The Bookshop on the Corner by Jenny Colgan

The Bookshop on the Corner book coverThe Bookshop on the Corner is lovely, even if the name doesn’t quite fit. The main character’s bookshop is too unique to be that simplistically summed up.

I should mention that this isn’t a romance, but there is a significant romance in the book—it just doesn’t really get going right away. So it doesn’t follow the traditional course of a romance novel, even if it does start off with a major problem for the heroine.

Nina Redmond is a librarian passionate about her job—she adores the matchmaking process of finding the right book for the right person. So it’s pretty devastating when she’s laid off. She doesn’t have a lot of options because the library system in Birmingham (that would be the one in England) doesn’t care about books anymore. They’re trying to cater to the younger crowd and focus on different media. The library offers all the staff made redundant a team-building/career training and during the training, Nina admits to always wanting to own a bookshop. Somehow this idea warps into owning a mobile bookshop.

Despite her friends’ reservations, Nina seeks out a van, finding one in Kirrinfief, a village up in the Highlands in Scotland, that looks perfect and affordable. She travels there and the owner of the van balks when he sees she’s “just a tiny woman,” someone he can’t envision driving his van. She goes back to Birmingham downtrodden and van-less, only to find out that a couple of the men she met at the local pub before meeting the van’s owner have offered to buy it from him and sell it to her. Everything seems great—until she can’t obtain the permits she’d need to park the van on her street in Birmingham. So she makes another decision that surprises everybody: she moves to Kirrinfief. She’s lucky enough to find a lovely modernized barn apartment on Lennox Farms, which is run by a gruff farmer (that would be Lennox himself).

Nina meets a variety of people through an early mishap involving a deer, her van, and a train and through her work, which goes pretty well. There’s a love interest in Marek, a lonely Latvian train driver, before Lennox really comes on scene for the main course. Nina’s life seems to be turning around. A lot of things are going well, but there are still a few challenges she has to face.

As I implied earlier, it’s a charming book. The setting of the Scottish Highlands is wonderful and so well-drawn. Colgan puts in just enough of the local flavor to give us the sound of the language with her ayes, coudlnaes, disnaes, an occasional Scots word, and even some overheard Gaelic, all without overdoing it. She paints the rural countryside and farm colorfully, too. It all made me miss being there.

The characters are all excellent and highly distinctive. Nina herself is so likable and relatable. She’s shy but got a streak of bold buried in her. Her best friend Surinder is entertaining. Marek is interesting and Lennox is intriguing from the beginning, even before I was sure he’d be a love interest. There are a few stereotypes among the secondary characters, but Colgan’s populated a whole town, so it’s all in fun. My favorite was the sullen teenager who Nina befriends.

I was not familiar with Colgan before this book, but I can say I’m definitely likely to read another one by her when I’m looking for something feel-good. I can recommend it to anyone who likes a complicated love story, hearing about books, or reading about rural Scotland.

Coming in from the Cold (Gravity #1) by Sarina Bowen

Coming in from the Cold book coverI’ve had this book a little while and was sort of saving it, not wanting to run out of Bowen’s novels. She’s prolific, but not that prolific. (If only…)

This is a slim book—not even 250 pages with a larger font than you sometimes see. And probably for that reason, there’s not as much going on in the book as there sometimes is in hers. That made this a lighter read for me, even though it did delve into some emotionally demanding territory.

Willow Reade’s made some non-ideal life choices that have landed her in rural Vermont with an underwater mortgage. She’s alone after her boyfriend left her for a rich girl. Something Willow is not. One of her bad choices was to “temporarily” abandon her Ph.D. in psychology.

Some kind of wasting disease runs in Dane Hollister’s family, and he assumes he’s got only a few years of mobility left. He’s trying to make the most of it by living as a sponsored downhill skier competing at the world level. He’s training in Vermont this season to be close to his brother, who’s in a nursing home.

Willow and Dane’s paths cross at the onset of a nasty winter storm, where they nearly wreck their cars and both end up stuck. They decide to huddle together in Dane’s car in the hopes of a snow plow coming by. When one does but doesn’t help them (it’s dark), they know they’re there for the night. So they chat. Dane reveals more about his life than he normally does to strangers and Willow tells the latest chapter in her sad story. Soon they act on their attraction and make the most of their confinement—but not before Dane makes it clear it’s a one-time thing, as he’s not a relationship guy. After all, he knows he can’t put anyone else through what he’s going through with his brother.

The consequences of their tryst shake up both of their lives. Dane in particular has to face his fears. Willow has to do some soul-searching, too, but not as much as Dane. As I sort of implied earlier, I feel like this book doesn’t go as deep as some of her others. The chemistry between Willow and Dane is good, but not amazing. This is one of her earlier books, though, so it’s not shocking. The book’s still very good. And the love scenes are definitely up to her standard.

