TBR Challenge September 2023 – New Author

This month’s prompt is “new author” – and Caz and Lynn both went for books by authors whose work they haven’t read before. Caz picked up an age-gap contemporary romance set in New Zealand while Lynn read an historical romance set in the Caribbean in the 1900s, and both have good things to report. How did you get on with your choice this month?

Beautiful Hearts by Jax Calder

Jax Calder is a new-to-me author who has been on my radar for a while but whose books I haven’t got around to reading yet – and the “new author” prompt provided the opportunity to remedy that. Beautiful Hearts is the first in her Rainbow Redemption series set in and around Auckland, New Zealand; it’s an age-gap romance featuring a widowed single dad in his thirties and a vibrant younger man whose life plans were derailed by loss.

It begins when Tim, head of science at Southlake High School in South Auckland, is getting out of his car in the staff car park on a stormy Monday morning, and notices someone he assumes is one of the older students doing the same. Tim politely calls out that he shouldn’t park there, but the sound of the rain makes it hard for him to be heard, so he tries again – but is called away by a student before he can make himself clearer. He walks away, annoyed to see that the guy still hasn’t moved his car. Shortly afterwards, in that morning’s staff briefing, the head introduces Jamie Evans, the school’s new sports co-ordinator who is, of course, the guy f. Oops. Mistakes are cleared up, apologies are offered and Tim admits to himself that Jamie really is the most gorgeous man he’s ever seen, and is surprised when Jamie low-key flirts with him. Jamie is a lot younger and far too beautiful for a thirty-something single dad, so the idea that there could ever be anything between them is patently ridiculous.

Except it’s not. Jamie recognises Tim’s interest and would certainly be up for having some no strings fun with him, but the guy has commitment written all over him and Jamie’s plans don’t include a relationship. At the end of the academic year, he’s off abroad for a couple of years for his OE (overseas experience) – and some bad decisions in his past have left him determined not to change his plans for a man ever again.

But somehow, and despite a determination to keep things professional, Tim and Jamie become really good friends. This stage of their relationship is a delight to read – they get along well right from the start, and they discover lots of mutual interests and a similar sense of humour; Jamie encourages Tim to join the local LGBTQ+ football team, he helps Tim set up his experiments in class, and brings him lunch when he knows Tim won’t have had time to eat, while Tim offers Jamie the kind of care and genuine concern he hasn’t known in years. Most of the men Jamie have been with have wanted him for his looks and haven’t taken much interest in the person behind them, but Tim is different and wants to know all of him. This ‘falling in love’ stage is done extremely well and their growing feelings for one another shine through on every page, so that when they can’t ignore their intense physical attraction any longer, their sexual relationship feels like a natural next step.

Tim and Jamie are well-rounded characters who have both experienced the loss of people close to them. Tim lost his beloved husband, Rick, three years earlier in a car accident, and is clearly still working through his grief. His main priority is his seven-year-old daughter, Stella, and he’s doing his best to make sure she never forgets her other dad, even though he can’t help the pangs of sadness at knowing she will probably never remember seeing them together. Being a single parent is hard at the best of times, and Tim does feel the lack of having someone to turn to when he’s not sure he’s doing the right thing. Rick is quite a strong presence in the story – which I realise might be a deal-breaker for some – and I admit there were a couple of times I felt it was a little overdone (such as when Tim wonders if Rick sent Jamie to him because he wants him and Stella to be happy again). But everyone grieves in their own way, and I liked watching Tim gradually emerging from the half-life he’s been living and waking up to the possibility of new life and love with Jamie.

While Jamie is relatively young, he’s had significant experience of how devastating loss and grief can be. The death of his father when he was sixteen sent him into a downward spiral – he got in with the wrong crowd, bunked off school and “hit every highlight in the delinquent playbook.” Then, at nineteen, he instigated a relationship with an older man who was closeted, seeing hooking up with him as an exciting challenge. When he found out the guy was married with kids, Jamie ended things and he’s worked hard to get his life back on track. He’s bright and resilient, and mature for his age, and he doesn’t let his lingering insecurities stop him from going for it with Tim. They’re both really good for each other – Tim’s belief in Jamie bolsters his confidence, and being with Jamie gives Tim the love and togetherness he thought he might never have again.

