SmittenSmitten by Kristin Billerbeck, Colleen Coble, Diann Hunt and Denise Hunter
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Number of pages: 432
My copy: ebook review copy from Netgalley

Welcome to Smitten, Vermont. With the help of four friends, it’s about to become the most romantic town in America. The proposed closing of the lumber mill comes as unwelcome news for the citizens of Smitten. How will the town survive without its main employer? A close-knit group of women think they’ll be smitten too.

* * *

In a town called Smitten, their main source of income is their lumber mill. With the lumber mill comes the men, who’s used to providing for their families, content with the life of being men despite the fact that their town had a very…well, feminine name. What happens then, when the town’s only source of income closes? The women come to the rescue, of course. Taking advantage of the town’s name, a group of friends planned to turn their town into a romantic tourist spot. Armed with lots of ideas and a whole lot of faith, Natalie, Julia, Shelby and Reese work with the rest of the town to and pray that their ideas would take off and put Smitten on the map — and maybe, along the way, they would find someone to be smitten too as well.

I love short stories and anthologies for the simple fact that they’re so easy to read and digest. I got Smitten from Netgalley because of that, followed by the fact that one of the authors in this book, Kristin BIllerbeck, is a favorite. I was in the mood for a cozy romance last month (being February and all) while I was in the middle of some (sort of gross) zombie books, so I picked up Smitten ready to be, well, smitten. Interestingly, the authors of this book are all friends with each other in real life, and they even had a note at the start of the book to share their story of their friendship. Like I said, the only author I have read there is Kristin Billerbeck, so I was looking forward to reading what she wrote there, and I was also curious with how the other authors write. Maybe this would convince me to get some of their books too.

The best thing about this book IMHO is the setting. The town of Smitten came alive to me from the first page, and I was rooting for the girls’ ideas to come to fruition in the town. Smitten seemed like such a picturesque town that needed some feminine touch, and I looked forward to reading how the town improved towards the romantic direction in each story. It may seem a little too much of a perfect town at some point, and maybe if I thought of it a little further as a too nice town it would be a bit creepy. But I want to be there, and I want to spend some time in their town even if I wasn’t a part of a couple.

The stories were pretty entertaining, too, although I can’t say I liked all of them. This is a collection of stories but I realized that it’s not really an anthology because the stories are all connected to each other and you can’t read the next without reading the one that precedes that because you’d get spoiled. Think of it as a series of spin-offs in a book. The thing with short romance stories, though, is they don’t have as much time to develop the romantic relationship from the ground up. By this, I mean, the stories can’t really start from the two characters getting to know each other for the first time and then their relationship developing from something because it would need a longer length to make the relationship feel more realistic to avoid the risk of it being another insta-love story. Unless of course that is the real intention. But anyway, with this in mind, the love stories in Smitten were all about the girls and their old time friends or old acquaintances in the town that they never really paid attention to, or have pined for but has been unrequited for some time until this. To be perfectly honest I had a hard time adjusting to that because I was used to reading full-length novels with the romance starting from the very start. The idea of old-time friends suddenly turning into lovers took some time getting used to ((You know this just shows how I think of the friend zone, LOL. But let’s not talk about that here.)). But once I got used to it, I got all the nice tingles when the stories developed.

But as nice it was for the romantic relationships to start from friendships in Smitten, I felt that the shortness of the stories kind of hindered the book from delivering a bigger “oomph”. For some stories, I was just getting used to the two characters dancing around each other and (wholesomely) flirting when suddenly, they’re on their first date or someone’s confessing their love or someone is stealing a kiss from someone. Before I got used to that, the couples are fighting, or having an argument or dealing with old issues. The only story that didn’t feel too abrupt at some point was the last (my favorite among the four), and it even had some kind of foreshadowing from the previous story, which made it exciting for me because it felt like a spin-off (and you know how I love spin-offs). I’m sure the word count limit is an important factor and it’s one of the things that made the stories so and we can’t really do anything about it as a reader. I just really wish that the stories were just a little bit longer.

