Sometimes in doing the TBR Challenge, we learn more about our reading habits than we realized. Since the May TBR Challenge prompt is contemporary romance, I went combing through my stacks – and came up almost empty. Most of the single title contemporaries I buy are books that I want to read right that minute, so they tend not to linger in the TBR. After dithering a bit, I settled on Irene Brand’s 2008 release, Love Finds You in Valentine, Nebraska. I remembered liking a few of Brand’s inspie romances when I was about twelve, so I decided to give this a whirl.

My twelve-year-old self might have enjoyed this book, but as an adult? Um…train-wreck would be a good term to use here. I actually read it in one sitting, but as I read, I kept thinking that this was a book that I really should just DNF. So, what kept me reading? I kept wanting to know what wacky piece of plot would come next. I did like the characters, but they are trapped in an unusually clunky plot.

The general setup of the book is that Kennedy Blaine, daughter of a wealthy California family has come to Valentine, Nebraska to see the family ranch. Her father has died, and she is curious to see the place that was his heritage. We learn pretty quickly that Kennedy’s parents both grew up in Valentine and that theirs was a forbidden marriage between two feuding families. Even after reading the book, I’m not 100% clear on why these families carried on a multi-generational feud, but it sets up the storyline, so I guess we’re just supposed to roll with it.

At any rate, Kennedy gets to the ranch and immediately meets Derek Sterling, the ranch manager. She mistakes him for a farmhand, but they clear that up and get right down to getting to know each other. It turns out that Kennedy’s late father had left most of the day to day decisions to a cousin and Kennedy learns that said cousin has gotten an offer to buy the ranch, which he expects Kennedy to just rubber stamp. It’s apparent early on that Derek has Big Opinions about what is going on, and it’s also obvious that Kennedy wants to get the lay of the land before she makes any decisions. Said cousin is of course very mysterious about the purchase offer and won’t even tell Kennedy who the buyer is, so all but the most obtuse readers will know right away that there are problems afoot.

Part of the plot of this novel are interesting, and I actually did like that Kennedy seemed like an intelligent and independent heroine. I also liked that Kennedy and Derek actually talked through their initial hostile meeting like adults rather than resorting to flouncing and curl-tossing. So, why did I call this one a trainwreck? Mostly, it’s the clunky writing. We get plenty of telling with just a little bit of showing. Also, the plot foreshadowing is ridiculously heavy-handed. Funny business with the ranch is obvious from the beginning, and then the author throws in random bad guys that just feel out of place. I kept getting the feeling that it was just an attempt to keep the plot going since the relationship really wasn’t bringing in a lot of tension or drama on its own.

Moving on to the romantic relationship, I have to say that my view of it is very mixed. On the one hand, Kennedy and Derek do actually talk to each other like mature adults and I found that a huge plus. However, they just didn’t have much spark. This book is an inspie, so I knew it would be closed door, but closed door doesn’t mean an absence of romantic tension. At times one can see glimmers of attraction between the leads, but the jump from attraction to serious relationship just didn’t feel genuine. The clumsy handling of the inspirational content didn’t help the situation. For some reason, when it comes to matters of faith, the various characters in this book switch from talking like normal adults to sounding like Ned Flanders on The Simpsons. It jerked me out of the book every time.

In the end, this book brings likeable characters but combines them with clumsy plotting, so it’s not a book I’ll feel the need to keep in my library. It’s not horrible, but for me I’d say it’s not even an average read.

Grade: C-                                  Sensuality Rating: Kisses

~ Lynn Spencer

Buy it at: Amazon/Barnes & Noble/iBooks/Kobo


Waking Up Married by Mira Lyn Kelly

Scrolling through my Kindle to find a contemporary romance to read for this month’s prompt, I stumbled upon Mira Lyn Kelly’s Waking Up Married, one of the titles in Harlequin’s short-lived Kiss line (which is published as Mills & Boon Modern Tempted in the UK).  I’ve read a couple of the author’s more recent titles and enjoyed them – funny, sexy and sweet, they’re written with a secure but deft hand and boast attractive principals and a strong supporting cast.  I went into this one hoping for more of the same and found it, for the most part, but the story as a whole is rather let down by the hero who spends most of the novel trying to persuade the heroine into doing something she isn’t sure she wants to do.

