Command and Control by Shelli Stevens

Command and Control (Holding out for a Hero, #2)

2.5 Stars 

This is the story of an alpha-male toddler.

Trevor hadn’t even realized how badly he wanted a second chance until he’d thought Megan was about to marry someone else. 

I LOVE, love, love second chance love stories. But I had a hard time with this one.

Trevor and Megan loved each other deeply, but after Trevor came back from a deployment where he was injured and his team suffered great losses, he became more and more distant. When Trevor refused to get any help for his PTSD, Megan was forced to break off their engagement.

Now one year later, Megan is trying to move on despite her heart still wanting Trevor. When Trevor comes back to town for his brother’s wedding, he finds out Megan is dating someone. So now he wants her back. Which brings to mind the Toddler’s Creed:

If I want it, IT’S MINE!
If I give it to you and change my mind later, IT’S MINE!
If I can take it away from you, IT’S MINE!
If it’s mine it will never belong to anybody else, No matter what.
If we are building something together, All the pieces are mine!
If it looks just like mine, IT’S MINE!
If it breaks or needs putting away, IT’S YOURS!

And thus my first issue with this story… I get why Trevor left Megan (or more accurately behaved in a way that would cause her to break things off – although…another issue here…we are told he did that but didn’t actually see it for ourselves…which this is a novella so I know the story is truncated, but it made it hard for me to understand how bad things were, causing Megan to break things off, and good grief I just took a left turn from where I was going), but it’s not very hero-like behavior if you only want someone once you think they are with someone else. Also, if you don’t want to be with someone “for their own good,” be a man and break up with them yourself!

Anyway, moving on…

Trevor wants Megan back and decides to go after her. There’s very little (or no) apologizing for how he behaved, or how much he hurt hurt, but Megan forgives him anyway and lets him in. Then he pushes her away again.

However, Megan doesn’t want to give up on them so easily again, so her grand idea to get him back involves fuzzy handcuffs and a flog. Because mild bedroom kink is a valid substitution for a licensed therapist.

There was a lot of telling and not enough showing in this novella for me. Even taking the shortened page count into consideration (because I DO judge novellas on their own merits), there just wasn’t enough for me to feel connected to the characters and invested in their reunion. Which is a bummer because there’s nothing I like more than watching lovers find their way back to each other.

* thank you to NetGalley and Tule Publishing for providing an ARC in exchange for an honest review

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What Happens in the Highlands (What Happens #1) by Kelsey McKnight

What Happens in the Highlands by Kelsey McKnight
While I didn’t absolutely love this book, What Happens in the Highlands is the reason why I keep plowing through books even when they aren’t pulling me in. After a bumpy start, I didn’t think I was going to enjoy this book, but I ended up liking it!

Rose traveled to Scotland for her best friend’s wedding. While there, she has a fling with best man Lachlan. But before she knows it, feelings develop. Of course, there’s the requisite drama (in the form of another woman), and ensuing misunderstanding (followed by non-communication). Then there’s the issue of them having lives that take place with an ocean between them…

For as many “issues” as I had with this story, there were plenty of things to balance them out.

Some books have effortless humor. Other times it seems forced and contrived. And things did not start out well here. Spilling trays of food, clumsy cheek kisses. It was supposed to be comical, but felt forced and contrived. But then about halfway through, the humor moved from slapstick physical comedy to witty banter between the hero and heroine. And just like that the story was saved. Hooray!

I could see the drama in this story coming from a mile away. And the way the heroine dealt with it went like a high school angst-fest. Especially when you consider this story takes place over a period of about a week. But…it didn’t drag on and on. The hero at least acted like an adult and forced the heroine to communicate. And what do you know…misunderstanding cleared up. Hooray!

It always frustrates me when a couple falls in love but then go their separate ways because they don’t live in the same city/state/country. Okay, so different continent is a little more complicated. But hello, people are allowed to move! While the grand gesture was also seen from a mile away, once again I liked how things were resolved, with the hero behaving like a hero. Hooray!

