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Jill-Shalvis

REVIEW: Time Out by Jill Shalvis

REVIEW: Time Out by Jill Shalvis

Dear Ms. Shalvis:

I’ve read much of what you’ve written in the past five years. I’ve found quite a few of your contemporaries irresistible: Animal Attraction and The Sweetest Thing were two of my favorite reads in 2011. I’ve been less enthralled with your Harlequin Blaze books; they seem to me to be more formulaic than your longer novels. But, then again, they should be, right? The Blaze series has a formula—I know this because I went and looked it up on the Blaze website.

The Blaze line of red-hot reads is changing the face of Harlequin and creating a continual buzz with readers. The series features sensuous, highly romantic, innovative stories that are sexy in premise and execution. The tone of the books can run from fun and flirtatious to dark and sensual. Writers can push the boundaries in terms of characterization, plot and explicitness. Submissions should have a very contemporary feel — what it’s like to be young and single today. Heroes and heroines should be in their early 20s and up. We want to see an emphasis on the physical relationship developing between the couple: fully described love scenes along with a high level of fantasy, playfulness and eroticism are needed. And don’t forget, secondary characters and subplots contribute to the richness of story and plot action we look for in a successful Blaze novel.

Are you a Cosmo girl at heart? A fan of Sex and the City or Red Shoe Diaries? Or maybe you just have an adventurous spirit. If so, then Blaze is the series for you!

I am not a Cosmo girl at heart—I’m more of a Slate.com adult—and I think that’s why your book, though well-executed and entertaining, left me feeling unsatisfied.

Time Out Jill ShalvisIn Time Out, the very masculine, absolutely gorgeous hero with “silky, dark” attractively tousled hair is Mark Diego, the “youngest, baddest, sexiest” head coach in the NHL—he coaches a fictional team, the Sacramento Mammoths. Mark is a typical Harlequin leading man: wealthy, in superb physical shape, authoritative, and utterly self-assured. He’s the kind of guy who only needs to level “a long, hard look” at anyone who challenges him in order for the person to fall quavering back in fear. The Mammoths, who just lost the Stanley Cup finals on a controversial call to their archrivals the (real) Anaheim Ducks, are currently all over the news for a “seedy bar fight”–are there any other kinds of bar fights?–a few of their players instigated against the Ducks. The fight came to an abrupt end when Mark “strode up out of nowhere,” shoved his behaving badly boys out of the bar and into his big black SUV. Mark and the Ducks’ coach have managed to keep their players from being suspended by proposing “a solution that would involve giving back to the fans who’d supported the two teams”: the brawlers will spend their summer doing volunteer labor in their home communities. The Mammoth players will be working in Santa Rey, a working class town devastated by wildfires the previous summer. Mark grew up in Santa Rey and left it as soon as he could, determined to “do something big, something to lift him out of the poverty of his upbringing.”

Now he’s back, driving that big black SUV, and pretty pissed about the whole thing. He’s been working his ass off for the past seven months and really should be on vacation. But no, rather than lounging on a Caribbean beach, a scantily-clad babe on one arm and a drink in the other, he’s stuck babysitting his two youngest players in a low-rent town. There’s an upside, however. The minute he pulls into town, headed to the community center his brother Rick runs—his players are going to coach summer league ball there in the evenings—he runs into Rainey Saunders (she’s the junior sports coordinator of the center), she of the “perfect body,” with whom he shares—big surprise here—a past.

Rainey fell hard for Mark when she was in her teens; he was four years older and the brother of her friend Rick. The night of her 16th birthday, Rainey, wearing a titillating teddy and some borrowed CFM heels, shows up uninvited at Mark’s apartment, determined to confess her love and unload her virginity. Unfortunately for all parties concerned, Mark’s not alone. He is, in fact, slouched in a beanbag chair getting a blowjob from a chick named Melody. (I felt sorry for Melody—Mark is so startled to see Rainey, he sits straight up so fast, “he nearly choked his date.” That can’t have been pleasant.) Rainey runs out—running smack into the door, spraining her ankle, and ends “with her pride and her confidence completely squashed.” The two have occasionally run into each over the past 14 years, but, Rainey, despite the chemistry that “crackles” between them, can’t get over her embarrassment about the past and, every time he expresses “interest in every hard line of his body,” runs away from him.

Now that’s he’s in town for a while and Rainey’s no longer jailbait, Mark’s thinking it’s finally time to nail her. “One look in her fierce blue eyes and he’d felt… something. Not even in the finals had his heart taken such a hard leap.” (I rolled my eyes at this—I saw the Stanley Cup final the year the Hurricanes beat the Oilers; I’ve never seen such crazed people in my life.) Plus, upon meeting her again, he’d pulled her into his arms, hugged her and—and I thought this was a bit forward—bit her ear. That “sexy little startled gasp she’d made” decided him. This time, he’s not letting her ignore him. Mark always plays to win and he’s got 21 days in Santa Rey to win Rainey out of her tight shorts and into his bed.