Until around three-quarters of the way through, I was reading a quiet, kind of unassuming but very well-written contemporary romance between two people falling head-over-heels in love while dealing with their emotional baggage, and I was expecting the main conflict to relate to Jamie’s plan to spend a couple of years overseas. But then the author lobs a grenade into the middle of Tim and Jamie’s happiness – and while I didn’t see it coming, looking back, I can see all the little hints I skimmed over because I was so caught up in the love story and the way these two vulnerable men were working through their grief and starting to build a life together. I admit that what happens is perhaps a bit… soap-y, but any author who can deliver a jaw-dropping emotional gut-punch like that – I think I might even have gasped out loud – deserves all the kudos. It hurt to see two people who are clearly soulmates in so much pain they absolutely did not deserve, and the resultant guilt and anger radiate off the page. No spoilers, but this is a romance novel so there is an HEA, but that last section really put me through the wringer (and I loved it!).

There’s a strong secondary cast, too – Stella is a believable seven-year-old, Jamie’s flatmate Kelsey is supportive, and the guys at the footie club are a great bunch. I wish I could say the same for Tim’s sisters, who see him as a problem to be fixed and who, while they want him to start dating again, are not supportive of his choices and are disrespectful towards Jamie. Fortunately, however, Tim knows his own mind and makes it clear that his love life is none of their business.

Beautiful Hearts is a superbly written and heartfelt story about grief, forgiveness, and finding love after loss, and despite the angstier parts, it’s full of warmth and fun and joy. Tim and Jamie are made for each other, and I loved the way their romance progresses so naturally – their emotions and struggles feel very real and their eventual HEA is well deserved. I enjoyed it a lot, and I’ll definitely be checking out more of Jax Calder’s work.

Grade: B+                Sensuality: Warm

~ Caz Owens

Buy it at Amazon

Compromised into a Scandalous Marriage by Lydia San Andres

I’d seen the buzz about Lydia San Andres Harlequin debut on Twitter, and I immediately picked up Compromised into a Scandalous Marriage for its setting. Set in the Dominican Republic in the early 20th century, this forced marriage tale is a tad formulaic, but in this author’s hands, it’s an engaging formula.

Paulina Despradel lives in San Pedro de Macoris, under the control of her older brother Antonio. Antonio watches Paulina like a hawk, giving her little opportunity to engage with anyone outside the family home. When Paulina meets their new neighbor, Sebastian Linares, she is immediately struck by his kindness and good looks.

After getting drunk one night, Antonio throws his sister out of the house into a storm. She seeks refuge at Sebastian’s home nearby. In the morning, Antonio shows up, eventually demanding the pair marry to protect Paulina’s reputation. It quickly becomes apparent that this was all a set-up by Antonio – but why?

From the beginning readers will figure out that Antonio is up to no good and of course, since this is a romance, the forced marriage will work out splendidly. However, the author does a lovely job of getting readers to that inevitable ending. Sebastian figures out pretty quickly that Antonio is not a good person, but it takes longer to determine whether Paulina was part of the plot or not. After all, Antonio is not as prosperous as the picture he presents to the town might suggest. The initial stages of the marriage, where Sebastian is determined to get an annulment and where he suspects Paulina of marrying him for his growing fortune, created a great deal of tension in the story.

Sebastian and Paulina make a good couple as well. Sebastian built up a business for himself first in Cuba, before returning to the Dominican Republic, which is his home. He is very hardworking, but also very loyal to those he works with. Because he spends so much time focusing on the burden of caring for those he feels responsible for, Paulina quickly figures out that he hasn’t built much of a life for himself. Throughout the story, we see Paulina showing her new husband to care for himself as well as others. Her character is at times a bit indistinct other than being clearly a good person, but I enjoyed seeing her and Sebastian build a relationship.

My main quibble with the story was that Antonio somehow seemed able to build up quite the evil, corrupt operation for himself despite having growing financial problems. Somehow he seemed to have the magistrate and every lawyer in town in his pocket, but it was never very clear what would draw any of these folks to be loyal to him. Even so, this was a pleasant read. If you like historicals set outside England, or you enjoy forced marriage plots, then you will likely enjoy this book.

Grade:      B           Sensuality: Warm

~ Lynn Spencer

Buy it at Amazon

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