Sunday, June 5, 2016

From the Heart (book) by Nora Roberts

From the Heart is a collection of three romance novels.

I decided not to include any read-alikes. Also, my post contains a slight spoiler for Endings and Beginnings, the third novel in the collection.


From the Heart contains three of Nora Roberts' early romance novels: Tonight and Always (1983), A Matter of Choice (1984), and Endings and Beginnings (1984). They're not related in any other way – no characters in common, and even the tones are different. Tonight and Always is the lightest of the bunch, with conflicts that are either internal or rooted in family. A Matter of Choice is romantic suspense. Endings and Beginnings, like Tonight and Always, has more internal conflict, but includes bursts of adrenaline due to the characters' profession (they're both TV reporters).

I'll write about each novel separately and then end my review with a bit about the volume as a whole. If you want the short version: Endings and Beginnings is good, while the rest of the volume can safely be skipped.

Tonight and Always:

Jordan Taylor is an author who has hired Kasey Wyatt, an anthropologist, to help him with his latest book (as far as I could tell, probably historical fiction dealing with Plains Indians). For the next few months, Kasey will live in the Taylor mansion with Jordan, Jordan's mother, and Alison, Jordan's 11-year-old niece. Kasey instantly bonds with Alison, whose parents died when she was 8. Kasey is also instantly attracted to Jordan. The feelings are mutual, and she finds herself forming something like a family with Jordan and Alison. However, she's well aware of her place and that this time with them is only temporary – and Jordan's mother will make sure she doesn't forget.

Roberts hit some great emotional notes, and I loved the lighter moments between Jordan, Kasey, and Alison. Jordan and Kasey's conversations were usually fun, and the overall tone of the story was pretty sweet. However, in many other ways Tonight and Always was an absolute mess.

When Kasey first met Jordan, he was complaining to the friend who convinced him to hire her. His words: “'I do find myself wondering how we're going to get on over the next few months. Professional spinsters are intimidating, and not my favorite companions.'” (4) Kasey was more amused than offended and responded to each one of the complaints he never intended for her to overhear in a breezy and clever way.

If I had been her, I'd have been angry. I'd have understood if she had gritted her teeth and focused on the future paycheck, but the way she laughed off his words baffled me, as did the repeated moments of mutual attraction that neither one of them bothered to hide. Not once did Kasey worry about what a sexual relationship with her employer might do to her professional reputation. She also didn't worry about having agreed to live in the same house as a guy who flat out stated that he intended to have sex with her.

After the initial lust was taken care of, the story settled into the family-building between Jordan, Kasey, and Alison. I enjoyed that part a lot, almost enough to make up for the way the story started, but then things went completely off the rails near the end. Jordan's mother said things that I'm pretty sure she couldn't have followed through on, and Jordan and Kasey had an angry sex scene that was essentially rape (even Jordan thought so, although Kasey assured him he was wrong: “'What happened that night was a long way from rape. I could have stopped you or fought you all the way. You know I didn't.'” (167)). If Kasey had just talked to Jordan after his mother spoke to her, they could both have avoided months of heartache, but no, that would have been too easy.

Parts of this story were good, but I can't recommend it overall.

A Matter of Choice:

James Sladerman, better known as Slade, is a New York cop who secretly dreams of quitting the force and working full-time as a writer. Commissioner Dodson knows Slade is working on a book and decides that it'd be the perfect cover for an assignment in Connecticut. Jessica Winslow, Dodson's goddaughter, may be in trouble. The FBI has evidence indicating that Jessica's antique shop is being used to smuggle jewels from Europe to the United States. Dodson wants Slade to pretend to be a writer staying at Jessica's house in order to work on his novel and organize her library. While he's there, he's supposed to guard Jessica, who'll have no clue who he really is, and keep an eye out for anything that might reveal which of Jessica's employees is involved in the smuggling operation.

Okay, first I have to talk about the premise. I can't believe that this was the best setup that Roberts could come up with in order to place a cop inside a wealthy antiques dealer's home. Commissioner Dodson having “connections” wasn't nearly a good enough explanation for why he was able to send a New York cop into the midst of an investigation going on in Connecticut, especially without anybody in the FBI or any of the cops in that jurisdiction making a fuss.

Aside from the awful premise, this was technically better than Tonight and Always. Slade and Jessica were instantly attracted to each other, the same as Kasey and Jordan, but they didn't fall on each other right away. They were strangers who'd just met, and Slade knew how bad it would look if he had sex with someone who might very well be involved in the smuggling operation (unlike his commissioner, he didn't automatically dismiss this possibility).

