Mini-Review: Cara Bastone’s CAN’T HELP FALLING (Forever Yours #2)

Bastone is as much at the top of her romance-game in Can’t Help Falling as she was in Just a Heartbeat Away. I may have enjoyed the latter a smidgen more than the former, but it doesn’t stop Can’t Help Falling from being one of the best romances I’ve read this year.

Falling picks up where Heartbeat leaves off and includes lovely cameos from the first romance’s hero and heroine, hero’s son and pooch, Seb, Via, Matty, and Crabby. While Heartbeat tells Seb and Via’s romance, Falling is about the road to love and commitment for Seb’s and Via’s best friends, Tyler Leshuski and Serafine “Fin” St. Romain:

Serafine St. Romain doesn’t need her psychic powers to know she’s no longer in Tyler Leshuski’s good graces. True, she did tear him to pieces when he asked her out, accusing him of being shallow and selfish. Despite the energy crackling between them, the gorgeous sports writer is a no-strings, no-kids kind of guy. And Serafine, raised in the foster system, intends to be a foster parent herself. She won’t compromise that dream, even for a man as annoyingly appealing as Tyler.

In a simpler world, Tyler would already have gotten Serafine out of his system. For him, women equal fun. Not this kind of bone-deep, disconcerting desire. Life gets even more complicated when he becomes the guardian of his much younger sister. Suddenly, he’s way out of his depth. Serafine’s the only person who can connect with Kylie. He can’t jeopardize that for a fling. But maybe…just maybe…he’s finally ready to risk everything on forever.

The blurb, however, makes the romance more lighthearted than it is. While Bastone can write great comic scenes and with great wit, neither Tyler, nor Fin start the narrative in a particularly good place and they experience anguish, doubt, and heartache. Continue reading

Mini-Review: Jackie Ashenden’s HOME TO DEEP RIVER

We can add Jackie Ashenden to the queendom of the small-town contemporary romance duo of Maisey Yates and Caitlin Crews/Megan Crane to make a triumvirate. Which means you get more of the same if you’re a fan of Yates, or Crews-Crane. I’m not a fan anymore. I’m tired of the formula: former military heroes are now suspect, small-towns are scary “off the grid” loony-territory, and tough-talking heroines hiding lonely vulnerabilities aren’t quite believable when “they doth protest too much”. If these characters turn your crank, then you’re the reader for Ashenden’s first “Deep River, Alaska” romance, Home to Deep River.

Ashenden establishes her series setting with a romance that sees hero Silas Quinn return home when his best friend, RIP Caleb West, the town owner, bequeaths him, well, the town. It’s been thirteen years of bad memories of Deep River, except for Silas’s love for Hope Dawson:

Deep River, Alaska, boasts a fiercely independent though small population. The people who live here love it, and they don’t much care what anyone else thinks. Until the day Silas Quinn comes back and tells them an oil reserve has been found below the town and now it’s neighbor vs. neighbor. Some want to take the money and run, while others want to tell the oil company to put its rigs where the sun don’t shine.

Hope Dawson never expected to leave Deep River. Her mom needs her. Her grandfather died and left her the local hangout to run. Her dreams of college and adventure died long ago. Until Silas comes back to town, holding the key to set her free. But freedom means she loses him again, and he’s the one she’s really always wanted.

As a matter of fact, no oil company shows up, there’s no neighbour vs. neighbour and the oil reserve is a minor plot point in this day and age of climate change and alternative energy to bring Silas and Hope together. Does it matter? Not really. Because the town shenanigans and oil reserves and what the town will decide are the background to Ashenden’s purpose: her protagonists waffling on about their tormented feelings while having a lot of sex, lotso’ sex and lotso’ internal distress and denial.  Continue reading

Mini-Review: Kaki Warner’s ROUGH CREEK

Rough_CreekIf you are looking to read great historical Western romance, you’re in for a treat with Kaki Warner’s Blood Rose Trilogy. Because I’d loved it and despaired of seeing more from Warner, I was delighted to see she was back with contemporary Western romance. I’m not keen on cowboys and I hate horsey stories, but, hey, Warner! And I happily plunged into Rough Creek. The blurb made me nervous there would be too many horsey details and I was right, but the protagonists are always what’s best in Warner. The blurb was encouraging:

 
I do love me some simmering “heart-pounding tension”. Sadly, it’s not what I got: instead, a story about two careful, caring people who hadn’t exercised their heart muscles, or any others for that matter, in ages, a drawn-out dance of closeness, then distance, and a halting pace to the HEA.