Despite those nitpicks, Smitten is still a pretty good book. It was exactly what I expected it to be: a nice and cozy, fluffy, romantic read. Granted, there could have been more swoony moments, but overall, it’s a nice (and clean!) book about romance and faith. My favorite story is Reese’s, but like I said up there, don’t skip the stories! Reading the first three makes Reese’s story the most satisfying of them all. :)

Rating: [rating=3]

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Protection for Hire

Protection for Hire by Camy TangProtection for Hire by Camy Tang
Protection for Hire # 1
Publisher: Zondervan
Number of pages: 336
My copy: ebook review copy from Netgalley

Tessa Lancaster’s skills first earned her a position as an enforcer in her Uncle Teruo’s Japanese Mafia gang. Then they landed her in prison for a crime she didn’t commit. Now, three months after her release, Tessa’s abilities have gained her a job as bodyguard for wealthy socialite Elizabeth St. Amant and her three-year-old son.But there’s a problem or two … or three …. There’s Elizabeth’s abusive husband whose relentless pursuit goes deeper than mere vengeance. There’s Uncle Teruo, who doesn’t understand why Tessa’s new faith as a Christian prevents her from returning to the yakuza. And then there’s Elizabeth’s lawyer, Charles Britton, who Tessa doesn’t know is the one who ensured that she did maximum time behind bars. Now Tessa and Charles must work together in order to protect their client, while new truths emerge and circumstances spiral to a deadly fever pitch. Factor in both Tessa’s and Charles’s families and you’ve got some wild dynamics—and an action-packed, romantic read as Tessa and Charles discover the reality of being made new in Christ.

* * *

What do you get when you cross the niece of the head of the Japanese mafia with a Southern belle in need of protection and a straight-edge lawyer who hates the said mafia? Tessa Lancaster is the niece of Teruo Ota, the head of the San Francisco yakuza. Left by her dad when she was young and living with a difficult relationship with her mom and sister, she becomes some sort of mercenary to her uncle’s mafia, working as an enforcer for her mafia cousins. She was doing fine just like that until she decided to take the fall for her cousin Fred’s careless murder of his girlfriend, landing her in prison. Seven years later, Tessa is out, and she’s turning over a new leaf, after meeting Christ in prison. But her reputation precedes her that everyone’s still afraid of her, making it hard for her to live a normal life. Until she meets Elizabeth St. Amant with her three-year-old son on the run from her husband who’s trying to kill her. Elizabeth hires Tessa to be her bodyguard, which would be a fine job if not for Elizabeth’s lawyer, Charles Britton. Unbeknownst to Tessa, Charles was the reason why Tessa served extra years in prison, and Charles does not trust her…but he can’t deny the attraction that he feels for her. Throw in Tessa’s Uncle wanting her to work for him again, her mom, her sister and her new found faith, and…well, God only knows what could happen.

I’m not just saying this because Camy is one of my favorite authors, but really, Protection for Hire was such a fun book. This book is reminiscent of her Sushi series with all the wackiness and hijinks that the characters get into. But because Tessa had such a shady past and a heavy responsibility on her shoulders, there were more risks involved for her. She’s not one who’s worried about things such as zafus or make-up, but life and death situations. Tessa reminds me a bit of Venus, my favorite Sushi sister, but a bit more vulnerable especially since she’s been trying to live her faith. Her vulnerability is what made Tessa so endearing, and I rooted for her from the start up to the end.

The other characters surrounding Tessa were a hoot, too. Camy’s characters are one of my favorite things to read in her novels. They always feel so real, and I felt like I could easily be friends with them. In Protection for Hire, I loved Charles’ family, especially his mom and his brother! Such a darling family, and I don’t care if Charles’ mom cooks all the random food. Plus, she was a breath of fresh air from Tessa’s annoying (yet, well meaning…most of the time, anyway) mother. As always, there’s the heroine’s crazy family, which seemed to be a staple in Camy’s stories. I thought Tessa’s immediate family would be similar to the Sushi sisters’ clans, but I was glad that it turned out to be different, and dare I say, more entertaining to read. The Japanese mafia aspect was very interesting too. It was the first time I’ve read about the yakuza, and while it wasn’t really discussed in detail here, I liked the overall mafia/The Godfather-like feel that the story had.