Mark’s and Rainey’s sex life certainly meets the Blaze criteria in this book. You’ve unquestionably written “fully described love scenes with a high level of fantasy, playfulness, and eroticism.” The first time Mark and Rainey start rounding the bases, they’re in a supply closet; it’s definitely a fantasy the tiny room would be a comfortable place to make out—he’s jamming her back against a “hard, cold steel” shelving unit. The two have lots of pre-consummation playful banter and, when they finally rip off each other’s clothes; the sex is hard and hot and up against a door. Your text is superbly sultry.

She threaded her hands into his hair as he thrust deep inside of her. He made a rough sound of sheer male pleasure, his fingers digging into her soft flesh as she rocked into him. Again he thrust, slowly at first, teasing until she was begging. It was glorious torment, hot and demanding, just like the man kissing her.

They moved together, her breasts brushing his chest, tightening her nipples. She could feel his muscles bunching and flexing with each thrust, sending shock waves of pleasure straight to her core. When she came again, it was with his name on her lips as she pulsed hard around him, over and over again, taking him with her.

A bit later, there’s a fervently ardent shower scene that made me want to find Dr. Feelgood and use up all our hot water. I give you total props for the blazing part of your book. It’s steamy, sweetened by honeyed hot trash talk, and seductive.

You also have appealing subplots about Mark and his father and about the kids at the community center. There’s a fine amount of humor in your tale. Your portrayal of Casey and James, the two Mammoth players doing public works penance, is really funny.  I loved the scene where Mark is first driving them to the dive of a motel the two will be staying in while in Santa Rey.

“So we’re not going to the Biltmore?” James asked. “Cuz there’s always plenty of hot babes there.”

“James,” Mark said, “What did I tell you about hot babes?”

James slumped in his seat. “That if I so much as look at one you’re going to kick my ass.”

“Do you doubt my ability to do so?”

James slouched even further. “No one in their right mind would doubt that, Coach.”

“And anyway, you’re not allowed back at the Biltmore,” Casey reminded James. “That’s where you got caught with that redhead by her husband. You had to jump out the window and sprained your knee and were out for three weeks.”

“Oh yeah,” James said on a fond sigh. “Madeline.”

So what let me down?

It was obvious Mark would seduce Rainey—she’d never really stopped loving him—and once he did, it was just a brief matter of time before he realized she was the one. I never felt the barriers their happily-ever-after faced were substantial. You establish at the beginning of the book she’s still crazy about him, he’s sexually and emotionally drawn to her, and the two are grown-ups.  (The latter, by the way, is a good thing.) Yeah, Mark thinks he’s not ready to settle down but from the moment he sees Rainey again, that’s all he does. It’s not a stunner that by the book’s end the two have professed their undying love to each other.

Mark and Rainey are excessively fictional characters—neither of them seemed as though they’d ever exist in real life. They also were overly familiar–I felt as though I’ve encountered the two countless times in contemporary romance. He’s the powerhouse of guy whom all women want and all men respect. She’s the incredibly sexually responsive, feisty, committed to her do-gooder job babe who, despite sleeping somewhat casually with Mark, is looking for the kind of relationship that leads to marriage and kids. She’s got a mom worried Rainey’s eggs are going to dry up; he’s got a dad who won’t take his charity. Even the debacle of Rainey’s Sweet Sixteen Seduction seemed pat. (And, the almost exact same “barging in on the blow-job” scene happens in Victoria Dahl’s Talk Me Down.)

Your novel’s plot is this: an extraordinarily handsome and magnetic player hero finds (monogamous) joy with a lively, modern heroine. The two have hot sex, but, the sex is a high-speed one way street to true love. And while you’ve done that trope well here, it’s a tired trope.

But, Time Out is a Blaze, not a more complex contemporary. It’s not interestingly innovative or especially enthralling, but it’s enjoyable and competent. As B- books go, it’s not bad. And the sex is smoking. I give it my bathroom wall recommendation: for a good time, pick up Time Out.

~ Dabney

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REVIEW: Head Over Heels by Jill Shalvis

REVIEW: Head Over Heels by Jill Shalvis

Dear Ms. Shalvis:

When I first started the Lucky Harbor series, I wasn’t sure I would like it. I have a visceral aversion to books with cute titles set in cutely named small towns, with covers colored in pastels and adorned with cute dogs or food. But my strong appreciation for your Sierra Nevada-set series pushed me past my initial resistance, and once I started the trilogy of Phoebe Traeger’s estranged daughters, I was just a little bit hooked. There is a basic affability to your books I cannot precisely articulate, and it often sweeps me along past issues I see more clearly in retrospect. Head Over Heels, the third book in the series, is probably my favorite, affably flawed as it is.

