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Not Another Rock Star (Hot Under Her Collar #3) by Amber Belldene

51qVm7EJsDL._SY346_Suzannah's first year as a priest is off to a rocky start. The foodbank project her church called her to spearhead has run into unexpected opposition, she is putting in too many early morning and late nights working on her sermons and worst yet some of her parishioners have noticed. When her organist, Peggy, breaks her arm in the weeks leading up to Easter it is a stress she doesn't need, but the replacement, Peggy's former star pupil, Rush Perez, a troubled rock star, might just the thing that makes her break.

Rush is hiding out in SF, trying to sort through treatment options. Losing his hearing and battling vertigo might not be life-threatening but they are career threatening. His worry and frustration has isolated him from his friends, too worried about the possibility of life without music that he rather let them think he is struggling with addition than tell them the truth about his prognosis. 

I really love Belldene's Hot Under Her Collar Series. First because they are so familiar and feel so right. My husband was a pastor for 15 years, and I find myself nodding along, as her priests tackle church politics, difficult parishioners and crises of confidence. Her priest are smart and passionate, with genuine faith and calling and, so often in romance and fiction in general characters are either one or the other. I believe in Suze's distracting attraction to the brooding rockstar just as much as I believe in her desire to serve God in her community.

I really enjoyed the progression of Rush and Suze's relationship, from antagonistic and prickly to wary and hopeful. They both carry a lot of baggage when it comes to music, faith and how they handle peoples expectations and  work pressure. Their relationship becomes believably unbalanced as Suze tackles her fears and insecurities, trusting in Rush to listen and provide good advice. While Rush comes to trust Suze with his struggles, opening up about his pain, he almost unable to trust himself to let her care for him. I cried big fat tears when Rush finally comes to realize almost too late that the barriers to their relationship's success are almost exclusively of his own making. Those are some of my favorite kinds of resolutions, when a character realizes that they are the ones that need to change, that they need to bend, and that all the external conflicts are secondary and endurable together.

If you like me are hungry for more romance where spirituality, and faith are not antithetical to sexual desire and passion, where couples struggle to be truly vulnerable and intimate with each other, and do a wonderful job at portraying friendships and community give this series by Belldene a try.  The books standalone quite well, so you can start with any of them, but they are all worth reading.

 

I received a ARC via Netgalley from the author.


My Only Sunshine by Mary Ann Rivers

25610235A long time ago Mallory Evans and John Lake were friends. Their friendship was a secret to most everyone.  At night they would keep each other company in the dark talking through Mallory's window, but during the day at school they would walk past each other without acknowledgment in the halls.  Their secret friendship came to a dramatic end when it was discovered by Mallory's vicious and abusive step-father.  Mallory moved away and became a celebrated writer & John abandoned his parents' dream of a classical music career for alternative rock success. More than a decade has passed and their friendship is not a secret to anyone anymore because it was the subject of Mallory's second and highly regarded memoir.

This novella follows John and Mallory as they reconnect after years of estrangement. The story alternates between Mallory's memoir of their past friendship and their current day conversations and encounters where they finally consummate their once unspoken romance. The story is bittersweet and tentative. For love to bloom, John has to deal with his feelings of failure and guilt and Mallory has to risk accepting his desire.

I didn't find their current day romance convincingly urgent.  It felt like they were working out their past feelings for each other as they have yet to get to know each other enough in the current day to establish a credible HEA. Their love could grow and rekindle but it did not feel sure or certain. They might have been unknowingly waiting for each other and for this moment, but to me it was only a start.

It was pleasant to re-enter Rivers' Lakefield again and see familiar faces and locations again but I wish we had more time to spend with Mallory and John and see their current day relationship develop. 

P.S. Olivia Dade in a comment below reminded me of something I probably should have addressed in my review. Brain Mill Press made a big deal about doing a special photo-shoot to make sure their cover model accurately represented their vision for Mallory as plus-size woman. I thought Rivers did a wonderful job depicting and presenting a plus-sized heroine without making the story about her weight or body shape.  John is attracted to Mallory and finds her plus-sized body pretty and beautiful. He loves her breasts, shape and softness.  I thought it was erotic without becoming fetishistic. Mallory loves who she is and any self-consciousness she feels is just a natural part of becoming involved with someone she used to have a huge crush on. 

 

I received a review copy of My Only Sunshine from Brain Mill Press.

