Category Archives: Contemporary

Review: BEAUTIFULLY AWAKE

A social worker recovering from a personal trauma finds herself pursued by a neurosurgeon who is as mysterious as he is passionate.

Beautifully Awake (Beautifully Awake, #1)

Beautifully Awake

Lili Porter is lovable from scene one. She’s cute and kooky and incredibly vulnerable.The sexual tension is old-school hot, probably because we stay in Lili’s POV for 99% of the book. This is so refreshing. We get to experience her attempts to make sense of Chase’s strange hot-cold behavior firsthand. Sometimes it’s fun NOT to know everything that’s going on in both leads’ heads.

Chase is a good alpha, but the author(s) do cross into cliche-land with him. Okay, they try to work it so that his wealth adds plot points, but his back story is a little too over-the-top tragic. And his parents are too evil to be believable. Rich-and-Evil seems to be the parental trend in recent contemporary romances.

A bigger issue for me (and the reason I didn’t rate the book five stars) is that the end drags on for two or three chapters too long. Also, putting the resolution into an “epilogue” that is then in Chase’s POV was jarring and just an odd authorial decision. In terms of how it functions in the narrative, it isn’t an epilogue at all. It’s the LAST CHAPTER. It doesn’t help that once we’re in Chase’s head, this brilliant surgeon and humanitarian sounds like a Frat boy. This annoyed me, because the most of the book is so good.

Despite overshooting the mark at the end, BEAUTIFULLY AWAKE is one of the better books I’ve read in 2015. The twists are plentiful and unpredictable and the heroine is wonderful.

Review: BEAUTIFUL REDEMPTION

An FBI agent married to her job falls for her new boss, a man with a complicated past and plenty to hide.

Beautiful Redemption (The Maddox Brothers, #2)

Beautiful Redemption

Tension starts right from the opening scene. The various plot lines–Liis/Thomas romance, search for internal leak, Thomas’s recruiting of his brother Travis–mesh well. The Thomas/Cammie thing dragged on too long, but I thought the same thing when I read BEAUTIFUL OBLIVION. His treatment of her in that book doesn’t support his current broken heart. And Liis gets a little annoying with her “I love you, but I love my career” whining. This isn’t 1950 or even 1990. A woman can be in law enforcement AND have a good relationship. However, these were only minor irritations in an otherwise good book.

It was fun getting to meet the characters from the previous books, especially the Maddox clan. There’s also a hint of trouble with yet another one of the brothers. Seriously, it must be a genetic thing that the Maddox cure for relationship trouble is drunken cheating. Thomas is the only one who seems to have escaped this character weakness. He’s uptight and closed off, but he’s honorable to a fault.

I’d rate Beautiful Redemption the most romantic and emotionally rich of McGuire’s books to date. There’s a great mix of romance and suspense, and the ending is dramatic but not over the top.

A new favorite.

Author Kathleen Kilgallon

Today, I have author Kathleen Kilgallon here to talk about her debut novel In Bloom, the story of a woman stuck in her unhappy past until an unexpected dinner invitation changes everything. Remember: read past the interview for my review of this touching and hilarious novel!

Kathleen Kigallon, author of IN BLOOM

Author Kathleen Kilgallon

How did you come up with the idea for In Bloom? Is the story a complete invention or based on true experience?

For a long time I had this character in my head of a lonely, depressed forty-something lady. I started writing the story back in 2004, but my computer crashed and my beloved story was lost. I was completely heart broken and abandoned the whole idea. A few years back, the characters started speaking to me again, and I knew it was time to tell their story. As I wrote, idea after idea came into my head, and the story took on a life of its own. Writing it was a joy and it was great fun to create some over the top characters.

So to answer your question, yes, the story was a complete invention, but I took elements of my own life and incorporated it in to the story. I know what it’s like to experience deep pain and was able to transfer the pain onto the pages. I know what it’s like to experience overwhelming sorrow, to have a heart already burdened with pain, like Kindra, who asks, “Where to put that pain in a heart that’s already overwhelmed with sorrow?”

