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REVIEW:  Suddenly Last Summer by Sarah Morgan

REVIEW: Suddenly Last Summer by Sarah Morgan

 

Dear Sarah Morgan:

I’m pretty sure DA’s readers know that you are an autobuy author for me, but just in case, I’ll open this review by reminding everyone how much I loved the first book in the O’Neil brothers trilogy. So needless to say, I have been looking forward to the next two stories. This installment takes place in the summer, as the title indicates, and features Sean and Élise’s romance. While it doesn’t have the holiday backdrop that you do better than just about anyone writing romance today, it’s an enjoyable and satisfying read, with layers that emerge as the story progresses.

Morgan Suddenly Last SummerSean is the brother who got away; while Jackson runs the business side of the family resort, Snow Crystal, and Tyler organizes the sports side with longtime family friend and Snow Crystal employee Brenna, Sean practices orthopedic surgery in Boston and comes home as infrequently as he can. This pattern is upset at the beginning of the novel, when the grandfather and patriarch, Walter, suffers a heart attack. Sean accompanies him back to the resort and stays for a few days to monitor his recovery. This brings Sean back into close contact with Élise, Snow Crystal’s French chef. Sean and Élise had a passionate one-night stand the previous summer, but both are adamant that they are not interested in more than that with anyone, and they keep reiterating that despite the attraction that sizzles between them.

Sean is the family member who has put himself on the outside, while Élise is the outsider who has become a beloved member of the extended O’Neil clan. She runs the restaurant and frets about the new café, whose opening falls behind schedule when Walter’s illness makes him unable to complete the work. Sean impulsively agrees to finish the deck so that the grand opening can take place as planned, and proximity to Élise leads exactly where you think it will.

Caught off guard, she lost her balance and fell against him. She put her free hand on his chest to steady herself, met his eyes and almost drowned in a flash of intense blue, heat and raw desire.

“Sean—”

“You asked me to let you know if there’s anything else I need.”

“I didn’t mean—” She couldn’t breathe properly. The attraction was so shockingly powerful it almost knocked her off her feet. “You promised you’d finish the deck.”

“You’ll get your damn deck.” His voice was rough. “You think about it, don’t you?”

“What?”

“You know what.” His eyes were on her mouth. “Last summer. Us.”

All the time. “Rarely.”

He smiled. “Yeah, right.”

“Arrogance isn’t attractive.”

“Neither is pigheadedness. Want me to remind you what happened? Who cracked first last time?”

Her heart was pounding. “I didn’t crack.”

“Honey, half of that shirt I was wearing is still lying somewhere in the forest. We never did find it. Maybe next time we shouldn’t let it build up.”

“It’s not building up. I make that sort of decision with my head, not my hormones.”

“Really?” His eyes were back on her mouth. “In that case your head was in one hell of a hurry to get me naked.”

The first half of the novel is basically Sean and Élise throwing themselves at each other but swearing nothing more can ever, ever, happen between them. Buttons fly as shirts are ripped off, lovely dresses get drenched in the rain, and the Snow Crystal forest sees a lot of hot and heavy action. The contrast between their relationships to the resort couldn’t be more marked; Élise has burrowed into Snow Crystal thoroughly and works hard at suppressing memories of her Parisian past, while Sean has a fast car to get him back to Boston whenever he starts to feel as if he might want to hang around for longer than an afternoon.

This opposites-attract, I-want-you-but-I-don’t-can’t-shouldn’t dance could get tiring in less skilled hands, but Morgan infuses Sean and Élise’s relationship with enough mutual liking and non-lustful interaction that their personalities emerge over the course of the story and I can see what they have in common besides the sizzle. The scenes in which they open up to each other about their pasts are great, and they have enough conversations and interactions with other O’Neils and resort visitors that the reader gets a feel for who they are apart from the romance arc.

As was the case in the first novel, this is a romance that is embedded in a larger world of characters, so we spend a fair amount of time with Jackson and Kayla (from Sleigh Bells in the Snow) and especially with Walter O’Neil. He is pivotal for both Sean and Élise, Sean because his fraught relationship with Snow Crystal is embodied in his tense interactions with his grandfather, and Élise because Walter as much as anyone represents the family she longs to have but denies herself. If you find revisiting happy couples annoying, Tyler is right there with you and adds comic relief counterpoint to the HEA shared by Kayla and Jackson. We see less of the women family members here than in the previous story, which I was sorry about, but it makes sense for the storyline. I should also add here that you’ll get more out of the subsidiary storylines if you’ve read Sleigh Bells in the Snow, but you don’t need it to understand and enjoy what’s going on here.

