Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Under The Skin: Intrusion
You start a book.  You read a few chapters and think, "Hmmmm, this is OK. Maybe."  You're not quite sure if it's your thing or not, but you keep reading.  Then the author gut-punches you.  You swoon under the sheer weight of the emotion.  You wonder, how is she going to tie it all up?  And then?  AND THEN?!?!?!  You get to the finish line and you're thinking, "Wait. Is what I think is happening REALLY happening?!"

The answer would be yes.  And yes, the above is an exact moment by moment account of what my reading of Intrusion by Charlotte Stein was like.  It was one hell of a roller coaster ride.  I cannot remember the last time a story put me through these kinds of paces and for that?  Yep, my second A grade in a matter of days.

This is going to be a hard review to write, mostly because I think it's the sort of story one needs to go into "blind."  But I'm going to try.  Stein's latest follows the lives of two damaged people who have been touched by violence - Beth and Noah.  They meet when Beth, still picking up the pieces, thinks Noah has dog-napped her dog.  So even though his house looks like something out of a horror movie, she goes over there to confront him.  Naturally he did not, in fact, dog-nap her dog - but she soon realizes that her sleepwalking neighbor is also living in fear.  What follows is them tentatively forging a friendship, and succumbing to their mutual attraction for each other - which is, hello, complicated.

First things first - Stein has a very unique writing style.  She writes the way some of us think.  It's very stream of consciousness and can be a little jarring.  I like Stein's writing, but even so it still took me a few chapters to wrap my head around it.  So I always recommend that new readers download a sample before ponying up for the whole book.

Also, as much as I don't want to give too much away, given that both characters have been exposed to violence?  Expect some thriller elements at play here.  I have a hard time classifying it as romantic suspense - but if you're a reader who prefers to not read romantic suspense?  That's all I'm saying.

Now, on to the good stuff.  Of which there is so much in this story.  I read an exorbitant amount of romance, and of that?  I read my fair share of what can be classified as "erotic romance."  You would think this wouldn't be so hard to come by, but erotic romance with real passion?  With real intensity?  Not always easy to find or pull off and Stein does it with Beth and Noah.  The tension, the sizzle, these two tap-dancing around each other?  I'm getting heart palpitations just thinking about it.  This is a very common pitfall in the sub genre.  Authors get so hung up on writing about kink or fetish thinking that's going to make the book "hot" - when in reality?  No.  No it doesn't.  It just makes it kinky.  What makes a book "hot" is that intensity between the characters.  You know that saying about the brain being the biggest erogenous zone?  Yeah, Stein gets that.

She gets it because she excels at awkward.  People are people.  We like to think we're cool and suave and will say all the right things - but in reality?  No.  No we won't.  We're not cool.  We're not suave.  And for most of us, when we meet a person who gives us that zing of attraction?  We turn into blithering idiots who can't string a full sentence together.  Stein gets that.  She really, really gets that.

Instead of "meet cute" it's more like "meet holy crap did I just make an ass out of myself?  Of course I did."

Beth and Noah are the types of characters who aren't comfortable in their own skin.  They're damaged goods.  Damaged goods who are wildly attracted to each other but also frightfully scared.  With good reason.  These are people who need each other so desperately and yet you wonder if they're going to be able to get past the scared.  This is a romance, so they do - and those moments?  Oh happy sigh!

The ending is - well the ending is where this book is going to divide or conquer the reader.  I'll be honest - I can poke holes in it all day long.  Hell, I could drive a truck through the holes.  And yet?  I don't care.  Because by this point Stein had grabbed a hold of my hand and was dragging me along for the ride.  I was swept up in it.  The intensity.  The emotion.  I had ALL THE FEELS!!!  So yes.  Will the ending work for everybody?  No.  And I can respect that.

I read a lot and I've read a lot of good books this year.  But it's the amazing book, the cut above book, that sticks with me and sends me on a journey like Stein does here.  It's not going to be for everybody, but it totally was everything for me.

