Heart's Desire, the sequal to Beginner's Luck, does represent a big improvement, especially when it comes to characterization. Perhaps part of it is that most of the Stockton family's wackiness was revealed in the first book, and author Laura Pederson wisely doesn't feel the need to create any more quirks.
Despite this, Heart's Desire does retain the manufactured feel of Beginner's Luck in many respects. The plots seem less like real problems and more like stage business for the amusing characters. Hallie's quest to lose her virginity, yet discomfort every time she has the chance, seems logical enough if not terribly interesting. Her belief that her desire for sex makes her a sex maniac is familiar, though I felt that way at thirteen and seventeen-year-old Hallie seems a little old to be that sheltered.
She also spends the summer trying desperately to earn money*, bemoaning the fact that she won't be able to go to school unless she gets $10,000 somehow. Meanwhile, her legal guardians spend much of the book collapsing into Heppelwhite chairs and talking about their expensive doodads. It's not that Hallie is too proud to take money from them, as far as I can tell the subject never even comes up, or if it does and I missed it, it certainly isn't a big point. I'm sorry, if I loved a college age kid and saw her struggling to get the money for her education, I'd sell a couple of oriental carpets and an antique vase or two and let her go. At one point, the alcoholic monkey goes on a rampage and destroys thousands of dollars in antiques. It doesn't even occur to Hallie that what the monkey destroyed could have paid for her schooling, a detail that struck me as quite unrealistic.
Several plots resolve themselves by someone "off screen" changing his/her mind about something important for insufficient-sounding reasons. The reader hears about the climactic decision after the fact, and sometimes in a convoluted way. It's not even Deus Ex Machina, it's more like Deus-Ex-What-Just-Happened?
Miss Kitty mentioned in the comments that the third book is OK. From the book jacket, my guess is that she's right, particularly since it sounds like it has a darker tone. Humor is not this author's thing. Almost none of the banter sounds natural and most of the jokes are extremely tired. But some of the dramatic scenes were quite good and kept me reading.
Olivia's still the only Unitarian in the book as far as I recall. She's still the stereotyped church social justice lady. Jokes about how UUs aren't religious are still old.
I should emphasize that the minor characters are quite well-drawn and seem reasonable and interesting, Hallie's poker group especially.
On Friday, I will review the last book in the series so far.
*TheCSO pointed out that if a girl really wants to lose her virginity and earn money the same summer, something can often be worked out. Don't worry, I hit him with the book.