Any fan of Bowen will want to read this. And anyone who likes books that deal with challenging, real-life issues will also enjoy it.

Beard in Mind (Winston Brothers #4) by Penny Reid

Beard in Mind book coverNow it’s finally Beau Winston’s turn. The overly pleasant, charming guy has been watching his brothers and sister get their HEAs started and he’s a little more jealous than he’d like to admit to himself.

Enter Shelly Sullivan. She’s not the kind of woman Beau usually goes for. I mean, she’s gorgeous, but she’s troubled and very unpleasant to be around. She’s rude to Beau and to the customers of their auto shop. She’s awkward, has no filter, and doesn’t shake hands. She has a foul-mouthed parrot and big dogs that attack people with slobbery enthusiasm.

So they don’t seem particularly “suited” (in Winston brothers’ terminology). However, when Beau notices that she’s a cutter, or at least has been in the past, he worries about her. He’s unearthed a secret of sorts, and she gives him to full story soon after he talks to her about it. She’s got OCD (the real one, not the term we casually throw around) with severe touch aversion.

You might think that wouldn’t make for a good romance, but Reid pulls it off. It starts off a little rocky with an awkward proposition from Shelly, which Beau fends off. But once Beau starts to see her as more of a flawed human than a rude bitch, things shift. Fortunately for Beau and Shelly (and readers), she’s not opposed to all touch… and it turns out that Beau’s willing to help her with some tough therapy that’s supposed to get rid of the aversion altogether.

There is a big Winston family news bombshell that’s dropped on us in the middle of the book that some readers may not love, because it’s a big deal and kind of distracts from the main story. However, it added complexity to the story that I liked. I always enjoy books with a lot going on, and this definitely counts. On top of that one, Shelly’s got her own family issues that need to get resolved. It’s wonderful and satisfying to watch everything unfold.

I love the fact that Reid gave us a kind of character we don’t often see in a romance in this book. She did a great job of making Shelly believable and real. And I also loved to see how Beau went from being a kind of average ignorant-about-mental-illness kind of guy to an informed and helpful one. That too was believable.

Any fan of Reid’s will want to read this book. If you’re interested in reading about a very unusual heroine (or just curious about how that will play out), you’ll want to pick it up, too. I’m looking forward to the next ones.

Anything for You (Blue Heron #5) by Kristan Higgins

Anything for You book coverEven though usually the main main character of an mf romance is the female lead, Anything for You is Connor O’Rourke’s story. Jessica Dunn is important, but we start and end with Connor and it was kind of fun that way.

Connor’s been in love with Jess ever since she rescued him from being mauled to death by her family’s mean pit bull when they were both twelve. But she was never interested in him back when they were kids, too busy handling her own tough life to really consider him.

And Jess has had a very tough life. She grew up in a trailer park with criminally neglectful and drunk parents and a younger brother (Davey) born with fetal alcohol syndrome. She has taken care of him basically all his life. And it hasn’t been easy. She felt the need to seek external protection for him from the boys in her high school, and her approach to this was to sleep with them to earn a favor. So she became known as the Manningsport town slut, all while being probably the most decent, hard-working person in the whole town and not remotely interested in “a good time.”

Connor, on the other hand, hasn’t had it too bad. Although he’s never been close to his jerk of a father, said father’s a well-off lawyer and Connor’s been pretty comfortable. He has disappointed his parents by going to culinary school, however. But then he and his twin sister received an inheritance that allowed them to open a new restaurant in Manningsport so he moved back.

When the book opens, they’re both thirty-two and Connor is proposing. Jess doesn’t take it seriously, calling him a “doofus” and “big guy” in the process of saying no. They’ve been secretly dating on-and-off for ten years and he’s done. He wants their relationship to be real and in the open. But the way Jess sees it, she has responsibility for her brother, who hates Connor. Because Davey blames Connor for the death of Chico, the dog that mauled him, and Davey loved Chico more than anything. So, since Davey comes first, that’s that.

Although the story starts there, in the next chapter, we drop straight back to the mauling incident twenty years earlier. Then we see the first time Connor and Jess hang out and hook up, at a wine class he’s teaching at the culinary institute (her boss at her waitressing job sent her). He ruins it by saying something stupid and hurtful. She says goodbye and that’s that for a while. The book proceeds by telling the rest of their history before jumping back to after the proposal.

