TBR Challenge January 2024 – Once More With Feeling

Time to kick off TBR Challenge 2024! The challenge is hosted once again by the wonderful Wendy the Super Librarian, and this month’s theme is Once More With Feeling. We went in different directions with our picks this time around. Caz picked a book with a hero in search of a second chance in life, while Lynn went for a sweet second chance romance involving high school besties reunited.

Friends to Forever by Nikki Logan

When I saw that this month’s TBR theme was “Once More With Feeling,” of course I was going to pick a second chance romance. Not only are those a favorite theme of mine, but I have plenty of them in my TBR. Since January has historically been the month for shorts (category romance, novellas, etc..) at TBR Challenge, I pulled a Harlequin romance from 2011, Friends to Forever by Nikki Logan.

Written in the days before the Harlequin Romance line got turned over to billionaires and fake royalty (yawn), this book features a pair of high school best friends reunited on the Australian coast. Marc Duncannon and Beth Hughes were best friends for years on end in high school. And like lots of teenage best friends before them (especially in Romanceland), they had chemistry building beneath the surface. Instead of making that move from friends to romantic partners, things blew up between them into misunderstandings that ended their friendship.

Ten years later, Beth has sought out Marc, mostly to apologize. When she arrives at his home, he has been called to the shore to help rescue a stranded whale. Beth goes along, and as the two battle to save the whale, they gradually start to be truly honest with one another.

There’s a lot of both teenage melodrama and deeply hurt feelings to cut through, and the author does a wonderful job of showing these two going from leaning on their assumptions about each other to being truly vulnerable with one another. Neither has had the life that the other assumed they would have, and as truths come out, so does empathy.

Naturally, the two reach a point where they discover their feelings for one another aren’t wholly lost after all. There is some plot action in the form of dramatic whale rescue, and getting to know each other in their new hometowns. However, much of this book is an emotional journey. Beth in particular has had some real demons to face and overcome, and because of how Marc has had to deal with similar issues in the past, he sometimes struggles with how he reacts to her.

There were times when the old teen drama seemed a bit much, and there were times when I got quite frustrated with Marc’s reactions to Beth. However, this was a solid read overall. When I checked online, it looks like Nikki Logan may no longer be writing, which is a real shame. Then again, the Harlequin Romance line isn’t publishing books with the variety of stories and characters that they used to, and that’s a real shame as well.

Grade: B          Sensuality: Kisses

~ Lynn Spencer

Buy it at Amazon

Redemption by Garrett Leigh

The prompts for this year’s TBR Challenge are certainly… different! January’s is “Once More With Feeling”, which immediately sent my mind to second chance romance. I enjoy the trope as a rule, but couldn’t find one I own that I haven’t already read, so I broadened my horizons somewhat and plumped for Redemption, the first in Garrett Leigh’s Darkest Skies series. It’s a gritty, angsty story of second chances set in a recognisable, grubby London, featuring characters with realistic issues and problems to overcome. The romance is perhaps a bit insta, but it works within the context of the overall story.

When the story opens, Luis Pope is being released from prison after serving a six year sentence for running drugs for his older brother, Dante, who controls one of the local gangs. Luis is determined not to go back to that life and plans to keep his distance from his brother – although deep, down, he knows Dante isn’t going to let him go easily. But that thought is for later. Right now, he has to focus on getting himself sorted out, which means finding somewhere to live and getting a job, which isn’t going to be easy for someone with a criminal record. A charity that helps offenders reintegrate into society helps find him a ratty bedsit, but the job is up to him; he’s on the way back from jobcentre when he passes Toni’s cafe (pronounced “caff”) where he remembers always getting a great cuppa, and sees an ad in the window – Help Wanted. Apply Within.

Thanks to his hot temper, Paolo Cilberto has trouble keeping staff at his family’s cafe. He’s worked there ever since he was a kid and has run the place since his grandfather, Toni, retired, and it’s as busy as ever, but his staffing problems mean he’s run ragged pretty much all the time. He cooks, he serves, he cleans, he takes care of stock, he spends as much time as he can with his grandparents, and it all leaves him little time for the necessary admin or for himself. He can’t believe it when Luis Pope (on whom he’d had a bit of a crush back in their school days) walks in in the middle of the lunch rush and asks for a cup of tea – and the job, if it’s still going. The Popes were always bad news and Paolo sees no reason to think anything has changed – he says the job is no longer available.

But when he tells his irascible nonno about Luis suddenly showing up, Toni’s reaction isn’t at all what Paolo had expected. Rather than telling him it was good riddance, he says that everyone deserves a second chance – words that stick with Paolo after he leaves and makes his way home. He’s on his regular early morning run to the local cash and carry the next day when he encounters Luis again and impulsively asks if he still wants the job. Wary, but relieved, Luis says yes.

Paolo isn’t quite sure what he’s expecting, but Luis very quickly proves himself to be a hard worker and totally focused on doing a good job. For the first time in ages, Paolo has time to take a breath and think without having to worry about not getting everything done, and Luis fits into the daily routine like a well-oiled cog.

With the two men spending most of their days together, they begin to find out more about each other, and the initial ‘wow, he’s hot!’ reaction they’d both had on first seeing each other again begins to bloom into genuine attraction and friendship. We learn more about Luis’ past life – his role in his brother’s gang and why and how he was sent to prison – and about Paolo, a young man who works all the hours god sends and spends as much of his free time as he can with his elderly grandparents who, sadly, have to live separately because his grandmother has dementia and lives in a nursing home. I really liked the way the two of them show their care and support for each other in small ways – making sure the other eats, making sure stuff gets done – and although they do start sleeping together fairly quickly, the emotional connection is building, too. But even as Luis and Paolo are falling in love, the spectre of Luis’ brother is lurking in the shadows. Luis knows it’s just a matter of time before Dante tries to drag him back to his old life, and while he’s determined not to let that happen, he soon realises it’s going to be much harder than he’d imagined – especially now he has something to lose.

One of the things I always like about Garrett Leigh’s books that she (mostly) writes about ‘regular’ people with unexciting jobs and money worries whose lives are un-glamorous and hard in recognisable and relateable ways. There’s an air of realism to this story that many contemporary romances don’t have, and I appreciated that. The author does an excellent job of showing Luis’ struggle to adjust to life on the outside after six years in prison, of showing the low expectations he has of life and of himself, and how taking care of himself is an unfamiliar concept; and then of showing Paolo recognising those things about him and doing what he can to convince Luis that he’s worth caring about and looking after. I liked Paolo’s fiery nature and his commitment to his family and business; life is no bed of roses but he loves what he does and hides a big heart beneath the grouchiness and temper.

I liked Luis and Paolo individually and as a couple. They’re very similar in a lot of ways, both of them living fairly lonely lives and, really, just wanting to live them simply and quietly without any fuss. This means that the angst and conflict in the story is external, and the author does a good job of creating a sense of encroaching foreboding throughout the story – although the eventual resolution comes just a little bit too easily.

But I enjoyed the story despite that, and Luis and Paolo’s HEA is all the sweeter for being hard won. Gritty and complex, yet heartwarming and ultimately hopeful, Redemption gets my year of TBR Challenge reads off to a strong start.

Grade: B          Sensuality: Warm

~ Caz Owens

Buy it at Amazon

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