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

Flirting With Intent by Kelly Hunter

book cover with a couple sitting in a limoOne night on Twitter I asked for recommendations for recently published books. I’m slowly working my way through an enormous TBR and was feeling like the books I was reading were not books anyone wants to talk about. Ros Clarke said she really enjoyed this one, and since I generally enjoy this author, that was enough for me to toss it on the reader.

First things first, the back blurb makes the hero look like an emotionally closed off player and the heroine seem like she’s sworn off men after a bitter break up. Neither case applies to the story at all. Not even a little. What we actually have here is an independently wealthy heroine living and working as a social secretary in Hong Kong after her wealthy financier father disappears in the wake of an embezzlement scandal and a similarly privileged hero who now makes a living as a hacker for government intelligence agencies. There’s no heartbreak in her past, he’s anything but a casual user of women, and the story is cute and funny, not dark and angsty.

From the moment they meet at his father’s house, the attraction is sizzling and openly acknowledged.

This time his touch sent desire skittering along her skin, and Ruby frowned as she whipped her fingers away from his. What the hell was that?

Apart from a rhetorical question for she knew desire when she felt it, knew the bite of it and the chaos it could bring. The question now became how could she have let this happen? Between one touch of hands and the next?

To her of all people. Ruby Maguire, who’d been outplaying players her entire life.

‘What’s wrong?’ Lazy smile on a dangerous man. ‘Coffee too hot?’

‘That’s one interpretation.’ Ruby sighed. ‘Regretfully, I’m going to have to ban the touching from now on in. And the teasing. Probably the question time as well. Sorry, Damon. I can’t afford to play with you.’

He wants her, and she wants him, but after years of living with a father who kept more than his fair share of secrets, she doesn’t have the stomach for a man like Damon, who won’t say where he was the week before and can’t say where he’ll be the next.

The set up is a bit fraught, but they work it out through a lot of playful banter. He’s a little manic and awkward, hinting at one point at having ADHD, and she’s a natural-born leader. Whenever he fumbles in an attempt to share more of himself with her, she deftly steers the conversation to allow him to save face. So while the plot tosses heavy objects at them, the tone remains light. Anyone who likes flirtation and courtship should definitely read this one. Their repartee is funny, cute, heartbreaking, angsty and hot, sometimes all at the same time, as they work their way from proximity lust to love.

It wasn’t a perfect book for me, though. For starters, I could’ve done without all the spy woo-woo. I’ve never met a spy plot or character I’ve liked in romance. For whatever reason, they never get me to buy into their spy world. The hero’s hacking performance wasn’t really preposterous — enough hand-waving and vagueness made it so there weren’t enough details to say one way or another how plausible it was — but it wasn’t believable either. I was either annoyed that the spy details were putting the flirting on hold or arching my eyebrows at the convenient lack of specifics.

I also found his family drama distracting and frustrating. It was distracting in that his MIA brother and battle-wounded sister didn’t add anything to his character arc or the romance. They were part of their own little sub-plot. This became frustrating at the end of the book when it’s all left unresolved, I’m assuming as sequel bait.

As always, Hunter created sparkling, rich characters. Little details like Ruby’s ever-present headbands or her always changing into flats to avoid the heel clack on hard floors turn the characters into personalities. The times when Ruby and Damon are onscreen together are A+ sort of reading. I just wish there had been less spy and sequel bait filler. B

~45,000 words
Published October 1st 2012 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

If I’d Never Known Your Love by Georgia Bockoven

First book I’ve ever read that had me literally sobbing. Rest assured, there is an HEA, but it’s a brutal trip there.

The book opens as Evan McDonald is getting ready to fill in for his boss on a business trip to Colombia. After telling his wife Julia “I’m going to miss you. Every minute of every hour…” he’s off on his trip. After the time he said he’d call comes and goes, Julia starts to worry. When she tries to reach him and can’t, panic sets in.

Eventually Julia finds herself in a nightmare scenario. The doting father of their two kids and the love of her life has been kidnapped by paramilitary forces.

This heartwrenching book follows Julia through the years as she works to find Evan and bring him home, while keeping his memory alive and keeping life normal for the kids. Though Evan is absent from the present tense of the book, Bockoven develops his character through the letters Julia writes to him in her journal describing their courtship and love.

After being missing for five years, Julia gets the dreaded phone call – Evan’s body has been found and he’s been dead for five years.

It’s the second half of the book that takes your heart and smashes it up thoroughly. I’ve already told you there’s an HEA, but if I tell any more, I’ll ruin it for you, and this book is too emotional to miss out on a good virgin reading. I have never read a book that made me feel like this book did. Bockoven draws you into the characters of Evan and Julia and I mourned for Evan as much as I mourned for her. Their love, as told through her letters, was so strong and such a once in a lifetime chance that I mourned that loss. I had a pile of tissues around me, and I never cry at books or movies.

The only qualm I had was that the book ended far too quick. We get our HEA, after bawling our eyeballs out in empathy with the heroine, but don’t get to see the heroine really enjoy her second chance. I felt I needed more of a debriefing after the strong emotions she got from me.

I read this book years ago and I still get a little sniffly thinking about it. That should tell you something. B+

~75,000 words
Published August 1st 2007 by Harlequin