Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Holly Lane, by Toni Blake

It was the perfect marriage. They were the couple who had everything for as long as anyone could remember. But the rock solid marriage of Sue Ann and Jeff, a couple we've come to know in the previous Destiny novels, doesn't survive the first few pages of Holly Lane, Toni Blake's new offering in this incredible series.
     Fast forward six months. It's Thanksgiving weekend and Sue Ann, still struggling with Jeff's abandonment, books a cabin in the woods. A weekend away by herself may be just the thing to help her find some peace. But Sue Ann's attempt at tranquil solitude is interrupted by the sudden appearance of Jeff's best friend, her daughter's godfather and all around town "good guy," Adam Becker. However, Adam is anything but feeling good at the moment. His boys are spending the entire holiday season far away with his ex's family and he's grumpy and miserable - not at all his usual self. And now he's just plain annoyed because the plans for his very own solitary, brooding weekend are over. The lodge booked both of them into the same cabin and the unexpected snow storm forces the two to spend the night together. 
     And let's be clear....they spend the spend the night TOGETHER.  Thank you, Ms. Blake for not making us wait this one out. Friends for a long time, they know each other well and whether it's the coziness of a rustic cabin warmed by a roaring fire or the loneliness and frustration each one is feeling, or perhaps a little of both, within a few short pages we are treated to one of the most sizzling love scenes I've read since...well, since the last Destiny novel.
     The snow eventually stops and as Sue Ann and Adam part company, they decide their brief interlude must be just that - brief and over. However, as connoisseurs of the genre know, nothing is ever that simple and the two spend the rest of the novel unsuccessfully denying the inevitable attraction while trying to overcome their individual issues.  
     Ms. Blake takes a very creative approach and evokes Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, comparing Adam with Ebenezer Scrooge. Frankly, this surprised me. After all, Adam is not a bad person. He's just having a crap holiday season and spending it in a perpetual black mood. Overall, Adam's issues are mild compared to the heavy baggage carried around by some of the previous Destiny heroes. Mick Brody, for one, comes to mind. But the comparison really does work, as Adam, it turns out, is far from perfect himself. Eventually, he realizes the error of his ways (reminiscent of Scrooge) and does several things so wonderful, so impossibly heartwarming, all should be forgiven. 
     But Sue Ann can't seem to forgive Adam, nor can she forget him. Here Ms. Blake shines as she makes Sue Ann's confusion very real. After all, Sue Ann's concern for her daughter is first and foremost and she needs to make sense of her new status as single mother and sole provider. A new relationship is just too much to handle. And who can blame her for not trusting Adam, given his behavior in the context of her ex-husband's betrayal. But it's oh so gratifying to see Sue Ann grow from victim into victor - a woman who begins to take charge of her life by rebuilding it one day at a time and, in the process, finding the courage to embrace love again.
     Holly Lane is the kind of wonderful, complex romance we've come to expect from Ms. Blake. The characters are human, their flaws - open and raw - are mended by love. A perfect read for any time of year, may it find its way into your heart this holiday season.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Very Picture of You, by Isabel Wolff

At first glance, The Very Picture of You, by Isabel Wolff,  is the story of an artist's way of life. In reality, however, it's so much more. Ella Graham, a talented portrait artist, has quite a few commissions to finish. Each sitting to Ella is like a therapy session. In the course of conversation, her subjects slowly reveal themselves to her until who they truly are is what she portrays them to be. But there's more to this story than meets the eye, or canvas, as it were. The secondary characters in this novel, while at first seemingly unrelated, are in fact, woven together to present a common and recurrent element. Mike, a local politician, Iris, a pleasant elderly woman, Celine, a dissatisfied housewife, Grace, the one posthumous commission Ella takes on, Chloe, Ella's half sister, Sue, her mother, Roy, her step-father and lastly, Nate, Chloe's intended, are wrapped around the central themes of marriage, infidelity, abandonment and forgiveness. And it's written in such a way that you are seeing and feeling everything Ella does until you too, have a complete picture of each character, without ever actually seeing their portrait. It's probably about as fine an example of descriptive writing I have come across in a very long time.

Overarching these stories is Ella, herself a two-time victim of clandestine loves that if revealed, would destroy the relationships her family has worked so hard to build over the years. She's also presented with a life changing decision, a road that if taken could destroy her mother yet turn the page on an old hurt that has colored every part of her life since the age of 5. Will she reach out and grab the opportunities presented to her? Or will she decide that the rewards to be gained from love are not worth the price she will have to pay?

Ella is far from perfect, even though she is an extraordinary artist. She makes a few wild (and it turns out wrong) assumptions along the way. I was surprised actually, at her gullibility in certain situations and her tendency to believe the worst in people without giving them the benefit of the doubt. I soon realized, however, that this trait was important because it revealed a distinct inability to see the two sides that might exist to a story. This turns out to be a crucial factor in her relationship with her mother, the most important relationship Ella has in this novel until the very end of the  book, when the seemingly impossible resolutions to her dilemmas (happily for her) become reality.

Utilizing wonderful secondary characters, each with their own story to tell, including a family that, while not dysfunctional could certainly use some lessons in honesty and communication, Isabel Wolff has written a worthy follow-up to A Vintage Affair, also reviewed here at Bookishly Attentive. On sale in hardcover on October 4, The Very Picture of You is a must-read for anyone looking for a moving family story that paints a beautifully vivid picture with words.