Katie MacAlister, “Men in Kilts”

Kathie, a divorcée on a three-week vacation in England, has given up on love. But when she sets eyes on Iain, a taciturn and studly Scottish farmer, Kathie finds herself falling in love at first sight. When Iain invites her to Scotland, Kathie happily agrees, though she knows next to nothing about farming, can hardly understand Scottish accents and must return to Seattle before her visa expires. Men in Kilts follows Kathie’s journey from a single and independent woman to a lamb-loving, haggis-consuming expatriate living in the Highlands.

Plot Overview: Love, Trust and Conflict

Deep into a whirlwind romance, Kathie is a woman trying to find her balance. The speed of her relationship with Iain leaves them both doubting themselves – and each other. When Bridget, Iain’s neighbor and former lover, makes it clear that Kathie is only a temporary fixture at the farm, Kathie’s insecurity takes a hit.

Compounding matters is Kathie’s inability to maintain a cordial relationship with Archie, one of Iain’s sons, and to understand the practicalities of farm life. The resulting tears, frustration, arguments and resolutions provide for an emotional, over-the-top ride.

Criticisms and Compliments

Katie MacAlister has written several witty and romantic novels, all featuring funny, bumbling and slightly overweight women. Hard Day’s Knight is a sweet love story set at a Renaissance festival; The Corset Diaries examines one woman’s search for romance on a reality television show; the Aisling Grey, Guardian series taps into the current trend of vampires, demons and the clever heroines who hunt them. Men in Kilts, however, is a disappointment.

MacAlister clearly put in time studying sheep farming, but aside from her research abilities, Men in Kilts falls flat. Kathie’s far from likable; she’s a mercurial, overly-sensitive woman who suffers from bouts of jealousy and insecurity. Iain is a shallow character, one who barely makes a ripple on the page, even though he is the motivation behind Kathie’s every thought and move.

The only interesting character is Bridget, Iain’s neighbor and Kathie’s rival. Kathie and Bridget’s interactions are the highlights of this so-so novel; had MacAlister made their relationship the focus of the novel and included more verbal sparring and prank-playing, Men in Kilts could have been catapulted from a stale cookie-cutter romance novel to a vaguely humorous chick-lit read. Instead, it is a lackluster story, one where MacAlister tries too hard to be funny. While her other novels are worth a look, Men in Kilts is one to avoid.

Source:

  • MacAlister, Katie. Men in Kilts. Onyx (Reprint edition), 2003. ISBN 9780451411136

Lisa Gardner, “Live to Tell”

In her latest Detective D.D. Warren novel, Lisa Gardner examines the world of mental illness, especially in children. When two families are murdered, allegedly by a mentally-ill child, D.D. immerses herself in the case. Alex Wilson, a George Clooney lookalike, accompanies her, giving astute observations and playing good cop to D.D.’s bad cop. As the case grows in intensity, so does Alex and D.D.’s relationship. With graphic descriptions and a brutal look at homicidal tendencies, Live to Tell is a shocking read.

Plot Overview: Children, Mental Illness and Murder

Victoria is a woman devoted to her child, Evan. She has sacrificed her job, her friends, her husband and her second child, a daughter, to care for Evan. What is so tragic about her tale is Evan’s homicidal and sociopathic behavior. Victoria, for as much as she loves her child, is both in denial and a victim. When Evan takes his behavior one step too far, he is sent to a children’s psychiatric ward.

Danielle, like Victoria, is dedicated to one thing: her job. A nurse at the pediatric psych ward, Danielle loves her work. With a fuzzy past – and undoubtedly some severe trauma – she keeps her coworkers at arm’s length and nurtures her patients. When Lucy, a feral child, is placed in the ward, Danielle sees her chance to make a difference in one little girl’s life.

D.D. Warren has been called to the scenes of two brutal murders. While the main suspect in each case is a child, the families are linked by one man, Andrew Lightfoot. A psychic, Andrew believes that he can help children overcome their mental illnesses by changing their thought processes. Suspicious of both Andrew and Danielle, D.D. dives into her work – though she has Alex to provide a little levity in her life.

