Monday, May 7, 2012

Review of Kristan Higgins’s Somebody to Love

Title: Somebody to Love
Author: Kristan Higgins
Publisher: HQN Books
Format: Mass Market Paperback & eBook
Source: NetGalley
Publication Date: April 24, 2012
Rating: 4 out of 5

Kristan Higgins has long been a favorite author of mine. I love her contemporary romances, no doubt because they ALL have adorable dogs in them! Somebody to Love is no exception, and it has some howling good times. While Somebody to Love is a stand-alone novel, the heroine, Parker Welles, is the best friend in The Next Best Thing, and most of the action takes place in the small town of Gideon’s Cove, Maine, setting of Catch of the Day. I’m afraid Catch of the Day has the dubious distinction of having caused me to bawl my eyes out, because a certain pivotal character passes away, but I still re-read it regularly, thanks to my highlighting feature on the Kindle, which allows me to skip any crying parts. Just like Catch of the Day, I plan on re-reading Somebody to Love many times, because it’s another winner, with strong, likeable characters and a good dose of humor.
As the novel begins, Parker Welles’s father shows up at the family mansion and announces that he’s lost all his money on Wall Street (through insider trading, no less), including both Parker and her son Nicky’s trust funds. They’re broke, and single mother Parker has to find a way to find them a new home. In the wreckage, Parker discovers that a great aunt left her a house in Gideon’s Cove, which hopefully can be flipped and turn enough of a profit to bulk up her small savings while she finds work.
James Cahill is one of Harry Welles’s lawyers, but he’s not the yes-man Harry’s other lawyers have been. He offers to help Parker flip her dilapidated house in Maine, since he spent years as a teenager working construction, and Parker reluctantly agrees. Add in the presence of a rescue dog named Beauty and some hot summer lovin’ and you have the makings of a great romance.
Despite Parker’s trust fund baby roots, she’s a really appealing heroine. I love her sense of humor, especially with the Holy Rollers, characters in the children’s books she wrote. As a sarcastic joke, she pitched a story about young angels needing to earn their wings and travel around on roller skates, eating only angel food cake. Naturally the saccharine sweet mess was a huge success, and Parker finds herself “talking” to her now teenaged characters throughout the mess that is her life. Her humor makes her a likeable character, but it’s her reaction to learning that she’s lost everything that makes her so engaging. She manages to keep it together for the sake of her son and works hard to make the best of things without dwelling on her situation.
James is a fabulous hero, sexy and vulnerable. He has a troubled past that’s caused problems within his family, but ever since he met Parker he’s had a thing for her. Unfortunately his choice of profession and relationship with Parker’s father has made it hard for Parker to see what a great guy he is. My one complaint with James is that he had a bit of a martyr complex, but once you learn about his past that becomes more understandable.
Overall, Somebody to Love was a heartwarming romance with two very likeable characters. This is the second contemporary romance I’ve read recently that features a formerly rich girl with a greedy Madoff-like father, and I enjoyed both of them. (Serendipity by Carly Phillips is the other – also a winner) If you’re looking for a fun summer read, I definitely recommend Somebody to Love.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Review of Rhyannon Byrd's Deadly is the Kiss

Title: Deadly is the Kiss (Grangers #1)
Author: Rhyannon Byrd
Publisher: HQN Books
Format: Mass Market Paperback & eBook
Source: NetGalley
Publication Date: March 27, 2012
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

