This month’s prompt for TBR Challenge was “Sweet or Spicy.” While most of the romances I read currently contain sex scenes, I think of erotic romance when I’m thinking of something truly spicy, and I see Caz had the same idea. I have some erotic romances in my TBR, but they’ve either already been reviewed here or just weren’t catching my eye this month, so I went with a kisses-only(actually more kisses and light fondling only) New Adult novel and Caz read a traditional Regency. One of us found a gem and the other – not so much.

Making Faces by Amy Harmon

I can’t recall why I picked up Making Faces, but I do remember it generating a fair amount of buzz about 5 or 6 years ago, so I suspect I downloaded it out of curiosity. I found Harmon’s book to be something of a mixed bag. As with many self-published books I’ve read, this one would have benefited from tighter editing. However, the good parts of this book are truly very good and particularly in the second half, some of the more emotional scenes are incredibly moving. If you can get through the first few chapters, this is a rewarding reading experience.

Making Faces is essentially a New Adult novel, but it’s quite different from most others I’ve read. The characters in this book are not young professionals trying to make it in the city, nor are they college students. Fern Taylor, Ambrose Young, and the rest of the cast in this book all grow up in small-town Pennsylvania and we see them progress from high school graduation into the military and the job market. It’s a path still taken by many of the young adults in this country, but one that we don’t see portrayed in fiction nearly as often as college life.

Fern Taylor is shy and awkward – and in high school, she develops a huge crush on Ambrose Young. Ambrose is gorgeous and strong. Known as Hercules, he is the town wrestling star and it’s well-known that multiple colleges will court him for his athletic ability. In a nod to Cyrano de Bergerac, we see the lovestruck Fern writing love letters to Ambrose which ostensibly come from her beautiful but not-so-literary friend Rita.

Naturally, the truth comes out at some point. Ambrose feels like Fern and Rita made a fool of him, a state of affairs which wounds Fern to the core. Fern seeks Ambrose out and despite her shyness and awkwardness, she manages to tell him her side. The two kiss but the beginnings of their finding a way to one another is quickly interrupted.

Despite the attention from colleges, Ambrose feels a strong pull to enlist in the military. This book is set in the early 2000s, and the leads were all in school during 9/11, so that attack looms large for them. Ambrose goes off to Afghanistan, together with his inner circle of wrestling buddies. However, Ambrose is the only one who returns.

The last portion of the book focuses on the severely wounded Ambrose going to work in his father’s bakery and trying to rebuild his life. Now an adult, Fern works next door at the grocery and via messages on the whiteboard in a hallway connecting the two businesses, she starts to reach out to Ambrose. The connection that ensues is a bittersweet and beautiful second chance romance. Fern and Ambrose both grow as characters throughout this story, and it’s a tearjerker of a journey.

The author’s decision to keep the on-page heat low in this book really worked. So much of this story deals with yearning, both romantic and that “what might have beens” of the characters’ lives and past decisions. That yearning plays out vividly throughout the story and readers really feel the range of emotions that run through Fern and Ambrose as they start, tentatively at first, finding their way back to one another.

The secondary characters in this book really work well, too. For starters, Ambrose and Fern’s friends come from a variety of races and economic backgrounds, a diversity that I found much more reflective of modern small-town life than the almost uniformly middle-class white world I’ve seen in older novels.  Ambrose’s wrestling coach stands out as a strong mentor, and we see the role that his wrestling buddies played in his life. We get to know Ambrose’s friends before they go off to war, and the news of their loss is therefore jolting to the reader just as it is gut-wrenching for the town.

And then there’s Bailey. He is Fern’s cousin and best friend. Bailey has Duchenne muscular dystrophy and by the time of the main action in the book, he needs the assistance of a wheelchair.  I’ve read too many books where a character with a disability is either portrayed as unnaturally saintly or shows themselves to be nothing more than a passive character placed in the text solely to give readers opportunities to see the hero or heroine’s saintliness. Bailey’s a fun guy, but he’s no saint and much of the book focuses on his determination to live his life in a way that is anything but passive. Bailey loves his friends and family but he does it without being overly perfect. He is happy with much of his life but he also longs to experience things like wrestling, walking and running, being in a romantic relationship – and living a life without being conscious that he has a terminal condition. And it was precisely because of his multi-sided character that I ended up liking him as much as I did. By way of content warning, I will mention that there are some incidents involving various people in town treating Bailey abusively because of his condition and some readers may want to be aware of that.

