Contemporary Romance Novels

By | March 14, 2014

Elsa Watson

Dog Days by Elsa Watson offers a lightly amusing take on the ‘Freaky Friday’ premise – but with a woman and a stray dog swapping places. I was willing to suspend belief for the story, but found myself getting impatient with the characters and their dialog so I skipped chunks to get to the end faster. The problems ranged from little – explain again why a person who’s afraid of dogs has moved to a town that’s dog-crazy? and how convenient that the human doesn’t lock her house door even though she’s living alone – to big: both human and canine have problems walking in their new bodies but the human retains full brain power (her urges to sniff and chase are just token additions) while the canine acquires (mostly) human intelligence. Uh, no. The romance is likewise not terribly believable – how much can they get acquainted when one is four-legged and non-verbal? – and very tame. All that said, an okay read if you’re a dog lover or like mushy stories.

Lisa Plumley

Melt Into You by Lisa Plumley is a contemporary romance based in San Diego.  A man-child surfer dude playboy who’s made his wealth marketing his father’s chocolates via the Internet and other channels bottoms out and recognizes his love for his personal assistant who’s kept him on-track for many years.  I skipped chunks of the story because I found the man-child schtick tiresome and so couldn’t accept the other unlikely aspects of the story.  Plus the couple doesn’t map to the chocolatiers that I know.

Lori Foster

Forever Buckhorn, a reprint of her novels about Buckhorn brothers Gabe and Jordan, was enjoyable in the reading because it focused on sex and attraction without the drama and violence from outside actors present in many of her other novels.  The after-effects were less pleasant as I wondered why I bothered with a story (Gabe) in which the heroine appeared to be finishing a Masters thesis (the story didn’t specify BA or Masters but a thesis of that complexity screamed Masters) but was thrilled with the idea of becoming a vet clinic assistant after graduation.  Equally improbable but not as annoying was her innocence and lack of self-confidence about her looks – especially as a psychology major.  And then there’s the quote “He could feel the warmth and softness of her, the incredible firmness of virgin flesh.  ‘How about a body made for a man?’ he growled.  ‘Or a smile that’s so sweet I feel it inside my pants.'”  And from Jordan we have “He had very large hands, but even for him she was lush and full.”

Lori Wilde

I just couldn’t get into Love At First Sight by Lori Wilde.  Certainly it doesn’t help that I’m not into small town life – especially not in a touristy, Texas town called Cupid.  Add to that backdrop childhood traumas keeping both hero and heroine from developing lasting relationships, Taliban-induced horrors for the ex-Navy SEAL hero, and 29 years of virginity for the heroine and you’ve got two eye rolls.  Mind you, I’ve got nothing against virginity, but the reasons behind it and the angst that it causes the heroine should have been addressed with therapy rather than “love at first sight”.  The novel’s story and dialog were easy to read, so if you don’t mind the setting and the improbable characters, then you’ll likely enjoy this novel.

Louisa Edwards

Can’t Stand the Heat is the first of Louisa Edwards’s six (as of 2013) novels featuring a restaurant chef hero (and, in two cases, heroines).  This first novel is fun – especially if you accept super-sexy restaurant critics and chefs (attractive-in-an-artsy-way Manhattanites moonlighting as waiters I do buy; while the likes of Anthony Bourdain and Ruth Reichl are attractive I wouldn’t put them in the same category as the characters in the novel… and, more importantly, I think that making them so attractive was unnecessary to advance the story).  The gay couple sub-plot was believable (at least to straight me) with the exception of the older guy’s tufted hairdo – I just couldn’t picture his do as anything remotely attractive… especially not to the pretty boys on Castro Street.  If you’re not a foodie or at least food observer, then this novel is probably borderline.