This is the first book I’ve read by Rhyannon Byrd, and if you’re new to her books as well this would be a good place to start. Deadly is the Kiss is the first in her Grangers series, a spin-off of her Primal Instincts paranormal romance series. While there were references to characters from the other series, you can easily follow along the action, and the story is for the most part self-contained.
At times Deadly is the Kiss felt like two different books – the first half was devoted to the fated mates connecting physically, while the second half was more action packed. I have to confess that I was a little turned off by how quickly the hero and heroine jumped into bed together, but I thoroughly enjoyed the second half, which kept me turning the pages.
Ashe Granger is a vampire warrior, and for the past year he’s been obsessed with learning why the Sabin family was imprisoned in the Wasteland, the vampire prison. He’s caught in the “burning,” a sign that he’s met his mate. Unfortunately that mate is Juliana Sabin, and the two have never gotten along. Ashe has tried to suppress the effects of the burning and is searching for a way to avoid spending a lifetime with a criminal, but when he meets an informant to learn more about Juliana’s imprisonment, he’s stunned to find Juliana sitting on a restaurant patio in London.
Juliana has managed to escape the Wasteland thanks to the efforts of a mysterious benefactor, and she needs Ashe’s help. Her family’s been targeted by assassins, and she has to prove that the charges against her family were false so the assassins can be called off. She resents having to ask Ashe for help, since the few times she’s seen him at the Wasteland he’s been a womanizer, but he’s the best and she needs all the help she can get. She never counted on his returning her secret attraction. But will he still help her when he learns the reason she and her family were imprisoned?
The second half of this book was fabulous. It’s action packed, and the pages just fly by. Each time Juliana and Ashe manage to escape the assassins sent to kill her, they find themselves in another dangerous situation and have to fight their way out. They’re also fighting the clock to find the evidence needed to save Juliana’s family, and while at first it seems obvious who the villain is, there are some intriguing twists at the end.
The chemistry between Juliana and Ashe is off the charts. Unfortunately, this chemistry results in an encounter in an elevator and 2 sex scenes all before my Kindle hit the 48% mark, which I found a bit off-putting. I suspect that for long-time fans of the Primal Instinct series, Juliana and Ashe are familiar secondary characters, establishing a history for the two which explains the leaps into the sack, but as a new reader of Ms. Byrd’s books, I was a little clueless about their history. I’m not sure I would have continued reading if I weren’t reading the book for review, which would be a shame, because the second half was much, much better.
Juliana is an interesting character, and at times I really liked her while other times I just wanted to smack some sense into her. Whenever there was a big fight scene, Ashe would tell her to stay put, yet she’d always venture out into the thick of things and then get into trouble. Frankly, she verged into TSTL territory, and I had to wonder if she’d never seen a horror movie. Besides, I kept wondering why she would seek out an experienced warrior then not listen to his advice.
The second half of the novel was good enough to make up for the squicky love scenes in the first half. In fact, I’ll be checking out some of the Primal Instinct books, because I enjoyed the flow of the last part of the book so much. As for future installments of the Granger series, I expect that Ashe’s brother will be the hero of the next novel and look forward to reading more about him.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Review of Susanna Kearsley’s Mariana

Title: Mariana
Author: Susanna Kearsley
Publisher: Sourcebooks
Format: Trade Paperback & eBook
Source: NetGalley
Publication Date: April 1, 2012
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

This past summer there was a huge sale on ebooks at Amazon, and one of the books I downloaded to my Kindle was Susanna Kearsley’s The Winter Sea. It was outstanding, and ever since I’ve been a fan of her writing. I’m not sure that her books qualify as romances, although they have strong romantic elements in them, nor do they seem to fit in the category of women’s fiction. All three of Ms. Kearsley’s books that I’ve read (The Winter Sea, The Rose Garden, and Mariana) deal with either time travel or some type of reincarnation. I love how she incorporates history into her fiction without huge info dumps, because she brings the history alive for the reader through the characters’ experiences. Mariana was originally published in 1994 and is now being reissued by Sourcebooks. I’m delighted to say that it stands up to the test of time very, very well, and I highly recommend it.
Narrator Julia Beckett is an illustrator of children’s books, and years ago on a family vacation she spotted a house, Greywethers, that she just knew was “her” house. Many years later as an adult, she comes across it again, and armed with a recent inheritance, she impulsively purchases the home and moves from London to Wiltshire. But the longer she resides in Greywethers, the more unusual her experiences become. She starts to relive the life of Mariana Farr, a young woman who escaped the plague in London of the 1660s, and the more Julia relives Mariana’s life, the more she begins to see parallels in her present day existence.
The central romance in Mariana is not Julia’s – rather it is Mariana’s affair with local gentleman Sir Richard de Mornay. Mariana has fled London to stay with her uncle Jabez, a dour and cruel man who has ordered her not to speak to the stunningly beautiful Richard. Unfortunately Mariana’s parents taught her to think for herself, and the temptation of Richard proves too much to bear.
The intriguing part of Mariana is how Julia’s present day life intersects with that of Mariana. Julia never knows when she will be unexpectedly thrust into Mariana’s life and wonders if she is in fact Mariana reincarnated. As Julia learns more about Mariana’s relationships in the 1660s, she starts to look around to see if Richard or any of Mariana’s other friends are also taking this journey with her.
I can’t stress enough how much I enjoy the way Ms. Kearsley incorporates the history into her text. Mariana relives the history, which allows us to relive it along with her, making it easier to understand how different factions during the tempestuous period in England would have fared after the fall of Cromwell. The romance between Mariana and Richard sets up a similar one between Julia and another character, but we’re left uncertain about that character’s name until the very end, although I had guessed who it was fairly early on.
I did find Julia’s initial jumps into Mariana’s time to be a bit disconcerting, because they weren’t indicated by any sort of break in the text. However, this replicates Julia’s experience, and after a quick check back the first time, I was soon able to follow along without any difficulty. I do wish that we could have seen more of Julia’s romance develop, as we do in Ms. Kearsley’s later novels, but it certainly makes for an intriguing ending.
I absolutely loved this book, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Fans of Diana Gabaldon and Lynn Kurland will definitely enjoy Susanna Kearsley’s books, and Mariana is no exception.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Review of Sandy James’s Rules of the Game

