Monday, March 31, 2014

Her Kind of Trouble

Her Kind of Trouble
By Sarah Mayberry
Publisher: Harlequin 
Release Date: April 1, 2014

Vivian Walker and Seth Anderson meet at a dinner the night before the wedding of her older sister Jodie and his older brother Jason. Their attraction is immediate, and, almost as quickly, they discover how much they have in common. They are both young enough to still be in the process of discovering who they are, they both have big dreams (she of see her designs on Paris runways, he of his band, Skunk Punk, making it big), and they are both free spirits who are loved but not understood by their conventional families. When they are warned away from one another, surrendering to temptation become irresistible. They leave the wedding reception to share some champagne, a joint, and incredible sex on the backseat of a limousine.  But since they both have big plans for their lives and a romantic entanglement could become awkward because of their family connection, they agree that it just one night to remember.

 “Listen, Seth…I had a great time. But just so you know, I’m not really looking for anything. I’ve got a lot going on with my studies, I’ve got a graduate show to prepare for…”She trailed off awkwardly.
He was silent for a long moment, his expression unreadable. “So, what, this was just one night of the best limo-monkey-sex ever, no strings attached?”
She couldn’t tell if he was pissed or not. He didn’t sound pissed, but there was something about the way he was holding himself that made her a little nervous.
“That’s another way of putting it.”
He grinned hugely, his posture and expression relaxing. “I knew you were my kind of girl when I met you, Vivian Walker.”
For ten years they meet only occasionally at family gatherings, enjoying a little light flirting when they see one another but going on with their lives, including romantic relationships. Vivian spends most of that period in the United States, accepting that she’s not going to become an internationally acclaimed fashion designer but finding her niche as a professional stylist. Seth’s band goes the way of most rock bands of limited talent and luck, and he becomes the owner of a successful Melbourne bar, Night Howls.  They are both in their thirties when Vivian decides she misses home and family and returns to Melbourne to set up a business with a friend.
Vivian is amazed when she learns that Seth and an ex-girlfriend are about to come parents, and she’s furious when she finds out that Seth has questioned her fitness to become co-guardian to their young nephews if anything should happen to Jodie and Jason. But she proves herself the friend Seth needs when he has to confront an unthinkable tragedy and make life-altering decisions. Soon hearts and libidos are on full alert, but Vivian and Seth have to be honest with themselves and with one another if they are to be more than an unfinished chapter in one another’s lives.
I always approach a Sarah Mayberry book with anticipation and delight, but I admit that after reading the first chapter if this one, I was ready to give it a miss. It was well-written, but it gave me the feeling that I sometimes get when I am a party to my nieces’ TMI conversations or that I used to experience when my composition students wrote in full confessional mode: I don’t need to hear this. However, since Her Kind of Trouble was an ARC for review, I persisted. And I’m happy I did because the book turned out to be the kind of richly nuanced, slowly developing relationship story I love, the kind that has made Mayberry one of my favorite authors.
Vivian and Seth engaged my interest and won my heart. Their HEA left me with a smile and a tear and an unshakable conviction that these two people were perfect for one another. I can see them growing older together, still laughing and learning together. It’s this kind of story with this kind of conclusion that keeps me reading romance fiction. If you enjoy contemporary romance, you can’t do better than a Sarah Mayberry book. I highly recommend Her Kind of Trouble.

Everyone who posted about favorite category authors last week mentioned Sarah Mayberry. She really is an extraordinary writer. Have you read her books? What’s your favorite?

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Saturday Review: Winning Over Skylar

Winning Over Skylar
By Julianna Morris
Publisher: Harlequin
Release Date:
April 1, 2014

Skylar Naples was an eighteen-year-old filled with regret over some bad choices and ashamed of being the daughter of the town drunks. Skylar Gibson hasn’t been that person in fourteen years. She is now a widow, the mother of an almost-fourteen-year-old daughter, and the proprietor of the Gibson Nibble Nook, a prosperous short-order restaurant located almost at the gates of Cooperton, California’s biggest business, Cooper Industries. Jimmie Gibson and his parents loved her and encouraged her and helped her grow into the confident, assertive woman she is, and almost a year after Jimmie’s death, Skylar still misses him and the life they built together. She is fiercely protective of her daughter, Karin, who is still grieving the loss of her father. Skylar would prefer to avoid Aaron Hollister, a bad memory from her past, but she is not intimidated by him or his wealth. She remembers him as a “jackass of major proportions,” and his arrogant, dictatorial mismanagement of his new responsibilities gives her no reason to change her mind.

