Romance, Historical, Contemporary, Paranormal, Young Adult, Book reviews, industry news, and commentary from a reader's point of view

About Jennie

http://dearauthor.com/author/jennie/

has been an avid if often frustrated romance reader for the past 15 years. In that time she's read a lot of good romances, a few great ones, and, unfortunately, a whole lot of dreck. Many of her favorite authors (Ivory, Kinsale, Gaffney, Williamson, Ibbotson) have moved onto other genres or produce new books only rarely, so she's had to expand her horizons a bit. Newer authors she enjoys include Julie Ann Long, Megan Hart and J.R. Ward, and she eagerly anticipates each new Sookie Stackhouse novel. Strong prose and characterization go a long way with her, though if they are combined with an unusual plot or setting, all the better. When she's not reading romance she can usually be found reading historical non-fiction.

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REVIEW:  Waiting On You by Kristan Higgins

REVIEW: Waiting On You by Kristan Higgins

Waiting On You (Blue Heron Book 3)  by Kristan HigginsDear Ms. Higgins:

I read and reviewed your 2010 book, The Next Best Thing, last year and liked it quite well; when I came across Waiting on You I decided to pick it up (it’s the third in a series but I’ve become less concerned with such things lately; unless there’s an overarching plot that needs to be read chronologically, I really don’t care that much about reading in order).

Waiting on You is a second chance at love/reunited lovers story, which is…kind of really not my favorite theme, honestly. A lot of times such stories strike me as too bittersweet; the h/h have lost valuable years together, after all. It’s a little more palatable in stories like this, where very young lovers reunite a decade later; after all, there’s something to be said for each of them getting some life experience before they settle down. That ended up being a bit of an issue in this book, though, in that I felt like only one of the characters really did much living in the 10 years they were apart.

At 31, Colleen O’Rourke has a pretty good life – she has the bar she runs with her twin brother, Connor, in Mannisport, NY, the small tourist town where she grew up. She has friends, many of whom she’s known pretty much all of her life. She’s confident, attractive, and she has a great dog, an Irish wolfhound named Rufus.

What Colleen doesn’t have is love. She’s great at fixing up others; as the book opens O’Rourke’s (the bar) is celebrating the engagement of two locals, an engagement Colleen helped bring about. But Colleen, though she’s had a few flings over the years, hasn’t been able to quite get over The One That Got Away, Lucas Campbell.

Lucas came to Mannisport to finish his senior year in high school. He lost his mother when he was six to ALS, and his father to prison as a teen (his father apparently dealt meth as a way to get out from under crushing debt caused by his wife’s medical bills; he didn’t want to lose their house). After his dad went away, Lucas was sent to live with his uncle Joe, his wicked witch aunt Didi, and his worshipful cousin Bryce. The family moved to Mannisport just as Lucas was getting ready to graduate and move onto the University of Chicago. But in Mannisport Lucas met Colleen, a meeting that changed both of their lives.

Colleen was the most popular girl in the senior class, but she didn’t date because she just didn’t feel a spark with any of the guys she went to school with. Lucas was fresh meat for the small senior class at their high school – handsome and slightly exotic (he’s half Puerto-Rican, which I guess qualifies as “ethnic” in Mannisport). He held himself aloof from his classmates, though, while secretly admiring Colleen from afar. Colleen was very attracted to Lucas, too, but she was so used to playing it cool and being the pursued rather than the pursuer that she didn’t seem to know what to do with her attraction. Things came to a head on the night of the prom, when Lucas rescued Colleen from a bad situation (specifically, from a possible impending rape, which I kind of wish the book hadn’t brought up just to drop like it was no big deal). From then on, they’re a couple.

Lucas and Colleen are actually together for four years, until secrets, bad decisions and excessive pride conspire to part them. He ends up marrying a university classmate and moving up in the world, finding success in his father-in-law’s company as a project manager for large construction in Chicago. Colleen stays in Mannisport, gets a nursing degree, and opens O’Rourke’s with Connor. They haven’t seen each other for 10 years when Lucas returns to Mannisport at the request of his dying uncle Joe. Joe wants Lucas to stay in town until he passes; specifically, he wants Lucas to be there for Bryce, who is thirtysomething but has the emotional maturity of an adolescent and absolutely no ambition or drive to ever get out from under his mother’s thumb. Sparks fly and tempers flare from the moment Colleen and Lucas see each other again.