 


Necessary Restorations (The Walsh Series #3) by Kate Canterbary

Sam Walsh is a gifted award-winning highly in-demand architect. He is perfectly put together on the outside.   His immaculate clothes, a much-too-cool-for-you sneer and strictly-anonymous one-sided-relationships are his armor, so nothing and no one can touch him. Tiel Desai is brilliant. A brilliant musician, a gifted music therapist and sought after professor and researcher. Long ago exiled from her family she revels in marching to beat of a different drum. Her jingly casualness and non-conformity is her armor.  Tiel and Sam would have never gotten to know each other,  if the elevator they were riding in didn't first stall and later plummet with them trapped inside. 

This is a opposites attract story about two emotionally messed up people drawn to each other even as they try to push each other away. The intense intimacy of surviving that the elevator accident forges a bond between them neither of them quite understands. The adrenaline and the post-survival alcohol and dancing lubricates them enough so they drop their guard enough to become attached to each other.  Their relationships is hard to define, not quite platonic but not quite anything else. Their lives start revolving around each other.  Tiel interrupts Sam's self-destructive pattern of club hook-ups, filling his evenings with music gigs & band-hunts all over Boston. Before either of them notice they form a real relationship, even if they can't quite define it, and willfully mislabel it.

Eventually the late-night cuddles & affectionate touches escalate to the point they have admit to they have been more than just friends but they both have a horrible time admitting they want more. They both have an incredible amount of baggage around sex and relationships. Their issues are big enough that their sexual chemistry can't paper over it.  Their insecurities and self-sabotage sink them.  They are in any position to heal each other but instead they spur each other to get their lives in order and stop hiding from their issues. It is only after they have faced those issues that they become strong enough to claim each other.

It was fascinating how my feelings about Tiel morphed as the book progressed. Initially I saw her the same way Sam did,  a confident, mature and self-contained.  But as the book progresses her jealousy, and inability to accurately value her talents becomes more evident. As the book progresses the subtle nature of Tiel's self-destructive nature comes to the fore. The vulnerability Tiel tries to hide when she first encounters Sam's family felt very raw and painfully real.  The differences between their families of origin, and the distinct nature of their messed up relationships with them are not small obstacles to overcome and I appreciated that Canterbary takes them seriously.

I normally avoid books where cheating or the suspcion of it a crucial plot element.  Sam doesn't, but Tiel's fears that he will. While not blind to the source of her insecurities  (her horrible first marriage and  Sam's reputation as player), she doesn't see till fairly late in the book how she courted and feed her insecurities.  I was pretty mad at Sam for failing to see how some of his behavior would look, and not protecting Tiel from it.   But Sam is so incredibly destroyed when it all explodes and the fact that he take the time to get himself better that I couldn't stay mad at him for long and I was relieved when Tiel forgave him too.   Their reconciliation in someways feels one sided as Sam is the one who has to do the big gesture but I think Tiel's transformation was just as significant and made it possible for her to forgive and claim Sam rather than turning him away.

 This was my first Walsh book and my first book by Kate Canterbary. Although this book was way angstier and more tortured than my usual, I will definitely look for more of her books as I was able to enjoy a story-line that I normally avoid.

 I received a review copy of Necessary Restorations from the author via NetGalley

 


Rise by Karina Bliss

Rise-KarinaBliss-1600x2400I read a handful of Karina Bliss’s Harlequin SuperRomance titles when I first started reading contemporary romance. I found them emotional without being manipulative, engaging and fun.  Which is why was very interested in reading Rise.

Rise is the story of Zander Freedman  who appeared as a supporting character in a several of the SuperRomances  I read (What the Librarian Did, A Prior Engagement & Bring Him Home).  Apparently fans have been lobbying Bliss for a happy ending for this charismatic and interesting villain.

Zander Freedman is the front man for a legendary rock band, Rage. When his original band mates jumped ship after his brother Devin collapsed on stage due to alcohol abuse, he refused  to stop touring.  Zander re-populated the band with younger and up-and-coming musicians through a reality show competition.   To some of his former band mates this is just another cash grab and betrayal, but the truth is not as simple.

Zander is incredibly ambitious and driven.  His career is his whole life. And he has gambled his whole future on his newest tour. He is playing a dangerous game of denial with his voice. Warned by doctors to cut the tour short or risk permanent damage, he refuses to consider stopping because it will leave him financial ruined.