Your characters are all complicated people dealing with serious personal issues. Kindra suffers profound grief over the loss of her sister. Tommy lives with a permanent disability. And Tiana deals with the challenges faced by all GLBT Americans. These characters are all thrown together in a novel and end up changing each other’s lives. But who came first? And how did their differing situations evolve for you as you wrote?

Kindra came first as I stated in the previous question, and then came Tommy. When I first wrote the story, Tommy was much more mild mannered and so was his mother, but when I started it again, I just let loose with them. I figured if he was going to be a pissed-off-at- the-world wheelchair-bound man, he better act like it. As far as their differing situations, they just evolved naturally as the story progressed. I needed a strong character like Tiana to pull Kindra out of herself.  Why I chose a masculine lesbian, I have no idea. She just came to me. And I loved her. Everybody needs a best friend like Tiana. She and Tommy’s mother have no filters; they say whatever comes into their heads, and it was a blast to write their dialogue.

For all the serious situations it deals with, In Bloom is a funny, funny book. Was the humor planned? A way to balance all of the drama? Or are you just a funny person?

Thank you for saying In Bloom is a funny book. I was hoping people would find it humorous. I laughed as I wrote it, even when I had to reread it as part of the editing process. But you never know if other people will get your humor.

Yes, I did use the humor as a way to balance the intensity of the story. It would be heavy reading without it. And, yeah, I think I’m a pretty funny person but I tend to be reserved when I first meet people. It’s not until I feel comfortable with them, do I let my zany side out, but it came out very naturally and easily as I wrote In Bloom.

Tommy Shannon’s mother in particular is just hysterical…Her bad brogue and worse language…is she based on anyone you know? She reminds me of Mrs. Doyle, a character in a fabulous British Comedy Father Ted. In fact, that’s how I pictured her as I read. How did you come up with Mrs. Shannon?

I really don’t know. As I wrote, the character just developed. I had no real plan to make her like that. But as I continued writing, she just evolved into this wacky character. I had the best time writing the dialogue between Tommy and his mother. It was so liberating to create these characters that were so out-of-the-box, shall we say.

Kindra had a rough childhood. She dealt with her pain and anxiety by cutting herself. Why did you choose this coping mechanism for her?

I chose it because, as a teenager, I used to cut and, like Kindra, I still have the faint scars on my wrist. I know what it feels like to be so overwhelmed with pain and anxiety, and the relief that comes with cutting. Like I say in the book during that scene, all that pain is given an avenue of escape from the body. I also know the guilt that comes with it, the shame and also feeling like a freak.

What are your future writing plans? Are you working on anything at the moment?

I plan on writing a sequel to In Bloom, tentatively calling it Planted, because this time the characters are more grounded in their lives. Tommy and Kindra are married now, and so is Rosemary, Tommy’s mother. So they are at a different stage in their lives. They’ve grown. They’ve wrestled their demons, and now it’s time for something new. They’ll still be the same wacky characters, though. Mrs. Shannon and Tiana will still be my no-filter queens. Tommy and his mother will still have their peculiar and humorous relationship, but there will be new surprises as my characters grow and develop.

I haven’t physically started writing the book yet but I certainly have in my head. I have all kinds of ideas flowing, and I can’t wait to actually sit down and let the story tell itself to me. That’s what it’s like when I write. The story tells itself to me, and I just simply put it on paper.

Keep reading for my review of In Bloom:

Kathleen Kilgallon's IN BLOOM

My copy of IN BLOOM

In Bloom

A woman who has spent her life emotionally cut off from those around her makes an unexpected friend and begins to venture out of her shell.

Kindra is in charge of a library in a small Massachusetts town. She lives a small, self-contained life with few friends and no real interests outside of her work. Even her apartment is small and shoddy. Kindra has no illusions about her situation, but she’s unable to rouse herself enough to do anything about it. Raised by her angry, widowed father, she’s trapped by memories of her childhood and the early death of her younger sister. Kindra feels responsible for Muriel’s drug overdose, which happened a few years after Kindra convinced her to have an abortion.

