Friday, August 5, 2016

Review: Southern Comfort Series by Lisa Clark O’Neill

Deceptively obsessive
(I’m writing a review instead of the usual Fangirl Fridays post this time around, but there’s also a bit of fangirling in here — about finding the perfect series to complement my wannabe-laid-back summer lifestyle!)

I didn’t plan to read Southern Comfort. I picked up the first book impulsively as a treat after trudging through a good-but-interminable tome, before tackling another time-consuming commitment on my TBR list. It was supposed to be a momentary distraction, a literary palate cleanser.

Instead, this series took over my entire summer reading schedule! It turned out to be highly diverting, and hilarious, and so much fun to read that I haven’t put it down since!

This is not entirely because I’m avoiding my TBR list. Or yard and garden chores, though it might have started out that way. These books are like that single chocolate truffle I indulge in late at night and then wind up eating the entire box. I couldn’t read just one.

Set in and around Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina, these books are contemporary HEA romantic mystery thrillers. They’re sexy, funny, and heartwarming, with just the right splash of Southern charm and lots of suspense. This makes them a perfect summer read for me, so I have forced myself to set the last one aside only long enough to tell you about them before the summer completely passes us by.

Join me after the jump for a non-spoilery review of all the books in this series and its prequel!



When I began, Southern Comfort appeared to be a series of generic romantic HEAs with mysteries thrown in. Simple stories, likable characters, action, angst — but not too much, and easy to put down or pick up whenever time permitted. They seemed to follow a general pattern in which the broad strokes were fairly predictable, but there were enough variations to keep them interesting. There’s a slow burn, steamy sex scenes, ominous clues that nefarious entities are lurking about, and scary encounters with dangerous predators. Which are all good, but I can usually read one or two and be done.

But then a funny thing happened. I realized that everything about these characters and stories clicked flawlessly together, and before I knew it the whole series had burrowed down under my skin like a chigger to create an itch I couldn’t stop scratching. (That’s a bit of Southern humor, because I grew up in the South, and nothing holds your attention hostage quite like a chigger bite that must be scratched.)

I know how Baloo feels (from The Jungle Book)

All the makings of a habit

I just adored everything about these books! I felt like I really knew the characters and loved hanging out with them. I enjoyed watching their nuanced personalities be revealed and defy stereotypical gender plots. Sometimes I guessed a few of the “who done its”, but inevitably there were multiple levels of “its” and motives and suspects coming out of left field to convince me not to quit my day job and become a detective. There were alarmingly high numbers of dangers popping out of unexpected places to keep me turning pages long after it was time to be turning my attention to chores.

And that’s what makes them perfect for my summer reading! Plus...
  • I like romance, and these books definitely get that right!
  • I don’t want to worry too much about whether there’s going to be a happy ending. Winter Is Coming(R) soon enough, but while it’s summer I like to lighten up a little and enjoy the good life. I like the friends I meet in books to enjoy the good life, too.
  • But I do like action and thrills this time of year. These books have plenty of who-done-it intrigue and ongoing threats of imminent danger from sundry sources. They let me focus my angst on whether the good guys will catch the bad guys in time instead of whether the romantic leads will stroll blissfully into the sunrise together. If they survive, of course.
  • I like to get so completely wrapped up in a story that I can’t hear the grass growing or my conscience telling me to mow it. After decades of extensive research, I’ve verified that this improves my summer experience immensely.
Source

If you prefer your HEAs without lots of family noses inserted, these might not be the books for you, but I loved the strong family interconnections that run through all the stories. These are big-hearted families with lots of good-natured rivalry between siblings and cousins who love to poke and prod each other regularly. As I read through the books, the families and friendships became the glue that held the stories together.

There’s also an endearing charm and graciousness, that neighborly Southern hospitality I remember from my childhood. All my warmest memories of the South are here.

And I loved the humor! The general banter helped alleviate my frequent anxieties over the frenetically fluctuating suspense level and kept me giggling, as did the clever turns of phrase favored by the author. Sexy-sweet nothings sprinkled liberally throughout the scorching sexual tensions also derailed my anxieties with swooning, when I wasn’t laughing at the snark.