Criticisms and Compliments

Like The Neighbor, Live to Tell probes a disturbing subject; rather than analyzing the impact of sexual abuse, however, Live to Tell looks at mental illness and abuse in children. Gardner also makes a strong impression by depicting one child as if he were an adult. The result is that the reader automatically takes the side of Victoria, the woman being abused. When Gardner reveals that the perpetrator is only 8 years old, she shows the real danger of mentally-ill children. That being said, Gardner is quick to show the compassion and understanding necessary to help, rehabilitate or treat these children. Live to Tell is a harsh, but not altogether unrealistic look at children and psychosis.

Source:

  • Gardner, Lisa. Live to Tell: A Detective D.D. Warren Novel. Bantam, 2010 ISBN 9780553591910

Nora Roberts, “The Dream Trilogy”

Jove; http://www.us.penguingroup.com/nf/Book/BookDisplay/0,,9780425260906,00.html?Daring_to_Dream_Nora_RobertsAs young girls, Margo, Kate and Laura lived in the same mansion overlooking the gleaming waters of the Pacific. Full of dreams and ambition, each yearned to live the perfect life: Margo, the housekeeper’s daughter, escaped into the glamorous world of modeling; Kate, orphaned at a young age and sent to live with her aunt and uncle, found professional success as a CPA; and Laura, the princess of Templeton House, married a bright and handsome man. Yet despite appearances, demons, disappointments and betrayals plague the childhood friends. Together, these “sisters” must depend on the strength of their friendship to overcome their personal crises.

Plot Overview: Money, Family and Sisterhood

Margo Sullivan, in Daring to Dream, is a woman with everything: wealth, a rewarding career as a model, a trendy condo in Milan. But when her manager steals her money and leaves her mired deep in scandal, Margo has no choice but to return home. With the help of her friends, and Laura’s brother, Josh, Margo will tap into her store of ambition to open her own shop – and her heart.

Jove; http://www.us.penguingroup.com/nf/Book/BookDisplay/0,,9780425260913,00.html?Holding_the_Dream_Nora_RobertsIn Holding the Dream, Kate Powell is a confident, professionally satisfied accountant. But when she stumbles onto a family secret and is accused of embezzlement, Kate feels her world beginning to crumble. Byron De Witt’s care and support, however, may be just the cure she needs to heal from the stress and fall in love.

Laura Templeton is, by all appearances, a happy, affluent woman in Finding the Dream. But under the façade, Laura is depressed, undervalued and under-appreciated. Betrayed by her husband, Peter, she sets about becoming independent: she files for divorce and steps back into her family’s hotel business. When Michael Fury enters her life, Laura finds herself contemplating a new relationship, one on her terms.

Criticisms and Compliments

Jove; http://www.us.penguingroup.com/nf/Book/BookDisplay/0,,9780425260920,00.html?Finding_the_Dream_Nora_RobertsThe Dream Trilogy, one of Roberts’ earlier works, is a simple, sweet look at the friendship that three young women forge. It is, for any reader, a comforting trilogy, a series of stories that provide the illusion of kinship and togetherness; no one, regardless of the state of their lives, could ever read these books and feel lonely. The Dream Trilogy, like The Calhouns,  provides both family and friends, laughter and love.

This trilogy also has one deliciously narcissistic antagonist: Peter Ridgeway, Laura’s ex-husband. Like Baxter Dumont, Suzanna Calhoun’s ex-husband in Suzanna’s Surrender, Peter is neglectful, cruel and an adulterer. So Roberts, in truly satisfying fashion, offers up the scoundrel his just desserts. Thank you, Roberts!

The Dream Trilogy is lovely and entertaining, the perfect read for an afternoon at the beach.

Source:

  • Roberts, Nora. The Dream Trilogy (Daring to Dream, Holding the Dream, Finding the Dream). Jove, 1996 ISBN 9780515119206

Helen Fielding, “Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination”

Olivia Joules is a woman with a mission: to resurrect her career. Unfortunately, her imagination undermines her every effort. With a store of resourcefulness, charm and quick wit, Olivia may just harness her creative mind and hold onto a career as a hard-hitting journalist. With humor, drama and just a touch of humility, Helen Fielding entertains with Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination.