Elizabeth Winston is a Pulitzer prize-winning biographer and celebrated historian. She lives a quite life, baby-sitting her nieces and nephews, teaching at a local university, sharing a whiskey at the end of her day with her elderly neighbor. She thinks it is a prank when Zander comes calling. She writes biographies of complex dead people, not megalomaniac rock stars. But it is no mistake or prank, after firing his second ghost-writing biographer, Zander wants to recruit Elizabeth to help him write his memoir. He wants her to lend credibility to the project & he makes all the right promises, and his charisma eventually overcomes all of Elizabeth’s objections.

Before long Elizabeth isn’t just prying into Zander’s past with probing questions, she is interfering in his everyday life and not letting him get away with ignoring the consequences of his actions have on others.

I loved Zander’s slow & determined pursuit of Elizabeth. It was nice to see them develop a friendship, to cultivate a somewhat adversarial working relationship, before Zander is finally able to lure Elizabeth to his bed. And I loved that sleeping together didn’t resolve their relationship issues, but instead complicated them.

I particularly liked that Elizabeth is not some sexual innocent looking to be debauched by a rock sex god or a prude in need of liberation. She might live a quiet life in Auckland, but she isn’t sexually inexperienced. She has lived a little more life than her siblings think she has, she just prizes her privacy and independence.

I thought Bliss did a good job over-all with her portrayal of the complicated repercussions of being a pastor’s kid. Elizabeth’s familiarity with life in a fish-bowl, her caution about her personal & professional reputation, and the complicated role faith plays in her life were very well drawn. There was one odd moment, where early in the book Elizabeth mentions Chakras, but it isn't followed up again, so we don’t get to explore if she has if has added any other unconventional religious beliefs to her traditional religious practice and without any kind of follow up or further mention it feels like remnant from a discarded plot line.

Bliss did a wonderful job building a redemption story for Zander that did not excuse his prior bad actions, or try to minimize the cost of those actions on others. The dark moments in Zander and Elizabeth’s relationship are well executed. I felt the weight of their choices and was really happy with the resolution.

4 stars

Rise has been  available at the usual e-book retailers since Jan 28, 2015

I received a review copy of Rise from Karina Bliss via Julie Brazeal at AToMR Promotions.


Rock Addiction by Nalini Singh

Rock Addiction is Nalini Singh’s highly anticipated self-published return to contemporaries. I am a big fan of her Psy-Changeling series, and I was eager to read it despite the fact that rockstar romances are far from my favorites.

Rock Addiction is the story of Fox, the hugely famous American front man for Schoolboy Choir, a globally successful rockband and Molly Webster a reclusive and virginal New Zealand librarian. In an instant Fox becomes fascinated with Molly, half-sister to Schoolboy Choir PR expert & publicist Thea, when he spots Molly giving Thea a genuine affectionate hug and he is covetous of it. Molly Webster is the last person to want to attract the attention of a Rock god and despite the teasing encouragement of her best friend Charlotte and gentle prodding by her sister, Molly is more than happy to admire Fox from across the room instead of allowing Thea to introduce her. It is not simple shyness that drives Molly, she is the sole survivor of a political sex scandal that left her orphaned as a teen-ager, after her father’s sexual escapades were exposed and her mother alcoholism led to fatal DUI. Molly’s teen years were incredibly traumatic and as a result she is incredibly vigilant about her privacy and independence, however she is also human and Fox apparently has superpowers that are able to render her impulsive and pliable. One elevator ride later, Fox has convinced Molly into taking him home, and has her promising to herself that she can get involved with him as long as it is in a limited sexual basis, that won’t risk her exposure to the paparazzi. While Molly finds Fox undeniably hot, I still had to be generous with my suspension of disbelief, because this is a departure from Molly’s typical behavior.

Fox is also acting out of character having become obsessed with the idea of making Molly is his, despite professing a disbelief in love and having serious abandoment issues. But Fox does his sneaky sexy best to keep her at his side, planning to use sex as the tool to break down her resistance.

“I won’t hurt you.” He wanted Molly with him all the way, and he suddenly realized he goddamn liked the idea of initiating her into sex.

Addicting her to it, to him, sounded even better.”

 Although I really disliked the cliched pairing of a promiscuous bad boy with a virginal librarian, the book was highly readable, and enjoyable but it is also very easy to nitpick. While all the characters are interesting and engaging, I struggled to believe some of the character choices. I liked how Singh worked with issues of addiction, and family history especially in how Molly had constructed her life prior to meeting Fox to minimize her exposure to scandal and to avoid repeating the damaging addictions of her parents. Her choices as presented are understandable but also very limiting. Fox’s own vulnerabilities I felt were under-explored only really creeping up in the later half of the second half. Still the choice Molly makes to abandon her career and life in New Zealand and move to LA with Fox after only a month together, seemed very drastic too me. Even though I understood how she comes to want to live with Fox openly, I wish there had been a middle step where she could be involved with Fox without leaving her whole former life behind.

