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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. 

Yes, Jill Shalvis is Formulaic -- But it's a Damn Good Formula

Still the One - Jill Shalvis

Even when I don't love Jill Shalvis, and even as I acknowledge there's a sameness to so many of her small town contemporaries, her books are still miles above and beyond so much of the others in the contemporary romance subgenre. She has a gift for snappy dialogue, well-paced story, and emotional nuance that makes her romances compelling even when they are a tad formulaic.


Still the One is the latest in Shalvis' Animal Magnetism series set in Sunshine, Idaho. The heroine, Darcy, is the younger sister of Wyatt, whom readers may recall as the hero of Then Came You (the previous book in the series). Darcy is recovering from a severe car accident that nearly left her unable to walk. The hero, AJ, is the physical therapist who kept working with Darcy even after her insurance ran out, and who is thus largely responsible for her recovery. AJ has had a thing for Darcy since well before her accident, but she has childhood abandonment issues that make her resist love and commitment.


Nothing really stood out for me in this read as new or different or particularly earth-shattering, but what I'm coming to appreciate about Shalvis (as I search for other contemporary artists and series to enjoy) is how effortlessly entertaining her books are. The characters are almost always likeable, the conflict is always sympathetic and believable, the plot doesn't drag or skate, and the romance is almost universally satisfying.

Rambly Plot, Heroine with Baggage, Flat Hero with an Annoying Dialogue Tic

Bringing Home the Bad Boy - Jessica Lemmon

I'm trying out new-to-me contemporary authors/series, having run myself out of favorites (Jill Shalvis, Ruthie Knox, Jennifer Crusie, Mary Ann Rivers), and this is another one to chalk up to the "Meh" category. I liked the concept -- grieving widow, after a respectful mourning period, falls for late wife's best friend -- but I found the plot dragged down with a lot of repetitive scenes hashing out the heroine's insecurities (and she has many, many insecurities -- body issues, abandonment issues, daddy issues, grief issues, trust issues, etc.), and I found the hero to be a flat, static character who didn't seem to have much emotional depth (though I appreciated both his grief and his readiness to move on from his late wife).


Also, the hero had a dialogue tic that made me crazy: he makes declarative statements with no subject. "Not going anywhere. Not giving you a break." "The hell you talking about?" "Gotta tuck you in, baby." Now, I'm not such a stickler that I get all shirty when someone says offhandedly, "Love you, babe," instead of "I love you," but in this book, everything Evan said was a sentence fragment with no subject pronoun, and sometimes it was confusing as to whether the missing subject should have been "I" or "You" or something else entirely. I found it distracting and annoying.

A Marriage of Inconvenience

Four Nights With the Duke - Eloisa James

Once again, I let a week slip by before writing my review, and suddenly I have no idea what I meant to say. I enjoyed this book very much, although the end let me down a little bit.


Mia and Vander have both lived with scandal. Their parents' long-running extramarital affair was an open secret, even before they perished together in an inn fire. That same fire that killed Mia's father and Vander's mother also took Mia's brother and sister-in-law, leaving her to care for her young nephew, who is lame because of a club foot. Mia has always loved the boy (indeed, more than his own parents), but unless she marries within a year of her brother's death, the child's physical and financial well being will be entrusted to an unscrupulous, villainous guardian. Mia was on track to marry, but then her fiance jilted her at the altar a month before the one year deadline, leaving her in desperate straits. Consequently, she turns to Vander, her childhood crush turned the author of her most stinging humiliation, because though she doesn't like him, she knows he will marry her: he has to, because she has a letter that threatens his fortune and title. (Mia's actually a very nice girl who would never turn to blackmail except to save a child.)


Furious at the blackmail scheme, Vander agrees, but only with the understanding that he will only share his bed with Mia four nights a year (the bare minimum he considers necessary to get an heir). Foolish boy, he fails to consider that his own libido would prove much, much stronger than Mia's, and Vander suffers under their bargain more than she.