Aaron Hollister is not happy to have succeeded his grandfather as CEO of Cooper Industries, but as the only grandchild of the grandparents who taken him in after he had spent his early years being shuffled between his divorced parents and various other relatives, he feels obligated to try to bring the business into the twenty-first century and into the black now that his eighty-plus-year-old grandfather has retired. He also never expected to find himself responsible for his sixteen-year-old half-sister, Melanie. Aaron is the eldest and Melanie next-to-the-youngest of S. S. Hollister’s eight children by seven different ex-wives, and the two don’t know each other very well. But Aaron cares about his sister enough to agree when her mother asks him to take Melanie for the school year. He’s not sure how to deal with a teenager, but he is convinced that Skylar, whom he remembers as a “smart-mouthed, trouble-making high-school dropout,” is not an appropriate role model for his sister.   

When Skylar, who has inherited her husband’s position on the Cooperton City Council, is given the responsibility, over her protests, of hearing Aaron’s proposal to expand Cooper Industries, the two cannot avoid each other’s company. Clashes over business ideas are compounded by more personal clashes when Melanie decides to “divorce” her parents so that she can move in with Karin and Skylar. Then just as Skylar and Aaron reach a degree of understanding over these issues, Aaron learns that Karin could be his daughter, and all the relationships become immensely more complicated.

Julianna Morris takes some of the most frequently used tropes in category romance and gives them a fresh twist in the first book of her Those Hollister Boys series. Skylar and Aaron really were bad news in high school, not merely misunderstood kids. She was a rebellious rule-breaker headed for trouble, and he was a privileged jerk who destroyed the vestiges of Skylar’s reputation just to impress his buddies. It’s really a misnomer to label this novel a reunion story or a second-chance-at-love story. Skylar and Aaron were never star-crossed lovers torn apart by forces greater than themselves, and they have not spent fourteen years apart remembering their time together as an idyll and longing to be together. They were two kids controlled by hormones and the appeal of the forbidden. They grew up and got on with their lives when they parted, and the impressions they carried of each other are overwhelmingly negative.

Skylar matures first because of her commitment to creating a good life for her child, with the transition eased first by the help of the Gibsons and later by her happy marriage to Jimmie Gibson. I particularly liked the fact that she and Jimmie love one another and that he accepts Karin without reservations as his child. Aaron learns to be responsible, but it is only when he falls for Skylar, realizes how much he cares for his sister, and opens his heart to his daughter that he adds compassion and empathy to his strong sense of duty and become the man Skylar loves.

I like romances with realistic roots, and Winning Over Skylar satisfies this criteria. Also, not only Skylar and Aaron but all the other characters from the two girls to the senior Gibsons, Aaron’s contradictory father, and the citizens of Cooperton are interesting people who are more than cardboard figures. This was my first book by Julianna Morris, but I have already noted that the story of Aaron’s brother Matt will be released on July 1. And I’ll be checking out her backlist.

What’s the last book you read that sent you looking for the author’s backlist?

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Bonus Review: More Than She Expected

More Than She Expected
By Karen Templeton
Publisher: Harlequin 
(Special Edition)
Release Date: 
March 18, 2014

Laurel Kent never planned on being pregnant and single, but she’s fathoms deep in love with her unborn child and reasonably confident that, with a little help from the grandmother who reared her, she can care for her baby. She bought a house before she knew of her pregnancy, and her work as a writer allows her to work from home. That’s a plus for a single mother, but it also means that Laurel lives a rather isolated life. Perhaps that’s why she loses her heart to the friendly mutt next door who pays her visits and seeks sanctuary from a storm in her arms, but as appealing as the mutt and his hot, younger owner are, the owner is clearly marked “Proceed with Caution.” And his penchant for giggly, young blondes makes clear Laurel is not his type. Still, a woman can enjoy the scenery without putting her heart in jeopardy—or can she?

Tyler Noble is just being a good neighbor when he persuades Laurel Kent to let him rebuild the wall between their properties. He has the necessary skills, it’s the best way to keep his dog in his yard, and it’s no big deal. But soon he spending way too much time with Laurel, thinking about her far too often, and settling into a relationship he’s just not ready for. Tyler is not ready to make a commitment to someone else until he figures out who he is. And with his history of an unknown father, a mother who surrendered her parental rights when Tyler was ten, and an adopted family who loved him but never managed to convince Tyler he really belonged, he still has a lot of baggage to work through. But if he isn’t careful, he may lose his best chance for the life he really wants.

