Friday, January 30, 2015

::Tap, Tap, Tap:: Is This Thing On?

Oh!  Hi there wee lil' blog!  Long time no see.  What have I been doing with myself other than not blogging?  Oh, and not reading?  Because I have not been reading.  Much.  Small snatches here and there.  Sigh.

I get like this every once in a while where it's not the book's fault.  I've got oodles of what I know will be great books waiting for me.  I just can't be bothered to, you know, read.  Usually what ends up happening is I force myself to sit down, read something, and it knocks my socks off thereby reminding me that "Oh, hey! Reading is cool!"  In the meantime what is going on around here besides the normal work + home merry-go-round?

Justified is back on TV for it's final season.  Let's bask in the glow of that for just a moment.


While everybody else in my small corner of Romancelandia seems either obsessed with Outlander or Downton Abbey I'm obsessed with.....a cowboy.  A US Marshal who tends to shoot first and ask questions later.  How typical Wendy.  How typical.

Besides Justified, work, and not reading there is also.....yoga.  I joined a yoga studio back in October and except for a recent two-week stretch where I had the Head Cold From Hell, I've been going three times a week.  So how is yoga going?


You would think after four months I would be, you know, getting better at it.  Instead?  I'm the chick in class you gets the "participation ribbon."  Yes, I'm that bad.  I have a yoga instructor on Thursday nights who, despite probably being the Marquis De Sade in a former life, will occasionally offer me encouragement when I don't fall flat on  my face.  When he says, "Good job Wendy!" or "You've got it Wendy!"  I imagine him thinking, "Oh Wendy has come to my class again.  She sure does try hard, poor thing."

I mean, really - shouldn't exercise, after a while, get easier?  Yoga is a cruel mistress.  She literally kicks my butt back to last Tuesday.  But I do sleep great afterward.  Which would be why My Man twisted my arm to take it up (he's actually the one who found the studio for me).  I was sleeping....not so good.  After last night's torture session with the Marquis De Sade of yoga instructors?


Like a baby.  You know, if you spiked the baby's bottle with bourbon and Xanax.  In the meantime I'm going to try to not think about the woman in class who was bigger than I am and was able to do head stands.  I am literally, good at nothing.

So what's going on with everybody?  Any torturous exercise stories to make me feel better about my complete and total lack of grace?  Read any good books lately?

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

TBR Challenge 2015: Dishing It Out

The Book: Dishing It Out by Molly O'Keefe

The Particulars: Contemporary romance, Harlequin Flipside #37, 2005, Book two in duet/series, Out of print, Available digitally

Why Was It In Wendy's TBR?: I glommed O'Keefe's entire backlist after discovering her through her SuperRomances, which means yes - I picked up the two Harlequin Duets and two Flipsides she wrote even though I was never a huge fan of either lines.

The Review: O'Keefe definitely has a "style" and for those of us who love her books we know it's 1) Characters half a step away from rock bottom and 2) Angst-O-Rama-Jama.  And yet this is the same author who started her publishing career with Duets and Flipside.  A couple of speed bumps in a long line of doomed "romantic comedy" lines for Harlequin.  God bless Harlequin, I love them to death - but lighter rom/com lines have historically not gone well for them.

Marie Simmons is working her butt off trying to create some stability for herself.  After a nomadic early adulthood, she has settled in San Francisco and opened up a small cafe/bakery.  She's broke.  She's burning the candle at both ends.  But she's got style, a good "look," and she's been doing cooking segments for a local TV morning show.  Now they want to take the show weekly, but on one condition.  Giovanni "Van" MacAllister is to be her new cohost.  Her nemesis.  The guy who outbid her for the restaurant space she wanted across the street.  The guy who called her cafe a "cute little coffee shop" during one of his recent interviews.  And now the asshat thinks he can horn in on her gig and ride her coat-tails.  No thank you Mr. Man.

What follows is, of course, these two becoming cohosts.  Van isn't exactly Mr. Smooth and he "gets" why Marie isn't exactly his biggest fan.  But perception is everything, and Van needs this gig.  He's hoping the TV spot will help get his restaurant off the ground.  Marie may think he's Mr. Big Shot, but whoa baby - he's anything but.  So the two start working together only to realize that their sexual chemistry may just muck it all up.  Neither one is anxious to mix business with pleasure.

