It’s that time again – TBR Challenge is on! Wendy the Superlibrarian is hosting again, and Lynn and Caz are joining the group to challenge one another (and you!) to go through your stack of books and shop your bookcase at least once each month. This month we’re looking for something short – a category romance, a novella or short story, something in that vein. One pick was a little more successful than the other, but hey, we each knocked down something from the TBR mountains.

Smoke and Ashes by Danica Winters

I love category romance and novellas, so the January TBR prompt is usually easy-peasy for me. This time, though, I struggled. I DNF-d first one book and then another. Finally, I happened upon a Harlequin Intrigue from 2016, Smoke and Ashes, that held my interest. It’s not The Perfect Book, but it’s an entertaining one and a somewhat unusual mystery.
Instead of being a murder mystery, this novel focuses on a serial arsonist. The book opens with a creepy firestarting sequence before pulling the action back several days to show what led to this moment. The heroine, Heather Sampson, has hit a true crisis point. She married her high school sweetheart, David, foregoing her own college dreams in order to support him as he established himself as a cardiologist. From the outside, it looks like she is living the dream as she stays home and has a quiet life in Missoula, Montana.
However, behind the scenes, Heather’s life has started to unravel. David has left her, in what turns out to be the first round in a terrible mindgame, and Heather is learning that her prenup may leave her on unsteady financial footing. Things aren’t all hunky-dory next door either, as widower Kevin Jensen tries to balance being there for his kids and keeping his career as a fire inspector on track. Departmental pressures make his life difficult, as do the needs of his children.
And in the midst of all this, it looks like Missoula has an arsonist on the loose. Kevin investigates and raises concerns about a suspicious fire involving the home of a local waitress. The events surrounding the fire certainly look odd, but budget constraints make it hard to investigate. Given what I’ve seen of real-life law enforcement investigations and how things get triaged, I appreciated that the author brought up issues of logistics and budget. It’s true that there are only so many resources available, departments tend to be short-staffed and there are a limited number of hours in the day. These constraints govern every investigation, but rarely do they figure in fiction.
Against this backdrop, the relationship between Heather and Kevin starts slowly. Heather helps out with Kevin’s kids and eventually the two are sounding boards of sorts for each other. Their friendship is clearly blossoming into attraction before either one of them is ready to admit it, a state of affairs I found convincing given their circumstances. In addition, since Heather is still married at the beginning of the book, there are other conflicts besides emotional issues to overcome. Add in the unsolved arson that moves ever closer to the lead characters’ own community, and you’ve got plenty of conflict.
This tale definitely drew me in, and I found myself caught up in trying to figure out who could be behind the arson. I had several theories, and the author did keep me guessing for a bit. However, while I enjoyed the book, the pacing at times felt a bit off. Because of Heather’s issues with David, I could understand why the romance moved at the very gradual pace it did. However, the suspense plot seemed to plod along before suddenly jumping into hyperdrive at the end. In addition, while the villain did get discovered, what ultimately happened with said villain  seemed a bit coincidental and anti-climactic. As an aside, I also didn’t like the portrayal of Heather’s BFF, Brittany. It felt lazy and a little “Stepford Wife” stereotypical. So much more could have been done to develop that character and the friendship.
In the end, I did mostly enjoy Smoke and Ashes. A book doesn’t have to be perfect to be enjoyable, and that’s pretty much how I would sum this one up. If you like romantic suspense that’s a little unusual, I think you’ll enjoy this one. In addition, if you are interested in romance that pushes the boundaries of what was once considered acceptable in terms of lead characters having been married, you may find this one of interest as well as the sensibilities of the hero and heroine are more modern that what I’ve seen in many romances.

Grade:    B-                     Sensuality: warm

~ Lynn Spencer

Buy it at: Amazon/Apple Books/Barnes & Noble/Kobo


The Counterfeit Husband by Elizabeth Mansfield

The synopsis for this short novel (originally published by Signet in 1982)  says: In order to escape the matchmaking efforts of her late husband’s sister, the Countess of Wyckfield pretends she is already married—to her new footman Thomas.  As a result, I thought I was in for a fake-relationship story, but that element of A Counterfeit Husband is, in fact, a very small part of it, and only comes into play well into the second half of the book.  The story is more about the widowed Camilla, Countess of Wyckfield, learning to trust her own judgement and developing the backbone necessary to stand up to her domineering sister in law, with some commentary about the dreadful practice operated by naval press gangs thrown in for good measure.