The Southern Comfort series

These books introduce a couple of families whose lives are interconnected and whose paths often cross. The Wellingtons hail from a wealthy, accomplished Savannah family. The 4 adult brothers are variations on a theme of strikingly handsome, lethally charming, well educated professionals (i.e., lawyers, law enforcement, and doctors), and looking to follow in the footsteps of their parents’ endearing love story. The Murphys run a popular Irish bar in Charleston, which ties the 2 sisters and 2 brothers into the local gossip loop. So does Kathleen Murphy’s job as a homicide detective. These two families and their friends mix, mingle, and become embroiled in enough menace and mayhem to inspire a very long series. *fingers crossed*

Each book stands separately as a complete story, but reading the whole series adds layers to the stories and enhances the relationships between the characters. The titles cleverly play into each story.

Serendipity (Book #1)

Veterinarian Ava Martinez rescues an unconscious stranger from the trunk of a car one night, and a few days later Jordan Wellington brings his new puppy into her office for a checkup. Flying sparks ensue, but she’s the niece of a crime lord who is trying to stay off her uncle’s radar, and he’s an Assistant District Attorney, who incidentally doesn’t remember getting rescued from that trunk or have any idea who she is. There’s a serial killer on the loose, someone stalking Ava, and numerous possibilities for who’s behind it all. Serendipity abounds in this book, and it’s delightful!


Forbidden (Book #2)

FBI Specialist profiler Clay Copeland is Jordan Wellington’s best friend (both characters were introduced in Serendipity). Trying to forget a particularly painful case that didn’t end well, Clay takes a trip to the beach and runs across Tate Hennessey, who is a Murphy family cousin. Tate is a single mom who runs a B&B with her mother and her 5-year-old son, Max. Clay tries not to get involved, he really does, because he’s looking for a short fling, long-distance relationships are hard, and he’s a good guy who doesn’t want to “fling” with someone who needs a commitment. But circumstances keep throwing them together, solving local kidnappings, and things get complicated, and they’re too busy trying to outsmart villains to resist each other for too long.


Deception (Book #3)

Dapper forensic artist Josh Harding, whom readers met in Forbidden, used to have a thing for Tate Henessey, but turns out he’s really been nursing 8 years of unrequited longing for lushly proportioned Samantha Martin, whom he spent hours sketching while they were students at the Savannah College of Art and Design. He recognizes the tattoo on her hip when Samantha performs as the stripper at Jordan Wellington’s bachelor party. She’s trying to cover medical expenses for her brother, who’s in a coma at a Charleston hospital after being shot. Josh can’t resist trying to help her, and is ridiculously smitten, yet she has some harebrained idea that he friend zoned her years ago, and it takes a while to get through to her. Luckily, there’s a murderer on the loose and plenty of intrigues to keep them interacting while she gets a clue.


Nemesis (Book #4)

Sadie Rose Mayhew breaks her engagement with her rich, pretentious boyfriend and returns to Charleston, where she lives in her old family homestead fixer-upper next door to the homestead of her childhood friends, the Murphys. Who include her best friend, detective Kathleen Murphy, and her childhood nemesis, family bad boy Declan Murphy — who happens to be the Murphy currently residing in the Murphy family homestead next door. Sadie wants nothing to do with Declan, despite their sizzling attraction, but fate and Declan have other ideas. A secret stashed in her house by the recently murdered former tenant keeps her fending off criminals intent on retrieving it at any cost. This is not only a great romantic thriller, it redeems a character who was a complete arsehole in the previous books.

Chosen as one of the Best Reads of 2013 by Kindles & Wine Blog.


Obsession (Book #5)

Trauma surgeon Justin Wellington has become BFFs with Kathleen Murphy, while he longs for more. He missed his chance and now she’s dating her former detective partner Corelli, who was shot in Nemesis when the two of them were involved in a heroic rescue, and Justin is way too nice a guy to intervene. He just wants Kathleen to be happy; he’ll pine away quietly. They’re eating lunch in a restaurant when a drive-by shooting occurs. Justin saves the life of a waitress, who then becomes a person of interest in a convoluted series of mysterious and supremely creepy events. While Justin tries valiantly to be noble by controlling his lustful impulses, Kathleen takes an amazingly long time to see what everyone else knows is inevitable: she and Justin are the star-crossed lovers of this book and destined to be together.