As usual for a Higgins book, there’s a lot going on in both Connor’s and Jess’s lives. Jess has worked so hard and is living in a rental house working toward buying her own. She’s managed to go to college and even get a master’s in marketing. And now she works at the Blue Heron winery in Manningsport and is well-loved there. Connor’s busy with his restaurant and attempting to get a brewery started up. Then he finally comes up with an idea to win Davey over, which he believes will change everything for him and Jess. It’s not a bad idea, even if it doesn’t go quite as planned.

The book’s loaded with humor that doesn’t come at anyone’s expense and a fair amount of sexy times. Higgins is a master of details that appear to effortlessly pull the reader into the story. Her dialogue is crisp and entertaining. There are numerous interesting side characters—most notably Colleen, Connor’s twin, and a new hire at the winery.

Overall, it’s a great read that any fan of a good romance will enjoy.

Beard Science (Winston Brothers #3) by Penny Reid

Beard Science book coverJennifer Sylvester is kind of a joke in Green Valley, Tennessee, where she’s know as the Banana Cake Queen because—well, you can guess why. The recipe is a family secret. People don’t take her seriously. One of the locals called her “stranger than a vegetarian at a barbecue.” And on top of that, her parents are bullies, especially her mom. She’s forbidden to wear anything but her Sunday best clothes out in public. Now, she’s definitely old enough to be living on her own, but with the way her family treats her (borderline abuse), it’s really difficult for her to move out. They have her working full-time in the family bakery, but they don’t give her a salary. What she wants more than anything is to start a family, but with her so isolated, she never really meets men in any useful way.

Cletus Winston is one of the many Winston brothers we’ve met in previous books. He’s the weird one. But he’s also clever and entertaining. Jennifer knows he’s regarded as “the most powerful man in East Tennessee” (because “he could make anything happen”). He’s kind of arrogant, but somehow it’s not as irritating as it is on other people. He also doesn’t think much of her:

The show of confidence had been completely out of character for meek and docile Jennifer Sylvester.

Granted, I didn’t know her very well. I didn’t need to. She was a weak person.

But then she surprises Cletus by catching him on video doing something he shouldn’t, and then using that to get him to help her. Basically extorting him to get his help in finding a husband so she can start that family she so desperately wants.

Cletus decides that to accomplish what she wants, she needs lessons and practice. So he challenges her to do different things (paint her fingernails a bold color, dye her hair a color other than what her mom wants, …). Doing these things is difficult for Jennifer and overcoming this is her character arc. She feels undervalued by her family (because she is) and she needs to find some self-confidence somewhere and build it up. And get on with her adult life. Cletus helps her do that, but she’s the one who does the real work. Cletus doesn’t have as strong an arc, because his main thing is that he learns to see her as more than a meek and docile girl.

Like always with Reid’s books, this one’s funny and fairly steamy at times, though it’s a slow build. It’s equally surprising to Jennifer and Cletus when they end up together. Her dialogue is good even though it’s all about a couple of odd people who speak a little… oddly at times. As with all the books in this series, the setting’s fun and unusual (you don’t see rural eastern Tennessee come up often, do you?). We also see the setup for book #4, which was released fairly recently. Check Beard Science out if you like quirky characters.

Barefoot in the Sand (Barefoot Bay #1) by Roxanne St. Claire

Barefoot in the Sand book coverBarefoot in the Sand is presented as a fun beach read, but I thought there was more to it than that—it wasn’t a lightweight story. No, there was a lot else going on, which is how I like my romances.

After a massive hurricane turns unexpectedly toward their beach town, Lacey Armstrong and her daughter Ashley survive it by cowering in the bathtub and holding a mattress over their heads. Their house is destroyed and she hopes to use the insurance money not to just rebuild, but to build a B&B.

Then she meets Clay Walker, who is a down-on-his-luck sort-of architect. We aren’t sure what his story is for a while, but soon enough learn that it’s family-related, as his father (who has the same name) is a renowned architect who sabotaged Clay’s career. For Lacey, Clay paints a much more ambitious picture for what she could build: a small resort.

They start working together to design the place and find that the chemistry they have is hard to ignore. Clay makes a move or two but it takes a while for them to really get together. It’s well worth the wait.

In the midst of their resort planning, David, Ashley’s absentee father reappears in their lives after having an epiphany about the value of family. He wants to get back together with Lacey despite the fact that he dumped her when she first told him she was pregnant. She isn’t interested, but Ashley is holding onto the family fantasy herself. Then, to complicate things further, the town council is led by someone completely opposed to the building of Lacey’s resort, and a battle ensues between her and the council.

The book nicely ties together Lacey’s and Clay’s backstories into an intertwined and well-plotted story. Seeing them get past their issues to fall in love is quite enjoyable. Both of these characters are deeply drawn and relatable, even if it takes a little longer for us to really get Clay (his backstory is withheld longer than Lacey’s).

