Sunday, March 20, 2016

Anthology Review: SEAL of My Dreams

SEAL of My Dreams -- editor Robyn Carr

**Including stories by 18 different romantic suspense authors.

~ Goodreads ~

Average Rating: 3.8 Stars
-- Personal Rating of 4.0 Stars

I chose to read and contemplate each of these short novellas and short stories one at a time, day-by-day and so between reading several other books, I read a select story (or two) each day I got around to it.

I really looked forward to reading SEAL of my Dreams and despite some disappointments and some neutral gems, there were also a select few that I ended up really liking for my own reasons.

And then while I was at it, the OCD Bookworm in me decided to play around with statistics and numbers as to how to review and rate this anthology (involving a spreadsheet and calculations and a big skew in a category called "My Own Personally Biased Rating" that helped bump the actual rating of the anthology overall upward.  Because even though there were more "It Was Okay" stories than there were "I Really Like This" stories, I ultimately DID enjoy this anthology a lot.

In an unbiased rating, I would only give the overall book a mediocre 3 Stars.
On a personal, biased rating, it gets 4 Stars.
So I decided to bring it somewhere in the middle.

Anyway, the following review will be extremely long since I chose to write a short (some not so short) blurb of thoughts for each of the eighteen stories featured in SEAL of My Dreams.

Without further ado:

1.  Coming Home by Jami Alden

This story was short and sweet as far as the concept is concerned.  The story itself, however, feels a little lacking and the conclusion, abrupt.  Nonetheless, the story set out to tell the tale of love, loss, reconciliation, and regret in a light enough tone with a Happily Ever After; and it did just that.  Two people who were in love years ago break up over an ugly difference of opinion and meet back up at a funeral years later.

I just wish there was more story to go on since the characters have potential for depth and the writing is good.

What little we get of them, however, made me feel as if maybe these kids (who are obviously adults, so I jest) still had some growing up to do.  And fortunately, within this short span, that is exactly what they did.  So I appreciate this quiet romance of theirs--no muss, no fuss, no angst, and no standard Romance BIG MISUNDERSTANDING eleventh hour device to evoke unnecessary feels.  Our couple had a conflict of interest, they were young and stupid during the back story, and then they grew up and handled their lives like adults.

3.5 Stars -- Not my cuppa too much, but written well and told the necessary story in excellent fashion.

2.  Baby, I'm Back by Stephanie Bond

Okay.  So this story had SO MUCH FEELS!  And a lot of it might have been because of a dog (animals always do wonders for my FEEL-dar).  But the characters had a lot of depth and the story had a lot of heart.  While it felt like a quiet "Coming Home" type of story (much like the first), I very much enjoyed getting to know Barry and Lora during this short time span as if they could have been from a previous book I've read before.

Barry is home for his own personal reasons involving a promise to a friend; Lora is a physical therapist who ends up taking his medical case while he's in town.  Romance ensues.

And I'm inclined to believe that this book may have roots in another series written by Stephanie Bond.

Then there were the dogs.  And dogs always make me gush.

This short set out to be a sweet little romance and it managed to do so with flair.  And that's pretty much it.

4.5 Stars -- Very enjoyable and well written; great characters.  I liked it even if I didn't LOVE it.

3.  SEALed Fates by Kylie Brant

I was looking forward to this novella because I loved Kylie Brant's Mindhunters series.

But this one was... well, "curious" was the word that was running through my mind.  It is written well, as Kylie Brant is apt to write.  But it had an almost awkwardly out of place Suspense anecdote with an extremely insta-lusty Romance... and then too much superficially attempted deep meaning.  I mean, sure the two main characters have known each other for a long time and are meeting after a lot of years, but the romance was too abrupt to feel right.

Coming home, Cort runs into Emma who has secrets he feels compelled to uncover, especially when he realizes her secrets could involve the safety of herself and her children.

I'm of the impression that too much was going on for a short story and there was much more we didn't cover.  Given a larger, longer novel format, I think this story would have worked out a little bit better.  But with the short length, the story feels uncharacteristically abrupt (not just with the romance).  It's as if something is still missing from the overall story line.  I'm really inclined to believe that SEALed Fates should have been a full-length novel, and for Kylie Brant standards, I would have loved it as a full-length novel.