I enjoyed the sparks between the couple as their enmity shifted to attraction and ultimately to love, until the ending, which was a little angsty for my tastes.

Milquetoast Heroine, Douchey Hero, Stereotypical Villainness, Boring Plot

When Lightning Strikes - Brenda Novak

I'm in the market for a new contemporary romance author / series... and it looks like Brenda Novak's Whiskey Creek books are not going to fit the bill. I picked this one up on sale a month or so ago at the recommendation of Smart Bitches Trashy Books (I think), but I struggled to get through When Lightning Strikes. I usually enjoy a good marriage of convenience plot, but I really struggled to connect with both the hero and heroine in this book. The hero was kind of a jerk (though he improved with sobriety), the heroine was very milquetoast, and the plot just seemed to drag. 


I hated that the villain of the story is the hero's ex-wife. Yes, divorce brings out the worst in people, and yes, there are plenty of real-life women who behave badly, but reading about fictional women behaving badly pushes all of my Feminist Rage Buttons because these stories needlessly perpetuate the worst stereotypes about women.

Simple Jess - Pamela Morsi

I've fallen behind in my reviews, so this is just a quicky:


The folksy/backwoods Appalachian dialect in this made me crazy and diminished my enjoyment of the story (even though I recognize it was well done). I did enjoy the premise, though--widow forced to remarry chooses the town simpleton. Intelligence is such a basic requirement of romance heroes, it was frankly amazing to read a book with a romantic protagonist who, as a result of a birth defect, has a significant cognitive disability. I also admire how Jess's disability was portrayed. He does not feel self-pity (though he does occasionally get frustrated by his limitations, such as the ability to find the right words to express himself, especially when stressed), and for the most part, the heroine doesn't pity him, either. The plot is well crafted so that the romance between the two is believable, and not just that Jess is the least objectionable among several bad candidates for Anthea's groom. 

My Son is Quacking Himself To Sleep Tonight

Make Way for Ducklings - Robert McCloskey

My wife's childhood copy of this classic arrived in our house a few months ago when my father-in-law moved house. Tonight, my four-year-old pulled it out of the bookshelf for the first time. He looked at it and started to put it back when I stopped him. 


"Why not that one?" I asked. 


"It looks boring. There's no colors [in the pictures]," he complained. 


I assured him that Make Way for Ducklings is a pretty great book even without colored pictures. I told him that I remembered that story from when I was little, and that Papa and Grammy probably remembered it from when they were little, too, because it's an old story, but so good that people keep telling it. 


He brought it up to bed and agreed we should give it a try. He liked that all the quacking and the way the policemen helped the ducks cross the street, and he was excited when I told him that we can go to Boston and see the duck sculpture in the Public Gardens.


When I tucked him in and left him for the night, he was quacking himself to sleep...

Pretty Good, Until the Hero Got All Butthurt

Seven Nights in a Rogue's Bed (Sons of Sin) - Anna Campbell

I read the novella Her Christmas Earl over the holidays, and liked it well enough to check out some of Anna Campbell's full length books. I started with Seven Night's in a Rogue's Bed because it was already in my TBR, no doubt due to some sale or recommendation a long time hence. I found this story very readable and entertaining, though parts of it annoyed me considerably. 


The Set Up:  Jonas Merrick is a brooding bastard who has made it his life's ambition to take revenge on the cousin who scarred his face and stole his title. He lures his cousin's wife, Roberta, into an Indecent Proposal at the gaming table: having played too deep, she must now spend seven nights with Jonas. Upon learning of the terrible bet, Roberta's sister, Sidonie, offers herself to Jonas instead. Determined never to marry, Sidonie is willing to sacrifice her innocence to save Roberta's life, because Roberta's husband is an evil, violent man who would kill his wife if he learned she fulfilled her bargain. 