The only complaints I have have to do with Clay’s behavior early on and then the grand gesture. He doesn’t behave like someone who’s trying to get a desperately-needed job—instead, he’s overtly trying to get in Lacey’s pants. I felt like he’d be acting more professionally at the beginning. But whatever—it gets the plot moving, so I looked past that.

Then the other thing is the grand gesture. I won’t give it away, but it was just super-cheesy. I guess a lot of people like gushy and innaproppriately-timed public displays, but they make me uncomfortable. But again, whatever—it wrapped the novel up.

Overall, the book was a good read and I’ll likely read the next one in the series because I like the depth of the story. And St. Claire is a masterful emotion-manager, taking us where she wants us to be with great description, natural dialogue, and good pacing. Anyone who likes longer contemporary romances should enjoy it.

Crystal Cove (Friday Harbor #4) by Lisa Kleypas

Crystal Cove book coverI really enjoyed the first three books in this series and was looking forward to this one, the fourth. There were elements of magic in all the other books, but they were very subtle and mostly unique. More magical realism than fantasy. This book embraces the magic of the series and runs with it and feels more urban fantasy than straight contemporary.

Justine Hoffman is a born witch, although she has rejected the lifestyle and instead runs a successful hotel she owns. Jason Black is a super-rich video game developer. They both have major problems. Justine learns that a spell was cast on her when she was born that prevents her from finding true love. And Jason has no soul. In this context it doesn’t mean he’s a sociopath or whatever—it just means when he dies, that’s it for him.

Once Justine learns about the spell, she’s determined to correct the injustice and finds a spell that should correct it. That night, she meets Jason. I don’t like saying it, but the chemistry between them wasn’t that intense. Definitely not up to the standard Kleypas levels. Plus, Jason was a bit of a douche. (I mean, romance heroes often are, but they at least appear to change and he didn’t seem to.)

The book wasn’t bad by any means, but it just didn’t live up to my expectations. There were good moments, though. My favorite was the scene with Jason’s assistant and her family in Toad Suck, Arkansas (even though it was a tiny bit cliché) because that is a real place and I’ve driven right past it before. And how can you not love a scene that takes place in a place called Toad Suck? I also liked the tension in the relationship between Justine and her mom, who organized the casting of the curse.

I also wondered what would have happened specifically with Jason if Justine hadn’t cast the spell before meeting him. Nothing? Something less than satisfying? It kind of surprised me that Justine didn’t wonder this herself.

In summary, I’d recommend this is you’re a die-hard Kleypas (or Friday Harbor) fan, but just expect it to be different from the others you’ve read.

All I Ever Wanted by Kristan Higgins

All I Ever Wanted book coverI’ve been reading Higgins for reasons I previously explained, and I’m still feeling an ambivalence about her books. This book, too, is funny, and there were some great scenes in. But here, as well, was a silly heroine. Now, she wasn’t silly 100% of the time, fortunately. No, she was both very good at her job as a marketing specialist and with children.

The book is about Callie Grey, who’s just hit thirty without being married,* and Ian McFarland, who’s just moved to their small Vermont town to take over the vet practice there. Callie’s reeling because she’s just found out that her long-time crush and ex-short-term-boyfriend (and current boss) is seeing someone else seriously. He insensitively reveals this after giving her a sweet birthday present. She is rather obsessed with him, and (too?) much of the book is spent on him.

Ian is a bit of an enigma, on top of being socially inept and kind of a jerk at times. But we have faith that he’s redeemable and that there’s probably a good explanation for him being the way he is (there is). Callie, on the other hand, is super-friendly and everyone loves her. She offers to help him with PR because his vet practice is at risk of suffering due to his poor people skills.

The setup is fine, but here is some of the silly:

  • Callie makes a scene in the DMV when she’s blubbering over her ex’s new relationship. Also funny, because it’s where she meets Ian, who rudely accuses her of having “verbal diarrhea.”
  • Callie thinks it’s a good idea to buy some over-the-counter herbal concoction to get rid of her “food baby” overnight. This is idiotic. Do people really think you can shrink overnight? I don’t get it. However, also funny, because “food baby.”
  • Callie hits a turkey in her car and thinks it’s dead. She races to Ian’s and gets, well, hysterical about the poor, innocent bird. Her overreaction irritated me. Yet also funny, because the turkey comes back to life and trashes Ian’s place while they run around trying to corral it out (but again, she’s acting a little silly during this, so…).
  • All the women in town (at least those who have a pet) make unnecessary appointments with Ian in order to meet him and check him out, all on the same day. Really? Would that many women do that? Maybe I’m just not tuned into the normal woman (Truth).