So, why did I call this book a mixed bag?  Well, for starters there are so many flashbacks. Rather than weaving past events more naturally into the text, the author here elects to use flashback after flashback to take readers into childhood memories and while a few could have been effective, the overuse often pulled me out of the story.

The early chapters were also something of a challenge for me. On the one hand, the characters in the story are still in high school and have a fair amount of growth ahead of them. However, that doesn’t stop their immaturity from being grating at times. In addition, while the guys on the wrestling team talk like most teenage boys I’ve been around, I didn’t necessarily relish all the trash-talking and borderline rude jokes about romantic relationships and women.

If you had asked me what I thought of Making Faces when I first started the book, I’m not sure what I would have said. However, by the end, I was glad that I read this novel. There are some richly emotional and hopeful moments in this story that lived on in my mind long after reading.

~ Lynn Spencer

Rating:       B-            Sensuality: Kisses

Buy it at: Amazon

The Hidden Heart by Gayle Buck

I often find myself reaching for a Traditional Regency when it comes to the “Sweet or Spicy” prompt.  Most of the romances I read these days contain sex scenes, so I tend to interpret the “spicy” part of the prompt to mean something beyond that, like erotica or erotic romance, and I don’t have anything from either genre on my TBR – hence my gravitating to the “sweet” side of the prompt.

The Hidden Heart was originally published by Signet in 1992, and is billed as a fake-relationship story wherein the hero, Miles, Earl of Walmesley (who is, for some reason also referred to throughout as Lord Trilby which confused me at first, as I thought the author was talking about two different characters!), needing to forestall his imposing great aunt’s plans to wed him to a young lady he has never met, asks his best friend, Lady Caroline Eddington, to pose as his betrothed for the duration of his aunt’s upcoming visit. Lady Caroline has – of course – been in love with Miles for years, but has abandoned any hope of anything more than friendship, while Miles is  – also of course – completely oblivious to her feelings.  Caroline is a great heroine, but overall, The Hidden Heart was a bit of a disappointment.  Caro and Miles spend very little time together on the page, and the romance is practically non-existent; in fact, it feels as though the author got to the end of the book and thought “Oh no! I forgot to get Caro and Miles together – I’ve got a couple of pages left, so I’ll do it now!”

When Miles initially asks Caro to act as his fiancée during his great aunt, the Grand-duchess of Schaffenzeits’ visit, she turns him down, fully cognizant of the detrimental effect such a thing could have on her reputation if it’s ever discovered.  Miles does realise he’s asking a lot (but he asks anyway) and isn’t completely surprised by his friend’s refusal – but when the duchess arrives early, he asks again – and this time Caro, in a moment of weakness engendered by the continual and highly unpleasant sniping of her aunt and the importuning of an unwanted and far too persistent suitor (who can’t understand that no means no) agrees to help Miles out.

The predictability of the story is countered somewhat by the character of Caro, who does not waste her time pining for Miles or allow herself to be bullied by her aunt.  She is cool and capable most of the time, able to squash her aunt’s pretentions and turn her barbed remarks back on her with poise and ease, even though it’s clear that she does find her presence difficult to deal with at times; in fact, watching Caro deal with her aunt was one of the things I enjoyed most about the book!  I also liked the fact that the author doesn’t turn Caro’s new sister-in-law into a complete bitch who wants Caro out of the house because she doesn’t want any competition.  The Grand-duchess is a wily grande dame, but Miles himself is poorly characterised and is actually hardly present in the story.  He failed to make much of an impression on me; all I really knew about him was that he had a reputation for being a bit irresponsible, and that he’s being pretty selfish when he asks Caro to pretend to be engaged to him.  When he and Caro do finally fall into each other’s arms at the end of the book, he spins her a yarn about how seeing a friend destroyed by love caused him to never want to experience it and then uses that to explain why he never showed any sign of feeling more for Caro than friendship, it was utterly ridiculous and came completely out of nowhere.  I suppose Caroline got what she wanted in the end, but no way was Miles good enough for her.

TL:DR. The Hidden Heart was a dud.  I liked the heroine, but pretty much everyone else –including the hero – was awful.  There are better Trads out there than this one.

~ Caz Owens

Rating: D+                Sensuality: Kisses

Buy it at: Amazon