Harlequin has taken this element of the genre to heart and the last several years has sponsored the More Than Words program. Women who are making a difference in their community are nominated, winners are chosen, and they are awarded $10,000 for their chosen causes. As if that wasn't awesome-sauce enough - Harlequin then corrals some of their authors to write novellas inspired by these causes, and puts them out in an anthology. The latest edition, More Than Words Volume 7 features stories written by Carly Phillips, Donna Hill and Jill Shalvis.
Compassion Can't Wait by Carly Phillips
Julia Caldwell is a social worker at a children's hospital in Miami. Manny Cortez is a young patient with leukemia, and while his single mother has her hands full caring for him, his twin brother, Michael is lost in the shuffle. Julia knows what it's like to be the lost child in the wake of a sibling's illness, so she wants to do something great for Michael. He idolizes the star pitcher for the Miami Suns baseball team, Kyle Hansen. Julia decides to pull some strings so Michael can meet him - but the fly in the ointment? Julia and Kyle were high school sweethearts, and the relationship didn't come to a graceful conclusion.
What I enjoyed about this story is that both Julia and Michael, while still a bit hung-up on their romantic past, acknowledge that they both were at fault for the demise. I also liked that they both acknowledged that they changed and "grew up" after their split. What didn't always work so well for me was the writing style. A little too much "telling" over "showing" creeps in fairly frequently. But that aside? This was a solid read. Even when I wanted to nit-pick the baseball "stuff" to death. It's obvious that Phillips is at least a passing fan, because when I scoffed at the idea of an expansion team winning the World Series after only three years in existence, I used my mad librarian skills to look it up. Yeah, the Arizona Diamondbacks did it in their 4th season (first season = 1998, World Series = 2001). Carly = 1, Wendy = 0.
Grade = B-
Someplace Like Home by Donna Hill
Burnt out from her current job, social work Verna Scott decides to start her own youth residence facility. Her group home is proving to be a success, but the need for funding and volunteers means she's always beating the drum. It's while she's out promoting her program among high school guidance counselors that she meets Ronald Morris. He thinks her program sounds great, and hey, Verna ain't so bad herself. He starts putting on the full court press, but can Verna unload her baggage to give this budding attraction they share a fair shot?
This is a nice story with a realistic feel to it. Unfortunately, the pacing of it is a real issue. I liked that both Verna and Ronald behaved like "real people" and adult ones at that - but reading about them going on dates and getting to know each other is...well...kinda boring. The conflict in this story is non-existent until very, very late in the game. Which would be OK, except that conflict turns out to be some pretty heavy stuff. Frankly, I have a hard time believing anyone is this well-adjusted. Especially when one of the concerned parties is a teenager who hasn't had the easiest go at life thus far. But Hill can write, and I liked these people. I'm definitely open to reading more by this author.
Grade = C+
What the Heart Wants by Jill Shalvis
Reformed wild child, Ellie Cahn runs a non-profit program for troubled teenage girls. The idea is to bolster their self-esteem, teach them about self-worth and healthy relationships, steering them on a positive life path. A flat tire puts her back in the sights of Jack Buchanan. A former wild child himself, Jack is ex-military and runs his own string of self-defense/martial arts studios with one of his brothers. Jack and Ellie used to run together in high school, but they were "just friends." But now? Yeah, they're looking at each other in a whole different light.
This story was the highlight of the anthology for me. Shalvis includes a secondary character, one of Ellie's teenage students, that puts a nice focus on her work, and also helps to highlight Ellie's troubled past. A past she shared with Jack, who at the time, was her only real anchor. In turn, Jack has always felt protective of her, but still feels guilt over an incident that happened when they were kids, that almost ended very badly for Ellie. A nice mix of romance and compelling conflict that the author wraps up in a neat, tidy bow at the end. A lovely reunion story.
Grade = B+
The romance genre is a "feel-good" genre. Readers read it for a variety of reasons, but at the end of the day, we like romances because they leave us "feeling good." Never, ever discount the power of a positive ending. What I especially loved about this anthology is that not only do you get that "feel good" vibe from the stories? You get it from the remarkable women and the causes they run/support that inspired them. A lot of times I turn to anthologies when I'm in a reading slump, or Real Life is so hectic that a full-length novel is just too daunting to contemplate. More Than Words Volume 7 not only would succeed on that level, but I defy anyone to read these stories and not think "Wow!" when you learn about the truth behind the fiction.
Overall Grade = B