Review: Would You Rather by Allison Ashley

Review: Would You Rather by Allison AshleyWould You Rather by Allison Ashley
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, women's fiction
Pages: 320
Published by Mira on August 23, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Noah and Mia have always been best friends, and their friendship is the most important thing to them. Life is going great for Noah and he’s up for a promotion in a job he loves. But Mia’s life is on hold as she awaits a kidney transplant. She’s stuck in a dead-end job and, never wanting to be a burden, has sworn off all romance. So when the chance of a lifetime comes to go back to school and pursue her dream, it’s especially painful to pass up. She can’t quit her job or she’ll lose the medical insurance she so desperately needs.
To support her, Noah suggests they get married—in name only—so she can study full-time and still keep the insurance. It’s a risk to both of them, with jobs, health and hearts on the line, and they’ll need to convince suspicious coworkers and nosy roommates that they’re the real deal. But if they can let go of all the baggage holding them back, they might realize that they would rather be together forever.

My Review:

The United States is the ONLY wealthy, industrialized nation on this planet that does not provide universal health care. And that is what honestly makes the U.S. health insurance industry the big, scary, and all too real villain in this romance.

Noah and Mia have been the bestest of best friends since they were seven years old. They absolutely do love each other, whatever form that love might take – and whatever feelings about the form that love might take they are hiding from each other and the rest of the world. Especially from themselves.

But Mia has a life-threatening chronic illness. Her kidneys are slowly but inexorably failing. Her condition is currently managed by expensive medications and occasional hospital admissions for flare-ups, but it’s manageable. At least so far.

She does need a kidney transplant, and her life has in many ways been on hold since she was diagnosed. Two of the specific things that she has put on hold are her career aspirations and any possibility of romance.

Mia does not want to kill anyone else’s hopes and dreams the way she did her parents’. Not that they see it that way. At all. But when she was diagnosed in her late teens, their savings were pretty much completely wiped out by the cost of her care that wasn’t covered by insurance. She just isn’t willing to do that to any potential romantic partner.

She dropped out of college when she was diagnosed – not surprisingly as it was a LOT to deal with. She’s stuck in a dead-end job because she needs the excellent health insurance the company provides. Without it, she will, quite literally, die.

The job has several good points and one really bad one. She is the administrative assistant at the architectural firm owned by Noah’s dad where Noah himself works. BUUUUT, one of the other architects is a douche who seems determined to make her miserable and puts her down at every turn. (There’s a bubbling vat of acid waiting in the wings for him, I swear.)

So, when she gets a scholarship for mid-career learners to return to college and finish the degrees they abandoned, she wants to take it. But she can’t. Because (insert evil villain music here) she needs the insurance from her job.

And that’s where this story both kicks off and goes just a teensy bit off the rails.

Noah offers to marry her so she can stay on his insurance and chase her dream of becoming a pediatric nutritionist, a job that will also pay at least twice what she’s making now and undoubtedly come with its own excellent insurance. Or, she’ll get a transplant which will automatically qualify her for Medicare – again solving the insurance problem. (The real crime in this story is that SO MUCH is caused by the evil insurance companies!)

What they are planning is a marriage of convenience, 21st century American style. Or so it seems. What they actually get turns out to be anything but.

Escape Rating B-: There’s so much of this book that is so good. It’s a terrific friends-into-lovers and fake relationship romance rolled into a lovely story, and those tropes are classics for a reason.

Noah and Mia have been besties for-literally-ever. Their deep friendship is the foundation on which both of their lives are built. They are each other’s person in some seriously profound ways. That they both want more but are too afraid to admit it because of the consequences if it doesn’t work out feels real. They know they belong together, but they have both made the decision that being together as friends is enough – or at least that it’s not worth the risk of trying for more because neither of them can face the thought of ending up with less.

Where the story sent me into a ranting internal monologue was in the nature of the “fake” of their fake relationship. They’re not the first or the last people, undoubtedly in real life as much as in fiction, to have married out of something other than romantic love. The problem in the story is that it conflates the issues involved in faking a Green Card marriage with marrying to get insurance.

Their marriage isn’t fake or a con. It’s a real marriage, with real legal documentation. They share a real house and a real life. Whether or not they ever plan to have sex or romance is not the insurance company’s problem and they are NOT committing fraud. They ARE married with all the legal consequences and legal responsibilities thereunto.

The real, true issue in the story is the lies they tell to their friends, their families and most importantly, Noah’s employer. Who is also his dad and they do have a good relationship which means that Noah could have been upfront about this mess from the beginning. But the story treats the reason for their marriage and their intention to dissolve it after Mia completes her education as the big bad sin, when it isn’t. It’s the lying that is both the sin and the thing that’s going to trip them up over and over until it’s dealt with.

So the blurb and at least the first third of the story make it seem as if their so-called “fake” marriage is the problem when the real, true problem is that they lied about it. And that they’ve been doing a whole metric ton of lying about a whole lot of very real issues – to themselves and each other most of all.

Where the story gets both very, very good and in many ways very, very sad is that once the first lie gets exposed, all the cats claw their way out of all the bags and they both have to deal with all the issues they’ve been hiding from themselves. And papering over by being so invested in their friendship that they let each other bury some real and serious shit that is painful to deal with and is only going to be more painful for being hidden.

So there’s a LOT to unpack in this story. It’s not nearly as bright and breezy as the blurb might lead you to believe. It is seriously NOT a rom-com. And it would have been a lot better – and a lot less frustrating (and this review would be a lot less ranty) if it had started out by focusing on the real culprits in the mess.

Once it finally gets on the path it should have been on in the first place, the story of two people who have loved each other nearly all their lives who have been living a pretense that suddenly becomes real, the story has a whole lot of charm along with a marvelously cathartic resolution and a solidly earned HEA.