Plot Overview: Suspicions, Explosions and Lust

On paper, Olivia is extraordinary; once Rachel Pixley, an orphan living on her own and struggling to survive, she reinvented herself as Oliva Joules, a self-sufficient, ambitious, independent journalist. In reality, however, Olivia has bungled one too many assignments, and her career is dangerously near to ending. Given one last chance from her editor, she is sent to cover a face cream launch in Miami.

Once she sets foot in America, Olivia’s world takes a dramatic turn. She meets a handsome suitor, Pierre Feramo, whom she quickly believes to be a member of al Qaeda; she becomes witness to a devastating bombing; and someone has been bugging her hotel rooms. The question is, are her suspicions real, or are they just a product of her imagination?

Criticisms and Compliments

The creator of Bridget Jones, Helen Fielding has become well known for her clever, humorous novels. Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination, however, is not a novel to be read like Bridget Jones’s Diary or Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason. Olivia, unlike Bridget, is not a bumbling woman involved with the pursuit of love, friendship and a tiny waistline. Olivia is already beautiful and enchanting, even capable of walking into a party and chatting up the handsomest man in the room.

Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination has a seemingly fantastic plot: a struggling journalist believes an Arabic entrepreneur to be a terrorist, specifically Osama bin Laden – or at least a good lookalike. Although Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination is intended to be funny, the al Qaeda references are awkward and uncomfortable. In theory, the Islamic terrorist plot that prompts a quirky British woman to travel the world is interesting, but in practice, it is clumsy.

While Fielding easily captures the feel of Hollywood and Miami – and the materialism that can encapsulate both – she never fully grasps American lingo. Her dialogue sounds British, not American; this inconsistency is not crucial to the plot, but it does affect the authenticity of the story.

Overall, Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination is an entertaining read, one that should be read separate from Bridget Jones’s Diary or typical chick-lit fare. Olivia is the Mata Hari of the 21st century, and her adventures, flawed as they may be, are still amusing and worth a read.

Source:

  • Fielding, Helen. Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination. Penguin, 2005 ISBN 9780143035367

Lisa Gardner, “The Neighbor”

Detective D.D. Warren is a tough, no-nonsense investigator. She is also single and restless. When she is called to the scene of a missing person, Sandra Jones, D.D. meets Jason. A handsome and quiet man, Jason is shockingly composed about his wife’s disappearance. His reaction, and his devotion to his precocious 4-year-old daughter, Ree, sparks D.D.’s curiosity – and suspicion. Given that Sandra disappeared while the doors and windows of her house were locked and her daughter was asleep in bed, D.D. concludes that the young teacher cannot still be alive. The Neighbor is an intense look at deviant behavior and the foolish assumptions people may have about the people who live closest to them: their neighbors.

Plot Overview: Family, Sexual Assualt and Trauma

Sandra Jones is a beautiful, blond junior high school teacher. When she goes missing, rumors begin to swirl about her relationship with a male student, Ethan Hastings. As the narrator of The Neighbor, Sandra divulges the truth about her unconventional marriage, her unhappy and abusive childhood, and the love she feels for her daughter.

Jason Jones is a good-looking, successful man who adores his wife and daughter. A reporter for the local newspaper, he seems normal. Beneath the smooth surface, however, Jason is troubled, traumatized by some past event in his life. Jason also has a hobby, one that involves searching the internet for hours at night. When Sandra stumbles upon his secret, she concludes that she has married a pedophile.

As D.D. Warren sifts through the rumors and gossip, lies and truths, she learns that appearances are not what they seem. Complicating matters are the sudden reappearance of Sandra’s father, with whom she has no relationship, and the behavior of a convicted sexual predator who lives down the street from the Jones family. The question is, what really happened to Sandra Jones?

Criticisms and Compliments

The Neighbor is full of twists, and Gardner does what she can to prevent a predictable ending. While these red herrings make for an interesting, page-turning read, The Neighbor is, in fact, a novel that delves into deeply disturbing subjects. Incest, pedophilia and sexual assault are described in both vague and horrifying terms, and the emotional trauma that Gardner’s characters experience is troubling. This novel’s plot could be ripped from headlines, or even from a Law and Order: SVU episode. The Neighbor is a fascinating book, but it should be read with caution.