By the last page, this ended up being a decent book for me. It was a quick read – which I am in desperate need of these days, and had a fun, lighthearted vibe to it. This was my first Kelsey McKnight book, and I like to give new-to-me authors more than one read. I’m not sure if the next book in the What Happens series necessarily interests me, but I’m definitely interested in reading more by Ms. McKnight.

* thank you to NetGalley and Tule Publishing for providing an ARC in exchange for an honest review

Change of Heart by Judith Keim

Change of Heart by Judith Keim

This book – and far too many like it – are the reason why I’m so behind in my reading this year. The story and writing aren’t terrible, so I keep pushing through, despite not being particularly interested in reading the book. If a book is fairly good, I can plow through it in two or three evenings. Change of Heart took me seven nights to read. SEVEN. Yikes.

Emerson Jordan has had a bad run of luck with men. After her latest heartbreak has her moping for several months, her older sister convinces her to take a trip to Florida. While there, she evaluates what’s important to her, and decides to open her own landscape design business back home in upstate New York. She also wants to be a mother, and decides she doesn’t need a man to make that happen.

Before I go into all the reasons this book didn’t work for me, I will tell you two things I did like: a story that enfolds over the course of a year (so no insta love – hooray!), and a hero that isn’t an alpha male. There also wasn’t any droning on and on about how good looking he was, or how those good looks made the heroine’s body parts tingle. So that was nice too.

However…for a story that’s supposed to be a romance (that is, a story about a relationship between two people), there was more plot development for the heroine building her business than building a relationship with the hero. I was going to try to be spoiler-free here, but decided I couldn’t adequately explain how much things didn’t work for me without giving details, so here’s your warning – if you don’t want to know what happens, don’t keep reading.

Em and Devin first met at her sister’s wedding, but get to know each other when sharing a house for a week in Florida. They barely spend time together, and don’t give any hint of attraction to the other. Then they see each other a second time about a month later. He goes back to Florida. Then they apparently talk on the phone for several months, see each other again, share a kiss. There’s more talking on the phone. At 64% Devin shows up and proposes. WHAAAAT??? They’ve just spent the whole book telling everyone they’re just friends. No talk between them of deeper feelings. No talk of them having a relationship. But he shows up, asks her to marry him, she gives an enthusiastic yes. You can’t just tell me they talked on the phone a lot, and expect me to feel their connection! Especially when the reader isn’t privy to any of their supposed long conversations.

On top of that, we get loads of info about Em starting her business, which not only makes the pacing drag, but does nothing to move the romance of the story forward. I’m not sure exactly what “change of heart” our heroine was supposed to have had. Also, the dialogue was stilted and contrived and had me thinking “no one talks like that!” And while I’m being negative (might as well go all in at this point), the nicknames sorta bugged me. I’m generally opposed to them to begin with, and I know Emerson is kinda long and sorta formal sounding, but calling her Em all the time bothered me. Then we have the floral shop helper whose real name is Allison Belle, but everyone calls her Tinker. I’m sure the author was trying to be cute, but it seemed out of place with the tone of the story. It also made me want to roll my eyes. So yeah, this book just didn’t work for me.

I think this story could have been good, but so much happened off page between the hero and heroine that you can’t sell me this as a romance. When the synopsis tells me that “something happens that changes everything” between the hero and heroine, that’s what I’m looking forward to finding out. (FYI, I thought it was going to be that these “friends” got carried away one night and she got pregnant. Nothing that exciting or scandalous happened between them, at all, in the book.) But I still don’t know what that something was. And if you tell me the story is a romance, and I’m expecting a romance, but don’t get a romance, that equals unmet expectations…also known as disappointment. Which is basically what this story was to me.

* thank you to NetGalley and Wild Quail Publishing for providing an ARC in exchange for an honest review

Harmony by Laurie Winter

Harmony by Laurie Winter

4.5 stars! 

I’ve felt a bit bah-humbug about reading lately. For the first time in four years, I’m just “on track” for meeting my Goodreads Challenge goal instead of being 10 or 15 books ahead of schedule like I usually am at this point in the year. But so far this year, very few books have compelled me to read at every possible moment, or until the wee hours of the morning.

