MINI-REVIEW: Shannon Stacey’s THEIR CHRISTMAS BABY CONTRACT (Blackberry Bay #2)

Their_Christmas_Baby_ContractWhen I started reading romance after 30 years away, one of the first romances I read was Sarah Mayberry’s Best Laid Plans. Introduced to the genre with The Flame and the Flower, Mayberry’s romance was revelatory. It told me how much the genre had changed and how wonderful those changes were. I’d never have believed when The Flame and the Flower was the norm to read about an older heroine and hero, professionals both, disappointed by past relationships, agreeing to share a child (and, hey, it’s a romance, so they also fall in love along the way). I was attracted to Stacey’s Their Christmas Baby Contract because I was nostalgic for Mayberry’s romance and because, foolish as this is becoming, I yearn for a wonderful category romance (two attempts with previously beloved authors left me cold). Stacey’s premise captured me. The blurb will set it up for us:

Brady Nash is handsome and anti marriage. And with IVF completely out of her financial reach, Reyna Bishop is running out of time to have the child she so very much wants. Theirs is a practical baby-making deal: no emotion, no expectation, no ever-after. They’ll even “date” through Christmas to silence their hometown gossips. It’s foolproof…till the time she spends with Brady and his warm, loving family leaves Reyna wanting more than a baby…

Brady isn’t anti-marriage, nor a commitment-phobe: he has a reputation, completely unjustified, as a ladies man. Reyna too has an unjustified reputation as a man-killer. Neither of them live up to either and the town, cutesy-Christmas-parade-Hallmark-decorated is unkind in its assessment. But bargain they do and we’re off to the baby races by chapter three, with two calm, responsible introverts falling in love and ever denying it, uncertain of the other’s feelings, hesitant about their own.  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

Noelle Adams’s THE RETURN

The_ReturnIt was nice to start the reading year with a quiet book, with flawed, believable characters, and still get a satisfying HEA. That’s Noelle Adams’s The Return. In a way, it reminded me of another recent read, Lacy Williams’s Small-Town Girl. Adams and Williams manage to convey a certain grit to their heroes and heroines and yet still imbue them with vulnerability and kindness. It’s nice to read, refreshing. My reading world didn’t rock, but it had a nice gentle swing, leisurely and hopeful, for the few days I spent in The Return‘s company. It helped that The Return is a second-chance romance for two good people: florist Ria Phillips and the boy who loved her and left her just when they were new lovers at eighteen, Jacob Worth. The novel opens with more humour and light-heartedness than it ends, despite its HEA. At its opening, Ria is trying to convince her town that, after eight years, she’s NOT holding a torch aloft for Jacob Worth. Until he “returns” to Azalea, Virginia, as his grandfather lies dying (turns out grandfather had a lot to do with why Jacob abandoned Ria and none of it good on gramps’s part). It’s obvious from their first reunited meeting that these two love each other and belong together, but there’s plenty of hurt and years and change to integrate into a new relationship. No matter how difficult and valid Jacob’s reasons were for leaving, he still left without explanation and never again contacted Ria. He was young, proud, hurt, and stupid. But he’s an awfully nice guy and gets softer and more vulnerable as the novel progresses. Continue reading

MINI-REVIEW: Meg Cabot’s NO JUDGMENTS

No-JudgmentsI’m way too old to have read Cabot’s Princess Diary books, but glad I’m old enough to enjoy her contemporary romance. Despite its rom-com cover, No Judgments, though often droll, tackles sombre issues for its protagonist and narrator, Sabrina “Bree” Beckham. Bree has divided her life between when-she-was-Sabrina and lived in Manhattan as a law student with a famous mom and a trust fund and, at present, Bree, living humbly in Florida’s fictional Little Bridge Island, waitress, art-dabbler, and cat owner. (Indeed, Bree’s imperious former-shelter-cat Gary is one of the most charming of the island’s denizens, feline, canine, or human.) But darker events than law-school-dropping-out brought Bree to Florida: her ex-boyfriend’s betrayal, oh, not with another woman, but by excusing his best friend’s execrable behaviour, behaviour that left Bree with uncertainty, fear, and mistrust. But there’s one man who breaks through her wariness, sexy Drew Hartwell, her bosses’ nephew and resident renovation-king-and-heartthrob. When Hurricane Marilyn bears down on Little Bridge Island, Drew and Bree, despite their initial banterish dislike (which we always know masks healthy-lust-like), work together to ensure evacuees’ left-behind animals are cared for, while falling into love and between Drew’s bed-sheets.  
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REVIEW: Caitlin Crews’s COLD HEART, WARM COWBOY