Head Over Heels by Jill ShalvisChloe Traeger has always been the wild child of the sisters, more like her mother in her unwillingness to settle in one place and follow what she perceives to be society’s conventions regarding marriage and family.  She was working with her two sisters, Maddie and Tara, to restore and run the B&B their mother had left them, but only as long as she could light out periodically on her own. These days, she was traveling to demonstrate and distribute her own line of natural spa products, which was already a small nod to stability, but the travel still nourished Chloe’s somewhat restless soul, especially when the alternative was getting into trouble with local law enforcement for helping her friend Lance “rescue” some abused dogs.

Of course, local law enforcement represented more than legal trouble for Chloe; if she let him, Sawyer Thompson could put her into far more danger than Lance’s latest scheme — danger to her body, mind, and heart. Reformed bad boy turned sheriff, Sawyer has watched his two best friends, Jax and Ford, fall under the spell of Chloe’s sisters, and he knows he is a very short step away from the same fate with Chloe. The hell she could raise around town with Lance was nothing compared to the havoc she wreaked with his internal sense of order and control, and the worst thing was that Sawyer couldn’t make himself stay away from her:

 

[Chloe] wore a soft, black hoodie sweater that clung to her breasts and dark, hip-hugging jeans tucked into high-heeled boots that gave off a don’t-fuck-with-me air but made him ache to do just that.  There was a wildness to her tonight, hell every night, and an inner darkness that he was drawn to in spite of himself.

It called to his true inner nature, the matching wildness and darkness within him, which he’d tried to bury a long time ago.

As reluctant as Sawyer is to revisit that darkness, Chloe has an even more basic concern about getting involved with Sawyer. She has acute asthma, which makes all types of physical exertion, especially the good kind (and would there be any other kind with a guy like Sawyer?), uncomfortable at best and life-imperiling at worst. So powerful as their attraction and friction-producing flirting is, it’s not until Sawyer’s undercover work for the DEA brings him into conflict with one of the town’s real bad boys – who happens to have a growing interest in Chloe – that things really heat up between them.

Anyone who has read the first two books in this series has seen the smart-aleck flirtation between Chloe and Sawyer intensify over the year or so those books cover, and one of the things I appreciated about Head Over Heels was the way it continued to build on that dynamic rather than radically alter it for dramatic effect. And Chloe’s asthma is a very interesting issue in the relationship, because it forces both Chloe and Sawyer past the somewhat clichéd internal obstacles they have to cope with, as well. Sawyer, for example, has unresolved issues with his father, a man who cannot seem to see Sawyer as anything but the troublemaking teen he used to be, and Chloe pushes him to that fine psychological line dividing past from present. And Chloe struggles with her need to feel unimpeded by a “traditional life”:

She understood that, from the outside looking in, it might seem like she had a secret death wish, but she didn’t.  It was just that when she was in the midst of an asthma attack, she often felt so close to death that she, well, dared it.  But she just wanted to run or dance or laugh hard, or have sex without needing an inhaler and possibly an ambulance.

Not exactly a common problem, but one that often left her straddling a fine line between socially acceptable behavior and the wild yearnings her mother had always encouraged.  Her sisters wanted her to stop pushing those boundaries and settle down a little.  And it was that which bothered Chloe more than anything.  The message was simple: if she wanted to be accepted, even loved, by those she’d come to care about, she’d need to change.  But dammit, she wanted to be accepted just as she was, imperfections and all.

Sawyer and Chloe’s mutual need for acceptance is somewhat standard Romance fare, but the addition of Chloe’s asthma creates an opportunity for more emotional intimacy between them. The asthma becomes a means through which Sawyer can show true care and concern for Chloe, and it allows Chloe to become vulnerable with Sawyer in ways she might not otherwise allow. The book does not treat the condition as a gimmick, nor does it become an all-consuming issue for the couple.

I’m sure there will be many, many readers who adore the way Shalvis resolves the conflicts between Sawyer and Chloe. I have a number of quibbles with the book (the “sayings” introducing every chapter seem gimmicky now, and the tendency to use humor to deflect seriousness can feel diminishing), but my most substantial issue is with the way Chloe’s struggle between settling down and setting out is resolved. Without giving away a spoiler, I will say that for me Chloe’s free spirited nature was somewhat betrayed by the resolution, and the reason this matters for me is that so much of the book – of the series, in fact – is constructed around the character of Chloe as a woman who truly enjoyed her freedom and was not just running from something. And while I could lay out the logic of the movements made in the book, I still find them a problematic compromise, and one that highlights the theme of “settling” the series repeats as a chorus.

Throughout the series there is an attempt to distinguish settling down under the right circumstances from just plain settling. One difficulty, of course, is that Romance tends to favor traditional or conventional endings, so an untraditional heroine is already at risk of being made somewhat traditional in the end. The Lucky Harbor series seems especially fond of wrapping things up rather neatly for its main characters, and in Chloe’s case I think the neat wrap-up sells Chloe (and Sawyer) a bit short. And while not a deal breaker for me, it was a disappointment, despite my overall enjoyment of the book and the series. B-

~ Janet

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