 

Review: Becoming Family by Elysia Whisler

Review: Becoming Family by Elysia WhislerBecoming Family (Dogwood County, #3) by Elysia Whisler
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, relationship fiction, women's fiction
Series: Dogwood County #3
Pages: 368
Published by Mira on August 16, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Family is a feeling
There’s nothing like an important birthday to make a person realize all the things they haven’t accomplished. As Tabitha Steele blows out thirty candles, she makes a wish to take charge of her life. It’s a tall order, considering she doesn’t have much to show for herself since leaving military service. She works at a motorcycle shop but has never even ridden a motorcycle; she’s floundering in massage school; her social life consists of her aunt and her gym buddies; and her closest relationship is with Trinity, the service dog who helps her manage every day. She feels like an imposter in every aspect of her own life.
Playful and wild-hearted gym coach Chris Hobbs is Tabitha’s opposite. He likes to keep things fun and temporary, which is why he’s never tried to move the deepening friendship he has with Tabitha into anything more. But he’s the perfect person to help Tabitha discover her strengths. Then the sudden reappearance of his estranged brother forces Chris to face his past and the vulnerable part of himself behind the party-boy persona…and that means letting Tabitha in.
As difficult as it is for Tabitha and Chris to leave the old definitions of themselves behind, the journey is better with someone special at their sides, becoming who they’re meant to be, together.
"Sweet and sexy, packed with emotions… Romance, rescue dogs, and a side of mystery." —Trish Doller, New York Times bestselling author of Float Plan,on Forever Home

My Review:

This is my second trip to Dogwood County, after last year’s marvelous Forever Home. While the story in this entry in the series is very different from that one, they do have one thing in common. All the animals and all the people do get rescued, usually by each other. And at the end of the story all the animals are very definitely OK. (This is important! A lot of readers want to be sure that all the animals make it before they start a book. There’s even a website: Does the Dog Die, that tracks a lot more than just dogs.)

Where the action in Forever Home followed a seriously badass ex-marine who was a little too good at taking care of herself, Becoming Family is the story of the new counter help at Delaney’s classic motorcycle repair shop, Tabitha Steele, who is pretty much Delaney’s exact opposite.

Tabitha isn’t good at taking care of herself at all. Or at least she thinks she isn’t good at it, because she’s convinced that she isn’t good at or for anything at all. Tabitha always sees herself as a failure and is honestly surprised that anyone wants to be her friend.

She’s also envious of the sheer badassness of all of her friends, to the point where her 30th birthday wish is to become just as badass as they are. A task at which she does not expect to succeed, because she never does. Succeed, that is. At much of anything. At least as far as she can tell.

So Tabitha’s journey in this story is learning to tell that truth. That she’s not a failure, that she is wanted by her friends, that she has a use and a purpose and a gift and that she’s good at what she does. And doesn’t have any worse a case of impostor syndrome than anyone else on the planet.

And that she doesn’t need to become a badass because she already is one. And that her therapy dog Trinity will have her back – and her front – while she figures it out. And beyond.

Escape Rating B+: Like the previous book in this series, the story in Becoming Family fairly comfortably straddles the genre line between relationship or women’s fiction and romance. Although, at least for this reader, it’s the relationship side that steals the show.

Especially if one includes all the relationships with all the animals who steal all the scenes!

The family that is becoming – at least according to the title – is a family of choice rather than birth. Both Tabitha and her romantic interest, Christopher Hobbs, have some serious issues with their birth families. Hobbs’ was abusive. Tabitha’s was nonexistent. She was literally a foundling deposited in a church.

But they have both made families in Dogwood County. Tabitha with the woman who raised her, her beloved Auntie El, and all the people who belong to the Semper Fit fitness studio, where Hobbs works as a trainer.

The relationship side of this story is about the interconnectedness of all the friendships that began at Semper Fit. Which messily ties in the place that rescues and trains Pit Bulls like Tabitha’s Trinity. And even more messily ties in Lily’s work at the local animal shelter, from whence she brings home all the hard luck cases – and finds them homes. (The animals are all terrific but not universally well-trained, especially in puppy- and or kitten-hood.)

Which is how Hobbs and his sister Hannah end up with Lily’s hardest of hard luck cases, the sweet Lab mix puppy Gracie and her hairless guardian cat George. Honestly, George and Gracie’s story was the very best thing in this book of good things.

But the romance between Hobbs and Tabitha has a rocky start – and probably a rocky ever after as well. These are two people who have spent their lives having their boundaries attacked in one way or another. It’s great watching them both start to figure out where their lines are drawn – but it’s a battle that just isn’t realistically over when the story ends.

Although they’re certainly getting there.

So in the end this is lovely. The animals, of which there are many, all get their own HEAs. The humans are all works in progress, but progress is most definitely made. There’s a hook to a next book in the series, which is terrific because I’d love a return visit.

And in the meantime, I still have the first book in the series (Rescue You) to look forward to reading the next time I want to visit this marvelous place!

Review: A Proposal They Can’t Refuse by Natalie Cana

Review: A Proposal They Can’t Refuse by Natalie CanaA Proposal They Can't Refuse by Natalie Caña
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, romantic comedy
Series: Vega Family Love Stories #1
Pages: 336
Published by Mira on June 7, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Natalie Caña turns up the heat, humor and heart in this debut rom-com about a Puerto Rican chef and an Irish American whiskey distiller forced into a fake engagement by their scheming octogenarian grandfathers.
Kamilah Vega is desperate to convince her family to update their Puerto Rican restaurant and enter it into the Fall Foodie Tour. With the gentrification of their Chicago neighborhood, it's the only way to save the place. The fly in her mofongo--her blackmailing abuelo says if she wants to change anything in his restaurant, she'll have to marry the one man she can't stand: his best friend's grandson.
Liam Kane spent a decade working to turn his family's distillery into a contender. Now he and his grandfather are on the verge of winning a national competition. Then Granda hits him with a one-two punch: he has cancer and he has his heart set on seeing Liam married before it's too late. And Granda knows just the girl...Kamilah Vega.
If they refuse, their grandfathers will sell the building that houses both their businesses. With their futures on the line, Kamilah and Liam plan to outfox the devious duo, faking an engagement until they both get what they want. But soon, they find themselves tangled up in more than either of them bargained for.

My Review:

This story may have elements of a rom-com, but it absolutely does not start with anything remotely resembling a “meet cute”. The first meeting we witness between Kamilah Vega and Liam Kane is clearly not their first meeting. Their grandfathers have been best friends since before their parents were born, Kamilah and Liam have known each other since childhood – even if they can’t seem to stand each other as adults.

But the real reason that their meeting in the opening of this story isn’t a meet-cute is because the first interaction we see between Kamilah and Liam is when she punches him in the junk. Hard and fast. (I can still hear him wheezing in agony from here.)

That opening scene sets up a surprising amount of the action in this “proposal”, even if that’s not obvious to the players in that particular scene.

Both the Vega Family and the Kane Family owe their hearts, their souls and their origin to this two octogenarians, Kamilah’s beloved Abuelo, Santiago Vegas and Liam’s cantankerous grandpa Killian served together, bought a former blacksmithy in Chicago’s Humboldt Park together, and have raised their businesses and their families side-by-side.

