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Heidi Hart

By day, I'm a domestic violence prosecutor. By night, I read romance to restore my faith in love, relationships, and humanity in general. 

"Wicked Sexy Liar" by Christina Lauren

Wicked Sexy Liar - Christina Lauren

A lot of series lose steam as they go along, but this one keeps getting better. This is book four in the "Wild Seasons" series, and it's better than book one, "Sweet Filthy Boy," though connected to that story more than the subsequent books in the series. Each book stands alone, but it will probably be a little more satisfying if you read at least "Sweet Filthy Boy" first, because that book introduces Mia, who is the ex-girlfriend of the hero, Luke, of this one. 

 

"Wicked Sexy Liar" is a Reformed-Rake/Taming-of-the-Manwhore story. Five years ago, Luke broke up with Mia, his high school sweetheart, and went a little crazy on the rebound. He's spent the interim having lots and lots and lots of casual sex, and when he meets London, that's what they're both looking for. 

 

Of course, London's got a magical hooha, and as soon as Luke hooks up with her, he can't get enough, but she has good reasons for wanting to keep things casual, especially when she realizes Luke is her friend Mia's ex. (Because friends' exes are, of course, off limits.) 

 

The entertainment of the Manwhore-Taming trope usually stems from watching the hero get his comeuppance, after years of dismissing clingy women, in finally finding himself in the role of the Clinger rather than Clingee. "Wicked Sexy Liar" does the same, but even though it isn't groundbreaking, it's entertaining. Christina Lauren does snappy dialogue really, really well, and the secondary characters are well developed and contribute to the story (rather than merely being scenery in it -- yet another reason to read the series in order, though again, this would stand alone). 

 

I loved Luke's relationship with his sister Margot, and I love how smart and sassy and grounded London is as a heroine. The ending of this book was a little too abrupt, but still emotionally satisfying, and the first 4/5ths of the book were great fun. 

"A Fighting Chance" by Shannon Stacey

A Fighting Chance - Shannon Stacey

I love Shannon Stacey because her stories are so familiar (because they're set where I live, in northern New England), and so low-drama. Real people working through real conflicts, in a way that is refreshingly, well, real.  

 

However, "A Fighting Chance" is not Stacey's best. I didn't connect with this one at all, probably because it's novella-length and just too short to feel invested in the characters. Del goes to a casino for a bachelorette weekend with her girlfriends, and meets up with The One Who Got Away... or rather, the guy who dumped her and broke her heart for no good reason. Brendan moonlights as an MMA fighter, and he's got a fight at the casino that same weekend. They see each other in the lobby, meet for coffee and cookies, and basically fall into bed together, old flame rekindled. 

 

The story was just too short to have any nuanced character or plot development. Del works, but who knows what she does. She's from an upper middle class background and Brendan's blue collar, and we're told that is the source of the conflict that ruined their first relationship, but the story doesn't really give us any sense of how class issues impacted their relationship in the past, so as to get a sense of whether anything much has changed now. Del and Brendan both have families and friends, but they don't really contribute anything to the storyline except the occasional mention to move the plot along. 

 

If you want to check out Shannon Stacey (and you should), try Exclusively Yours, instead. 

"Pairing Off" by Elizabeth Harmon

Pairing Off - Elizabeth  Harmon

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. 

"Crossing the Line" by Katie McGarry

Crossing the Line - Katie McGarry

Just too short to feel invested in the story or the characters. It was a freebie, though, so no problem.

"Happily Ever Ninja" by Penny Reid

Happily Ever Ninja (Knitting in the City Book 5) - Penny Reid

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.

 

Seeking beta readers

I finally finished my first novel. It needs lots of work, cutting, reworking, polishing. I'm honestly not even sure it's salvageable, but it is the first thing I've ever written that has an ending, so I'm giving myself tons of credit for that. 

 

If any of you are on Wattpad, or want to join, and would consider checking it out and leaving constructive criticism, you can find me here. The finished one is: "The Girl Next Door" (working title, obvs). 

"Take Me On" by Katie McGarry

Take Me On - Katie McGarry

I think some authors, in their zeal to avoid the cardinal sin of telling too much and showing too little, err on the side of brevity so much that they leave the reader hanging. This fourth installment of Katie McGarry's Pushing the Limits series, which I have totally devoured this week, is an example of such a book. This story has an interesting premise: both the hero and heroine are homeless, though by very different circumstances. Haley's family has been on a slow slide from lower middle class stability since her father lost his job, and they've been bouncing around from shelters and friends and finally settle in an overcrowded two bedroom house already occupied by Haley's mean-spirited and controlling uncle and his family. Meanwhile, West goes from being the pampered scion of Louisville's wealthiest family to living in the back of his car overnight when his rebellious behavior gets him kicked out of school, which is the last straw for his father, who kicks him out. There are so many issues this book could have explored about the similarities and differences between West and Haley's positions and their attitudes toward their shared circumstance, and it's not that the book didn't touch on these things... but it only touched on them, it didn't sink its teeth in.

