Review: On Second Thought by Kristan Higgins + Giveaway

Review: On Second Thought by Kristan Higgins + GiveawayOn Second Thought by Kristan Higgins
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, women's fiction
Pages: 480
Published by HQN Books on January 31st 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

Following in the footsteps of her critically acclaimed novel
If You Only Knew
, multi-bestselling author Kristan Higgins returns with a pitch-perfect look at the affection—and the acrimony—that binds sisters together 
Ainsley O'Leary is so ready to get married—she's even found the engagement ring her boyfriend has stashed away. What she doesn't anticipate is for Eric to blindside her with a tactless breakup he chronicles in a blog…which (of course) goes viral. Devastated and humiliated, Ainsley turns to her half sister, Kate, who's already struggling after the sudden loss of her new husband. 
Kate has always been so poised, so self-assured, but Nathan's death shatters everything she thought she knew—including her husband—and sometimes the people who step up aren't the ones you expect. With seven years and a murky blended-family dynamic between them, Ainsley and Kate have never been overly close, but their shared sorrow dovetails their faltering worlds into one. 
Despite the lifetime of history between them, the sisters must learn to put their differences aside and open their hearts to the inevitable imperfection of family—and the possibility of one day finding love again.

My Review:

This is a lovely story about second chances. Not just second chances at love, but also second chances at family, friendship and career fulfillment. And especially a second chance at being sisters.

The story is told from the alternating points of view of Kate and Ainsley, half-sisters who have a lifetime of almost-but-not-quite closeness between them. And a really weird family dynamic. Their father, a Major League Baseball umpire, left Kate’s mother to marry Ainsley’s mother. Three years later, with the love of his life dead and a very young daughter to raise, their father begged his first wife to take him back. And she did, but she never completely lost her resentment of the whole situation. It’s hard to blame her.

But that left Kate and Ainsley in a bit of a bind, sister-wise. Kate was ten years older than Ainsley, and Ainsley was so obviously Daddy’s favorite, that they weren’t close growing up. Mutual tragedy brings them together, and they discover in each other the sister and best friend they never had, but always wanted.

Kate’s husband dies after four months of pretty blissful marriage. Unfortunately for Ainsley, Nathan’s death sends her long-term boyfriend Eric into a complete spin into assholishness, not that he was a prince to begin with. Eric doesn’t just break up with Ainsley, he does it publicly, on the blog he posts at her magazine, and in the worst terms imaginable. While Eric was never as good as Ainsley thought he was, his behavior dives to a whole new level of low.

Ainsley arrives on Kate’s doorstep with her adorable dog and her worldly goods, which aren’t all that much. Kate, still in the seemingly endless depths of her grief, is grateful to have the upbeat and perky Ainsley move into her echoing house. Ainsley is equally happy to have a place to stay while she regroups and recovers. Ollie is always happy. Period.

They help each other. And they find each other. And eventually, when the time is mostly right, they find a way to move past their respective grief. But even though they both finally move on, what they don’t do is move past each other.

Escape Rating B+: I read this in a single evening. I fell into the story and didn’t fall out until I turned the last page. Kate and Ainsley are women that I would love to know in real life, and I was happy to spend an evening with them.

I will say that the first chapter is very, very rough going. It is obvious from the first paragraph that Kate’s husband Nathan is about to die, because Kate is narrating their last evening together from the perspective of someone who knows what is about to happen. It was impossible not to feel for her. Kate’s profound grief made me keep looking over at my own snoring husband to make sure he was all right. But a big part of me wished that the story could have started after his death. Reading the “but I didn’t know” bits over and over was both sad and wearying. Also wearing.

if you only knew by kristan higginsAlthough there is a romantic element to this story, the romances don’t feel like point of the story, except as they symbolize both women finally able to move on. Which appropriately takes a while. The point of the story is the way that they reach towards each other in a way that will remind readers of the author’s previous book, If You Only Knew.

Kate feels both profound grief and a certain amount of anger. When Nathan died, they had known each other for less than a year, and had only been married for four months. As much as she misses him, she also misses the person she used to be before they met. She had been happy on her own, and if she hadn’t met Nathan she would have continued to be so. The difference that one year has made in her life is beyond heartbreaking.

Ainsley’s situation is a bit different. She met Eric in college, and they’ve been together for 11 years. Literally one-third of her life. She not only loves Eric, she loves his family, and she’s been dreaming of marrying him for almost a decade. He’s always been a bit of a selfish arsehole, but when he breaks up with her via his blog, he pulls out all the stops. Readers will want to shoot him. In the kneecaps, so he suffers longer.

In many ways, Ainsley has a lot more self-examination and reinventing to do, because she’s never been just her. She’s always been part of an “us”, and now that is blasted to smithereens. When she gets her own back, it is epic and awesome.

Both women do eventually find romance, and in the most unlikely places. And the way that they do, particularly the way they both approach that second chance, makes a marvelous conclusion to this story.

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

I am giving away a copy of On Second Thought to one lucky U.S. commenter.

