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

About Kelly

I lost my romance-reading virginity with my older sister’s Danielle Steel collection, and Judith Krantz broadened my teenage horizons in ways I’m still recovering from. My bookshelves are overflowing with history and historical fiction, my Kindle is home to everything from preachy inspirationals to extreme kink, and my wishlist is out of control. Thanks to my old-school, cigar-smoking journalism professors, I have a passion for good storytelling and zero tolerance for lazy writing. I’ll forgive nearly anything for a sappy, happy ending – but I'm not afraid to unleash the snark. [And FYI, I work part-time for a GLBTQ publisher, so I do not review any GLBTQ titles to avoid any conflict of interest.]

Posts by Kelly :

What Kelly’s Been Reading: The “I Survived the Polar Vortex” Edition

What Kelly’s Been Reading: The “I Survived the Polar Vortex” Edition

This was my one chance to use “Polar Vortex” in a headline, so of course I took advantage. Next month’s installment will be titled “Yes, I’m STILL Coughing Like An 80-Year-Old Smoker And Whining About It Like A Two-Year-Old.” I did manage to read a boatload of books, and a few even made me less of a cranky mess.

Love in a Pawn Shop by Bonnie Edwards

I went on a huge contemporary binge, kicked off by Tamara Morgan’s In the Clear, for which I thank Laura Florand for reviewing here, because holy crap, I love that book. So of course I had to read all of Morgan’s backlist, and most of Florand’s. I also holy-crap-adored Geek with the Cat Tattoo by Theresa Weir, which extended my Good Book Mood enough to dig into the TBR for some Nicole Helm (Flight Risk), Holley Trent (My Nora, Calculated Exposure, Saint and Scholar), and Edie Harris (Stripped, Sparked). I bought a fun one called Love in a Pawn Shop by Bonnie Edwards because kickass heroine + pit bull + sexy cop, and I read ARCs of Amber Lin’s Chance of Rain and Mary Ann Rivers’ upcoming Live. All were in the B/B+ range.

On the historical side, there was just one worth recommending, and a few disappointments….

To Tempt a Viking by Michelle Willingham

To Tempt a Viking by Michelle WillinghamI really liked the first book in this series (To Sin with a Viking), and on re-read I decided to bump the grade up to an A- because of the way Willingham handled the could-have-been-squicky plot device of a married hero. As a follow-up, Tempt just seemed kind of tepid – the heroine’s angst over her barrenness and failed marriage vs. the hero’s I’m-not-worthy-enough unrequited love was a great set-up, but I just didn’t get the same level of emotional intensity. Tempt also had more violence than I was expecting, and the sub-plot with a troubled plot moppet seemed like an add-on. Grade: B-

The Dancing Master by Julie Klassen

The Dancing Master by Julie KlassenI was hoping Klassen would be back up to my rather high expectations, but this one didn’t do it. It’s a Regency story of a young “caper merchant” from a disgraced family attempting to open a dancing academy in a town full of secrets ruled by the heroine’s stiff-necked widowed mother. I managed to avoid any and all Footloose mental imagery through sheer force of will; however, having read it over the holidays, I could NOT dispel the visions of the Mean Widow as the Burgermeister Meisterburger denying toys to all the kids of Sombertown. It’s a decent book, but as with Klassen’s other recent titles, it’s too bland and predictable to keep pace with my favorite inspie authors. Grade: C

Into the Whirlwind by Elizabeth Camden

Into the Whirlwind by Elizabeth CamdenSpeaking of my favorite inspie authors…. Whirlwind wasn’t quite as glorious as Camden’s RITA-winning Against the Tide, but it’s a great book that shows off the author’s immersive historical world-building. Set during and after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, it’s got a kickass Irish heroine who runs her family’s watch-making business with an iron fist, a Polish dockworker-turned-ruthless-attorney, and a diverse supporting cast that actually drives the story instead of dragging it down. A memorable one-sitting book trance. Grade: B+

Safe Passage by Carla Kelly

Safe Passage by Carla Kelly

I am…conflicted…about this book. I really liked what’s there, but it wasn’t what I was expecting. It’s a great historical adventure, highlighting a little-known setting (Mormon refugees during the 1912 Mexican Revolution), with shoot-outs and raids and starvation and rescues, presented by an author who’s one of the best story-tellers I’ve ever read. But my fangirl thing set me up to expect more of the relationship re-building that was promised in the blurb. I wanted Ammon and Addie’s second-chance romance to take center-stage because I believed whole-heartedly in their backstory and wanted to learn how their faith allowed them to forgive and reconnect. Worth reading, but be prepared for more action and less romance. Grade: B

Three Dog Knight by Tori Phillips

Three Dog Knight by Tori PhillipsYes, I paid money for this Harlequin Treasury re-release. Because dogs, duh. And it’s a good thing it had dogs, because I don’t really remember much else about this book. The hero was kind of a Kristoff-from-Frozen type of doofus, the cardboard-ingénue heroine was secretly a princess, the Slutty Evil Widow was a shrieking harpy, and I think the Hired Evil Villain may have actually twirled his moustache at one point. Dog-wise, there was a pregnant greyhound that gave birth on the Evil Widow’s bed, a slobbery mastiff who slobbered a lot, and a yippy terrier that rescued the ingénue from the Clutches of Evil. Too much melodrama, not enough dogs. Grade: D+

REVIEW:  Married for Christmas by Noelle Adams

REVIEW: Married for Christmas by Noelle Adams

Dear Ms. Adams,

Other readers might glance at the blurb and think, “A hero who’s a preacher? Really?”