While this was a super quick read, I could tell that it was early on in author's career.  It's the sort of book that picked up steam as it went along.  It opens a little slow, and we don't even get Van's point of view until around page 60 or so.  Up until then it's all Marie, prickly as a wet cat, putting him through his paces.  For a while I was dreading a set-up of these two constantly trying to "one up" each other, and braced myself for various mean-spirited shenanigans - but blessedly the author does not travel that route.  Marie has stipulations, which Van accepts, and the rest of the book is spent with them figuring out how to coexist together - in business, and in pleasure.

This is a "romantic comedy" in the sense that it feels like a rom/com visually speaking.  It's easy to see this translating to the big, or small, screen.  But thankfully it's not "comedy," as in the Funny Ha Ha variety.  Readers are spared slapstick, forced attempts at humor, and other brain-bleed inducing endeavors that very rarely translate well on the page.  It's a rom/com in tone, light and breezy, carrying you along.  It's a textbook example of what I call a Chocolate Chip Cookie Read.  It's tasty and fun while you're consuming it, but three minutes later it's like you never ate anything at all and you're back scrounging in the cupboard even though you told yourself, "Only one cookie....."

Where things get intriguing is towards the end, when the O'Keefe we know "today" starts to creep in.  Things are really, really light until the author needs to get to the "black moment" to spur her characters towards our happy ending.  This is when Marie's past baggage creeps in (major trust issues), which will likely annoy some readers, but worked for me considering how badly she had been spurned in the past.

This was interesting.  It's not a perfect read.  I felt the character development was a little light in the pants mostly because the author never quite dives deeply enough below the surface of her characters. It also took a few chapters for the story to really pick up any sort of steam (as a general rule, category romances really need to hit the ground running).  But it's a pleasant read, and reading it as an intellectual exercise on Author Development + History, it's really intriguing.  Had I read this back when it was published, prior to O'Keefe making the jump to SuperRomance - I'm not sure I would have "seen" her taking that path.  But in hindsight?  It makes a lot of sense.  Especially when looking at the character baggage she concocts for this story.  Certainly she doesn't delve into it too deeply (hey, Flipside!), but you can see she very easily could have.  And that's the stuff that SuperRomances are made of.

This was a perfect example of an "OK" read for me until the second half, when the angst really began to go from simmer to boil.  I'm not sure I would recommend readers drop their lives and read this right now, but if you're already an O'Keefe fan?  I think this is well worth a look.

Final Grade = B-

Friday, January 16, 2015

Reminder: TBR Challenge for January

For those of you participating in the 2015 TBR Challenge, this is a reminder that your commentary is "due" on Wednesday, January 21.  This month's theme is We Love Short Shorts! (category romance, novellas, short stories).  This is the traditional January theme, as I think easing into the yearly challenge with a "short read" is a good way to find your groove.  Plus, uh - I might personally be addicted to category romance and novellas.  However, remember - the themes are totally optional and are not required.  Maybe you think reading something less than 350 pages is an utter waste of time.  It's not important what you read, just that you pull something (anything!) out of the TBR pile.

This is the first month of the challenge and it's not too late to sign up!  For more information, or just to follow along with all the participants - check out the 2015 TBR Challenge Information Page.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Hot And Cold Running Books

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0373743122/themisaofsupe-20
I've read several books now by Susan Meier and I don't think she's yet to land out of the my "OK" territory.  So why then have I continued to keep reading her?  Because the stuff she does well, she does very, very well.  Case in point, The Twelve Dates of Christmas, which has a candy-coated shell hiding an OMG Angst Ahoy! dark chocolate center.  Parts of this story ripped my heart out, threw it on the carpet, and danced a rumba on it - and I mean that in the best possible way.  And then there was the other stuff.  The other staff that had me wanting to reach through my Kindle screen and throttle imaginary characters.  More on that in a bit.

