By day, I'm a domestic violence prosecutor. By night, I read romance to restore my faith in love, relationships, and humanity in general.
When my four-year-old gets frustrated with someone else (his little brother, his babysitter, the mama who is urging him to get dressed when he'd rather play with his firetruck), he's started to say, "Stop, or I'll shoot you!" We're not gun owners, we don't even have a TV, so I can only guess that this is something he picked up at preschool. It makes me deeply uncomfortable, but I also know that every little boy I've ever known will pick up a stick and imagine it's a sword or bazooka, so there's something deeply ingrained with boys and violent play, and I'm hoping this will help me better understand.
My dad used to read this to me on cold winter nights when I was a kid (not this version: he had an old, library-bound copy of The Collected Poems of Robert W. Service), and now my wife, a middle school teacher, reads it to her students every Halloween. Ooh, goosebumps!
This is the end of Jill Shalvis' Lucky Harbor series, which, while not perfect (the middle books were pretty "meh" in my opinion), I still highly, highly recommend to anyone who likes contemporary romance.
There is one character (and I think only one character) who appears in all twelve books: Lucille, the social media savvy, octogenarian, gossip maven who has made it her mission to play matchmaker to all of the lonely young single folk in town. Sometimes overtly, sometimes covertly, Lucille has engineered the twelve happy ever afters that make up the series, and this last book features her crowning achievement: seeing her own introverted granddaughter, Callie, happily matched with the object of Callie's high school crush, Tanner. Callie and Tanner are both people who take care of everyone else before seeing to their own needs. Tanner gave up his college football scholarship to join the Navy and support his family when he accidentally got a girl pregnant (it turns out the pregnancy was not so much an accident on the girl's part). He supports his ex, his kid, and his mother financially and emotionally, and when his ex decides to remarry, Tanner welcomes the opportunity to step up and become a full time parent to his son, now an angry adolescent. Meanwhile, Callie drops everything to come back to Lucky Harbor to take care of her possibly senile grandma, and she takes calls at all hours of the day and night and performs impossible tasks to make sure her clients' weddings are perfect (she runs a wedding planning business), even when her own Big Day went bust when her then-fiance stood her up at the altar.
The two of them are so used to putting others' needs first, each foolishly believes the other when they say they don't believe in love and aren't looking for anything serious, even when it's crystal clear from the very beginning that each is developing serious feelings for the other. This leads to predictable misunderstandings and wounded feelings, but luckily Tanner and Callie have a lot of friends and loved ones who help them do the right thing, even when their own prior hurts blind them to the obvious.
I didn't love this book, because the I-don't-wanna-love-you-because-REASONS (in this case, I've-been-burned-before-so-I'm-just-not-gonna-put-myself-out-there) trope isn't my favorite, but it was a satisfying and fitting capstone to a mostly thoroughly enjoyable series.
Jill Shalvis is one of my go-to girls for solidly entertaining, reasonably well-written contemporary romance. Her characters are likeable and believable (though her heroes can be a little too alpha for my tastes), her dialogue is smart and snappy, and the romance is generally sweet, sexy, and satisfying.
That said, the Lucky Harbor series is about tapped out.
He's So Fine tells the story of former child star Olivia (who used to be Sharlyn, but she changed her name when her career in Hollywood imploded and she moved to Lucky Harbor to make a fresh start) and charter fishingboat captain Cole. Cole grew up in Lucky Harbor, taking care of his mom and his three sisters, and he has a reputation in town as the guy who can fix anything. Everybody loves Cole, but Cole holds grudges like nobody's business. Two years ago at his best friend's funeral, he learned that his girlfriend betrayed him by falling for the dead friend, and that betrayal has festered ever since, leaving Cole unable to trust anyone. Because of his trust issues, his relationship with Olivia is doomed before it ever gets off the ground, because by not telling him about her sordid past and her grasping relatives and her birth name, Olivia hasn't been honest with him (never mind that she doesn't tell anyone those things). When the truth comes to light, Cole predictably gets all butt hurt and walks away.