Now the old men, the misbehaving delinquents of their senior citizens’ home, have come to their grandchildren with an offer that neither Liam nor Kamilah can afford to refuse.

Kamilah wants to modernize the Vega Family’s Puerto Rican restaurant to compete with the new, bougie eateries that are moving in on the gentrifying neighborhood. Her parents and her siblings never listen to anything she says, always brushing her off with tales of childhood misdemeanors – even though she has a degree in the culinary arts and is the person they all rely on to get shit done.

She still gets shit on to the point of abuse by pretty much everyone in the family – even though she’s right. They have to either compromise a bit to stay in business – or let the family business fade away with so many other local institutions that are being washed away in the tide of gentrification.

Liam just wants his grandpa to stick around long enough for them to realize Liam’s father’s dream. The Kanes are whiskey distillers, and the signature blend that Connor Kane put up before he died in a boating accident is about to mature. Killian has cancer that he’s not planning to even think about treating. Liam wants him to at least try to stick around – because he can’t bear the thought of losing anyone else.

The old men still own those family businesses and the building that houses both the businesses AND the families, even if they’ve left it to the next generation to run those enterprises. So the deal is simple. Kamilah gets her shot at running the restaurant, Liam gets his grandpa to enter treatment, and in return Liam and Kamilah get engaged and move in together – even though they haven’t been able to be in the same room with each other without breaking into a fight since they were children. And in return their grandfathers don’t sell the building out from under them all..

Nobody’s motives are remotely pure in this arrangement, but everybody gets something they want. Except, of course, for Kamilah and Liam’s friends and family – who all believe that this fake relationship is real.

Unless, of course, it is.

Escape Rating B: I’m not exactly sure that this book is a romantic comedy. It is certainly a romance, but I didn’t think a bit of it was funny – at least not once we learn what the grandfathers are up to besides switching out ALL the decaf at their community with espresso. And even that’s not really all that funny, as someone nearly had a heart attack from the caffeine surprise.

These families are both hot messes, with Kamilah and Liam being the biggest messes of them all. A big part of this story is them revealing to each other exactly what’s packed inside the emotional baggage that each of them has been lugging around since they were children. The unpacking of that messy luggage is heartbreaking all by itself without factoring in Killian’s cancer diagnosis.

It’s also not funny that the Vegas’ treatment of Kamilah, as much as they love her and as much as they mean well, borders on abuse. Nothing she does is ever right, nothing she says is ever taken seriously, and she’s beaten down at every single turn with a recitation of her failures going all the way back to early childhood. Whatever they think they’re accomplishing, all they’re really doing is undermining her self esteem while expecting her to pick up everyone’s slack.

That Kamilah has turned into a martyr about it may not be a healthy reaction – but it’s not a surprising one either. She’s learned that the only way to get anything approaching what she wants is to be a big underhanded about it – in ways that eventually bite her in the ass.

Liam still blames his father for dying when Liam was 11. His grandmother died in the same accident and his grandfather drove Liam’s mother away in the aftermath. Liam expects all relationships to end in people leaving him, as his grandfather is about to do. He pushes everyone away and doesn’t know how to make himself stop.

Kamilah’s manipulations run smack into Liam’s need to push people away before they leave him – giving him the perfect excuse to expose everyone’s machinations in this mess into the bargain. It’s not funny at all. It’s downright tragic.

What makes this story work is that they get the help they both need. It’s not so much a complete happy ever after as it is a happy work in progress with a sincere hope of ever after. Love doesn’t conquer or cure all – nor should it. There’s too much that needs fixing in this case. But it does provide a firm foundation to stand on to get the work done.

That’s a lesson we don’t see often enough in romance, but I’m definitely here for it.

Review: The Boardwalk Bookshop by Susan Mallery

Review: The Boardwalk Bookshop by Susan MalleryThe Boardwalk Bookshop by Susan Mallery
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, relationship fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 448
Published by Mira on May 31, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

From #1 New York Times bestselling author Susan Mallery—a story of friends who become family, giving each other courage to start over…
When fate brings three strangers to a charming space for lease on the California coast, the Boardwalk Bookshop is born. Part bookstore, part gift shop, part bakery, it's a dream come true for Bree, Mikki and Ashley. But while their business is thriving, their personal lives are…not.
Bree, wounded by brilliant but cold parents and her late husband's ultimate betrayal, has sworn to protect her heart at all costs. Even from Ashley's brother, a writer and adventurer who has inspired millions. He's the first man to see past Bree's barricades to her true self, which terrifies her. Mikki has this divorce thing all figured out—somehow, she's stayed friends with her ex and her in-laws…until a new man changes how everyone looks at her, and how she sees herself. Meanwhile, Ashley discovers that the love of her life never intends to marry. Can she live without being a wife if it means she can have everything else she's ever wanted?
At sunset every Friday on the beach in front of the Boardwalk Bookshop, the three friends share a champagne toast. As their bond grows closer, they challenge one another to become the best versions of themselves in this heartachingly beautiful story of friendship, sisterhood and the transformative power of love. 

My Review:

Six months after their decision to move their businesses in together, Ashley, Bree and Mikki are all pretty happy with the results. Between the new, more central, beachfront location, and the synergy between Bree’s bookshop on one end, Mikki’s gift shop on the other and Ashley’s cupcakery in the middle, traffic is up, profits are up and all three businesses are booming.

Howsomever, on the personal front, while Ashley believes she’s happy with her live-in boyfriend Seth, and Bree is certain she’s happy with using men for sex as long as she’s up front about her unwillingness to commit for more than a night or two. Meanwhile Mikki believes that she’s content with the company of Earl – her vibrator.

Their business successes are real. Their romantic contentment, on the other hand, is considerably more questionable as each of their respective illusions crash and burn in different and unexpected ways.

Bree meets someone who makes her wish she wasn’t too damaged to let anyone into her heart ever again. Ashley discovers that her perfect boyfriend has commitment issues of his own – he claims to want to be with her forever but refuses to even consider marriage. While Mikki’s realization that a vibrator is far from enough finds her leading not one but two men on while believing she’s doing no such thing.

The story of the Boardwalk Bookshop and its three proprietors is the story of what happens after things fall apart. And how they help each other put everything back together. Not the same as before. Not necessarily and certainly not completely better. But getting up and putting one foot in front of the other no matter how hard it is until it gets just a bit easier. Because they have each other.

Escape Rating B+: Although this book is being billed as a romance, the heart of the story isn’t the romances. The heart of the story is the friendship. It’s not that love doesn’t lift them up, it’s that the love between these women who began as strangers is what gives them the support to make those romances possible.