Eloise Vaughn may have come from a wealthy family, but our girl needs a job.  She's fresh out of college, working crappy temp jobs, and has just lost one of her roommates to marriage....in New York City.  Is it any wonder she's stuffing crackers in her purse at a cocktail party so she has lunch for tomorrow?  On top of that, the holiday season is in full swing and Eloise is alone.  Her wealthy family disowned her when she married a completely unsuitable man.  She nursed him through a bout of pancreatic cancer, which inevitably took his life.  She's young, she's a widow, she's underemployed, and stealing crackers.  And then she literally runs into Ricky Langley, who crushes the crackers.

Ricky is an entrepreneur who is tired of being pitied.  It's been just over a year since his infant son died and he wants to reassure his friends, colleagues etc. that he's "fine," even though nothing will ever be "fine" again.  And that means making the holiday party rounds, of which Ricky has many invitations for.  He wants to avoid attempts at matchmaking, of which he's already had some run-ins.  When he meets Eloise near the buffet table?  It's fate.  She's attractive, personable, a snappy dresser - just the kind of gal his friends would be happy to see on his arm.  So they enter into an agreement.  He gets her protection to get through the holiday party whirl and she'll get his help in securing a more permanent job with a decent salary.

One thing I've discovered about Meier, as an author, is that she's a big fan of The Fairy Tale.  This one has Rescue Fantasy written all over it, but the author side-steps some of the more obvious pitfalls.  It's the kind of story that was literally made to be a Hallmark Channel holiday movie.  Eloise used to have access to family money, which means she has nice clothes with designer labels.  Clothes now several years "out of fashion," which in Ricky's social circle would stick out like a sore thumb.  So she "remakes" her clothes - altering them into her own designs.  Being Ricky's "fake date" is basically networking for her, until of course she starts falling for the man.

Another writing tic I've run across is that Meier's books have a bit of an "old-fashioned" feel to them.  Sort of like those category romances you read when you were a teen.  That comes into play here, mostly because of the wealthy circles the characters are traveling in.  Sometimes you just stumble across something odd.  Like when Ricky muses about buying Eloise a thank-you gift and thinks maybe jewelry or.....a fur.  Now do people still wear and buy furs?  Certainly.  But a young women in her 20s?  It's little things like that.  In another Meier read the wealthy family (including hero) referred to their hired cook simply as "Cook." 

Where this book really worked for me is with Eloise and her struggle over her feelings for Ricky.  It's heartbreaking.  Ricky is very tight-lipped about his past, under the guise that he doesn't want Eloise to look at him "differently" (as in, with pity).  So he keeps her totally in the dark even after she hears passing bits of conversation among his social circle.  She asks him.  He declines.  And in more will power than I would have, she doesn't snoop.  She figures, he'll tell her when he tells her - if he tells her.  She may care for him, but he obviously does not feel the same way about her.
But he didn't want her to know him, and he certainly didn't want to know her.  He'd listened to her story with bare minimum curiosity, and when she was done talking he hadn't consoled her.  Leaving her empty.  Feeling like no one.  Nothing.  Who'd have thought going out with someone could make her so lonely?
Which brings us to Ricky, who I felt was an ass for 95% of this book.  Yes, you lost your son.  Yes, that sucks.  But this guy is an inconsiderate douche.  Even though she respects his privacy, when a mutual friend mentions Eloise's past (at a bare minimum) - Ricky snoops.  Finds out she was married.  Gets all butt-hurt and confronts her about "being married."  And then she tells her story about her husband dying, her family disowning her, yada yada yada.  And even after all that, after Eloise bares her damn soul to him - he remains tight-lipped.  He comes off completely selfish and hypocritical. This, of course, does bring on some good stuff because Eloise eventually does get angry with him.  There are arguments.  And she's right!  It was good to read her smack him down.

The ending also leaves us on several problematic notes.  Ricky doesn't realize what a douche he is until a third party has to tell him.  Also the portrayal of his ex, the mother of his child, was completely Old School (party girl tramp yada yada yada) which especially galled since Ricky is held up as some fine example of fatherhood - when that means for him weekends and having the money to hire a nanny (dude, go sit at the back of the bus).  Also the resolution to Eloise's family estrangement was just - annoying.  Frankly I don't think this needed to be resolved - especially given the fact that over the course of the story Eloise makes peace with being estranged from her jerkface parents.  Couldn't we have just left it at that?