I didn’t warm to Sean and Élise and quickly as I did to Jackson and Kayla, but that’s a taste not a quality issue. They’re so brittle-feeling, and all the pushing away they did to each other had the effect of distancing me too. But they won me over in the last third of the book. There is a Chekhovian gun in the first act that goes off in the third, and it propels the romance arc forward, deepens the characterizations, and enriches the way the characters interact with each other. Watching two tightly wrapped people slowly unfurl and relax by the end is very satisfying indeed. I’m still not entirely convinced by the ending (not the romance but the practical decisions that seem to be on the horizon). But I guess that means I have to read the third installment and see how they’re doing, doesn’t it! Grade: B+

~ Sunita

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REVIEW:  Sleigh Bells in the Snow by Sarah Morgan

REVIEW: Sleigh Bells in the Snow by Sarah Morgan

Dear Sarah Morgan:

It’s no secret around here that I am a big fan of your work, and if there’s any complaint I’ve had with your categories it’s that sometimes they feel too short for the storylines you choose. So when I heard that you were writing a single-title, I was thrilled. I was also nervous, because following authors from one format or subgenre to another is not always a success for the faithful reader. I avoided advance information about the book, wanting to go into it without any expectations besides my previous reading experiences, so all I knew was that it was coming out in the fall and that it was a contemporary.

Sleigh Bells In the Snow Sarah MorganI was so out of the loop that I had to read the title to discover that it was a Christmas story, and when I opened the file and read the first page I was taken aback to see it was set in New York. Wait a minute. Not London? Not Scotland? But then I realized that Kayla, our heroine, is British, and I felt on slightly more familiar ground. I started reading and stopped once, when I had to turn off my electronic device or be removed from the plane. As soon as it was permitted, I started reading again and didn’t stop until I was finished. To give the punchline away at the beginning (for you end-peeking readers), it wasn’t what I was expecting, and I absolutely loved it. Sleigh Bells in the Snow is a holiday story for people who love that time of year, but it is also for people who don’t, and it’s a heroine-centric story, which is something I haven’t seen enough of lately.

The book opens in the offices of the PR firm where Kayla Green works. Everyone else is at the holiday party, but Kayla is hiding away and working furiously in an attempt to ignore the season, as she does every year. A child of divorce who has reduced contact with her family members to the barest minimum (by mutual consent), she derives her self-esteem and her sense of identity from her career, at which she has been very successful. And she enjoys her work a great deal; it’s only at this time of year that her workaholic schedule starts to slow down, because most of the world does manage to take Christmas to New Year’s off, or at least to slow down. When that happens, Kayla’s fallbacks are horror movies and popcorn.

This year, however, a major and unexpected account lands in her lap at just the right time. Jackson O’Neil has given up his lucrative, successful business to come home to Vermont, and he needs a first-rate PR consultant starting yesterday if he’s going to save his family’s 4th-generation holiday resort, Snow Crystal. Kayla leaps at the chance to work her way through the holidays; being on site in the middle of a forest means she’ll be away from the Christmas craziness, or so she thinks. Instead she finds herself enmeshed in the O’Neil family festivities, and remembering that she is Kayla Green, successful adult, not unhappy teenaged Kayla, takes enormous effort. And that effort is complicated by her strong (and mutual) attraction to her client.

Although the plots are quite different, the setting reminded me of the classic film White Christmas. Jackson’s grandfather, the O’Neil patriarch, reminded me of Dean Jagger’s General, and the O’Neil brothers’ banter (as well as their serious efforts to save the resort) recalls Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye. In romance-genre terms, the novel is similar to the short and long series set in small-town worlds; this time last year I was enjoying HelenKay Dimon’s Holloway trilogy, and this has a similar flavor. For readers of Morgan’s categories, Sleigh Bells in the Snow captures the world-building of the Medicals with the characterizations, humor, and heart-tugging backstories we are used to in both her Medicals and her Presents releases.

