MINI-REVIEW: Karen Kirst’s THE ENGAGEMENT CHARADE

Engagement_CharadeAfter reading Amber Belldene’s Not Another Rock Star, with its unique, true-to-life mix of messed-up faith characters and non, minister-heroine, earthy love scenes, the wonder of its ability to posit a faith-based romance with an atheist hero, a novel where sexuality, love, faith, romance, community, goodness and integrity don’t come within the strait-jacket of inspirational romance tropes … well, I really wanted to read an inspirational romance and consider my response to it. Karen Kirst’s The Engagement Charade fit the bill, especially because I’ve loved her books in the past and I’d be inclined to do so again. And, I did … mildly (it isn’t her best). However, it also solidified why the either-or, evangelical-Christianity-based romance narrative brings me out of reader-pleasure-zone to render me hyper-conscious of its flaws.

First, to set the scene: in late nineteenth-century fictional Gatlinburg Tennessee, our hero, Plum Café owner Alexander Copeland broods in his office, tormented by memories of a fire that killed his wife and son back home in Texas. Meanwhile, widowed, pregnant heroine Ellie Jameson cooks and runs his business. Continue reading

REVIEW: Amber Belldene’s NOT ANOTHER ROCK STAR

Not_Another_Rock_StarRomance narratives are alien to my personal experience and circumstances and I’m perfectly okay with this. It’s not what I look for in my reading and, as far as I’m concerned, “relatable” has always been a dirty-word. The important thing is that my primary fictive reading is “literarily” familiar to me: in other words, I always read Austen, the Brontës, Mrs. Gaskell, and male authors, for the romance. When I started reading romance, I finally realized what they were missing. They left me hungry for more ‘o’ that; I took my romance where I could find it. Amber Belldene’s Not Another Rock Star added a dimension to romance I’ve never experienced. It felt as close and familiar to my theological viewpoint as a romance novel can get. I say this because what I have to say about Not Another Rock Star will be coloured by that sympathetic prejudice. It isn’t part and parcel of the religious tradition in which I worship, but its theological ethos and romance raison d’être are deeply sympathetic and right. I may have lost perspective, in other words, but take the review as you will, with that in mind.

Let me start off by saying that Belldene, an Episcopal priest herself, does not write what the romance genre defines as inspirational romance. She includes religious and theological content, her heroine is a priest, but Not Another Rock Star doesn’t use a conversion narrative, or posit the idea that evangelical Christianity is the matrix of everyone’s “Come to Jesus” moment. Belldene also includes elements, pun intended, anathema to inspie romance: explicit love scenes of the premarital variety, an atheist hero and remains so, and quite a bit of spirit-imbibing, of the bottled variety. Continue reading

MINI-REVIEW: Liz Fielding’s HER PREGNANCY BOMBSHELL

Her_Pregnancy_BombshellLiz Fielding is one of those romance writers whose “closed-bedroom-door” conceit I forgive. Not to belabor the point, but you know my opinion of the closed-bedroom-door romance and its many shortcomings. Fielding, on the other hand, writes the kind of truth-telling, gently-humoured characters I adore. Her prose is fine, elegant and smooth, deceptively simple and subtly rich. Even flawed, it’s easy for me to enjoy her romances, as I did Her Pregnancy Bombshell.

The bombshell in question opens the novel as heroine Miranda “Andie” Marlowe makes her way to the Mediterranean island of L’Isola dei Fiori and her sister’s dilapidated, recently-inherited Villa Rosa. As she tells the customs officer, ” ‘I’m running away.” An intriguing opening and one that drew me in. Andie is escaping a confrontation with her one-night-lover and boss, Cleve Finch, CEO of Goldfinch Air Services, for which Andie flies charters. Andie, we learn, is pregnant, the result of Cleve and her one night of shared passion three weeks ago. For the past year, culminating in that night, Cleve grieved the loss of his wife, Rachel. His devastation is evident in every gaunt line of his face, every pound lost from his formerly-stalwart frame, the absence of his smiles, the sadness in his eyes. Andie, with whom Cleve has shared an affectionate friendship since pre-Rachel, has loved with him since the day she walked into his life as an eighteen-year-old pilot. Continue reading

REVIEW: Anne Calhoun’s TURN ME LOOSE

Turn_Me_LooseI hadn’t read a romantic suspense novel in a long time and I wasn’t sure I really wanted to. Calhoun’s Turn Me Loose has a naked-chest-and-dog-tags cover that always turns me off. But, Calhoun: I’d heard a lot of good about her in the Twitterverse and wanted to give a new-to-me author a fighting chance. Turn Me Loose‘s introduction didn’t cover itself with glory and I came a hair’s-breath away from DNF-ing. But the writing was good, darn good, though I disliked the flash-back routine to the hero and heroine’s past. I recognized its necessity because it made it easier for Calhoun to segue into the present, but those, albeit not significant, parts of the novel never won me over. So, what did?