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Mini-Review: Roni Loren’s YES & I LOVE YOU

yes_&_i-love_youRoni Loren’s series, The Ones Who Got Away, about the grown-up heroes and heroines who share a high school shooting, is one of the best contemporary romance series I’ve read; therefore, any new Loren series comes with anticipation and high expectations. This latest “Say Everything” series sees Loren pull deep from her counsellor background in creating her protagonists. Her heroine, the lovable Hollyn Tate, has Tourette’s, and her hero, the less lovable Jasper Deares, ADHD. Their portrayal, Hollyn’s in particular, is sensitive and knowledgeable. The premise is a tad ludicrous, but aren’t many in romance fiction? The blurb will give you an idea of it:

Everyone knows Miz Poppy, the vibrant reviewer whose commentary brightens the New Orleans nightlife. But no one knows Hollyn, the real face behind the media star…or the fear that keeps her isolated. When her boss tells her she needs to add video to her blog or lose her job, she’s forced to rely on an unexpected source to help her face her fears.

When aspiring actor Jasper Deares finds out the shy woman who orders coffee every day is actually Miz Poppy, he realizes he has a golden opportunity to get the media attention his acting career needs. All he has to do is help Hollyn come out of her shell…and through their growing connection, finally find her voice.

Hmm, this doesn’t quite honour the novel’s attempted complexity: Jasper is the barista in Hollyn’s work co-op. When she learns his acting expertise is improv, they strike a deal to help her prepare to do video using improv games and help him get his theatre troupe off the ground with a Miz Poppy review. In some muddled and muddy way, they also end up agreeing to a pretend-relationship/affair: something about helping Hallyn emerge from her sexual naïveté and give her amorous wings? But the heart will do what the heart will do and Hallyn’s heart, and eventually, I guess, Jasper’s, falls in love. Continue reading

Mini-Review: Jenny Holiday’s PARADISE COVE

Paradise_CoveParadise Cove is Holiday’s second Matchmaker Bay romance, after Mermaid Inn, and, on some level, it may be even better, its theme more complex, though its romance, weaker. As far as tropish goodness is concerned, Holiday moves from reunited-high-school-sweethearts to friends-with-benefits and what makes for Paradise Cove‘s strength, the “friendship” component, weakens the romance. Even the protagonists agree, early on, and maintain the agreement that romance doesn’t enter their relationship. This, for me, skirts women’s fic territory and that’s one country I don’t enjoy visiting. Nevertheless, there is much to love about Paradise Cove. The synopsis-blurb doesn’t give much of the novel’s essence, but it’s a good starting point to learn about Jake Ramsey and Dr. Nora Walsh:

Dr. Nora Walsh has just been dumped in spectacular fashion, making it the perfect time for a major life change. She figures taking over the medical practice in tiny Matchmaker Bay for a couple of years will help her get over her broken heart, and then she can head back to the big city. But when the first man she sees looks like a superhero god, she wonders if maybe there’s something to small-town living after all.

Jake Ramsey also has a broken heart — one he never expects to heal. He doesn’t need people anyway and is content hiding out in his secluded cottage on the beach. But after helping Nora with a medical emergency, he finds himself opening up to the witty, warmhearted doctor. Soon the local matchmakers are working overtime to pair them off, and Jake begins to wonder if his campaign to get Nora to stay is for the town or because he can’t bear the thought of her leaving.