So, what are we left with?  A hot-and-cold running read.  A yo-yo read.  Just when I was ready to throw up my hands in frustration?  Meier would ramp up the angst, and break my heart all over again.  I was totally all over the place with this book.  Part of me wanted to pull out my hair, and part of me wanted to fall into a swoon.  How the heck do you "evaluate" that as a reading experience?  In my case, I'm taking the easy way out.

Final Grade = C

Monday, January 5, 2015

Looking Back: Wendy's Recap Of 2014 TBR Challenge

The TBR Challenge was recently called a "Romanceland institution," which tickled me no end.  It was originally started by Angela James (these days the Editorial Director at Carina Press) and was hosted for a number of years by Keishon, who has one of the best crime fiction blogs around.  As Keishon's interests and blogging evolved, I asked to take over hosting duties, which I did in 2011 (uh, I think). 

Per tradition, we have themes every month.  I tell participants that themes are "optional," but as the host, I try to adhere to them.  Which is usually more than easy to do since I have a TBR Pile that can be seen from space. 

Title links will take you to full reviews.

January - We Love Short Shorts! - Baring It All by Megan Frampton - Grade = B+
  • I've known Megan a long time, and this was my first read by her.  This short, sexy novella hit the spot and I loved Frampton's "voice."  Looking forward to reading more of her work.
February - Series Catch-Up - His Best Friend's Baby by Molly O'Keefe - Grade = B-
  • A compelling read by O'Keefe and OMG, great conflict.  Unfortunately said conflict tended to overshadow the romance.  But, still, I liked this quite a bit.
March - New-To-You Author - Natural Law by Joey W. Hill - Grade = B-
  • Ground-breaking erotic romance (says me), even though it wasn't the book I wanted it to be.  Still, given it's 2004 publication date, color me impressed.  It also made me sad that BDSM in erotic romance is so frickin' "one note."  Hill did some things differently here, back in 2004Moar different!!1!1!!! says Wendy.
April - Contemporary - How to Misbehave by Ruthie Knox - Grade = B+
  • A picture perfect novella.  A great romance that works with the word count.  And when was the last time you read a "meet cute" that involved a tornado?
May - More Than One - Badlands Bride by Cheryl St. John - Grade = B
  • Classic St. John, a very nice romance.  All the more compelling because the blurb, on paper, should have annoyed the daylights out of me.  But the author totally makes it work.
June - Classic - Halfway to Heaven by Susan Wiggs - Grade = B
  • A Pygmalion themed romance set against Gilded Age Washington D.C.  I really enjoyed this one a lot, notable since I normally stay away from political-themed fiction.
July - Lovely RITA - Always to Remember by Lorraine Heath - Grade = A
  • The best book I read this year, not just for the Challenge.  Just....perfect.  Wonderful.  Amazing.  It's available in a digital version, go read it now.  Seriously.  It's amazing.
August - Luscious Love Scenes - Soloplay by Miranda Baker - Grade = B
  • A romance about a repressed librarian who has never had The Big O.  Let me tell you how much this story should have annoyed me.  But it didn't!  I really liked it!  It was fun!  Oh  man, how I miss "fun" erotic romance.
September - Recommended Read - Baby Makes Three by Molly O'Keefe - Grade = B+
  • Huh, I read two Molly O'Keefe books for the challenge.  Anyway, this is the first in the trilogy about a reunited, now divorced couple.  It's a real heartbreaker.  It's not perfect, but man - it blew the mercury out of the top of the Angst Meter.
October - Paranormal or Romantic suspense - She Walks the Line by Roz Denny Fox - Grade = D
  • A Chinese heroine.  And that's the only thing memorable I can say about this story.  It's drowning in continuity series baggage and the hero's plot moppet twins were BEYOND pointless.  I should have DNF'ed this.
November - Historical - A Dream Defiant by Susanna Fraser - Grade = B
  • I DNF'ed my original pick for this month, time was short, so had to go with a novella.  This was a short novella, in that I wish it had been longer, but it was a compelling read and I loved Fraser's "voice."  Will definitely read more by her.
December - Holiday - Mistletoe Marriage by Jessica Hart - Grade = B+
  • Everything I love about a Jessica Hart category romance.  A great friends-to-lovers theme and a light touch by the author, even when angst does come into play.  Not my favorite by her, but definitely worth seeking out.
Sign-ups for the 2015 TBR Challenge are well underway!  You can learn more at the Information Page.  Please leave a comment on this post or over at the Information Page if you would like to participate.  It really is a lot of fun, and a good way to help cull down the piles of books.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Wendy's Best Reads Of 2014