Then I discovered Laurie Winter had – unbeknownst to me – released a book almost three months ago. (If I ever felt scrolling through my daily Goodreads Updates email was a waste of my time, this discovery dispelled me of that notion!) Even though my ARC list is 20 titles long (with over half of them already released…yikes), and this book was on the upper end of my spend point (confession: I am SO SO SO cheap), I read the sample, then dove in.

I started after dinner, and didn’t stop reading until 3AM.

I’m kinda hating myself today. And I knew I would. But there was no putting this book down until the very last word was read.

Jordan Spencer is hanging on by a thread. Four long months on the road as a popular country singer has taken its toll, and she just needs a break. So after her final concert, she dons a disguise and sneaks out the back door to a waiting car. On her way to a house in a remote town of Wisconsin, she gets caught in a storm and ends up in a ditch. She wakes up some time later to Eli Hintz, and his sister Heidi, rescuing her.

As luck would have it, it takes a while for her car to get towed from the ditch, and it will be several days before repairs can be made. Realizing Jordan’s vacation plans have been waylaid, Heidi offers her home for lodging until she can get back to her plans. Eli, the responsible older brother, thinks his sister is nuts for letting a complete stranger stay at their diary farm.

When it appears neither Eli or Heidi recognize who she is, Jordan – who tells them her name is Ann – decides to hang around, helping at the farm and getting to know Heidi, Eli, and his two precocious children. While there, she gets the respite she needs from her crazy life, but also realizes what is important to her.

From the synopsis, you may think you’re getting Eli’s story – and you are – but Harmony really is about Jordan coming into herself and gaining the confidence to go after what she truly wants. I feel like the “incognito famous person hides out in the middle of nowhere” plot has been done before, but there was nothing stale or recycled in this book. It was fun and fresh, and I loved every page.

And with Harmony, Laurie Winter has earned a spot on my one-click, no preview list. Which is a short list. Like, less than 10 authors are on it. I became a fan with her very first book, Home Field, and have thoroughly enjoyed her Warriors of the Heart series. I love her characters. Her heroes are manly but don’t veer into ridiculous alpha-male antics, and her heroines are strong and relatable. I love her plots, which are realistic and don’t get ridiculous. I love how she doesn’t do the annoying cliched writing/storytelling ploys that are so prevalent in today’s contemporary romances, like going on and on about how hawt the hero is or how the heroine’s body parts are affected by the hero’s hawtness. Ms. Winter is immensely skilled in crafting heartwarming, heartfelt stories.

Furthermore, you know an author has done a tremendous job with a story when you want her to write books for ALL the characters. I’ll be here for Heidi’s book. And Sam’s. And Cole’s. And Lacy’s. (I am especially here if Cole’s book IS Lacy’s book!) Please, please, please let there be more in this series!

Letters from Peaceful Lane by Janet Dailey

Letters from Peaceful Lane by Janet Dailey
You know the saying about not judging a book by its cover? Maybe we should also add “Don’t judge a book by its title” because OMG this book was NOTHING like what I was expecting. And this time, it wasn’t a bad thing!

Allison fell deeply in love with – and married – rich widower, Burke. But things have been strained lately. Unbeknownst to Allison, Burke’s theater in Branson, Missouri is struggling financially, and she only finds out when his business partner lets the info slip after Burke leaves in the middle of his own birthday party to deal with an issue at the theater. Before he can get there, he’s in a terrible car crash, which sets in motion a potential for disaster with his business.

This book kept me engaged. There was a lot going on…Allison and Burke’s marriage, Allison’s struggle to have a relationship with her stepdaughter, the stepdaughter’s relationship with her boyfriend, the attempted takeover of Burke’s business. It all made for a fast paced story.

Then we have the dead wife’s letters to Burke that Allison reads, which is what I thought this book would mostly be about. Except it really wasn’t…

With all that was going on, I couldn’t help but feel nothing was given the full attention it deserved, and nothing had an adequate resolution. I think this book wanted to be a romance, but also a suspense/mystery/thriller. Except we meet the hero and heroine when things are already strained between them, and there’s no good reconciliation scene at the end (and for what Burke pulled, there needed to be an apology and groveling). And the situation with the business was resolved off page, which was so anticlimactic!