But between the characters of Cort and Emma, I'm not sure I got into their personalities and minds long enough to really relate or care about what was happening to them, what had happened to them, and what will inevitably happen to them.

3.0 Stars -- A well written short that should have been longer, which makes me regret giving it a mediocre rating if only because I know Kylie Brant can do better, for one, and should have planned accordingly.  And also, the insta-lust in this one was a bit awkward, even for a Romantic Suspense.

4.  Going Dark by Helen Brenna

Intense and action packed, much like any of the other non-murder mystery/crime thriller type Romantic Suspense stories to do with military personnel that these authors love to write about.  This short was plotted well and told quite decently with potentially likable characters.

Unfortunately it seems like this story's been told before, so nothing unique really stands out about it.  The detail and setting are good and the writing seems okay, but an editor could really try his or her hand at all the typos that were very obviously unattended to (one too many for a short novella, in my honest opinion).

It's a rescue mission story and our main SEAL hero learns that the rescue targets are part of media who had painted him and his fellow SEALs in a bad light because of a mission gone FUBAR.  One of the hostages is a woman he'd spent a romantic week with who then disappeared, only to resurface as a journalist who had gotten close to him for information.

The beginning was a sour start as well as a slow one (I read about a page and a half before I realized I wasn't sure I knew what was going on, so I set it down and came back to it later, starting from the top).  The story has potential to expand, but I'm not sure if there really is much left to expand on, character-wise or story-wise.

2.5 Stars -- Decent, enjoyable to an extent... That's pretty much it for me.  Definitely not a memorable one.

5.  Finding Home by HelenKay Dimon

A strong start, but the ending fizzled out very quietly.  The romance was cute, but mediocre in comparison with others I've read.  To be honest, the characters, the story line, and the conflict were all barely memorable.

A rescue mission turned romance is stock standard for Romantic Suspense plots.  How quickly the main couple attached themselves to each other was a little hard to believe, but not unrealistic, I suppose.  But as there was little back story to our characters, it was hard to relate with their actions.

Another random rescue mission plot device, but nothing more to it than that, it seems.

3.0 Stars -- Nothing really stands out about the story, but it was enjoyable through its duration; no complaints, but nothing fantastic either.  The characters were nice enough to follow.

6.  SEALed with a Kiss by Cindy Gerard

I knew there was a reason why I loved Cindy Gerard.  If anything, this short novella just cemented my need to begin reading her Black Ops Inc. series.  I was curious to get to know all the characters who show up in this novella.

Within a few chapters a full out mild Romantic Suspense took place.  Our couple is taking a delayed honeymoon on an isolated island in the Republic of Palau, enjoying their vacation after Valentina finishes a photo shoot.  Then things just happen to go wrong.

The characters were fleshed out, the story line gave an amazing sense of anticipation and suspense, and the romance was very sweet, cute, and heated.  And we didn't even really need any global conspiracies, acts of terror, or crime syndicates to infuse that sense of anticipation; just a life or death situation that could happen to anyone--a simple disaster of getting your foot caught in a rock when high tide is about to wash in; something that could have been avoided... and no guns or explosions were involved.

A little bit of reminiscing, a lot of hot chemistry, quips and jokes...

I liked Val and Luke almost immediately (I read this novella before I read their book).  And Ms. Gerard has a fun sense of wit, even if it might come out slightly cheesy in the conclusion.

5.0 Stars -- Excellent short that just makes you wish there were more to the story.  Oh wait, there are 7 books worth of more!  And then some!  I'm game for anything Cindy Gerard now... well, anything Romantic Suspense, of course.

7.  Panama Jack by Tara Janzen

Short and sweet and suspenseful, this short novella managed to pack quite a Romantic Suspense into two chapters of lots of action and lots of intrigue.  A CIA agent and a Navy SEAL working together to bring down a weapons deal?  Sparks fly.  Not bad at all.  There was enough story and enough character description to make Panama Jack a very enjoyable, entertaining short story.

