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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. 

Progress 38%: Tell the Truth Already!

Hold on Tight - Serena Bell

I am very frustrated by one aspect of this otherwise so-far very compelling, well-written book: Hero and Heroine are big fat lying liar pants! They had a brief fling 8 years ago while hero was on leave from the military, which of course resulted in an unplanned pregnancy. Heroine tried to find him to tell him about the pregnancy, but there's a bazillion Jake Taylors in the world, and she couldn't track him down. Fast forward to present day, and Jake (having served in Afghanistan and lost his leg in an IED attack) comes into the same physical therapy clinic where the Inadvertantly-Secret-Baby is getting PT after falling out of a tree.


Heroine recognizes Jake, practically chokes on her tongue, makes a big speech about how she's got to be honest with him and surprise, you're a daddy! See that little boy on the other side of the glass? He's your kid! Act casual!


But never, not in this initial conversation, nor over the course of the next several weeks, during which Jake and kid meet several times and have several excruciatingly awkward conversations about kid's MIA dad, and Jake and Mira have several excruciatingly awkward conversations about these awkward conversations -- NEVER DO THEY TELL THE KID THE TRUTH. Why? In fact, they both outright lie to him, over and over again, telling him that his dad was just a sperm donor.


This is making me crazy. I have two boys, 2 and 5, who actually do have a sperm donor dad, and they know the truth about their origins and have since they developed the ability to ask questions and listen to age-appropriate explanations. Jake and Mira's kid is 7, by far more able than my boys to process and understand, and yet THEY'RE SCREWING IT UP!


In many other respects, I am enjoying this book a lot, but I'm so pissed off about this issue, I'm not sure I'll be able to keep going.

Formulaic, but it's a tried-and-true formula

Second Chance Summer - Jill Shalvis

This book kicks off a new series, but it sticks tight to Jill Shalvis' typical formula: funny and snappy dialogue, an appealing cast of characters in a charming small town (many of whom are sequel bait), a dash of pathos, stir in some sexy times, and viola! "Second Chance Summer" offers a gender-flip of Shalvis' usual commitment-phobic, alpha male trope. Here, it's the heroine, Lily, who doesn't want to risk losing her heart to anyone. Ten years ago, she lost her sister and her dad, and that's more than enough grief. Meanwhile, Aidan is ready to settle down, and he'd love nothing better than to get a second chance with the girl who got away.

Luckily, the Shalvis formula happens to be one I enjoy, at least in moderation. Her characters are always likeable, the writing is reliably decent, the conflicts are believable and not too angsty, the pacing moves right along, the romance is emotionally satisfying, and there's always enough humor to keep things light.

Beautiful, Sexy Little Holiday Read

Snowfall (Novella) - Mary Ann Rivers

This is probably the best holiday novella I've ever read, and possibly the best novella, full stop. Jenny, a microbiologist who makes her living viewing tiny organisms under a high powered microscope, moves across the country to become a research scholar, and then almost immediately receives a life-changing medical diagnosis:

she's going blind.

(show spoiler)


While working through the stages of grief related to her condition, and adjusting to her new job and new city, Jenny strikes up a serendipitous cyber relationship with the former tenant of her apartment. After several innocuous online interactions, their relationship turns to very spicy cyber sex, which is both a physical and an emotional refuge for Jenny, who is lonely and tending toward depression.


Meanwhile, Jenny also has sexual tension developing in her contentious relationship with her occupational therapist, Evan, whose job it is to help her adjust to the new reality necessitated by her medical condition.


The reader realizes much sooner than Jenny that Evan and her online lover are one and the same, and when Evan realizes and doesn't immediately tell Jenny, that could have been a huge turnoff for me (I hate intentional dishonesty tropes), and yet Mary Ann Rivers negotiates that plot twist deftly enough that both characters' motivations and reactions are both relatable and ethical.