As far as the title goes, this was quite the interesting obsession. I was pretty sure who was behind some of the craziness early on, and found myself fussing out loud at the investigators who couldn’t sort things out. The motivations eluded me, which I’m okay with because they were completely batshit. I love that the author kept me so engrossed in the story, despite the fact I knew who, because I needed to know how and why.


The Southern Comfort Prequel series

There’s also a prequel series! Goodreads classifies these books as part of Southern Comfort, but officially they are a separate trilogy.

Malice (Book #1)

FBI agent Jesse Wellington is investigating a local murder with ties to a Russian crime organization, and soon finds himself dangerously attracted to the woman to whom a multitude of clues points. The woman, freelance photographer Jillian Montgomery, is desperately trying to lead a very low-profile lifestyle to avoid notice of some unscrupulous Savannah police detectives who have a nasty grudge against her. Fighting his attraction, not always successfully, Jesse tries to protect Jillian during every step of the investigation. He empathizes with her pathological aversion to cops, and he’s walking crossing a fine line between professional objectivity and entanglement, but he can’t shake the theory that she’s being set up as part a lethal game of cat and mouse, or retribution, or ... something. He’s determined to discover the truth, and he’s betting the truth clears her name, because he’s rapidly losing that fight with his feelings.

Selected as a Best Read of 2015 by Kindles & Wine Book Blog.


Avarice (Book #2)

District Attorney Ainsley Tidwell, introduced in Malice, visits her hometown of Dahlonega, Georgia, nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Her cousin Sabrina is missing and her cousin Ben is the investigating sheriff. 17 years ago, she found the body of Sabrina’s older sister Carly, then helped clear her own stepbrother of the murder — which Ben and her aunt have never forgiven. Ghosts haunt Ainsley, but she is determined to set things right. In her race to find Sabrina, she tentatively teams up with Ben’s high school nemesis, Callum Elias, who had murky connections to Carly and now owns Ainsley’s old family homestead — and is smoking hot, by the way. It isn’t long before clues tie Sabrina’s case to Carly’s, dangers that may or may not be related escalate from all sides, and no one can trust anyone as far as they can throw them. Will they save Sabrina before it’s too late? Will they solve Carly’s murder before it destroys the family? Will Ainsley and Cal spontaneously combust before they get over their stubborn contrariness?

One thing that excited me about Avarice was the setting. I visit Dahlonega all along, and it’s really cool to read a fictional story set amongst folks and a town square that I know! Especially because it’s a tiny town not many people are familiar with. Gives this series a special place in my heart.


From habit to serendipitous summer indulgence

Eerie northern Georgia woods,
frequently featured in Avarice
(and The Walking Dead)
(Serendipitous indulgence sounds so much more agreeable than insatiable itch.)

I like to read books in the order they are written so I can enjoy watching the author find her voice, mature her voice, and take it in various directions. For that reason, I’m glad I read the Southern Comfort books before the prequels, though some fans might disagree. I also thought Serendipity was easier to love right off the bat than Malice, perhaps because the relationship seemed less complicated and the romance more prominent, though some fans prefer that. Both were thoroughly engaging books, in any order!

My initial quibble with Southern Comfort was that the men are unbelievably eager to settle right down with a white picket fence and 2.5 adorable, apple-cheeked children. No commitment phobes here! Even the erstwhile traditional “bad boy” does a complete 180 the instant his future Mrs. HEA arrives in town. I worried about whiplash, though it soon became clear he’d had these feeling simmering on the back burner for years. (And they totally belonged together!)

But I got over my quibble because this is my summer reading. I LIKE not dredging up the commitment baggage and hanging it out on the line for everyone to see. I LIKE not listening to characters deny their magnetic chemistry through ¾ of the book, when you know they’re going to end up together anyway. I LIKE that they focus on real bad guys who are trying to kill them instead. And I LOVE the abundance of snark. This is what keeps me from mowing the grass. I’d have the tidiest lawn in the neighborhood if these books were full of relationship whining.