This romance novel’s uniqueness lies in the source of Jake’s “broken heart”; while Nora’s is your standard a-hole, cheating, selfish BF, fellow-doctor, Rufus (I wonder if this is a nod to Rufus Sewell’s a-hole character in The Holiday?), Jake’s is viscerally difficult to read about, his baby son’s death, of the flu, at nine months. (Let this also serve as a CW.) Continue reading

Mini-Review: Marion Lennox’s PREGNANT MIDWIFE ON HIS DOORSTEP

Pregnant_Midwife_on_His_DoorstepMarion Lennox’s Pregnant Midwife on His Doorstep should have, could have, and on some level, probably was a fine romance. It contains many love-worthy elements: forced-proximity, one-bed, puppies, a super-nice hero, and likeable heroine. And yet.

Here is, verbatim, Pregnant Midwife‘s blurb-summary:

Neurosurgeon Josh O’Connor’s isolated island hideaway is on lockdown, but nothing will stop him entering a raging cyclone to rescue mom-to-be midwife Hannah Byrne. Hannah hasn’t found happiness since leaving her beloved Irish village. Yet stepping into Josh’s warm house, she starts to feel she might finally have found a home—for her and her unborn baby. Might Josh’s rescuing Hannah from the storm change both their lives for the better?

It doesn’t do justice to Lennox’s fine writing, her ability to capture landscape and stormy weather, to draw the reader in with a knight-in-shining-armor, breath-holding rescue scene, one of Lennox’s favourite openings. Put the heroine in danger, match her with a knight-hero, have her be rescued and then, have her, in turn, emotionally rescue the hero. It’s a lovely theme and it should have appealed more than it did. Together, Josh and Hannah are lovely. They’re not given to sentimental dialogue, nor do they snap and banter their way to a reluctant liking and truce. They’re gently humourous, no-nonsense, and good at their work. They make a great team when they have to rescue another family stranded in the storm on the other side of the island. So, what made this a desultory read? Continue reading

Mini-Review: Megan Crane’s DELTA FORCE DEFENDER

Delta_Force_DefenderThere is much to abhor in the former-military, “band of special ops” brothers romance, but I also cannot take away how compellingly satisfying Crane’s fourth Alaska Force romantic suspense novel, Delta Force Defender, was, the long-awaited story of the Force’s leader, Isaac Gentry, and the curmudgeonly owner of Grizzly Harbor’s restaurant, the shadows-in-her-eyes-and-scowl-on-her-face Caradine Scott. My reading experience alternated between eye-rolling annoyance and page-tapping eagerness, I’m embarrassed to say, but there you have it. There is absolutely nothing terribly original about the premise and, if it were not for Crane’s writing chops, this nears the Kristen-Ashley-badness territory.

Caradine Scott’s past catches up with her one night in her Alaskan-anonymity town, peopled by your run-of-the-mill small town “characters” and the ice-men that make up Alaska Force, a security service solving the world’s ills from their isolated state-of-the-art compound. Her restaurant is bombed and ne-er may be found of her except footprints leading to the water. What can I say, there are monitors. (Given the zip-tie horror of the America Capitol attack, no zip-tie carrying hero can ever be that heroic again. The former-military hero romance, with a protective, San-Andreas-fault-sized man-handling protective streak of said hero incites shivers of anxiety rather than frissons of excitement.) Leader of the he-man pack, Isaac Gentry, who does carry zip-ties, former marine, occasional-Caradine lover, is, atypically, emotionally affected by Caradine’s disappearance, terrified, though he’d never show it to his ribbing mates. Has she been kidnapped, or left for dead, or will soon be? Isaac follows her trail as Caradine takes a round-about driving route from Seattle to Maine, throwing off her pursuers but never losing Isaac, though she doesn’t know it … because he’s that good, better than anybody in the world. 
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Cara Bastone’s JUST A HEARTBEAT AWAY

Just_Heartbeat_AwayI didn’t think a romance writer could pull off a romance narrative without a betrayal. I’ve thought, until now, the romance narrative needed a tearing-asunder moment to work (executed with varied degrees of success depending on the author’s control of craft). Cara Bastone proved me wrong and her début romance, Just A Heartbeat Away, tossed my assumptions about the romance narrative out the window and bade me reevaluate its elements. Oh, there’s plenty of conflict (without a betrayal, or tearing-apart moment). Bastone replaces betrayal with doubt and misunderstanding with insecurity. She has her hero and heroine indulge much inner-lusting, my preferred form of lusting, and smooshes several love scenes, usually peppered throughout the narrative, into one extended scene as close to the end without making it The End. As a result, a fresh, engaging romance narrative, as original as true to the genre and a new auto-buy author for yours truly. It’s a romance novel like Just a Heartbeat Away that renews my faith in the genre and reminds me why I fell in love with it to begin with.
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Angelina M. Lopez’s HATE CRUSH

