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REVIEW: Lean on Me by HelenKay Dimon

Dear HelenKay Dimon:

Your Harlequin Intrigue books are autobuys for me, so when I saw that you had a straight contemporary romance coming out I snagged it right away without paying attention to what it was about. When I discovered one of the main characters was a professional climber, I was even happier, especially when it turned out that the climber was the heroine. I’ve grown up around serious climbers and I can’t remember a romance novel that featured one. Lean on Me is a straightforward contemporary romance about two relatively ordinary people who reconnect, fall in love, and figure out a way to get past their individual and joint issues to arrive at an HEA. If that flat description sounds boring, blame the reviewer, because the book is anything but.

Lean on Me by HelenKay DimonCassidy Clarke returns to her hometown of Holloway, West Virginia because she can’t think of anywhere else to go. Her climbing career is all but over and her manager embezzled her funds when she wasn’t looking. She’s not crazy about returning, not least because the entire town turned on her when she made some ill-advised comments about Holloway during a post-summit interview from Mount Everest. Broke and worried about her stepfather, Cassidy shows up to find he won’t let her into the house. Without funds to rent even a hotel room, she pitches her tent at the edge of the Thomas Nurseries property, which is owned by the Thomas brothers and managed by her high-school crush, Mitch Anders. Mitch was the high school quarterback and went to college on an athletic scholarship, but he blew his knee out and returned to Holloway for good.

Of course, Mitch soon discovers that Cassidy is squatting on their land (although she won’t tell him why) and when he realizes she won’t or can’t stay at the town’s inn or at her home, he insists that she stay with him. It turns out that Mitch was interested in Cassidy in school, but she had no idea and assumed he was joking when he asked her on a date. She reluctantly accepts his offer while she tries to figure out why her stepfather, who has always been loving and dependable, is suddenly driving her away; after her mother’s death from cancer they are all each other has left. Cassidy is also forced to talk to townspeople, most of whom are still angry and resentful about the things she said and insist on referring to her as The Chosen One.

I liked Mitch a lot as a hero; he was decent, down-to-earth, and seriously hot. And I absolutely loved Cassidy. I wondered how she would fare as a romance heroine, because she embodies the climber personality of the inward-looking, detached loner. While the setup to lead her back to Mitch was a bit farfetched, I could easily believe that she was so consumed with climbing that she paid no attention to her finances, or that when she was flat broke with no place to stay, she pulled out her backpack and tent and made do.

Cassidy’s single-mindedness helped her realize her ambition to be a great climber, and she was a complete contrast to Mitch, who made peace with having his ambitions of a professional sports career derailed and settled down to a comfortable life in Holloway. They’re also a complete contrast in another important way, because Cassidy lives to climb and Mitch has an intense, unconquerable fear of heights. He wakes up to discover her cleaning out the gutters on his house:

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

She glanced down. As her gaze roamed over him, her smile faded. “You’re naked.”

“I’m wearing shorts.”

“Uh, barely.” Her gaze bounced to Travis then back to Mitch. “Have you lost your mind? You’re turning pink.”

“Answer the question.”

“I thought it was obvious, but I’m cleaning.” She waved the shovel at him as if to emphasize her point.

There was no need to even argue about this. They’d have a conversation when her feet hit the ground and the numbness left his extremities. “Get down.”

“I’m not done.”

“You’ll kill yourself.” If he didn’t shake some sense into her first. The woman had no fear. She had no idea how close he was to grabbing her off the ladder.

“You do know she’s climbed Everest, right?” Travis stepped closer and put his hand in the air. “By the way, I don’t think we’ve formally met. I’m Travis. I work for Mitch, who looks like he might explode any minute.”

She leaned down and shook Travis’s hand but her attention never wavered from Mitch. “What the…why is your face that color? It’s purple now.”

His clothes and coloring were irrelevant, as was the headache booming in his brain and spreading out to his other body parts. One day he’d feel his toes again, but for now he wanted her down. “You should not be crawling around up there. You could fall or slide.”

Cassidy has to learn to trust Mitch and share her life with him, and it’s not because of a traumatic past so much as because her instincts are to rely only on herself. She lets him help her find out what the issue is with her stepfather, a first step to coming to terms with Holloway and a life that revolves around something other than climbing.