Title: Rules of the Game
Author: Sandy James
Publisher: Carina Press
Format: eBook
Source: NetGalley
Publication Date: April 2, 2012
Rating: 3 out of 5

I requested this book off NetGalley, because the blurb made it sound like a fun, lighthearted contemporary romance, and it certainly began with a lot of promise. Unfortunately about a third of the way into the book the tone of the novel changed abruptly, leaving me a bit confused. Rules of the Game feels like 2 different books, and while I enjoyed the novel, I think the blurb is a little misleading, and the book needed to be a bit longer to develop fully some of the issues the heroine faces.
The book begins with romance author Maddie Sawyer living in New York City and having to return to Pottsville, Indiana, for her high school reunion. While her author persona, Kathryn West, is sexy and outlandish, Maddie is anything but that, so she decides to find a sexy biker and pay him to pose as her boyfriend for the reunion. She has almost immediate success when she meets hunky Scott Brady at a biker bar, and the two start dating. Both Scott and Maddie have their secrets, but they really hit it off. She agrees to pose as his girlfriend to get his friends and family off his back about dating, and he agrees to accompany her to Indiana for the reunion.
This lighthearted contemporary romance goes off the rails when Maddie and Scott arrive at the reunion, and suddenly Maddie’s orderly life is a disaster. An unexpected visitor to the reunion makes an announcement to the crowd that forces Maddie to face her unpleasant past, and the remainder of the book focuses on how Maddie deals with the changes this brings. Throughout Scott is very supportive and helpful with the changes in Maddie’s life, but when Maddie learns Scott’s real profession (which isn’t down-and-out biker, as she originally believed), it’s the last straw for Maddie. Can she salvage her relationship with Scott while dealing with the astonishing changes in her life?
Despite the abrupt change in tone of the novel, this was an enjoyable read. A LOT happens in only 76,000 words, and at times I felt overwhelmed with what was going on with poor Maddie. You definitely won’t be able to put the book down, because you’ll be frantically turning the pages to see what could possibly go wrong next. I also liked Scott and Maddie’s romance in the beginning of the novel. It definitely was a meet-cute, and both hero and heroine come across as, likeable characters with great chemistry.
While I enjoyed the book, there were some issues that bothered me. First, the unexpected visitor to the high school reunion completely changed the tenor of the book and created a new source of conflict. I thought the change was too abrupt, but I was intrigued by where the novel would go from there. I wish that the blurb were less misleading in how it described the book, but I also think that the first third of the book needed a bit of foreshadowing of future events. One plus is that the reader experiences how out of control Maddie feels at the changes in her life, and the pace of the novel helps with this. However, the conflict is resolved rather quickly at the end, and I felt that this section of the novel could have been developed a bit more. Maddie and Scott’s relationship problems are resolved too quickly.
My other issue has to do with Maddie’s reaction to Scott’s profession. She immediately rejects him for it, which just struck me as bizarre, given her reasonable and mature reactions to other events in the book. Events in her past are supposed to explain Maddie’s knee-jerk reaction and subsequent rejection of Scott, but it was too over the top for me.
Despite feeling like two different books, Rules of the Game was a lot of fun to read. I liked the hero and heroine, and the drama in the book raised some interesting questions. I’ll definitely check out future books by Ms. James and recommend it with a few reservations for lovers of contemporary romance.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Review of Susan Mallery’s Barefoot Season