Hate_CrushI have a bone to pick with Ms Lopez: Hate Crush kept me up two work nights in a row. Harrumph. And I need my sleep, so kudos and curse you, Lopez, for writing this unputdownable thing. I loved Lopez’s Filthy Rich début, Lush Money, but I loved Hate Crush even more. The two carry my favourite romance tropes: marriage-of-convenience in the former and second-chance, in the latter. In Ms Lopez’s hands, the tropes dance and sing and come alive. Her characters are MESSY, visceral, intense, their conflict and emotions over-the-top; she carries the reader on a wave of energetic prose, unselfconscious, moving steadily in service to the HEA and her characters’ needs, transformations, and realizations.

Lopez’s premise is outlandish and improbable, but this is what makes romance, romance. I’m never taken aback by the genre’s propensity for “outlandish and improbable,” heck, literature is built on it. (Have you read A Midsummer Night’s Dream?) When an author has the genre’s integrity in sight and writes the outlandish and improbable in service to an arc of love’s redemptive power, I’m cool with an eye-rolling premise. 

Hate Crush sees bad-boy, disgraced (rumours of song plagiarism; band-mate’s/best friend’s suicide) rocker-hero, Aish Salinger, answer the call to a fake relationship, in his first and only great love’s fictional Spanish kingdom, Monte del Vino Real, with her, Princess Sofia. Sofia hates his guts, what’s in it for her? A rock of notoriety and publicity lobbed at the nay-sayers of her years-long struggle to bring new wine-making methods to her kingdom. Affair with an old flame? Check. But she lays down the law: keep your tattoos covered and your butt far far away from me. Kissy and moon-eyed for the cameras only. On the other hand, for Aish, this is a chance to clean off his in-the-gutter reputation; truer to his heart, to make amends, ask forgiveness of Sofia. And so, with his hollow-eyed, hungover arrival, we’re off …   Continue reading

Kristen Ashley’s DREAM MAKER

Dream_MakerI honestly don’t know where to begin with Ashley’s Dream Maker. About a quarter of the way through, I was looking forward to a snarky review, but having slogged through it (not an easy feat), I’m too tired for snark. This romance has much good to say about tossing off the bad and embracing the good (I can get behind the themes), but it says it so badly. If romance had manga, Ashley’s would be it: caricatured characters, thoroughly one-dimensional. Her characters remind me of those Hallowe’en suits, like a Superman one, you “blow up” and get puffy muscles. There’s a kind of breezy, down-to-earth, working-class tone to the novel and characters I found entertaining maybe for ten pages and then, the repetition, the language (woman are “bitches”, “shit” is always going down) and everyone speaks like wound-up comic-book characters. Maybe this novel turns some readers’ crank, but it is NOT a romance aesthetic I enjoyed. To start, plot-non-existent: hundreds of characters, all interchangeable, all men with their chicks, or bitches … and one of them, Lottie, I think, sets up our heroine, Evan “Evie” Gardiner with one of her “boys”, Danny Magnusson. These “boys” seem to run some kind of security firm, not sure what it was, but the room they worked in had a lot of monitors, so what else could it be? It’s insta-lust and like and love for Danny and Evan, so poof, that’s taken care of. Sadly, Evan has a TERRIBLE family and she sacrifices and sacrifices and sacrifices for them: her deadbeat brother in jail, her shrew of a mother, and it goes on. Thanks to the family’s nefarious activities, Evie is embroiled in a drug heist and some gun-running, all for the sake of saving her brother’s sorry behind. Bingo, this means Danny can go totally he-man protective on Evie and have her move in with him. Continue reading