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Review: Anything For You by Kristan Higgins + Giveaway

Review: Anything For You by Kristan Higgins + GiveawayAnything for You (Blue Heron, #5) by Kristan Higgins
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, small town romance
Series: Blue Heron #5
Pages: 384
Published by HQN Books on December 29th 2015
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

Before you get down on bended knee…
…you should be pretty darn sure the answer will be yes. For ten years, Connor O'Rourke has been waiting for Jessica Dunn to take their on-again, off-again relationship public, and he thinks the time has come. His restaurant is thriving, she's got her dream job at Blue Heron Vineyard—it's the perfect time to get married.
When he pops the question, however, her answer is a fond but firm no. If it ain't broke, why fix it? Jess has her hands full with her younger brother, who's now living with her full-time, and a great career after years of waitressing. What she and Connor have is perfect: friends with an excellent benefits package. Besides, with her difficult past (and reputation), she's positive married life isn't for her.
But this time, Connor says it's all or nothing. If she doesn't want to marry him, he'll find someone who does. Easier said than done, given that he's never loved anyone but her. And maybe Jessica isn't quite as sure as she thinks…

My Review:

If you think of the phrase, “anything for you” as having a similar type of resonance to Wesley’s famous “as you wish” in The Princess Bride, you’ll get an idea of the relationship between Connor O’Rourke and Jessica Dunn, with the reversal that he’s the prince and she starts the story as something less than a stableboy.

This is not a pretty story, because Jessica does not have a pretty life. It does finally have a mostly happy ending, although there are lots of times during the story where the reader rightfully wonders how these two are ever going to get there. Their romance has a lot of roadblocks in it, and while they both contribute to those roadblocks as adults, the ones they start with from childhood are difficult to get past, and with good reason.

Like so many of the stories in Higgins’ Blue Heron series, Anything for You tells a lot of its story in flashbacks. In fact, the entire first half or possibly two thirds of the book is a flashback. The story begins with Connor’s failed attempt at asking Jessica to marry him, and then goes all the way back to their occasionally intersecting childhoods. Connor’s memories of their past move closer and closer to that fateful evening, without any references to their present circumstances until after the story reaches that heartbreaking NOW. And then moves forward into a future that takes a lot of twists and turns to look brighter.

in your dreams by kristan higginsIn my review of In Your Dreams, I referred to Jack Holland’s willingness to be any woman’s date for any function where she needs an escort as him being a gentleman, and that he specifically is not the town bicycle. He helps a lot of women out of emotional jams caused by some other man – he doesn’t have sex with every, or even most of, the women he helps.

On the other hand, Jessica Dunn really was the town bicycle in high school. To the point where most people called her “Jessica Does” instead of Jessica Dunn. It sounds kind of sleazy and sordid, until we find out why. Jessica was gathering a group of strong and caring young men who would be willing to protect her younger brother Davey from bullies in exchange for sex with Jessica Does. Davey was born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, and needs all the protection that Jessica can give or gather for him.

Both of their parents are alcoholics, and Jessica has been the only person really responsible for Davey since the day he was born. She was 7, and she’s been his parent and his caregiver and his protector ever since.

But in the flashbacks, we see Jessica’s relationship with Connor from the very beginning, and from its rocky start things only go downhill for a long time. Davey’s dog Chico mauls 12-year-old Connor, and Connor’s distant and stuck-up dad drags Connor to the trailer park so he can punish poor Davey by having the dog hauled away to be euthanized. Davey, who can only see the world in black and white, spends his life convinced that Connor killed his dog.

So when adult Jessica and Connor begin their on-again/off-again friends-with benefits arrangement it is with the explicit understanding that it will remain a secret so that the volatile Davey never finds out.

Because Jessica has always and will always put Davey first. Even at the cost of her own happiness. But who is she really protecting? Davey or herself?

best man by kristan higginsEscape Rating A-: Anything for You was not quite as straightforward a romance as the earlier entries in this series. Also, it isn’t necessary to read every book in the series to get what’s going on in this one, but Manningsport is a nice place to visit with interesting people. If you like small town romances, start with The Best Man (reviewed here) to get in on all the fun.

Connor’s life has been relatively easy, and he is perfectly aware of it. He’s not self-centered nor does he think he’s perfect or God’s gift to women or anything like that. He’s just a guy who knows that he has mostly been lucky. His parents were upper middle-class, and while his dad was generally a selfish and self-absorbed bastard, he made sure that his family was well provided for financially if not emotionally. If Connor hasn’t exactly forgiven his dad for leaving their mother for a much younger (and very pregnant) woman, he is also perfectly civil about the whole thing. And his much younger sister Savannah is one of the lights of Connor’s life.

But Connor has loved Jessica Dunn for 20 years, and that isn’t going to change. He has taken whatever bits of her she can manage to give him, and he’s finally realized that it isn’t enough. He’s in his early 30s now and wants to be married to the love of his life and start a family. He’s also not willing to settle for second best – meaning a woman other than Jessica.

So Connor has to somehow get past his past with Davey, who throws a head-banging temper tantrum whenever he sees Connor.

And while Davey may only have an IQ of 50, he is as good as any child at emotionally manipulating his parental figure, in this case, Jessica.

Jessica is caught between several rocks and all kinds of hard places. Growing up as the only responsible party in a house of alcoholics, Jessica has no faith in anyone but herself. Her experience is that she is the only one she can trust not to let her down. She’s also sure that with her background, Connor can’t possibly love her. She’s certain that their relationship is all about the thrill of the chase. And while she is wrong, it is so easy to understand how she would feel that way.

She can’t let herself even think about a future with Connor, or about how she really feels about him, because she is certain that happiness is not for her. And because Davey hates Connor.

The author has done an excellent job of portraying an adult child of an alcoholic. Everything that Jessica is dealing with in the present are a natural response to the unpredictable insanity of her childhood.

Connor’s solution to their many dilemmas is ingenious, and also heartwarming. He has to create a relationship with Davey on Davey’s terms. When things backfire, it is up to Connor to point out how much of Jessica’s reaction isn’t about Davey, but is about Jessica. It’s only when they work things out from there that they have a chance.

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

Kristan and Little Bird Publicity are giving away a copy of Anything for You to one lucky U.S. commenter:

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