Now, I wouldn’t have liked this so much if the plot wasn’t as good as the characters. There’s lots of action, funny moments and yes, romance, in Protection for Hire, enough to keep me glued to the pages. There were moments of shock, too — the good kind, the one that made me sigh and smile with delight when it happened. :) There was enough suspense in the story to have me guessing about what exactly were they up against. It almost came to a point where I was a bit overwhelmed with all the plot twists but in the end, I think it still paid off well. The wrap up at the end felt just a teensy bit rushed for me, but I guess it was still in character given Tessa’s family.

Protection for Hire is a fun, action-packed and romantic book that will definitely satisfy those who crave for that kind of stuff. If you’re wary of the faith aspect of the novel (being that it is a Christian novel), don’t worry — it’s never preachy or in-your-face. If you’ve ever been one who has tried to move on and make up from past mistakes and yet still find yourself under a microscope and slapped with your mistakes on the face over and over again, then you will be able to relate to Tessa. Throw in the a cast of hilarious, gripping plot and good writing, and…well, you have yourself a really awesome book. :)

Rating: [rating=5]

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Angelica’s Daughters

Angelica's DaughtersAngelica’s Daughters by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard, Susan Evangelista, Veronica Montes, Nadine Sarreal, Erma M. Cuizon
Publisher: Anvil
Number of pages: 201 pages
My copy: paperback, birthday gift from Ariel

Angelica’s Daughters is a collaborative novel by five established Filipina writers, called a “dugtungan.” A dugtungan is a genre of Tagalog novel popular early in the 20th century, in which each writer creates a chapter and hands it off to the next, who writes another chapter without direction. The result, in this case, is an ensemble performance that contains something of the exhilaration of theatrical improv. One watches these accomplished authors inventively weave a historical romance, creating gripping heroines and turns of plot, crossing decades and national boundaries, tapping into cultural roots of the Philippines, Spain and America. Reading Angelica’s Daughters is a gripping experience.~ Brian Ascalon Roley, Author of American Son (W.W. Norton)

* * *

One time during junior year in high school, my friends and I started scribbling on spare pieces of notebook paper. It was a story about a group of friends that we started passing around our group, leaving a part hanging so the next person could continue the story. We never finished the story, but I remember we had a colorful cast of characters, and I ended up continuing the story and posting a snippet of it somewhere that I cannot remember for the life of me. Anyway, we also had the same kind of exercise during my college literary folio days — one would start a story and then another would pick it up. I adopted that exercise for our NaNoWriMo group, and although it never really flew, it was a fun project.

So that’s really one of the reasons why I was curious about Angelica’s Daughters. This book is a collaborative “dugtungan” novel by five authors: Cecilia Manguerra Brainard, Susan Evangelista, Veronica Montes, Nadine Sarreal, Erma M. Cuizon. They are all writers on their own but their friendship (and writing classes) led them to collaborate on different short stories. One day they decided to upgrade into writing a novel, passing on an idea and a chapter to one another, until they came up with the story of Angelica.

Angelica’s Daughters revolved around three female descendants of Angelica de los Santos. First was Tess, whose 8 years of marriage dissolved after she found out her husband Tonio has left his mens wedding ring behind and was dating a younger woman. She flies home to the Philippines to gather her thoughts and herself and spends time with her Lola Josefina. Josefina had secrets of her own, one that she wasn’t sure that her granddaughter (or anyone else in the family would understand). In the course of Tess’ stay, a cousin gives her a bundle of letters from their Angelica, a distant grandmother who was the subject of many of her childhood stories. They were never really sure if all those stories about Angelica were real or not — like how a guy killed himself when Angelica refused to give him her love, or how wives were often jealous of her because of her beauty. Through the letters, Tess got to know her better but there were holes in the story that she longed to be filled. On the annual Tayabas fiesta, Tess meets her younger cousin, Dina, who carries a darker secret that is eating her alive.

