In His Eyes by Emmie Dark

A couple standing next to a wooden wine barrel, sharing a bottle of wine, standing in a large wine cellar with brick walls. Fans of angst and second chances would like this book. The heroine returns to her hometown after leaving ten years ago as a troubled teenager. Intending only to stay long enough to bury her grandfather, bottle his wine and sell his estate off, her plans hit a snag of sorts in the shape of the estate’s neighbor. The hero wants to add her grandfather’s vineyard to his estate’s holdings, but with their messy shared history, secrets come out and what once seemed so straightforward turns out to be anything but.

Lots of emotion in this one. The secrets behind Zoe’s banishment as a teenager are a big ones, with shockwaves that leave cracks in both of their adult lives. Their revelation forces them to reexamine assumptions they’d labored under for ten years and unleashes all sorts of feelings they don’t really want to deal with right now. Upstanding, responsible Hugh just wants to buy her family’s vineyard and get back to his role as CEO of his family’s winemaking business. Restless, rebellious Zoe wants to wrap up their business then get back to California, and away from the bad memories. Walking down memory lane is hugely uncomfortable for them, but they just can’t seem to stop the momentum and go back to how they were before the secrets came out.

I thought Dark did a good job pacing the characters through their journey of rediscovery. She dispenses bits of intrigue and backstory gradually throughout the story, neither character ever launches into a monologue of angst nor are the salient details dangled just out of the reader’s grasp over and over. I felt that the characters discussed and processed their feelings in ways that were unique to their personalities – Zoe giving up information and emotion only under duress, and Hugh relentlessly pursuing further discussion to try to make things right. It’s a dynamic that not only suits the storytelling, it shows me a couple well-matched for an HEA. Their communication styles complement each other perfectly.

The dialog felt a little forced at times, especially when Mr. Plot Expediter Morris is on screen, and I didn’t love how the conflict was finally resolved. I wanted more initiative from Zoe after she flew back to California. That Hugh instead flew to her to make a declaration felt more like the author indulging her own love of the Grand Gesture than the natural outcome for the characters. It was heavy on the style and short on substance. It’s also SOP for the genre.

I picked this up on a whim during an ebook sale, and I’m glad I did. This new-to-me author is now on my list of Harlequin authors to keep an eye on. B-

~75,000 words
Published August 1st 2012 by Harlequin Superromance

All They Need by Sarah Mayberry

a couple sitting together on the floor surrounded by pillows

If I had to highlight just one thing Mayberry does that elevates her books above the rest, I would have to choose the way she writes disagreements. Her characters act out at each other from a place of insecurity that feels true to the complicated, flawed little monkeys we all are. They say the same stupid things and make the same silly mistakes we all do, then get to resolve them like we’d all love to. The end result is a powerful, engrossing story where you’re rooting for the couple with your whole heart.

Our heroine is Melanie Porter, recently divorced and the new owner of a string of vacation cottages. It’s been 18 months since she’d left her wealthy husband and she’s slowly undoing the damage he’d wreaked on her self-esteem and emotional state with his constant verbal abuse. When our hero arrives with his girlfriend to stay in one of her cottages she finds she’s still got a long way to go. Flynn Randall was present at the Melbourne society party that proved to be the end of her marriage, and despite he and his girlfriend being perfectly friendly to her, she still can’t help the panic and worry that she doesn’t measure up and that they’re silently judging her. Little does she know, though, that she wouldn’t be the only one feeling awkward that day.

You see, Flynn had come to the area just to meet with a real estate agent about Summerlea, a historic estate with famous gardens that he’s coveted since he was a young boy. When he gets back to the cottage, however, he discovers that his girlfriend had another goal in mind. Blindsided by her heartfelt marriage proposal, he realizes how thoughtless he’s been with her feelings. Preoccupied with his father’s recent diagnosis of Alzheimer’s and his taking the reins of the family company as its CEO, he’d fallen into a comfortable relationship without considering what expectations she might have. After awkwardly turning her down, he returns their key to Mel, and heads back home.

They meet again when Flynn comes up to inspect Summerlea, which he’s decided to buy, and thus begins the courtship dance of one gun-shy divorcee and a guy with way too much on his plate to be looking for love.

Before I get into the disagreements I alluded to in the first paragraph, I should point out that the characters do something fairly rare in romance – they share a passion for a particular hobby. Both Flynn and Mel are avid gardeners and gardening plays a major role in their romance. It’s the safe topic of conversation and the window to their hidden selves at the same time. It’s an excuse for Mel to visit Flynn without breaking her no dating rule. It’s how Flynn ends up meeting all of Mel’s family. And it never feels contrived because you see their love of gardening is genuine. You can just tell that well after their HEA, they’ll be working together on their enormous gardens in companionable silence.