So I’m definitely not immune to the humor in the book, even if the silliness grates. Below is a snippet from my favorite scene (Callie is escorting a group of five-year-old Brownies on a visit to the vet clinic, and Ian is hiding in the back before being coerced out to face them):

“Dr. McFarland,” I said, “can you tell us some of the most common operations you do?”

He shot me a grateful look. “Okay, well, we neuter and spay animals so they can’t, um, have babies … Uh, I remove tumors, set broken bones—please don’t touch that,” he said as Hayley began squeezing the pump of a blood pressure cuff.

“Maybe we could move on, Dr. McFarland,” I suggested.

We herded the girls back into the hall. “Ian, why don’t you examine Angie and sort of show them what you look for,” I suggested in a low voice. “And if you gave out a souvenir, that would be great.”

“I don’t have souvenirs, Callie. This is not a gift shop,” he said tightly.

“Tongue depressors, Ian. Cotton balls. They’re five. They won’t care.”

He nodded. Swallowed.

I liked this scene because it showed Callie being highly competent at something, and the scene is also very funny.

Higgins definitely captures a great voice for Callie, who is very easy to understand. Like all her characters, she’s self-deprecating and funny. She’s also well-loved by her family, including her extremely grumpy grandfather, who she lives with. The book is told in first person only from Callie’s perspective, but despite that, the other characters are very real. Especially Ian, who was probably a little difficult to write because he isn’t the most charming character.

The book’s dialogue and internal thought is natural and witty at appropriate times:

One does not often see one’s grandfather naked in one’s bathroom, after all. And thank the merciful Christ for that.

Finally, Higgins brings us into the setting with wonderfully placed details so there’s no doubt we’re in small-town Vermont or whatever specific setting the scene is in. And from the sample of Higgins I’ve read, I’ve seen that there’s a fairly consistent medium heat level because everything’s implied. This one is in line with that.

As ever, Higgins delivers a charming book that fans of light, small-town contemporary romance will love.


* A big deal to her. Not to everyone.

The Next Best Thing (Gideon’s Cove #2) by Kristan Higgins

The Next Best Thing book coverI’ve entered a bunch of romance contests. The way these things work is that judges read the beginning of the manuscript (usually between 15 and 30 pages of it) and give you as much feedback as they want. Sometimes you get a lot; sometimes a little. The feedback is always a bit all over the place. I had one entry where one judge said, “If the rest of the manuscript is as good as this, it’s publication-ready!” while another judge on the same entry gave me 60-something points out of 100 and said there was too much description and not enough internalization. So you have to take it with a grain of salt (and look for consistent criticism). They’re looking for things to comment on, after all, not just reading for pleasure.

Anyway, one of the judges on one of my entries said my characters thoughts weren’t right and that I should read Kristan Higgins for examples of good internalization. I’ve read her before and know she’s good, so it’s not a great sacrifice. I picked up another four of her books and started in on them.

I’ll be honest, I have sort of mixed feelings about Higgins. She is a masterful writer and that judge was not wrong about her skill with characterization and internal thought. She creates really deep characters you feel for. And she is undeniably funny.

My issue comes in with her heroines. I sometimes find them too silly. I know that’s part of the humor—the ability to laugh at oneself is definitely appealing and relatable. But there’s a limit for me. It’s not unattractive for a woman to be a capable person. She can still have a big love wound of some type.

So I started The Next Best Thing with reservations. And in this case, I was happy to be presented with a heroine who is definitely very capable, at least in one area of her life. Lucy is a very skilled (and professionally trained) baker. It’s true that she could learn to stand up to her family a bit more, though. problem is that the love of her life was killed in a car crash after just 8 months of marriage. She is still very close to her husband’s family, including his younger brother, Ethan. Who she happens to be sleeping with.

The book is told entirely from Lucy’s perspective, so we don’t get Ethan’s view on things. But it’s pretty clear he’s in love with her and that she’s oblivious. After her sister has a baby, Lucy decides it’s time for her to move on from her husband and find a new one. However, she wants a man who she can’t love as much as she loved her husband. She can’t risk that kind of loss again. And she likes Ethan enough that she worries she could fall for him more than she’s comfortable with. So she breaks off their friends-with-benefits thing.

Ethan’s obviously not happy with this, but he’s supportive. Lucy is still oblivious. She goes on a few bad dates (okay, these dip into the uber-silly and are not extremely realistic, but that’s some of the humor) and one good date. But part of her problem is she’s in a small town with not a lot of men to choose from. The question throughout is, How long will it take her to realize that it’s worth taking the risk with Ethan?