Unfortunately, once they finally broke down and had sex that's all they seemed to do. Jessica being in danger meant they couldn't really go out, so they spent a lot of time either cooped up in her house or walking around nearby it. Jessica felt confused, betrayed, frightened, and angry when she learned who Slade really was, but those feelings kept getting overwhelmed by lust and adrenaline. I was reminded of all my failed attempts to read Roberts' other standalone romantic suspense novels. Each time, it felt like the suspense shortchanged the romance. And this time around the suspense aspect wasn't even all that interesting.

Probably the most interesting thing about A Matter of Choice was that Slade was a cop who didn't really want to be a cop – he only became one because his father had been one. In my experience, that's highly unusual for a Roberts cop character, but it wasn't enough to make this more than a serviceable read. As much as aspects of Tonight and Always annoyed me, I still emotionally connected with the characters in that story more than the ones in this one.

Endings and Beginnings:

I'll start with a warning: this book includes a couple off-page child deaths.

Liv Carmichael is a local TV news reporter in Washington, D.C. whose greatest professional nemesis is T.C. Thorpe, a national TV news reporter. Thorpe is intrigued by her and invites her to an embassy party. It's not long before he decides that Liv is the woman he wants to marry. However, getting her to say “yes” isn't going to be easy. She's been hurt before, and there are too many things Thorpe doesn't know about her and her past.

My synopsis sucks. Anyway, this was by far the best book in the collection.

I absolutely loved the beginning. Roberts finally got the emotional balance right, or nearly so. Liv's initial feelings towards Thorpe were entirely rooted in professional rivalry, without a hint of lust or even attraction. She noted that he was handsome, but mainly because it was a point in his favor when it came to working on TV. The sexual tension did start up fairly quickly, and Thorpe fell for Liv harder and faster than was maybe believable, but Liv's emotional walls kept their relationship from progressing too quickly.

Whereas Jordan was too old-fashioned of a romance hero, and Slade was too boring, I really liked Thorpe. At least at the start, he enjoyed getting a rise out of Liv. However, he'd back off the instant he realized he'd accidentally hit a more personal sore spot. He tended to be annoyingly confident about his chances with Liv, but he wasn't quite as pushy about it as Jordan – he knew when to give her space.

Although I really enjoyed Endings and Beginnings overall, its pacing could have used a little work. I found myself getting impatient with how long it was taking Liv to finally tell Thorpe about her past (as it turned out, there was more going on than I realized). Also, it seemed like random things kept happening around Liv and Thorpe. I realize that this was a consequence of their jobs – they could be reporting on a plane crash one day, a prime minister's death the next, and a hostage situation some time after that – but it made for a weird reading experience.

The volume as a whole:

I didn't realize, going in, that this was a collection of Roberts' older romances. I had thought maybe it was a collected volume of one of her trilogies.

Anyway, this experience. Most of my favorite Nora Roberts books were published in the late 90s. It's been a while since I last read any of them – I remember noticing her use of head-hopping, but I don't think it was nearly on the same level as the head-hopping I saw in From the Heart. I could put up with some of it, and I even enjoyed the way she played with during one moment in Tonight and Always, but sometimes it was just weird and confusing. For example, one scene in A Matter of Choice featured head-hopping between two shadowy villains, both referred to as “he.”

All three of these books were dated, in various ways. I can't comment on the accuracy of the information Kasey gave Jordan, but nowadays I would think he'd want to consult with at least one member of whatever tribe he was writing about, even if his book was historical fiction. I also winced when Kasey bought Jordan an Apache shaman's rattle as a present. It seemed extremely touristy, not, I think, what Roberts was going for. A Matter of Choice had one climactic moment that would have been ruined if everyone had had cell phones, and Endings and Beginnings' few mentions of real-life political moments were, of course, not very current.

Another thing I noticed was how much the characters smoked. Kasey smoked cigarettes when she was nervous, and Jordan smoked the occasional cigar. At one point, Thorpe lit a cigarette inside Liv's home without asking, and neither of them commented on that. I can't remember any specific instances of smoking in A Matter of Choice, but I wouldn't be surprised if characters in that one smoked too. So much smoking. Off the top of my head, the only recent Nora Roberts character I can think of who smokes is Roarke in her In Death books.

Reading these books reminded me of one thing I've always really liked about Roberts' heroines: they almost always have careers that they're passionate about and that they love. In that respect, Tonight and Always bothered me the most, because Kasey's pregnancies seemed like they would have gotten in the way of going on digs (or maybe not? I honestly have no idea). Endings and Beginnings was fabulous, though, with Liv rightfully telling Thorpe off when he got in the way of her doing her job at the scene of a terrorist attack.

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