Bree is the one who comes into the story with the most damage. Her famously intellectual parents saw her as an interruption to their work and were not in the least bit shy about reminding her of that fact. Looking for love and acceptance, she married a man who made her feel important because he needed her to take care of him, not because he either loved her or respected her. She tries to say she’s not capable of falling in love, but what she really means is that she’s too afraid to risk her heart again so keeps people at arm’s length so they can’t get close enough to hurt her. Bree is the one who needs the most help and the most healing, but it’s not going to happen unless she is able to admit that she’s just plain scared.

Ashley’s initial damage is old and scarred over and she’s learned to deal with it reasonably well. Her older brother barely survived a hit and run accident. While her parents were taking care of him, she learned to take care of herself. Her habit of compromising her own needs because others’ were so much greater makes her cling too long to a relationship that just isn’t working because she’s so used to giving up what she wants for others. When she can’t this time she’s crushed. (And IMHO he’s an asshat.)

I have to admit that I found it easier to empathize with Bree and Ashley than I did Mikki. She’s so competent in her business and so ditzy in her personal life that I didn’t enjoy her parts of the story as much as the others – although her frequent conversational gaffes about Earl were hilarious. But Mikki’s dilemma is that she’s considering remarrying her ex-husband while dating someone else. If second marriages are the triumph of hope over experience, what are second marriages to the person you divorced? The triumph of hope over experience AND knowledge? I know it does happen in real life but in her situation it was wrong, wrong, wrong. Getting herself out of the mess that she’d unwittingly gotten herself into required lots of uncomfortable conversations and a whole lot of groveling.

All in all, this is a charming story about three women who help each other to be strong in their broken places – sometimes even in spite of themselves. So come for the champagne-fueled walks on the beach, and stay for the healing power of friendship. It’s all here in The Boardwalk Bookshop.

Review: Never Coming Home by Hannah Mary McKinnon

Review: Never Coming Home by Hannah Mary McKinnonNever Coming Home by Hannah Mary McKinnon
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, psychological thriller, suspense, thriller
Pages: 368
Published by Mira on May 24, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

First comes love. Then comes murder. Lucas Forester didn't hate his wife. Michelle was brilliant, sophisticated and beautiful. Sure, she had extravagant spending habits and that petty attitude, a total disregard for anyone below her status. But she also had a lot to offer. Most notably, wealth that only the one percent could comprehend.
For years, Lucas had been honing a flawless plan to inherit Michelle’s fortune. Unfortunately, it involved taking a hit out on her.
Every track was covered, no trace left behind, and now Lucas plays the grieving husband so well he deserves an award. But when a shocking photo and cryptic note show up on his doorstep, Lucas goes from hunter to prey.
Someone is onto him. And they’re closing in.
Told with dark wit and a sharply feminist sensibility, Never Coming Home is a terrifying tale of duplicity that will have you side-eyeing your spouse as you dash to the breathtaking end.

My Review:

Lucas Forester probably wasn’t the only person to have more than a few idle thoughts about killing their spouse during the long months of COVID induced lockdowns. He probably wasn’t even the only one to come up with more than a few not-so-hypothetical scenarios to accomplish it. Hopefully there weren’t too many that actually contracted to get the job done once things went back to normal.

Then again, part of Lucas’ normal was that he didn’t like his wife all that much. He married her for her money, and has been playing a long game since the day they met, successfully pretending to be a loving, doting spouse. He’d planned to divorce her and take her to the cleaners in the settlement. It’s not his fault she made him sign an iron-clad prenup, leaving her demise as his only option to collect all the money she was just throwing away anyway.

Lucas thought that he had tied up all the loose ends. He used the darkweb not just to find a contract killer but even to vet the qualifications of the contractor he found. He paid in cryptocurrency. He only used burner phones for the rare contacts. He made sure to have an ironclad alibi for when the hit took place. It was his brilliant idea to make the whole thing look like kidnapping for ransom, because his wife’s family had plenty of money for ransom.

It was supposed to be a flawless performance. A perfect murder. All he had to do was wait until someone else – the police, her mother, the insurance company – declared her dead. He was prepared to play the long game of being the grieving almost-widower for as long as it would take.

Then it all started falling apart – and so did he.

Escape Rating A-: What makes this story surprisingly compelling is that we see it from inside Lucas’ head – which is an honestly funny place to be. Because Lucas is right, there is a little bit of evil in all of us. So as we follow along with him as his plans come apart around his ears, we’re a bit him and we do kind of feel for him as well as with him.

Because he did have a pretty hard-knock life that he’s done his best to leave behind. Unfortunately the way that he’s left it behind is by hiding his true origins and conning pretty much the entire world.

(The idea of being inside the head of the murderer can be squicky, but Lucas isn’t insane and isn’t a serial killer. He’s not interested in blood and gore for their own sake and doesn’t dwell on them at all even in the privacy of his own head. Lucas is all about getting the job done. If it weren’t for the fact that the job that needs doing – at least from his perspective – is murder he’d be an interesting guy to be around. And he’s got such a snarky and wry perspective on life that his observations often ring true.)

It helps a lot that he’s intelligent and brutally honest inside his own skull. His running commentary about everything he does and everyone he interacts with along the way generates a TON of rueful chuckles. His wife was a bit of a Karen. She was an over privileged trust-fund baby who never grew up and never even saw the people she stepped on and over along her self-indulgent way.

And he really, really loves his dog.

This is not the story of Lucas’ original plan to have his wife murdered. When we first meet Lucas that event is already in the past. Instead, this is a story about Lucas’ chickens all coming home to roost. Not just about the bad karma from his recent actions, but going all the way back to all the bad eggs that Lucas has hatched over his entire, never above board life.

At the beginning, it really, really looks like Lucas is going to get away with it all. And he’s pretty proud of himself about it. As the story gets going, we start to get an inkling that maybe it isn’t going to go his way after all, but we’re not sure why or how it’s going to fall apart. Or even how we feel about it because we do feel for him a bit more than might be comfortable.

And his story gets even more compelling as we watch him crash and burn. We’re even with him as he figures out just how he got done in.

As the old saying goes, those best laid plans of mice and men often going astray – and Lucas’ plans certainly have. That saying makes absolutely no mention of the best laid plans of women – and maybe that’s something Lucas should have thought of before he ever got the idea to murder his wife.