And thank heavens they had something neutral to talk about, because they’d have died of mixed signals without it. This was sort of a bizarro world romance in that the heroine was the commitment-averse headcase running hot then cold and the hero was the self-sacrificing, ever patient rock willing to do what it takes to win her love. Her ex-husband all but obliterated her sense of self and she’s scared to death of getting involved with a guy again. The panic rears its head when she and Flynn first try making out in her kitchen:

She started pushing his jeans down, her hands frantic. He smiled against her mouth.

“Slow down, babe. We’ve got all night,” he murmured. His tone was light, but his words hit her like a slap.

Suddenly she could hear Owen’s voice in her head, cold with condemnation and disgust.

Did it ever occur to you that maybe I’d like to take the lead now and again?

It’s not a porn shoot, Mel. Do you have to make so much noise?

Could you at least try to pretend you’re not always gagging for it? And you wonder why I don’t like you talking to other men.

She jerked away from Flynn’s kiss, her whole body tense. She tried to turn away from him but he caught her shoulders.

Baggage: Mel has some.

And so we arrive at why I’m not declaring this a perfect book. I thought Flynn and Mel were great characters working through a perfectly believable and entirely reasonable conflict. However, the book needed to be twenty pages longer to give the conflict more time to resolve. We went from never marrying again, never sharing a home again, full stop, to here’s the spare key to my house, you were right, Flynn, in a single chapter. It was too fast, both for the pace of the narrative and for the characters within the book, since it was dispensed with in just a few weeks. Real problems like theirs deserved more respect. I would have preferred more of a work in progress ending than their neat, tidy HEA. Also, Flynn was kind of too perfect. It’s a precious sort of complaint, but there it is. If he were a heroine, he’d get called a martyr.

All They Need was a delightful read that packed an emotional wallop. I never stopped cheering for them to find their happiness. Not even when they put beetroot and egg on their hamburgers. B+

~75,000 words
Published November 1st, 2011 by Harlequin

Same Time Next Summer by Holly Jacobs

book cover showing the couple embracing on the shore of a lakeThere are things I liked about this book, and it’s a different sort of story than you generally get from Superromance, but the way it was written drove me up a goddamned wall.

In a nutshell, this is a second chance story. Sort of. Carolyn and Stephan grew up together, spending their summers as lake cottage neighbors (all women’s fiction requires a lake cottage), then hooked up for a summer fling as teenagers before going on as friends as adults. The bulk of the action takes place when they’re in their early thirties, after a severe injury to Carolyn’s young daughter brings them back together. Left by her cold ex-husband and her unsentimental parents to keep vigil alone over her comatose daughter, Stephan leaves his life in Detroit to be at her side in Cleveland.

One of the things I liked most about the story is Emma, Carolyn’s daughter. As the action opens, she’s lying in a hospital bed in a coma after a car accident. Carolyn is, of course, keeping watch and determined to see her get well, despite everyone telling her that it won’t end happily. The doctor tells her that when comatose people wake up, if they wake up, it’s not like the movies. They wake very, very slowly, and are rarely the same as they were. And what happens? Emma wakes slowly, needs extensive rehab for a long time, and isn’t the same as she once was. She’s weak on one side, has problems speaking and uses a walker for a while. And everyone’s just happy she’s alive. Imagine that. Happiness and disability *can* coexist in a romance novel. Neat.

Where it all goes pear-shaped is in the telling. I can’t really decide when the story is set, or if it’s actually a contemporary. Only the epilogue (and it’s an epilogue that takes treacle to brave new heights) is set in the book’s publication year of 2008. Most of the action is set in 1994, with lots of flashbacks to their childhood together at the lake in the mid-1970s. After the couple hooks up and declares their mutual love and gets married, the book then jumps to 1999, where their actual HEA is delayed by a disagreement over whether or not to have children together (and you already guessed how that ends.)

I found all the time-line jumping annoying and unnecessary. Rather than a single, coherent book, it read like two connected novellas. There’s the 1994 story, then there’s the 1999 sequel. As a result, I felt jerked around. They got what sure appeared to be an HEA only to have the author yank it away and yell, “psych!”

For all its faults, I did sit down and read it straight through without stopping. The characters and the drama was compelling enough, but I just wish the telling was a bit smoother. C

~70,000 words
Published August 1st 2008 by Harlequin