This month’s TBR prompt challenged us to read something different, so we stepped outside our usual genre comfort zones. Caz dove into a highly recommended science fiction romance, while Lynn took on a YA paranormal romance. One of us had a successful experiment, the other not so much.

To See the Sun by Kelly Jensen

The last few times the “Something Different” prompt has come up in the TBR Challenge, I’ve found myself picking up a Science Fiction romance.  I don’t know why I don’t read many of them – I like the genre in TV and film – and I’ve enjoyed the few I’ve read, so this prompt is always a good opportunity to read another one!  I chose Kelly Jensen’s To See the Sun for a couple of reasons; firstly, I really enjoyed her recent This Time Forever series, a trilogy of novels in which a group of men in their late forties finally find their happy ever afters and was keen to read something else of hers, and secondly, my fellow reviewer Maria Rose put the book in her Best of 2018 list, so that was a strong recommendation. Plus, it’s a variation on the mail-order-bride trope, and I haven’t read many of those, so that also worked for this particular prompt.

To See the Sun is set on the remote colony of Alkirak, a terraformed planet on which humans carve out their homes from the rock in the crevasses which provide shelter from the largely inhospitable surface. Ex-miner Abraham Bauer is stretched pretty thin keeping everything going on his small farm, but least he’s working for something that’s his rather than risking his neck day in, day out in the mines.  It’s also a lonely life, and Bram longs to find someone to share his life and maybe even build a family with, but that seems almost impossible.  Finding someone to have sex with isn’t difficult, but Bram wants more than that, he wants connection and affection, maybe even love – and that’s much harder to come by.  When he hears about companies that arrange things called companion contracts, he doesn’t hold out much hope – after all, there are millions of people just like him out there, and who on earth would want to come and spend their life on a remote outpost with an unstable atmosphere for what little Bram has to offer? – but he signs up anyway… and on logging on to the site one evening is captivated by the video of a beautiful young man whose shy, considered manner and obvious sweetness strike a chord deep within Bram that is more than simple lust.  He dares to hope that he might just have found what he’s been searching for.

Gael Sonnen ekes out an existence on Zhemozen, a beautiful planet at the opposite end of the galaxy that’s a paradise – if you’ve got money.  But Gael and the millions like him who are poor, live hand-to-mouth in the crowded, squalid undercity, a place with “dark streets, bitter air, and water that tasted like sweat.”  When he falls foul of a powerful criminal family, Gael’s only option is to run – and the farther away the better.  With no money, it seems his only option will be life as an indentured servant, until a friend suggests another possibility.  Good-looking as he is, Gael will have no trouble getting a companion contract somewhere far away from Zhemosen;  and a year’s contract as companion – or more – to a lonely farmer at the other end of the galaxy seems as good a way to escape as any.

Bram and Gael are decent, likeable characters, ordinary men who just want to make a quiet life with  someone with the same wants, needs and outlook.  Bram is in his late forties and used to being alone, which has probably made him a bit set in his ways;  while Gael is younger (twenty-nine) and has had a tough life, didn’t know either of his parents, and struggled to bring up his younger brother, who was neuroatypical and for whose death Gael blames himself.  He’s a good man and is determined that Bram won’t regret his decision to make the contract – although an unexpected event may have scuppered Gael’s chances before he can even get settled.

But he wants very much to help Bram and not to take advantage of his generosity. Gael is a natural caretaker, and I loved the small ways he starts to make a place for himself in Bram’s life, whether it’s cooking a meal, helping on the farm or just sitting quietly, listening to Bram talk or watching a video with him at the end of the day.  Their relationship is incredibly touching and really well developed as they learn about each other, work alongside one another and start to fall in love.

There are a few dramatic events along the way to keep things moving, (although the last act ‘black moment’ kind of comes out of nowhere and is resolved very quickly), but ultimately, this is a quiet, sweet story about things we can all identify with; wanting to make a personal connection with someone, or escape a hopeless situation, or make a family and being prepared to fight hard to keep it.

