perfectstranger I’ve been looking forward to this month’s TBR prompt for a while. Even though I read fairly widely across romance, historical romance and romantic suspense remain my first loves. And I’ve been dying to read some rom susp for a while now. With The Perfect Stranger, I at least got the suspense end of that equation. In this 2014 release, Wendy Corsi Staub explores the darker side of blogdom.

I’ve been online officially since 2003, and I’ve seen many a dustup come and go. I’ve also seen reports of folks being stalked and other creepy behaviors. Even so, the online blog world can often feel like a safe and cozy place. Staub’s book isn’t a perfect read in terms of feeling suspenseful and thrilling, but she does raise interesting questions for the reader. I found it impossible to leave this book without wondering how much of what bloggers put online is real or how well we can really know someone we’ve only met online or how much we really want to trust people. To her credit, the author doesn’t give easy answers to these questions. As readers will see in this book, some folks aren’t at all who they present themselves to be while others are at least somewhat more genuine and their friendships as a result seem to only deepen when they finally meet in person.

So, what’s the general plot? The book centers on a group of female bloggers who have all bonded over their experiences dealing with breast cancer. They cover a range of ages and backgrounds from Landry, a SAHM and wife of a successful Alabama attorney to Elena, a young and single teacher from New England to Kay, a prison guard from the Midwest who left her job due to illness and who struggles with loneliness as she truly has no one left in the world. These ladies, along with a few others, all befriended one another online and the book opens as they learn of the sudden death of Meredith, a blogger to whom they all felt close.

As they prepare to travel to her funeral, the women learn that Meredith did not die of cancer as they had originally assumed. Instead she was murdered in her home while her husband was away assisting his elderly mother. Though the suspense drags a bit at this point, the author still kept my interest as she showed the bloggers fumbling their way through their first in-person meetings. In addition, as they meet Meredith’s adult children and other family, one can almost feel the awkward dance of interactions as characters try to figure out how close to the situation they’re “allowed” to feel.

From this point onward, we get parts of the story told from different bloggers’ perspectives. In a way, it’s interesting because readers figure out pretty quickly that at least 2 of the bloggers aren’t who they seem to be. In one case, the deception is not meant to harm anyone, but the other hides deadly secrets.

However, despite the fact that I found the psychology of these bloggers and their world interesting, The Perfect Stranger hits a midpoint where the book just starts to drag slowly along. The suspense has its moments, but it just didn’t play a large enough role in the story to feel truly suspenseful. As a result, this novel ends up being way too slow a read for me. I’d give it a C+ for its more interesting insights, but I can’t quite recommend it.

– Lynn Spencer
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The Dark Tower For October’s prompt of Romantic Suspense or Paranormal, I went back to the Paperback Pile of Doom and pulled out a gothic romance originally published in 1965. I enjoyed The Dark Tower, although, as is the case with most gothic romances, the emphasis is on the gothic rather than the romance, which, in this case, is pushed so far into the back seat, it’s practically in the boot of the car!

Twenty-two year-old Kate Hayden has been teaching at a Yorkshire school for girls since the death of her father almost a year previously. She is informed one day that a new pupil will shortly be joining them for a short time, the daughter of the Contessa di Parmetto, who has formed an unsuitable attachment while travelling the Continent with her mother. Kate is told that the young woman will be in her care until at least the end of term, and while she isn’t comfortable with the idea of spying on her charge, she has no alternative but to agree to share a room and keep an eye on her.

The young woman is Fioretta – Florence – a small, rather plain girl of a few months short of twenty-one and therefore not much younger than Kate. She is accompanied to the school by her mother, a beautiful, but vain and selfish woman and her half-brother, a handsome, fair-haired Yorkshireman named Giles Redmayne, to whom Kate is immediately drawn.