Rachel Gibson

Seattle Chinooks series

Nothing But Trouble

Nothing But Trouble is in Gibson’s Seattle Chinooks professional ice hockey series.  First off, a minor food quibble: Whole Foods does not have a “killer deli and kick-butt bakery”; not that their prepared foods are bad – just uninspiring.  I liked the heroine – even if she was overly preoccupied with breast-reduction surgery… but maybe that’s just small-cup, large-frame-me talking.  I was okay with the grump-to-lover hero… until late in the story when he dumps the heroine over the bonus that the Chinooks organization is paying her to put up with him.  What a jerk!  And everything is all kissie smoochy again when he finds that she’s forgone the bonus??  It’s not like he was her employer nor was she using sex as a bribe – and she adhered to a no-nookie during working hours rule.  She was his personal assistant not his psychologist.

My Man of Mine

Having just spent time with a boy not much older than five-year old Conner, one result of the lead characters’ Vegas weekend hookup in My Man of Mine, I can attest to the veracity of Gibson’s portrayal – whether it’s Barney or Mario a summary rejection of yesterday’s bedroom icons comes with the territory.  Not so believable – or likeable – was the hero’s reasons for being a playa’… at least he didn’t transition into responsible dad overnight.  I got about one-third in before I started skipping.    Note that Moclips is a real vacation town on the Washington coast, Pure is a nightclub in Vegas (though it’s closed until 2015 for remodeling), and Jack Johnson is a musician – though not one that I’d connect with a hopping nightclub… but maybe Caucasians in Vegas like to party to lilting acoustic guitar with an emo flavor.

Lovett Texas series

Crazy On You

Crazy On You is a novella with events in Lovett, TX parallel to Gibson’s novel Rescue Me.  Former military guy converted to policing moves in next door to former emo woman who’s converted to stable mom and successful business owner (day spa).  Story length is too short for real dramas so he’s PTSD-free thanks to a rough childhood that he’s already worked through and she’s long ago sown all her post-divorce wild oats.  I guess because the heroine has an impressionable 10-year old son, the plot pushes hard and quickly to a committed relationship (though it’s the hero who’s doing the pushing); I’d have preferred a looser ending – but at least the story didn’t go the preggers route.

Brenda Jackson

Having enjoyed her short story in the collection Love Bites I picked up Bachelor Unclaimed.  After reading the first section, I skipped to the end – for the annoying suspensions in logic that I was being called upon to make rather than the usual shortcomings in dialog, character development, or sex scenes.  She’s supposedly an ethical journalist and politician wanna-be and yet she thinks very little of breaking and entering and trespassing.  He’s supposedly a rock star biochemist who’s gone independent but owns all of the intellectual property (for a new male virility wonder drug) that he developed while employed by a large corporation; who has sufficient capital to build a very expensive lab; and who has magically compressed the time to get through regulatory approvals to bring a new drug to market.  My bookmark went in at “…the woman was too willful for her own good.  They had played this game long enough.  He wanted her and whether she admitted it or not, she wanted him.”  I only admit to taking the quote out of context – but still, even in the context of a woman who’s already had a one-night stand with the guy, and who’s broken into his compound seeking an interview with a mythical older scientist, the quote is kind of disturbing.

Francis Ray

Grayson Friends series

If A Seductive Kiss is indicative of the rest of the series, then I’m not interested.  The concept of a spokesmodel aging out of the industry and trying to find her new purpose was compelling but the holes in the plot’s logic were too big and the disasters and successes too improbable to keep me engage in the story.  The biggest hole started with the heroine’s grandfather: he sufficiently respected her design savvy to convert her ideas into what turned out to be a very successful clothing line but he didn’t trust her with a stake in the business (let alone the top slot); instead he gives a controlling stake to her parents… who have shown no interest in or aptitude for the apparel business (beyond conspicuous consumption of fashionable clothes).  I was further irked by Ray’s need to catalog everyone’s multi-generational beauty and wealth though doing so detracted from the story.  Then there were minor nits such as the hero narrating the heroine’s wearing of a “white sundress that stopped just above her incredible knees”.  Really?  The first feature that the hero calls out is her knees?  The topper was the bad menus.  In a Yankees Stadium sky box a lauded NYC restauranteur in the hero’s circle of friends has catered a meal of potato salad, roast beef, garden salad, and “a huge clamshell filled with giant shrimp”.  And then the heroine chooses a dinner menu of Beef Wellington and martinis for a dinner with the hero’s clients, a couple visiting from Texas.  Nope, that’s not keeping up with the Joneses (or with Iron Chef).