The writing is hauntingly beautiful. I'll be thinking about this story long after finishing it, and I'll definitely read it again -- perhaps every Christmas season.

A Nice Visit to Spindle Cove for Fans, but Nothing to Offer Newcomers

Lord Dashwood Missed Out: A Spindle Cove Novella - Tessa Dare

If you're already a fan of Tessa Dare's Spindle Cove series, this is an entertaining and pleasant little holiday confection worth an hour or so of your time. You'll get to visit with old friends from previous books (Griff and Pauline, Any Duchess Will Do; Bram and Susanna, A Night to Surrender; Minerva and Colin, A Week to be Wicked), and you'll probably enjoy the short story about Lord Dashwood and whatsername, stuck in a hovel in a storm in the middle of nowhere. Oh, you think you read that book already, years ago, in Stephanie Laurens' Devil's Bride? Well, this is different. It's shorter, it's Christmas, and there's no murder.


If you're not yet a fan of Dare's, this isn't the place to start. This novella is fine for what it is, but it's too short and too formulaic to showcase the wit and emotion and humor that Dare does so well.

A Promising Start to a New Series, but Room for Improvement

Once Upon a Marquess (Worth Saga) (Volume 1) - Courtney Milan

If I had to pick my number one, favorite romance author, it would be Courtney Milan. No hesitation. She's a lawyer. She clerked for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. She puts lawyer-geek jokes about the Rule Against Perpetuities in her historical romances. She's smart. She's funny. She's basically my hero.


Still, her latest effort, Once Upon a Marquess, didn't quite ring my bell. I'm excited about this new series and its premise, focusing on the five Worth siblings, who used to be aristocracy until their father and brother were convicted of treason. This first book stars the eldest Worth daughter, Judith, who more than anyone has borne the burden of holding the family together since their ruin. She manages to support herself and her siblings -- albeit not in the style to which they are accustomed -- by designing clockworks. She scrapes together enough money to send youngest brother, Benedict, to Eton (where he is mercilessly bullied), and to set aside a small allowance for her two sisters' come-outs. But when the money for her sisters goes missing and Judith's solicitor won't explain what happened, Judith has no option but to call on an old acquaintance who owes her a debt of honor -- none other than Christian Trent, Marquess of Ashford, Judith's ex-intended and the man whose testimony condemned his best friend, Judith's brother Anthony, to transportation from England.


One of the themes of this book that I enjoyed is the idea that even doing the right thing can have irrevocable consequences, as when Christian did the right thing by offering testimony on behalf of the Crown, but as a result lost his best friend, his intended bride, and ruined their family. He is haunted by guilt, particularly since Anthony was lost at sea during the transport to Australia. There are other examples of the same theme, where telling the truth, though right, nevertheless brings pain and consequences. Even a mother's love for her son, and her actions to protect him, have consequences that Christian still wrestles with years into his adulthood. Eventually, we learn that even Anthony's treason, though a crime against England, may have been morally right when viewed from another perspective.


I also enjoyed some of the foibles that make these characters unique. Christian suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or something very like it (and having been diagnosed with OCD myself, I think Milan did a credible job portraying his thought processes). Judith's younger siblings, Theresa (14) and Benedict (12), are very believable characters who behave in age-appropriate ways. Judith has a close friend, Daisy, with an intriguing backstory that will be the subject of a novella due out early next year, and I'm looking forward to that.


Yet this book bothered me in a few important ways. First, while I'm hardly a stickler for historical accuracy, some of the dialogue here was so anachronistic it pulled me out of the story and was very distracting. There were a few scenes between Judith and Christian where Milan was working so hard to make the dialogue clever and sharp that I think she sacrificed verisimilitude in search of a few good one liners, and in my opinion, that was not a good trade.