Long time readers here at the Bat Cave will know that I tend to spread out my Year In Review over the course of multiple posts.  Over the years I have streamlined this process considerably and this year it's going to be (just) two posts.  This one (which will be a long 'un) and a final post recapping my 2014 TBR Challenge.  On with the show.....

I tracked a total of 119 books over at GoodReads this year.  Here's how my ratings broke down:

5 Stars (A Grades) = 8
4 Stars (B Grades + "high" B-) = 49
3 Stars (C Grades + "low" B-) = 41
2 Stars (D Grades) = 7
1 Stars (F Grades) = 1
0 Stars (Did Not Finish) = 13

Even if I subtract my DNFs, I still read over 100 books this year - and since 100 is always my goal every reading year, I'm pretty happy with that.  I also started tracking my audiobooks half way through the year (first time I started keeping track of these!) and of that 119, 13 were audios.  Per usual?  The bulk of my reading fell somewhere in the middle.  Once again shattering the myth that Wendy iz a Mean Girl.  Very few books get "A" grades, but conversely, very few books get "D" or "F" grades.

So what were my favorite reads of 2014?  Let's start with the A, or 5 Star, books.  Also, please note that not all of these books were 2014 publication dates.  I did dip into the TBR this year.

Title links will take you to full reviews.

The Best of the Best (A Grades):

Always to Remember by Lorraine Heath - Start to finish and damn near perfect, I loved this western historical so much I was tempted to take leave of my senses and give it an A+ rating (for the record, I don't believe in 'em).

The Man Behind the Mask by Barbara Wallace - Contemporary boss/secretary category romance featuring a legitimately haunted wounded hero.

Her Rancher Rescuer by Donna Alward - Contemporary category romance with a heroine, overlooked and dismissed by previous heroes in this series, finds her Prince Charming.  A Prince Charming who gets a serious wake-up call when she informs him she'll never be anybody's second best ever again.

Now and Forever by Logan Belle - Contemporary erotic romance, second (and last) in a duet featuring a 40-something heroine battling breast cancer and her sexual "wing man" - a hero who has been running from serious relationships his entire adult life.  Both novellas are now packaged in a 2-for-1 digital edition.  Buy it. Now.  Do eeeeet.

Intrusion by Charlotte Stein - Contemporary erotic romance featuring two characters touched and haunted by violence.  Smoldering, simmering passion that made me swoon.

There's Something About Ari by L.B. Gregg - Contemporary male/male romance novella featuring a friends-to-lovers theme and characters with a serious amount of past baggage to work through.  Sweet, tender, I feel in love from the first chapter.

A Cowboy for Christmas by Lacy Williams - Historical inspirational western featuring two characters haunted by fear and shame.  Wonderful scene setting and the author avoids the trap of "pitying" her characters.  Williams' best book yet.

Detroit: An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff - Non-fiction that is part true crime, part memoir written by a journalist during the period of the Kwame Kilpatrick scandal and the auto industry bail-out.  The author is an ass and the entire book is grim as hell, but I was sucked into this audiobook like whoa!  Recommended by work colleagues and I devoured it.

Honorable Mentions (B grades that "stuck with me")

Still Missing by Chevy Stevens - Pyschological suspense that seriously messed with my head and kept me thoroughly riveted during my commute (audio).  Dark, violent, but wow - what a ride.

The Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye - Historical mystery and again, another audio listen, about a former bartender who joins the newly formed New York City police department.  I don't think this would have worked nearly as well for me had I read it (a lot of period language and slang!), but the narrator (Stephen Boyer) was fantastic and I want to continue on with the series.