Source:

  • Gardner, Lisa. The Neighbor: A Detective D.D. Warren Novel. Bantam, 2010, ISBN 9780553591903

Nora Roberts, “River’s End”

On a pleasant evening in Los Angeles, Julie MacBride is found stabbed to death. Her murder resonates within her close family and throughout the glitterati community. Deeply affected by her mother’s murder, Olivia is the only witness to see the killer. When she is whisked away to the Pacific Northwest, Olivia is given the chance to be a little girl, and so she forgets the events of the murder – for awhile. With sensitive writing and an ending worth second and third reads, Nora Roberts has another hit with River’s End.

Plot Overview: Family, Scandal and Love

The night Julie MacBride was murdered, her 4-year-old daughter, Olivia, hid in her closet, a doll among dolls. When Detective Frank Brady finds her tucked behind the porcelain faces, he learns that Olivia saw her mother’s killer: her father, actor Sam Tanner. Based on Olivia’s chilling account of “the monster,” Sam is found guilty of murder.

Years later, after having been given a chance to escape the glare of the spotlight in Hollywood, Olivia is happily living with her grandparents. As she matured, Olivia gradually moved on from the tragic events of her childhood. However, when Noah Brady, son of Frank Brady and an investigative journalist, seeks her out, she must relive the worst night of her young life.

As the affection and love between Olivia and Noah grow, so does the possibility that Sam Tanner is not guilty. With “the monster” still lurking behind corners, Olivia must face the truth of her past and the love of her future.

Criticisms and Compliments

River’s End is one of Roberts’s strongest novels. Like Honest Illusions, Sweet Revenge and Public Secrets, River’s End traces the protagonist’s story over the course of twenty years. By using this method, Roberts’s back story of her characters becomes an integral part of her plot. In the case of Olivia, the reader is introduced to her traumatic childhood and is able to follow her development and maturation. The result is a captivating look at one girl and the role that fate plays in her family and love life.

River’s End also glorifies the beauty of the Pacific Northwest. With Roberts’s well-known research skills at work, River’s End is not just about love and murder, horror and scandal, but about the beauty of nature – and the subsequent beauty, and harshness, that live within each person. River’s End is a terrific vacation book, one perfect for a day devoted to reading.

Source:

  • Roberts, Nora. River’s End. Jove, 2003 ISBN 9780515127833

Sandra Brown, “Tough Customer”

Dodge, first seen in Sandra Brown’s Smash Cut, is a quiet man, one who takes on any assignment by his boss, Derek Mitchell, without complaint or explanation. How he completes the assignment is, to Derek, a mystery, one he has no desire of uncovering. Although Dodge rarely reveals his methods, and his moral compass may not point exactly north, he is a loyal man. So when his ex-wife calls to tell him that their daughter has been implicated in a murder, Dodge has no choice but to return to his former family and try to make good. Tough Customer is an intense look at murder, love and the impact of the choices people make – especially when they are young, stubborn and foolish.

Plot Overview: Family, Loyalty and Debt

Dodge Hanley is content in his life as an investigator for his lawyer friend, Derek. A former cop, Dodge knows the ins and outs of the law, its flaws and its shortcuts. He may not be a squeaky-clean investigator, but he always gets his work done. Living alone and with little company but his boss and his never-ending supply of cigarettes, Dodge is a man living life as he pleases – until Caroline calls.

Caroline and Dodge’s daughter, Berry, is a witness to a horrific crime. While spending time in rural Texas with a coworker, Berry was attacked by an obsessive, dangerous former colleague, Oren. After shooting Berry’s guest, Ben Lofland, Oren escaped. With Ski Nyland, the local police deputy, on the case, Berry’s life should clean up quickly, or so she thinks.

Travelling from Atlanta to Texas and reuniting with his family, Dodge begins to reminisce on his relationship with Caroline. Yet, as his nostalgia deepens, Dodge comes ever closer to losing his precious family to a madman.

