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review 2013-10-08 02:25
Finally, a Lucky Harbor Man Who Isn't Commitment Phobic! (Too bad his lady is...)
Always On My Mind - Jill Shalvis

I read this a week and half ago, but then my Gramps died, and work got crazy, and my kids got sick, and now I don't remember half of what I meant to write about. Alas. 


Jill Shalvis is one of my go-to girls when I want a snarky, sexy, contemporary that won't tax my brain too much but also won't insult my intelligence. The Lucky Harbor series is an autobuy for me, but I confess I've been underwhelmed by the last several installments. I liked Always on My Mind (Book 8) better than any since the first three (Simply Irresistible, The Sweetest Thing, and Head Over Heals, about the three sisters who own the Lucky Harbor Inn), but I'm a total sucker for a friends-to-lovers story. 


Jack and Leah were neighbors and friends growing up. Leah helped Jack through his grief over the death of his dad, and Jack comforted Leah when her dad verbally abused and belittled her, which was pretty constant. And then, just as their relationship was about to go to the next level, Leah skipped town, giving up on Jack and what might have been. 


Giving up turns out to be a pattern for Leah. She dropped out of college four times, and out of culinary school, and she messed up her chance for success on a reality cooking show that is airing at the time of the events in the story. (She's sworn to secrecy and can't tell the results, but it's clear from her inner narrative that things did not go well.) She doesn't commit to anything, including men, and though she is attracted to Jack, she doesn't want to mess up their friendship by Going There.


Then she has a total brainfart, and tells Jack's mom that they're a couple. (Jack's mom has cancer, and longs to see her only son settled and happy because she knows she won't live forever.) Jack plays along, because he's too polite to call Leah a liar in front of his mom, and also because he's still in love with her. So they pretend to be a couple, and that goes about as well as you'd expect. (Isn't there a nursery rhyme about that? "Oh what a tangled web we weave/when first we practice to deceive...")


At first, I was excited to see Shalvis break from her commitment-phobic alpha hero formula with a hero-in-pursuit story, but then I realized she didn't really alter the formula; she just gender flipped it. Leah is the one who's afraid of commitment, but in all other respects, the typical elements of a Shalvis romance are intact: Jack is an alpha hero (a firefighter) and manwhore who typically dates two or three women at once, strictly casually, of course. Leah is a smart-ass with the heart of gold. They both have entertaining friends and relations to make up a diverting cast of secondary characters. Spunky ol' Lucille is ever-present, updating Lucky Harbor's Facebook page with all the latest gossip. 


This may sound like I'm complaining: I'm not. This was not new and different, but that doesn't mean it was bad. For me, reading the Lucky Harbor books are like going to different Chinese restaurants and always ordering Orange Beef because it's my favorite Chinese dish. There may be some variation, some restaurants do it better or worse than others, but for the most part, I know what to expect, and maybe it's not the most exciting dish on the menu, but I like it and I'm going to keep ordering it. 

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review 2013-10-07 00:43
Gorgeous Prose, but Too Rape-y and Old Skool For My Tastes
To Have and To Hold (Wyckerley Trilogy #2) - Patricia Gaffney

This is a beautifully written, terrible, infuriating story. I knew this was a controversial book when I picked it up, but it's also an influential book in the "romance canon," so I wanted to read it. There are a lot of blogs and articles out there hashing out the merits and moral failings of this book in a lot more detail than I have time to match here. The controversy stems from the fact that--(spoiler alert, though I think every reader should be forewarned at least this much, because here there be triggers)--the hero rapes the heroine, in a harrowing, gut churning scene that spans twenty pages.


Then the hero and heroine both undergo dramatic transformations as characters, which are compelling and emotionally satisfying if you are the kind of person who can get past the whole he-raped-her bit. I am not that kind of person.


I loved Patricia Gaffney's prose. I will read more of her--just nothing quite so rapetastic next time.

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review 2013-10-06 17:16
I'm a Sucker for Friends-to-Lovers Tales
All He Ever Dreamed - Shannon Stacey

This sixth book in the Kowalski series started a little slow, and I wondered if Josh was ever going to realize that his best friend, Katie, was totally in love with him. I generally love friends-to-lovers stories (not for nothing: I married my best friend from junior high), and I enjoyed this one a lot.


Josh is a little self absorbed. The youngest of five, he got left running the family business--a snowmobile resort--while his siblings struck out on their own, and he's been seething with resentment for years. That resentment makes him behave like a jerk sometimes, though it becomes clear that he isn't really selfish at all--just nearsighted.


Katie has been hiding her true feelings forever, but when she finally gets what she wants, she's not content to settle for less than she deserves, even if that means letting Josh go. I love that she isn't a doormat, even after pining for Josh for so long.


As slow as the beginning was, the ending felt a little rushed, and these problems with pacing dimmed my overall enjoyment, though I liked the story a lot.