4.0 Stars -- I repeat: Entertaining and enjoyable with the right balance of intrigue, suspense, espionage, and romance.  When a short makes you want more from either the author or the story or the characters, you know it's a good one.

8.  Wrapped and SEALed by Leslie Kelly

Leslie Kelly definitely knows how to infuse heart-warming romances with quietly adorable humor.  When Tanner Boudreau gets forced to play Santa Claus at an assisted living center for a Christmas party, I had a feeling I'd like what was to come next.  This short novella was equal parts fun, funny, sweet, romantic, and delectable; and I can't help but admit that I was smiling the entire way through.

The love story was a little unbelievable though: two people who meet during their own individual war-relief efforts, a SEAL and a doctor, wherein sparks fly, a kiss happens, and then life continues.  They can't forget each other and apparently spend their time back in the States trying to find each other.  It's a love that's a little larger than life, but I guess it happens.

The characters were both well-fleshed out and developed quite nicely within the short span of three chapters.  While I don't think there'd be enough for a full-fledged novel, I think I wouldn't mind revisiting Jessica D'Angelo and Tanner Boudreau as guest characters in a different book or series.

5.0 Stars -- Wonderfully heart-warming with all the romance and smiles and cheer in all the right places.  There may or may not have been a snag somewhere, but I'm sure I didn't notice or care.  As a Contemporary short, this is probably my favorite of the anthology batch.

9.  Worth the Risk by Elle Kennedy

This short novella was a very non-outstanding romance... that also managed to make me feel irritated and a little pissed off.

Jason Anders walks out of Callie Carraway's life four years ago without a good-bye or even a word about what he was planning; he just up and disappears and the only communication he honors her with are photographs he takes during his travels as a SEAL.  Four years into the present, he returns to their little town and actually has the audacity to expect that Callie is still waiting for him, and despite being angry with him will be ready to jump back into his arms and go where he wants her to go.

While I understand the message behind this story--follow your dreams, take risks, see the world, etc., etc...--I just don't like the way it was presented in this novella.  Jason kept claiming that he loved Callie, but he was the one who was ready uproot and walk away from her whether or not she wants to go with him.  He wouldn't stay in town with her even if she asked, but he expects her to leave town and travel the world with him with the stupid reasoning that he "knows" that it's what she wants too.  He gave her one night to think about that decision and slapped an ultimatum down on her: Either leave town with him or never see him again.

It felt cruel and selfish.  And I'm disappointed that Callie gave into him too easily.  Part of me wanted Callie to leave town anyway, but without going with Jason.  I feel like the message would have been better conveyed if Callie had made her decisions on her own terms, finding a way to fulfill her dreams without it being because of a man.  Because sometimes there might be choices to do what you want to do in life, but that doesn't necessarily mean that those choices apply.

So instead of feeling like Jason had walked away with the best intentions for Callie in mind, it felt like Jason didn't really place Callie in as much importance as he did his need to walk away from his hometown.  Not four years ago, and not at present does his feelings for Callie feel very strong at all; at least not as strong as he claims them to be.

I'm predicting trust issues for the future of this relationship.

2.0 Stars -- A good ideal and good message, but a flat execution and an irritating main male character.  Man, my opinions get long winded when they're negative opinions, don't they?

10.  Twenty-One Hours by Alison Kent

Another short and sweet story of a first love that blossomed after years of being apart.  Shane and Teri have great chemistry as friends as well as a couple, but being a short novella, there wasn't enough time to explore their development.  Nonetheless, it was a sweet love story, detailing the difference time and age can make pertaining to a person's mentality.  While teenagers are often overly dramatic and do a lot of stupid things as they grow up, maturing into adults brings perspective into anyone's life.

A wildfire in the middle of farmland as the backdrop to a Romance... now that's a new one.

4.0 Stars -- Not the best story in the world, but cute and sweet and heartwarming nonetheless.  Some tacky dialogue made for an eye-roller, but I'll let that go.

11.  Not Waving But Drowning by Jo Leigh

While I understand and appreciate the tragic, yet bittersweet, and heartwarming message behind this short story... This has got to be the longest short story I have ever read.  It took five to six pages of mundane, monotonous drivel with too much telling and too much detail and just too much of everything just to get to the heart of the conflict.

