Better Than Chocolate
By Sheila Roberts
Publisher: Harlequin Mira
Release Date: September 25, 2012
Bank manager Blake Preston would like nothing better than to grant Samantha Sterling the extension she needs to catch up on Sweet Dreams’ loan payments, but he knows that to do so would jeopardize his own career and the financial health of the bank. He’s been brought in to replace the long-time manager who has allowed his kind heart and neighborliness to override fiscal wisdom. Samantha inspires Blake with sweet dreams of his own, but he knows she will always see him as Sterling enemy #1 if she loses the family company.
When one of Samantha’s younger sisters comes up with the idea of a chocolate festival to save the company, Samantha is skeptical. But she goes along with it since it seems to be their only hope. Soon all the Sterlings and most of the citizens of Icicle Falls are involved in preparations for the festival with varying degrees of enthusiasm. The town, losing tourists’ dollars due to a low-snow season, needs a miracle almost as much as Sweet Dreams does. But there are many obstacles along the way, and in the end, love still proves the greatest miracle of all.
By Sheila Roberts
Publisher: Harlequin Mira
Release Date: October 23, 2012
Thanksgiving Day is pretty close to perfect for Cass Wilkes. Most of her family and some of her closest friends are gathered for the traditional meal and gratitude sharing. The most lucrative season for her Gingerbread Haus bakery is about to begin, and except for an occasional negative thought about her ex who is exhibiting a new determination to be involved in the lives of their three children after years as mostly a checkbook father, life is good. Although she’s surprised at the timing when her oldest daughter Danielle and her boyfriend Mike announce their engagement, she loves Mike and thinks he and Dani are great together. Best of all, Mike is a local boy with a job in Icicle Falls, and he and Dani will settle here where Dani will continue to be Cass’s number one assistant at the bakery. But the announcement is just the beginning of the surprises, and not all of them are pleasant.
First, Dani and Mike are planning a Christmas wedding, not ideal timing for a busy baker. Then, while Cass envisions her beloved brother Drew as the bride’s escort, Dani wants her father to walk her down the aisle. Finally, Mike has a new job in Spokane, and the pair will be leaving Icicle Falls at the first of the new year. At this point, Cass has no idea of just how many unpleasant surprises the next few weeks hold for her, especially the one that requires her to have her ex, Mason, and his younger, thinner trophy wife, Babette, and their pernicious pet as guests in her home.
Charley Albach’s love life may be dismal, but she has great friends who share her belief in female empowerment and her love for old movies. Her restaurant, Zelda’s, is one of the most popular spots in Icicle Falls, and Charley is mostly content with her lot. Then out of the blue, her cheating jerk of an ex is back in town, courting her with hot chocolate, sleigh rides, and kisses that make her remember how things used to be. He’s begging for forgiveness for his affair with Zelda’s former hostess and a new start. Charley’s friends are urging caution, but her libido doesn’t agree with them.
Just a year ago, Ella and Jake O’Brien were one of Icicle Falls’ favorite young couples, joyfully celebrating the holidays with his big family. Now the only thing they are sharing is a house they haven’t been able to sell so that the newly divorced couple can start building separate lives not just sleep in separate bedrooms. Lily Swan, Ella’s mother, always though her daughter’s marriage to Jake O’Brien, a country music singer/songwriter who had nothing more to offer Ella that his heart and an improbable dream of succeeding with his music. When Lily presented evidence that Jake was cheating on his wife, Ella was forced to admit her mother was right. Now she just wants out of the house that holds too many memories and away from her ex who makes her long for what used to be.
Christmas in Icicle Falls is filled with women and their exes. One deserves a permanent exit, one will be satisfied only with exultant reunion, and one is ready to change his status from evil ex to excellent friend. Time will reveal which is which.
Sheila Roberts introduced Icicle Falls last July in a prequel novella “Welcome to Icicle Falls” that appeared along with “Treasure Beach,” a novella that fall between books 2 and three of Emilie Richards’s Happiness Key series, in Summer in a Small Town. It’s a small town with the look of an Alpine village on the eastern side of the Cascade Mountains in the state of Washington. It has the requisite inn, florist, bookstore, restaurants, and assorted other shops, along with a rowdy bar called Man Cave. It’s a town known for the way the community pulls together and for saving itself from extinction.
The first two books are hybrids of romance and women’s fiction, that is, they are as much about female journeys as they are about romantic relationships.