Cold_Heart_Warm_CowboyReading Caitlin Crews’s Cold Heart, Warm Cowboy right after Yates’s Lone Wolf Cowboy was like seeing the two romances in a two-way mirror. They are linked by ethos and setting and would be, you might think, too much of a good thing one after the other. Nope. I was as immersed in the former as the latter. Besides, who can resist amnesia and secret-baby trope combined!? Maybe a lot of romance readers can, but I can’t! Moreover, Cold Heart, Warm Cowboy was the follow-up to one of my favourites 2018 romances, A True Cowboy Christmas, though not as good and there be reasons. Cold Heart, Warm Cowboy picks up where True Cowboy Christmas departs, centering on Everett middle brother, Ty, though we have delicious glimpses of the hero and heroine of True Cowboy enjoying married bliss. Cold Heart, Warm Cowboy opens with the heroine, former-rodeo-queen Hannah Leigh Monroe. She’s on her way to Cold River Ranch to confront Ty with the cold hard facts of: exhibit A, their marriage (Las Vegas certificate and all) and exhibit B, their 10-month-old baby, Jack, though Jack’s safely with her mother back in Hannah’s hometown of Sweet Myrtle, Georgia. After what happened eighteen months ago, Hannah thinks it’s high time Ty and she divorced.
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MINI-REVIEW: Maisey Yates’s LONE WOLF COWBOY

Lone_Wolf_CowboyI read Maisey Yates because I know exactly what I’m going to get. I don’t mean this in a predictable, comfort-read kind of way. Yates is NOT a comforting read; she is an angst-queen. I read her because I like her ethos: it’s as close to sexy inspie minus-God-talk as you’re going to get in contemporary romance. In Yates’s romances, encounters are meaningful; the past, redeemable; sex, mystical and earthy all at once; and, love, something huge, frightening, wonderful, and as much to be run away from as to run towards. These themes are reiterated in every romance, but they never get old and are expressed with urgency as the basis of self-fulfillment and a happy marriage. Most importantly, for Yates, as for my long-lamented absent romance-writing friend, Ros Clarke, the body knows before the mind and heart can come into its orbit.

In Yates’s seventh Gold Valley romance, she tackles a heroine with a daunting backstory. Vanessa Logan (Olivia’s sister, heroine of Yates’s first Gold Valley romance, Smooth-Talking Cowboy) returns to home-town Gold Valley because it is “the last refuge for her demons, and the final locked door in her life … her origin story. And everyone needed to revisit an origin story. She’d gone out on her own, failed, hit rock bottom and healed. But she had healed away, not at the site of her first fall from grace.” Teen-age Vanessa had shamed her family by drinking, carousing, and indulging in promiscuity. Running away to LA, she became an addict to drugs and alcohol. Now, she’s back to confront her family and teach art therapy to the hero’s, Jacob Dalton’s, brother’s therapy ranch for troubled boys. 
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MINI-REVIEW: Liz Talley’s A DOWN HOME CHRISTMAS

Down_Home_ChristmasI loved Liz Talley’s Superromances and I’m sad and sorry that category line is no more. I was glad to see Talley on my Netgalley shelf, however, and with one of my favourite settings, Christmas! I figure if Costco can set up its Christmas tree display next to the lurid Hallowe’en costumes, I can certainly read a Christmas romance in September …

A Down Home Christmas is a most christmasy of holiday romances, with Christmas cookie baking, the crooning of “I’ll Be Home For Christmas”, massive-tree buying and decorating, and a pageant. It’s also the story of rediscovering roots and finding one’s way when all feels lost. Though less quirky and sexy than Talley’s categories, A Down Home Christmas still had her signature humour and heart. Unlike her categories, however, Down Home is hero-centric and the rediscovering and finding one’s way belong squarely to the hero. The heroine is settled and sure and knows exactly what she wants. It’s Kris Trabeau’s journey we follow, as the country music star returns to his hometown of Charming, Mississippi, for the holiday season, ostensibly to visit his Aunt Tansy, the woman who took him in and brought him up when his parents were killed in an airplane crash. The opening scene is a hoot: as he arrives at his Aunt’s and his ancestral farm, he’s greeted by a great floppy dog, scampering chickens, and a barefoot beauty in pursuit. Continue reading