Title: Barefoot Season
Author: Susan Mallery
Publisher: Mira
Format: Mass Market Paperback & eBook
Source: NetGalley
Publication Date: March 27, 2012
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

When it comes to contemporary romance, Susan Mallery is one of my all-time favorite authors. She writes feel-good stories with likeable heroines, and many of those stories are set in small towns. I love the family dynamics in her series, and the heroes are swoon worthy without being so good-looking that you can’t fantasize about running into one of them at the supermarket.
Barefoot Season is nothing like her contemporary romances. In fact, it’s really more women’s fiction with two romantic subplots than it is a romance. It’s a story about the friendship between two damaged yet strong women who manage to resurrect an old friendship despite overwhelming odds. I’ll admit that when I first started to read Barefoot Season I was a little worried about the angst-factor: one of the protagonists is a wounded veteran with a bad case of PTSD. But the novel is filled with humor, and I like that the two female protagonists had their immature moments but for the most part acted like reasonable adults.
The central conflict of the novel revolves around the friendship of Michelle Sanderson and Carly Williams. Right after high school, Carly caught her best friend Michelle in bed with Carly’s fiancĂ©. Carly still married him (big mistake, right?), but Michelle joined the army and hasn’t been back to Blackberry Island in nearly 10 years. Michelle’s forced to return to the Island when she’s seriously wounded in Afghanistan and has to retire from the military. Her mother passed away nearly 6 months ago, and Michelle plans to manage the Bed & Breakfast she inherited, only to learn upon her return that Carly is managing the place for her and living in the owner’s apartment.
Carly’s had a rough time of it as well. Her husband cleaned out their savings and took off only months after their wedding, leaving Carly pregnant. Michelle’s mother offered Carly a job at the Bed & Breakfast, but she took advantage of Carly’s lack of education, and Carly has almost no money in savings and few skills. When Michelle returns, the two former friends butt heads almost immediately, and matters escalate when Michelle learns that her mother took out loans on the B & B that haven’t been paid in months.
Despite an overwhelmingly negative introduction to Michelle’s character when she first sees Carly, Michelle made the novel for me. She’s complex, stubborn, damaged, and defiant, but she’s also strong with a sense of fairness that forces her to face her role in the split with Carly. Her struggle to re-enter the world after her horrific experiences at war is moving, and you root for her to find her way back.
This novel could have been overwhelmingly depressing and dark, yet there’s a sense of lightness and renewal about Michelle’s journey. Given Michelle’s injuries and difficulties rejoining society, I found her sense of fairness towards Carly and the other workers at the B & B really appealing, and her realization that she needs Carly as much as Carly needs her is very satisfying. Both protagonists also exhibit a sense of humor, which makes reading the novel all the more enjoyable.
I also liked that Carly undergoes a transformation in the novel. She’s worked hard for years to support her daughter Gabby, and her romance (the most successful of the romantic subplots) shows us just how difficult it is for a working mother to find time for herself and for love. This romance is all the more complex, because the man Carly falls for is Michelle’s ex-husband, which could have led to more drama than it does.
The only criticism that I have of the novel has to do with Michelle’s romance with former vet Jared. She meets Jared when looking for a new place to live, and thanks to his intervention, she joins a group of veterans to work through her PTSD. Since the romance isn’t central to the plot, we see Jared and Michelle together infrequently, and I never was convinced that he considered her as more than a project, a complaint Michelle tosses at him as well. I just couldn’t get a sense of his feelings for her.
That said, this was a delightful book, and I can’t wait to read future books set on the island. The novel has many poignant moments, but in the end the strength of both women and their friendship makes for a heartwarming story. There are several discussion questions at the back of the book as well, making this an ideal book for book clubs.