 

That's true of so many of the subplots as well. There's a lot going on in this story: issues with Haley's family and West's family, Haley's history of domestic violence with an ex-boyfriend and the trauma associated with it, West's discovery of a deeply guarded secret regarding his past, West's sister's recovery from an almost fatal car accident, Haley's efforts to find a way to pay for college, Haley's history as a champion kickboxer (a sport she's walked away from) and West's introduction to that sport, a final confrontation between West and Haley's ex, and West's and Haley's developing feelings for each other. "Take Me On" deals with all of these things, but only glancingly. The plot skips right along, but all of these issues are too weighty to be addressed as summarily as they are. The whole book whet my appetite, but didn't satisfy.

"Crash into You" by Katie McGarry

Crash into You - Katie McGarry

My full-on glom of this YA series continues. This third installment focuses on Isaiah, who is about to age out of the foster care system. (Readers of prior books in the series will know Isaiah as the best friend of book one's hero, Noah, and the boy who was in unrequited love with book two's heroine, Beth.) Needing to come up with rent money, Isaiah enters his Mustang in an illegal street race, where he meets Rachel. Rachel is the precious daughter of one of Louisville's most privileged families, but when she can sneak out from under the parents' and brothers' overprotective thumbs, she likes to race. She winds up at the street race more or less by accident, because Plot.

 

When things at the race go sideways, Rachel and Isaiah end up indebted to a scary crime boss who will hurt/rape/kill them if they don't pay him back. (Also because Plot.) This makes them unlikely allies, who eventually become unlikely lovers. (Well, unlikely heavy petters, anyway -- this is YA.)

 

I was fond enough of Isaiah from the previous books to be excited to read his story, and mostly this didn't disappoint, though this whole series is a little angsty for my tastes. (Again, it is YA.) I thought Rachel's backstory was interesting and well done. (There are only so many ways you can make a "poor little rich girl" a sympathetic figure, and McGarry did well in taking an unexpected route.)

 

I really disliked the ending, which was abrupt and rather of the deus ex machina variety, but otherwise this book was fun. On to the next!

"Dare You To" by Katie McGarry

Dare You To - Katie McGarry

This second installment in the "Pushing the Limits" series wasn't as angsty as the first book (Pushing the Limits), which I liked. At the same time, though, Beth and Ryan's story doesn't pack the same emotional punch. That's not to say it's not chockfull of melodrama: Beth has a truly horrible backstory, trying to keep her addicted mom away from an abusive boyfriend, when her mom doesn't want to save herself or Beth, either. When Beth gets arrested (taking the fall for something her mom did), a long-lost uncle swoops in to take her to the suburbs for a better life -- but like her mom, Beth doesn't exactly want to be rescued. Also, living in a bible-thumping backwater isn't her idea of a better life. 

 

By comparison, Ryan is living the dream: steadily (if not happily) married parents, popular at school, good grades, champion baseball pitcher being courted by professional and college scouts. Yet Ryan's life isn't as charmed as it seems: his older brother was disowned after coming out of the closet, and in the wake of that scandal, Ryan's nuclear family is in the midst of a nuclear meltdown. 

 

I liked Ryan. I liked Beth. I enjoyed most of the individual subplots of this story. On the whole, the writing was well done and the plotting was tight and well-paced. I just didn't really feel Ryan and Beth as a couple, and I'm not sure why. 

"Breaking the Rules" by Katie McGarry

Breaking the Rules (Pushing the Limits Book 6) - Katie McGarry

Breaking the Rules picks up right where Pushing the Limits leaves off, following Noah and Echo as they spend the summer road tripping after their college graduation. As I noted in my review of Pushing the Limits, Noah and Echo have especially tragic backstories, such that, much as I liked and rooted for them both, it was hard for me to envision them living happily ever after. As I expected, Breaking the Rules makes clear that their relationship is not going to be all sunshine and roses -- though there are sunshiny, rosy moments throughout. Noah and Echo both have a lot of baggage to unpack and destructive patterns they need to break out of, and this book is about them figuring out how to start doing that. It's honest, it's believable, it's emotional... but it's not fun. This book is more painful that Pushing the Limits, but in many ways it's more credible. 

"Pushing the Limits" by Katie McGarry

Pushing the Limits - Katie McGarry

I had heard good things about this series, but approached it warily because high school romance is not generally my speed anymore. I was pleasantly surprised to enjoy this as much as I did, since it's much more angsty than I usually like. The two main characters have backgrounds so tragic it was a bit of a trial to willingly suspend my disbelief. Yes, maybe such a series of extremely unfortunate events could happen to one person, but two? And I'm to believe that these two so completely damaged people would be a good match for each other, rather than being too broken to help themselves, much less each other? 