I wanted to like this book better than I did – on paper, there was a lot to like: an unusually confident, self-possessed heroine and relationships and characterizations that felt more nuanced and complex than those found in the average romance. But the story almost seemed to have a split personality – it veered between slapstick humor with broad characterizations and more subtle, intelligent depictions of the characters and their relationships.

For instance: Colleen’s parents divorced when her father got his mistress pregnant; Colleen and Connor now have a 9-year-old half-sister named Savannah whom they love. While Connor could never forgive his father, Colleen has a far more complicated relationship with him – always a daddy’s girl and temperamentally much closer to her father than to her mother, Colleen was devastated by his betrayal of her mother and their family. But she came to realize that if she made her dad choose between her and Gail (the mistress, another paint-by-numbers villainess until near the end of the book), she’d lose. I really liked how real this felt: Colleen is a grown woman and a fairly well-adjusted one but she isn’t able to let go of her need for her father’s affection and approval.

Which is why it’s disappointing that some of the other characterizations are *so* broad. Aunt Didi is a paper-thin, nasty stereotype – the overbearing mother/emasculating wife who treats Lucas like dirt for no apparent reason. Colleen’s father’s wife Gail is the oversexed trophy wife who doesn’t even seem to love her own daughter very much – she’s instead disappointed that Savannah isn’t a girly mini-Gail (a role Gail cluelessly tries to force Savannah into, so we can see Colleen fight for her sister’s right to be a tomboy). It’s only near the end of the story that Colleen sees Gail in another light, and while I appreciated that Colleen was able to recognize some truths about her father and about Gail and her treatment of Savannah, it came so late and after so much demonizing that the epiphany just about gave me whiplash.

Lucas’ cousin Bryce is portrayed as a mentally challenged man-child. I mean, he’s not actually supposed to suffer from any sort of disability, but his lack of emotional intelligence, maturity, ability to read social cues and ambition to do anything other than live in his mother’s basement for the rest of his life is played way over the top.

I don’t really go for broad and slapsticky in my romances in general; it’s almost more irritating when the ridiculous moments are mixed with sublime ones, like when Colleen’s mother Jeanette admits that her behavior is ridiculous and pathetic (she openly pines after the husband that betrayed her, after 10 years apart), but that she just hasn’t ever been able to get over Colleen’s father and still loves him, even though he’s not worthy of it. I would have liked this book so much better if there were more of these moments and fewer (many fewer) of the characters acting in such unrealistic, buffoonish ways.

Actually, when I think about it, it’s mostly the women who are played for laughs: Colleen, her mother, Gail, Didi, Colleen’s friend Paulie. Bryce is about the only male who acts in a broadly comedic, unrealistic way (well, there’s Jeanette’s suitor Stan, but he’s barely a blip in the story). The men for the most part play it straight: certainly Lucas, who’s never made to look foolish or not in control, Colleen’s brother Connor, her father (in spite of the fact that he’s clearly an asshole who does *sort of* get his comeuppance at the end). Even Joe, who granted deserves some sympathy because he’s dying, gets what felt to me like an unreasonably good edit – he’s depicted as the evil Didi’s innocent victim, rather than a grown-ass man who chose to stay with a nasty woman who mistreated his nephew and emotionally stunted their son.

(I think it’s interesting to contrast Jeanette and Joe: both hung onto – or tried to – partners who were unworthy of them. Joe is blameless and lovable; Jeannette is pathetic and bitter for most of the book. She’s not an unlikable character – though Colleen finds her understandably exasperating – but she’s at best pitiable and rather silly.)

As for the reunited lovers angle – I felt like Lucas had had a more complete life, somehow, than Colleen. I mean, both were sort of biding time with their lives in the decade they were apart, but…the book is called “Waiting on You”, and that’s how it felt to me – like Colleen was just waiting for Lucas to come back and sweep her off of her feet again. I really hate that in a heroine. There’s a sort of interesting conflict that pops up near the end that I had mixed feelings about:

Spoiler (spoiler): Show

Lucas and Colleen are more or less a couple again, and then he finds out that Colleen once slept with Bryce years before. Lucas dumps Colleen and returns to Chicago. On the one hand, she should have told him about it, and I appreciated that there were some complicated feelings between Lucas and Bryce – both had reasons to be jealous of what the other had – but I was also annoyed because Lucas was MARRIED to another woman at the time; it was none of his business who Colleen slept with.