On top of that, I so get frustrated with character descriptions that make your characters uber perfect and larger than life.  The relationship written shows us a couple who can read each other's minds and who always say the right things all the time.  And maybe, as a short story, it was the best way to go about these details.  And to be honest, the mundane, monotonous conversation and activities throughout the first half of the short story were fairly realistic.  The writing wasn't really too bad either, but it was very repetitive--like I needed to know how perfect their friendship was, or how perfect he thought she was and vice versa, many times over.

I suppose this kind of writing style just isn't my cuppa.

2.0 Stars -- I have my issues.  It's not this short story's fault, nor the author's.  The story wasn't terrible by any standards.  It just wasn't what I know how to appreciate.

12.  Her Secret Pirate by Gennita Low

Another search and rescue mission:  An ambassador and his daughter are in hiding on a ship that has been overrun by pirates... or something like that.  Our Navy SEAL heroes must take down the bad guys and save the hostages.

This was an entertaining and intriguing short story with a cute, sweet little romance tied in.  I'm thinking it has potential to be expanded into something longer, but I don't mind the abruptness of the anecdote.

4.0 Stars -- Not the most exciting story in the world... but liked it just the same.

13.  SEALed by Fate by Marliss Melton

I'm not sure there was much of a story here and I'm not sure I liked it either.  The message in this short story was... well, I knew what it was trying to convey, but I'm not sure it did a very good job.  Humanitarian aid efforts overseas is something I believe to be a rather heroic, yet dangerous mission for those who aren't trained, equipped, or prepared for the hostilities that could land a bunch of people dead before they know it.  And still, I feel like it's a worthy cause.

The novella wasn't my cuppa and the non-romance as well as our two individuals were also not very relatable nor very likable people.  He was a gargantuan asshole, and She was quite the spoiled, entitled, reckless brat.  But they both made their arguments (though not quite eloquently) with good points.

It's just that, when our main male "hero" snidely told our female that she could have been raped, tortured, or killed by being part of these humanitarian causes and putting herself in hotspots around the world that attract danger; and then he goes on to say that if anything had happened to her, he felt like she would have deserved it because of her stupidity... I pretty much just balked.

That is NOT an okay statement to make, because no person (man or woman) ever "deserves" to have anything that brutal happen to them.  Nobody asks to be raped, tortured, or killed.  End of discussion.

2.0 Stars -- The story could have been told better, but I get what it's trying to say.  Also, typos galore!

14.  Signed, SEALed, Delivered... I'm Yours by Christie Ridgway

Okay, I totally melted with this little romance.  While the instalove was evident, it was still a sweet, heartwarming, cute little love story, plain and simple.  I think what cinched it for me was the "Reunion in the Airport" scene--there's always something about a reunion in an airport that gets people all blubbery and swooning.

Yet another "rescue" mission, even if the heroine wasn't really a hostage; just stuck in the wrong place at the wrong time when a battle breaks out in a bad part of a country.

4.0 Stars -- There's a personal one extra star in there for the airport scene.  Otherwise, the story was enjoyable, sweet, and makes your heart swell even if it's not the best story in the world.  Tacky dialogue aside at the ending, the writing style was good and I might look into more of this author's works.

15.  Dog Heart by Barbara Samuel

I would classify this short as a sweet romance and human drama.  Extra points for a Navy SEAL dog being the springboard for the story.  It was warm and fuzzy.

A fellow SEAL dies in action and his dog is traumatized, later diagnosed with PTSD so our main SEAL hero of this story returns home, taking ownership of his teammates SEAL dog to help the poor thing recover.  An old flame is a veterinarian who has experience working with military animals, and so old feelings arise, especially since the two had broken it off on an ugly note.

The story started off very strong, well written, with a potentially good direction and plot.  But somewhere after the second cut-scene, I feel like the progression fizzled and we were on a deadline to conclude the story in any way, simply to bring the events to a close.  And it wasn't a very inspiring ending, to be honest.