Two unrelated events change everything for Kindra. A woman approaches her at the library and convinces her to come to dinner. Rosemary Shannon has a wheelchair-bound son about Kindra’s age. He needs a social life. Tommy Shannon is a bitter, foul-mouthed ex-skier. He’s not interested in socializing with anyone other that the women on his porn websites. Needless to say, the dinner doesn’t go exactly as planned. Around the same time, a new neighbor moves into the apartment below Kindra. Tiana is a self-described dyke who pretty much forces her friendship on Kindra. Through these new relationships, Kindra is dragged out into the world and begins to deal with her traumatic past.

IN BLOOM is a funny, funny book. Rosemary Shannon’s fake Irish brogue and foul mouth had me rolling. All of the characters are engaging and full of life. Even Kindra, when she lets herself go, has a wry, amusing way of looking at the world. Of course, the humor balances the book’s darker themes. Each of the three main characters is hobbled in some way. Kindra by her past. Tommy by his accident. Tiana by her sexuality. Thrown together, they test and needle one another, forcing each other into…bloom.

The only issue I had with IN BLOOM was the pacing of the romance between Kindra and Tommy. There’s so much chemistry at their initial meeting…crazy, unusual chemistry, sure…but it’s there. But then the author suspends contact between the two characters for almost the entire book, as each deals with the personal changes ignited by their meeting. I get what the author was trying to do–Kindra and Tommy are dealing with big transformations–but the long separation makes their manner of coming back together seem a little abrupt and forced.

Even with the narrative bumps, though, IN BLOOM is a warm, funny book about sad people who decide to take a chance on life and love.

Sensuality that Doesn’t Mellow with Age

Two people scarred by damaging marriages try to cope with their attraction to one another.

Honest Love (London Brothers, #1)

Honest Love

Claire is a physical therapist returning to work after her longtime husband throws her over for her for his college crush, who he’s already gotten pregnant. She’s trying to maintain a degree of calm and civility for the sake of her three children. She’s unprepared for the feelings stirred in her by her latest client. Derek, a fireman, has suffered his own romantic heartache. His wife dumped him when an injury ended his career as a professional football player. This ex maintains a twisted power over him, so he’s shocked when he finds himself contemplating making a play for his physical therapist.

I love that Hutton chose older protagonists with heavy back stories. Her characters’ maturity and life experience add a lot of realism to the plot. Both Claire and Derek are easy to like. Hutton also does a good job keeping their interactions sharp through snappy dialog and a good use of setting. There’s plenty of chemistry and the erotic scenes sizzle without going over the top.

There are sections where the characters’ maturity works against Hutton. When Claire and Derek hit some bumps in their relationship, his sulky snits and her whining angst grates in a way that might not be the case if the characters were in their twenties. This “old enough to know better” factor is probably amplified by the fact that the plot gets a bit saggy in the middle. I got the sense that Hutton, having gotten off to a great start, wasn’t quite sure how to ratchet up the conflict in a natural-seeming way, one that would keep the plot moving without resolving the relationship too soon. She finds her balance again towards the end, though I think she misses an opportunity there as well. Without giving too much away, Derek’s ex makes an appearance that’s meant to be a climactic moment, but, instead of letting Claire deal with her, Hutton has one of Derek’s brothers take the lead. So the big confrontation fizzles out.

In spite of a little sag and sputter, HONEST LOVE has a lot to offer readers. This is largely thanks to Hutton’s clever characterizations and her willingness to stretch the usual contemporary romance formula.

Fresh Re-Imagining of a Classic: A Review of Val McDermid’s NORTHANGER ABBEY

I was a little nervous when I began Val McDermid’s version of this Jane Austen classic. It’s the second release from the Jane Austen Project, which pairs six well-known contemporary authors with a Jane Austen novel. I thought the first–Joanna Trollope’s version of SENSE AND SENSIBILITY–a disaster and didn’t hold out much hope for this one. It probably doesn’t help that NORTHANGER ABBEY is my least favorite of Austen’s works.

Northanger Abbey

Northanger Abbey

Surprise. I loved it. It’s fun and flirty and silly. But it works. Let’s face it, Austen didn’t write the book as a serious novel. It was her pointed (and sarcastic) reply to the highbrows of her time, who denigrated the novel and even questioned its position as a true literary form.

In some ways, I prefer McDermid’s version to the original. It might be the setting. Cat Morland travels to Edinburgh instead of Bath. The draw is a month-long arts festival. The events of the book come alive as we tag along with the characters to concerts, plays, dances, book signings and poetry readings.