I read this book in less than 24 hours – which hasn’t been the case for me the past several months. The plot was fast paced, and the story was compelling. I went in thinking this would be a heartbreaking romance about a woman sitting at her husband’s hospital deathbed fighting for their marriage, and got something nowhere near close to that. The cover and title were cleverly deceptive! However, I feel the execution of the plot was a little all over the place. I’m still not sure what the author was trying to accomplish by having the heroine read the first wife’s letters because they didn’t help ME feel like I knew Burke better, and I’m not sure how they helped Allison fight for her marriage. And for a book where the villain had mob connections, things were fairly tame and resolved with little fanfare.

All that being said, I liked the writing, and I liked the characters. So even though this book didn’t completely work for me, I’ll definitely give Janet Dailey another read.

* thank you to NetGalley and Kensington Books/Zebra for providing an ARC in exchange for an honest review

The Unhoneymooners by Christina Lauren

The Unhoneymooners by Christina Lauren

There isn’t much that’s better than a romantic comedy where the comedy is abundant and completely effortless. The Christina Lauren writing duo are indisputable queens at delivering exactly that, every single time.

When everyone at Olive’s twin sister’s wedding gets food poisoning from the reception buffet, she ends up going on the honeymoon trip with the best man. Who is also the groom’s brother. And her nemesis for the last two years. For some reason unknown to Olive, Ethan despises her. Actually, the feeling is mutual.

So having to take a romantic trip to Hawaii together isn’t ideal. But what Minnesotan in their right mind would pass up a tropical vacation in the middle of winter? All they have to do is stay away from each other. Which sounds easy enough…until they both run into people they know, and lies are told.

Together Ethan and I are above-average intelligent people, so why are we so stupid together? 

Hijinks ensue, and also the most witty, hilarious banter you will ever have the pleasure of reading. I don’t even like the enemies-to-lovers trope, but this story was delightful. And have I mentioned hilarious? These talented authors crafted a story without using the usual tactics most authors use (and makes me bonkers): the characters have a sudden epiphany that changes their mind, and then having them lament over and over how the other person won’t ever return their feelings. There wasn’t a single cliched part of this book, and it was so refreshing!

But it wasn’t all fun and games. Once they get home, Ethan and Olive are faced with a difficult situation, and things fall apart as quickly as they came together. It was the perfect conflict to give the missing drama to their relationship. The first 65 percent was them clashing and sparring (the BEST part of the book!), then another 20 percent of them falling in love. All of it was great. But no relationship gets to happily-ever-after without some bumps and bruises. I loved how the drama was brought in organically, realistically, and resolved without over the top angst. These were adults, and behaved as such. It was fantastic!

The only downside to this book was that it ended too soon. It’s always hard to say goodbye to fun, lovable characters and I would have loved a more extended ending and epilogue.

Christina Lauren has earned a spot on my automatic read list. Their writing is sharp and clever, and the plots are fun and unique. I’m not sure what each author brings to the table, but between the two of them they make a complete package that delivers storytelling perfection.

* a HUGE thank you to NetGalley and Gallery, Threshold, Pocket Books for providing an ARC in exchange for an honest review

The Trouble with Cowboys by Victoria James

The Trouble with Cowboys by Victoria  James

The trouble with this book is that I’m really conflicted about it, making a review difficult to write.

Tyler Donnelly left home eight years ago after the death of his mother and a lamentable argument with his father. But now he’s home after his father suffered a debilitating stroke, determined to make amends – with his father and the friends he left behind – and help the family ranch get back on track. He didn’t expect it would be easy, or that he’d be welcomed back with open arms, but nothing has gone the way he thought.

The biggest thing Ty didn’t expect is Lainey Sullivan, hometown girl and owner of the town’s popular diner. She was young when he left, now she’s a grown woman, bent on helping Ty repair his relationships, including the one she thinks they could have together. Between them, though, they’ve got a restaurant-sized kitchen sink’s worth of dirty dishes to get through before they can get to their happily ever after.

This story started – and stayed – fairly slow through the first 65 percent of the book. I almost gave up on it, however the humorous banter between Ty and Lainey compelled to me keep flipping pages. Otherwise, there were several things I had trouble with.

