review: only love

Only Love by Melanie Harlow (2018)

Only Love is the third book in Melanie Harlow’s One and Only contemporary romance series. Each book in the series follows one of three sisters, Maren, Emme and Stella. I can tell you without reservation that Only Love can be read as a standalone book. I haven’t read the first two books in this series but wasn’t at all confused and I didn’t feel like I stumbled across any spoilers. This is the second book I’ve read by Melanie Harlow and I have to say—she knows how to write a romance novel. I think I liked After We Fall a little more (you can read my review of that book here) but I did enjoy Only Love and would recommend it to any reader who loves romance novels, especially the steamy variety.

This is the story of Stella and Ryan. Of the three sisters, Stella is the oldest. She is the responsible one, the one who has convinced herself that she wants a stable life with a stable husband even if it means stability comes with boredom. She’s a psychologist/therapist who seems to be able to analyze and figure out everyone but herself, and she chases her vision of who she wants to be, who she thinks she wants to be, rather than being who she really is. Ryan is a former Marine, divorced from his wife and now living in a house in Michigan that he is renovating while also working at a winery/farm. He has been doing odd jobs for Stella’s grandmother, who happens to live next door. Ryan’s obstacle to overcome is his need to not feel anything. He repeatedly says he simply wants to be alone and talks about flipping the switch on his emotions, turning them off (a la Damon Salvatore). Once he meets Stella, it becomes more and more difficult to flip that switch and be happy with being alone. While I liked Stella and Ryan as a couple and was invested in their love story, I have to admit that at first, I don’t think I particularly liked Stella all that much. Or maybe it’s that I had a hard time relating to her. I don’t want to spoil the first few chapters, but I think it’s enough to say that I was worried she would be the kind of female protagonist who could only find her value and self-worth in the roles of wife and mother. I did, however, warm to her and got to the point where I was rooting for her and Ryan to fall in love. It also was a challenge to warm to Ryan, and I’m going to attribute this to Harlow intentionally portraying him as someone who didn’t want to feel and craved only numbness. In this way, even when Ryan is narrating from his own point-of-view, he feels distant to the reader. Again, I warmed to him as his character developed and evolved, and he became more accessible in conjunction with his growing inability to flip the switch on his emotions.

The story is told through the alternating first person POVs* of Stella and Ryan, with a small handful of short scenes narrated by Stella’s grandmother, Grams. Normally, I wouldn’t like these “interruptions” by a first person narrative voice not belonging to the female or male protagonist, but I fell in love with Grams’ character and thoroughly enjoyed her intrusions into the narrative. Indeed, as the matchmaking force that ultimately put Stella into Ryan’s path, her narrative intrusions mirror her matchmaking machinations as the two lovers move through the familiar milestones of a romance plot (girl meets boy, girl gets boy, girl loses boy, girl gets boy back). In addition to Grams, Harlow gives us Emme and Maren as supporting characters, both of whom act as confidants for Stella as well as contrasting personalities who help show Stella as a more rounded, fully-developed character. For Ryan, the best friend/sidekick character is an old buddy he served with in the Marines. One of the things that Harlow does well and sets her novels apart from others in the genre is that she uses her supporting cast effectively, letting the two main characters play off them in multiple ways and in doing so allows them to become more than just characters performing predictable roles in predictable fashion.

Listen. I’m an avid fan of romance novels and scoff at those who want to give the judgy side-eye to romance readers. Still, the massive glut of romance novels currently available makes it challenging for readers of the genre to find the kind of romances they like to read. I sample a lot of romance novels before deciding what I’m going to commit to buying and reading. The more romance novels I finish, the more I recognize the good ones from the bad ones, the bad ones from the ones that are simply unreadable, and the really good ones from the ones that are just okay reads that I’m going to forget hours after I’ve gotten to the end. Similarly, more than I ever have before, I’m keeping track of those authors whose work hasn’t let me down. Those authors who know how to deliver a romance with an actual love story. Because why do we read romance novels in the first place, if not to be swept out of our own everyday worlds and into a grand romance where we’re rooting for the two lovers to defy all the odds and find a forever kind of love? I mean, don’t we all want a happy ending, or am I just projecting here?

Thus far, Melanie Harlow hasn’t disappointed me and she’s earned her place on my list of authors whose work I can go to when I need to get my romance novel fix. If you are looking for a good romance, I recommend checking out Only Love. As of this writing, this book wasn’t available from my local library but it is currently available in the Kindle Unlimited library. That being said, it’s my opinion that this is a book that is worth your book dollars and the author is definitely someone worth supporting (because I really want her to write more books!).

Have you read Only Love or any of the other books in the One and Only series? What do you think?

*POV = point-of-view

review: close contact

Close Contact by Lori Foster (2017)

When it comes to romance novels, I like mine sexy hot and with a heavy dollop of suspense. It’s no surprise, then, that I settled on Close Contact by Lori Foster while searching for my next read. I’ve read Foster’s work before, but it’s been awhile. Still, I thought I knew what I’d be getting with one of her books—steamy romance, independent female protagonist and a male protagonist with a protector streak two miles wide. Close Contact is the third book in Foster’s Body Armor series, featuring MMA fighters-turned-bodyguards. In the genre of romantic suspense, how could this go wrong, right?