Criticisms and Compliments

In a rare move, Brown follows up one of her most recent novels, Smash Cut, with a second novel about one of its characters. Dodge is one of Brown’s grittier, more mysterious and more memorable personalities; it is fascinating to read his story and discover his values and morals, as gray as they may be. For such a tough man, Dodge has a vulnerable side, making him the ideal flawed hero. Additionally, it is satisfying to see where Derek and Julie Mitchell’s story takes them. In Smash Cut, they were lovers with a dysfunctional relationship and a common enemy; in Tough Customer, they are a couple in love, expecting a baby, and worried about their friend, Dodge. Tough Customer is a page-turner, one worth reading over and over again.

Source:

  • Brown, Sandra. Tough Customer: A Novel. Simon & Schuster, 2010 ISBN 9781416563105

Stevie Cameron, “Blue Trust”

A headline-making story in the 1990s, Canadian power couple Bruce and Lynne Verchere were wealthy and influential until a dramatic, public fall from grace. Stevie Cameron, in Blue Trust, details their ambitious and malicious behavior, and the motivations they might have had for their conduct. Although this story ends in tragedy, neither Bruce nor Lynne appear as victims; rather, each is painted as a complex, ruthless entrepreneur, determined to make – or take – as much money as possible. Blue Trust is a fascinating look at the Vercheres’ destructive actions, ones that eventually destroy their reputations and marriage.

Plot Overview: Greed, Infidelity and the Law

Bruce Verchere was an up-and-coming tax lawyer when he met Lynne Walters. Lynne was an up-and-comer in her own right as the developer of a software company. Together, the two worked for years to build Lynne’s business and Bruce’s reputation. With ties to the government and wealth at their disposal, the Vercheres appeared to have it all – or so it goes.

An unfaithful husband almost from the start, Bruce was guilty of having somewhat discreet affairs. But when he became involved with the daughter of one of his closest and most loyal clients, writer Arthur Hailey, Bruce’s marriage began to crumble. Compounding his marital problems was Bruce’s greed for Lynne’s money. When she sold her company, Manac Systems International, in a multi-million dollar deal, Bruce began to quietly shuffle money around, claiming Lynne’s as his own.

As Lynne caught on to her husband’s deceit, both financial and personal, she decided to plot revenge. With Arthur Hailey as her supporter, Lynne prepared to ruin Bruce in any way she could. Their story climaxes in dramatic fashion as an ambulance arrives at their home after gunshot fire is reported.

Criticisms and Compliments

Blue Trust, written by investigative journalist Cameron, reads almost like an in-depth magazine article. With chapters of background information, especially of both Verchere and Arthur Hailey’s early lives, Blue Trust is a testament to Cameron’s research abilities. As she writes with a steady pace and clean language, Blue Trust is not boring or long-winded, though her passages on financial transactions are a little tedious. This novel is, simply, an intriguing look at one man’s obsession with wealth and success and his eventual downfall. A national bestseller in Canada, Blue Trust is an excellent read for those with an interest in greed, wealth, scandal and tax law.

Source:

  • Cameron, Stevie. Blue Trust: The Author, The Lawyer, His Wife, and Her Money.Seal Books, 1998 ISBN 9780770428444

Nora Roberts, “Born in Trilogy”

In Roberts’s Born in Trilogy, Maggie and Brianna have a complex, bitter relationship with their mother, Maeve. The only bright spot in their home life is their father, an open, loving man who adores his daughters. When he dies one cold afternoon in Ireland, Maggie and Brianna must face a future without him while trying to rebuild a relationship with their unhappy, emotionally needy mother. When they find Shannon Bodine, their half-sister, they – and Maeve – learn the true meaning of family.

Plot Overview: Sisterhood, Family and Art

Maggie Concannon, in Born in Fire, is a feisty, talented glass artist. Devastated after her father’s death, she seeks refuge in her glass house, creating beautiful and unique pieces of art. When Rogan Sweeney becomes her agent, Maggie must learn to accept love from its most unusual sources.