Second, I have noted before that I have a squick in historical romance where the couple consummates their relationship before the hero is able to commit to the heroine. I don't care whether they have formally committed to each other, so long as he is able to, but if he's engaged to someone else or otherwise unavailable to commit, it isn't honorable to expose his lover to pregnancy and social ruin and all the consequences of extramarital sex in that time period. Unfortunately, Once Upon a Marquess gender-flips that trope, and I found it just as unpalatable when Judith was the seducer, knowing she didn't intend for the relationship with Christian to have a future, and knowing that he did intend to marry her. Their first love scene struck me as deeply dishonest and wrong, and so I couldn't enjoy that part of the story at all.


Finally, the pacing of this novel was a little bit clunky and uneven. I suspect that's because Milan had to use this book to set up, not only Judith and Christian's story, but also to lay the groundwork for the rest of the novels in the series. There were times when the narrative was definitely bogged down by sequel fodder. I also found the ending too hasty and tidy to be fully satisfying, especially since most of the book was spent building certain conflicts (sorry to be vague, but I'm dodging spoilers), and then at the end Christian and Judith each decided, mostly by force of will rather than any external intervention, that those conflicts just weren't as troublesome as they'd initially believed. I understood their change of heart, but it wasn't as satisfying, from this reader's perspective, as an actual external resolution to the problem would have been. Actually fixing the conflicts wouldn't have left much room for sequels, so I get it.



Festive and Fun Christmas Novella - FREE ON AMAZON RIGHT NOW

Unwrapping Her Perfect Match - Kat Latham

I thoroughly enjoyed this little treat of a story, (which is part of the London Legends series but works perfectly well as a stand-alone read). I liked that both main characters were strong yet vulnerable, and I loved how well they communicated, right from the start of their relationship.


Both Gwen and John are giants: Gwen is 6'1", and John is 6'8". Both are used to feeling clumsy and out of place because of their size, and to being judged by their appearance, so they're both awestruck by how well they fit together (sexually as well as just generally). Gwen loves that John makes her feel feminine and delicate (for the first time in her life), and John loves that Gwen is strong and solid and he doesn't have to worry about crushing her.


John has a 10-year-old daughter, Agnes, he rarely sees because she lives with her mother in France. He is desperate to connect with this little girl, but stymied because of the language barrier (the child's mother doesn't speak English with her, and John has tried to learn French but isn't good with languages). To make matters worse, the day of Agnes' arrival, John suffers a concussion during a rugby match. Since John is barely able to care for himself, much less his daughter, Gwen gives up Christmas with her own family to spend the weekend with them.


I often find "plot moppets" (i.e., cute, unrealistic child characters used as a plot device) to be distracting, annoying, and inauthentic, but here I thought John's earnest but fumbling efforts to connect with Agnes were genuinely endearing.


I also liked that Gwen has self-esteem issues (as most of us do), but that she learns not to let them dictate her life or her choices. She advocates for herself and her needs powerfully and effectively, and I loved that John was receptive and respectful of her strength.


Finally, sometimes the pacing of novellas puts me off. It often seems that authors try to fit too much plot into the shortened form, leaving the reader frustrated by all that's left out, or, alternatively, there isn't enough plot and the novella is more of a vignette than a fully-fleshed out story. Not so here: Unwrapping Her Perfect Match struck a good balance, providing enough backstory and character development to orient the reader, as well as a satisfying narrative arc that builds and comes to resolution without feeling crowded or rushed.


If you're in the mood for a quick, feel-good holiday read, Unwrapping Her Perfect Match is a good pick.


PS - Did I mention it's free?!

Too Many Characters, Too Many Secrets

Staying at Daisy's - Jill Mansell

A friend recommended I should check out British author Jill Mansell, and I can see why she thought I would like this. It's constructed sort of like Love Actually, with lots of intersecting plot lines, and of course it's full of adorably British people saying adorably British things. In theory, this ought to be right up my alley. In practice, it missed the mark.


Staying at Daisy's is about the father-daughter owners of a schmancy hotel in the Cotwolds, their staff, guests, lovers, and neighbors. There are a lot of characters. I didn't have trouble keeping track of who the characters were, but since several of the intersecting plots hinge on characters keeping secrets from one another, I did have trouble keeping track of who knew what.