 

Still, for purposes of a good story, I went with it. I ended up liking Noah and Echo very much, and I liked the way the story revealed the layers of their tragic histories gradually, without info dumping or excessive navel-gazing. I liked that both characters had their own individual character arcs, independent of their evolution into a couple. I liked that supporting characters were well-developed and had important roles in the story, and were not just there to give the main characters someone to talk to when their significant other wasn't around. -And the romance was very satisfying, though much angstier than I generally prefer. 

 

Because this book is about and for high school readers, the main characters don't have sex, though there is discussion of it and progress toward that end goal. 

"The Rogue Not Taken" by Sarah MacLean

The Rogue Not Taken - Sarah MacLean

I really enjoyed this first installment in Sarah MacLean's new historical Scandal & Scoundrel series, which is nice because I haven't really been connecting with historicals in about a year. The heroine, Sophie, is the youngest of five daughters known collectively as the Soiled S's, 'soiled' because their father bought his earldom after making a fortune mining coal, and 'S's' because their names all begin with S. At a ton fete, Sophie catches her brother-in-law cheating on her pregnant eldest sister, and pushes him into a fishpond. One might think his reputation would be the one to suffer as a result of this scandal, but no, he is a duke and Sophie is a coalminer's daughter, so she is the one ruined.

 

Desperate to flee the humiliating scene, Sophie comes upon King, who is climbing out of a soon-to-be-married lady's bedroom window. No stranger to scandal himself, the Marquess is nevertheless unwilling to help Sophie, so she poses as one of King's footmen to hitch a ride home. (Just go with it.) Unbeknownst to her, though, King's carriage isn't headed to Mayfair: he's on his way to Cumbria to see his estranged father, having heard his father is on his deathbed. On the journey north, Sophie and King's misadventures lead, gradually, to the correction of the wrong assumptions each made of the other on their initial acquaintance, and ultimately to love, though trust is harder to come by.

 

Much of the appeal of this book, for me, stems from the fact that apart from the initial scene at the garden party, "Rogue Not Taken" is a roadtrip story. It doesn't take place in London's drawing rooms and ball rooms, but in carriages and curricles and posting inns along the North Road. I also appreciated that Sophie isn't truly of the aristocracy, nor does she aspire to be, but she is also keenly aware that her past life of comfortable anonymity, before her father became an earl, is no longer available to her either. She's truly adrift in that sense, without a community, which makes her a more compelling character.

 

King didn't really stand out from the crowd of romance heroes, to me, and yet I appreciated his character arc as he grows from someone who treats Sophie fairly badly early on, but ultimately comes around to be her champion.

 

"Anything for You" by Kristan Higgins

Anything for You (The Blue Heron Series) - Kristan Higgins

Kristan Higgins' contemporary romances have been auto-buys for me for a long time, though it's been ages since I really loved one. However, they are always well-written, solidly entertaining, usually humorous, with likeable characters and relateable conflicts. Anything for You is in this same good but not great vein.

 

Connor has been in love with Jessica since they were 12, when her dog bit his face. Unfortunately, Jessica has always had a lot of issues, some of which have followed her even into adulthood. Her parents were alcoholics, which kept their family dirt poor. Jessica's younger brother has fetal alcohol syndrome, and Jessica has always been the only one reliable enough to take care of him. Back in high school, Jessica slept around with the popular boys in order to get them to help look out for her brother, Davey, so he wouldn't be bullied. It's been almost 15 years since high school, and in all that time she's only ever slept with Connor, but her sullied reputation remains.

 

Anything for You begins with Jessica turning down Connor's marriage proposal. They've dated on the down low for ten years, but Connor wants to make it real, and Jessica doesn't want anything to change. Their on-again/off-again "friends-with-benefits" arrangement doesn't work for Connor anymore, and so when Jess turns him down, they split up. Connor briefly tries playing the field, but quickly comes to the realization that he doesn't want to be with anyone else, so he has to find a way to convince Jessica that she can have the white-picket-fence life he's offering.

 

Therein lay my problem with the book. I felt for Jessica, even as the whole story is set up that she's the one who needs to change, to come around to Connor's way of thinking. While reading, I'd get frustrated with Jessica's tendency to run hot-and-cold on Connor, to reject him when things get rough, to blow off his heartfelt proposal, and to get mad when he tries to win her over by winning over her brother, Davey. The reader is supposed to feel, and does, like Jessica's being unreasonable in not giving Connor a chance.