As I mentioned above, this book definitely had its humorous moments, but it wasn’t as funny as some of her other books—which I really appreciated. I guess I tend to go more for books with serious substance over lighter romantic comedies (I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with light books, just that I don’t find them as satisfying). This book filled that role for me.

So did I learn anything about what to have my characters think? We’ll have to see…

Bountiful (True North #4) by Sarina Bowen

Bountiful book coverI’m a total Bowen fangirl, I know. Bountiful is the fourth book in the True North series, which continues to deliver. I’m already looking forward to the next one, even though I’m not sure who it will be about (though I have my suspicions).

This one follows Zara, Griff’s ex-hookup. She manages the local bar, The Mountain Goat, under the theoretical watchful eye of her grumpy uncle. But really, she runs the place almost single-handedly.

She was still hung up on Griff when a hot stranger named Dave came to town for a few weeks. They found each other irresistible and hooked up numerous times during his time there. She insisted on keeping things on a first name basis only. Dave was okay with that, being averse to anything long term, though he was a little more drawn to her than to most women.

This was going on at the same time as the events in book 1, Griff’s and Audrey’s story. In a way, Dave helped Zara get over Griff and they kept each other entertained, all while keeping all personal information off the table. Zara turns up pregnant at the end of that book, well after Dave’s left, and who the father is is a big mystery to the town, but she isn’t telling anyone.

Fast forward a couple years, and she’s got a toddler named Nicole who has red hair just like her father. She still hasn’t told anyone who the father is, because the truth is, she doesn’t really know. All she knew was that he lived in Brooklyn and was rich. He’d casually mentioned his last name once, but when it mattered, she couldn’t remember it. So despite searching for him, she’d given up on ever being able to tell him.

And that’s when Dave returns for another short vacation, having nothing but fond memories of his time in Vermont two years earlier. By this time, Zara’s running a coffee shop with Audrey. Dave runs into Zara not too far into the book and she tells him about Nicole. The sparks are still there, but now they have to figure out how each of them can get over their own emotional blocks to figure out how to make things work. Especially after learning that he’s a high-profile hockey player, Zara is convinced that Dave could never be serious with her and would eventually disappear, just like her own father had. Dave believes that he’s incapable of a healthy relationship due to his own troubled childhood. An additional challenge is that they both have strong ties to where they’re living, with no easy way to compromise without someone giving something up.

This book is as steamy as you’d expect, though I admit I found Dave a little too bossy at times. But I guess some people like that. Still, Zara and Dave are both complex and interesting characters and it was a lot of fun to see cameos of characters from the earlier books.

Grin & Beard It (Winston Brothers #2) by Penny Reid

Grin & Beard It book coverThis book is a little unusual because it features a charming heroine who is both ridiculously famous as a comedic actor and overweight. I’m not particularly interested in famous people, so I thought I might not enjoy this one as much as some of Reid’s other books. But Sienna Diaz is an engaging character a little at odds with her status. And Jethro Winston is completely oblivious to and not remotely interested in who she is to the rest of the world, which is one of the things that draws her to him.

I mean, how they meet is a tad cliche—she’s out driving in rural Tennessee and gets lost. But many of us can relate to this. I’m terrible in rural areas; I can’t tell the difference between roads and driveways sometimes. So, it works for me. And Jethro is the park ranger for the national park Sienna keeps driving circles inside. In the end, they give up and he gives her rides to and from the set, which works out for both of them and lets them get to know each other. Of course, most of the time Cletus is there in the truck with them, with his comic relief.

Not that we really need him for that—Sienna herself is funny with a small side of snark. That’s the main reason for her fame, and Reid manages to pull it off and then some. When she’s thinking about the “other woman” (Jethro’s best friend’s widow) being beautiful, she thinks:

She was fuckingly gorgeous. She was so gorgeous, her beauty deserved the f-bomb used as an adverb.

I also like the fact that she’s fat (not just by Hollywood’s definition) and still manages to outshine the rest of Hollywood in a way that is believable, at least for the duration of the novel. Overall, I really liked Sienna and was interested in seeing how she worked out what she really wanted to do while dealing the all the pressures of being famous Sienna.

Jethro is also an appealing guy. If you’ve read the first book, you know he’s got a sketchy past. That comes out here as significant in how he sees himself and any kind of relationship he might be able to have with Sienna. He’s also not remotely concerned with who she is in Hollywood, as he’s not into such things. They connect on a different level, one Sienna would love to be able to exist at. Jethro’s sweet and classy in his own way. When they’re having dinner on night and discussing the word “buxom,” and how it describes what she’s got going on in a certain area, he says:

‘Just like, the word clever describes what you have going on here,’ he motioned to my brain, ‘and the word beautiful describes what you have going on everywhere.’

Love it.