All of those secrets were my biggest problem with the story. Not my confusion, but the fact that all of these characters were so dishonest with one another, keeping secrets and sneaking around. For me, that made it hard to like these people.


I also found many of the characters very flat and underdeveloped, likely because there were so many characters that, in the interests of space, the author sacrificed character development in order to move the plot. Unfortunately, if the characters aren't developed, I have trouble giving a fig what happens to them in the story.


Anyway, this just wasn't my cuppa.



Sigh. (not of the happy variety)

Season for Temptation - Theresa Romain

I struggled through this. I found the first three quarters of the book extremely slow and somewhat uncomfortable, and then the last quarter of the book moved very (too?) fast and was full of angst and melodrama. I enjoyed the heroine, Julia, who is always hungry and talks without thinking. She's honest and funny, but this story put her in a decidedly DIShonest, UNfunny situation: she is in love with her sister's fiance. While it's clear from the outset that the sister and James are not well-matched, everyone involved are good people with good motives, so it was uncomfortable reading about James and Julia's budding attraction, knowing the ultimate result would be the sister, Louisa's, betrayal.


The conflict with Louisa, which built and built throughout the story, ended up being resolved far too easily -- and then, as if Ms. Romain realized she'd shot her wad too soon, all of a sudden new obstacles started surfacing in every chapter, one after another, out of nowhere!


This is the first of a trilogy, but I don't think I'll read on.

Missed the Mark

Make Me: A Broke and Beautiful Novel - Tessa Bailey

I read this to finish out the series (and because I have to have something to do on the treadmill), but I was ultimately pretty disappointed. Russell and Abby are the last members of two complimentary friend groups. Russell's drinking buddies, Ben and Louis, paired up with Abby's roommates in the two preceding books. Early on, Russell and Abby friend-zoned each other, but now each hopes for more. But, because their communication skills suck, neither can admit it.


There were issues here which could have been interesting. Unlike his friends, their lovers, and Abby, he is an uneducated blue-collar worker. He's smart and ambitious -- he runs a successful construction company on the verge of expansion -- but he's never been to college and he wasn't raised with a summer home in the Hamptons, the way Abby and Louis were. He's especially sensitive to the class difference with Abby because his mother was a blue blood, "settled" for his blue collar dad, and came to tragically regret her choice.


On the other hand, Abby's always had tons of money, but it's only ever served to keep her apart from people. Her parents are cold and distant, her schoolmates were social climbing snobs, and her coworkers won't talk to her because she's the boss's daughter. She's always craved love and acceptance, not money. 


I am sensitive to class issues, and I like to read about characters who encounter and navigate class distinctions in believable, relatable ways -- so this book should have been right up my alley. Unfortunately, here Abby and Russell never really talk about this -- Russell just keeps being told to get over it, as if his anxieties are wrong or inappropriate.


Also, even more than in the previous book, Need Me, several of the plot twists thrown into this book to drag out the story are so unnecessary, and based on misunderstandings that could have been addressed if the main characters would just talk to each other like grown ups.


Finally, there's a villain in this story who doesn't get his comeuppance. I hate that.

Hero Ran Out of Chances for Forgiveness

Need Me - Tessa Bailey

Honey has a crush on her English Professor, Ben, but professors aren't allowed to date students at this college. Then, surprising exactly NO ONE (except Ben and Honey), Ben turns out to be Honey's roommate's boyfriend's best friend (because in a city as huge as NYC, of course he'd just happen to be the same Ben, right?). Once they're part of the same crowd, it's even harder to resist the attraction.