The Lucky Harbor series is organized into trilogies within the series. Books 1-3 were about three sisters who moved to town and opened an inn, Books 4-6 were about three female friends who get together weekly to gab about their dating misadventures over chocolate, Books 7-9 were about three women who all run businesses in the same building, and Books 10-12 are about the three men who run the charter boat company (Cole being the second of the three partners). What sets this most recent trilogy apart is that they are anchored around a trio of men, not women (although the three heroines all live in the same building and are friends, too), and I'm really enjoying the history between these guys and the way they joke and jeer at each other, but support each other when necessary.
That male bonding is probably my favorite part of this book (and the one that came before it, It's In His Kiss). Otherwise, this was a fun read, but not especially noteworthy or memorable.
I have been struggling to get into historical romance, lately, which has left me feeling adrift because historicals were my introduction to the romance genre, and a lot of my favorite, auto-buy authors (including Jennifer Ashley) write historicals. But even the last few Jennifer Ashley books I've read have been disappointing, so it was nice to pick up and thoroughly enjoy Rules for a Proper Governess.
Sinclair McBride is a barrister who prosecutes crimes in the London courts. Bertie (Roberta) is a daughter of a petty criminal from the East End. When one of her friends is accused of a murder she didn't commit, Bertie expects McBride to put his considerable legal skills to work crucifying her friend--that's his job, after all--but instead he tricks the main prosecution witness into all-but-confessing to the crime on the stand. Bertie is thrilled, until her father and fiance (one of her father's associates), force her to pick McBride's pockets. To her surprise, McBride gives chase. When he catches her, he convinces her to return his stolen pocketwatch (a treasured gift from his late wife) in exchange for freely-given coin.
Yes, you have to willingly suspend your disbelief a little bit to accept that a prosecutor would give a pickpocket money rather than clapping her in irons, much less that he'd hire that same uneducated, unpolished, Cockney-accented guttersnipe as a governess to his children, but if you can make that leap, it's a fun story and an unusually compelling romance.
I really, really enjoyed Bertie. She is so unflinchingly honest and self-possessed. Compared to the carefully calculated manners and behavior of so many of the husband-hunting ladies populating historical romance (who tend to be spunky or perky, sure, but only so far as propriety permits), Bertie is refreshingly relaxed. She is smart and savvy and strong -- she fights her own battles (literally), but also owns her flaws. She knows she's woefully unequipped for the job of educating McBride's children, so she sets out to read his entire library. She goes after what she wants--she's the one who initiates the first kiss with McBride, for example--but though she wants McBride, she doesn't need him. She doesn't expect McBride to marry her--(which is actually often a problem for me: I tend not to like historical romances where the lady takes the enormous risks to her reputation and possible pregnancy by becoming intimate with the hero, before he commits himself to the relationship--I think I was willing to forgive it here because 1) Bertie's reputation wasn't so pure it needed to be so well protected, 2) McBride's feelings for her were clear from the beginning, even before he spoke them out loud to Bertie, and 3) you know if anything did go wrong in the relationship, Bertie is strong and smart enough to look after herself)--but she loves him and doesn't play games with herself or with him about her feelings and her determination to experience and enjoy their relationship for as long as it lasts.
Bertie also has a mindfulness that is very appealing, both to McBride and to the reader. McBride has gone numb, still in mourning over the death of his wife, overwhelmed by work and by the emotional needs of his unruly children, whom he loves but can't connect with. By contrast, Bertie feels everything, notices everything, appreciates everything. She loves McBride, loves the children, loves the books she reads, loves the fine soaps they use in the McBride house, loves the fine engineering of the train that takes her out of London for the first time. McBride shows her the world, but in exchange, she shows him how to see and appreciate it, how to be present in the world in a way he has not been since losing his wife.
The plot moves right along and there's plenty of stuff that would make a stickler for historical verisimilitude purse her lips in dismay (I am not such a stickler, except when it comes to grammar), and if you're one of those people who hates plot moppets (cute but unrealistic child characters who do little to advance the plot), this is not the book for you, but I really enjoyed it.