To Tempt a Viking by Michelle Willingham - Historical romance that is part two of a duet.  Divorced heroine falls for the hero, a man she's known since childhood and who isn't "good enough for her" according to their respective stations.  A real heartbreaker in parts, very emotional.

Secrets at Court by Blythe Gifford - An extremely well-done medieval featuring plenty of political intrigue, Vatican meddling and a romantic couple in the eye of the storm.  Probably one of the best done medievals I've read in a long while.

Crazy, Stupid Sex by Maisey Yates - Contemporary erotic romance featuring a geek heroine who doesn't take any crap from the playboy hero. Sexy and fun.

It Had To Be You by Delynn Royer - Prohibition era "girl reporter" gets caught up in the murder investigation of a dead mobster.  Hero is a cop who grew up in the old neighborhood with said dead mobster.  Fun mystery and romance, hope it turns into a series.

His Hometown Girl by Karen Rock - Contemporary category romance about a heroine who works for a farming conglomerate and goes back to her Vermont hometown to buy-out her various former neighbors.  Standing in her way is the hero, the boy she left behind who is now running his family's farm.  Great conflict and no easy villains.

Never Forget Me by Marguerite Kaye - Three linked short stories set during various years of World War I.  Loved the framework of the stories and found it a wonderfully emotional collection, finding hope even during the most darkest of hours.

Seduced by Molly O'Keefe - A gritty historical western set post-Civil War featuring a heroine married to the worst sort of man and a hero, turned bounty hunter, looking for his scattered family. If you've been waiting for someone to pick up Maggie Osborne's baton?  Yeah, this is it right here.

Tempted by a Cowboy by Sarah M. Anderson - Contemporary category romance featuring a recovering alcoholic heroine turned horse trainer and a playboy hero who is still drowning in the bottle.  Emotional, gritty, and oh-so-satisfying.

Looking back on 2014, frankly - I'm glad to see it go.  While some exciting things happened in my personal life (New Job! Our vacation in London!) on the blogging front it was, without a doubt, a year to forget.  It was the year where I seriously considered whether or not I should "keep on, keepin' on."  But looking back at my reading, I'm reminded again of the importance of ignoring the noise and focusing "on the work."  I was lucky enough to discover three of my "A" reads during the month of December, and boy howdy - it was just what the doctor ordered.  I discovered the joy again.  Here's hoping that joy carries over to 2015.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Digital Review: There's Something About Ari

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00PEVL766/themisaofsupe-20
Disclaimer: I'm friends with L.B. Gregg.  She's also been known to keep me in chardonnay at RWA conferences.  All of which has nothing do with the fact that I frickin' LOVED this novella.  You'll just have to take my word for it.  The free wine had nothing to do with it.

I am an unrepentant sucker for a friends-to-lovers romance.  So I was probably predisposed to liking There's Something About Ari by L.B. Gregg.  But then you mix in what I enjoy about her Gregg's writing in the first place (more on that in a bit) on top of friends-to-lovers and the undercurrent of angsty character baggage?  I was totally gone.  Over the moon.  I had my full swoon on.  Yes, I can see that this story isn't perfect.  Because it's not.  I had quibbles.  But frankly?  I didn't care.  The quibbles were pretty easy to ignore once I had my full-blown swoon on.

Buck Ellis had one mission in life: getting the hell out of Bluewater Bay, Washington.  And he was so close!  Full-ride college scholarship in hand.  Then his mom dies and it's just Buck and his kid brother, Charlie.  Dad passed away years earlier, which means the boys are now orphans and Buck is "technically" an adult at 18.  What other choice is there?  Buck doesn't leave, determined to raise Charlie, get him off to college, which means no full-ride scholarship and sticking around in Bluewater Bay to work as a crappy coffee barista.  On top of all this (because, you know, this isn't enough), his best friend, his only friend, Ari Valentine helps himself to Buck's saved money and skips town.  Runs away for good.  Ari.  Who Buck fell in love with when they met on the playground as kids.  As childhood turns to teen hormones, Buck realized he was fully in love (and lust) with Ari.  Complicated, nothing but trouble, Ari.  He watched while Ari "dated" (OK, banged) every other girl in high school and kept his crush to himself.
Back then, I'd died small deaths every time he looked at me, or talked to me, or slept on the floor of my bedroom, or borrowed a fucking pen.  God.  He made me cold.  He made me hot.  Sweaty.  Sick.  Happy.  Sad.  Horny.  Ashamed.  The whole fucking enchilada.  Squared.  It hadn't made sense then, because I'd been so afraid, so terrified of making a fatal error and losing him forever.
Now Ari is back in town.  He's an actor and has landed a part on the new TV show, Wolf's Landing, which is filming on location in Bluewater Bay.  So Ari is back in his hometown, living right next door (literally) to Buck.  Complicating all the baggage, all the words left unspoken between them?  Yeah, Buck's still got it bad for Ari Valentine. 