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review 2013-10-06 17:10
Romance With an Unfortunate Side of Slut-Shaming
Talk Me Down - Victoria Dahl

In Talk Me Down, Molly Jennings returns to Tumble Creek, her childhood home, after inheriting a house. She is fleeing a stalking ex-boyfriend, a police officer specializing in hostage negotiations, who uses his skill and training at manipulating hostages to manipulate her and everyone who would be close to her. Given that background, I would have expected her to be a little more wary of taking up with another officer, but she and Ben have a history: she's lusted after him since high school, when he was her brother's roommate. Back then, she interrupted him in flagrante delicto with another woman, which sparked her attraction and her career, inspiring her first (far too autobiographical) published erotica. She lives in fear not just of the stalker ex, but also that someone will recognize Ben from that first story and unmask her profession, which she has kept secret even from her family.


Ben has clawed his way back to respectability after his father, a high school principal, shamed the family by sleeping with a student just a year older than Ben. Now grown, he is the Chief of Tumble Creek's small police force, but he is still so afraid of being tarnished by scandal that he only dates women from out of town. He flatly refuses to date Molly until she will tell him what she does for a living, and in the meantime he imagines all sorts of scandalous possibilities: stripper, prostitute, phone sex operator, online sex chatroom moderator. Luckily, despite his vow not to date, he doesn't seem to help the urge to go to bed with her, and they're well on the way to happily ever after when Molly's secrets catch up with her.


Molly's eventual unmasking was, to me, overhyped. After all, she isn't a true "bad" girl, despite her saucy career: she lost her virginity at seventeen and hasn't had a boyfriend (except the stalker) in years. There is the predictable confusion about whether she's really into all the kinky stuff she writes about, and she suffers some slut-shaming at the hands of more narrow-minded characters, but it would have been a more interesting conflict if Molly really were the "slut" she fears being labeled: perhaps a dominatrix, a reformed stripper or sex worker, or even just a girl who everyone knows got around back in the day (like Jane from Lead Me On).


A word of caution (and I reveal what may be a spoiler because I think some readers may appreciate a trigger warning): The stalker ex does come back, and in doing so puts Molly in a situation that may be difficult to read, especially for those with a personal history of sexual and/or domestic abuse.

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review 2013-10-06 16:51
Funny, but Too Busy
The Best Man - Kristan Higgins

There is a lot--probably too much--going on in this book. The main plot involves Faith (who returns to her hometown in upstate NY three years after her high school sweetheart, Jeremy, jilted her by coming out of the closet on their wedding day) and Levi (Jeremy's best friend and best man at the ill-fated wedding, who served four tours of duty in Afghanistan and is now the chief of police in their adorable small town). The minor plots include (in no particular order, and probably I'm leaving some out): 1) Faith working out her grief and guilt over her mother's death when Faith was twelve, 2) a tacky, big-breasted gold-digger who is trying to ingratiate herself with Faith's father, 3) Faith's oldest sister trying to spice up her sex life after 22 years of marriage, 4) Faith's next-older sister's inexplicably prickly relationship with Faith, 5) Faith planning a 65th anniversary party for her grandparents, who perhaps should not have married in the first place, 6) Faith's professional projects (she's a landscape architect), both in her hometown and in San Francisco, 7) Faith's epilepsy, which make her prone to having grand mal seizures at inopportune moments, 8) Faith's efforts to set her father up with someone other than the tacky gold-digger, 9) Levi's lingering grief over the recent death of his mother, 10) Levi's lingering grief over the demise of his very-brief first marriage, 11) Levi's care-taking relationship with his sister, a homesick college freshman, 12) Levi's daddy issues stemming from the fact that his dad, who was absent throughout Levi's childhood, now lives in the next town over with a new wife and two small kids, 13) Levi's professional projects (as the police chief, he's always getting called away to car crashes and break ins and so on), 14) Levi's trouble sleeping after being in a war, and how he copes. All of which is much too much for a standard-length romance novel, and the book probably would have been better, more focused, if Higgins had left at least half of these distractions out of the plot.


Moreover, peeling some of the unnecessary subplots from the story reveals that the romance between Faith and Levi is really pretty thin. For most of their lives, Levi has appeared not to like Faith. She notes that he looks at her with a 10-point scale of boredom, where 1 is "Oh, it's you," 10 is "You're invisible," and 8 is "Really? You're still here?" (Loc 1446, Page 111). Part of this is Levi's alpha-male emotional constipation, but even so, it's not clear what about Faith ultimately wins over his long standing antipathy. (Except, perhaps, her oft-mentioned "mighty rack.")


Emotional constipation aside, Levi is capable of incredible sweetness: he battles insomnia by baking cookies for his sister, and he uses his cop skills to recreate the accident that killed Faith's mother in order to convince Faith that the crash was not her fault. Even so, his initial antipathy toward Faith was so pronounced and so real that I found it a little too precious when we learn that he's always liked her, even back before she was his best friend's girl.


Even though I don't really buy into Faith and Levi as a couple, I was able to stay in the fantasy and enjoy the story, parts of which are delightfully funny. I do have to mention one revoltingly unfunny thing, which really soured my reading pleasure: there is one moment (relevant to one of the subplots which should just have been left out of the story entirely) of flagrant and unnecessary transphobia, meant to be funny, but is just isn't. Because it's a fleeting and very minor incident, I didn't throw the book at the wall and quit reading then and there, but for a moment, I was tempted.

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