As I was thinking of how I was going to review this book, I realized one thing: Angelica’s Daughters could pass as a perfect comfort read. It’s like the local version of a Sarah Addison Allen novel, but maybe even a bit better because it hits closer to home for me. There’s a certain grace and lyricism in the prose that makes me immediately sink into it, and marvel at the familiar feelings it evoked. There’s really something about a well-written Filipino work that just hits the right spot, like how a perfectly cooked dish can satisfy the strongest craving. Case in point, this particular line:

She served herself generously from the garlic fried rice and daing. She took her first bite and closed her eyes with pleasure.

I totally started salivating for garlic fried rice and daing (dried salted fish, for my non-Filipino friends) after I read this line. :) The entire novel had that feel of home that made it such a good comfort read.

Besides that, the book also had an interesting angle of history. This kind of reminds me a bit of old history readings in school, or watching movies based on Philippine history. Note that it didn’t really have the “required reading for school” feel, but it provided a sense of nostalgia for the early Spanish era in Philippine history. Angelica’s letters to her aunt and her stories were vivid and she felt very much alive in those letters. She may not be the nicest or the most honest character, but she is a well-formed character that it’s hard not to be curious about her as the book goes on.

I had a few nitpicks though. For one thing, I felt that Lola Josefina’s angle wasn’t really that explored, up until she admitted her secret to Tess. I wasn’t even aware that she was the third person in the story until I finally figured it out. Also, I thought Dina was introduced a little too late in the story, almost like she was an afterthought, like she was only there to be the receiver of Tess’ wrath.

Also, there was the dreaded insta-love. I wished there wasn’t an insta-love thing between Tess and Luis — I could accept Tess liking/lusting after him during the first time she met him and danced with him in the disco, but the idea of her falling in love with him felt a little too quick for me. I was never a fan of insta-love, anyway, and personally, I would’ve been fine if Tess ended up not having a love life in the end. After all, she still had to find herself after her marriage disintegrated.

Nevertheless, I thought Angelica’s Daughters was a well-written and enjoyable novel that deals with family, love and moving on from past mistakes. It’s chick lit, but it’s not really hardcore fluffy chick lit that I think even guys will like to read this. Plus that recipe for Angelica’s special tsokolate-espeso is a must-try. This is one of the good ones in Filipino fiction, and I hope more Filipinos get to read this book. :)

Rating: [rating=3]

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Until There Was You

Until There Was You by Kristan HigginsUntil There Was You by Kristan Higgins
Publisher: HQN books
Number of pages: 384
My copy: ebook review copy from Netgalley

Posey Osterhagen can’t complain. She owns a successful architectural salvaging company, she’s surrounded by her lovable, if off-center, family and she has a boyfriend—sort of. Still, something’s missing. Something tall, brooding and criminally good-looking…something like Liam Murphy.

When Posey was sixteen, the bad boy of Bellsford, New Hampshire, broke her heart. But now he’s back, sending Posey’s traitorous schoolgirl heart into overdrive once again. She should be giving him a wide berth, but it seems fate has other ideas….

* * *

I’ve never read any Kristan Higgins, but I’ve read about her in the reviews of my other book blogger friends. It’s been a while since I last read a chick lit book, so when I heard that Higgins’ latest book is available in Netgalley and that it was very entertaining, I decided to get it for some light reading.

Cordelia Osterhagen, also known as Posey, is pretty happy with her life. She has a business that she loves, saving old things such as used bar equipment and selling them again to decorate other people’s houses. Her family is kooky but fun and she even has a sort-of boyfriend. Never mind that this sort-of boyfriend is owner of her parents’ restaurant rival. Then she finds out that Liam Murphy is back in town, and it rocks her world. See, Liam is the guy who broke her heart sixteen years ago, and she felt that she never really got over it. Now that he is back, Posey is determined to not be affected by his charms, but it’s proving to be very, very difficult.

They were right — this was a fun and light novel. I loved the entire quirky town of Bellsford. It reminded me of those Southern towns I’ve read in other chick lit books I liked. I also love Posey’s family and friends, especially his gay brother and his partner. :) I also loved Posey’s business and her colleagues and her pets! Everything about the novel is so positively charming that it wasn’t hard not to fall in love with it.