This novella opens up with Ari and Buck meeting on the playground as kids and that opening scene had me half-gone before I even got to Chapter 2.  There's a sweetness, a charm, to those moments.  Watching two boys, both outsiders, find each other - which had nothing do with romance (because, hello?  Kids!) and everything to do with finding your first real friend.  That other person who just seems to "get" you.

What charms me the most about Gregg's work is her ability to weave tangible, believable, human interaction.  Her relationship building.  I genuinely like her characters - flaws and all.  These are the kind of people I would want to know in real life - warts and all.  And certainly there are warts.  Ari taking off like he did (although he had reasons), Buck who is emotionally stunted (again, reasons), and the various secondary characters.  As Ari and Buck navigate their way towards each other, they also must navigate their pasts, all that has been left unsaid and, in a bit I especially loved, the idea of a "real" relationship.  Buck's been busy trying to keep what family he has left together.  Which means his past "relationships" (and I use the term loosely) were self-destructive, furtive one-night-stands that mostly took place with out-of-town tourists in public restrooms (Real relationship experience?  Nil).  And now here's Ari....right next door.  Ari who he has all of the these complicated feelings for, which means yeah - not exactly quickie in the restroom material.  Plus, Ari broke his heart once.  Buck doesn't think he could survive round #2.

Even as I was swooning from the characters, the relationships, the baggage, the "fun" that is Gregg's writing style - I could see some cracks.  There's not a lot of scene setting here, this being the second entry in the Bluewater Bay, multi-author, continuity series.  On one hand it's great, because there's no annoying sequel-baiting "walk on" characters mucking up the already tight word count.  But on the other hand, while I was intrigued by Buck and Ari right away as characters, the back-story of the series was slower coming into focus.  Also, the ending is a bit rushed.  I've seen other reviews stating this and I'm not going to say those readers are wrong.  This is a novella and I loved these characters, their romance, their baggage, their relationship, so much that I easily, happily would have spent 300 pages with them.  It helps tremendously that Gregg employed the ol' friends-to-lovers trope here, as it's more believable that two people who already have a shared history together can declare true love for each other in 100 pages - but still?  It's rushed.  But damn, that ending is sweet all the same.  Genuinely, lovingly sweet.  I wanted to jump through my Kindle screen and hug every damn person in this story.

There's also a few dangling threads, mostly revolving around Buck's identity as a gay man.  I wouldn't necessarily say he's been living in the closet - I mean, his boss knows he's gay.  But when it comes to younger brother Charlie?  That's where I'm not sure.  I mean, Buck's no virgin - but again, it's been wham-bam one-night stands.  Buck doesn't "do" sleepovers for obvious reasons.  So it would have been interesting to read about Charlie finding out that Ari (who he follows around a bit like a puppy) and Buck were hooking up as a couple - and, you know, confirmation that Charlie is aware that his brother is gay.  Seeing more on that front would have been nice.

However, as it is, I still enjoyed this story immensely.  I inhaled it in fact.  It charmed the ever-lovin' snot out of me.  I just loved everything about these characters and it pushed every. single. one. (seriously) of Wendy's friends-to-lovers trope buttons.  No, it's not perfect.  But I loved it.  I wish I could reread it for the first time all over again.

Final Grade = A-

ETA: I labelled this as a "digital review," but it is also available in good ol' fashioned print!  My bad.