Kimberly Kincaid

Turn Up the Heat was okay but not sufficiently engaging to keep me from skipping through and then not picking it back up to read the missed parts.  “It’s not you, it’s me” is a large part of it: I enjoy the mountains but I’d much rather live in or near the city (especially the City, Baghdad by the Bay) so I get bored by the plot of ditching your career to find fulfillment in small-town living.  Further, I think that translating proficiency in the home kitchen to surviving the heat of a commercial kitchen under the auspices of a very demanding head chef takes training, mentoring, and a different perspective; but in this story the heroine makes the transition relatively painlessly and almost instantaneously.  Hah!  At least she could have been a reader of books on contemporary restaurant techniques such as Sous Vide by Thomas Keller.  I did like the banter between the heroine and her besties – including the sobriquet ‘Encyclopedia Dramatica’ (a 4/5 or 5/4 on the Enneagram?).

Jayne Ann Krentz

See the Castle Krentz Quick post for reviews of books by Jayne Ann Krentz under her married name (Jayne Ann Krentz), her given (maiden) name Jayne Castle, and and her pen name Amanda Quick.  Her Krentz novels are in the murder mystery / thriller / romance genres with a contemporary setting – often the wine country north of San Francisco.  Many of the lead characters in her contemporary novels have psychical abilities and in the remaining one or both of the leads are strong intuitives.   Her Jayne Castle novels are set in the future on another planet with emigrants from Earth with psychical abilities and her Amanda Quick novels are Regency romance / mystery / thrillers, usually with paranormal (psychical) elements.

Miscellaneous

The cover of the hardback edition of The Total Package by Stephanie Evanovich is misleadingly reminiscent of a Janet Evanovich cover.  The story of a pro quarterback washing out due to self-medicating substance abuse followed by his subsequent rehabilitation would be a lot more interesting on its own; in turn the love story between the QB and his college English tutor turned sports broadcaster would be a lot more interesting without the baby daddy complications.

Too Many Cooks by Dana Bate was too much dead end relationship and Midwestern Americana cuisine and not enough real cooking.  The heroine dumps the first guy because he’s boringly nice – though in a mildly unpleasant controlling fashion – only to take up with an unavailable Brit… unavailable because he’s married to the heroine’s new employer.  I skipped ahead and was glad that I hadn’t invested more time in the story when (spoiler alert) I read that the two-timer chooses career over the heroine and stays with his wife.  In addition to not having much sympathy for the guy, I didn’t think much of the heroine for her choices… and the paean to spaghetti salad at the beginning of the story didn’t help.

Collections

Let’s Get It On follows the four HEAs of three siblings and a cousin who are partners in a high-end Washington DC restaurant.  All four stories shared common problems IMHO: successful woman puts her career in the background in order to be the Mrs. (not Ms.) on hubby’s arm.  In Rochelle Alers “Love Lessons” the school teacher heroine has an expensive house and wardrobe – yeah, right.  At least the food scenes in this story (the only one of the four to center on the food) does a pretty good job with the menus – though the kitchen and head chef seem a little too unstressed to be realistic restauranteurs.  The other stories – by Donna Hill, Brenda Jackson, and Francis Ray – are all similar.

All Through the Night is a 2001 collection of novellas by Suzanne Forster, Thea Devince, Lori Foster, and Shannon McKenna.  For the most part this collection has not aged well – unless you’re a fan of bossy, possessive men who are more successful in business than the women they lust after – even when the heroine has achieved a measure of her own success as in Devine’s novella – where are the cougars when you need them?  The first novella by Forster is a little different in that the hero is a reclusive geek – but he’s still CEO of the company for which the heroine works.  I enjoyed the software company aspects of that story – and the heroine’s job as a programmer and creator of gaming software – even if the technology’s capabilities were stretched way beyond credulity; I did not enjoy the hero’s electronic and in-person surveillance of the heroine – it was stalking and was creepy rather than romantic.  Read the collection for the sex scenes and ignore the rest.

