Blonde Heat

Hot Pink

Naughty, Naughty

Rough Around the Edges

Taken By Surprise

Tempting

A Touch of Sin

When Someone Loves You

 
Wine, Tarts and Sex
by Susan Johnson
(Berkley, $14, NC-17) ISBN 978-0-425-21540-1
**
With more whine than wine, no tarts whatsoever, and lots of explicit but predictable sex, sadly this book doesn’t have much to recommend it.

Jake Chalmers is a famously successful West Coast chef who’s decided to open a restaurant in Minnesota. It’s a bit of a busman’s holiday from the pressures of L.A. and San Francisco – he wants the new place to be “comfortable and laid back, a neighborhood joint that just happened to have world-class food and wine.”

Olivia Bell is a former cover model who now owns a winery. The previous owner of the restaurant Jake’s renovating was a good client of hers, but Jake finds her vintages merely adequate and is not inclined to serve them (although he doesn’t tell her so right away, realizing that it’s likely to be an impediment to her wanting to have sex with him). Jake’s sexual interest is definitely reciprocated, so at their second meeting he and Liv throw caution to the winds and themselves into bed for the first of many sexual marathons.

The next morning, Liv gets a call from an old friend, Janie Tabor, an actress who’s fleeing her obnoxious older millionaire husband with their three-year-old son Matt. Janie needs a place to hide out, as her multi-married soon-to-be ex has a history of taking the kids and booting the wife out with nothing. Janie’s sure it will never occur to Leo to look for her and little Matt in the hinterlands of Minnesota.

The Romance Planet is a very small world, however, so of course it turns out that Janie is an old ‘friend’ of Jake’s (he’s apparently slept with just about every attractive female in L.A.). He goes with Liv to the airport to pick Janie and Matt up, then takes the little boy on a toy-shopping spree while Janie gives Liv the low-down on the end of her marriage.

Janie hasn’t done a very good job of covering her tracks, and soon Leo’s self-described “fixer,” Roman Novak, shows up on Liv’s doorstep. Roman isn’t the kind of muscle who follows orders blindly, however, and seems in no hurry to return either Janie or Matt to the rich bully she married.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a Susan Johnson book, but she has a very strong voice and this book – particularly the relationship between Liv and Jake – took me back immediately to her historical novels. The journey wasn’t nearly as much fun as I’d hoped.

Liv and Jake’s relationship is almost exclusively about sex. Each of their encounters goes essentially like this: they see each other and the irresistible lust kicks in immediately. They engage in a sexual power struggle in Ms. Johnson’s signature arch dialogue (which, frankly, does not translate particularly well into modern vernacular, in my opinion). Eventually they stop talking and screw like bunnies, with everyone enjoying lots of orgasms. Then they get huffy and stomp off, swearing it’s over, until someone gives in to the irresistible lust and comes back for more.

That’s pretty much it for their relationship. There’s nothing to keep them apart except for the fact that they’re both too sophisticated to do anything as gauche as relationships. As a result, the slight internal conflicts only make them seem shallow and immature. Their relationship is all about mind-blowing sex (the characters’ minds, anyway; my mind was never in any danger). The author never gives me any reason to care about these characters, so the explicitly described, repetitive sex feels clinical and detached.

What little plot there is revolves mostly around Janie’s situation with her ex-husband – nothing much to do with our hero and heroine – so all the time spent resolving that situation, especially scene after annoying scene in Leo’s point of view, read like filler. Polished filler, but filler nonetheless.

And speaking of point of view, there’s enough head-hopping here to give a reader whiplash, and for some reason, nearly every character in the book gets POV scenes, which contributed significantly to my overall sense of detachment.

Familiarity with this author’s well-researched, complex historical novels might have been a disadvantage here. In comparison, this simplistic, two-dimensional book reads like she phoned it in.

-- Judi McKee


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