Jove; http://www.us.penguingroup.com/nf/Book/BookDisplay/0,,9780515116755,00.html?Born_in_Ice_Nora_RobertsIn Born in Ice, Brianna Concannon is her mother’s caretaker, though servant would be a more apt term. Waiting on her mother hand and foot, Brianna longs to have her own life as the proprietor of a bed-and-breakfast. When her dream is realized, and writer Grayson Thane comes knocking at her door, Brianna embraces love.

Shannon Bodine is a high-powered ad exec in Born in Shame. After her mother passes away, Shannon flees to Ireland to heal – and to discover the truth about her biological father. With art as common ground, Shannon forms a tentative relationship with her two half-sisters.

Criticisms and Compliments

Jove; http://www.us.penguingroup.com/nf/Book/BookDisplay/0,,9780515117790,00.html?Born_in_Shame_Nora_RobertsLike The Irish Trilogy, the Born in Trilogy is the ideal situation for Roberts, who is of Irish descent, to extol the virtues and beauty of Ireland. She writes with a certain amount of respect and awe for the country’s greenery, making it the perfect backdrop for a good love story. Roberts, however, does not focus entirely on romantic love in the Born in Trilogy; rather, the secondary story of the guilt and resentment between mother and daughters is the trilogy’s driving force.

Roberts is also known for research abilities: in The Villa, she wrote detailed descriptions of wine-making; in Born in Fire, she illustrates the intricate process of blowing glass. Her books are almost worth reading just for the education, but the love stories give them that extra oomph, that life behind the processes. The Born in Trilogy is excellent and well-written, worth at least a second read.

Source:

  • Roberts, Nora. Born In Trilogy (Born in Fire, Born in Ice, Born in Shame). Jove, 1994 ISBN 9780515114690

Nora Roberts, “The Villa”

An ode to wine, The Villa is an in-depth look at life in California’s Napa Valley. Against the backdrop of heavily-researched and beautifully-detailed grapes and vines, love is set to bloom between various members of the Giambelli and MacMillan households.

With matriarch La Signora at the helm, the Giambelli wine company is about to make a major change: a merger with the MacMillan winery. The resulting conflicts between the two companies culminate in a dramatic wave of love, lust, product tampering and murder. A must-read from beginning to end, The Villa is an education in wine, romance and corporate sabotage.

Plot Overview: Fidelity, Relationships and Wine

Sophia Giambelli is a savvy PR woman, the perfect spokeswoman for her family’s wine company. When her grandmother, La Signora, decides to combine her company with her husband’s, Eli MacMillan, Sophia is forced to reevaluate her professional life. Under La Signora’s instructions, Sophia must work alongside Eli’s grandson, Tyler, in the MacMillan fields to learn the wine-making process; likewise, Tyler must learn the ins-and-outs of PR with Sophia. Although their personalities clash at first, the two eventually find common ground over wine – and mutual attraction.

Pilar, Sophia’s mother, has long since come to terms with the fact that her marriage to Tony Avano is over. After Tony requests a divorce, then marries his girlfriend, Renee, within days, Pilar is finally, and officially, single. However, when David, the new COO of Giambelli-MacMillan, arrives with his son and daughter in tow, Pilar finds herself feeling tugs of lust.

Complicating an already thorny merger are the mysterious deaths of loyal Giambelli employees. When investigators determine that the wine has been tampered with, Giambelli-MacMillan must deal with the fall-out – much to rival company LaCoeur’s satisfaction.

Criticisms and Compliments

In typical Roberts fashion, the setting in The Villa, like in Black Hills, is central to the plot. It is clear from Roberts’s descriptions that she has spent a considerable amount of time researching the process of wine-making; she shows both a respect for and a fascination with grapes, vines and the distilling process. Like gardening in the In The Garden Trilogy, making wine is part science and part art. And so wine – like flowers – becomes the ideal catalyst for romance.

The Villa is a well-plotted novel, one that combines elements of love and intrigue. The romance between Pilar and David is the sweetest and most mature of the affairs, while that between Sophia and Ty is fiery and passionate. Corporate greed and vindictive ex-employees add an appealing element to what would be a typical romance novel, and with the extra dose of murder and infidelity, The Villa is a terrific read, one of Roberts’s best.

Source:

Roberts, Nora. The Villa. Jove, 2002 ISBN 9780515132187