Love Bites is a 2012 collection of five novellas headlined by Lori Foster and Brenda Jackson.  Though the cover and the back blurb indicate that all the stories feature dogs, the canine content is actually fairly minimal; the last story features horses rescued and rehabilitated before being sold rather than “man’s – and woman’s – best friend”.  The best story in the bunch is Brenda Jackson’s – in part because it features truly bonded canine-human pairs.  (It also had the best sex scenes, including telephone sex.)  Unfortunately its plot relies on the hero’s laxity in and squeamishness about getting his male dog neutered… and the heroine’s mistake in not getting her precious Smookie fixed.  Overall the collection is a pass.

The Guy Next Door is a 2011 collection by Lori Foster, Susan Donovan, and Victoria Dahl.  The Lori Foster story was too emo – though with its canine catalyst I wonder if it precipitated the 2012 Love Bites collection.  Dahl’s story had interesting characters but has an unresolved plot as it’s really just an introduction to and teaser for a full-length book.  Donovan’s story is the most interesting but I didn’t have much sympathy for the hero and heroine’s relationship baggage.

Bad Boys in Black Tie is a 2004 collection of novellas by Lori Foster, Erin McCarthy, and Laura Leigh Arce.  The title is a disappointing teaser: two of the three heroes don’t care for tuxes and oh so barely (in more ways than one) don the basic black.  The heroines aren’t much better; though all three admire their males in black, two of the three are definitely sartorially challenged and the third never appears in fancier attire than jeans.  Lori Foster’s friends-to-lovers story stretches credulity the least – her couple has worked together and lived next door for many months… though we’re supposed to accept the hero’s out-of-the-blue recognition of the heroine’s hotness.  Laura Leigh Arce’s couple takes only a few days (and nights) from first meeting to a forever commitment – uh, rushing it a little??  The basic dynamics of Erin McCarthy’s couple is more believable than Foster’s – the former’s couple has not only worked together for several months but both the hero and the heroine have been cognizant of the other’s hotness (but not their mutual attraction) – an attraction that the heroine has been resolutely resisting and by which the hero has been somewhat perplexed.  The unbelievable aspect of McCarthy’s couple is the speed with which the heroine jettisons her emotional baggage – which is a shame since much of that baggage (including an autistic son and a complete absence of the ex / father) was extraneous.

Harlequin

Robyn Donald

Island of Secrets collects two stories in one volume.  Both are set on an island near New Zealand – which provides plenty of excuses for skimpy clothing and lax social mores (on the part of the indigenous population) – and have the same basic characters and plot: hard-nosed businessman assumes that very attractive woman is a gold-digging slut then marries her after discovering and erasing her virgin state.  Notwithstanding the heroes’ protectiveness of their stepparents, extenuating circumstances, and the heroines’ fledgling business acumen; the whole Madonna / whore trope is very outdated.  Who cares about the women’s virginity?  And I have a hard time liking a hero who so readily views women as sluts.  On the plus side the sex scenes were reasonably well done though few in number and relatively tame (we are talking about virgin heroines here).

Cathy Williams

I debated placing The Notorious Gabriel Diaz in the ‘Contemporary’ category given how dated the plot line and characters seem.  One issue is that the setting (and presumably the background of the author) is England and from my readings, English heroines are not as liberated as their American cosmopolitan, big-business counterparts.  The plot is: fae-like child-woman loses her virginity to ruthless business tycoon in order to get embezzlement charges against her father’s dropped; tycoon has trust and relationship issues but falls in love; and everyone lives happily ever after.  Tycoon’s issues stemming from his past seem trite – he should have gotten over them long ago – but he’s got much more serious character flaws that are barely acknowledged let alone addressed… and what about repentance on the part of the father?  We’re supposed to think that it was okay since he stole to take his sick wife on an expensive trip?  He couldn’t have taken out a loan?  Pfflt.


1 Comment

Penelope Gordon on 2015/03/29 at 7:13 pm.

“First Dance” by Karen Kendall was too Texas, too emo. I skipped through chunks and still couldn’t get into the couple’s traumas enough to read more.

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