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

Toni Blake

REVIEW:  Whisper Falls: A Destiny Novel by Toni Blake

REVIEW: Whisper Falls: A Destiny Novel by Toni Blake

WF

Dear Ms. Blake:

While listening to the DBSA podcast with Jaci Burton last week, Sarah mentioned having read and enjoyed your book, Whisper Falls. The book stood out to her because it features a heroine with Crohn’s disease, which is certainly unusual in the world of Romance. The premise intrigued me, so I gave it a whirl.

Tessa Sheridan is back in the town where she grew up, Destiny, OH. She’s moved back because a debilitating bout with Crohn’s disease has left her unable to fully take care of herself. She’s moved home to be close to her parents, who can help her when she has a flare up. But the trade off is, she’s left a very successful interior design business and despite her efforts, no one seems to be hiring interior designers in Destiny. One day, while catsitting her friend Amy’s cat, Mr. Knightley, he escapes the house. Tessa has no choice but to chase after him in her Hot Stuff pajamas. While looking for him, she bumps into her new noisy neighbor, Lucky Romo.

Lucky is also reluctantly back in Destiny. He’s moved home because he’s recently discovered that he has a child from a liaison that he had nine years ago. He’s decided that he’ll bring his motorcycle painting business to Destiny and set up shop. The town is close to Chillicothe , where there is an annual biker rodeo and a good concentration of bikers in the area, and Lucky is very talented. But he’s hiding from his family who lives right in Destiny. He’s not ready to see them after fleeing home when his sister died and leaving no word as to his whereabouts. During the time he was gone, Lucky made a number of poor decisions and has secrets he’d rather not reveal.

But when Lucky spies Tessa, he begins to flirt lightly with her. He knows that there will be no future for them, but he can’t seem to help his attraction to her. Soon, he hires her to redecorate a number of rooms in his house. He’s looking for “normal”, whatever that is. As Tessa works in his house, his attraction grows and one night he dares her to come to the biker bar where he hangs out. Tessa, wishing to live a little after being so sick for so long, takes him up on the dare and drags her friend, Rachel, along. Unfortunately for Lucky, Rachel is his brother Mike’s fiance. Mike is NOT pleased to see Rachel either at a biker bar, or with Lucky, who he blames from breaking his parents’ heart when he left town with no word. The evening ends in a scene, but not without Lucky finally making his move on Tessa. As Lucky and Tessa finally act on their attraction, both know that this will be a sexual relationship and nothing else, but the more time they spend together, the more they realize how well they get along and how much they’ve come to depend on each other.

This was an interesting book for me to read. I appreciated the treatment of Tessa’s illness. Crohn’s is no joke, and you depicted well the fact that she often doesn’t feel well, and Lucky’s drive to take care of her when she felt awful. While you didn’t touch on  some of the more unsavory aspects of Crohn’s, the depiction read true to me, and I thought it was an interesting internal force for Tessa to break out of her routine and try new things. I thought that Lucky’s past was credible and I liked that his son was never a distraction to the story, only a mild enhancement.  I understand why so many readers really enjoy your writing.

What I missed was a certain heat level. This felt like the kind of book I could happily hand my grandmother to read. The heat factor is very mild, and there are a number of references to things that made my teeth ache, in particular, the heroine’s idolization of Ellen Degeneres. She often times referred to Ellen as an inspiration to her to get out bed, or dance, or engage in life. And while I enjoy the Ellen show myself, and think she’s a wonderful example for people, it felt forced to me. The story has a very small town feel to it, which I believe a lot of readers will connect with. It is certainly a well written, entertaining contemporary romance that features a heroine with an interesting health issue. That being said, I also don’t think I’m the target audience for your work. I like my romance a little filthier and a whole lot angstier. My lack of deep engagement in the story means I can’t really grade it much higher than a B-, but I believe a lot of readers will disagree with me, and this book will be a satisfying, engaging read for them. This review is a case of good book, wrong reviewer, I think.