Plus, the author began to shake it up and then I missed the eagerness. Devious author! The later books seemed a little darker and grittier to me, the feelings more complex. And maybe it’s just because I’m still fanning myself after two immutable forces of nature finally converged in Avarice, but I do believe the sex is getting hotter, too.

Lisa Clark O’Neill revealed in an interview that she lets her characters decide whether their story focuses more on the romance or the mystery:
“...when you give your characters freedom, they tend to lead you through their story. Sometimes by the hand, gently, and sometimes they’re waking you at four a.m., snapping their fingers at you to keep up. The plot is what results. That’s why some of my books have more emphasis on the development of the romance, and some books lean more toward suspense. It’s all about the characters.”

~ What Do I Know? I’m Just a Writer

So the characters keep her guessing which directions the stories will take right along with her readers!

Keeping the itch scratched

The woman who wields the pen laptop
On her web site, Lisa Clark O’Neill says she has one more novel in the works for the Southern Comfort Prequel Trilogy and a tantalizingly unspecified number for Southern Comfort. Including baby brother James Wellington’s story, which I’m definitely looking forward to! She also plans to set more stories in the northern Georgia mountains (my western friends laugh when I call them that). The next Southern Comfort book, Fall From Grace, is due out in the fall. The last prequel book, Justice, promises the story of oldest brother Jack Wellington, who has been frequenting the fringes of other books.

So if you’re looking for something engaging and fun to read over your summer break (or any time!) — that won’t break your heart and leave you when the summer ends — you might want to check out these books! But be warned, they can become hard to put down. It seems a simple recipe on the surface, but it’s a trap! Simplicity, when crafted with such perfection, is pure pleasure that you never want to end.

Ahhh, life’s simple pleasures: sand, surf,
sunshine, scintillating suspense... [Source]

Leaving you with a little snark...

I was concerned about running out of Lisa Clark O’Neill books to read before my summer chores quit beckoning, but lo and behold there’s a Sweetwater series to explore while I wait for future Southern Comfort books. And here are a few Southern Comfort quotes, just because.
“Any lovers, boyfriends, older brothers with strong protective instincts that need to be hurdled over or knocked out of the way?”

Dammit, dammit, she was not going to smile. Okay, dammit, yes she was. “There’s no need for any hurdling, Mr. Wellington. I have no interest in ... track and field events.”

Jordan’s lips quirked. He hooked his thumbs in the front pockets of his jeans and rocked back on his heels. “Yeah, me neither. Baseball’s my sport. I never saw the appeal of jumping over obstacles when it’s so much more fun to just round all the bases and slide yourself into home.”

~ Serendipity
***
Sam held him tightly for long moments, shuddering once before going still, then roused herself enough to smack him in the back of the head, the universal symbol for you big dummy.

~ Deception
***
“I was thinking that I love you,” she just came out and said it, with a little bit of defiance mixed in. … “And if you insist on hollering and throwing your Y chromosome around, how about waiting ‘til we get inside to do it. I don’t feel real comfortable out here in the open.”

He stopped lurching forward and simply stared at her, unblinking. Somehow managed a cocky, delighted grin.

“Was it my charm or the manly vomiting that convinced you?”

He was talking about her I love you, she knew. “If you must know it was your facile mind that did it. Any guy who can use the phrase brackish water reverse osmosis in the same breath as wouldn’t care if it tasted like piss is a man with many layers of interest. And you told me I smelled like ass. How’s a girl to resist?”

~ Nemesis
***
I’m having an anti-Disney moment.

~ Nemesis
***
The first time we met? Something clicked. I looked at you and everything else fell away, until you were the only thing I could see. And I’m still seeing you. It’s damned inconvenient.

~ Malice

This Wench rates the Southern Comfort series...



2 comments:

  1. A very entertaining post Kathi. I read the first book and enjoyed it though Im not even close to to being a southern girl.

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    Replies
    1. I'm glad you liked it! I think I liked each book more than the last. It's classically good storytelling, the southern part was just icing on the cake for me!

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