Mini Reviews: Experiments in Romance

That post title sounds slightly naughty, doesn’t it?

Mission. Accomplished.

Ever since Renegade wrote her excellent post on a beginners’ guide to romance reading, I’ve been seeking out a big R romance title every once in awhile—particularly books from her list, but also titles that seem like they may suit my taste. A few I’ve reviewed here—my most notable discovery being my a new favorite in the form of Molly O’Keefe’s excellent single-title romances. 

(I bet Renegade is really proud of me for properly using the term “single title romance.”)

Within Reach by Sarah Mayberry on Clear Eyes, Full Shelves

Within Reach by Sarah Mayberry

Rebeca wrote a glowing review of Australian author Sarah Mayberry’s novel about love and grief, Within Reach—and since she’s a tough critic, I knew I had to give it a chance even though the weird cover and “Harlequin Super Romance” branding would normally send me running. I have to say, this is an outstanding book that I accidentally read in a single sitting.

Renegade’s review pretty much covered why this book is so good, and I echo all of her thoughts. I was so surprised by what a sad book this is, despite that it’s a romance, and you know a happy ever after is a given. What struck me the most is how much both Angie and Michael love Billie, who died suddenly at 32. Nothing feels forced or rushed, as both have to figure out who they are without their best friend and wife, respectively. The two having to figure a way forward for themselves as individuals first made Within Reach feel emotionally authentic, which is my litmus test for romances. Both are also decent people, who want to do the right thing by Billie’s memory and for Michael and Billie’s children. 

My main niggle with Within Reach would be that there’s a huge time jump between the first chapter when we see Billie’s death and the second, which takes place ten months in the future. I would have liked to see more about the immediate aftermath of losing Billie, because it would have created more context for the connection between the two in terms of losing Billie.  And, again in this book, like in many romances I’ve read, the condom use (or lack thereof) is suspect. The two’s first sexual encounter is a frantic sort of situation and they don’t even discuss condoms, which makes sense in the context of the story. However, after the fact, Michael (rightly) apologizes for that and Angie tells him she’s on the pill and it doesn’t matter. In her internal monologue, she thinks something along the lines of,

“Plus, she trusted Michael.”

First off, “trust” is not adequate protection against STDs. That’s sex ed 101. Secondly, in this case, Michael is the one who should have pressed this issue because while he’d been in a monogamous relationship with his late wife for many, many years, Angie was single and who knows who else she told she “trusted” and didn’t need to worry about condoms. I know people don’t like to deal with this in books because it’s not sexy, but like I always say, gonorrhea is also not sexy.

But, despite these two minor reservations, Within Reach is definitely one I’d put on my yet-to-be-developed list of Romance for People Who Think They Don’t Like Romance. 

Note: Within Reach is currently priced at the odd, but nevertheless low, price of $3.82 for Kindle.

Amazon / Goodreads

Forever and a Day by Jill Shalvis

I read and enjoyed the first three books in Jill Shalvis’ Lucky Harbor series quite a bit, but somehow missed that the series continued past the original three (it looks like it’s scheduled to go to at least nine books). Unfortunately, I think my enjoyment of Forever and a Day was hindered by my not having read books four and five, because I was a bit lost about the main character Grace, whose group of friends called “Chocoholics Anonymous” are the focus of this grouping of novels. 

The premise of this story is basically nice-girl Grace, who’s desperate to find a job takes on a nanny-dog walking gig for overworked doctor Josh, who not only has an incredibly stressful job, but also cares for his young son and his sister, who was disabled in an accident. Obviously, the undeniable chemistry between the two means that they have to strike one of those “it’s just sex” deals that happen in romance so very often. Annnnnd… we all know how that works out. 

Forever and a Day, like all of Jill Shalvis’s novels, shines in terms of dialogue. There’s always a lot of wit and fun banter not only between the two main characters, but also within the entire community of Lucky Harbor (seriously, I want to move to this little town near Seattle that has a Cheers-style bar and everyone is so witty and clever). And, like all of Shalvis’ novels, Josh stands out as a likable, symphatic male lead. He’s just a guy, hardworking, smart guy. 

Unfortunately, Grace isn’t particularly memorable and I found her to be a bit immature and frustrating, especially since she had a lot of “I can’t live up to my parents’ expectations” issues, which is a character device that has to be done very, very well to work for me. Additionally, a number of little details relating to Josh’s job at the hospital just didn’t add up for me. 

I’d recommend Forever and a Day either for folks who’ve read the rest of the books in the series or to those looking for an breezy beach read—but if you’re looking for a smart, emotionally authentic romance, you’ll want to look elsewhere. 

Amazon / Goodreads

Disclosure: Received for review via Netgalley.


What the Librarian Did by Karina Bliss

Rebeca aka Renegade listed this book as one of her picks in her post I mentioned above. And I can see why she likes it so much: both of the main characters defy the stereotypes of their professions (rock star and librarian, respectively). They both are smart and have issues they need to work through, so there’s a satisfying level of angst. However, I had a couple of significant issues with this book.