Over the next few months, Kate and Florence become friends, and Kate learns that Florence is very much in love with a man named Ralph Briarwood, who had accompanied Florence and the Contessa on their travels. But when Giles learned of the relationship, he had insisted on parting them, solely, Florence believes, because of his dislike of Briarwood. Kate takes this with a pinch of salt; she has already learned that Florence has a penchant for the melodramatic, and is sure that there is another side to the story. When Giles invites Kate to accompany Florence to Thorpe Grange for the Easter Holiday Florence is despondent at the prospect of spending several weeks in that “gloomy house”, while Kate is thrilled at the thought of going home to the Dales… and not a little excited at the idea of seeing Giles again.

During Kate’s time at the Grange, she and Giles become closer and their friendship is poised to become something more when Florence elopes with Briarwood on the eve of her twenty-first birthday. Giles is furious, and in his anger and frustration, blames Kate – in part – because of something she had neglected to tell him and Kate, miserable, leaves the next day, wondering if she will ever see Giles again.

She returns to the school, and not long afterwards receives a letter from Florence asking her to come to visit her in Italy and telling Kate that she – Florence – has been in poor health since her marriage. She also says that she has inherited a great deal of money from her two miserly aunts following their recent, unexpected deaths. Kate is immediately suspicious, having by now learned the truth of Giles’ past acquaintance with Briarwood and the details of the latter’s relationship with the Contessa. Florence practically begs Kate to visit, and asks her to bring a trinket box that she mistakenly left behind, one which contains all the letters her husband sent her before they were married. Puzzled by this, Kate nonetheless retrieves the box – and, because she is still plagued by the feeling that something is not right, she reads the letters, only to have her suspicions about Briarwood’s motives and actions confirmed.

Yet she can’t leave Florence in such terrible danger from the husband she adores, and decides to accept the invitation. Before she leaves, she attempts to see Giles to tell him of his sister’s illness and of her suspicions, but he is away on business and not due back for some days. Kate leaves him a letter and bravely makes her way across Europe, learning a few things about life and herself on the way.

The Dark Tower is a subtle, character-driven story rather than a roller-coaster ride from one tense situation to another. The author takes the time to set up the plotline and her characters in the first few chapters; level-headed, clever Kate, romantic, naïve Florence and her self-centred mother, who is an interesting character in her own right; an intriguing mix of black and white. Because we know the identity of the bad guy from the outset, the story isn’t so much about “who” as it is about “how” and “why”, and Ms Edgar creates an understated atmosphere of menace in the final section of the book which sees Kate staying with Florence and Ralph at the remote Castello Vecchio.

Kate is a sensible, likeable heroine who can admit to herself that she’s scared, but who knows she is the only person who can protect Florence and so doesn’t allow herself to show her fear. Florence, who has always wondered what a handsome, worldly man like Ralph sees in a plain little thing like her, is completely in thrall to her husband, although it gradually emerges that she is perhaps not as blind as she appears to be, although she continually refuses to see what is really going on.

The romance between Kate and Giles is a done-deal from very early on in the book, in spite of the way in which they part following Florence’s elopement. While they don’t spend a great deal of time together “on screen”, the reader is told enough about the weeks they spend together at Thorpe Grange that their falling in love is at least credible. They do, however, spend over half the novel apart, but I’ve found this is often the case with older gothic romances; the hero tends to be a very secondary character while the heroine gets on with dealing with whatever peril faces her. And as I knew what I was in for before I started reading, I wasn’t too worried with the lack of H/h interaction. As I was reading, I was involved enough in the story, in Kate’s travels and in the threat she was facing at the Castello that I really didn’t feel the lack of romantic development.

I enjoyed the author’s descriptions of the scenery and landscapes of both Yorkshire and Italy, which are evocative and enable the reader to get a clear sense of place in the mind’s eye. The storyline is well-executed, and even though it’s somewhat light on the romance, The Dark Tower proved to be an entertaining read. It’s not on a par with Victoria Holt’s gothic romances – especially the later ones – but if you’ve enjoyed Holt’s work, then this might be worth checking out. C+

– Caz Owens