The build up for the romance is my favorite in this novel. Posey and Liam both have their own issues, but the scenes they had together and their banter are so entertaining to read that I can’t help but smile. I especially liked how Posey gets to her realization about Liam and how she stands up for herself even if it means she could get her heart broken by the same guy again. It was also fun to be inside Liam’s head so we know he is not just your ordinary bad guy. Also, thank you for the fade to black scenes. :)

Until There Was You is really a fun and light novel, but not so much that it doesn’t have an impact. I am definitely stocking more Kristan Higgins’ novels in case I am in the mood for something to cheer me up in between serious reads. :)

Rating: [rating=4]

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Always the Wedding Planner, Never the Bride

Always the Wedding Planner, Never the Bride by Sandra D. Bricker
Always the Wedding Planner, Never the Bride by Sandra D. Bricker
Emma Rae Creation # 2
Publisher: Abingdon Press
Number of pages:  320 pages
My copy: ebook ARC from Netgalley

As a wedding planner, you’d thinkshe would have the perfect wedding experience…

Sherilyn Caine has left Chicago behind to marry Andrew Drummond IV, an Atlanta native with a family name that tops all the social registers. Landing the job as The Tanglewood’s wedding planner is a piece of cake for someone with a Type A personality; she’s the perfect fit for a wedding destination hotel known for its attention to even the tiniest details.

But when everything else is going along swimmingly, why are her own wedding plans drowning right before her eyes? One way or the other, Sherilyn is determined to make this wedding work—until the latest development threatens to call the whole thing off. Is it possible that Sherilyn is allergic to her fiance?

* * *

I read and enjoyed Sandra D. Bricker’s other book, Always the Baker, Never the Bride last year, and I honestly had no idea that this was a part of a series. So when I saw the galley for this book on Netgalley, I was pleasantly surprised. The first book wasn’t a favorite, but I liked it enough for me to get the sequel and read it in between pages of a ghost story I was also currently reading.

In Always the Wedding Planner, Never the Bride (which will be known as AWPNTB from now on — what a long title), we meet an old friend of the heroine from the first book, Sherilyn Caine. She’s a wedding planner and she fits right in the Tanglewood Hotel’s wedding planning staff. Sherilyn is also moving back home to get married with her fiance, Andrew Drummond IV, who she has met only a few months ago. Their engagement was short, sure, but they love each other — that should be enough right? But why is it that none of their wedding plans are pushing through?

AWPNTB is a fun read, especially since there are all those familiar characters that I liked last year. There was also the Southern charm that most Christian chick lit has, and it made me want to really see if Atlanta was as nice as it was written in these books. The book stays true to its wedding themes, too, and I liked the little wedding checklists written in between the chapters, as well as some of the recipes (like cookies) that Emma the baker plays with.

This had more marriage and wedding stuff compared to the first book, so to be totally honest, I wasn’t able to relate. Oh sure, I know a lot about weddings, given that my brother got married just last year and that he works as a wedding videographer, so I get regular doses of wedding magic. But being someone who has no plans of settling down anytime soon, I really couldn’t relate to the things that Sherilyn worried about. I felt bad for her, yes, but that was just it. I can’t really empathize — not yet, anyway.

Okay, maybe I feel that way because Sherilyn and Andy seemed to be products of “insta-love”, and I’m not really much of a fan of that. They knew each other for less than a year and then they’re getting married — how about that? But the good thing is, the issues about this quick engagement were tackled really well. The doubts, the quirks and the little issues that came up were addressed well, and even I was surprised with the last thing that ultimately gave Sherilyn and Andy reason to think about their relationship. I also liked how Sherilyn came into her final realization. It’s sweet and I guess, true. Not that I would know now, of course, but I’d like to believe that it is. :)

Always the Wedding Planner, Never the Bride is a nice installment to the Emma Rae Creation series, even if it I wasn’t able to relate to it that much. I dare say I will still pick up the next book, Always the Designer, Never the Bride. I wonder what crazy love-related and wedding antics the main characters will get into then?

Rating: [rating=3]

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