The good: I enjoy Campbell's writing style. She sets the scene very well and the pacing moves right along, unlike some authors who tend to drag out background detail so much that the story drags and then gloss over the good parts. I also enjoyed this plot, which took a lot of familiar tropes -- the gothic castle, the scarred hero with the tortured past, the hero in pursuit, the wrongful arrest, even

the secret baby

(show spoiler)

! -- and took them in new and sometimes unexpected directions. Finally, I liked the gender flip of the afraid-of-commitment trope: here, the heroine, not the hero, was determined to avoid marriage. 


The bad: On several occasions, the hero and heroine behaved in ways I felt were melodramatic and not in keeping with their characters, and that diminished my overall enjoyment of the story. The heroine had one such moment where her behavior crossed the line into too-stupid-to-live territory and was completely irrational, though she was otherwise a reasonable, intelligent, and sympathetic character. (For details, click:

Overset by her physical response to some heavy-petting, and afraid her arousal would overcome her determination not to be seduced, Sidonie runs out into a November rain storm in her nightrail in the middle of a dark and stormy night, and nearly falls off a cliff into the ocean. The hero comes after her, realizes he loves her and needs to slow down the seduction routine because he's freaking her out, so after he brings her back to the house and warms her up, he withdraws. Sidonie then gets upset that he's keeping his distance, where not an hour before she literally fled from him in terror.

(show spoiler)


The hero has a similar bout of out-of-character irrationality, one which really soured the last quarter of the book for me and brought my rating down at least one star. Sidonie has kept a secret from him --

she has proof that he is legitimate, not a bastard

(show spoiler)

-- which she keeps for an extremely sympathetic reason, and which she reveals under circumstances which literally save Jonas's life. It's a pretty big secret, so I'd have been okay with him being pretty mad ... for a few days or until they have the kind of conversation that grown ups in relationships have after fights. Instead, he gets all butthurt and behaves like a total douchecanoe, cutting off all contact with Sidonie

until he finds out she's pregnant, forces her to marry him, and then insists he wants a marriage in name only

(show spoiler)

. I might have been more sympathetic to his cause, but it seems to me that a guy who trapped a married woman into infidelity in a card game doesn't have a whole lot of moral high ground to stand on. 


I also found the sex scenes to tend toward purple prose. That's a minor quibble for me since I tend to skim the smexy parts anyway, especially in historical romance, but I know that makes some people crazy... so fair warning. 

Not Just for Girls

Players In Pigtails - Shana Corey, Rebecca Gibbon

Full disclosure -- my college friend and housemate wrote this, so I might be a teensy bit biased. 


If you've seen A League of Their Own, you probably know that when American men went off in droves to fight WWII, American women stepped up to the plate (literally) to save America's Pastime, baseball. Players in Pigtails tells the story of baseball-crazy Katie Casey, who is one of hundreds of girls who tried out for (and made) the All American Girls Professional Baseball League in the 1940s. The story follows Katie's journey from her frustrations at home, failing at home ec and other "womanly" pursuits, to Chicago to try out for the new league, to the league's efforts to make "players in pigtails" more palatable to the public by making sure the girls of the GPBL were very ladylike.


My sons, ages 2 and 4, both really like this book, so don't make the mistake of thinking it's only for girls! The illustrations are whimsical and endearing, though I do have one pet peeve: in the last scene, Katie hits a grand slam home run -- but in the picture that accompanies the text, there are no base runners on the pitch, only fielders!


A Disappointing Sequel (As Sequels So Often Are...)

First Frost - Sarah Addison Allen

I loved Garden Spells, so I was thrilled to learn that Sarah Addison Allen's latest novel would return to finish the story of the Waverley family. While it was pleasant to check in with the characters from the first book, First Frost fell flat, as sequels so often do. First Frost is set about ten years after the events of Garden Spells, and revisits all of the main characters from that book: caterer Claire Waverley, now ten years' married and with a daughter who seems to share none of the Waverley's magic; Claire's sister Sydney, happily married to Henry but frustrated by her inability to give him a son; Sydney's daughter Bay, now a teenager in love with the last person her mother would choose for her; and cousin Evanelle, who even in her dotage still knows exactly what everyone needs. However, while First Frost is perfectly entertaining and consistent with the prior story, it's just too... easy. All of the characters have their own conflicts, all loosely woven together to advance the central plot, and all of their conflicts are neatly wrapped up in a final culmination set in the Waverley's back garden, in the shadow of the family's mysterious apple tree (which blossoms at first frost, rather than in the spring).