In general, the characters are well-drawn and convincing. At times, Cat is more sophisticated than McDermid originally describes her. Any immaturity she shows has more to do with a lack of experience–especially social experience–than intellectual dullness or provincialism. Her vicarage upbringing has certainly not prepared her for the devious personalities she finds surrounding her in Scotland. Cat’s vampire fixation, especially as it pertains to the Tilney family, is a bit ridiculous, but it’s also perfectly realistic in light of current pop culture, where even morning television spots cover the relative merits of vampires versus werewolves for boyfriends and how to survive a zombie apocalypse.

Henry Tilney is probably McDermid’s least successful character. His stiffness and general lack of humor is more pronounced here than in the original. Austen’s Henry needled and provoked her heroine. McDermid’s version lectures and criticizes. Also, the reason behind General Tilney’s exile of Cat from Northanger doesn’t quite convince. Yet, even here there’s a logic, a sad parallel, between Cat’s suspicions of vampires and the general’s fear of lesbians. Each is discomfited by what is, for them, dangerous and alien.

So, three cheers (and at least as many re-readings) for Val McDermid’s NORTHANGER ABBEY. What a fun way to spend an afternoon!

The Tragedy of Henry VIII Lives Again in a Contemporary Family Drama: Terry Tyler’s KINGS AND QUEENS

I was very much looking forward to Terry Tyler’s re-envisioning of the story of King Henry the VIII and his six wives–the original dysfunctional family! Tyler has gift for presenting “big themes” in a fresh, contemporary style that keeps readers turning the pages. KINGS AND QUEENS, an ambitious undertaking, largely delivers what it promises–a tense family drama populated by complicated and uniquely flawed human beings.

Kings And Queens

Kings And Queens

Harry Lanchester is a wealthy property developer in the south of England. Tyler’s novel follows him from 1971–when he unexpectedly inherits control of the family firm–to 2007. Harry is a compelling character, though not particularly likable. He’s rich, handsome, and clever enough to know how to win people to his way of thinking, however wrongheaded his position may be. Harry loves to be in love. In many ways his romanticism is his biggest weakness. Coupled with a serious lack of empathy, it leads to a series of great “loves,” but the actual emotional connections prove tenuous. For Harry, people really don’t exist outside of their relation to him. Even his own children are mostly extensions of himself…evidence of where he’s failed or succeeded. What’s wonderful is that Harry, once he gets past the flash and glam of his early adulthood, is fairly aware of his weaknesses. There are times when he appears to wish he were a better person, but he’s rarely moved enough by these insights to try and be better.

Harry’s wives match him in complexity. Tyler gives each woman a worthy and believable back story that accounts for how they end up caught in Harry’s web, though they should probably have known better. She also gives each a clear voice, allowing them to narrate a large part of their own story. First wife Cathy is especially compelling. Her relationship with Harry is forged in grief and ends in such pure betrayal, I found myself plotting Harry’s death on her behalf. The usurper of her happiness, Annette, gets her comeuppance in spades. Oddly, there’s nothing satisfying about her fall, just a sense of waste that is echoed again and again in her successors: Jenny, Hannah (not an actual wife though she certainly functions as such), and Keira. Kate, Harry’s last wife, is the only one to escape relatively unscathed, though one has the sense that her future happiness will be tainted by alliances and rivalries developing among her step-children as they come into their own and take on the family business.

If I have one criticism of the book, it is the amount of exposition, especially in the opening chapters. There are great big blocks of back story–largely provided by Will Brandon, Harry’s friend and lifelong confident. Tyler faced quite a challenge orienting readers in a book that spans so many years. Will’s voice proved a little distant for me. He’s too far removed from the real actors, and so he delays the reader from making an emotional investment. Will is a great foil for Harry, certainly, but I think allowing Cathy to start the narrative might have given readers an easier entrance into the drama.

Even so, KINGS AND QUEENS is a superior novel filled with emotion and suspense. It is based on and informed by historical fact, but it doesn’t allow those facts to overwhelm the plot or the reader. I’m glad to hear that Tyler’s planning a sequel.