In general, I  just didn’t like Colleen that much. I found her irritating. I didn’t like that her favorite Austen heroine was Emma (yuck). I didn’t like the way her favorite curse word was “sphincter” (I think this was supposed to be cute but it really, really wasn’t). I got annoyed with her calling Lucas “Spaniard” and comparing him to Heathcliff or a pirate or whatever damn immature girlish fantasy hero she could think of. I didn’t think it was cute when she decided to cook him dinner in spite of the fact that she apparently couldn’t cook and managed to ruin the whole thing in a supposedly adorable, bumbling way. Geez, I don’t even cook (or eat) seafood, and I know you don’t cook scallops two hours ahead of time (or wander out onto the balcony with a glass of wine while they’re cooking). Part of the problem was that I felt like she went from being a somewhat fully-formed character to a parody of a girlish ditz. But even that doesn’t quite explain why by the end of the book I felt such antipathy towards Colleen. I just know that I really didn’t like her.

Lucas was a lot simpler – he was sort of a collection of characteristics: tragic childhood, nice guy but a little emotionally closed off, good at everything, very hot. That was pretty much it with Lucas. He was essentially perfect, especially when contrasted, as he frequently was, with his equally hot but dumb and shiftless cousin Bryce. Lucas bored me.

In summary, Waiting on You started out with a lot of potential and had surprising moments of nuance and depth of feeling. Unfortunately, those moments only glancingly touched the main characters, who were annoying (Colleen) and dull (Lucas). As a result, my grade kept dropping the longer I read. My final grade for Waiting on You is a C-.

Best regards,

Jennie

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REVIEW:  Live For Me (Blurred Lines, Book 2) by Erin McCarthy

REVIEW: Live For Me (Blurred Lines, Book 2) by Erin...

live for meDear Ms. McCarthy,

I managed to make it all the way through the first book in the series without realizing that it was based on Wuthering Heights, even though the hero and heroine were named Heath and Cat. In my defense, it was definitely a loose interpretation. The parallels between Live for Me and its inspiration, Jane Eyre, were a lot clearer, which ended up being both a strength and a weakness in the book.

Tiffany Ennis is only 18, but she’s lived a pretty tough eighteen years. Her father was never in her life, her mother was a drug addict who died when she was young, and she was in and out of foster homes until her grandmother took her in as an adolescent. That was hardly a refuge, though, since Tiffany’s grandmother was both verbally and physically abusive and mostly seemed to want her granddaughter around as an unpaid servant. One day during an argument her grandmother throws Tiffany out for good, which ends up being something of a godsend.

Tiffany is able to stay with friends (the couple from the first book) while looking for employment, and is lucky enough to quickly land an extremely cushy job as the caretaker of a mansion owned by a music producer from New York. She figures she will have solitude on the remote estate in Maine (near the desolate island where she grew up, Vinalhaven), since the owner is rarely there. She can save her salary up for school, where she hopes to get a nursing degree.

Tiffany’s solitude is interrupted on her very first night alone in the house, though, when the master of the house appears. Devin Gold turns out not to be the old man Tiffany had assumed he would be – instead he is 30, ridiculously handsome and something of a savant in the high-powered music world in New York. His unexpected arrival (along with his dog, Amelia, who immediately takes a shine to Tiffany) upsets Tiffany’s equilibrium; she finds herself unexpectedly attracted to him and unsure and awkward about it (understandable, since he’s her boss, much older and in every way has far more power than she does).

I’m sure there are readers who will stop right now and decide that this is not the book for them – readers who don’t like big age difference and/or power differential between the h/h in their romances (such readers are pretty common in my experience). Some of those same readers probably disliked Jane Eyre for similar reasons. But what made the situation a lot less icky (to use the technical term) for me, in both cases, was the heroine. In both Jane and Tiffany we’re given a heroine with a very strong sense of self, one that can’t be cowed or manipulated even by an older and more powerful hero. That’s not to say there aren’t crunchy moments, though.