Ms. Jensen’s worldbuilding is superb.  She incorporates details about Alkirak and Zhemosen seamlessly into the narrative in such a way as to enable the reader to build clear pictures in the mind’s eye – of the dark, underground city on Zhemosen and of the austere, hostile surface of Alkirak, the acid mists, violent storms, and most of all, the dangerous but beautiful sun that so fascinates Gael and makes the clouds glow and colours the sky and the horizon.  The dangers of daily life in such a place are brilliantly contrasted with everyday things like eating a meal or watching TV, and the slow-burn romance between Bram and Gael is beautifully done.

To See the Sun may be set on a distant planet at some unspecified time in the future, but at its heart, it’s a story about two lonely people finding something in each other they’ve been missing and yearning for.  It’s sweet and gorgeously romantic and I enjoyed every bit of it.

~ Caz Owens

Grade: B+                            Sensuality: Warm

Buy it at: Amazon/Apple Books/Barnes & Noble/Kobo

Forbidden by Syrie James and Ryan M. James

When I saw the prompt for this month’s TBR Challenge, I was initially at a loss for what to read. While I tend to gravitate to some subgenres more than others, I read across quite a few romance subgenres, and cross over into other genres of fiction as well. After perusing Twitter for a bit, I realized that my YA reading has dropped off quite a bit over the years so I decided I’d choose that for my “something different.” I’d gotten a copy of Forbidden by Syrie James and Ryan M. James at RWA, so that 2012 release became my read for the month. I started off intrigued but it fairly soon segued into what might best be described as hate-reading.

The basic premise of this novel is that high school student Claire Brennan is half-angel and she is only now coming into her powers. Since Claire is unaware of her heritage, she doesn’t initially understand the goings-on around her. She is simply trying to fit in and find her way among her friends at Emerson Academy – and perhaps attract the eye of her crush, Neil. She also catches the attention of the hot new guy, Alec MacKenzie, whose smarts, talent and Scottish accent draw her in as well. And so another YA love triangle begins.

Anyone even remotely paying attention will soon figure out that a lot of what Alec tells fellow students doesn’t add up and that he isn’t remotely what he seems. Alec is in fact an angel – and part of his role is to deal with half-angels like Claire. This setup was at least somewhat interesting, and I initially found myself wanting to get into the story. Sure, the book starts off with info dumps and tons of narrative telling rather than a more reader-entrancing amount of showing.

If you’ve even just scratched the surface of YA paranormal romance in recent years, some of the goings-on in Forbidden will feel a little familiar. We have a hero who, in one scene, surprises the heroine by just being there waiting in her bedroom. And then there’s the scene where one of our possible heroes uses telekinetic powers to save Claire and her friends from serious injury and/or death. Sound like something you may have read before? In case you needed something less subtle to hammer the point home, Alec also uses his powers to control a car. This may not have been intentional, but I couldn’t help thinking of the Twilight saga as I read this book.

At first I wanted to see how coming into her powers might change Claire – and of course I wanted to see what kind of HEA might be in store for her. However, instead of Claire really growing as a character, I felt like she became a full-fledged Mary Sue heroine. She has beautiful hair and after two years of being in a less than popular crowd at school, she suddenly has the attention of two very desirable guys. Oh, and let’s not forget the singing. Claire develops a singing talent that seemingly materializes out of nowhere. It appears to be an angel thing. No one issues her a harp, but there is plenty of angelic singing, both with Neil and with Alec. For Claire to have a talent would have been just fine, but for Claire to suddenly become a hot angelic singer just felt like a bit much.

All of this was by turns dull and eyeroll-inducing for me as a reader, but when one of Claire’s friends slipped in “short-bus” as a slur to describe someone’s thinking, I got very turned off. This occurs roughly midway through the book, so I was already fairly bored with most of the characters. However, it was enough to shift my mood from vaguely irritated to downright annoyed.

If you seriously love YA paranormal, this book might remind you of some of your favorites. In mood and general plotline, it reminded me of several popular stories I’ve tried. However, the writing felt clunkier than what I’ve encountered in most novels I’ve read and I just can’t recommend this one.

~ Lynn Spencer

Grade: D                      Sensuality:  Kisses

Buy it at: Amazon/Apple Books/Barnes & Noble/Kobo

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