 

Review: Sand Dollar Lane by Sheila Roberts

Review: Sand Dollar Lane by Sheila RobertsSand Dollar Lane (Moonlight Harbor, #6) by Sheila Roberts
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, relationship fiction, women's fiction
Series: Moonlight Harbor #6
Pages: 336
Published by Mira on April 26, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

USA TODAY bestselling author Sheila Roberts will have readers laughing and swooning in turn as two rival business owners compete for the homes and hearts of Moonlight Harbor.
Brody Green is finding it hard to recover after being dumped by his fiancée, Jenna Jones, then watching her walk down the aisle with someone else. Jenna is determined to make up for her love defection and find him the perfect woman, but Brody is done with love. First a divorce, then a broken engagement. From now on he’s keeping things light, no commitments. Luckily Brody’s business is booming. Beach Dreams Realty is the best real estate company in town. And the only one. Until…
Lucy Holmes needs a new start. In business, in love, in…everything. If ever there was a cliché, it was her life back in Seattle. She was a real estate broker working with her husband until she caught him trying out the walk-in shower in a luxury condo—with another agent. She’s always been the more successful of the two, and with him gone, she’s determined to build a business even bigger than what she had. Moonlight Harbor is a charming town and it has only one real estate agency. Surely there’s room for a little competition.
Or not. Looks like it’s going to be a hot market in Moonlight Harbor. And maybe these two competitors will make some heat of their own.

My Review:

“If you’re lucky enough to live at the beach, you’re lucky enough,” or so the saying goes on so many cute signs – particularly at beachfront communities.

But neither Lucy Holmes or Brody Green are feeling particularly lucky when this story begins – even though Brody already has his own house at the beach in Moonlight Harbor. Brody’s either heartbroken or cheesed off – or honestly a bit of both – that his fiancée Jenna Jones broke up with him in the previous book in this series, Sunset on Moonlight Beach, and married someone else.

Jenna owns The Driftwood Inn, a homey little B&B that seems to be the emotional if not the physical heart of tiny Moonlight Harbor. Brody, the only real estate agent in town and the head of the chamber of commerce, has no choice but to keep running into his ex and her new husband everywhere he turns.

It’s not making the hurt heal any faster, particularly since Jenna is determined to make it up to Brody for following HER heart by finding the perfect person for him to lose his to.

Lucy Holmes left her lucrative real estate business in Seattle behind – along with her marriage – after finding her husband in a cliché – and a naked clinch – with one of their junior real estate agents in a condo that Lucy was showing to prospective buyers. She gets half of everything they built together, both their marital property and their real estate business – but she needs a fresh start.

She discovers Moonlight Harbor, a little town on the Washington coast that looks like its on the cusp of discovery – and only seems to have one real estate agency in position to take advantage of the coming boom. There’s plenty of room in this growing community for two real estate agents. Or there should be. But Brody’s feeling sensitive about everything after losing Jenna, and Lucy is not only feeling sensitive about plenty herself, but NEEDS that fresh start in the worst way to get past, well, her past.

It’s a tiny town. They keep running into each other – and running after anyone in town who looks like they’re planning to buy or sell a house. Their college-age children, Brody’s son Declan and Lucy’s daughter Hannah, can’t seem to get enough of each other – enough of a worry for their parents without adding the Montague and Capulet vibes their respective parents are spreading all over town.

But the sparks that Brody and Lucy throw off every time they lock horns or glances puts the truth in another old saying about what three things kissing and real estate have in common. The guiding principles for both endeavors are “Location, location, location.”

Escape Rating B: Sand Dollar Lane is the sixth book in the author’s Moonlight Harbor series, which began with the fittingly titled Welcome to Moonlight Harbor. I haven’t read the previous books in the series – as much as I loved this author’s Life in Icicle Falls series (my favorite is Merry Ex-Mas) I think this one fell down the “so many books, so little time” conundrum.

I didn’t feel like I was missing any of the plot by not having visited this little town before – there are plenty of hints to catch a new reader right up embedded into the current action. What I think I did miss was being previously invested in Brody Green’s relationship with Jenna Jones. Her ‘torn between two lovers’ dilemma stretches over the first five books and finally ends with her marrying Seth Waters at the end of the fifth book.

So here we are in the sixth book, Jenna is happily married and Brody is miserable. (She seems to be a great person and he really did love her so his misery is completely understandable.) But, and this is where I think I missed something, I didn’t know them so I didn’t feel FOR them when this book started.

So Brody comes off as a bit of a self-absorbed jerk, and Jenna’s continuous attempts to assuage her own guilt over their breakup by awkwardly and obviously trying to match Brody up with every unattached female in their age bracket comes off as weird and intrusive. On the other hand, I’m an introvert and would want to lick my wounds in private, thankyouverymuch. Brody, Jenna and Lucy for that matter are all extroverts. So they might feel differently. Jenna certainly does, but Brody, not so much.

Lucy is every bit as salty about men and relationships as Brody is about women, but she earned it more. At the same time, she really is doing her best – and it turns out to be damn good – to wash that man right out of her hair and move forward with her own life and a fresh start.

That she turns into the Wicked Witch of the West whenever Brody gets when spitting distance is not her usual, but she’s having some trust issues about men who seem to be smooth and charming because that was her ex all over. And Brody seems to be able to turn it on and off at a moment’s notice.

In other words, this is a romance where the adults are squabbling like children on a playground and not actually adulting. It’s their newly adult children who are much closer to adulting. Not that Hannah doesn’t fall off that wagon once or twice in a really big way, but then, she’s at the age where that’s expected behavior.

But very much on my other hand, Moonlight Harbor is a lovely, close-knit community, and the people who live there seem to be utterly charming. While the romance in this particular entry in the series turned out to be not quite my cuppa, I did enjoy visiting here and I really liked the way that Lucy ‘put on her big girl panties’ and moved forward with her life. That part was terrific – even with her occasional partial transformations into Maleficent. (Although I loved the time when she had nightmares about it – not for the nightmare but because the invasion of Disney into her dreamscape was just so well done AND on point.)

To make this long story short, while I may not have fallen in love with the romance between Lucy and Brody, I did fall hard for Moonlight Harbor and would love to come back. And probably will the next time I’m in the mood for life in a lovely place that isn’t that far distant in either miles or mood from my beloved Icicle Falls.