Final Grade = A

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

A Cowboy For Christmas
I have read Lacy Williams' entire Love Inspired Historical backlist to date.  She has a way of delivering a Christian message without completely running off the rails into preaching territory.  She is able to do this because she does have "pet themes."  All of her books, to varying degrees, have covered things like redemption, forgiveness and fear.  These fit nicely into a Christian doctrine, but are also amazingly universal.  Redemption, forgiveness and fear?  I defy one person who claims to have never been touched by any of those, whether or not they believe in a higher power.

A Cowboy for Christmas is the latest book in the author's long-running Wyoming Legacy series, about the large White family of mostly adopted children.  This is Ricky White's story, and Ricky has a lot to atone for.  After a falling out in the previous book, he's in a neighboring town when a saloon fight he's involved in gets out of hand.  Daisy Richards ends up as collateral damage when her wagon overturns, catches fire, and she ultimately loses her right arm.  This accident has changed Daisy.  She's afraid.  She's a prisoner in her father's home, by her own choosing.  But now her father is getting remarried (after many years of widower-hood) and Daisy finds herself saddled with two rambunctious stepbrothers and a stepmother who feels like Daisy has been coddled long enough.  The girl has to start living sometime.

The accident was a wake-up call for Ricky.  Having spent the last several years boozing, gambling, and carousing, he is sickened by the knowledge that his actions have adversely affected someone else.  He wants to atone.  He wants to help Daisy.  So he hires on at her father's ranch, so he can keep an eye on her, maybe help her in some small ways.  What happens instead?  He finds himself drawn to her.  He finds himself falling for her.  An added complication since she has no idea that it was his carelessness that led to the accident.

Ricky and Daisy are both afraid for their own reasons.  Daisy is still coming to terms with the accident.  As a woman, she feels that her "worth" is now "less than."  Who is going to want her now that she's lost an arm?  How will she be able to take care of a household?  Children?  Heck, even write legibly (she was right-handed and lost her right arm).  And even though she's carrying around her fair share of self-pity, she cannot abide being the object of others' pity.  Which is why she has shut herself off from her friends, has refused to attend church or go to town, to essentially hide in her bedroom at her father's ranch.  Some of the best emotional moments in this story are when Daisy accuses Ricky of pitying her.

Ricky is afraid of not only Daisy learning the truth, but of his past in general - which he is ashamed of.  There's the baggage from his childhood, the fact that he feels like he "abandoned" his family, and now Daisy.  He doesn't pity her, but he does feel guilt.  He has changed this woman's life and now she's a shadow.  So he goes about showing her that she may have lost an arm, but she's not dead yet.  Out of these moments spent together blooms a tentative friendship and ultimately, attraction.

It's the attraction between the romantic couple that really struck me with this story.  When inspirational romances stumble for me, this is usually where it happens.  Williams has a way of keeping the romance "gentle," but not undercutting it to the point where you begin to wonder if the characters are eunuchs.  I'd hardly call it steamy, but she gives their interaction some sizzle - with the looks, the inadvertent light touches, and finally - the kisses.  When Ricky and Daisy kiss it's enough to make your heart swoon.

Even though part of a series, I think this book stands alone very well.  Ricky and Daisy have a pretty big hurdle to their happy ending, and while it's typical Romancelandia how Daisy learns the truth about Ricky (sigh - the one misstep for me), I loved that it's also the moment in the book where Ricky learns to stand up and not run.  A lovely read, ideal for this time of year.  It's the kind of story you want to curl up next to a fireplace with on a snowy Christmas Eve.

Final Grade = A-

Monday, December 22, 2014

Drowning And Rebirth
Drowning by Jassy De Jong is a complicated book to write a review for.  A lot of this is probably going to come off sounding like "damning with faint praise."  However, as much as I had quibbles, I was also drawn into the story.  In other words, it got a reaction out of me.  Which, especially in the case of erotica, is always a good thing.  Technically a romance, it features some triggers that will probably not work for some readers, but they mostly worked for me.  And given my current case of reading malaise, that's saying something.

