This month’s TBR Challenge post is smaller than usual, as Lynn wasn’t able to make it this time around, so Caz is flying solo this month. The “Family Ties” prompt offered plenty of scope; families often feature strongly in romance novels, whether it’s a couple making a family, family members featuring in a series or, as in the book Caz chose, a group of un-related people becoming a family unit.


Imagine by Jill Barnett

Many romance series feature siblings, but for the Family Ties prompt, I decided to go for a ‘found family’ story, and Jill Barnett’s Imagine (originally published in 1995 and reissued in 2017) fit that bill perfectly.

It’s 1896, and in San Francisco, successful, hard-working attorney Margaret Huntington Smith has been urged by her father, a judge, to take a well-deserved vacation.  Knowing she won’t go unless given a push (in the best way) he’s brought her a first class ticket for a cruise to “French Oceania – Tahiti, the Cook Islands and more – A little taste of paradise for a daughter who works too hard.”

In the penal colony of Leper’s Gate on Dolphin Island, Hank Wyatt (imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit) has spent four years doing hard labour and enduring horrific cruelty, and when he sees a chance for escape he takes it. Disguised as a priest, he makes his way to Port Helene on the other side of the island where he stows away aboard a steamship.

But Hank’s luck has run out.  That night, there’s a terrible storm and the ship goes down; Hank and the woman and three young orphans he rescues are the only survivors.

So what we’ve got is what the book blurb describes as “a makeshift family Robinson” consisting of a rough-and-ready ex-convict, a very proper female attorney and three children (two girls and a boy) aged two, five and eleven.  (Oh, and an obstreperous goat they later name Rebuttal – because she keeps butting Hank in the butt.)

There’s a sort of African Queen Bogey/Hepburn vibe between Hank and Margaret (whom he nicknames Smitty) – although I don’t remember Bogart’s Charlie being quite so deliberately rude to Hepburn’s Rosie – and the pair are frequently at loggerheads, usually over Hank’s insistence that he knows best and Margaret should just worry about cooking meals and looking after the children.

Fortunately, and in spite of his attitude – in which, let’s face it, he’s very much a man of his time – the author succeeds in making Hank a likeable character.  Hidden deep inside behind the dismissiveness and crass behaviour is a caring man who has been battered about by life and learned early on that aspiration only leads to disappointment. But he proves himself to be kind, capable of laughing at himself, and also – to his own surprise as much as anyone else’s – to be good with the children. He needs some prodding to do the right thing at times, but he steps up when needed, teaching five-year-old Theodore to swim and to fish and becoming a father-figure to a boy who desperately wants a Dad.  Something Hank never had.

Margaret’s mother died when she was young, so she was brought up by her father, who taught her to believe in herself and that she could do anything she wanted if she worked hard enough.  She’s whip-smart and determined, likes to think things through and to find logical solutions to problems… although as she quickly discovers, none of those things really work all that well when confronted with an energetic toddler and a troubled eleven-year-old for whom she can’t seem to do anything right.

The author does a good job of pulling this unexpected family gradually together, in creating the chemistry between Hank and Margaret, and showing Margaret’s confusion at how she can possibly be attracted to a man she doesn’t particularly like.  Much of the comedy comes from Margaret’s ineptitude at those supposedly feminine tasks of looking after the children and cooking; she’s hopeless at the latter and burns everything – even after several weeks when I’d have thought a woman of her intelligence would have worked out how NOT to burn the fish Hank and Theodore caught.  Which begs the question – what did they actually eat?  Apart from bananas and coconuts, and later in the book, some oysters, there’s not much attention devoted to that.

Anyway.   I liked a lot about this story; the verbal sparring between Hank and Margaret is fun, the children are nicely developed as individuals rather than plot-moppets, and there are some really touching scenes as both Hank and Margaret start to bond with them.  The romance is nicely done, too; Margaret and Hank are like chalk and cheese, and what starts out as a physical attraction is given time to grow into a friendship and then more.  So why haven’t I given the book a higher grade?

Put simply – the genie.

Even though he appears in the prologue, I’d completely forgotten about him.  I became caught up in the story of Hank’s escape – which is quite a feat of ingenuity – and the drama of the shipwreck and rescue, their journey to the island and their first days trying to get used to their situation and each other, then – poof! – Muddy appears in a puff of purple smoke, and the whole thing went downhill.  Okay, so credit to the author for not having the first wish – or second – be ‘get us off this island’ – but it was obvious that he was going to end up playing Deus ex Machina at some point.   Apart from that function, I honestly couldn’t see the point of including him in the story.

Had it not been for that, I’d have given the book a higher grade, but it just didn’t work for me.  I read paranormal and fantasy romances, so the idea of magical beings isn’t the issue; it’s the dropping in of one into an otherwise non-magical setting for no apparent reason (other than to get them off the island when the author was ready).

Imagine was an entertaining read that had a lot going for it, but I can’t deny I was disappointed overall, especially as it had such a strong start.  But YMMV – we’ve a DIK review of it here, so obviously it will work better for some readers than others.

~ Caz Owens

Grade: C+              Sensuality: Warm

Buy it at: Amazon