Review: Savvy Sheldon Feels Good as Hell by Taj McCoy

Review: Savvy Sheldon Feels Good as Hell by Taj McCoySavvy Sheldon Feels Good as Hell by Taj McCoy
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, relationship fiction
Pages: 320
Published by Mira on March 22, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

A delicious debut rom-com about a plus-size sweetheart who gets a full-life makeover after a brutal breakup.
Savvy Sheldon spends a lot of time tiptoeing around the cracks in her life: her high-stress and low-thanks job, her clueless boyfriend and the falling-apart kitchen she inherited from her beloved grandma—who taught her how to cook and how to love people by feeding them. But when Savvy’s world starts to crash down around her, she knows it’s time for some renovations.
Starting from the outside in, Savvy tackles her crumbling kitchen, her relationship with her body, her work–life balance (or lack thereof) and, last but not least, her love life. The only thing that doesn’t seem to require effort is her ride-or-die squad of friends. But as any home-reno-show junkie can tell you, something always falls apart during renovations. First, Savvy passes out during hot yoga. Then it turns out that the contractor she hires is the same sexy stranger she unintentionally offended by judging based on appearances. Worst of all, Savvy can’t seem to go anywhere without tripping over her ex and his latest "upgrade." Savvy begins to realize that maybe she should’ve started her renovations the other way around: beginning with how she sees herself before building a love that lasts.

My Review:

Living well may be the best revenge, but that’s not exactly what Savvy Sheldon has in mind when she hatches her “Revenge Plan” after her asshat boyfriend of six years dumps her and dumps on her – but only after he finishes the delicious dinner that she lovingly cooked for him.

(There are asshats and then there are TOTAL asshats, but this dude is in a class not exactly by himself but dropped in a metaphorical vat of acid along with the douchecanoe ex-boyfriend from yesterday’s book.)

When we first meet Savvy her romantic life and her self-esteem are pretty much in freefall. It’s not just that ex leaves her, it’s not even that he was pissed that she was home late from work to cook the dinner she was making for him so that he could finish it before he walked out, but it was the way he blamed everything wrong in their relationship on her. Because she’s been neglecting everything, including herself, to put in long hours at work AND attempt to keep this bastard happy.

So on his way out the door – I wish someone had told him not to let it hit him in the ass on the way out because he just so completely deserved it – he nagged and ragged and negged on the fact that she had “let herself go” and that he deserved a better looking girlfriend and planned to trade up to someone with a supermodel body.

Savvy feels heartbroken AND a little bit guilty. So she calls her fantastic crew of loyal, true blue, ride or die girlfriends to come and help her get her head on straight and figure out what her next steps are going to be.

Her initial plan is to get a “Revenge Body” and make him regret leaving her. That plan has more than a few flaws, because he’s just not worth the effort. But Savvy is – and her friends help her to see that.

Savvy’s plan, with the help and support of her besties, is to work out that thing we all have difficulty finding – a work life balance. Because she has been putting in WAY too many hours at work chasing a promotion and neglecting HERSELF. Taking care of herself by eating better, getting back to exercising, and making time to do things with her friends and her family will make her feel better about herself.

If she manages to make Mr. Wrong jealous and snag Mr. Right along the way – well, that’s icing on the cake. A cake that Savvy will bake herself, thankyouverymuch.

Escape Rating B: The total douchiness of their exes isn’t the only thing that Savvy Sheldon and Tam Doan – or at least their stories – have in common. Both stories are straddling the fence between romance and relationship fiction, although it felt like Gouda Friends was just a bit stronger on the romance side, while Savvy Sheldon’s story is just that bit stronger on the relationship – as in relationships with people other than the love interest – side.

It’s a fun read either way. They both are. Although Savvy’s story is not a romantic comedy – in spite of the publisher’s marketing campaign. Not that it doesn’t have both funny moments and a meet cute – but the emphasis in this one is just not on the romance. It’s on the friendships.

They also both center on self-care stories. Savvy has been so focused on getting ahead at work – thanks to a lifetime of lessons from her mother on making sure that she’s financially secure and stable – that she’s lived her job and dropped the ball on self-care. She’s hasn’t been making a whole lot of healthy choices in any part of her life and that’s something she needs to get a handle on.

That the initial focus of that journey is on losing weight, and that a lot of attention gets paid to how much better she looks is my one quibble with the story. It’s an understandable impulse from Sassy’s initial perspective, but it’s not any healthier than her recent lack of self-care. The more the focus shifts from how she looks to how she FEELS the better the story feels as well. (And some readers will find Savvy’s initially constant negative reflections on her body and her weight to be triggering. Some will find it entirely too familiar and probably quite a few of us – BOTH)

As much as I was happy to see Savvy find her HEA with Spencer, for me the romance felt like the icing on that cake. The cake of this story was all wrapped around Savvy’s close relationship with her friends, the loving details of the way that they supported each other’s journeys, and the fantastic way that Savvy figured out how to nurture her dreams AND have a job she loved without sacrificing her entire life to her job. She created that magical, mystical work-life balance and that part was glorious!

Her friends were all terrific and I’d love to see everyone again in another book. After all, only Joan managed to discover her HEA along Savvy’s journey. Maggie still needs to find hers!

Review: Sword and Shadow by Michelle Sagara

Review: Sword and Shadow by Michelle SagaraSword and Shadow by Michelle Sagara
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Series: Wolves of Elantra #2,
Pages: 512
Published by Mira on February 22, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads


Beyond the Emperor's law
In the city of Elantra, the law is upheld by a few groups, and the most feared are the Wolves—the Emperor’s executioners. The newest member of this elite force is Severn Handred.
Granted a leave of absence to pursue information about his unknown past, Severn joins a mission to an enclave well outside the boundaries of the Empire. And he will be in danger the entire time. Still, the instincts that led him to the Wolves and the sense of duty that keeps him there can’t be discarded as easily as the tabard he wears.
While he's in the heart of the West March, enmeshed in a tangled web of mysteries that have been held for centuries, Severn's belief in justice is going to be tested. It's one mortal man and his single ally against a community of immortals who will kill to keep their secrets. But they don't know who they're up against.
“This world feels so complex and so complete.” —ReadingReality.net on The Emperor's Wolves
The Wolves of Elantra
Book 1: The Emperor's WolvesBook 2: Sword and Shadow

My Review:

cast in shadow by michelle sagaraOnce upon a time, there was a book. I remember reading the first book in the Chronicles of Elantra series, Cast in Shadow, at night, in a place we lived for just one year – among a string of such places. It was late in 2011, and I’d had the book, in fact the first half dozen books in the series, on my shelves since it was published in 2005.

I’d put off starting it, but once I was in, I was hooked. But those first ten or so were the best. Not because they are objectively better, but because the world of Elantra is complex and convoluted and densely packed and highly political. There are a LOT of threads to this multi-pronged story, and more with every single book. I read those first ten close enough together that I still remembered all the plot threads each time a new one came out. By the point of the latest, Cast in Conflict, I couldn’t get myself into that same mindset or bring back enough of everything to get deeply embedded again. I had to put it down for a later read.