Erin Mitchell is a New York City photographer currently in South Africa with her husband, Vince.  Vince, also a photographer, has brought her to the country on assignment, and despite somewhat still being newlyweds, they've had a fight.  A pretty big fight.  While he's in the Land Rover, she's following behind with a driver in a teeny Toyota Yaris.  Then a raging storm kicks up, Vince pulls a way, and a bridge washes out underneath the Toyota.  Erin almost dies, but is rescued and revived by Nicholas de Lanoy, a wealthy man who lives nearby.  Her husband on the other side of the river, with no way to join him, Erin finds herself stranded on Nicholas' estate until the bridge can be rebuilt.

The first trigger warning for readers is that, while technically a romance, Erin does commit adultery.  Yes, she is married.  Yes, she has sex with Nicholas.  Erin is struggling, emotionally, physically and psychologically - and there is handsome Nicholas, her rescuer, the man who saves her from death, sending heated glances and sexual signals that could light up Times Square.

It's evident early on that Vince is an abusive a-hole.  De Jong also writes suspense novels under the name Jassy MacKenzie, and this background is put to good use in Vince's character.  He hasn't beaten Erin bloody (yet), but you can see it unfolding - the barbs, the mind games, the violent fits of temper, the isolating her from her family and friends, the totally irrational jealousy.  Things are so bad, Erin is so mindful of not setting Vince off, that she downplays her ordeal.  She doesn't tell Vince she almost died (and the reasons for that are mind-blowing).  It made the hair on the back of my neck stand up and do the rumba. 

For those following along at home:

Trigger Warning #1 = Adultery
Trigger Warning #2 = Abusive husband

Eventually the author has to set things right for Erin, which she does.  For a long while I would have classified this story as "erotic women's fiction," and I think it works best on that level.  It practically screams "book club read," if you're lucky enough to have an adventurous book club.  The sex here is what I call Hot Vanilla.  I read my fair share of erotica and erotic romance and honestly?  It's nice to read a story every once in a while that isn't loaded down by the kinky and bizarre.  Yes, I'm well aware that kinky and bizarre is in the eye of the beholder - but the sex between Nicholas and Erin is blessedly pretty straight forward.  It's something I would have no problem recommending to a reader who isn't 1) familiar with erotica and/or 2) isn't always entirely comfortable with it.

The ending lands us smack dab into romance territory as Erin does get her happy ending.  I'm slightly torn over it, mostly because I don't think heroines like Erin should jump right into a "happy ending."  They should be jumping right into therapy and "finding themselves."  But the author wisely employs an epilogue (one year into the future) and it's a case where the book really needed that epilogue.  I suspect some readers will be disappointed that our villain isn't dispatched with in a bloodthirsty manner - but the author sticks to a more (sadly) true to life ending in that regard.

Drowning is the story of a woman finding herself and the man who hands her the road map to do it.  It's certainly not a book for everyone, and is not always easy to read, but it is thought-provoking and compelling.  I'm, admittedly, always a little leery of authors who jump into erotica after establishing themselves in other genres - but De Jong has written a fundamentally sound erotic piece of women's fiction while staying true to the number one rule.  That is, it's all about the character's journey.  In this case - Erin's.  Erin who finds herself by almost dying.

Final Grade = B

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Sign Up Now: 2015 TBR Challenge

The TBR Challenge has been kicking around Romancelandia, in one guise or another, for a number of years.  I took over hosting duties in 2011 and have decided that, once again, I'll bring the challenge back for 2015.

What is the TBR Challenge? Simply put, it's where readers pick up a long neglected book from their TBR pile, read it, and comment on that read on the 3rd Wednesday of every month. The idea is to read those long neglected books that you just had to get your hands on at the time, but have been languishing in your pile, all lost and forgotten.