But enough about how this story is like other stories. It’s also very much its own, original novel. One of my favorite aspects of the book is that it while it is firmly rooted in a small-town, extended family context, it is above all a heroine-centric storyline. We get plenty of Jackson’s POV, and Jackson is a trademark yummy Morgan hero, but it’s Kayla who holds the reader’s interest and who develops the most. Kayla never felt to me like a stock character. Sure, she’s a workaholic who’s avoided having a personal life, but she’s also funny and caring and self-aware. When she loses her cool while giving her initial presentation (she’s in pencil skirt and heels, the O’Neils are sitting at their kitchen table), she’s as concerned about her rudeness to them as she is about her personal failure. Her desire to shut down those parts of life that she can’t control doesn’t keep her from having empathy for those around her, a trait I wish more uptight romance heroines possessed. And when she (inevitably) opens up and becomes more willing to take chances, she saves herself as much as she is saved by the hero or by the family that embodies what she never had.

Like Kayla, Jackson is a character we’ve seen before but who also has enough individuality to be interesting. Yes, he’s successful and handsome and driven. But when he comes back to take over the failing family business, it’s not just because he’s an alpha male and that’s what they do, it’s also because the business he built is related to the family resort, and he brings relevant skills and experience to this challenge. Jackson wants to fix Kayla as much as he wants to fix Snow Crystal, but in both cases he knows that he can’t do it unilaterally and he adjusts his behavior accordingly.

Kayla and Jackson are surrounded by the O’Neil family and other residents of the small town, who all have small and large parts to play. While it’s clear that some of these characters are going to feature in the next two installments, I didn’t feel as if they were only there to set up the next installments of the trilogy. Each of them has an individual backstory, and none of them felt like stereotypes (except maybe the knitting grandmother). There is a scene between Jackson and his grandfather late in the book that gently subverts the usual relationship, and even Jackson’s father, whose death indirectly sets the plot in motion, isn’t quite who I thought he would be.

As I was reading, I was surprised and thrilled to realize that the novel passes the Bechdel test more than once. There is a scene involving the main women characters that sounded just like conversations I’ve had with my women friends and relatives; the back-and-forth between moving, serious movements and leavening humor were pitch-perfect, as I’ve come to expect from this author.

At its heart, this is a Christmas romance, and no one does the double-edged sword of the holidays like Sarah Morgan. She is able to capture the warmth and happiness, but she also remembers those for whom the season is bittersweet. There’s a lovely, poignant scene between Kayla, for whom Christmas is physically painful, and Jackson’s mother Elizabeth, who is navigating her first Christmas as a widow:

Elizabeth smiled. “Why don’t you start hanging those.”

Kayla’s mouth felt dry. “You want me to hang them?”

“Of course. If you’re here with us over the holidays, the least we can do is let you share in our Christmas. I expect you have your own Christmas rituals. All families do.”

Kayla gripped the box. “We had a few.”

Put your stocking by the fire, Kayla. Let’s see what surprise Santa brings you.

There was a hollow, empty feeling in her stomach. She recognized the feeling because she’d lived with it for such a long time.

Loneliness could be felt at any time, of course, but there was something exquisitely painful about the loneliness that came along with Christmas.

She lifted a decoration from the box and stared at it. A moment later it was gently removed from her hand.

“You don’t like this time of year, do you, dear?”

It embarrassed and frustrated her that she still felt this way. That she hadn’t been able to put the past behind her and find the same joy in the holiday season that so many others did. “I find it difficult.”

The box was removed from her hand.

“Leave it. I’ll trim the tree later.”

“I’d like to do it.” She’d spent Christmas alone for the past decade. This time she was alone in the middle of a family. It couldn’t be worse, surely?

The O’Neils don’t magically transform Christmas into a happy one for Kayla, but by the end we know she is on her way to overcoming some of that painful past. And the HEA works in much the same, relatively realistic way: every loose end isn’t tied up, every obstacle isn’t overcome, but Kayla and Jackson will figure something out.

Readers who are used to my reviews know what a curmudgeon I can be; even when an author is an autobuy, all their books aren’t equally good for me. But when I finished this book, I honestly couldn’t think of any major weaknesses that took away from my reading pleasure. I’m sure other readers will find aspects that don’t work for them. But for me, this story combines all the things I love about contemporaries, small-town romances, and holiday stories, and it puts familiar features together in ways that don’t feel run-of-the-mill. Grade: A

~ Sunita

 

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