I, on the other hand, thought, “Sexy pastor, bring it on. A contemporary marriage of convenience? Yeah, right. Whatever. Good luck with that.”

Married for Christmas by Noelle AdamsAfter years of dreaming, Jessica is finally getting married, but the marriage isn’t exactly what she thought.

Daniel is her best friend, and she’s known him all her life, but he’s never gotten over losing his wife two years ago. His dream is to become the pastor of the church in their hometown, but the small-town congregation keeps balking over calling an unmarried minister. Since Daniel needs a wife and Jessica wants a husband and family, she proposes an arrangement that benefits both of them.

They can get married. They can build a life together. They can celebrate Christmas as a couple. It’s fine that he doesn’t love her. And it’s fine that she’s not exactly suited to be a small-town pastor’s wife. And it’s fine that she’s more attracted to her sexy, brooding husband every day.

Jessica can be practical about this marriage. She knows what she’s getting into, after all…

I apologize for my unvoiced and uninformed snark. This was by far the best contemporary marriage of convenience romance I’ve read, and it’s a helluva Christmas story too. (Is that blasphemous? I did my penance with all those tear-stained tissues, right?)

Married for Christmas isn’t perfect, but I didn’t even notice until about the third or fourth reading, because I was rooting for Jess and Daniel from very first chapter. Friends-to-lovers. Strong but vulnerable heroine. Quietly sexy beta hero. Angst-o-rama unrequited love resolved by Grand Gesture Groveling. Big slobbery dog. All buttons pushed.

On the surface, heroine Jessica is a bit of a mess. She sees herself as utterly ordinary (“average, forgettable, no frills”), and the few lackluster dates she’s had over the years have reinforced her belief that romance and passion are out of her league. In reality, Jess is strong and smart – she’s brilliant at her job as a web designer – but she’s so quietly capable and unwilling to draw attention to herself that she’s overlooked by nearly everyone.

The one exception to her desperate loneliness is her childhood friend (and unrequited love) Daniel. He’s a widowed pastor who longs to return to his hometown congregation, but his age and marital status are red flags to the stodgy church elders – which sets the scene for the marriage of convenience.

What makes this story work is the constant negotiation that takes over their formerly lighthearted friendship. In the first scene, he steals food off her plate and she snipes at him for rebuffing her beloved pet (“Her name is Bear. Not ‘the dog.’”) and refuses to let him try to fix her car. But once The Proposal is out there, the boundaries are completely reset – all the inherent trust of their shared history is overwhelmed by the over-analysis of every word and action. Jessica consciously rationalizes everything, refusing to acknowledge her emotions because she doesn’t want Daniel to feel obligated.

And in all its awkwardness, the negotiating continues into the bedroom. I was really impressed with how the heroine’s virginity was treated as a simple fact and not a major plot point – and how the wedding night scene evolved from hesitant suggestion…

“You can read, if you’d rather…”

“If I’d rather read than what?”

Her cheeks warmed, but she was determined to be adult and mature about this topic. “Well, I was thinking we might…we might have sex. But we really don’t have to.”

“I didn’t know if you’d want to right away.” He placed the book on the nightstand, which was an immense relief. At least he didn’t prefer Bonheoffer to having sex with her.

…to teasing banter:

“So we got all this worked out then?”

“Yeah, I think so.”

“So sex tonight?”

He nodded, a warm look in his eyes that made her shiver. “Sex tonight.”

While all that negotiating is great at showing the reader how Jess and Daniel rebuild their relationship, it’s also the source of some rather extreme emotional whiplash – hence the bump down on the letter grade. For each step forward, there’s an immediate step back. Every breakthrough is followed by a clueless remark that kills the fleeting rays of hope. It might be realistic, but both Jessica and the reader need a chance to enjoy a bit of momentum before the next crash of misunderstanding.

So – the Sexy Pastor thing. Yes, Daniel is a pastor. He writes sermons and reads Bonhoeffer in bed and wrestles with his faith. And ohhhh, yes, he’s sexy. Scruffy, brainy, beta sexy. Let’s just say he’s not a celibate priest.

Does Daniel’s profession make Married for Christmas an inspirational romance? Yes and no. According to the author’s note in the front matter:

The point of this story is not to present any sort of religious message, but because faith is important to these characters, the plot and their development turns on their spiritual condition as much as anything else. In writing a story like this, there’s likely to be too much religion for some readers and too little for others. I don’t know if I’ve navigated this challenge successfully, but I do believe it’s worth the attempt.

Goal achieved. The characters’ beliefs are an integral part of their daily lives and their relationship, but their “spiritual condition” is never beaten into the reader’s brain with self-righteous preaching or Magical Bible Verses.

Could this story have worked if Daniel was a Billionaire CEO With A Tragic Past or Navy SEAL With PTSD or some other romance hero archetype? I don’t think so. We would have gotten the requisite internal struggles over self-doubt and trust, but Daniel’s unique and highly visible role in their small community, and Jessica’s ambivalence about being the “perfect pastor’s wife,” is a much-needed source of external conflict (and humor) that keeps the story from turning into just another predictable Plain-Jane-Redeems-Manly-Man trope.

And, of course, the Sexy Pastor thing allows us to get that Gloriously Groveling Grand Gesture ending:

“Why are you panting?” she asked stupidly.

“I…ran…home.”

 Pass the tissues, please. I’m a little weepy again.

Grade: B+

~ Kelly

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