If only it had stayed a secret.

Title: A Secret Until Now
Author: Kim Lawrence
Harlequin Presents
Published: February 2014  
Reasons I Might Actually Remember This One: The head-hopping? The ditzy heroine? The baby in the epilogue? So many reasons to hate this.
 
I hate reviewing books I dislike. I mean, the author worked long and hard on it (I assume), and if it’s not my cup of tea it’s surely someone’s. But this…did not work for me. 
Okay, so this is a secret baby book. I’ve read that other people object to those on principle, because a man should be told if he’s a father, but frankly I can think of lots of situations where it really, really wouldn’t bother me if the woman chose to just go away and raise the baby. But in this case, even if you generally objected, the heroine can’t be blamed: she doesn’t know the name of the guy she slept with, and has no way to contact him. 
Also he falsely let her believe he was married, because he felt guilty about having had sex so soon after his wife’s death, and letting the heroine believe she’d slept with a married man was the quickest way to get rid of her the next morning. Harlequin Presents really outdo themselves sometimes with the jackass heroes. I seriously expect to see The Pick-Up Artist’s Virgin Bride  or Captured and Bedded by the MRA on the shelves any day now.
But anyway. The heroine’s problem was that she was a closet romantic, and had stayed a virgin in the hopes of meeting The One. So when the hero stopped her from walking into traffic (she’s not bright, this one) she slept with him that night even though she didn’t know who he was or anything about him. Then he disappeared, and she turned out to be pregnant.
Protip: the best way to live happily, if you’re of a romantic disposition and want sex to be special for you, is to NOT sleep with handsome kind men on the same day you meet them. That is kind of almost guaranteed to end badly. I mean, the sex might be fun, but the odds of running into AND IMMEDIATELY RECOGNIZING your soulmate are low-ish, so…
But getting back to the book: now it’s six years later, and the hero’s nephew wants to use the hero’s private island as the setting for a photoshoot for a big new ad campaign. The hero is about to turn him down, but then recognizes the photo of the model: it’s that girl, the one he slept with once six years ago! So he says yes in the hope of bedding her again.
The heroine has been chastely raising their daughter, because this is a romance novel and she is a perpetual near-virgin. Also, we find out that she had an emergency caesarian (with complications) and probably can’t have any more children, ever. She bravely mourned that fact alone, then more sensibly decided to be thankful for the one child she has and got on with raising her. She wants to be a really good mother, because her own was a Bad Woman Who Slept Around.
He meets her and they have the most confusing, point-of-view switching, POINTLESS arguments ever. Meanwhile she dithers about whether or not to tell him he has a daughter–he eventually guesses–and gets hit by a boat while saving a small child. No, really, that happens. I guess she’s still the impetuous ditz he fell for, or something. I don’t know, I just found her bloody annoying, and the awkwardly worded sentences gave me a headache. Here she is going down a steep path, for instance:
This was no path, thought Angel, more a free climb, and the appeal of clinging to a rock face with nothing to harness you for pleasure passed Angel by.

There appears to be something about “harnessing you for pleasure” in that line, until you reread it and mentally translate it as “She didn’t get why some people enjoyed climbing rocks for pleasure, especially without a harness.” It was frankly a more interesting sentence when I thought there was a pleasure-harness in it.

I know “failure to communicate” is a thing, in novels as well as in real life, but I wanted to kill these two. They never communicate ANYTHING; the more important the conversation, the less likely they are to have it. He threatens to gain access to his child by legal means, using all the money and lawyers at his disposal and digging up any skeletons in her closet, and she’s terrified, and then he relents:

He took a deep breath, a soft sibilant hiss escaping through his teeth before he said quietly, “No threats.”

“I wasn’t threatened.” Not true–she had been.

Then WHAT IS THE POINT of lying to him about it? Why not say, “This will go better if you aren’t an angry, scary dickhead about it”?The whole book is like that: scene after scene of them talking past each other and thinking Deep and Relevant Things which they never actually say.

One thing I did like is that the book matter-of-factly includes her Caesarian scars without it being a big, woe-I-am-imperfect deal. The actual scene, though, is lolzy and melodramatic:

“Complications during labour. I had an emergency C-section.”

He felt as if a hand had reached into his chest. So much had happened to her that he was responsible for and he’d been totally oblivious.

“You could have died?” Guilt rose like bile in his throat. What had he been doing at the time? Driving a fast car? Signing off on a deal and congratulating himself? Enjoying technically perfect sex with a beautiful woman…?

There had been nothing technical about last night.

That section is even better if you read it out loud. Dramatically

So, blahblahblah, he proposes (after lots of internal monologue about wanting them to be a family, and how he should have been there during her delivery, and so on and so forth).

“You really are a stupid woman!” The insult was delivered in a voice that held so much love that her eyes filled. “You already have given me a family–you have given me Jasmine. You and jasmine are all the family I want or need, my bolshy, belligerent, beautiful Angelina, my very own Angel. I love you.”

Okay then.

And as if I didn’t hate this book enough already, there’s an epilogue, where–wait for it–she’s got a baby in her arms. Because she had a totally unexpected pregnancy! Yay! I bet you didn’t see that coming right from the moment I mentioned her C-section-with-complications, right? 

Active Ingredients:
Secret Baby
Dead Wife
Perpetual Near-Virgin
Closet Romantic
Model
Emergency C-Section (with complications)
She Can Never Have Children Again
Mommy Issues
Surprise Baby

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J.S.Cook: Valley of the Dead

 Title: Valley of the Dead
Author: J. S. Cook
Dreamspinner Press
Published: 2013
Reasons I Might Actually Remember This One: The sense of place in this is fantastic. Roughly half the book takes place in St. John’s, Newfoundland, a city I’ve lived in. Granted I didn’t live there in the 1940s, but the streets and buildings and atmosphere all ring true. The other half takes place in Egypt, and vividly conveys an almost dreamlike sense of how foreign the heat and people feel to the hero, and how sharply the local details stand out as he struggles to make sense of the alliances and lies that surround him.

I read this because I needed a break from sheikh-sheikh-sheikh romances, but I didn’t want to stray too far afield. This is a m/m romance set during WWII, partly in Egypt and partly in Newfoundland, and the hero’s love interest/crush/special friend is Sam Halim, a Cairo policeman up to his ears in international espionage.

I’ve classified this as a romance novel, but really it’s noir, and I think possibly that’s why there’ve been some criticisms of it on Goodreads regarding Jack Stoyles depth of attachment for Sam when they’ve (at the start of the book) only ever exchanged a kiss, and have known each other for a couple of weeks.

Looked at as a romance novel, that would be a flaw: insta-romance is a trope in some romance novels, but not one that works for everyone. But in noir, the instant-pure-love of the hero is a Thing; possibly it’s meant to contrast with the unrelenting grimness and violence that surrounds him. Sam Spade knows Brigid O’Shaughnessy just as briefly when he offers to wait for her for TWENTY YEARS in The Maltese Falcon, after all.

Like any good hardboiled, two-fisted tale, this book has Jack being threatened, kidnapped, and pummeled at every turn, as his determination to find Sam puts him at the centre of a tangled web of shifting international alliances and plots.

Readers looking for a purely historical romance might be put off by the violence, and by the large percentage of plot-to-sex. But if you’re familiar with pulp/noir, and want to see some well-written sex and endless longing against that backdrop, this is a fantastic read.