Megan Scott is in Vegas with a group of (very bitchy) girlfriends, and they’re out partying before being bridesmaids at the wedding of one of their number the next day.  Megan has decided that she doesn’t want or need a man – she has never fallen in love with one and doesn’t think she is capable of it – instead, she intends to fulfil her desire for motherhood by a visit to the local sperm bank.

Connor Reed is surprised – in a good way – when the gorgeous woman he’d noticed earlier as he’d walked by her table approaches him and asks him if he’ll walk her out of the bar.  Her friends have been egging her on all night, and she won’t hear the end of it if she leaves the bar alone.  It’s an odd request, but he agrees, and he and Megan end up spending the next few hours together, during which they really do ‘click’; Megan tells Connor a bit about her seeming inability to fall in love, which she puts down to the fact that her mother has been married seven times (and had boyfriends in between) and having no desire to follow the path of falling in love and being repeatedly left.  As the night progresses,  Connor becomes more and more convinced that Megan wants the same things from life that he does.  Of course, they take in more than a few more drinks along the way, which is how Megan ends up with her head stuck down the great white telephone the next morning with the hangover from hell – and discovers she’s now Mrs. Reed.

In the spirit of ‘What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas’, she tells her new husband they made a horrendous mistake and that they should start divorce proceedings immediately – and is stunned when Connor tells her he wants their marriage to stand.  Megan can’t believe what she’s hearing, but Connor persuades her to hear him out over breakfast.  From what Megan told him the previous night, it seems she wants the same things from a relationship that he does:

“All the vital components that make a relationship successful, without any of the emotional messiness to drag it down. It’s about respect, caring and commitment. Shared goals and compatible priorities. It’s about treating a marriage like a partnership instead of some romantic fantasy. It’s about two people liking each other.”

– and he’s one hundred percent there for that sort of marriage.

Even though Megan has decided she’s probably never going to find ‘the one’, a marriage like the one Connor is suggesting sounds terribly calculating, and she’s not sure it’s what she wants for the rest of her life.  But she agrees to a three month trial – although with no sex allowed – and moves into Connor’s house.

One of the things I liked straight away about Waking Up Married is that the ‘Oh no – we got drunk, got married and must get a divorce as quickly as possible’ trope doesn’t quite pan out that way, because while Megan and Connor did get married while drunk, Connor knew exactly what they were doing when they walked down the aisle.  The trouble is though, that I wasn’t wild about the idea that he was aware of what they were doing while Megan wasn’t; she can’t even remember saying her vows, or much of what Connor told her the previous night.  And while Connor is devastatingly handsome and extremely charming, he’s also incredibly manipulative; for the majority of the book, he’s doing his damnedest to convince Megan that what he wants is what she wants, too, which he does by being Mr. Reasonable and Mr. Unflappable, even when Megan tries everything she can think of to rile him or get him to give up – which seemed a bit mean considering she had actually agreed to give him and their marriage a chance to work out. Neither of them covers themselves in glory here, but fortunately, this stalemate isn’t allowed to continue and things start to look up – until Connor turns into an idiot not far from the end and only manages to turn things around in the last page or two.

Waking Up Married was enjoyable –  but ultimately forgettable – fluff.  I liked both protagonists, and the way Connor was so clueless as to the real state of his feelings about Megan was oddly sweet; he’s a nice blend of alpha and beta hero, a man who wants to protect and support his woman while also applauding her desire for independence.  On the downside, her being independent means less aggro for him and none of those nasty romantic luuurve cooties, so it’s not an entirely altruistic trait.  Ms. Kelly opts to give both characters a backstory that explains their reluctance to pursue love, but it’s very sketchy and could perhaps have been a little more developed; and I also have to admit that I wasn’t always comfortable with Connor’s more manipulative side.

I can’t recommend Waking Up Married without reservations, but if you enjoy rom-coms and are looking for an afternoon quickie (!), it might hit the spot.

Grade: C+                                  Sensuality Rating: Warm

~ Caz Owens

Buy it at: Amazon/Barnes & Noble/iBooks/Kobo