MINI-REVIEW: Marnie Blue’s MISTLETOE KISSES

Mistletoe_KissesAs winter sleet, ice, snow, and ice loom, and the day-job continues its relentlessly demanding pace, I can at least celebrate the coming holidays. And the hols bring the Christmas romance and Hallmark Christmas movies in double-time! What does this have to do with Marnie Blue’s Mistletoe Kisses? Everything, as it’s a slip of a romance that sounds like category rom and smells like Hallmark. If you like one or t’other or both, you’re going to be a happy camper.

Blue is a new-to-me author and the first of my newly-resolved reviewing decision to try new romance authors every few months. My introvert’s heart can’t really take much more change than that. I started Blue’s romance with trepidation, experienced delight, eye-rolled several bits, and ended up replete with reader satisfaction. Blue’s Mistletoe Kisses doesn’t break any romance molds and its Hallmark-Christmas-movie ethos will be familiar to those of us who revel in the joys of tinsel, garland, frosted gingerbread men, and tree-lighting ceremonies, of which there is a hilarious one in Mistletoe Kisses. When the novel opens, Grinch-like cop-hero Justin Weaver is sneezing his way through his Santa-beard as he grumbles at his commanding officer’s “request” to make nice with the public by playing Santa to collect toys for underprivileged children. It’s a good cause and Justin is a good egg, he just hates Christmas, his tight Santa costume, and public appearances … especially speeches. Continue reading

REVIEW: Amie Denman’s IN LOVE WITH THE FIREFIGHTER

In_Love_With_the_FirefighterI confess the reason I wanted to read Amie Denman’s In Love With the Firefighter was the cute cover. I pride myself on selecting my titles for my precious reading time with the confidence that this is an author I’ll enjoy; ALL are carefully curated. BUT, *throws hands up*, the kitten got me … also the word “firefighter”. I do love a firefighter hero, so much easier to pull off than policemen, or military, so much more convincing as heroes. I admit I was leery of the “heartwarming” label: how saccharine will this be? I’m as guilty as the next romance reader of being addicted to the Hallmark Christmas movie, but I don’t want to watch them year-round. I’m happy to say that Denman’s Firefighter+kitten takes place during a hot Virginia-Beach-like summer in fictional Cape Pursuit and is surprisingly un-saccharine. It opens with firefighter Kevin Ruggles and his firefighting crew barrelling through tourist-heavy streets to reach the site of a fire. Though Kevin is a seasoned rig-driver/firefighter, the call’s urgency sees his fire-truck swerving skills take down a double-parked car’s driver-side door. Said car belongs to newly-arrived-to-Cape-Pursuit heroine, Nicole Wheeler. Their meet-cute is hardly the stuff of romance, more of annoyance, insurance claims, and shame-faced remorse on Kevin’s part. Continue reading

MINI-REVIEW: Julie Anne Long’s THE FIRST TIME AT FIRELIGHT FALLS

First_Time_At_Firelight_FallsEons ago, I read Julie Anne Long’s I Kissed An Earl and liked it well enough, but not with the passion of anticipating the next book in the series or eye-balling the newly-arriveds for her author’s name. I was surprised to see her turn to contemporary romance as she seemed quite ensconced in the former. But, hey, what do I know about author inspirations or the changing face of romance publishing? Bupkis. I was curious, however, and since contemporary is my sub-genre of choice, happy to give her a try with book four of the Hellcat Canyon series, The First Time At Firelight Falls, and even happier to eat reader humble-pie when I was *forced* to reassess my initial ho-hum judgement of it. It is seemingly run-of-the-mill contemporary small-town romance: Hellcat’s denizens are eccentric and supportive, there’s a good dose of wholesome humour and a modicum of conventionally-positioned, hot sex between the leads, and, at least initially, a whole lot of not-much-ness.
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