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Willaful Review: A Prior Engagement by Karina Bliss

Manually ReleasedSensuality rating: Steamy.

I wish I were good with photoshop, because it would be so fun to depict this story ala Twitter:

Lee Davis @leemealone Hey, it’s great to be back with the people who truly love me. #subtweeting #womenbebitches

Juliet Browne @needsnoromeo That awkward moment when your lover returns from the dead right after you finally slept with another man.

I have to joke a little, because this was such an intense read. Reading the first half felt like someone had grabbed my heart and was gently squeezing. The second half changed direction, but was equally powerful.

When Jules gets the news that her lover Lee hadn’t died in Afghanistan after all, her joy is mixed with apprehension.  For the past two years, she’s been playing the grieving fiance for Lee’s family and friends — the grief was completely genuine, but she couldn’t bear to tell them that she’d rejected Lee’s proposal before he went on tour. Lee, severely traumatized from his time as a POW, is suspicious of Juliet’s motives when he learns of her involvement in his family’s life and acceptance of his estate. When she doesn’t immediately confess her deception, he embarks on one of his own to punish her, pretending he doesn’t remember anything past his intention of proposing.

The vindictive hero/misjudged heroine dynamic is one that I absolutely love, and which we don’t find much in realistic contemporary romance any more, because it’s hard to write a hero who isn’t a despicable jerk. Here there’s such strong backstory that it works — both Lee and Juliet have been through a wringer, and it’s easy to cut them some slack. Lee’s frequent pangs of conscience and inconvenient feelings for Juliet also help redeem him.  As is common with this sort of story, Juliet comes very close to seeming like a martyr, but again, her history and character makes it plausible. And I vastly admired her clear-sighted and honest reaction when the truth finally comes out.

The story loses some steam after the big reveal, going on to concentrate on Lee’s difficulties with PTSD and integrating back into normal life; the two halves aren’t a seamless fit, but both evoked strong emotion.  The depiction of how it feels to be Lee is evocative and touching, with both deeply upsetting and positive aspects. Here he is after soaking up his first rain in years:

When at last he climbed into the car, water had plastered his hair to his skull and the sodden t-shirt clung to his body, revealing every rib, every sinew of lean, wasted muscle. But his green eyes were luminous, as though the rain had filled him to the brim and spilled over.

This is the final book in a series I hadn’t previously read, and the previous couples are big parts of the story; although it stood alone fine, I suspect reading them all in order adds even more to the experience. (There are also some possible spoilers.)

Four stars for good writing, great characterizations, and my favorite gut-punch. You can buy it from Amazon here.

Published by Harlequin. Review copy provided by NetGalley.

Azteclady does Karina Bliss's, Mr. Imperfect

I can’t remember who recommended this book to me, but having read and enjoyed at least two other stories by Ms Bliss, I was happy to get my mittens on it. Of course, like countless other books I am ecstatic to get, it then languished in the humongous TBR Mountain Range—until SLWendy’s TBR Challenge brought it to mind. Happily so, I might add.

Mr. Imperfect, by Karina Bliss

Published in 2006, the cover claims that this is Ms Bliss’ first published novel.¹ I have to say, it’s a wonderful start to a career. Let me begin with a couple of warnings: There are some tropes in this story that usually drive me nuts—for example, if you haven’t seen a person in fourteen years, it’s not likely you can still love them. You love your memories of them and of the two of you together, but you don’t know the reality of that person in the present so…

Then there is the ‘well, because of the will’ that sets up the current conflict between the protagonists—contrived barely starts to describe it. Finally, the cute kid—I’m one of those curmudgeons who usually prefers to have no children or babies in her romances. Sue me.

Despite all of the above, I thoroughly enjoyed Mr Imperfect.

Here’s the back cover blurb: (more…)

What the Librarian Did, by Karina Bliss

I liked the first novel by Ms Bliss that I read (Second-Chance Family, review here) well enough that I was willing to buy What the Librarian Did when I saw it at the grocery store, book budget be damned. (Of course, it didn’t hurt that I had read mostly positive things about it around the blogosphere*.)

Here’s the rather coyly phrased back cover blurb:

When the librarian met the rock star…

Is Rachel Robinson the only one on campus who doesn’t know who Devin Freedman is? No big deal except that the bad-boy rock star gets a kick out of Rachel’s refusal to worship at his feet. And that seems to have provoked his undivided attention. Devin, the guy who gave new meaning to the phrase “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.” Devin, the guy who somehow becomes wedged between her and the past she’s kept hidden for years.

It’s up to this librarian to find out firsthand just how “bad” he really is. Because her secret—and her growing feelings for a man who claims he’s bent on redemption—depend on his turning out to be as good as he seems. Which is really, really good.