I liked the first book in the Psy-Changeling series, Slave to Sensation (despite the awful title and even worse cover), but I couldn't get into this sequel at all. The story was too similar to the previous book (emotionless Psy woman falls for hot-blooded Changeling man/cat, thereby waking her scary, dangerous emotions, plus sex, plus murder), but the hero and heroine of this book weren't as interesting as the main characters in the previous book. Also, the previous heroine, Sascha, had a very real fear that if she gave in to her emotions, the other Psy would find out and lobotomize her. That made for a much better conflict than this story, where Faith is just afraid that if she gives in to emotions she's going to break her brain somehow. I got bored and annoyed with Faith's weird mental fragility.
As with the prior book, there's lots of sex here. Neither book is covering any new ground, but while the sex scenes in Slave to Sensation didn't wow me, the sex scenes between Faith and Vaughn actively turned me OFF. I was annoyed by Faith making advances only to back off whenever she started feeling too much (which came across as the worst kind of teasing), but I was also annoyed that Vaughn made clear his intentions to push her into physicality regardless of whether she was ready (which set off consent alarms, though nothing in this book amounts to rape).
Finally, I was confused and irritated by all the talk of the PsyNet and how it works, and all the Airy-Fairy business of psychic connections and powers. I think this series is not for me.
... and I'm not loving it so far. I'm disappointed that this story is so similar to the first book in the Psy-Changeling series, Slave to Sensation. We've already done the emotionally-stunted Psy falls in lust with a uber-manly alpha shifter thing. I don't feel, so far, like this book builds upon the world-building Singh started in the previous book, and that's such a disappointment, because I feel like we've barely scratched the surface of the potential stories to be told. What about humans? Where do they fit into this world? What about other Changeling packs? What happens in this world outside of California?
Three-Star books fall into two very different categories, with me. Most of the time, my three star ratings mean a book hasn't made me feel much of anything, and my thoughts upon turning the last page boil down to, "Meh, didn't love it; didn't hate it. It's okay." Every once in a while, though, a book comes around where my reading experience wasn't mediocre. These books do make me feel things, but the rating comes back to three stars because the things I really like get cancelled out by the things I really dislike, so the end result is still, "Meh, didn't love it; didn't hate it,"--even though the process of how I reach that rating is very different.
Crazy Thing Called Love is such a book. This was my first full-length Molly O'Keefe romance (I'd read her story in Summer Rain and really liked it), and I'll probably read more even though I didn't love this book.
This is a second chance romance between Billy and Maddy, who were childhood sweethearts, but Billy's graceless adjustment to his newfound fame when he got drafted into the NHL ruined their marriage. Fourteen years later, Billy's hockey career is drawing to a bitter end, as he's been reduced to a benchwarmer on a second-rate team, while Madelyn has reinvented herself, and her star is on the rise. She's shaken off her blue collar roots and enjoying modest fame as the beautiful, polished host of a morning news show in Dallas. Their paths cross again when Billy's agent and Maddy's producers arrange for Billy to be the subject of a makeover series on Maddy's show, much to her dismay.
I really liked the emotional intensity of this story. Billy, especially, worked through a lot of baggage over the course of this story, and it felt real and gritty and honest without being too angsty and melodramatic. Over the course of flashbacks sprinkled throughout the narrative, the reader learns a lot about Billy's childhood, the devotion he's always had for Maddy (though he hasn't always had the ability to express himself), and about his feelings of inadequacy as he faces the end of his career and the sad realization that he isn't the person he wants to be.
I really didn't like Madelyn, though. I never connected with her. She is intentionally cold and unreceptive to Billy for 90% of the story, and though rationally I understand, plot-wise, why she behaved that way, her emotional frigidity felt like an overreaction to Billy's youthful indiscretions. I know that her icy facade was just a front, but it was so effective, that I couldn't bring myself to like her character enough to care about her story. I was also put off by all of her internal monologues about food and exercise. I get that she's worked her tail off to look skinny and gorgeous in front of the camera, and I know that the message of the book was that those efforts were misdirected, and that she was obsessed with appearances and not noticing that her seemingly perfect life was actually pretty empty (much like her starved stomach), but it just added to my sense of dislike and disconnect with Maddy's character.