Kind regards,

Kati

AmazonBNSonyKoboAREBook DepositoryGoogle

REVIEW:  Half Moon Hill by Toni Blake

REVIEW: Half Moon Hill by Toni Blake

Dear Ms. Blake:

I thought I was destined to escape the quaint town of Destiny, Ohio, the setting for for your contemporary romance series. I disliked the last three entries which had lost the flair of the first two, One Reckless Summer and Sugar Creek. I hadn’t planned to read the most recent Destiny novel, Half Moon Hill, but a glowing review at another site made me change my mind. I’m not sorry I did. Half Moon Hill isn’t as strong as the Destiny novels I like, but nor is it as bland and annoying as the three that precede it.

Half Moon Hill by Toni BlakeOne reason I like Half Moon Hill is that there’s not a lot of Destiny in it. The majority of the story takes place outside of town, in an old mansion Anna Romo is fixing up with the hope of turning it into Destiny’s first bed and breakfast. I’ll acknowledge that, with the exception of Anne Calhoun’s Walker Hill (the town in which her latest two books are set, the first of which, Unforgiven, I’ll review later this month), I’ve had it with fictional tiny towns. Destiny, with its (sadly) unbelievably successful small town bookstore (Under the Covers), easily adopted felines, and wishfully accommodating populace makes me long for unpleasant hipsters in Brooklyn. I was thrilled that in Half Moon Hill Anna and her love interest, Duke Dawson, are living fairly Destiny-free.

Anna, portrayed as a man-stealing witch in the last book, Willow Springs, is trying to make a home for herself in Destiny. Anna has a tragic past. She was kidnapped at age five by a woman who claimed to be her mother and just recently found out she is really the long-lost daughter of Destiny’s Romo family. Last year, Anna returned to Destiny and began to make a life for herself. The Romo brothers–both of whom have been the heroes of Destiny books–are very protective and Anna, in an effort to make some space for herself, bought an old Victorian on Half Moon Hill, several miles out-of-town. When this novel begins, Anna has redone the interior of the house, pretty much on her own, and is now struggling to renovate the exterior. One morning, on a trek through the nearby woods to collect berries for a possible pie-making, she runs into a man who, at first seems to her to be a step or two above Sasquatch.

Over six feet in height and bulging with muscles that gave her the impression he could tear her limb from limb, he emerged through a patch of tall shrubbery, flashing crazy, piercing blue-gray eyes. Unkempt brown hair hung to his shoulders and a scraggly beard covered the bottom half of his face, not quite obscuring the angry scar that slashed its way down one cheek.

In her hurry to escape from this barbarian, she twists her ankle badly enough that she can’t walk. Since she can’t immediately run away, she finds herself warily conversing with the guy and–because this is a small town–he turns out to be someone she knows. He’s Duke Dawson, the biker best-friend of her brother Lucky. Several months ago, Duke was in a horrible accident and was rumored to have left Destiny and moved to Indiana. This scuttlebutt is false, however. In reality, Duke has returned and, unbeknownst to all of Destiny, is living in a run-down cabin on Anna’s property. Duke is avoiding humanity. Not only does he struggle with the accident and his role in it, the crash left him scarred and sure his love life is over. Nevertheless, he tends to Anna’s sprained ankle and she and he forge a relationship.

Anna needs help–that her over-protective brothers don’t know about (they’d just butt in)–remodeling the exterior of her home. Duke needs a life. After a few days of watching each other bang nails in the summer heat, the two end up having hot sex and agreeing to have a no-harm, no foul relationship. Duke isn’t ready to re-enter Destiny society and Anna doesn’t want anyone to know she’s banging a biker with a bad reputation. They tell no one of their increasingly intertwined life together and tell themselves they can walk away with ease.

Anna and Duke are a passionate pair. They have a lot of well-written sex and they understand that sex binds them. I liked that, rather than immediately use sex as a way to distance themselves from one another, both Anna and Duke give thought to whether the chemistry they share means something.

But suddenly Duke couldn’t quite remember what he used to think about before Anna had come tripping her way into his little world in the woods here. What had filled his head then?