The author utilized a technique I’m not fond of: not disclosing a crucial bit of information, holding it over the reader’s heads and referring to it frequently…all in an attempt to add mystery or suspense to the story. In this case, not telling us what awful things the hero’s father said that made him flee his home and not return for eight years. Thankfully, after the first several chapters, the topic wasn’t brought up as frequently (and several little clues about the truth were dropped instead), so that kept me from being annoyed throughout the whole book!

Then, I couldn’t quite understand all the anger and animosity by his friends. What’s up with that??? Did Ty’s leaving cause his friends to have to pick up a mess he left behind? Nope. They just had their feelings hurt and acted like middle schoolers about it.

But there were several things I did really like. For once we have a heroine who has certain ideals about the man she wants to be with and the kind of relationship she wants, and she doesn’t give those up because the hero is so hawt. And it isn’t easy for her – these ideals go against everything everyone else does. Bravo to her for sticking up for her beliefs and demanding the best for herself. It was a refreshing change of pace from what we get in most books, and is the sole reason my rating went up to three stars. The plucky heroine, and a compelling and more-quickly paced plot in the last 30 percent, saved this book for me.

I generally like my romance books to have a bit more steam to them, but by the end of The Trouble with Cowboys, I didn’t even miss it. The relationship between Ty and Lainey developed so naturally, and had so much tension to it, I didn’t feel like the story needed it. So that was another win for The Trouble with Cowboys. I wish the first two-thirds of the book had better pacing, but it finished strong and I’m glad I stuck with it.

* thank you to NetGalley and Entangled Publishing, LLC/Entangled: Amara for providing an ARC in exchange for an honest review

Sweet Wild of Mine (Where the Wild Hearts Are #2) by Laurel Kerr

Sweet Wild of Mine by Laurel Kerr

Sweet Wild of Mine is another cute, sweet addition to the Where the Wild Hearts Are series by Laurel Kerr.

Magnus Gray is a well-known author from Scotland. When his latest books don’t resonate well with his readers, his publisher sends him to Sagebrush Flats in the United States to volunteer with their small local zoo. His first night in Sagebrush Flats, he’s accosted by perky June Winters and given a warm welcome to the town. The grumpy loner isn’t pleased to make her acquaintance.

But June isn’t to be deterred from turning Magnus’s frown upside down. When Magnus’s publisher tells him he also needs to vlog about his time at the zoo, he turns to June for help. And help she does…with more than just the vlogs.

I’m a huge fan of small town romances, and Sagebrush Flats hits the sweet spots. The side-characters add extra charm, and when people aren’t gossiping about everyone else, they are always there to chip in with what needs doing. The hero and heroine find love when they’re least expecting it, and as with the first book in the series, a good deal of the story takes place at the zoo.

This is a slow burn romance with an even slower paced plot, and the story is filled with lots of animal antics. LOTS of animal antics. While things started well in the beginning, I felt like it got bogged down in the middle with all the goings on at the zoo. Cute as all those stories may be, I’m here for a story about the humans. Thankfully, things finished up with a decent pace at the end, dealing with complex issues from the hero’s and heroine’s pasts.

I’ve enjoyed Ms. Kerr’s writing, but I’m not sure if I’ll continue with this series. I find myself needing stories to move along faster and have a little more grit to them. If you’re looking for a sweet story (with some marginally steamy times), this IS a series that I would recommend!

* thank you to NetGalley and SOURCEBOOKS Casablanca for providing an ARC in exchange for an honest review

Risky Play (Red Card #1) by Rachel Van Dyken

Risky Play by Rachel Van Dyken

I ended up liking Risky Play more than I thought I would. Books that talk more about pecs and less about the plot get off on a bad foot with me. And when the hero is the one extolling the grandness of his pecs (and other body parts), it just rubs me the wrong way. So this book started out on shaky ground. Thankfully it things leveled out the further we got into the story.

Mackenzie and Slade met on a plane to Mexico. Both were fleeing their regular lives – and crappy situations – looking for a break, and some adventure. When they discover they’re staying at the same resort, they exchange fake names and decide to spend their time on vacation together. They have a wonderful day, but in the middle of the night Slade gets a phone call that has him abandoning Mack without a word, leaving her to wake up alone in the bed they shared.