The two main characters seemed like they were becoming best friends rather than romantically involved. In theory, I have no issue with this, because obviously couples should care about and respect each other on that level as well. But, really, there wasn’t a lot of chemistry that worked for me beyond the friendship factor (which I really loved, incidentally—they both kind of needed that sort of connection). I think this was really worsened due to the constraints of the category romance format because it just feels truncated and short. I mentioned this to Rebeca at book club last week and she almost fell out of her chair, because she thought the two characters had off-the-charts chemistry. So, your results will definitely vary.

My enjoyment of What the Librarian Did was also really hampered by another situation. I was very disturbed by the way in which the issue of abortion was handled in this novel. The author demonizes the characters who suggested abortion as an option for a teen who faces an unplanned pregnancy. The parents of the boy who fathered the child are treated as almost cartoonishly evil because they want the teen character to terminate the pregnancy. This entire aspect added nothing to the story, and felt as if an agenda was inserted into the novel for no reason whatsoever. Frankly, these characters were depicted with more judgement and less compassion than those who really deserved it, another character’s parents, one of whom was physically abusive and the other who covered up that abuse. I get that this is a category romance, and therefore veers toward the conservative, but this was unnecessary and added zero to the character development or plot. Rebeca tells me that this is a very, very common plot device in romance, but it really pushed my buttons. 

I would not have read this book if I haven’t been making an effort to read most of Rebeca’s suggestions, and I do think it’s an enjoyable book, regardless of my reservations about it. I’d particularly recommend it to folks who read a lot of YA who maybe want an adult story without a lot of sexytimes. (There’s a sex scene, but it’s more of the blink and you’ll miss it variety.) I’m not sure if I would read this author again, despite the good dialogue (it’s very clever and witty) and enjoyable characters because of my concern about issue #2, above.

Note: What the Librarian Did is currently priced priced at $3.79 for Kindle, so it’s worth checking out if you’re intrigued by its premise. If you use an epub reader, it’s $4.95 at Kobo, but can be had at 40% off using the amusing promo code of “Bargainmoose40” when you check out.

 Amazon / Goodreads

Close Enough to Touch by Victoria Dahl

Rebeca received a review copy of this book and told me she didn’t finish it. I was so curious about why it didn’t work for her that I read it myself. Here’s my quick and dirty (*ahem*) review.

Plot summary:

  • Grumpy character being grumpy.
  • Nice character being inexplicably nice to grumpy character.
  • SEX SEX SEX that made no sense for either’s character development.
  • Rinse and Repeat.

I will say that my issue with this book is not what is has been for some people—that Grace is so unlikable and unrelatable. I love prickly, difficult characters. I simply didn’t believe that either of the main characters had gotten to a point where they could be in a healthy relationship with another person. Additionally, the plot point which brings a movie crew onto the ranch where Cole works, was absurd and his trauma over the entire situation was immature and unbelievable. 

I am not a huge fan of her books like some folks are (honestly, I’m a bit of a prude, but I really respect what she’s done in terms of bringing an overtly feminist perspective to the romance world—and I love following Dahl on Tumblr and Twitter), but I liked her book with the guy who blew stuff up for a living and the one with the cop and the sassy writer—both had great character development and really fun wit. This one just didn’t work at all for me—I think if your intent is just to enjoy the sex scenes, then you’ll like it, but otherwise, the story falls flat.

(I see that this book has many, many five-star reviews on Goodreads, and the writing is strong, so again, your results may vary.)

Amazon / Goodreads

Planning for Love by Christi Barth

Y’all, let me introduce you to the worst book I read this year. When I read this blurb on NetGalley, 

Hopeless romantic Ivy Rhodes and anti-Cupid Bennett Westcott request the pleasure of your company for their disaster of a courtship.

I thought, “Ooh, fun rom-com!” (I’m a sucker for rom-coms—don’t judge.) I could not have been more wrong. Planning for love would have been a quick did-not-finish for me, but I kept reading thinking that there’d be some sort of payoff for the female lead’s horrificly selfish, myopic behavior. Sadly, I could not have been more wrong. 

The female lead, Ivy, is a wedding planner and horrible human being. She essentially manipulates the male lead into changing his entire life to suit her picture-perfect ideal for love and marriage. She never has to make any compromises in her life and the message is pretty disturbing. 

The male lead, Bennett, is wholly unbelievable. The parts of the novel from his point-of-view waiver between stereotypes (he thinks about sports a lot—except his references are screwy, ie he shoots a “dunk shot”) and ridiculous wish-fulfillment (he completely changes his life to suit Ivy). 

I read this novel months ago and have held off writing a review of it because I hate not having anything positive to point out about a book. Usually when I don’t like something, it’s because it’s a Sarah issue, the themes or tropes are ones I don’t care for. However, I really cannot figure out who the audience for Planning for Love may be. I see that it has numerous four- and five-star reviews on Goodreads, but I feel like I read a different book than these readers do. The wit and charm that many refer to was absent and the characters (including the friends) had zero chemistry. Your mileage may vary, but I highly doubt it. 

Amazon / Goodreads

Disclosure: Received for revew via NetGalley.


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