Let’s begin with basic premise and characterization. Seven years before the present scene, undercover cop Ian Hawthorn arrested eighteen-year-old college student and petty drug-dealer, Riva Henneman. In exchange for her freedom, Riva agreed to act as Ian’s “confidential informant”. Ian and Riva spent a lot of time together in stake-out and/or drug busts, with Riva entering dangerous situations as her CI-drug-dealer-self to help Ian and the Lancaster Police Department make arrests. A resentful attraction seethes between them, but ethical lines and power differentials are not crossed. Seven years pass and Ian walks into Riva’s business, a farm-to-table restaurant operation, Oasis, that takes teens and young adults from food-impoverished neighbourhoods and gives them a chance at fair and engaging labour. The food is delicious, Riva is beautiful, and the attraction between them still sizzles and seethes. Continue reading

MINI-REVIEW: Sarah Morgan’s NEW YORK, ACTUALLY, or A Tale Of Two … Dogs

New_York+ActuallyMiss Bates hasn’t ever warmed to Sarah Morgan’s contemporaries as much as she adored her categories (Playing By the Greek’s Rules is a must-read). The longer roms have been uneven, but Morgan made up for a lot when she penned New York, Actually. Its chicklit vibe and hokey opening weren’t auspicious and Miss Bates came close to DNF-ing. But she stuck to it … because Morgan … and, in the end, was captured by some clever, interesting things Morgan did.

We meet the heroine first, “Aggie”, aka Molly Parker, behaviourial psychologist, English beauty in New York, and writer of the love-lorn-seeking-help blog, “Ask A Girl.” In the opening, Molly’s extolling the praises of her sound-asleep faithful companion, which Morgan makes us think is a man, the heart-shaped-nosed Dalmatian, Valentine. After a terrible, online love experience that saw Molly leave England three years ago, she’s sworn off men, deeming herself incapable of falling in love, of feeling, and a self-designated femme fatale: mess with Molly and you’ll be hurt. Molly now makes other people’s HEA her business, “Happy Ever After Together was her goal for other people. Her own goal was Happy By Herself,” and with her dog, career, and a few neighbourly friends.  Continue reading

REVIEW: Kate Hewitt’s KISS ME AT WILLOUGHBY CLOSE

Kiss_Me_at_Willoughby_CloseKate Hewitt’s Willoughby Close series is more women’s fiction than romance and yet, even though Miss Bates is no fan of women’s fiction, she embraced Hewitt’s little English-village-life novels. They’re written with a poignant, gentle touch. Their protagonists are often people with difficult pasts. They’re squarely focussed on the heroine’s growth and POV, but contain heroes no less likeable, sexy, and burdened with their own compelling baggage.

Kiss Me At Willoughby Close opens with the will-reading of Ava Mitchell’s older, moneyed husband and the news that David left Ava only 10 000 pounds, his vast fortune going to his grown, rapacious children by his first wife. Ava is genuinely grief-stricken over her husband. She may not have been in love with him. Five years ago, she was urged by poverty and lack of opportunity and education to marry him for the creature comforts and ease he could provide; nevertheless, she cared for and about him and been content in his company. Now, Emma and Simon are staring her down coldly and informing her she must leave the only home she’s ever known in a week’s time, with only her clothes and David’s “generous” gift of a mini Austin only. As Ava quips, “For being a trophy wife, she didn’t possess that many trophies.” She moves into Willoughby Close, following the heroines of Hewitt’s previous novels in the series, who become neighbours and, eventually, friends. Continue reading

REVIEW: Mary Burchell’s UNBIDDEN MELODY

Unbidden_MelodyMy goodness, Miss Bates loves Burchell. Is there a better writer? A more nuanced, interesting one? Unbidden Melody contained elements that Miss Bates and other romance readers scorn: an ingenue heroine; dense, uncaring hero; nasty Other Woman; a capitulation of the heroine’s will to the hero’s “genius”. And yet. By the end, Miss Bates had that heart-clenching-hold-your-breath response the best romance novels elicit.