Karen Templeton has done it again. She has given readers a story high in believability with characters who have a high likeability quotient and layers of internal conflict, a story that quietly seduces the reader into a full engagement with these characters that lasts until the last obstacle to the HEA is removed and a blissful conclusion leaves her happily sighing. I loved the interaction between Laurel and Tyler, and I loved all the family dynamic. From the new born to the retirement home resident, I found the characters interesting and endearing.

Templeton’s stories are not filled with high adventure, kickass protagonists, or smoking hot love scenes. But if you like your contemporary romance filled with characters you care about involved in situations in which your friends and neighbors might find themselves, nobody crafts this kind of story better than Karen Templeton. I’ve been a fan for years, and More Than She Expected is just another reminder of why I never miss a Templeton book. This is the second in her Jersey Boys series, and I recommend both books.

Some romance readers can be real snobs about category romance, but that attitude prevents them from discovering some of the consistently best writers in the genre. Do you read category romance? Who are your favorite category authors?

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Tuesday Review: Come Home to Me

Come Home to Me
By Brenda Novak
Publisher: Harlequin Mira
Release Date: March 25, 2014

The Presley Christensen who returns to Whiskey Creek after a two-year absence is a responsible adult, not the scared, angry, rebel who ran away from her scarred childhood, her mother’s death, and a man who couldn’t love her as much as she loved him. She found a dangerous escape in drugs, but she is clean now and committed to giving her young son Wyatt a safe, secure, love-filled life very different from her experience.  Now a certified massage therapist, she is struggling to get her yoga/massage business started and looking forward to spending more time with her sister, Cheyenne Amos (When Snow Falls).  The last thing she expects or wants is to see Aaron Amos back in Whiskey Creek too. His presence makes it harder to keep a secret she is protecting.

Aaron Amos has also changed in two years. The Amos brothers’ hard work has paid off with a body shop business successful enough to expand, and Aaron is looking forward to moving to Reno and setting up shop there. He is looking forward to the challenge and to a new life in a place where everyone is quick to write him off as one of those wild Amos boys. Guilt has plagued Aaron ever since the night Pressley left town, guilt for hurting her and for failing to be what she needed him to be. He’s pleased to see her back and doing well, but he wants a chance to voice his regrets and seek her forgiveness. And the more she tries to avoid him, the more determined he is to have that conversation.

Complicated is an understatement when it comes to the relationship between Pressley and Aaron. As if their own pasts and Pressley’s secret were not enough, there is the additional tangle of Cheyenne being married to Aaron’s brother and a new wrinkle there. It is clear as soon as Pressley and Aaron see one another again that their chemistry is as volatile as ever. But he can’t wait to leave Whiskey Creek, and she is finding unexpected pleasure in becoming part of the community. Pressley is also leery of risking her heart again. She has too much to lose.

Brenda Novak sets her Whiskey Creek series apart from the dozens of other small-town romances being published by creating darker stories with edgier characters with problems that are not commonly seen in romance. She stays true to the pattern and even notches the difference up several degrees with this sixth installment in the series.

Both Pressley and Aaron had troubled childhoods, and they both made some bad choices. Seeing their hard-won maturity and their on-going efforts to reclaim their lives makes it easy to like them and to root for their second chance to include reconciliation and a chance for the family life they both missed out on as children. I enjoyed their story.

I was less happy with the secondary story thread involving Cheyenne. I loved When Snow Falls, and it has continued to be my favorite book in the series. I’m being vague to avoid spoilers, but I was really bothered by Cheyenne’s actions in this book. My concerns kept this book from being a top read for me. Nevertheless, I am invested in the Whiskey Creek characters and particularly eager to see Eve arrive at her HEA.

If you enjoy small-town romances with a difference and applaud authors who are not afraid to take a few risks, I think you will like Come Home to Me.

One of the delights of reading series for me is confirmation that the HEAs from earlier books in the series are ongoing. This book ruffled my complacency about an HEA and left me an unhappy reader. What do you think about complications added to a previously established HEA?