Commentary on your chosen TBR read can happen anywhere online (your blog, Facebook, GoodReads, Twitter, a message board etc.) just provide me with a link when you sign-up so interested readers can follow all the challengers!

Why do I make you do "homework?"  Honestly?  Because it's fun.  Over the years many people have commented how much they enjoy following along with the TBR Challenge participants to discover "long lost gems" and maybe get a different perspective on a book they read years ago.  Plus is the one day every month where you are guaranteed to get some good book chatter.

This is a voluntary challenge and I want it to be fun.  Which means if you skip a month (or, uh, several), I'm not going to publicly shame you.  Hey, life happens.  Even to the best of us.  Also, I am keeping up with the tradition of providing monthly themes.  Some participants like that added focus.  Some prefer to go "off theme" and read wherever their mood takes them.  And both are perfectly and totally acceptable!  The goal of this challenge is to read neglected books out of your TBR, whatever they may be.

Monthly Commentary Dates + Suggest Themes

January 21 - We Love Short Shorts! (Category romance, novellas, short stories)

February 18 - Recommended Read (A book recommended to you by another reader/blogger etc.)

March 18 - Series Catch-Up (A book in a series you are behind on)

April 15 - Contemporary

May 20 - Kickin' It Old School (Copyright date is 10 years or older)

June 17 - More Than One (An author who has more than one book in your TBR pile)

July 15 - Lovely RITA (past RWA RITA winner and/or nominees)

August 19 - Impulse Read (The book you bought because of the cover or The book you bought on impulse or The book you cannot remember why you bought in the first place!)

September 16 - Historical

October 21 - Paranormal or romantic suspense

November 18 - It's All About The Hype (a book or author that got everybody talking)

December 16 - Holiday Themes (Christmas, Valentine's Day, any holiday!)

If you would like to sign-up for next year's challenge - please leave a comment on this post, and include a link to where you will be posting your commentary.  Or feel free to e-mail me the information.  I will then post the links to all the participants on the 2015 TBR Challenge Information Page so people can follow along (and discover new blogs!)

I take sign-ups for the challenge year round - so if you don't get on board in January, it's not too late. I hope to see plenty of veterans back and a hearty round of newcomers!  All aboard!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Reloading The Canon: A Look At Erotic Romance

The idea of a romance genre "canon" has been discussed and debated before, even by yours truly (now the most popular post ever to exist on this blog).  Canon is not always a word I'm entirely comfortable with, mostly because all genres ebb and flow over time.  For me, genre fiction (all genres, not just romance) are a reflection of their times.  Therefore, when looking back on important books in genre history, it often requires readers to put on those rose-colored glasses.  To view the work through the lens of history.  Not all books "stand the test of time" - nor should they be required to.

I got the idea for this post from Victoria Dahl and some kerfuffles that have erupted over the past few days.  Victoria pointed out an influential erotic romance book, now ten years old on Twitter.  I agreed with her, and stated that it's a book I point anyone to who is interested in erotic romance "history."

Which leads us to this post.  Wendy's Top 10 "Canonical" Works In Erotic Romance.  First, the caveats:
1) I'm going to be focusing heavily on the past 20 years or so.  There are countless works (from the bodice ripper era specifically) that I'll leave off.  Mostly because I'm not an expert in this era of romance and don't want to talk out of my backside.

2) I'm going to focus heavily on the "romance" word.  There are countless authors who will not make the cut because their work is more "erotica" than "romance" (Zane would be a prime example.  She's hugely important when we're talking erotica written for a female readership, but I have a hard time classifying her as romance.  Feel free to disagree with me in the comments).

3) I'll name specific titles when I can, but that's really hard for some authors.  In which case, I'll just be naming names.
In no particular order....

1) Skye O'Malley by Bertrice Small (1980). You can make a serious case for Small's The Kadin, but I'm going with that erstwhile Skye O'Malley, the heroine who launched six books and a thousand erotic ships.  Literally.  O'Malley is captain of her own ship, caught in the intrigue of Queen Elizabeth I's court.  Bodices rip, the language is lush and purple.  Love her, hate her, it doesn't really matter.  Small is one of the grand dames of not only erotic romance, but the romance genre as a whole.  If erotic romance were an envelope, Small would be the stamp.

