Stronghold (Vino & Veritas #14) ~ Ana Ashley
Stronghold by Ana Ashley is 14th book in the Vino & Veritas series, which is a spin-off from Sarina Bowen's True North world. I have been very fortunate to obtain several ARCs for this series, and so far, I've enjoyed them all.
One of the things I have most enjoy about this series is being able to sample 'new to me' authors. Each of the V&V books is under 300 pages, usually around 200 – 250. This makes them long enough to get a rich and detailed story but does not require the commitment of a longer book. I generally read them in 1 – 2 days, depending on how much time I can actually devote to reading, so they suit my purpose as a writing sample perfectly. I have discovered quite a few authors whose backlists I'm now reading through, authors I may not have otherwise picked up.
Ana Ashley is a 'new to me' author, and I have already earmarked a few of her titles for future exploration. She did a lovely job with Stronghold, creating an engaging story that was generally light, but with a few dashes of drama or angst thrown in to keep everything moving and keep me turning the pages.
In Stronghold, we once again meet Skyler. Skyler was first introduced in Rhys Everly’s Insatiable as the boyfriend of the ‘bad guy’ (who really was a jerk) from that book. Despite his association with said jerk, he came across as an endearing character, and I hoped he’d get a chance to find his own HEA and drop the jerk in the process. Well, this is Skyler's HEA and a very satisfying one it is (and yes, the jerk is no longer in the picture, yay!).
Stronghold is childhood friends to lovers story. With a good dose of misunderstanding and general confusion between Skyler and Judson thrown into the mix, you have the making of one of my favourite tropes. I loved how this aspect of the story was handled. Skyler and Judson had been inseparable up until their high school graduation when Judson suddenly disappears and takes off, eventually landing in Paris. When he returns, Skyler is angry and confused to why he left without saying goodbye. For his part, Judson is still mad at Skyler for being the reason he ran in the first place, but he can't prevent old feelings from resurfacing.
Although this is the source of the first area of drama, it's not overly drawn out. It keeps you guessing for a little while, ratcheting up the tension. I kept wondering what Skyler, who doesn't have a mean bone in his body, could possibly have done to drive Judson away in such a fashion. Fortunately, the very satisfying showdown between the two of them happens relatively quickly, and things move on. There are other moments of tension and angst, but it's never gratuitous, nor does it linger too long. They add a bit of conflict and kept me engaged and flipping the pages to find out how it will work out, but it doesn’t go on for so long that it becomes monotonous. There is also plenty of humour, and many wonderful appearances of previously well-loved characters, so the story is never heavy.
My only niggle was the reality tv component. I adore books based on reality tv (although I really dislike the shows in real life – go figure!), so I was really looking forward to this part of the story. Unfortunately, it fell flat for me. The reality show in this book is different from what you'd expect in that the teams work in isolation and don't mix with each other; they don't even meet until the finale. As a result, there was none of the fun/drama you usually expect from this trope. Also, it was over so fast. The show was touched on over a few chapters, but it really was a side issue only. Even the much-touted cameras from the blurb really were a non-event. But honestly, that is my only complaint about this book, and when all is said and done, it's really a minor one.
I absolutely enjoyed every moment of this book. This writer kept the story flowing, so I never became bored or tempted to skim/flip pages. She created terrific characters I couldn't help but become invested in. I was so happy she did Skyler justice. I also liked that she kept the idiosyncrasies of the characters that appeared in previous books. Despite these only being cameo appearances, I appreciated being able to instantly recognise and identify their personalities when they did occur. It added to the feeling of familiarity over the entire series. This author's writing style fits into the series, keeping the family/community feeling of the setting, with everything coming back to Vino and Veritas. Ana Ashley has a manner of writing and use of language and dialogue that I enjoyed. I found myself engaged from the first page, wondering what would happen to characters I very quickly fell in love with. It was a great experience.
Overall, this book was a fantastic escape back into the Vino & Veritas world. I loved coming back to Vermont, catching up with characters from previous books, and meeting new ones that I hope to meet again in future books. I'd highly recommend Stronghold; it is another excellent addition to an already fantastic series!