3.0 Stars -- Enjoyable, but felt like it was missing something.  Still, dogs never fail to give me smiles.

16.  Whirlwind by Roxanne St. Claire

Mother Nature gone wild, woman in hiding, witness to murder, and a big Navy SEAL kicking down your mobile home's front door... This novella was pretty intense and exciting.  Well written and progressive, I'd been wondering what Roxanne St. Claire's work would be like and I'm not disappointed.  Aside from the guy just deciding to kick down someone's front door and scaring the crap out of her, I really liked this story.  It had equal parts romance, suspense, and even a mini-mystery to boot.

Oh yes, and a little terrier named Nutmeg really cinched the deal for me.  Although I can't help but think that there was something to do the mother-daughter presence at the end of the story that is significant--maybe a rollover from another one of Roxanne St. Claire's books or series.

4.5 Stars -- Very likable, very enjoyable, maybe a few things that didn't make sense, but I'm not going to care.

17.  Holding On by Stephanie Tyler

I suppose this is a novella best left to be read after you get to know the heroes and heroines of Stephanie Tyler's Hold trilogy.  The concept of this story is pretty much what I like to call the "Ending Hour Couple Curtain Call"... or something like that.  There is a reintroduction of all the couples who hooked up during the series (I suppose) plus a Reader's Digest version of how they got together (I suppose).  Then we get a nice, tacky, holiday-laden, final Happily Ever After.

For a lot of series, I've always hated the "Couple Curtain Call", because it tells me that we have extra space for more story that was entirely unnecessary.  Holding On was no different, and while I've sparked an interest in the key players and those teensy inklings of each character's story, I think this novella could have been done without... though I'm basing this opinion on not having read the trilogy yet.

I might surprise myself, I suppose, and decide that it was nice to have a conclusive chapter for our heroes.

2.5 Stars -- This novella was okay, though barely enjoyable since I sort of breezed through it without knowing what actually took place.  Things felt a bit mundane, monotonous, and confusing since I got the impression you needed to understand the rest of the trilogy to understand this novella.

The writing style felt choppy and haphazard with a lot of more typos than I would have liked to have seen in a novella.  I certainly hope that the books in the trilogy are better edited.  Otherwise, I am curious about the rest of the series and intended to check it out when I get a chance.

18.  Letters to Ellie by Loreth Anne White

Letters to Ellie was fairly emotional.  In honesty, it really DID make me almost cry.  The beginning of this novella was very powerful, very strong, and evoked FEELS like none of the other novellas managed to do.  Feelings of heartbreak and sadness are sometimes so much stronger and more memorable than feelings of joy, euphoria, or giddy happiness.

So I had hopes that the entire anthology would end on a high note of emotion.

Ellie and Flynn were first loves in their youth, engaged right before Flynn was deployed on a mission.  Only, Flynn never came back, and Ellie receives word almost a week later that her fiance has gone MIA.  It is fifteen years into the present now and Ellie works as a late night radio show host, dedicated to those who are lonely and need someone to talk to; on the night that Ellie hosts a special show for heroes who are POW or MIA, speaking to friends and families and loved ones, she gets a strange phone call that reminds her of Flynn, suddenly igniting her hopes that maybe he's returned home.

The story starts off very strong and evoked a lot of emotions.  But halfway through the story, some things just started settling awkwardly for me.  The instalust was inevitable and in a way, I'm glad it didn't turn to instalove or those stubborn "meant to be" love stories.  But between some strange dialogue that tried to steer itself towards "Instalove, Meant to Be, Forever in Love" type of romance and some haphazard narration and typos, the flow of the story kind of lost me.

The story ended on a fairly realistic and satisfying, open-ended conclusion though and that brought the novella back into it's initial, powerful message and concept.

3.5 Stars -- Almost, but not quite.  But I'll admit that I shed a few tears for this one, so it definitely left an impression.


On a final note, once again, while there were fairly mediocre stories in this collection, there were also at least a few that I found I liked.  My favorite of the bunch (favorite two, I meant) were Cindy Gerard's SEALed With a Kiss and Leslie Kelly's Wrapped and SEALed.  I also took to Baby, I'm Back by Stephanie Bond, Whirlwind by Roxanne St. Claire, and maybe even Panama Jack by Tara Janzen.

This review was originally posted at Ani's Book Abyss / BookLikes in February 2015.

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