He thought back and found the answers. Mostly bad stuff. Anger. Painful memories. Helplessness. Emptiness. And he’d calmed himself by trying his damnedest to focus on anything else. Birds in the trees. Fishing. The smell of honeysuckle. One day he’d even taken a honeysuckle blossom and popped the liquid inside into his mouth the way his grandmother had taught him when he was little, the sweet-tasting burst on his tongue taking him back to a time and place when he’d felt loved, and safe. But it had only been a moment. One moment in time in the midst of what otherwise was mostly dark, black, ugly.

Until Anna had come along and filled his head with something better. Even when he’d been annoyed by her, she’d been a hell of a lot more pleasant to think about than other things. But maybe he could only admit that to himself now that some time had passed.

He thought about what to do now that it was dark out. He’d mostly found it easy to go to bed early here, and to rise with the sun—but he wasn’t sleepy yet.

And the truth was—he knew what he wanted to do. What he was itching to do.

The truth was—every time he’d seen her since they’d had sex on her couch and then again in her bed, it had been all he could do not to grab her and kiss her and hope it would happen again.

But he hadn’t. For all the reasons he’d just thought through. She was his best friend’s sister. He didn’t need this kind of complication in his life, especially right now. And even if she’d seemed totally into him when they were doing it—hell, she’d even started it—he still wasn’t sure what that meant, what she saw in him, or how she viewed him. And frankly, he still wasn’t sure he wanted to find out. He knew he was no good for her, not in any way that went beyond sex—surely she knew it, too.

So given all those good reasons for him to just head back to the cabin and call it a day, it was beyond his understanding when his feet began to lead him through the woods toward the big Victorian house.

Their relationship develops slowly and realistically. I bought both their attraction and the ways they struggled to change their lives to accommodate each other. Over the course of the novel, both Anna and Duke work to move past their limiting pasts and Ms. Blake does a nice job of showcasing their journeys. Their love story in Half Moon Hill is a nice one and I enjoyed reading about it.

There is a secondary story, revealed through an old diary, I liked as well although it mirrored, more than I would have liked, a similar “set in the past” story in Ms. Blake’s Sugar Creek. In Half Moon Hill, the story is a class-based heartbreaker, set in 1959. Anna avidly reads the diary of Cathy, the young woman whose family owned the mansion, and Robert, the hired hand who lived in what is now Duke’s cabin. Cathy’s diary, with its sad story of love denied, offers a nice counterpoint to Anna’s fears about how Destiny will judge her relationship with Duke. Ms. Blake takes a lovely risk in the way she resolves Cathy’s story and the novel is better because of it.

The novel’s weakest point is when Destiny arrives. Honestly, even the characters I once liked, irritated me here. The group of women who’ve been featured in the other Destiny books, all now happily paired, have new reasons to carp at each other. Unplanned pregnancy, infertility, and overly high wedding expectations have these women at odds with one another. I briefly appreciated the infertility plot until it, like all the quarrels, was simplistically resolved. There’s no escaping it: Destiny turns its inhabitants tedious. I wish them well and hope never to encounter them and their inevitable progeny again.

One other thing about the novel grated. The secondary relationship is set in 1959 when racial tensions across the country were rife. The language used to describe the social impossibility of Cathy’s and Robert’s relationship read as though more than cultural heritage separated the two. Perhaps it is my exposure to stories of that time–I majored in 20th century American history–but I felt as though the barriers to Cathy’s and Robert’s happiness were overstated.

Despite its flaws, Half Moon Hill is a pleasant read. Furthermore, it seems I’m not the only one ready to leave Destiny behind. On Ms. Blake’s website, she writes that her next novel, though featuring an ex-Destinyite, is set in “the sleepy Florida town of Coral Cove.” I’ll give it a try. Ms. Blake is an engaging reader and, outside the limits of Destiny, I’ve hope she’ll draw me in.

Half Moon Hill gets a B- from me.

Sincerely,

Dabney

 

 

 

AmazonBNSonyKoboAREBook DepositoryGoogle