And now I want to pick it back up again. Very much so. Because the Wolves of Elantra series, The Emperor’s Wolves and especially this latest book, Sword and Shadow, have brought me back to the beginning – actually before the beginning – of the series that I so loved. And instead of finding myself neck deep in complexities that I don’t remember, I’m back at the very beginning of things, where what I learned in the Chronicles gives some events future weight – but doesn’t depend on that knowledge to be immersive all over again.

Because this prequel series, especially this entry, Sword and Shadow, is the origin story for Severn Handred, the person who haunts Kaylin Nera’s past, protects her present and dimly hopes for some kind of future with her, even if that future is just to keep watch over her and the trouble she inevitably gets into for the rest of her life.

Up until now, all we’ve known of Severn is what Kaylin knows, that he, like her, was a child of the lawless fiefs. That he entered her life when they were children. That he was older and better equipped to survive and to keep her alive in a place where life was short and precarious. And that he killed the children she thought were her friends in order to save her from a magic that neither of them understood then and still don’t.

But we know nothing of Severn before he met Kaylin at the age of 10 or thereabouts. This is the story of what he was before, and how those origins shaped and influenced who he has become after. And still.

Escape Rating A+: I know, I haven’t said much about this story yet. And there are reasons for that, all of them tied up in the events here and the things that happened after. There’s always been an impression that whoever and whatever Severn was, he was definitely more than he seemed.

That’s an impression that turns into an exploration and eventually a reality in Sword and Shadow. It is certainly Severn’s origin story, as well as how he obtained the legendary magic-breaking weapon that he carries in the Chronicles.

But it’s also a very complex political story that dives deeply into the endless maneuverings of the Barrani who serve as the elves of this fantasy world. The Barrani are immortal, as are the Dragons who rule Elantra. The Dragons and the Barrani are eternal enemies who have made uneasy peace in order to maintain vigilance on the Shadows who want to destroy them both.

The Barrani approach to immortality is political and petty, where the Dragon approach is protective. Not that both races aren’t equally selfish and self-absorbed in their own ways, but the way that manifests in the Barrani is particularly destructive, both to themselves and others.

Their politics wrap around their immortality in that they spend it making themselves invulnerable, and the only way to do that is to cut themselves from anyone and anything who might become either a weakness, a rival or a weapon.

The story here is of Severn finding himself in the midst of a Barrani power struggle out of his own desire to find out where he came from, even if that knowledge will not affect who he is. The Barrani think they are using him for their own ends, and that he has little choice and less power.

Only to discover that little and less are not none, and that the force at the heart of the Barrani stronghold has a mind and heart of its own.

Readers who have loved the Chronicles of Elantra will fall in love with the series all over again with Sword and Shadow. Readers who enjoyed the game of politics played for high-stakes and to the death in Modesitt’s Isolate and his Imager Portfolio series will thrill to the kind of maneuvering that takes place in Sword and Shadow. Readers who like their fantasy full-to-the-brim of political shenanigans and endless power struggles will adore this world and the deftness with which its story has been woven.

While a part of me hopes that the author continues with Severn’s story, it also feels like his pre-Kaylin adventures might be done. But whichever way that question gets answered, I need to dive back into Cast in Conflict – not that all of Kaylin’s and Severn’s adventures aren’t cast in one sort of conflict or another. I can’t wait to see how things slot back into place now that I know so much more!

Review: Light Years from Home by Mike Chen

Review: Light Years from Home by Mike ChenLight Years From Home by Mike Chen
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: relationship fiction, science fiction
Pages: 352
Published by Mira on January 25, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Every family has issues. Most can’t blame them on extraterrestrials.
Evie Shao and her sister, Kass, aren’t on speaking terms. Fifteen years ago on a family camping trip, their father and brother vanished. Their dad turned up days later, dehydrated and confused—and convinced he'd been abducted by aliens. Their brother, Jakob, remained missing. The women dealt with it very differently. Kass, suspecting her college-dropout twin simply ran off, became the rock of the family. Evie traded academics to pursue alien conspiracy theories, always looking for Jakob.
When Evie's UFO network uncovers a new event, she goes to investigate. And discovers Jakob is back. He's different—older, stranger, and talking of an intergalactic war—but the tensions between the siblings haven't changed at all. If the family is going to come together to help Jakob, then Kass and Evie are going to have to fix their issues, and fast. Because the FBI is after Jakob, and if their brother is telling the truth, possibly an entire space armada, too.
The perfect combination of action, imagination and heart, Light Years From Home is a touching drama about a challenge as difficult as saving the galaxy: making peace with your family…and yourself.

My Review:

Every unhappy family may be unhappy in its own way, but there are few families that are unhappy because one of the adult children has been abducted by aliens and recruited to fight in an intergalactic war.

Not that the Shao family was exactly happy BEFORE Jakob Shao joined the intergalactic fleet – but back then they were unhappy in ways that would be a bit more familiar. Now, not so much.

Light Years from Home isn’t quite the story we’re expecting from the blurb, because it’s not really about Jakob or his alien abduction at all. Not that he’s not part of it, but the story isn’t about him.

The story is about collateral damage, specifically the collateral damage of the Jakob-shaped hole in the Shao family. A hole that has only opened wider in the 15 years since Jakob left his family and his planet behind.

He comes back to Earth believing that nothing will have changed in his absence, and that it won’t matter if he leaves again. After all, he has a mission to complete and a universe to save. Healing the hole in his family’s heart is way above the level of feckless incompetence he left behind.

But Jakob Shao isn’t that man any longer. Not that his family will EVER let him forget it. Or them.

Escape Rating A: Light Years from Home is one of those stories that’s much greater than the sum of its parts. Parts that initially seem so far apart that they might as well be from different planets – if not galaxies.

This story is also very much what my book group has been calling “sad fluff”. Although this is sad fluff with spaceships.

By sad fluff I mean that this story is, in spite of the science fictional trappings, relationship fiction. It’s not about Jakob and the epic space battles. We believe they exist, but they’re not actually the point of the story. The point of the story is Jakob’s relationship with his family, and their relationships with each other.

This could be a story about any family dealing with the lack of closure wrapped about the disappearance of a family member. They all know Jakob left them behind. Their late father died believing Jakob had been abducted by aliens, but that’s a pretty far-fetched conclusion for the rest of the family. Except for Jakob’s younger sister Evie, who has made a career of investigating UFO sightings and the possibilities of extraterrestrial contact with Earth.