2) Thea Devine.  I can't pick one book by Devine, it's just not possible.  Her writing style is....different.  Her plots are pure Soap Opera Bodice Rippin' WTFBBQ Sauce.  And gods help me, I love her for it.  I love her for it because Devine allowed her heroines to be just as morally ambiguous, just as duplicitous, as her Alphahole heroes in an era when we were overrun with Sweet As Pie, Butter Doesn't Melt In Her Mouth Virgins.  OK, I'll pick a book by Devine.  Desired.  Because it's trashy and southern and gleefully over the top.

3) Susan Johnson.  Again, nearly impossible to pick one title.  Most fans point to her Braddock series (book one is Blaze) and that seems a solid place to start as any.  Queen of the Footnote, Johnson was known for (especially in her earlier works) to really delve into her research.  Then she tossed in plenty of Old School Shenanigans and naughty Sexy Times.  She also published with Playboy Press early in her career, meaning that Johnson found a way to get her work out there, even before the "erotic romance" label was a "thing."

4) The Lady's Tutor by Robin Schone (1999). Or How A Married Victorian Mother Of Two Finds Her Groove Thang.  We see a lot of virginal ingenues in the genre, but Schone delivered a heroine who was older, married, with two kids, who goes looking for something more outside of her passionless marriage to a cold and indifferent husband.  To this day, we still don't see a ton of that in the genre.  Schone really kicked open the door for older heroines.

5) Menage by Emma Holly.  I'm going with Menage because, well, it's about a menage.  It's also the book most readers point to when discussing Holly's work as a whole.  Menage romances are a dime a dozen these days, but Holly did it 1998 and addressed how such relationships can get very complicated, very quickly.

6) Portia Da Costa.  It's just too hard to pick one book by Da Costa, but I'm including her on this list for one very important reason.  She writes "fun."  She's one of the few erotic romance writers out there who hasn't forgotten that sex is supposed to be fun.  There is a playfulness to her work that can sometimes get overlooked in a sub genre that can wallow a bit too much in angst.  In Too Deep is a good illustration of Da Costa's brand of playfulness.

7) Natural Law by Joey W. Hill.  A Domme heroine and a submissive hero.  An author who takes the time to really explore what a BDSM relationship means (trust baby, it's all about trust).  Published in 2004I had issues with this story when I read it not too long ago, but seriously?  Shockingly, breathtakingly ahead of it's time, published ten years ago.  Mores the pity that we continue to see tired retreads in BDSM storylines (clueless heroine = sub ; Alphahole hero = thinks he's Dom but he's really just an Alphahole).  Hill showed us another way 10 years ago - why didn't we listen?

8) Passion by Lisa Valdez (2005).  I'm probably going to get flack for this one, and Lord knows I wasn't personally wild about this book, but I'm including it because everyone lost their damn minds over it.  Why?  To this day I think it's because it looked and was packaged (mass market as opposed to trade paperback or digital) as a "historical romance."  But once you got inside those pages?  Good Lord above!  Turns out a lot of readers didn't like that surprise.  Others were all on board, and blessedly overjoyed they weren't paying trade paperback prices for a change to get their naughty fix.  Turns out, yes - marketing is important.

9)  The Breed series by Lora Leigh.  Go ahead, argue with me that it should be the Men of August series.  I'm not going to tell you you're wrong.  However I'm going with the Breeds for sheer volume and crossover appeal.  Certainly there were other Ellora's Cave writers who parlayed their success into contracts with "traditional" NY publishers (Jaid Black, Angela Knight to name two off the top of my head), but Leigh took her Breeds and turned them into a NYTimes Bestselling, 30-volume juggernaut (includes short stories and March 2015 release).  She also played a hand in the popularity of shifters in paranormal romance.  Hence, she's on the list.