This was true of Garden Spells, too -- the same narrative structure, the same neat resolution of the various plot conflicts, the final scene set in the same garden -- but the first time, it was new. The second time, it feels like a pale reflection of the first book, not as engaging, not as compelling, a pretty picture devoid of substance.


Fans of Garden Spells will be entertained, but First Frost doesn't bring anything new to the table.

Cheesy, Campy Catnip!!!

The Pirate's Secret Baby - Darlene Marshall

This is the second time one of Darlene Marshall's pirate-themed historicals have languished in my TBR, untouched, for such a long time, and when I finally get around to reading it, I've thought, "This is awesome! Why did I wait so long?!" Don't be fooled by the campy titles and cheezy covers: these books are really good. Yes, they're campy -- by design. Darlene Marshall knows and exploits all of the tropes of her genre -- this story has a secret baby (now a winsome eight-year-old plot moppet), a straight-laced plain jane governess, a cocksure pirate captain who is secretly an English lord -- but while you've probably read all this before, you've never read it the way Marshall does it: frothy and fun, yes, but also smart and surprising and very, very well-written.


If, like me, you have one or two of these books buried in your TBR, languishing because you can't remember what you were thinking when you added something so cheesy to your cart, do yourself a favor and give it a try. You won't be sorry.

Office Romance Phones it In...

Her Favorite Rival - Sarah Mayberry

I really liked the companion novella to this book, Her Favorite Temptation, but Her Favorite Rival was just "meh." Audrey and Zach are colleagues in a big corporation that has something to do with selling hardware. When the company brings in a scary new CEO known for cutting jobs, Audrey and Zach know their jobs are on the line. It's the worst possible time to dip one's pen in the company ink, and yet their growing mutual attraction becomes ever more impossible to ignore.


I found this plot very slow moving. I understood why Audrey and Zach would be reluctant to get together; I just found it very hard to care. Personally, I could never thrive in a corporate environment, and I have no interest in climbing corporate ladders, so I really struggled to get into a story set in that world with people whose motivations are so different from my own.


(Not sure what's up with the blank cover. There's a sort of soft-focusy brunette couple smiling at each other in bed on the cover of mine.)

Most Overrated Children's Author: Eric Carle

The Very Quiet Cricket - Eric Carle Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? - Eric Carle, Bill Martin Jr. The Very Hungry Caterpillar - Eric Carle Papa, Please Get the Moon for Me (The World of Eric Carle) - Eric Carle The Tiny Seed - Eric Carle By Eric Carle Little Cloud - Eric Carle

I have a theory: all the socks that disappear in the dryer magically reappear, through some mystical household alchemy, as Eric Carle board books. It's the only explanation for why my kids have so many of them, because Lord knows would never buy a single one of these books, much less the dozen or so that populate my sons' bookcase. 


Until I became a mom, I didn't have any opinion of Eric Carle. I'd read The Very Hungry Caterpillar and had seen the Caterpillar-related marketing (stuffed animals and the like) at book stores and toy stores, and maybe thought "oh how sweet" if I thought much of anything at all. 


Now, though? Now that I have read The Very Boring Quiet Cricket to my baby again and again (not nearly as entertained as baby is by the "surprise" ending), and suffered through the insufferably bratty and entitled protagonist of Papa please get the moon for me, and gritted my teeth through countless rehashing of The Tiny Seed's and Little Cloud's metamorphoses, I have a very strong, very visceral opinion about Eric Carle. Even the formerly-innocuous Hungry Caterpillar and Brown Bear set my teeth on edge. The pictures are okay, but the text is so interminably boring. 


