I picked this up on sale a month or so ago because of the series premise: a quartet of finishing school girls get caught up in the swarm of humanity fleeing the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. This first book in the series focuses on Deborah, the only daughter of one of the city's most wealthy men. During the fire, she is kidnapped and held for ransom by Tom Silver, a fisherman from Isle Royale who blames Deborah's father for the death of a loved one killed in an explosion at a mine her father owns.
Susan Wiggs is very, very good at setting a scene. The descriptions of the fire are masterful. The journey by water from Chicago, up through the locks at Sault Sainte Marie, and finally to the pine wilderness of Isle Royale is beautiful. The months of isolation during the winter on Isle Royale are simultaneously cozy and compelling, and desolate and lonely. I'm happy to have read the book just for the unique settings.
The romance fell flat for me. Deborah was too sheltered and too timid for my tastes. Tom was too much a stereotypical villain with a heart of gold. Their relationship was believable, albeit predictable (yet another kidnap victim falls in love with her captor), but it didn't connect with me emotionally.
I picked this up on sale at Amazon this week, and I really enjoyed it. It's kind of like that 90s skating movie, "The Cutting Edge," except the plot's a little more complex. Yet it certainly targets the same audience, and it hits the same sweet spots.
I was skeptical when the hero and heroine hook up in a coat room at a party in Amsterdam during the prologue, because while I'm no prude, I think a drunken one night stand is generally not a good way to start a relationship. I kept an open mind and kept going, and the story improved. Years later, Anton (Russian) and Carrie (American) are reunited after each is betrayed by their long-time skating partner. In order to salvage their careers, they partner with each other, even though it means Carrie has to move from balmy Georgia (US) to frigid Moscow and become a Russian citizen. After a rough start, they find their skating styles compliment one another far more than the styles of their prior partners, and they begin enjoying their sport and excelling at it more than ever before.
"Pairing Off" employs a TON of romance tropes: kiss-kiss/slap-slap love-to-hate-em initial tension, ruined reputation (Carrie's), mistaken identity (it takes Anton forEVER to realize Carrie is "Amsterdam Girl"), fish out of water (Carrie is an outsider in Moscow), damsel in distress, infidelity (Anton's), sabotage by ex-lovers (both), tragic past (Carrie's), marriage of convenience, sports rivalry, secondary romance between supporting characters, and probably several others I'm forgetting. Still, they're all woven together in a way that feels fresh and keeps the plot moving along, though the romance itself is fairly slow-burning.
This was certainly well worth the $1.99 I paid for it, and I will seek out Elizabeth Harmon's work again.
I wanted to love this book. Most romances tell the story of how a couple gets together, but books about how couples stay together after years of marriage when the going gets rough are rarer and, frankly, more important, because all of us in long-term relationships eventually hit a rough patch (or several). Happily Ever Ninja is about Fiona and Greg, who have been together for nineteen years and have two kids. Their rough patch stems from the fact that Greg travels for months at a time for his job, leaving the day-to-day work of child-rearing and managing the house to Fiona, and even when he's home he doesn't support her as he could. Greg's unhelpfulness is driven by cluelessness rather than malice, but the result is the same: Fiona is drowning in work and resentment.
I wanted to love this book because of that very real, very relatable conflict, and also because I really liked Greg and Fiona as a couple as we met them in Ninja at First Sight, the novella about the early days of their relationship. That story ended with a cliffhanger, which I was willing to forgive because I knew Happily Ever Ninja would follow in a month. However, this book doesn't pick up right where the novella ended, and Fiona and Greg have changed a lot as individuals and as a couple in the intervening years. While I understood those changes (indeed, they'd be pretty dull if they hadn't grown up in 19 years), that gap in time was a major shift in the emotional tone, one I didn't like and wasn't prepared for, much as I understand how it fit the plot.
My biggest problem with Happily Ever Ninja was that the plot is kind of over-the-top, and I had a really hard time willingly suspending my disbelief. Mild-mannered mother-of-two Fiona turns out to be ex-CIA, which comes in handy when Greg gets kidnapped by a corrupt splinter group of Boko Haram in Nigeria. I found myself rolling my eyes repeatedly as I read, thinking "oh, come on. No way," as the plot twists got crazier and crazier.
Yet even though it didn't work for me, one of the things I enjoy most about Penny Reid is that she takes these crazy risks with her writing. While everyone else is setting their romances in glittering English ballrooms and cozy American small towns, Penny Reid's protagonists are stealing jeeps in Nigeria and knocking out terrorists with ketamine darts. I've gotta give her major props for that, even though this book didn't really work for me.