I don't read a lot of PNR, but everyone says if you're going to read PNR, read Nalini Singh... so I checked this out (doing my best not to judge the book by that seriously hideous cover). I liked the writing and the world-building, which felt fresh even though it employs several tropes that are so common in paranormals as to be almost cliché: the heroine seems like a plain jane until she develops her secret surprise special snowflake superpowers, the hero doesn't want to trust her or even like her much, but after just a few meetings he realizes she's his fated mate and he'll die without her, their bond is threatened by forces outside their control and death seems almost certain...
I didn't completely follow all the scenes about the PsyNet (the psychic network of minds) that the heroine's people (the Psy) use to communicate and store information, but I liked the scenes about the Changeling pack dynamics and intra-pack politics. As is usually the case, I was a bit annoyed about the mystery subplot (a Changeling woman has been kidnapped and will be killed if her pack can't rescue her in time), because I knew Whodunnit from the very first scene in which the killer made an appearance in the story, and so the only mystery was "why" (which wasn't really answered to my satisfaction). However, the mystery was only a plot device to contribute to the tension between the Psy and the Changelings, and solving it really wasn't the point.
I'm a sucker for stories in which a main character is prepared to sacrifice his or her life in favor of the greater good (for example, my favorite scene in any book ever is probably Harry Potter's solitary walk into the Forbidden Forest to meet Voldemort during the Battle of Hogwarts, which slays me every single time I read it), and this is such a book, so I found Slave to Sensation very emotionally satisfying and will definitely read on in the series.
Rosalind James' Escape to New Zealand series was recommended by a friend, and I'd seen some rave reviews here and on Goodreads. I was really excited to check out a new-to-me author to break out of the Shalvis-Higgins-Dahl-Wash-Rinse-Repeat rut I've gotten into with contemporary romance, and the fact that these are set in New Zealand just seemed like a bonus. Unfortunately, Just This Once was much more exciting in theory than in execution. I made it through 118 (of 277) pages before calling it quits, and I just can't keep going. I'm just so bored.
It's sad, really. Everything about this book is better in theory than in execution. The heroine is smart and independent and athletic... and totally milquetoast. The hero is a famous rugby hero with a darling accent, a gorgeous body... and the personality of a toaster. They're tramping (Kiwi for "hiking") through some of the most gorgeous scenery on earth, and I just want something to HAPPEN already! The sex scenes are vague, bland, and uninspired, and somehow there just isn't any emotional conflict.
I think my biggest problem is with James' narrative style: it's very straightforward, with a lot of "telling" rather than "showing". This happened, then this happened, and the next day this other thing happened. And then this happened again. And on, and on, and on.
If after 100+ pages, I can't figure out the conflict in a story, and I can't be bothered to care about the characters, I'm done. If I wanted to sleep, I'd take a nap.
I have a sort of love-hate relationship with Kristan Higgins' books. Actually, both love and hate are too strong for my feelings. I have a sort of like-meh relationship with these books. Higgins' stories are reliably entertaining, her main characters are generally pretty likeable (though secondary characters are often flat or overly-simplistic), the conflicts are relatable and heartstring-tugging, and the happy-ever-after usually inspires at least a satisfied sigh. However, a lot of things bother me along the way, so that every time I read one of her books (and I always do read them, somehow), I always think that I have better books waiting in my mountainous TBR. I think familiarity keeps bringing me back to Higgins, the way I tend to order the same dish at a favorite restaurant, but then there is always, even amid the pleasure of satisfaction, the niggling thought that if I dared to branch out, I could do so much better.