I enjoyed the significance of the non-romantic friendships present in the book, particularly Fox’s female best friend Kathleen. However too many of these secondary characters had side-plotlines that are obviously set ups for future related books. There were some particularly awkward scenes revolving around Molly’s half-sister Thea and the band’s drummer David, where the reader is basically told, that something huge has happened but it will be dealt with in their book “Rock Courtship”.

The climactic conflict in the second half of the book was well-set up within the book and I thought very well executed. Molly must face her greatest fears head on, and instead of tearing Molly and Fox apart it draws them together in a very satisfying way.

Overall I have mixed feelings about Rock Addiction since I strongly disliked the underlying tropes, but I continue to enjoy Singh’s writing. I will probably come back and at least try Rock Courtship, where hopefully the more jarring series-setup flaws will not be as obvious.

A review copy of Rock Addiction by Nalini Singh was provided by TKA Distribution via NetGalley.


It's in His Kiss by Jill Shalvis

This is the first of the last trio of Lucky Harbor novels. I loved the first three, powered through the middle ones even as some as the secondary wacky townies characters started crowding into the story too much. However I enjoyed “It's in His Kiss” despite the fact that I questioned some of the choices made by some of the characters. 

“It's in His Kiss” is the story of Sam and Becca. Sam runs a boat charter business in Lucky Harbor with two of his closest friends. He works and plays hard, running himself into the ground figuratively and literally. Becca, just arrived in town from parts unknown is looking for new start in Lucky Harbor. Becca moves into the rundown converted warehouse apartments in the same wharf district as Sam’s Boat charter business. They keep running into each other. The more Becca sees of Sam the more she wants to see of him, while Sam sends non-stop mixed signals her way. Sam really likes what he sees, but is determined to push her way.

What worked for me: The way Becca steamrolled right into Sam’s compartmentalized life and how she called him on his false protestations. When he tries to make her choose between working for his charter company or seeing him, she simply refuses to play that game. She wants to do both and he can bluster all he wants, but she refuses to see that as anything other than what it is, a false obstacle. Both Sam and Becca care too much for other people. Becca has given and given beyond her ability for the sake of her brother and family, and Sam has withdrawn from all but the most essential of relationships out of self-protection because he believes father’s continual demands are sucking him dry of love and compassion. They both need someone to care for them, to replenish them.

 

What didn’t work for me:  While I loved Becca's tenacity, part of steam-rolling in to  Sam's life was that she inserted herself into Sam's relationship with his father in what in very problematic ways. Sam’s relationship with his dad Mark has been toxic. Mark has used and abused Sam’s love, to the point that Sam deeply mistrust people who claim to love him, but he never fails to be swayed by Mark appeals for money and help. Becca has recently separated herself from her co-dependent brother, and instead of backing up Sam when his father shows up, she is all about giving him more chances. I really bothered me that Becca with her own history of co-dependence would think she knows best.  The positive way this storyline was resolved seemed highly-improbable to me. It wasn't enough to sink the book for me, but I didn't like it.

Despite these flaws both Becca and Sam were interesting and fun to read about, and I enjoyed their chemistry. I thought the worked as couple. Shalvis did a good job in this book managing her sometimes overbearing and unruly town-folk giving them to us in small but effective doses. While some things bugged  I will still be coming back for the next couple of books.

A review copy of “It's in His Kiss” by Jill Shalvis was provided by Grand Central Publishing (Hatchette Book Group) via NetGalley.


Best Kind of Trouble by Lauren Dane

Natalie had a wild wild youth, but she has put all of that behind her, and settled in to a happy and fun life in Hood River. She has the tattoos and the memories but nowadays she is happier to forget just how out of control her life used to be, so much so that when she runs into Paddy Hurley she tries very hard to pretend she doesn’t remember him. Even if Paddy is the absolutely delectable lead singer for Sweet Hollow Ranch, and once her former lover. Paddy has very good memories about Natalie and the couple of weeks they spent together as teenagers right before his band made it big. He doesn’t understand why she would brush him off the way she did, and can’t stop thinking about her.

This books made me so happy. I was gleeful at poor Natalie’s dismay when she realizes that Paddy has taken her brushoff as a challenge. I loved the good natured ribbing Paddy gets from his brothers and family for sudden focus on catching Natalie’s attention. But most of all I love their banter and chemistry.

