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Small Town Romance

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:  Jaded by Anne Calhoun

REVIEW: Jaded by Anne Calhoun

jaded

“Nice job with the presentation,” he said. “You made a library sound both necessary and really exciting.”

“Libraries are both necessary and really exciting,” she said. “To me, anyway.”

Dear Ms. Calhoun:

The sequel to Unforgiven (reviewed here by Dabney,) Jaded is a story about discovering and rediscovering passion. The title refers to Lucas Ridgeway, the burned out and emotionally distant Chief of Police of Walkers Ford, South Dakota. But Alana Wentworth is also in need of discovering her passions, and of giving herself permission to have them.

Researcher Alana took the job of interim library director in Walkers Ford after an embarrassing public proposal. Always feeling a bit of the ugly duckling in her famous political family, she’s spent much of her life going with the flow — until the flow suddenly included marriage to a man she was mostly dating from inertia. Now her time in Walkers Ford is almost up, and she wants to make the most of it by having a fling with her landlord, Lucas. Somehow she believes this will teach her how to deal with men and let her “go home different”: …she wasn’t going home the same person she was when she’d left. That would make this nothing more than wound-licking hibernation, not a tactical reinvention.

But the interim job keeps getting extended, as Alana becomes more and more involved with renovating the library as a true community center. And her attachment — to Lucas, to others in town, to her work — only grows, leaving her torn. Wentworths are trained to think globally, not locally, and her responsibilities lie elsewhere… don’t they?

At first I thought I’d made a mistake requesting this, because stories about city slickers realizing life is so much better in a small town… I’d say I was so over them, but I was never under them. But slowly, this won me over. What first grabbed me was the emphasis on the importance of libraries, most sweetly expressed through the character of Cody, a poor, desperate teenaged boy who’s sentenced to community service at the library and flourishes there:

the whimsical, wistful version of Walkers Ford was visible in the picture to anyone who knew the town… But all motion swirled subtly to the center of the drawing: the library. Alana’s heart seized when she saw the picture, realized the story Cody was using art and passion and feeling to tell. This is the center of our town. Not the restaurants or the shops of the administrative buildings. This place we need to commit to, or we’ll lose our center.

On a cheekier note, there’s a deliciously evocative sex scene in the library, in which Alana slyly plays into librarian fantasies:

Without turning around, she turned the books spine out and examined the labels. Behind her Lucas stood quietly. She thought about her skirt and cashmere cardigan over a silk blouse. She even wore a strand of pearls and her brown suede heels. Moving very slowly, she selected the first two books from the stack and turned to shelve them.

Lucas was right behind her. She hadn’t heard him move, not a rustle of denim over the beating of her heart. He leaned his body weight against hers and swept aside her chin-length hair. It slithered back, obscuring the kiss he pressed into the skin between her collar and hairline….

His mouth worked over the sensitive patch on her nape, first hot and gentle, then with a scrape of his teeth.

Her hands trembled as she slid one book, then the second, into their proper places, and if she took a minute to double-, then triple-check to be sure they were correctly shelved, well she was a conscientious librarian.

I was also moved by Lucas’s difficult emotional thaw, as he begins to recognize feelings for the woman he has no actual claim on:

His. Except she wasn’t, or so his mind said. His body, as he stripped and got into the shower, said something entirely different. His body said he’d spent all day watching the woman in his bed laugh and talk with everyone but him.

He leaned his head against the tiled wall and let water course over his back. The strength of the emotion, jealousy and anger and a blood-hot lust, washed through him with an intensity that left him breathless. This wasn’t like him. Feeling this much. Caring so intensely about anyone, anything.

You used to care like this.

And now I remember why I stopped. It fucking hurts.

While Alana is finding her place in Walkers Ford, Lucas’s feelings for her help him to recover from the compassion fatigue that’s dogged him for years, and regain a sense of trust and optimism.

By the end of the story, I was convinced that this wasn’t yet another glorification of small towns but about people finding what happens to be right for them. The very positive portrayal of Alana’s sister Freddie, who happily fits right into their glamorous, jet-setting family, helped a lot, and the downsides of rural life are also honestly portrayed.

This stood alone pretty well, although the main characters from the previous book play a part so I slightly regretted not reading it first. More irksome for me was a lot of repetition in the text: Alana refers to herself and Lucas as “a cliche” numerous times, a lampshade I could have done without. There are other repetitions too: Lucas watched Tanya bite at her her nails and roam in and out of the lights like a moth attracted to the light. She was agitated, shaking, biting her nails. Later in this same scene, Lucas is confounded when Tanya, his cousin, mentions an incident from his past which no one is supposed to know about; she had already mentioned it to him earlier in the book. And this may be just a personal cultural disconnect, but I had an “oh please” moment when Lucas got all bent out of shape because someone had some pot.

But I loved the powerful feelings conveyed in the story, and the celebration of positive values. Love. Art. Community. And above all, libraries. B

Sincerely,
Willaful

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