I found the pacing and the writing style to be really strong. The plot unfolds smoothly, and the scenes about serious issues are leavened with funny interludes. The small-town atmosphere was nicely textured; there were some dreadful people and some really decent ones. And as is usually the case with a HelenKay Dimon book, the sex scenes were hot and the dialogue sparkled. It’s a sweet story, but not in a saccharine or a closed-door sense. Rather, it’s sweet because it is about good but flawed people finding their way to a happy ending.

Lean on Me is the second book in a series, but I had no sense of missing out on the earlier installment. That said, I’m definitely going to read it and I look forward to the next book. Holloway isn’t an idealized small town like Mayberry, but it’s an equally enjoyable place to visit.

Grade: A-/B+

~ Sunita

 

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Sunita has been reading romances since she ran out of Cherry Ames, Student Nurse and Chalet School books and graduated to Mary Stewart and Georgette Heyer. Other old favorites include Mary Burchell, Betty Neels, Elsie Lee, and Edith Layton. Among current writers, she reads and rereads Anne Stuart, Tamara Allen, Jordan Castillo Price, Sarah Morgan, Marion Lennox, Josh Lanyon, and Susanna Kearsley.

17 Comments

  1. Brie
    Dec 04, 2012 @ 12:08:37

    “The small-town atmosphere was nicely textured; there were some dreadful people and some really decent ones. ”

    This I really liked, because it was like a cutesy small town gone bad. All the gossip and sense of community ,without personal boundaries can be adorable (at least in Romance) but it comes with a price and Cassidy had to pay for it. I enjoyed this book, and I’m looking forward to the next one. Great review!

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  2. Janine
    Dec 04, 2012 @ 12:22:40

    I really enjoyed reading this. So glad you are reviewing again!

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  3. Laura Florand
    Dec 04, 2012 @ 12:28:58

    I think you had me at “female climber”. I like women who are loners by instinct, not trauma. Relationships take a lot of trust, no matter how happy your past.

    Is it a novella or a novel? I’m curious about the use of terms. It sounds like a full contemporary novel in your review, but when I looked on Amazon, it said 111 pages. That’s novella length to me (Turning Up the Heat is 104 by Amazon’s calculation and the 2 I’ve done for Kensington have come in at 101-104), although I feel like these terms are getting changed a lot with the changes coming from indie publishing. Did it “feel like” a full novel for you?

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  4. Janet W
    Dec 04, 2012 @ 12:54:36

    This sounds like a good story. Following up on Laura’s comment, is it a full 100 or so pages? Lately I’ve been buying/reading a lot of promo for the next book* folded into the set story length. I wish publishers could agree on terminology — if I know something is short story or novella length, then my expectations aren’t raised.

    * And just to continue the thought, I was checking the page length of a new Penguin Beth Kery style linked novel series and there was no page length given at all. Automatic won’t buy for me if I can’t get information in advance.

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  5. Sunita
    Dec 04, 2012 @ 13:08:30

    @Janine: Thanks! It feels good to be reviewing, too.

    Laura and Janet, I checked my copy, which was a pdf arc from Netgalley. It was 150 or so pages, so I called it a novel in the review. According to Carina, the wordcount is 39k, which makes it a novella. On the long side, but still a novella.

    When I was reading, it felt comparable to a category romance. It didn’t feel truncated or incomplete to me, but Dimon writes category and I think she is good at working with the wordcount constraints.

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  6. Mara
    Dec 04, 2012 @ 14:56:22

    I’m always intrigued by the perception of climbers as detached loners. My husband is a climber, and a more social and gregarious soul you could not meet. Is this a common trait among the climbers you know?

    The book sounds interesting. I like the hints of complex relationships. My husband wouldn’t read it, but I might (despite the fact it’s a contemporary.:))

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  7. Mandi
    Dec 04, 2012 @ 15:11:47

    This one didn’t work so well for me – I didn’t like the town and wasn’t convinced of the romance.

    But, I did enjoy her novella in the Romancing the Holidays anthology that is coming out. Very cute.

    I need to try more from her…

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  8. Sunita
    Dec 04, 2012 @ 15:18:29

    @Mara: I do know a number of loner types among the climbers, but I also know some extremely gregarious climbers. I think there is a type of loner (my husband among them) who is drawn to climbing because of the solitude, so that may be why the stereotype is so common. Also, it’s an interesting character type to read, at least to me. Try the sample, which throws you right into the story, and you’ll have a sense of Cassidy.