In Live for Me, it also helps that Devin does try to keep his distance from Tiffany, and is clearly troubled by the age difference. This contributes to my confidence that Devin was attracted to Tiffany in spite of, rather than because of, her youth. There is some contrasting of Tiffany’s unspoiled innocence in relation to Devin’s jaded and corrupt NY friends, but that dynamic seemed to have little to do with her age and it’s one that I see in a lot of romances, anyway (too many, IMO; I understand the appeal of the trope but it’s not a favorite of mine, especially as I’ve matured).

Still, as I said, there were some squicky moments; it doesn’t help that Tiffany is very small in stature (as was Jane in JE, but I don’t remember getting the sense that she looked like she was 14, as I do here) and that at one point another character mistakes Tiffany for Devin’s daughter. The issue sort of faded into the background for me as the story went on and the characters (especially Tiffany) became more fleshed out in other ways, but I could definitely see it bothering other readers. I really could’ve done without the hero’s music industry nickname “Gold Daddy” and the way it’s used in an inane and distasteful conversation that Tiffany overhears between Devin and one of his bimbos.

In spite of all of that, there was a point probably halfway through the story where I was really riveted – I had that “don’t want to put the book down” feeling that is really unusual for me. (Is it weird that even as an avid reader I don’t usually have trouble putting a book down? I feel like it is. But I digress…) I don’t know that I can even clearly articulate *why* I was so absorbed, but I think it probably had a lot more to do with Tiffany than with Devin. Sure, part of it is that she is the narrator and the reader is privy to her thoughts; it’s natural under those circumstances to identify with her more. But Devin himself is just not *that* interesting, I don’t think (or to put it a different way, the reader isn’t given enough insight into what is interesting about him). He seems to have had a fairly happy childhood, followed by a super-successful career (one that doesn’t always make him happy, but that’s not so tragic) and an unhappy marriage. The marriage though, in contrast to Rochester’s in Jane Eyre, wasn’t the result of family pressure or trickery (I mean, his ex was definitely manipulative but the marriage itself mostly seemed to be the result of youthful foolishness on his part). There just doesn’t seem to be that much reason for Devin to be the brooding anti-hero who exiles himself in torment on his remote estate. (To be fair, this portrayal of him was rather fitful, so maybe it’s unfair for me to hang it on him, but OTOH, the inconsistency in characterization was its own problem.)

The story started to fall apart for me in the last third or quarter, mostly due, I think, to the characters acting in ways that didn’t really make sense but corresponded, roughly, to the plot of the Bronte novel. First Devin is senselessly and extravagantly cruel to Tiffany for no real reason, except I guess to drive her away by showing her the “real” him.Then she finds out something about him that throws her for a loop, and flees. This is clearly meant to correspond with Jane fleeing Rochester after finding out about his mad wife in the attic in Jane Eyre, but the parallel doesn’t work on several levels: first of all, the revelation, while upsetting, is not nearly on a par with the one in JE and 2) she doesn’t flee right away, but rather dithers around some, allowing herself to be taken to Devin’s apartment in New York before deciding she just can’t handle his world and its complications. Which makes her seem flighty and reinforces for me that she’s a goddamned teenager who doesn’t have any business being involved in such a serious relationship with a much older and more worldly man. Which was a fact I’d successfully avoided for a good part of the book; I resented being reminded of it.

As an aside, one (minor-ish) point – Tiffany alludes on several occasions to being biracial. I would have liked to have seen this further explored – as it was we never even find out what ethnicity her father is. I thought that was a little strange; it would seem to me that growing up biracial in a place as white as Maine (94.4%, if Wikipedia can be trusted) would’ve contributed to some of Tiffany’s sense of alienation. Maybe it did, but we didn’t hear very much about it, which I found a little disappointing.

Overall, as a take on Jane Eyre (there are a lot of parallels thrown in – again, way more than I found in You Make Me/Wuthering Heights – but probably detailing them would be spoilerish?) this wasn’t entirely successful, and I couldn’t help but think it would’ve worked much better if the conflict in the last third had been reworked. I’ll also say that to the degree that it was “good” it was more on an emotional level than a literary one (I don’t say that to be snobbish but just to make it clear that there are probably a lot of readers who might not have the emotional connection to the book that I did). And I’ll just reiterate one last time that it was mostly the heroine who made the book for me (which is a big thing, obviously, in a first-person story – liking/relating to the storyteller). My final grade for Live for Me is a sort-of-shaky B+.

Best regards,

 

Jennie

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