Big_Bad_CowboyCarly Bloom is a new-to-me author and Big Bad Cowboy, her début romance. If she sustains this level of humour and pathos, then she has a good chance of becoming many romance readers’ autobuy. Big Bad Cowboy is a tongue-in-cheek pastiche of many romance conceits and in its combining of them, uniquely itself. Be warned, however, Big Bad Cowboy is busy with conceits and stories within stories. To start, the hero, Travis Blake, newly-returned Afghan vet to his dilapidated, tax-debt-ridden Texas ranch and uncle to his incarcerated brother’s and dead sister-in-law’s five-year-old, Henry. Henry is precocious, hilariously sharp-tongued, and Travis knows it from the get-go: “Henry struck him as being smarter than the average five-year-old, which was probably the very worst kind of five-year-old.” Henry provides so much of the novel’s humour; he’s not twee, but acts very much like a Shakespearean sprite: mischievous, temperamental, smart … with moments of heart-breaking pathos. Travis cares for him, indulges him, and knows exactly the right touch to let him know he’s safe, cared-for, loved, cherished. So, for Bloom, there’s one relationship that makes the heart glow and lips grin, what of the rest?

Bloom weaves her characters into a web of love, friendship, and hilarious small-town shenanigans, with a good dose of serious about stereotypes of men and women’s roles, gender identities, sexual preferences, and a genuine and original touch of what it means to be a neighbour, to achieve a tapestry of delight. She also manages to poke a little, loving, gentle fun at romance erotica, all the while saying something about public personas and private desires. You see, she has her hero, Travis, and landscape-architect heroine, Maggie Mackey, meets at a Hallowe’en party, in one of the funniest, sexiest scenes I’ve ever read. Travis and Maggie spend one gloriously, sexy, heart-stopping night, BUT, thanks to Travis relatively new arrival and Henry’s touch with costuming, as well as Maggie’s Little Red Riding Hood persona, they part without knowing that they are each other’s nemeses.

Nemeses, you say? Yup, turns out Travis and Maggie are neighbours and Travis’s cows, thanks to his decrepit fences, are trampling Maggie’s apple orchard … which has resulted, these past few weeks, in Maggie leaving Travis hilariously threatening notes: “Maggie had gleefully revived the battle in true Hatfield and McCoy style.” The remainder of the novel continues in this slapstick manner. Thanks to a fairy godmother, Travis manages to get Maggie’s number and they do a lot of sexting. Travis goes off with Henry for a week-long camping trip and returns with a beard, ensuring that Maggie never realizes who he is, even after they begin to work together, through no effort of their own. Maggie’s’ landscaping business, Petal Pushers, lands a big contract renovating the grounds of a recent, rich divorcée … with fond memories of Travis’s stint as her family’s lawn boy. Divorcée Annabelle Vasquez hires BOTH Maggie and Travis (who’s working any job he can to keep the ranch and Henry). Very long story short, Travis knows who Maggie is, but Maggie remains clueless for the majority of the novel.

This irony and the convoluted plotting and sexting get to be too much. I was especially impatient with Maggie being kept in the dark about Travis’s “Big Bad Wolf” Hallowe’en identity. On the other hand, Bloom was playing with the no-infidelity romance edict in an interesting way. Maggie starts to really like Travis, even as she sexts with her unknown “wolf”. Nevertheless, Bloom comes down on the romance side when Maggie breaks off with the Hallowe’en wolf for Travis-neighbour-and-cute-kid with whom she’s getting closer and closer. In the same way, Bloom’s novel, as far as sexual explicitness goes, is a sly comment on erotica. The initial sex scene and subsequent sexting skirt the boundaries of my comfort level. At the same time, the sex “scenes” are really quite singular, the first one, and everything that follows is tame by comparison. What Bloom does is build a relationship between Travis and Maggie that is tender, funny, and beautifully heart-warming. I loved this one moment when Maggie sees Travis with Henry and is moved, seeing Travis as more than abs and dimples:

She looked through the French doors to where Travis squatted next to Henry, who was poking at an ant mound with a stick. Henry squealed, dropped the stick, and slapped at his hand. Travis brought the little fingers to his bearded face and delivered a quick kiss to make it better. More than just man candy, then.

Travis is such a wonderful combination of sexy alpha in the mask, total softie in every other way: how could Maggie NOT fall in love with him?

Maggie too is a great character. She’s all about her company and landscaping work. And work she has, mostly to convince a male-dominated workspace about how good she really is. So, it’s understandable that she resents Travis’s brawn when he shows up at Annabelle’s and her bare-canvas landscape. But Travis is all there is to be in decent, funny, and warm, and their growing relationship is a delight. Of course, the big betrayal moment looms and looms, but it’s surmountable because of everything they’ve built to that point. Maggie is funny and wonderful with Henry too: there’s as much banter between her and Henry as there is between Henry and Travis as there is between Maggie and Travis. Great dialogue is one of the many rom things Bloom is good at. Another one is creating terrific complementary secondary characters: Maggie’s partner, Claire, and her rancher dad, Gerome, who takes Travis and his cattle under his wing, the hilarious Bubba, and the heart-breaking JD, Maggie’s best friend, a whole town of flawed and gossiping characters, but also neighbourliness and affection. Bloom makes all their HEAs convincing and celebratory. I just hope she has more of this goodness up her writerly sleeves. With Miss Austen, we say that Big Bad Cowboy is evidence of “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.

Carly Bloom’s Big Bad Cowboy is published by Forever Romance (Grand Central Publishing). It was released on October 30th and may be found at your preferred vendor. I received an e-galley from Forever, via Netgalley.