Other parents, grandparents, teachers, aunts, uncles, big siblings, baby sitters: am I alone in this? Or, if you don't share my hatred of Eric Carle, who would you nominate for "Most Overrated Children's Author"? 



DNF at 28%

Whatever You Like - Maureen Smith

I picked this up because I was intrigued by the recent review at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, because I have a weakness for the escort/courtesan/prostitute as protagonist trope, and because it was on sale. After starting it, I was briefly even more intrigued to learn the protagonists are African American (which you'd never know from the pasty pale headless couple on the book cover).


Alas, even with all that intrigue, this was not for me. On their first date, Lena lays the ground rules: she is paid for companionship, not sex. Roderick ignores this, corners her in an alcove, fondles her, and then has dubiously-consensual sex with her in the limo while bringing her home.


She says that was a mistake and she doesn't want to see him again. Two weeks later, he shows up at her day job (not the escort job that the day job supervisors obviously don't know about, and by this point the reader knows she works two jobs because she's supporting an elderly grandparent and her layabout little sister, as well as herself) having already ingratiated himself with her boss. He takes her to lunch, and basically tells her he'll give her employer (not even her personally!) a half million dollars if she agrees to be his sex slave for for three weeks. If she says no, no deal, and what is she supposed to tell her boss?


I don't know what Lena did when faced with this dilemma (though I can guess), because that was where I call foul.


Whatever You Like buys into the fallacy famously presented by Fifty Shades and its ilk that stalking and sexual coercion is okay, sexy even, if the man doing it is a handsome billionaire. There's a meme making the social media rounds:

I work with domestic and sexual violence victims, and this kind of behavior is not sexy no matter who does it, and life is too short to read this crap for "entertainment."



Fans of Blue Collar Romance, Take Note!

Animal Magnetism - Jill Shalvis

I really enjoyed this first book in Jill Shalvis' Animal Magnetism series. Like her better known Lucky Harbor series, these are small town contemporary romances full of appealing characters, snappy dialogue, fast-paced plots. Animal Magnetism is set in Sunshine, Idaho, which is a less touristy, white-picket-fency kind of place than Lucky Harbor, Washington (a good change, in my opinion).


Lilah runs an animal kennel and shelter. She's alone in the world after the death of the grandmother that raised her, but she has very good friends, including her ex-boyfriend and business partner, Cruz, and Adam and Dell, the veterinarians who run the animal center next door. Adam and Dell are brothers who invite Brady, who was their foster brother when they were teens, back to town to help them fix up an old helicopter which they intend to use for search and rescue calls and veterinary visits to Idaho's remote mountain ranches.


Brady and Lilah have instant, and believable, chemistry, but for the first part of the book they're at cross purposes because Brady doesn't plan to stick around once the helicopter is ready, and even though Lilah says she knows that and is only looking for a fling, he sees her life in the house where she grew up, working in the town where she grew up, still good friends with her few exes, and thinks that whatever she may say, nothing about Lilah is temporary. Plus, there's the fact that Adam and Dell consider Lilah an honorary little sister, and much as they love Brady, they don't take kindly to the idea that he'd mess around with her.


As time goes on, however, Brady comes to find that maybe putting down roots and making a home somewhere is not such a bad idea. It's not only his growing feelings for Lilah that change his mind, but also his brotherly affection for Dell and Adam, his respect for their business and the fact that there's a place for him in it. Also, he takes in a stray dog, an arrangement that was also supposed to be temporary, but soon comes to realize he doesn't want to give the puppy up. From there, it's only a short leap to realize he doesn't want to give Lilah and his foster brothers up, either, which paves the way for Happily Ever After.


I love blue collar heroes and heroines, and books that handle class issues in a way that is believable and empathetic without exploiting a character's poverty for tragic effect, and I really enjoyed that aspect of this book. Lilah, Dell, Brady, and Adam all grew up poor, and Lilah still struggles every month to juggle her bills and keep her house in reasonably good repair, but that's just a fact of life. It's not a source of sympathy or plot conflict, and there's no billionaire here to bail her out. Instead, she's using her smarts and her own hard work to build a successful business, with the help of friends, and maybe she'll succeed and maybe she won't -- and that, too, is just a fact of life.