It’s much easier for Kass and their mother to believe that Jakob – charming, irresponsible, feckless Jakob – just wanted to get away from his parents’ endless expectations that he “live up to his potential” and “not waste his education,” etc., etc., etc. He has a history of that kind of behavior – he’s just been gone a whole lot longer this time.

And there are plenty of times in the story when Kass has nearly everyone convinced that Jakob has returned because he’s having a psychotic break. She nearly convinces both their younger sister Evie – who does believe in UFOs and alien abductions – AND THE READER! It’s only when Evie finds actual proof that Kass begins to believe that the thing that tore her family apart is real – and that she can’t blame Jakob for everything. That she has to start looking inside herself for answers.

As I was reading Light Years from Home, in spite of pretty much ALL the names of all the characters coming from the Assassin’s Creed videogame series, the things this story actually reminded me of came from other places.

While Jakob’s intergalactic experiences are mostly off stage, the setup reminded me more than a bit of The Last Starfighter – without that slam bang ending because Jakob’s story doesn’t get that kind of unabashed happy ending – nor should it.

Jakob’s personality and some of his story had echoes in Fergus Ferguson, the protagonist of The Finder Chronicles. If you’re wishing that Light Years from Home focused more on Jakob’s travels, try Finder.

But the thing this made me think of the most was Elton John’s song Rocket Man. Because this reads like it’s that song told from the point of view of the people that the Rocket Man has left behind back home.

If that’s not enough of a gut punch, the conclusion of Light Years from Home reached back into the ending of one of SF’s classic stories, Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. And it’s every bit as much of a heartbreaker in Light Years from Home as it was back then.

Review: Forever Home by Elysia Whisler

Review: Forever Home by Elysia WhislerForever Home (Dogwood County, #2) by Elysia Whisler
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, relationship fiction, romantic suspense, women's fiction
Series: Dogwood County #2
Pages: 384
Published by Mira on November 30, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

If home is where the heart is, Dogwood County may have just what Delaney Monroe needs
Newly retired from the Marine Corps, Delaney is looking for somewhere to start over. It’s not going to be easy, but when she finds the perfect place to open her dream motorcycle shop, she goes for it. What she doesn’t expect is an abandoned pit bull to come with the building. The shy pup is slow to trust, but Delaney is determined to win it over.
Detective Sean Callahan is smitten from the moment he sees Delaney, but her cool demeanor throws him off his game. When her late father's vintage motorcycle is stolen from Delaney's shop, Sean gets to turn up in his element: chasing the bad guy and showing his best self to a woman who’s gotten under his skin in a bad way.
Delaney isn't used to lasting relationships, but letting love in—both human and canine—helps her see that she may have found a place she belongs, forever.
"Complex, quietly compelling characters… A poignant reminder that ‘home’ is often more than a place." —Maggie Wells, author of Love Game
Dogwood County
Book 1: Rescue YouBook 2: Forever Home

My Review:

As the sayings go, “home is where the heart is” and “a dream is a wish your heart makes.” Delaney Monroe’s home was working on motorcycles with her father in Omaha, and their shared dream was to open their own motorcycle repair shop.

But Delaney’s beloved father is dead. Killed in an accident between his motorcycle and an SUV whose driver wasn’t paying nearly enough attention to the other vehicles on the road. She’s just retired from the Marine Corps after putting in her 20. She can’t face living in Omaha without her dad, no matter how much her adopted uncles love her and want to help her.

They want to take care of her just a bit too much, and Delaney can’t stop seeing the hole in their formation where her dad used to be.

There’s a part of that dream that is still alive. She has just enough money saved up to buy what used to be a motorcycle shop in Dogwood County. It comes with a tiny apartment, a screaming need to be cleaned up and fixed up, and a dog who can’t figure out whether he wants his home to be in the shop he used to live in or the dog rescue park on the other side of the creek.

Wyatt the dog is afraid to trust that his heart has led him home. Making him not all that different from Delaney. Maybe they can figure it out together.

Or maybe Delaney will give up and run away, again, in the face of the dastardly and determined opposition of the men who used to own both the shop and the dog.

Along with a suspected slice of the local drug trade.

Escape Rating A-: At the end of the story, the dog is fine. I’m saying that first because my reading circle gets very upset if the starring animals don’t make it. No worries on that score, Wyatt has a few adventures but he’s fine, actually better than fine, at the end.

Which doesn’t stop Delaney and Wyatt from being equally heartbroken at the beginning – and some of the middle – of the story. They both need to feel that it’s OK to trust, safe to open their hearts, and the right time and place to put down roots so they can flourish. Neither of them is anywhere near there at the beginning.

And neither, in an entirely different way, is Detective Sean Callahan. He’s been going through the motions for a long time, having little holding him together except his job and his duty. He’s a good cop but a sad human being.

The situation in Dogwood County, between Delaney, Sean, Wyatt, the Dudebros – literally, they’re the Dude Brothers – and each and every one of their pasts is on a collision course.

It’s not just that the Dudebros are trying to wreck her business and take her dog – although they are.

Someone has stolen Delaney’s prize bike, the classic Indian Motorcycle that has been passed down in Delaney’s family for four generations. It’s that they tinkered with it and then put it back. It was heartbreaking while it was gone, and it’s baffling now that it’s back. But as much as Delaney wants to pin it all on the Dudebros, Sean knows that’s not the right answer no matter how tempting it is.

Also how tempting it must have been for the author. That would have been such an easy solution – but the real answer added so much to the story that I was surprised and pleased at the way things turned out.

Although the Dudebros do get theirs in the end.

Forever Home turned out to be one of those books where the whole was much greater than the sum of the parts. It sits right on the border between contemporary romance and relationship fiction, and it’s a surprisingly comfortable border in this case.

A romance occurs between Delaney and Sean, with an HEA that definitely feels earned. But that romance doesn’t completely hold the center of the story. The HEA is the icing on the cake and not the cake.

The suspense element was suspenseful in a surprising way, in that the obvious perpetrators were both obvious and not obvious at the same time.

The heart of the story was in Delaney – and Wyatt – finding their way to a home in Dogwood County. The way that Delaney establishes her shop, makes friends and allies, and makes a home and a life for herself in this new place and with these (mostly) terrific people.

I very much enjoyed my visit to this place, and I’m looking forward to seeing these people again. The next book in this series, Becoming Family, won’t be available until next August, but the first book, Rescue You, is available and I’m looking forward to reading it the next time I need a bit of a reading pick-me-up.