10)  Fifty Shades trilogy by EL James.  I'm including it for two reasons and two reasons only - the first being that it captured word of mouth frenzy outside the confines of the genre.  The second being that it revived the idea that you could follow the same characters over the course of several books and still call it a romance.  Others had done it before (Bertrice Small, Rosemary Rogers), but it had been out of vogue for a number of years.  For good or ill, James helped bring that back.  But really, what I really want to say is Yada yada yada, Fifty Shades, yada yada yada

Erotic romance existed prior to us knowing what to call it, but the first big wave really launched in the late 1990s with Kensington Brava and the birth of Ellora's Cave in 2000.  Readers have always had a desire (ha!) for erotic work, but those two events really galvanized with strategic marketing.  Prior to that readers floundered around and magically found erotic content through trial, error, dumb-luck and that ever elusive word of mouth.  Once the marketing was in place?  It got easier to identify "those books" - then it was just on the reader to flounder around some more and discover the writers who struck a chord with them.

So, what books and authors did I miss?  Make your case in the comments section!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

TBR Challenge 2014: A Sunday Kind Of Love
The Book: Mistletoe Marriage by Jessica Hart

The Particulars: Contemporary romance, Harlequin Romance, 2005, Out of print, Available digitally

Why Was It In Wendy's TBR?: It's 1) a Christmas book and 2) by Jessica Hart.  Of course it's in my TBR pile.

The Review: The romance genre, at this moment, is on a High-Angst Alert.  Heroes who are either Billionaire Alphaholes With Mommy Issues And Red Rooms of Pain or Emo Dudebros.  So it's easy to forget that sometimes romance novels can be nice.  About nice, normal people who find themselves in, sometimes, extraordinary circumstances.  Given my own current state of reading emo, I was past due for a Jessica Hart romance and lucky me, she published Mistletoe Marriage in 2005 (fitting nicely into this month's Holiday theme).

Sophie Beckwith thought she had met The One.  Nick is the stuff of fairy tales.  Exciting, passionate, she falls hook, line and sinker.  And then he meets her sister, Melissa.  Melissa who is amazingly beautiful and the sort of fragile creature that seems to kick up men's protective instincts.  Sophie sees the writing on the wall even as her heart is breaking.  She cuts Nick loose, he pursues her sister, and naturally Nick and Melissa get hitched.  Sophie is slow to get over the passionate connection she had with Nick and now that the happy couple has settled back in her hometown?  She only visits her parents when Nick and Melissa aren't around.  But now her mother has poured on the emotional guilt.  You will come home for your father's birthday.  You will be home for Christmas.  What Mom does not know?  That Nick once dated Sophie (their relationship was still new when he met her sister, hence he never met the parents as Sophie's beau).  Mom just thinks, "Oh Sophie broke up with that boy she was seeing who also happened to be named Nick."  I mean, Nick is a pretty common name.

Anyway, Sophie is reeling and goes to her BFF since childhood, Bram.  Once upon a time (10 years ago), Bram and Melissa were engaged.  He now owns the family farm, making a go of it, and still reeling a bit from his mother's sudden death.  He's alone on the farm and knows he needs help.  He also cares for Sophie.  They're not getting any younger, they are fond of each other, why don't they get married?  Sophie is, naturally, reluctant to agree.  She doesn't want to ruin Bram's chances of finding The One.  She cares too much for him to marry him simply out of friendship.  But before you know it?  Stuff happens and Bram and Sophie are officially engaged with Mom gunning for a Christmas wedding.  All while Sophie has to navigate the waters of seeing Nick and Melissa again, drunk in love.  Blergh.

Sophie is a heroine without an anchor.  Her life in London is falling apart (she realizes the city isn't for her plus her employer is downsizing) and she wants to come back home to the country.  But Nick is in the country and Sophie cannot see spending her days as the lonely spinster pining for a man she cannot have.  She knows she can make a great farmer's wife, and she wants that life - but with Bram?  How is that fair to him?  Of course what neither of them realize is how much they really care for each other.  Yes, they are friends.  But the love is there as well - they just need to recognize it. 