Cinderella Story Triggered My Infidelity Squick

A Kiss at Midnight - Eloisa James

This is a retelling of the Cinderella story, and is on sale for $2.99 (kindle), so I picked it up. I'm always entertained by fairy-tale trope romances, so I'm glad I read this, but it wasn't enough to get me out of my historical romance slump.


Kate is the granddaughter of an Earl, but when her mother died, her father waited a whole fortnight before marrying again, and then he promptly died himself. His widow, the wicked stepmother, had relegated Kate to a glorified servant while heaping all of the wealth on herself and her daughter, the (not-so) evil stepsister, and allowing the estate to be badly mismanaged. When the stepsister suffers an accident, the stepmother forces Kate to impersonate her (the sister) by going to meet a prince whose approval is necessary for the stepsister's marriage to her beloved.


Kate meets the Prince, who is awaiting the arrival of his betrothed, a Russian princess whose dowry will fund his lavish lifestyle and, more importantly, his scholarly pursuits. He and Kate clash initially, but this is one of those books that employs what Sarah Wendell at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books likes to call the "I don't wanna like you, I can't stop thinking about your hair DAMMIT" trope. Tempers clash, sparks fly.


My problem with the book is that much as I love angsty romance where there's some good, nearly insurmountable reason why the lovers can't be together, I'm majorly squicked out in historical romance when heroes seduce a lady to whom they're not able to commit. Contemporary girls can sleep around all they like, and that's fine with me, but in a historical setting, it's just dishonorable to risk a woman's reputation that way. So, much as I enjoyed the chemistry and the bantering between Kate and Gabriel, I couldn't root for them to get together because Gabriel was promised to a perfectly nice girl who'd come all the way to England to marry him and give him all her money, and it's just wrong of Gabriel to be sniffing around Kate's skirts in those circumstances.


I couldn't get over that squick enough to enjoy the story, but a lot of readers will find much to love about this book.


Not My Kink, Not My Cuppa

Looking for Trouble - Victoria Dahl

Victoria Dahl has written several contemporaries that I've really enjoyed, but generally I think her books try too hard to be sexy and edgy when it doesn't really fit with the plot. I'd probably have rated this at least another star if the sex scenes hadn't turned me off.


Sophie and Alex are complete opposites. She's a good girl librarian, he's a bad boy biker. She takes care of people -- her dad, her brother, her friends -- and he runs from responsibility. She's never left Wyoming; he left and never came home again. They have only two things in common: insane sexual chemistry, and a shared childhood tragedy that happened with Alex's dad disappeared with Sophie's mother.


Sophie has grown up in the shadow of this mystery, dealing not only with her mother's abandonment, but the silent (and not so silent) judgment of the townspeople, who she feels are just waiting for her to show her true colors and turn out to be just as much a fallen woman as her mother. Consequently, she keeps her sex life very much on the down low.


Alex returns to town for the first time in ages at the urging of his brother, who needs help taking care of their mentally ill mother. He's home only reluctantly, and his presence becomes only slightly less grudging when he and Sophie discover the aforementioned sexual chemistry. 


I really like small town contemporaries (since I live in a small town myself), and I liked how this book understood how gossip really never dies in a small town and how judgey people can be. I liked the idea of Sophie and Alex sharing almost nothing except this twenty-year-old mystery. I liked Sophie's appetite for and liberated approach to sex, even as I understood why she felt the need to keep it quiet.


I didn't like Alex, and I didn't like the sex scenes. Alex has several opportunities to do the right thing -- help his mom, help his brother, stick up for Sophie -- and over and over again, he doesn't. He doesn't get a clue until the very end of the story, by which point I'd given up on him.


I didn't like the sex because I don't have a humiliation kink. I get that some people maybe like being called a slut and a whore during sex. I'm not one of them. I love a heroine who can enjoy sex, but those labels just turn me right the hell off.