I struggled with this book -- well, with the last two books in the series -- because while the characters are good and the writing is snappy and entertaining, the plotting gave me whiplash. There's a conflict, and then just as it's about to be resolved, something else happens just to keep the plot moving and drag the book out a little longer (all three books are pretty short). Here, the thing that kept happening to create more conflict tended to be Ben misunderstanding Honey, getting pissed off and behaving like an ass, only to realize his mistake and have to fix it. Now, I can go with an honest misunderstanding and a good grovel or grand gesture to win back one's girl, but only one per book. In real life, if a guy ever screws up as badly and as often as Ben does, he needs to be out of chances.

Squicky Power Dynamic, and then the Ending Sucked.

The Chocolate Temptation - Laura Florand

The most memorable thing about this book is that I was reading it when I heard about the Parisian terror attacks earlier this month, which made it a more poignant experience (as it's set in Paris). Otherwise, this book fell a little flat. Sarah is a Korean-American interning under pastry chef Patrick Chevalier in Paris. She struggles with the weight of her family's expectations, particularly since she's given up a lucrative career as an engineer to bake sweets. With all that on her plate, the last thing she needs to juggle is the advances of her boss.


The fact that Patrick realizes and is uncomfortable about the uneven power dynamic between them doesn't keep him from making those advances. He's just so into her, he can't really help himself. He's constantly manipulating her to get an outcome that suits his benefit, and though he berates himself for being a perv, he continues to do it. Even realizing that this is fantasy, I couldn't get past that manipulative power and control dynamic to take much pleasure in this book.


And then the ending sucked.

An Uncomfortable Read

The Fifteenth Minute (The Ivy Years Book 5) - Sarina Bowen

I enjoyed this book (as I've enjoyed almost everything by Sarina Bowen), but I was uncomfortable with the premise. The hero, DJ, has been accused of sexual assault by another student at his school, and he's in limbo while the college figures out how to respond. He's not allowed in the residential halls or anywhere near his alleged victim, and he's going to classes knowing that at any time the school may expel him, but there's no criminal case pending and he knows very little about the allegations, except that as he remembers the encounter, it was very much consensual.


I'm a domestic and sexual violence prosecutor, and I was squicked out by the premise of this book because I know that, though in our rape-culture warped society, people think false allegations of rape are commonplace, but in reality, such claims are very, very rare. In fact, people are much, much more likely to be raped and NOT report than they are to report an assault that didn't happen.


Setting that major squick aside (which I was only able to do because I have a lot of faith in Sarina Bowen), I was interested in the story of DJ meeting a new girl and the difficulties of falling in love when he's got this major cloud (which he doesn't want to tell her about) hanging over his head. I also recognize that this book seeks to make a larger point about the flaws of allowing college administrations to handle sex assault investigations rather than law enforcement -- the results are inconsistent and unfair both to the accuser and the accused -- and that's a point worth making. When the truth came out about the incident that led to DJ's being accused, I was relieved that the accuser's "excuse" was sympathetic and that she was not just a crazy, lying bitch, but I still found this a very uncomfortable read.

I'm a Sucker for a Virgin Hero

The Game Plan (Game On Series Book 3) - Kristen Callihan

The description of this book -- virgin hero, sexually liberated heroine, sensitive man-bun-wearing beta hero in an alpha career (pro football player) -- was totally my catnip, and I was not disappointed. I really, really enjoyed this book (enough to glom the rest of the series within the next few days) while I was in the midst of it, and I still like it a lot even though, now that my rose-colored reading glasses are off, I can recognize that it has some serious problems.


Ethan Dexter, "Dex", is a 24-year-old virgin. How does that happen, exactly? I don't fully believe it, but I went with it for purposes of the story: first, he was a chubby late bloomer in high school (though, I know plenty of chubby late bloomers who managed to get laid in high school, even without the panache of being on the football team), and then he had an ugly (but not entirely believable) near-sex experience that put him off casual sex for good.


He has long had a crush on his buddy Gray's wife's little sister, Fiona. Fiona is a sassy, sexy, sophisticated spitfire who has very few sexual hangups. I'm pretty bored with the manwhore-tamed-by-virtuous-lady trope, but I enjoyed this gender flip of it. I liked that Dex was a virgin but that he wasn't repressed or naive in the way that most virginal heroines are.