    @Mandi: I really like the holiday novella too. I think I took the leap of faith with the romance in this one; it’s always interesting what clicks with a particular reader, isn’t it?

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  9. Sunita
    Dec 04, 2012 @ 15:40:42

    @Brie: I’m not usually a small-town series reader, but this one worked well for me, in part because of the mixture of good and bad. I could have lived without the nicknames, but that’s a small niggle.

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  10. Ellen
    Dec 04, 2012 @ 20:52:32

    I listened to the Audible version and did not enjoy it at all.
    I wondered if my dislike of the book was the narrator as opposed to the written word.
    Like Mandi, I didn’t see a real romance. I saw (or heard) a little unrequited love on his part and a feeling of security and home on her part.
    But the dialog was great.

    SPOILERS
    But to me there were so many suspensions of disbelief I spent more time on that. She is basically homeless, living in a tent and she doesn’t have a distinct odor? Why do you care if people know you are a victim of financial fraud? Aren’t a lot of sports figures victims of such? Why would her sponsor care? The situation with her stepfather also made no sense. Had she explained the situation, could she not have been allowed inside under shelter for as long as he had it or at least to take a shower? The whole money situation struck me as ludicrous.

    But again, the narrator sounded whiny and obnoxious to me so that may have totally colored my feelings for the book.

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  11. Jena
    Dec 04, 2012 @ 22:41:29

    I’m currently reading Switched by HelenKay, and I can tell that her Intrigues are going to be an auto-buy for me as well. Good review! :)

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  12. Patricia Eimer
    Dec 05, 2012 @ 07:41:17

    This sounds really good.

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  13. Kris Bock
    Dec 05, 2012 @ 11:04:13

    Ooh, climber heroine! I climb and know lots of climbers, so it will be fun to see that character. I would say most of the climbers I know are pretty independent, though not necessarily antisocial or loners. If you are rope climbing, you need at least one other person there. Boulderers can be more solitary (though plenty of them get together to boulder and drink). But outside of climbing, yeah, climbers can be self-sufficient and spend less time in other social activities.

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  14. SonomaLass
    Dec 05, 2012 @ 17:40:45

    I liked this novella a lot. It was a sweet story and a fun relationship. It was great at this length, too. I don’t read much suspense, so I was really glad to read something by this author.

    I figured when reading it that there was an earlier book. I really should read it.

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  15. Sunita
    Dec 05, 2012 @ 18:44:12

    @Ellen: I agree that the money issues stretched credibility, but I accepted them for two reasons. First, they were plot motivators, and I didn’t think they were more incredible than a lot of stuff we accept. Second, world-class sports people in the lesser paid sports sometimes really live on shoestrings, and even when they are making more money their habits don’t change that much. There’s a really good free climber I read a story about who is being supported by an outdoors products company now, but before that he basically lived hand to mouth. Even now he doesn’t make that much. So I bought into it as part of the romance of the professional sportswoman.

    But that said, I don’t disagree with what you’re saying; it’s really a question of what each reader is willing to suspend disbelief about.

    @SonomaLass: She’s also written steamier romances in the past, which I didn’t read. I think she has a great voice for this type of story.

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  16. Katie
    Dec 06, 2012 @ 14:04:20

    I really wanted to like this book, but I didn’t. I was drawn to the dark side of the side town stuff, Cassidy’s occupation/financial situation, but I felt like ultimately Lean on Me was hampered by its length and some issues with the set-up.

    SPOILERS: I loved the opening scene, but I felt like in order to get the meet-cute, Dimon choose to give Mitch and Cassidy an abbreviated backstory. I think I would have bought their relationship more if either they had dated or been good friends in high school. Similarly, I loved the gutter cleaning scene you quoted from, Sunita, and several others (the initial love scene, for example), but in between, it felt undeveloped and rushed. I think I had high expectations because the hook was so different and thus I was unreasonably disappointed.

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  17. Sunita
    Dec 06, 2012 @ 18:33:17

    @Katie: Thanks for commenting! Of course I love when people agree with me (being human and all), but I know that no book works for everyone, and I appreciate it when readers chime in on how a book (and my review) resonates for them or not. There are definitely reviewers whose opinions I pay attention to who found the book didn’t work as well for them, and we readers always benefit from reading the full range of reactions.

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