Things are up and down for Sienna and Jethro, but the resolution is nice. The book delivers with Reid’s trademark humor and her slightly-steamy heat level. Read it if you’ve enjoyed her other books, or if you haven’t.

Rainshadow Road (Friday Harbor #2) by Lisa Kleypas

Rainshadow Road book coverAfter reading the book 3 in this series, I went back and read the first one, which is a short novel set around Christmas-time featuring another Nolan brother (Mark). I enjoyed it so I got the whole series. Book 2 is about Sam Nolan and Lucy Marinn and is also set in the small town of Friday Harbor on an island off the Washington coast. Book 3 takes place at basically the same time this one does.

Despite being about one of the brothers, this book is really Lucy’s story. The first fifth of the book is all from her perspective, giving us her backstory, which starts when she was very young because we have to learn about her very crummy and spoiled younger sister. This matters because it’s who her lame-o boyfriend is cheating with right before the book starts. But we also learn that she can do something a little magical with glass, both in the literal sense and the metaphorical sense (she’s a successful glass artist). The first thing we get in the today storyline is him breaking up with her and asking her to move out.

She meets Sam right afterward, and though they’re interested in each other, she naturally says no when he asks her out. Then we start getting Sam’s story. Sam’s a good-time guy but he’s helping to raise his 6-year-old niece, who Mark got guardianship of when their sister was killed, as told in book 1. So we know Sam’s a good guy because he’s a very good Uncle Sam to Holly. Sam and Lucy also run into each other some more and he’s encouraging her to sublet Mark’s old studio apartment. They decide to not get involved with each other because they know he’s not available for anything serious. Then she’s in a bicycle accident that bangs her up pretty good and breaks her leg (technically it’s not broken but it might as well be).

This is where the book gets a little odd for me, because somehow Lucy’s friend convince Sam to take care of her in his house for the first three days she’s out of the hospital, when she’s supposed to be bedridden. And for some reason, they decide she needs to have multiple showers while she’s there. I mean, most people wouldn’t bother until they could move on their own. There are lots of other opportunities for them to get close, which they do, and at one point they almost have sex but are interrupted. This whole part was a little hard to accept, but I was able to suspend disbelief enough to get through it, because other than the strange pretense, their growing relationship was fun to watch.

It takes a long time for Sam to realize he loves Lucy, though she figures out that she loves him a lot sooner. One thing that made me happy about this book was that Lucy had a great opportunity that would take her away from the island, and they figure out a way to make that work. She doesn’t have to give up the greatest move her career has seen just to stay with him.

For a Good Time Call… (Bluewater Bay #17) by Anne Tenino and E.J. Russell

For a Good Time Call... book coverThis book is part of the Bluewater Bay (mm) series from Riptide Publishing, and it’s my first foray into the series. The series has an interesting premise—a Hollywood crew sets up residence in an old logging town on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington to film a popular TV show about shifters. This particular book features Nate, who’s on the show crew, and Seth, a local bartender.

The book’s a definite slow burn, as a friendship turns into a relationship, even though the attraction is there from the beginning, at least on Seth’s side. Nate, on the other hand, is “grace”—or gray asexual, which means (basically, and in this case) that he’s rarely sexually attracted to people, and has to develop a sense of closeness with someone first. In Nate’s case, that’s only happened a couple times before, and each turned into a long-term relationship. His most recent one ended after his boyfriend cheated, so he’s still recovering from that. He’s also got other baggage in the form of a strained relationship with his mom.

Seth’s got his own baggage. He’s got a complicated family. It’s one of the oldest in town and consequently his family is a part of all the early town stories, and his uncle in particular wants to protect their image. At the beginning of the novel, he’s living on and taking care of the grounds of the “big house,” as it were—where his grandmother still lives, even though she very much wants to move. Somehow, Seth’s grandfather set up his trust so that his father and uncle are in charge of the house and her money in general, and they refuse to let her sell it. Seth’s sort of in the middle of finding himself, so he’s starting a new job as a bartender.

The night before Seth’s new job, he meets Nate and after some confusion about intentions, a friendship begins. They bond over town history, of all things—Nate’s into local history and Seth is local history, so it works out. I also have to mention that it’s totally dorky, but I enjoyed it anyway. Between the two of them, they send the family into upheaval, which is good for all the good guys—Seth, his grandma (who’s great), and Seth’s dad. Plus, of course, Nate—once they finally work things out.

As mentioned, it’s a slow build, but the main characters are well-drawn, there are enough subplots going on to keep things interesting, and I enjoyed the grace angle (many people will appreciate that making it into another book). Also, there’s a dog. The book’s not super-sexy, so don’t look for that (though it’s definitely far from sweet). Give this one a chance if you’re looking for a nice mm romance or even if you’re just curious about gray asexuality. I’ll definitely be checking out some of the other books in the series.