Apart from Dex's over-ripe virginity, the main conflict in the story stems from the fact that Fiona lives in New York and Dex lives in New Orleans. I found the struggle with the long-distance relationship to be believable, if a little too easy for real life (distance is less of an issue when both parties in a relationship have tons of money, I guess).


My issues with the book stem from the subplots. First, Fiona has a rival at work who steals her ideas and gets credit from the boss. I suppose we've all known someone like this, so it was believable, but I'm never entertained by storylines that turn women into one-dimensional villains, which this subplot did. Second, Fiona and Dex take sexy photos of one another, and those photos get out, and as always happens, Fiona is the one to bear the brunt of the public scandal. Dex is mostly pretty stand-up about that, until, suddenly, he isn't. Again, I found that plot twist believable but disappointing: I just wish the book hadn't gone there.

Pacing problems bogged down an otherwise entertaining read

The Hook Up (Game On Book 1) - Kristen Callihan

I really liked The Game Plan (book 3 of this series) so I went back and glommed the two prior books, which I liked but not as well. This one has pacing problems. Anna and Drew share a class together, and their attraction is immediate. Soon after they meet, Anna agrees to hook up with Drew, but she's determined to keep it casual because of some self-esteem issues that weren't really fully fleshed out. Drew knows from the start that Anna's the girl for him (kind of insta-lovey, on his part), but he plays along with the casual sex because 1) he's always down for sex, and 2) he figures eventually it may grow into something more. It does, eventually, but Anna's prolonged resistance doesn't reflect well on her because it seems like she's using Drew and treating him pretty callously for a long while.


That early, "hook up" section of the book takes too long, and then things come to a head and they temporarily break up, and then they get back together -- but instead of ending when they get back together, the end of the book drags on, too. I think this probably would have been a full 4 or even 4.5 star read for me if the pacing weren't so uneven. The characters are mostly likeable (though it took me awhile to warm up to Anna), the plot believable, the dialogue very funny.

Another Typical NA Taming-the-Manwhore Sports Romance

The Friend Zone - Kristen Callihan

I don't follow football even a little bit, but I'm on a sports-romance kick and I inhaled this series, though I read them out of order, finishing with this one (the second of 3 so far). As with the other books in the series, I really enjoyed the pacing and the witty banter, especially the text messages the heroine, Ivy, and hero, Gray, exchange throughout the story. I do tire of the taming-of-a-manwhore trope so common in so many subgenres of romance, though, and this definitely fits in that category. I'm not sure exactly why I find it so tiresome. I'm not judgey about the sex, so long as the fella is respectful towards his many women. I think it's the one-sidedness of it, because these stories rarely involve an oversexed heroine as well as a manslut. No, she is almost inevitably comparatively pure and innocent, and her goodness shames the man into fidelity. I don't buy that. I can usually willingly suspend my disbelief for purposes of going along with the story, but there's nothing particularly interesting about the manwhore trope as it is usually done.

Deliciously Original Origin Story

Ninja At First Sight (Knitting in the City) - Penny Reid

This novella is a prequel origin story for Fiona and Greg, the main characters in Happily Even Ninja, slated for release early next year. As a teaser for that longer work, Ninja at First Sight definitely did the job of stirring up my excitement and making me invested in the characters. The novella is set at university in the mid-1990s, during Fiona's first year of college. Greg, at 23, back in school after serving in the Marines for several years, is more worldly and experienced in almost every way. However, despite her sheltered upbringing, Fiona is strong and smart and nobody's cupcake, which is the appeal both for Greg and for the reader. The dialogue is original, thought-provoking, and funny, and the romance brings the feels. The ending is kind of cliffhanger-y, but I forgave that knowing the novella is a teaser for the forthcoming book.