This is the story of Maxi Nevar and Miles Dartman. I’m not a proponent of spoilers, so I’ll just say here that one night, something scary happens to Maxi, who is currently living on a 25-acre farm left to her by her late grandmother. Not sure what to do, she reaches out to her former lover, Miles for help. Miles has recently retired from his career as an MMA fighter (for reasons that remain shrouded in mystery for some time, and when the reveal does happen, it’s a bit disappointing in the sense that Foster could have done so much more with it) and now works for Sahara Silver, owner of Body Armor Security. After a somewhat tense reunion, Miles agrees to play bodyguard, and the pair return to Maxi’s farmhouse. Once there we learn that there are various potential suspects—Maxi’s ex-fiance, Gary, her brother and her sister who want her to sell the farm, and a township cop who seems more than a little shady. Aside from the general threat whose source remains elusive, the farmhouse and barn need lots of repairs, and Miles and his friends offer to do the work while also trying to pinpoint the source of the threat against Maxi. Continue reading

review: come a little bit closer

Come a Little Bit Closer by Bella Andre (2013)

Come a Little Bit Closer is the seventh book in Bella Andre’s featuring the Sullivans (specifically, the San Francisco Sullivans) and tells the story of Smith Sullivan, mega-movie star and the woman he falls in love with Valentina Landon.  The Sullivan books don’t have to be read in order, but they are certainly more enjoyable when you do.  Case in point: one of the supporting characters in this book and Valentina’s sister, Tatiana Sullivan, will return in the tenth book of the series, Just to Be With You.  That book makes several mentions to the movie that Smith is producing, directing and starring in during this book, Gravity.  Another kind of easter egg is that at the close of this book, there’s a reference to the Maverick Group, which is a nod to another of Andre’s series that she co-authors with Jennifer Skully.  To recap then, you can completely read these books in any order and you can skip books if you don’t they will appeal to you.  On a personal note, I’ve skipped books three and eight, but read all of the others in the San Francisco and Seattle Sullivans series.

There are three watchwords around which much of the thematic content of the book revolves–close, closer, and gravity.  Not going to spoil that for you, but if you do pick the book up, make sure to pay attention to Andre’s use of those words in particular.  It gives a lot of insight into Smith and Valentina’s needs and their relationships with each other and their families.  As alluded to above, the story finds Smith starting the first day of production on a film where he wrote the screenplay himself and is producing, directing and acting in the film.  It is a major turning point in his career, and he is intent upon not losing his focus at such a crucial moment.  And yet, he can’t help but be distracted by his co-star’s sister, Valentina Landon.  As Tatiana’s business manager, she will be on the set everyday, and finding a way to ignore his attraction is part of his internal struggle.  The love story between Smith and Valentina takes place against the backdrop of a film in production, and it’s no coincidence that the film is also a love story, where the male protagonist bares many similarities to Smith, his creator.  One aspect of the novel that makes this book stand out among the other books in this series is that Andre plays with the narrative structure, showing the scenes that are being filmed by narrating the events so that readers can follow the parallel story.  She does this by showing it through Valentina’s point-of-view, though it’s not necessarily true to how we would absorb it if we were watching the actors play out the scene.  All we would see is the dialogue, the characters’ body language, the background; we wouldn’t have privy to the characters’ inner thoughts or the back story, but because Valentina has read the script, in a way she is our interpreter, our narrator, filling in the gaps between the dialogue..

Throughout the series, Smith Sullivan makes brief appearances, and there are times when his absence makes him a presence in the other books.  Consequently, it really is a delight to finally read his story, and as is sometimes the case in a series where one character’s story is long-awaited, I’m glad to report that I wasn’t at all disappointed with him or his story.  Smith’s character is a fully developed and realized character at the end of the story, and though perhaps he doesn’t go through as much of a change as other protagonists, there are bits and pieces that demonstrate that falling in love with Valentina has pushed him into unfamiliar territory and into behavior that is wholly uncharacteristic of him.  In some ways, he is your cliche character who is in some way famous (here an actor, but Andre has already given us this trope with in Marcus and Nicola’s story, Ryan and Vicki’s story and will use it again in Mia and Ford’s story). He doesn’t ever think he will be loved for who he really is beneath the fame and celebrity.  He has millions of adoring fans but none of them really knows who he is.  While that is the case, Smith is unique enough to hold your attention.

Valentina is also a likeable, believable character and she is strong enough to stand up to Smith and say exactly what is on her mind but she also conventional in that beneath the strength there is vulnerability and a fragile need for love.  She is also conventional in her insistence that she will not date an actor, providing Andre with a built-in way of increasing the unresolved sexual tension.  Another concern in a series like this where Smith’s story was long-awaited is that the mate chosen by the beloved character isn’t close to who you would imagine him finding a happily ever after with.  Again, this is something that doesn’t happen and Valentina is definitely not a disappointment.  She easily becomes a character readers can fall in love with and who easily fits effortlessly into the Sullivan clan.

I’ve had this book on my to-read shelf for a long time, and honestly, I hadn’t started reading it for the very reasons listed above–I was worried I would be disappointed.  Instead, this was the perfect book for a Saturday when all I wanted was to spend the day on the couch getting lost in a good book.  Come a Little Bit Closer is actually my second-favorite book in the series, and the thing that makes that statement interesting to me is that Just to Be With You (the book featuring Tatiana Landon and Ian Sullivan) is by far my favorite book in the series.  Somehow, Bella Andre got it right with these two Sullivans and the sisters they fall for.  It didn’t all five stars when I rated it after reading it (the end seems to drag a bit) but it is definitely one of my recommended reads and gets a star next to it on my list of books read for the year, reminding me it was a favorite.  Give it a try.  If you like contemporary romance, I think you’ll enjoy it.