A new year is beginning and that brings a new TBR Challenge. As has been true for the last several years, the challenge is being hosted by Wendy the Super Librarian, and this month we’re tasked with reading something short – novellas, short stories, category romance, you name it. We both dove into our respective TBR mountains – and one of us came up with a winner.

Stay With Me Forever by Farrah Rochon

To kick off TBR Challenge this year, I decided to return to a category romance series I’ve enjoyed in the past. Stay With Me Forever is the sixth book is Farrah Rochon’s Bayou Dreams series, but it stands very well on its own. Characters from previous books make cameos, but the primary story is very self-contained. I am a sucker for second chance stories, and I adored Paxton and Sawyer.

Paxton Jones and Sawyer Robertson both grew up in Gauthier, Louisiana and both left to pursue career success elsewhere. Now well into their 30s, both are back in Gauthier working on a flood prevention project. Paxton walks into her temporary office as a project manager, and discovers that the civil engineer sent to her by the state is none other than Sawyer. Needless to say, it rocks her world – and not entirely happily at first. Paxton shared a passionate night with Sawyer three years before that left her with plenty of conflicting emotions she doesn’t want to deal with.

And it turns out that Sawyer has some conflicting emotions of his own as well. Ms. Rochon does a fantastic job of setting the stage of her story. I could feel both the professional and personal tensions between the leads right away. Paxton and Sawyer have a shared childhood and a history that brings them together in some ways, but the shadow of that past romantic encounter looms. In addition, we see pretty quickly that these two occupied very different places in the social hierarchy of the town. Sawyer has money, and he came from a prosperous family whose business employed many in the region. Paxton, on the other hand, grew up with a loving single mother and they often just barely scraped by. Her financial situation is more secure now, but it’s made very obvious that Paxton had to work and sacrifice quite a bit to get to where she is.

The romantic tension between Paxton and Sawyer jumps off the page, and it’s obvious from chapter 1 that these two have unfinished business. I loved watching their relationship develop because we could see the foundation laid by their shared history in Gauthier, but it was also clear how much each of the leads had changed and grown over time.

Throughout the story, we see Paxton revisiting old assumptions about her life(such as Sawyer’s opinion of her in high school) and reexamining them with Sawyer. Her openness to addressing the past and moving on gives her a great character arc and also draws the couple closer together emotionally. I’ve read more than a few category romances that mention baggage from the leads’ high school days, but few that use that effectively.

However, while Ms. Rochon uses some of Paxton and Sawyer’s old memories to great effect, there was one theme mentioned repeatedly throughout the story that just didn’t work quite as well. Paxton mentions several times that her mother faced rejection for having a child out of wedlock and that people looked down on the family for it. Yet this is never shown in the story. A good portion of the backstory focuses on Paxton’s mother opening her own bar and restaurant which she purchased with her daughter’s help, and we see the townspeople rallying around to support the business. The class difference between the leads growing up provided plenty of tension on its own and since the ostracism Paxton references doesn’t get shown, that part of the story didn’t work as well for me.

Lastly, it is worth mentioning that, as in all the books I’ve read in this series, the town of Gauthier stands out very much in this book. The town feels like a distinct place in Louisiana, and after reading this book, I could almost visualize the people and businesses there. The secondary characters don’t overwhelm the story, but they do give readers a sense of where Paxton and Sawyer come from and why this place would be beloved and important to them.

If you enjoy small town romance, I highly recommend that you check this series out. This novel, and all the books I’ve read in this series, feature strong, likable characters, and I love the feeling of community one finds in this series’ setting.

Grade:  B+                    Sensuality: Warm

~ Lynn Spencer

Buy it at: Amazon

The Mad Countess by Erica Monroe

I had to dig around a bit for something to fit the “We Love Short Shorts!” prompt this time around; I know I don’t have to follow the prompts in the TBR Challenge to the letter, but I was short of time this month anyway, so a quick read was just about all I had time for.  As it was, I probably spent more time searching through the hundreds of books on my Kindle than I did actually reading!  In the end, I found a novella I’ve had sitting around for a while by an author whose books I’ve enjoyed in the past; The Mad Countess by Erica Monroe, which is billed as an edgy, atmospheric Gothic Regency Romance that’s not for the faint of heart.  Sadly, however, it was about as edgy as a bowl of cold rice pudding, and seemed to be suffering from an identity crisis.

The romance is a friends-to-lovers affair, the two protagonists being childhood friends who have long been in love with one another but are afraid to speak up for fear of losing their friendship.  And in the case of the heroine, Lady Claire Deering, there’s another, far darker reason for her reticence.  Her aunt and her mother both died mad as the result of being cursed, and she is terrified that she will end up being committed to an asylum as her mother was.  She loves Teddy – Theodore, Earl of Ashbrooke – far too much to want to saddle him with a potential madwoman for a wife and has therefore determined never to reveal the truth of her feelings for him.

Teddy had been training to be a barrister before his older brother died and left him the earldom.  He’s a sweet beta-hero who loves Claire desperately; he knows of her fears but is determined to prove to her that they are unfounded and is, at last, ready to tell her how he feels.

Claire has arrived at Castle Keyvnor in Cornwall in order to attend the reading of the will of her late uncle, and Teddy is in attendance with a group of friends (who I’m guessing are the heroes of the other novellas in this series).  In spite of her determination to keep her distance, Claire can’t help being delighted to see him, and they quickly fall back into their established pattern of friendship.  But that all changes the next day when they’re caught in a rainstorm and make it to the conveniently dry, comfortable folly/summer house and Claire decides she can allow herself an afternoon of passion (just the one, mind you).

But Teddy doesn’t just want one afternoon – how can he prove to Claire that the curse isn’t real and that they can make a life together?

Quite honestly, the pair of them were so bland I couldn’t become at all invested in the outcome and had I not been reading this for the TBR Challenge, I probably would have abandoned it.  The characterisation is one-dimensional, the atmosphere is flat as a pancake and the gothic elements are weak and terribly disappointing.  I read paranormal and fantasy novels fairly regularly, so having a supernatural element to the book didn’t put me off; the problem was the complete lack of world-building or preparation.  At one point, I thought the author was going to explain away the aunt and mother’s “madness” as a form of post-natal depression (there’s overt mention of the fact that both women didn’t go mad until after they’d had children), and that the curse wasn’t real, but she doesn’t do that, instead veering into a badly prepared episode in which Clare locates a trio of local witches and enlists their help in lifting the curse. This whole section is so different in tone to the rest of the book that it feels as though it’s been added as an afterthought.

The writing is just average, and there are quite a few jarring word choices that  took me out of the story – such as when one character asks another “are you fine?”  In that context, “fine”, doesn’t mean the same as “okay” or “alright” (not in British English, anyway).

Novellas are generally hit and miss for me (more often they miss the mark), so this disappointment wasn’t unexpected.  Ms. Monroe has produced better books than this (I’ve reviewed some of them here) so forget about The Mad Countess and check out one of those instead.

Grade: D                 Sensuality: Warm

~ Caz Owens

Buy it at: Amazon

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Queer romance, romantic suspense and historicals - romance, mysteries, fiction -  are my genres of choice these days, and when I haven't got my nose in a book, I’ve got my ears in one.  I’m a huge fan of audiobooks and am rarely to be found without my earbuds in.