Truth or Beard (Winston Brothers #1) by Penny Reid

Truth or Beard book coverI have to admit, I am not enamored of beards. Stubble, yes—yum—but beards, not so much. I also am not overly fond of redheads. So Reid had to manage to convince a skeptic that Duane Winston was attractive.

I’m happy to report that she pulled it off. Dark and a little broody with clear hidden depths, Duane still comes across as very appealing, so I was right there with Jessica James, the poor high school math teacher who has quite a bit of a challenge before her when she tries to fight off her desire for Duane.

The setup is fun—Duane has a twin brother Beau who is way more charming than he is, being friendly, not broody, and maybe a teeny bit shallow. And Jessica has spent her whole life crushing after Beau, so when she ends up making out with him at a party only to find out that it isn’t Beau after all, she’s horrified. She actively dislikes Duane because he was mean to her when they were young—which, it turns out, was because he’d always liked her. His latest escapade isn’t particularly nice, either—he was fully aware that she thought he was his twin.

Unlike his brother, it’s clear from the outset that Duane’s personality runs quite deep. He’s complicated. He’s also got a past he’s trying to recover from and he has some risky hobbies. Drag racing. Antagonizing the local motorcycle club. Still, he’s determined to convince Jessica to date him—actually, he’s already convinced he wants to marry her, but he gets that he shouldn’t exactly bring that up yet. It’s quite the uphill battle for him, as Jessica is rightly perturbed at him for tricking her. Also, her brother and father are local cops and they do not approve of Duane. Even more important is the fact that Jessica has no intention of sticking around their small Tennessee town. Nope, she’s going to see the world, once she gets herself financially sorted.

Duane and Jessica are both great characters, deeply drawn and likable. Their chemistry is great. The surrounding cast of characters is also highly entertaining. Duane has a whole gaggle of hot and easily distinguishable brothers, making the backup cast quite fun. Even if some of the books weren’t already out, you’d know it would have to be a series. There’s plenty of typical Reid humor (i.e., smart and a wee bit nerdy) sprinkled throughout, though the book has many steamy moments, as well. I wouldn’t have minded more of the steam, though, but that’s my only near-complaint. If you like reading about intelligent characters making life choices, you’ll like this one.

Keepsake (True North #3) by Sarina Bowen

Keepsake book coverIn Keepsake, Bowen continues the story of the Shipley farm, moving us back there full-time. This time it’s Zachariah’s story. Zach grew up in a polygamous cult and got kicked out for a small transgression (mostly because he was a young man, when the old men wanted the girls all for themselves). Zach’s been working at the Shipley farm for a while and he’s beginning to feel that his time there is coming to a close. Not because he wants it to be, but because he thinks they need it to be.

But Keepsake is also Lark’s story. She’s one of May Shipley’s oldest and best friends. She just survived a terrible incident while she was on a work assignment in Guatemala, which broke her fearless, adventurous spirit. We don’t learn exactly what happened until close to the end, but we do know that she was kidnapped and held for a while. Everyone assumes she was raped and that’s why she is so traumatized, but she insists that’s not it. The result of her trauma is that she decides to spend some time at the Shipley farm because her parents aren’t taking her waking-screaming-from-bad-dreams very well. She’s going to help with the apple-picking and try to heal.

Zach and Lark have previously met at the farm and admired each other from afar. When it turns out that Zach is the first one to hear one of Lark’s screaming dreams in the bunkhouse at the farm, he goes in to comfort her, despite his own awkwardness in doing so—and Griff Shipley’s mandate for all the men to keep their hands off Lark. This happens several times as he becomes very attuned to listening for her. Also, interestingly, she ends up sort of comforting him, because he too is broken after his upbringing and exclusion from his home. These nightly interludes happen regularly and then, not too surprisingly, turn into more, though it does take a long time. It’s quite a slow burn of a story, in general. But in a delicious way.

Being with Zach doesn’t fix Lark. It seems like only time and some more therapy can do that. And Zach has some growing and self-discovery to do, himself. It takes some time apart before they figure out a way to come together and stay that way.

Both characters are richly developed and absolutely believable, despite their difficult life experiences. The chemistry between the two of them and the love scenes are as hot and sensual as you’d expect from Bowen, with the added complexity that Zach is a virgin and they both know it. Bowen handles that very well, expertly weaving in a bit of humor with the super-sexy. There’s also more going on with the supporting characters, especially May, which deepens the book quite a bit. Still, the focus is on Zach and Lark, and it’s a wonderful comfort story.