years to the day after the death of his wife in a riding accident.  Joe is suffering, reeling from the loss of the two people he loved most.  He doesn’t understand the chip on Mariah’s shoulder; nor can he understand that she’s not openly mourning Dutch’s death.  While Mariah is cool and reserved, and not about to wear her heart on her sleeve, Joe is more open with his feelings.  Everyone knows he is suffering, and the small community bands together to keep on eye on him.  When Mariah arrives in town, she, too, finds the community welcoming and caring.  At first put off by their interest in her, she discovers that being neighborly, something didn’t get much of in Chicago, isn’t a bad thing.  I found that the various secondary characters helped keep the plot moving, and helped to ground Mariah.

What I didn’t like, and where the plot started falling apart for me, were all of the references to Sleepless in Seattle and the long winded dialogs when Joe and Mariah started opening up and sharing their feelings with each other.  I just didn’t find the conversations interesting, and the emotions fell flat for me because of that.   The tension between them seemed to evaporate.  Mariah kept holding Joe’s love for his horses over his head, too, even though he proved, time and again, that he was nothing like her father.  To be complete, Joe needed roots and someone to share his dreams with, but Mariah refused to believe in him or the promises that he offered to her.  It just frustrated me that she wouldn’t give him the chance he deserved, and so her lack of trust in him felt forced to me.

Grade:  C+

Review copy purchased from Amazon

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Review: Animal Magnetism by Jill Shalvis


Title: Animal Magnetism

Author: Jill Shalvis

Publisher: Berkley

ISBN: 978-0425239810

Reading Level: Adult


May Contain Spoilers

From Amazon:

Co-owner of the town’s only kennel, Lilah Young has lived in Sunshine, Idaho, all her life. Pilot-for-hire Brady Miller is just passing through. But he soon has Lilah abandoning her instincts and giving in to a primal desire.

It’s Brady’s nature to resist being tied down, but there’s something about Lilah and her menagerie that keeps him coming back for more.


Animal Magnetism is a book that I picked up on impulse at a Borders’ closeout sale.  One look at the woe-be-gone puppy cuddled to the cover model’s chest, and I had to have it.  I didn’t even read the synopsis on the back of the book.  I have been challenging myself to read books outside of my normal comfort zone, so I scooped this up, thinking that the puppy couldn’t steer me wrong.  He didn’t!

Due to preconceived, and highly erroneous,  impressions I had about the line, I have avoided any Berkley Sensation titles.  I am not sure why or when I started to view them in such a negative light, because I have never actually read one, but for the record, my idea of what they are like was so far off base it’s not even funny.  This is a fun, humorous contemporary romance with engaging characters and an added cast of critters to complicate the protagonists’ lives.

Lilah makes a bad first impression with Brady Miller when she crashes into his truck.  Oops!  It was  really the duck’s fault, but trying to explain that would make her sound absolutely nuts.  Lilah is lucky that Brady turns out to be a nice guy, because she has a carload of animals to ferry back to her kennel.  Instead of leaving her hanging out to dry, he offers to chauffeur her, and her charges, home.  Before you can say “Quack!” they share a mutual attraction, but as Brady makes it quite clear, he’s only in town for a short time to visit his foster brothers, and then he’s hitting the highway again.

And this brings me to the reason I gave the book a slightly lower grade than I would have otherwise.  Lilah pursues a fling with Brady, knowing that there is no future for them. She accepts that he isn’t going to be a permanent addition to her life, and she wants to get him and her blazing attraction to him out of her system.  This is my second least favorite romance trope, with the dreaded destined mate trope edging out in front.  I’ve only been reading romances again for a short while, and several of the book have featured this plotline.  Sigh. (Rant off)

Lilah isn’t the kind of girl to be content with a wild fling, regardless of how satisfying the sex is.  She takes her relationships very seriously.  She isn’t the love ‘em and leave ‘em kind of girl.  She values how other people feel, and that’s what I loved about her.  She grows attached to everything, even the stray animals she shelters for a short time.  It eats away at her every time she has to give them up, even knowing that she has found a wonderful, forever home for her furry charges.  I was a little resentful of Brady for what I saw as almost taking advantage of her.  He knows what she’s like, and he still agrees to a no-strings attached relationship.  Sometimes somebody has to be the adult and just walk away from a situation before someone else gets hurt.  When it started to look like his feathers were going to get singed, too, I forgave him.

The sparks fly between Lilah and Brady, and steam almost rises off of the pages.  While their relationship is riveting (and hot!), it’s the secondary characters who give this book its soul.  Lilah lives in a small town, and everyone knows everything about everybody else.  When a sexy stranger drifts into town and makes a temporary home above the animal clinic, every woman from miles around is drawn to openly drool over the very eligible bachelor.  Better yet, the staff running the clinic is made up of two more hotties, and I am left to wonder if the practice would be as profitable if Dell and Adam resembled some of their four-legged clients.  Dell, Adam, and even Jade quickly won me over with their humor.  All of these tough guys (and one snarky girl) are caring and concerned about the people around them.  I love people who will go out on a limb to give their friends a hand.  I am so happy that there will be more books featuring them, and am counting down the days until I can visit with them again and learn more about them.

There were a few places where I felt the plot was spiraling a teeny bit out of control, and I wondered at Lilah’s swift healing abilities, but I quickly shrugged these off and boosted up my suspense of belief barrier.  This is a quick, fun read, perfect for a little escape from reality.

Grade: B

Review copy purchased at Borders