But Natalie has very personal reasons for not wanting to be involved with a Rock God, beyond keeping her past in her past and most of them have nothing to do with Paddy. I really liked the internal conflict this provided for Natalie. Natalie is passionate and successful in her career (Public Librarian), she is active in her community, and has a close and loving circle of friends. She is also an incredibly private person, and she knows inviting Paddy into her life is not something she would be able to contain. Paddy has big personality, fame and she knows she won’t be able to compartmentalize her feelings and just enjoy the ride while it lasts.

Paddy, a serial dater and hedonist is attracted to Natalie beyond the challenge of bedding her again. He finds himself wanting to understand her and is sure quite quickly he wants her in his life beyond a quick fling. In her he recognizes the potential for something beyond the moment.

I really liked how Dane built up Natalie and Paddy’s relationship, and the various challenges they faced, particularly Natalie’s need for control and Paddy’s well camouflaged insecurity. The sex was hot, emotional and incredibly sexy.

While the books starts out with fun chase plot, it really becomes about what it takes to stay together, to take on major challenges,  and to trust and reassure each other. The misunderstanding and failures in communication were heart-rending and believable. I never felt jerked around, instead I could see how both Natalie and Paddy could be trying their best and still fail to understand each other. And when Paddy screws up he grovels just the way he needs to.

I can’t wait to for the next book in this series, because Tuesday and Ezra’s story is going to be epic.

 

A copy of Best Kind of Trouble was provided by Harlequin HQN via NetGalley for review purposes.


Have Mercy by Shelley Ann Clark

8fbb66fc9fbcc672639515b648926320Emme is on the cusp of stardom in the Alt-music scene, which is much better than being caught in the middle of the scandal that ended the last band she was in. Emme is focused on breaking through, and walking the straight and narrow so she can put it all behind her. If she forgets she has two of her oldest friends on tour with her ready to stare her down.

Tom took over running his dad’s bar when he died, and has been looking out for his little sister since his mom ran off. He keeps things running but his heart isn’t in it. When Emme’s band plays a pre-tour gig at his bar and he hears from his friend Andy that they are going to need a new bassist for the tour, Tom for the first time in a long time start thinking a little selfishly. Can he have this? Can he do this one thing he loves, for just a little while. Once on tour Tom isn’t the only one getting a little greedy. Emme knows she shouldn’t but she can’t keep herself from thinking of and wanting Tom. And Tom would do anything for her.

Have Mercy is a story of wants and needs. Tom has never wanted anything more in his life. He needs to give himself permission to not be responsible for everything and everyone anymore. Emme wants people to stop judging her the scandal and to see her for who she is, not what the tabloids made her out to be. What she needs is someone who simply believes her and in her. Emme wants to sing, and she wants Tom. Tom wants Emme and to be happy doing what he loves. They just need to let each other reach for that.

 

What worked for me:

Both Emme and Tom have heavy burdens to carry and I thought depiction of the escapist power and secret joy of a forbidden infatuation was really well done. While I was initially surprised by the BDSM-flavor to Tom and Emme’s encounters, I was won over. This was not billionaire sex-club BDSM, but rather two people who have played around just a little bit, know they like it, but haven’t gone out and bought fancy toys and declared themselves to be in a lifestyle. Emme is simply starting to own herself, including her desire to tease and dominate, and Tom likes and accepts the part of himself that loves to be submissive in bed. Playfulness and vulnerability characterize their relationship and I was rooting for them even as I dreaded knowing the conflict and push back they were bound to encounter eventually. The most important part of their relationship however is that they give each other permission to be themselves, to want the best for each other, even if that means letting go of long-standing relationships.

What didn’t work for me:

The level of vitriol/hate/suspicion Emme faces from strangers and regular people like her neighbors. It seemed a bit hyperbolic. That her parents or industry folk judged her harshly and unfairly made sense for me but not that Jane Doe neighbor would consider her husband-stealing threat. Thankfully this was just a tiny part of the book.

What really did work was Emme just owning her truth. She has a choice late in the novel to do something expedient and instead makes a risky choice that means an incredible amount to those around her.

 

4 out 5 stars, and having the special distinction of being the first book about musicians that I have actually enjoyed.

 

A e-copy of Have Mercy was provided by Random House Publishing Group — Loveswept for review purposes.

(Disclaimer: I follow Shelley Ann Clark on Twitter, and I always root for librarian/writers).

 

Publication Date July 1st.