Before starting on the review proper I have to say that I like that the cover, corny as it may look, actually reflects the characters in the novel. Okay, so Devin’s tattoo should be much larger and reach all the way to the back of his hand, but at least it’s there; and Rachel’s penchant for wearing old fashioned clothes that match (and, I’m tempted to say, mock) many people’s preconceptions about librarians is crystal clear, from the blue neck ribbon to the waist high, knee long pencil skirt.

The novel starts with a humorous meet-cute: retired rock star and recovering addict Devin is being shown around the campus library by an oblivious Rachel, when a small group of infatuated teenagers barge in. The following snippet of conversation sets the tone for many of the exchanges between these two: (more…)

Second-Chance Family, by Karina Bliss

As a long time divorcée who shares custody with her ex (and trust me, he may be a jerk to me, but he loves his kids), and the daughter of people whose divorce was just slightly less ominous than the Cuban missile crisis, I usually find the basic premise in Second-Chance Family very hard to believe. The fact that not only did I believe it this time, but that I devoured the book in one sitting, will perhaps give you an idea of just how good Ms Bliss’ writing is.

Still, if you’ve experienced custody fights *raising hand* keep in mind that there is a guaranteed happy ending to this particular battle, and that while some of the very real ugliness of such situations is shown, it is mostly glossed over quickly.

Here’s the back cover blurb (which neglects to mention that the story is set in New Zealand, a fact quite relevant to the story in several ways):

He’s inherited an entire family…

Just when he has accepted that he’ll never be a father, Jack Galloway inherits not one, but three kids. Then he gets the knockout punch:

He’s supposed to raise this family with his ex!

And his ex-wife, Rosalind, has her own ideas about parenting. She’s already doling out domestic duties, as if he had all the time away from his office. She’s also got some crazy notion that, thanks to their unexpected “family”, the two of them have been handed a second chance. As if he’ll let his heart get broken again.

But the real knockout punch? That part of him that thinks he and Rosalind could fall back in love.

Suddenly a Parent – Life will never be the same.

After a crash kills their parents while on vacation, fifteen year old Sam, six year old Liam and three year old Cassie, are left in a precarious position. Since their parents’ guardianship wishes were written, their paternal grandmother, the first named guardian, is long dead, and their paternal uncle has lost his own baby and divorced his wife. The next option is their maternal aunt and her family—in England! To make matters even more complicated, Sam is not actually related to Jack by blood, and his biological father’s family, really bad news in any light, is luring him away from his younger half-siblings.

What I like about this story is that it doesn’t shy away from the dark places in any of the characters’ past—from Jack and Rosalind, who are still trying to come to terms with the death of their baby six years prior, to Fiona, who not only feels responsible for her sister and her husband’s accident, but is struggling to find fulfillment in her own life.

Yes, there is an underlying optimism—this is after all a romance novel and we readers expect our happy ending—but the conflictive emotions and the struggles each one of these people go through are very very real.

An otherwise healthy child, Jack and Roz’s baby’s death is ruled SID—aka crib death. Since he was alone with Thomas at the time, Jack has struggled with guilt ever since, to the point of pushing Roz out of his life to punish himself for “killing” her baby. For her part, Roz sought therapy and had a rebound marriage to a genuinely nice man who still cares for her, which ended in a second divorce merely eighteen months later.

Being named guardians of these children forces both Jack and Roz to face their feelings for each other as well as to assess how much—if any—they have healed since they lost their own son, in order to truly put the orphans’ wellbeing before their own.

After a slightly… well, unrealistic is the word that comes to mind, first couple of chapters, the raw emotion behind both Roz’s and Jack’s reactions to the children and each other take over, grabbing the reader by the throat pretty much to the end.

As for the children themselves… I am one of those readers who find it difficult to read fictional children. Too often they are simply plot devices with little to no resemblance to any child I’ve ever met. You can imagine my relief in finding these characters realistic most of the time (the exception being Cassie—but then, I haven’t been around a three year old in over a dozen years, thank you so much 😉 ) Ms Bliss allows these children to show us the situation from their own perspective.

Sam is a typical adolescent who is trying to cope with such a grievous loss as well as with hormones, peer influence, and his age. He is acutely aware that he has no blood relationship with Jack, let alone Roz, and as a result he is angry, lonely, scared and desperately sad. Liam is aware that his life has changed forever, but he is still too young to truly understand how or why. He is also the most sympathetic of the three, because his thought processes, his emotions and his actions, truly reflect those of an intelligent child of that age. He is neither too precious nor a miniature adult—he’s a child, dependent on the adults around him to protect him and love him.

There are a couple of short secondary plot threads dealing with Jack’s and Roz’s careers, as well as with Sam’s school problems, but there is nothing truly extraneous or unnecessary to the story.

My only quibble: the obligatory happy family epilogue. Have I mentioned before how much I hate those? True, this one is set as the last chapter of the book with a “twelve months later” tag, plus it is mercifully brief and definitely not confectionary style syrupy, but still…

Second-Chance Family gets 7.75 out of 10

This book is also available at amazon.com here and at amazon uk here