Here are the plotty particulars. Introduced by one of those older, machinating, wise, charismatic characters, like the mercurial, adorably-arrogant prima donna, Gina Torelli (who makes a compelling, delightful appearance here), impresario Dermot Deane, the romance focuses on his secretary, Mary Barlow, and tenor, Nicholas Brenner. Like most of Burchell’s heroines, Mary is modest, efficient, competent, and a music-lover. She has barely started working for Deane, but loves every moment of it. Indeed, she’s the one who suggests Deane coax Nicholas Brenner to London for a production of Carmen. Deane is delighted with Mary’s idea and soon thereafter, Brenner is rehearsing Don José. Brenner hasn’t performed since his wife died in an automobile accident and a wistful sadness clings to him. He and Mary are immediately attracted, however, and she brings him out of his shell. As he confesses to her, his wife Monica had driven him mad with her jealousy and mistrust and her death brought grief, but mainly guilt-ridden relief. With Mary, he can finally embrace love and life again. At the novel’s half-point, Nicholas proposes; Mary accepts. What follows could be construed as a Big Mis; except in Burchell’s capable hands, it turns into the story of two people, obviously in love, without the acquaintance and comfort that make for commitment and stolidity. Love, says Burchell, must come with trust, understanding, and communication to build a life together.  Continue reading

Wendy’s TBR Challenge Mini-Review: Christine Rimmer’s THE LAWMAN’S CONVENIENT BRIDE

Lawman's_Convenient_BrideMiss Bates went back and forth on several category romances for Wendy’s TBR Challenge January “short read” before settling on Christine Rimmer’s The Lawman’s Convenient Bride. No rhyme or reason why, except Rimmer is fast becoming a comfort read. The writing is solid and Rimmer always achieves a balance of humor and sentiment. She also really comes down strong on marriage and fidelity without being smarmy or righteous and The Lawman’s Convenient Bride certainly conveys this.

When the novel opens, sheriff-hero Seth Yancy is trying to stave off the president of the Justice Creek library association’s convincing argument in favour of his participation in a charity bachelor auction. From Seth’s opening thoughts, we learn that he has been celibate since a sad thing happened to him seven years ago. But community-minded, honourable, cannot-tell-a-lie Seth cannot resist the call of the library association cause and agrees, even though he’d do anything “to get out of being raffled like a prize bull.” In the meanwhile, he also learns, from this conversation, that the woman who was his deceased baby stepbrother’s lover is one month away from giving birth to his niece. This revelation brings Seth to heroine Jody Bravo’s flower-shop doorstep. They carry on a wary, if friendly conversation and responsibility-personified Seth convinces Jody to allow him to help her out and be a part of his step-niece’s life. 
Continue reading

Review: Maisey Yates’s SLOW BURN COWBOY

Slow_Burn_Cowboy2018 will prove to be yet another Maisey Yates year for Miss Bates, as she can’t seem to quit Yates’s romances. Last year, she read seven … let’s see how many MissB manages to read in 2018?! If Slow Burn Cowboy is any indication, then MissB’s love affair with the Yates romance isn’t over. Every time she reads one, Miss Bates ponders what draws her to Yates’s romances and every time, her understanding of what makes Yates a great romance writer grows. Not every book is perfect, or memorable, especially after you read so many, you’re no longer reading for individual storylines, but for those writer “tells” that make the books so attractive to a reader-fan. Miss Bates finds in Yates a combination of an upholding of love and fidelity with a healthy dose of raw sexuality. This is not a new observation to Miss B.’s readers. This time around, however, Miss Bates noticed yet one more thing that she loves about Yates: she puts wit and sophistication into her banter/dialogue for characters who’d normally not be associated with wit and banter: cowboys and uneducated, albeit successful, nonprofessional, carpenters, builders, and small-business-owners, or as the hero of Slow Burn Cowboy identifies, a “laborer”. Her characters are wonderful combinations of earthiness and clever wordplay. Does Slow Burn Cowboy hold any surprises for the Yates reader? Not really. Does it satisfy? Absolutely.   Continue reading

REVIEW: Nicole Helm’s NEED YOU NOW

Need_You_NowNicole Helm’s Need You Now, first in the “Mile High Romance” series, at first appeared to be run-of-the-mill, contemporary, small-town romance, but proved more complex and interesting. Nevertheless, its opening wasn’t auspicious, with a scene of rugged he-men ribbing each other and indulging in scared-of-deep-communication man-talk. Ugh. Usually, in contemporary romance, these bros are, well, bros, or best friends, or business partners. In Need You Now, they are bearded, handsome “lumbersexuals”. Two are brothers, the hero Brandon, and his twin, Will, and their friend and business partner, Sam. They operate an “outdoor adventure excursion company,” Mile High, in the Colorado mountains, near the fictional town of Gracely. With much manly teasing, the jokester Will informs his austere, a polite way of saying “grumpy”, brother Brandon that they’ve hired a PR consultant to help promote their business, cue one cute heroine, Lilly Preston, freshly arrived from Denver. Lilly shows up, sparks fly, angst follows, much banter, and yet care, affection, and friendship grow, one glorious sexy time follows, then, a terrible sundering of the relationship and, the rest, as we say in the genre, is HEA.  Continue reading