Thomas Collinson has just returned to England at the end of a three month voyage on the merchant ship of which he is mate.  He has just said goodbye to Daniel Hicks, his closest friend, when he hears a commotion and jumps into the fray to save Daniel from a press gang.  This practice is supposed to have been dispensed with, but the Navy is desperate for men – it’s a time of war after all – and will do whatever it takes to get them, especially men like Daniel and Thomas who are experienced sailors.  After an unequal fight, both men are taken aboard HMS Undaunted and into the presence of Captain Brock, a man whose reputation for cruelty is notorious among seamen.  Thomas is openly defiant, knowing that his contract to the merchant ship means that he cannot be impressed – but Brock simply destroys his papers.  Thomas is furious, seeing the life and career he had planned out for himself disappearing – so when a chance for escape presents itself, he and Daniel take it, fighting their way off the ship.

Meanwhile in Dorset, Camilla, Countess of Wyckfield is listening to yet another diatribe from her late husband’s sister, Ethelyn, a woman of strong convictions and religious observance who criticises everything Camilla does and generally makes her life a misery.  It’s clear that Camilla’s marriage –made when she was just out of the schoolroom – wasn’t a happy one, and also that one of the reasons she doesn’t stand up to Ethelyn is her reluctance to open a rift between her late husband’s family and her ten-year-old daughter, Philippa (Pippa).  It also seemed to me that Camilla was just so worn down – by her decade of marriage to a controlling, unfeeling man, and now by Ethelyn’s constant carping – that she is almost too exhausted to stand up for herself.  But following yet another argument about the behaviour of the butler, Hicks – whom Ethelyn detests (mostly because he’s loyal to Camilla) – Camilla finally takes a step on her path to self-reliance and decides to take a house in London, then sends Hicks there with instructions to find one and then staff it.

By this time, Thomas and Daniel have made their way to the Crown and Cloves Inn in Twyford, where Daniel’s pregnant wife, Betsy, works as a barmaid.  Worried that they could be recaptured, the men intend to go on the run, but then Betsy comes up with another idea.  Why not go to see Daniel’s uncle, who is in service in to the Countess of Wyckfield.  Surely he can find them places as domestics in that household or will be able to help them to find work elsewhere.  Nobody will be looking for Daniel and Thomas as domestic servants, and it’s surely got to be better than life on the run.

After a couple of small setbacks, Betsy, Daniel and Thomas are engaged by Hicks, and commence their lives as servants – Betsy as Upper Housemaid, the men as footmen – in the Countess of Wyckfield’s London house.  Thomas and Camilla’s first meeting does not go well – he mistakes her for a servant and flirts outrageously – and It’s immediately clear to Camilla that something is ‘off’ about Thomas; he’s not nearly deferential enough for a servant, and seems far too self-assured and accustomed to giving orders rather than taking them. The fact that she notices him more than she should, and is always conscious of his presence is… discomfiting, to say the least.

I liked both principals for the most part, although I frequently wanted to yell at Camilla to stand up to Ethelyn, who really has no hold or power over her – if anything it should be the other way around, seeing as the house belonged to the late Earl and he presumably left it to Camilla to live in for her lifetime. Camilla’s reasoning for continually giving in to her sister-in-law is weak – she even admits as much herself! – although fortunately, once she’s out of Ethelyn’s orbit, she does begin to assert herself more.  Thomas is kind, loyal and charming, although his inability to be properly servile lands him in hot water more than once, and I liked his affinity with Pippa who, it has to be said is an extremely precocious ten-year-old and wise beyond her years.

There are things to like about the story.  The writing is sprightly, and even though Ethelyn is terribly overbearing, she’s oddly entertaining; I found the information about the press gangs and naval procedure interesting and the book as a whole is very readable – but the big problem with The Counterfeit Husband is that it is rather short on romance. The interactions between Thomas and Camilla are very limited up until the point at which she asks him to pose as her husband – and even beyond it – and there’s no real sense of two people getting to know each other, let alone actually falling in love, which is why, ultimately, I can’t rate it more highly.

Grade: C                        Sensuality: Kisses 

~ Caz Owens 

Buy it at: Amazon/Apple Books/Barnes & Noble/Kobo