In Your Dreams is about Jack Holland, the last of the single Holland siblings (previous books in the Blue Heron series have focused on his two older sisters and on Holland family friends) and Emmaline Neal, an officer of the local police department. Both Jack and Emmaline have been unlucky in love: Jack married a batshit crazy southern belle who ran him into debt and then cheated on him during their eight-month long marriage, and Emmaline spent seventeen years with her first love, only to have him leave her for his personal trainer two months before they were supposed to have wed. In addition to these romantic troubles, Jack is also suffering from PTSD after rescuing four teenagers from an icy lake, and Emmaline has self-esteem issues left over from childhood, when her parents sent her off to live with her grandmother and then adopted a new daughter, one who is prettier, smarter, classier, and more socially-adept than Emmaline.
Heroines with low self-esteem is part of the Higgins' Formula, and I wish it weren't. Just about any romantic conflict in the world would be more interesting to me than the he-can't-possibly-want-me-because-he's-perfect-and-I'm-just-me trope. I also don't like that Higgins tends to heap humiliation upon her heroines as a plot device. Here, Emmaline brings Jack as a date to her ex-fiance's wedding (to the trainer he jilted Em for), and as if that scenario were not humiliation enough, Em is subjected to further mortification by the cruelty of her ex, his bride, and an old grade school classmate, the thoughtlessness of her parents, and self-inflicted embarrassment involving bathing suit padding and a bad hair day. These scenes are supposed to be funny, but I don't revel in others' misfortune, so I just find them uncomfortable.
I was most disappointed by the ending, which was abrupt and didn't involve enough groveling. (I'm a big proponent of The Grovel.) Then there was a totally useless and cliched epilogue which you might as well just skip over, in my opinion.
This was recommended to me by a Goodreads friend, for reasons I can't remember and which were not apparent from the story itself. It employs two different "Outsider" tropes: the heroine, Anthea, is a fish out of water as the new schoolteacher on the Kansas frontier, freshly arrived from a more civilized life in Philadelphia, while the hero, Gabriel, has been the town outcast since his birth out-of-wedlock. Gabriel's reputation is further tarnished when he takes the orphaned daughter of the town's whore under his wing, and everyone assumes that he is her father.
I liked the story well enough, though it wasn't especially original. Parts of it reminded me, fondly, of the Little House on the Prairie books I read (and reread and reread) as a girl. I found the main characters likable and relatable. However, much of the story was predictable, and none of the plot twists were especially shocking... though I'm not sure the author was aiming for shocking.
What really troubled me about this book, though, and brought it from a three-star "Meh" rating to a two-star "Nah" rating, is the story's weird, backwards, and kind of convoluted messages about sex. I checked the publication date of this book, thinking it might have been written right on the cusp of the Old Skool (rapey, alpha heroes) romances written in the 1980s and prior, and the more enlightened New School romances of more recent decades, but The Bad Man's Bride came out in 2001, which was later than I'd have guessed.
Anyway, the first thing that bothered me is that Gabriel held off sleeping with Anthea until all of a sudden he learned she was not a virgin, since she'd anticipated her wedding vows with a fiancé who threw her over when her father's death left her and her sisters destitute (which is why she's in Kansas teaching). Upon learning this, Gabriel throws all his good intentions out the window, and immediately sees Anthea as fair game, sexually speaking, though at that point he has no intention of marrying her. I didn't mind that Anthea wasn't a virgin, and I liked that she had her own sexual needs and wasn't afraid to go after what she wanted, but Gabriel could have been more honorable. This is a squick of mine: I really hate historical romances where the lovers become intimate without any intention or ability to marry, and it's not because I'm a prude--it's because in that historical context, a woman took such an enormous risk in giving up her purity and risking pregnancy, that it just isn't honorable for a man to accept that risk without intending marriage. And Gabriel, who has spent his whole life shunned and despised by the townsfolk for his bastardy, should have known that better than anyone.