Better Than Chocolate focuses on Samantha and her relationships with her mother Muriel (whose story is told in “Welcome to Icicle Falls”) and her younger sisters, professional matchmaker Cecily and caterer Bailey and with Blake Preston. Like all of the books of Sheila Roberts, this one is filled with humor that evokes smiles, giggles, and guffaws. Most of the people of the town are likeable, although some are more type than individual. I found Samantha alternately sympathetic and irritating. Her problem is real, and her fears are understandable. Her sense of responsibility not only to the business started by her great-grandmother but also to her employees and her family is commendable, but her conviction that she always knows best reminded me unpleasantly of some people I know. I also thought her demonizing of Blake was over the top. Blake is a beta hero, a nice guy in a difficult situation who does amazing things and often seemed a better man than the heroine deserved. I liked him a great deal.
The greatest problem I had with the book was pacing. The first part moved so slowly that had I not been reading the book for review, I probably would have given up on it. The second part picks up the pace considerably, and my interest increased. But threads are wound up too quickly for my taste. Rather than resolutions appearing organic, they seemed contrived. I also thought the title and the cover promised more romance than the book delivered.
Merry Ex-Mas is a stronger book because the balance and pacing are far more effective. Cass’s story is the heart of the book, and I liked it a lot. Roberts offers a view of divorce that’s not often seen. Cass’s hostility toward her ex endures over many years, and she has never examined her own role in the failure of her marriage. The wedding travails were funny, but they will likely elicit a sympathetic wince from a lot of mothers who helped daughters plan weddings.
Charley is one of my favorite characters in this series, a mix of strength and vulnerability that I found endearing. I thought her story too was fully credible and offered an atypical experience. Since her story has a for-now rather than a forever resolution, I hope to see more of her. The hint of things to come pleased me greatly.
Ella and Jake’s story, the one I expected to like most, turned out to be the one I liked least. Both characters seemed too passive, and I particularly disliked the way Ella allowed her mother to interfere in her life.
Overall, I’d say this is a series with promise. The second book is better than the first, a good sign, and there are at least half a dozen characters whose stories I’m interested in seeing reach fruition. I know there is at least one more book in the series. What She Wants is scheduled for release on March 26, 2013. But the description makes no mention of the characters whose stories I want, and so I suspect there will be additional books next year.
What I did note, was that sequel bait is sprinkled liberally, and while I really would be interested in her sister the former matchmaker and the bar owner’s story (he’s clearly her man)–I worry that the author would write the book as she did this one and I’d be left wondering what the book I just read was about. This author painted such a vivid image of a small Washington town, and had such interesting characters I was eager for more depth, for more emotion. Samantha is a really strong, likeable woman. She’s struggling with the massive undertaking of running a company that needs a giant boost up out of the danger zone, and struggling with feelings of pain and resentment that her mother didn’t avoid the entire situation in the first place. If Samantha had been put in charge (as she rightfully should have) after her father died, none of them would be in this predicament now.
We are treated to plenty of scenes featuring her grieving mother – unwashed, in pajamas, and completely unlikeable. While I applaud the author for letting the woman grieve, I found the character to be so weak at her core (has no financial responsibility, always depending on men to fix things for her) that I couldn’t feel much for her. I wish we had been shown why she’s such an amazing woman, and that her scenes had been cut in favor of something more interesting- like an actual romance.
During the early chapters of this book it reminded me a lot of the Virgin River series – a small town full of interesting yet every day and ordinary characters finding love and living in the town they adore. This set up can work so beautifully for a really enjoyable and satisfying read. Unfortunately I don’t think this book ever quite found its stride as I felt the ‘this will save the business’ plot was unrealistic and the romance non-existent.
If you enjoy general fiction, and would like to read about how a small town pulls together to hold a chocolate festival, and get to know the ladies of Samantha’s family a bit, then I would recommend this to you. It definitely feels like a series book, as I was left with a lot of “what will happen next?” questions for many of the characters that I’d come to like. I know many people enjoy this kind of book and seek out series like this.
If, however, you pick this book up expecting a romance you’re bound to be disappointed. While there are some elements of romance, they’re so minor, and so under developed you won’t enjoy it. I felt like Blake could have been a really strong character, but the ladies were all so busy getting page time that there simply wasn’t room for him to make grand gestures or even for us to really get to know him.
Despite my problems with this book, I will pick up this author at least one more time and hope for a read that is as satisfying as the cover is adorable.