Several weeks later back at home, Mack decides to take a break from her family company and goes to work for her aunt who has a concierge service for the rich and famous. Her first client? The man who disappeared without a word in Mexico.

Slade is not happy to see Mack. Despite having strong feelings for her while they were in Mexico, the death of his father has put him in a really bad mental place. In short, he’s a complete ass to Mack. She doesn’t take his crap, but is also understanding about where his head is after she learns of his loss.

As per usual, Mack eventually wins over Slade. In the midst of some other drama, Slade has a chance to prove to Mack he’s willing to stick by her side, for better or for worse.

As I said, this book started off in the hole for me. What dug it out was excellent dialogue, quick pacing, and a relationship that developed slowly after the one-night-stand. I know a lot of readers were unable to like the hero because of how terrible he was when the heroine reappeared in his life, but I can appreciate a heroine who is able to understand “hurting people hurt people” and offer some grace. For his part, the hero knew he was behaving poorly and did his best to apologize and make amends.

This was my first Rachel Van Dyken book. She’s one of those authors I see all the time, but I hadn’t ever picked up one of her books. I didn’t wow me (LESS pecs MORE plot is my mantra!), and had several far-fetched storylines (a 30 year-old virgin, for a reason that I didn’t quite buy, for starters), but I’m a sucker for good dialogue, which Ms. Van Dyken displayed an aptitude for, so I’ll definitely give her another read.

* thank you to NetGalley and Skyscape for providing an ARC in exchange for an honest review

When You’re Gone by Brooke Harris

When You're Gone by Brooke  Harris

Today’s lesson, ladies and gentlemen, is that if a book tells you it’s a heartbreaking page-turner – says it right there on the front cover! – you should probably not ignore that warning…

Right now I’m gutted. My heart is crushed. I can’t remember the last time I read a book that left me so anguished.

Romance is supposed to be all the things real life isn’t: miracles happen, the good guys always win, love conquers all. So when that doesn’t happen in a book, it’s a jolt to my senses. A figurative punch to the gut. And that’s what Annie and Holly’s stories were to me, over and over.

It’s now the morning after I finished When You’re Gone, and I still feel raw.

Holly flees work in the middle of the day, rushing to get to her dying grandmother’s bedside. Thankful to make it in time to say her goodbyes, she spends hours at Nana’s side, reading a hand-handwritten book found in her grandmother’s attic. It’s the story of Annie and Sketch, who fell in love and braved her father’s alcohol-induced abuse to be together.

It was an incredibly sad, incredibly difficult part of the book to read. There are SO MANY things I could say, so many thoughts I have, but I’m not going to share because I really think you just need to read it for yourself.

Holly, herself, is dealing with her own painful situation. She’s recently broken her engagement to a wonderful man. She knows he’s a great man, but can’t see her way around the terrible event they are having to deal with as a couple. As frustrating as it was to watch Holly shut Nate out, it was even more heartwarming to see how steadfast and determined Nate was to love Holly through the illness of their unborn child.

As the family gathers around, taking turns reading Annie and Sketch’s story, it seems Nana has one last lesson she wants to teach her beloved granddaughter before she says goodbye. It’s a lesson we all need to learn.

“…every day is a gift. If all you are gifted is one day, make enough memories in those twenty-four little hours to last a lifetime… Be grateful for the time you have instead of being bitter about the time that’s snatched away from you.” 

I don’t necessarily enjoy reading a book that puts my heart through the shredder. I certainly don’t go looking for those kinds of books! But I’m glad I read this one. And I’m not usually a fan of books told with past and present timelines, but this time it worked. Ms. Harris crafted an excellently written story that flowed seamlessly between past and present. I felt like a freight train was pulling my heartstrings, and I sobbed and sobbed and went through half a box of Kleenex finishing this story. And I cried while telling my husband about it.

So yeah, when the cover said “a heartbreaking page-turner”…it wasn’t underselling itself.

* thank you to NetGalley and Bookouture for providing an ARC in exchange for an honest review