by Shannon Stacey, contemporary (2012, reissue)
HQN, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-373-77678-8
Exclusively Yours was first published by Carina Press, the digital publishing arm owned by the parent company that also owns HQN, back in 2010. Clearly the author must have moved terabytes of her books, because HQN is moved to pick up the author and release this as well as the next two books in the author's series about the Kowalski clan.
This book is a good example of a well-written contemporary romance that, at the same time, feels utterly contrived. There are some nice moments that feel real, but these moments are overshadowed by the number of moments that feel artificial. Massive suspensions of disbelief is needed on almost every other page of this story, or else you may not be able to stop thinking, "Wait, can this really happen in real life?" That will be distracting, naturally.
Once upon a time, Keri Daniels and Joe Kowalski were teenage sweethearts, but you know how it is, people grow up and drift apart eventually. This is one of those things that feel quite real in this story. I also like how realistic Keri's life in the years since the break-up is depicted. She's not some weird neurotic twit holding on to the memory of Joe while thinking that all men are jerks, for example. She's refreshingly normal.
But things get weird, so to speak, when Keri, who writes for a celebrity magazine, gets outed to her editor that she used to go out with Joe, who is now a bestselling reclusive author that has somehow taken the entire world by storm. Yes, apparently there are authors out there who generate as much column inches as your average D-list celebrity in LA. In real life, it will probably take Stephen King hooking up with Lindsay Lohan and Justin Bieber in a ménage à trois for those magazines to take notice of him, but all Joe has to do is to look pretty and hook up with some model here and there. Anyway, Keri has to secure an exclusive interview with Joe if she wants to keep her job. Joe is on to her, and he tells her that he will grant her a chance to ask him a question for every day she spends with him during the annual Kowalski Sequel Bait Advertisements, also known as "Family Camping Vacation".
I really wish the author hadn't chosen this particular plot for her story. If Keri wants to keep her job, she has to play along with Joe for a chance to obtain a heavily sanitized interview, approved by Joe, which is exactly what her editor will not want from her. She's screwed from the start - she's being played whether to turns left or right, so to speak. No matter how jolly the atmosphere is in this story, the hero is playing the heroine, screwing her out of her job while keeping her hanging on. It gets worse when the hero keeps expecting the heroine to stay with him, wherever he goes, when he is the full-time bestselling author here while the heroine is basically a glorified tabloid hound. He can move anywhere he wants, she can't, and yet he is the one who makes such demands on her. Joe comes off as a very nice guy with a massive streak of self-absorption that can get pretty petty and even mean at times, and I will always have my doubts about the durability of the romance in this story.
That's a shame, really, because Joe and Keri have oodles of mad chemistry. Take away the contrived premise that brings about the reunion, and I get a wonderful romance that is perfectly balanced, with just the right amount of humor to complement the more emotional scenes. Keri, as I've said, is a wonderfully normal heroine, and Joe is mostly sane and normal, too, without stereotypical alpha male traits.
The secondary characters are for the most part predictable types. The sequel baits are there, telling me blatantly that their books are coming next, the warm and rather colorful parents are exactly as they should be, and there is the usual sister with marital issues which get resolved in an unrealistically tidy manner. The story unfurls in a rather predictable manner too. There is that issue with Joe's obnoxious ex, for one. Oh, and Keri acts like a typical city girl flailing around outdoors. Keri also has some minor bumps fitting in with the Kowalski, mostly due to her fractured friendship with Terry, Joe's twin sister. These conflicts can often feel really contrived, complete with "What, do things work like this in real life?" moments.
At the end of the day, Exclusively Yours is a book that I have a good time reading, make no mistake about that. It's bouncy and full of humor that works for me, putting a big silly grin on my face. But at the same time, this is a contemporary romance that often feels detached from contemporary norms. Yes, many contemporary romances have that problem today. But that doesn't change the fact that I'd have enjoyed this story so much more - much, much more - if I didn't have to pause so often while reading to suspend my disbelief a little bit more each time.
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