Westwood Farms is prospering. Family patriarch, Eric West has a full docket of horses to train and no intention of taking on new clients anytime soon, but that doesn't stop his oldest son, Mike, from bringing the pretty Coco Beardmore into their stable when Doug O'Connor, her surly old trainer, throws them out. Little does he know though that the sexy horse owner is a walking disaster who wreaks mayhem wherever she goes and so do her horses. While Mike tries to wrangle Coco and her unruly beasts, his father must deal with a few complications of his own. Against Doug's wishes, Eric offers to tutor the man's illiterate daughter, Margie, in reading and writing, which leads the young woman to believe he cares for as more than just a student. However, widowed Eric only has eyes for Jen, the lovely nurse who is the head of medical services at the race track. When Jen's car and home are vandalized and she begins receiving threatening notes, could sweet Margie really be the perpetrator?
Hmmm... where to begin? I guess I'll start my review of Hot Coco by saying that I'm not really sure what genre it's supposed to be. Some readers and book websites seem to have it categorized as Contemporary Romance, but it really isn't. While there's lots of lusting and relationship turmoils, the story doesn't focus on one main couple, following them through to their HEA. In fact, none of the characters who are pursuing relationships even get an HEA. By the end, the few couples who do end up together have more of an HFN vibe. Even though this book is definitely targeted more to a female audience, there's too much comedy for it to be a true women's fiction book, and yet it also isn't really chick lit either because of the lack of a single female character's perspective. So, what is Hot Coco? Well, to me it contained enough lust and drama to rival any soap opera, but at the same time, it has enough over-the-top slapstick moments to rival any romantic comedy. In the end, I decided it reminded me of Desperate Housewives in book form, except that instead of being set in American suburbia, it all takes place in the wonderful world of horse racing.
Based on the cover blurb, I got the mistaken impression that the story was going to be primarily about horse trainer, Mike West, and horse owner, Coco Beardmore, but these two characters ended up being just two players in a huge ensemble cast. To start, there is the West family: dad, Eric, sons, Mike and Shane, and daughter, Kate, who are owners of Westwood Farms, a horse training operation. Eric is a widower. He and Mike, who was the oldest and already grown when his mom died, raised the two younger sibling alone. Eric is thinking about getting back into the dating pool and is interested in Jen Fleming, the pretty nurse who runs medical services at the racetrack, Keystone Downs. Jen is equally interested in him if not more so. Eric was one of my favorite characters. I viewed him as an attractive middle-aged man who was very much a gentleman with a caring side. I loved how he patiently taught Margie how to read and write. Oldest son, Mike, divorced his ex-wife after she cheated on him, but he hasn't entirely gotten her out of his system. Still, that doesn't stop him from going after the sexy Coco when she brings her horses to his stable. Shane, the youngest, is a bit of a youthful player, while middle child and vet assistant, Kate, appears to be a good girl with a crush on local police detective, Carl Lugowski. I believe these two met in the first book of the series, Deadly.com (I don't know much about that though, since I haven't read it yet.), and will become more involved in the next book of the series, Dangerous Deception.
On the opposite side of the tracks, there are the O'Conners, who are essentially classic caricatures of hillbillies. Dad, Doug, is a crusty old codger, who views Eric as something of an enemy, although why that is, I'm not entirely sure. Doug's wife left him years ago, so he raised his daughter, Margie, alone. In a subconscious effort to keep Margie with him, he keeps a pretty tight reign on her life. As a result, she's illiterate and still unattached at 33. She spends her days taking care of their rundown shack of a house, and mucking out stalls at the stables. She's an excellent cook though, and a bit of a dreamer, who loves looking at her mom's old romance novels even if she can't read them. Margie was my other favorite character, probably because she's the underdog and because she grows and changes the most throughout the story. The only thing I didn't really like much was the way many of the other characters treated her because of her looks. I fully understood the first time the author described Margie that she wasn't particularly attractive, but to have several other characters, including Mike, Shane, Mike's ex, Ava, and others continually going on about how ugly Margie was seemed a little mean-spirited and over the top. The one person who truly seems to appreciate Margie is the O'Conner's stable hand, Scott, but then he went and did something outrageously stupid in an attempt to keep her. For a guy who was supposedly quite intelligent and simply stuck in his job due to generational poverty, his actions made no sense whatsoever and turned a nice, sweet character into a bit of a jerk, which was somewhat disappointing.
Last, but certainly not least, is Coco Beardmore, who epitomizes the phrase, "ditzy blonde." She's rather short on brains and her father is a wealthy tycoon, which makes her something of a Paris Hilton wannabe. Coco appears to have a thing for older men, having already been married to one who was old enough to be her father. She's also accident prone in the extreme. She should have a hazard sign tied around her neck, because everywhere she goes and everything she does, she leaves complete disaster in her wake. However, we do eventually find out that perhaps some of her klutziness is tied to self-esteem issues, because when she finds the right man, who adores her crazy antics, she seems to calm down. Coco's horses are every bit as wacky as she is. One is a peppermint addict and mischievous escape artist who unlatches his stall every night and releases his buddies too. Then they proceed to "party" by trashing the barn and grounds. Another one sits down in the starting gate and refuses to race. All these guys were definitely good for some laughs.
There are several other characters too, but in general, we don't get to know any of the characters, main or otherwise, particularly well due to there not being any deep POV. The book is written in rapid-fire POV changes that were sometime difficult to follow. Occasionally, I couldn't figure out who was thinking or saying certain things, even after re-reading the passage. Every single character gets their own perspective, so it typically shifts every few paragraphs. I was also somewhat disappointed with the lust-crazed nature of several characters. Even when they were dating one person, they usually couldn't get another one out of their mind, so during the brief moments of introspection, it often seemed like the only thing they thought about was sex. Although I should point out that it was all thinking and no doing, as there were no explicit love scenes to speak of. The technical aspects of the writing could have been a bit better too. I found several typos and incorrect or awkward word choices, just enough to be a bit distracting.
On the upside, the author definitely knows the horse world, and really brought this aspect of the story to life. While I don't know much about horse racing, it has always seemed to me that there are some rather eccentric people in that world, so the bizarre, quirky characters of Hot Coco seemed tailor made for the setting. I also can't deny that this was a fast-paced, entertaining story, which aside from the POV issues, was an easy read. Anyone who has a taste for outlandish soap operas in book form should enjoy this one.
Note: I received a copy of this book from the author's publicist in exchange for an honest review.
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