The second thing that bothered me was a subplot involving the town banker, Philip, and his wife Cleo. Way back years before she and Philip married, Cleo had an affair with Gabriel, and she's been hung up on him ever since, to the detriment of her marriage. Toward the end of the book, there is a confrontation in which Cleo realizes that Gabriel doesn't return her regard. While she is still emotionally distraught over this, Philip hunts her down, finds her sobbing in a stable, and essentially rapes her. The way the scene is written, I had the sense that we readers were supposed to be uplifted by it, as if Philip is finally proving his manliness/worthiness by taking what is his (even though Cleo resists, says no, turns her face away from his kisses, tries to pull away, etc.), and when she ultimately responds with physiological arousal, we readers are supposed to rejoice as if this is a turning point in their troubled marriage, because Cleo's always been a cold fish up to that point. I was deeply troubled by the apparent acceptance of the rape culture myth that a woman can't/won't respond if she isn't secretly into sex, no matter how she may have otherwise expressed her lack of consent.
Obviously, that kind of soured the Happy Ever After for me.
I was (am) home sick and wanted something to read that wouldn't take a whole lot of focus or mental energy, so when I found this on my Kindle, I thought it would fit the bill perfectly. I thought I had read all of Jennifer Crusie's back catalogue, but if I'd ever read this before, I didn't remember it at all. It's nowhere near her best work, but it was a quick read and entertaining enough. It's a mistaken-identity story: Alec is at a conference to catch a con man, and Dennie, a journalist, is there to interview one of the conference presenters. Alec sees Dennie talking to the con man in the hotel lobby (the con man is hitting on her, Dennie turns him down, but Alec doesn't hear their conversation), and assumes that Dennie is the con's accomplice. It's a pretty thin premise, and it probably would have been insufferably stupid in the hands of anyone but Crusie.
I steered clear of Christina Lauren's Beautiful series, because just the blurb of Beautiful Bastard (smart intern, asshole boss, lots of name-calling and hate sex) was a big HELLS NO for me... and that was before I started seeing reviews like this one. But then I read Kati's review of Sweet Filthy Boy at Dear Author, and it sounded like this book might work for me, too, and it did (mostly).
It took me awhile to get into it. It starts with Mia, the heroine, graduating from college and going off for a weekend celebration in Las Vegas with her two best girlfriends. (I'm a decade (plus) past my own "New Adult" years and, even back then, I was never the type to think a drunken weekend in Vegas sounds like a good time, so I didn't connect with Mia at first.) While in Vegas, Mia catches the eye of a beautiful boy across a crowded bar, and a few pages later, she wakes up with the worst hangover of her life, vague memories of lots and lots of sex, and a gold band on her finger. My first thought was, oh, please, not another drunken Vegas wedding... *snore*.
Somehow, in the chapters that followed, I got over that. There was something really honest and appealing in the way Mia and Ansel try to balance their sense of holy-shit-how-could-I-be-so-fucking-stupid?! with their dawning understanding that, stupid as the wedding may have been, the feelings they have for one another may be more than drunken insta-love.
Ansel invites Mia to go home to France with him for the summer, to give their marriage a chance. Initially, rationally, she turns him down, but then she changes her mind and dashes for the airport, barely making the flight. In the weeks that follow, she explores Paris while Ansel works way too much, taking the summer to come up with a plan for what she wants to do with her life (since her initial plan, business school on her daddy's dime, holds no appeal).
There was a lot of sex in this book. Too much, in my opinion, but maybe that's just me. It wasn't bad or boring--in fact, I liked the way that sexual role play helped Mia be more honest and confident in the marriage--but I would have preferred more story. (It's funny: I read romance for the story and am tempted to skim the sex scenes; I read erotica for sex and often skim the "story".)
I found Ansel a very appealing hero, smart and sweet and sexy, despite a huge lie of omission that almost derails their Happy Ever After. Mia grew on me, too, even though many of her choices make no sense to me (example: if I had planned to become a professional ballerina, only to have my career derailed by a tragic car accident, teaching little kids to dance is probably the very last thing in the world I would ever choose to do with my life). I like that she spent so much time on her own, exploring the city of Paris and simultaneously getting her head on straight. I like that she discovers and develops her own talents and confidence, rather than magically becoming a super talented sex goddess just because of the love of the right man. Overall, I'm glad I gave this book a chance.