 

Stepping out of that romance-reader mindset where the ultimate goal is happily ever after, though, when I think about this book with a more liberal, feminist perspective, I'm more skeptical. Why should Jessica have to change? She's been saving to buy her own house for her whole life; why should she give up that dream just because Connor already has a house? Yes, their ten-year arrangement of sneaking around together is untenable, and something has to change, but is Connor's proposal of marriage and happy-ever-after in his house with the white picket fence really the only option?

 

In the end, I was happy enough with where the story ended up, but I was uncomfortable during the journey, because Jessica was being pushed into the marriage-and-picket-fence-lifestyle that is not necessarily right for her. I was not happy with the epilogue, but I often think books are better without that schmaltzy scene tacked on at the end.

"Harlot" by Victoria Dahl

Harlot - Victoria Dahl

Yesterday, I read the prequel novella to this book, Angel. It was free, and in my brief review, I said that it had done it's job: I intended to read on in the series. Harlot is the next installment, and it was a fast read, and a not entirely satisfying one. At 123 pages, it's longer than a novella but not by much, and I think the brevity was part of my disappointment: there was not a lot of room for character development or anything but a pretty basic story arc. 

 

Harlot is set in the American West (Colorado) in 1875. Caleb loved Jessica, the town doctor's daughter, his whole life, but he felt he had to make something of himself before he could offer for her, so he went to California for two years to seek his fortune in the gold rush. He came home having done so, only to find that in his absence, Jessica became the town harlot. Furious, Caleb offered her $25 to be his whore for the week. 

 

Of course, it's clear to the reader from the start that Jessica only did what she did out of desperation, so Caleb's fury -- especially since he didn't keep himself pure in California, either -- is pretty offensive. Toward the end of the story, Jess finally points out this hypocrisy, and to his credit, Caleb gets what an ass he's been and makes a pretty good grovel, but I found it very tough to get in his corner until then. 

 

I've noticed in reading Victoria Dahl's contemporary romances that her sex scenes are often not my cuppa, and that was true here as well. A lot of Dahl's stories, as here, cater to a humiliation kink -- where the man calls the woman "slut" and other offensive names, and does things with the express intent of degrading her, and she gets off on it. I understand that that turns some peoples' crank, but to me it's like a dousing in ice water: it totally pulls me out of the scene and turns me off. So, I didn't like the smexy parts much. 

 

I was also disappointed by where Angel's protagonists, Bill and Melisande, end up. They are still together and in love, but I hoped for a happier happy ending for them. 

 

In the end, this book didn't totally work for me, but if, like me, romances with prostitute protagonists are your catnip, or if you enjoy a good grovel, you might want to check Harlot out anyway. 

Last Holiday Read of the Season?

Angel: an erotic short story - Victoria Dahl

I'd never read any of Victoria Dahl's historical work before, but this novella was free, so I gave it a whirl. This story, about an octoroon prostitute in New Orleans whose Irish client/lover offers her a fresh start out west, is short and tamer than the marketing might suggest, but it serves it's purpose in that I'll probably read on in the series.

First Read of 2016 - And it was a good one

A Scandal to Remember - Elizabeth Essex

I really, really loved the first book in this series, Almost a Scandal, and then the next one or two were only meh, so I took a break from Elizabeth Essex. I'm glad to reconnect with her nautical historical romances, because I'm a sucker for tall ships, and this book was lovely. 

 

In the peace following the Napoleonic Wars, much of the British Navy has become redundant, including Lt. Charles Dance. He's relieved when an old shipmate pulls strings to get him assigned to the Tenacious, a ship with orders to take a group of naturalists to the South Pacific on a scientific expedition. Yet as soon as Dance comes aboard, he finds the Tenacious in sorry shape. The Captain is a drunkard who won't leave his cabin, the bosun is an untrustworthy bully, the purser deserts with the ship's accounts before they even set sail, the crew is lazy and untrained, and the ship itself is so badly maintained as to be barely seaworthy. And then the scientists show up, and one of them is a woman. Although Dance is attracted to Jane from the start, she is yet one more complication he doesn't need on this ill-fated voyage. Most of the crew is too superstitious to tolerate a woman's presence on board, and as things go wrong -- and there is a lot that goes wrong -- the crew's resentment focuses on Jane. When Dance acts as her defender, and without able leadership from the captain, the crew mutinies against Dance, who has all the responsibility of the voyage with none of the authority. 

 

Shipboard romances make up their own subsection of the romance genre, but this isn't the swashbuckler-themed wallpaper historical you may be expecting. Elizabeth Essex is a nautical historian by academic training, so she knows her stuff, and the difference is obvious and so satisfying: you get a real sense of the adventures and tensions and indignities and excitement of life at sea, not only technical details about sailing, but also the "office politics" of negotiating the relationships among men (and one woman) living in very, very close quarters. 

 

The romance between Jane and Dance was satisfying if a little slow-burning for my tastes, and there's plenty of intrigue and adventure to hold the interest of even the most jaded reader.