This is a "quiet romance."  Yes, there's a bit of jealousy flying around and yes the angst quotient concerning Nick ramps things up a bit.  But Bram and Sophie together feels right from the first page to the last.  These two go together like peanut butter and jelly or Bogey and Bacall.  It's a classic friends-to-lovers set-up that hits all the right notes.

What is great here is that the author somehow manages to not make Melissa completely despicable.  She's clueless and careless, but not evil.  Nick is, well more of an ass.  It's easy to see how Sophie fell for him as he's charming and exciting on the surface.  Also, their affair didn't last very long before he locked eyes on Melissa.  Had the relationship run a natural course?  She probably would have kicked him to the curb.  Melissa, however, has not.  He's a raging egotist, but Melissa is a different bird from Sophie.  Maybe those kids can make it work?  I was kind of hoping Nick would end up getting the snot kicked out of him by the end - but alas.  Not to be.

On Wendy's Jessica Hart Scale - this isn't my favorite by her so far, but it's good.  It's pushes all my romance trope buttons in just the right way (I adore friends-to-lovers stories! Squee!).  These are nice people who quietly come to realize that they love each other more deeply than mere friendship.  I inhaled it in one day, which at this moment in time seems like my very own Christmas miracle.

Final Grade = B+

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Digital Review: Christmas at Seashell Cottage

Christmas at Seashell Cottage by Donna Alward is a long novella that sits in the middle of the small town Jewell Cove Maine series.  It features likable characters, plenty of Christmas flavor, and the requisite small town atmosphere.  That said, I'm about to critique a story where I felt like a novella was too long. Yep, you read that right.

Charlie Yang is an only child of brilliant parents who has always carried the yoke of responsibility.  Charlie is so responsible it hurts.  So yes, she goes to medical school.  But in a tiny show of rebellion she decides to practice medicine in a small town in Maine.  Hardly the lofty ambitions her parents had for her.  Being a newcomer in a close-knit community isn't easy and Charlie is having a hard time meeting people outside of her exam room.  So she volunteers to decorate the town church for the holidays.  Which is how she meets Dave Ricker, a dreamboat who works on the docks.  Charlie has been watching him afar for months and now here's her dream man in the flesh!  Watching her wrestling with a Nativity scene and talking to herself.  Nice.

What follows is the dance.  Dave is an ex-SEAL (because, of course he is), new to town and has been having trouble meeting people just as Charlie has.  Then one night, after leaving a holiday gathering, they find a real, live baby boy has taken baby Jesus' place in the church's Nativity scene.

This story clocks in at just under 200 pages.  Honestly?  It could have been half that and I think this story would have been better served.  There's just not a lot of oomph to the conflict.  This is actually my beef with 90% of small town contemporaries.  Not enough conflict.  And it shows here.  The abandoned baby almost feels like an afterthought, and the social work is handled on the same level as it tends to be in most romance novels (in other words, it strained for me).  No, most of the story is about Dave and Charlie making googly-eyes at each other and spending time together.  No fire, no angst, it's pretty vanilla.

But then something funny happens.  The author flips the ol' Alward-Angst Switch.  Finally, at that moment when Charlie realizes she has real feelings for Dave and Dave is too scared and unsure to return those feelings openly we get The Scene.  The Heartbreaking, Angsty, Emotional, Gut-Punching Scene.  That's the Donna Alward I know and love.  That scene saves the book for me.  It takes it from a Ho-Hum, I'm Kinda Bored Here story to an OMG Where Were You For The Previous 130-Some Pages story.

So where does this leave me?  Well it leaves me not knowing what grade to assign this book.  C is too low.  B- feels a little too high.  So we'll split the difference.  It's a perfectly serviceable holiday read with a knife-twisting moment.  I just wanted more knife.

Final Grade = C+