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Tuesday Review: Between the Devil and Ian Eversea

Between the Devil and Ian Eversea

By Julie Anne Long

Publisher: Avon

Release Date:

March 25, 2014

With her brother killed in the War of 1812 and her parents killed in a carriage accident, Titania “Tansy” Danforth has journeyed from New York, where she has lived from the age of eight, to England, the land of her birth, where she is prepared to marry a titled gentleman to whom her cousin and guardian, the Duke of Falconbridge will introduce her. Possessing wealth and a beauty that leaves men stunned, Tansy seems to be the perfect candidate for an impressive marriage, a future that she herself anticipates since she is eager to have her own home. She has a list of qualities she’d like in a husband, and she shares it with her guardian. The Duke of Falconbridge is confident that his ward will have many suitors, but he is determined that Ian Eversea, his only unmarried brother-in-law, not be among them.

Ian is preparing to leave Pennyroyal Green, not for a jaunt to London but for an extended journey in the style of Miles Redmond to China, India, Africa, and Brazil. In the meantime, he occupies himself in the beds of women who understand that his staying power is limited to his sexual performance and not to any pledges of lasting affection. He has no interest in innocent misses, although he is highly incensed that Falconbridge finds it necessary to warn him away from his American ward.

Despite the joint efforts of all the Everseas but one to prevent it, Tansy eventually encounters Ian. Even before she knows his name, she is aware of him in a startlingly self-conscious way. When she actually meets him, her response is more overwhelming: “All the things she felt in his presence felt too large to contain, too new to name. And it was this, perhaps, she’d been waiting for her entire life.” Ian is less impressed. He admits Tansy is “very pretty,” but he writes her off as “vapid” and an “awkward ingénue.”  The two will spend considerable time in barbed conversations, with distrust on Ian’s part and a combination of fascination and dislike on Tansy’s, but as they slowly reveal the real person beneath the roles they have assumed, their feelings for one another deepen. Falconbridge’s opposition may be one barrier to a relationship between the two, but a greater one is Ian’s plan to become a world traveler while Tansy dreams of a home.

The attraction of opposites is a favorite trope in romance fiction, and one Long has used to wonderful effect in earlier books in the Pennyroyal Green series, but, despite appearances, the virginal Tansy Danforth and the roguish Ian Eversea are more alike than they are different. They have both been confronted with devastating loss that affects their approach to life thereafter (Tansy with the deaths of her family and Ian with his war experience). They are both accomplished at playing the role they have adopted to protect their vulnerabilities. Both are perceived as rather one-dimensional characters by those around them. Tansy is written off as an accomplished but basically harmless flirt, and even Ian’s siblings who love him accept the “climbing” episode that made Falconbridge Ian’s enemy as essentially definitive. Ian and Tansy’s gradual realization of their commonalities was one of my favorite parts of the book.

This book is also the richest in humor among the nine books in the series. Tansy’s effect on the males of Pennyroyal Green is fun. The marksmanship contest particularly includes some laugh-out-loud moments and delights on several levels. The never openly acknowledged bouquet competition between Tansy and Olivia also evokes its share of smiles. But I think my favorite funny scenes are those between Tansy and Falconbridge in which the humor is more subtle and clearly character-based.  

I also liked seeing the other Everseas. The reader catches glimpses of most of the family, but Genevieve and Falconbridge have prominent roles in the story. Since they are my favorite couple in the series, I was pleased to see their happiness in progress. The serene and saintly Olivia becomes more human in this novel as her serenity is ruffled and some less than saintly emotions are revealed. Olivia’s suitor, Lord Landsdowne, becomes an appealing character with hero potential rather than merely a name. These last two elements, of course, left me anticipating other story lines.

Like most fans of the series, I am eager to see Olivia and Lyon Redmond’s story and will be heartbroken if they don’t get their HEA. I am also impatient to know the secrets of the older Everseas and Redmonds. But I enjoy each trip I make to Pennyroyal Green, and this one was no exception. I turned the last page sighing over Tansy and Ian’s HEA and wondering how long I have to wait to return to the world of the Everseas and Redmonds. After nine books, the Pennyroyal Green series continues to be one of my all-time favorite series, a testament to the talent and ingenuity of Julie Anne Long.

I think it is really tricky to keep readers’ invested in a story even as resolution is delayed over the course of many books. I’m awed by JAL’s ability to do this with Olivia and Lyon’s story. Are you a Pennyroyal Green fan? What other story lines have kept you engaged over a lengthy series?