I have a bone to pick with Ms Lopez: Hate Crush kept me up two work nights in a row. Harrumph. And I need my sleep, so kudos and curse you, Lopez, for writing this unputdownable thing. I loved Lopez’s Filthy Rich début, Lush Money, but I loved Hate Crush even more. The two carry my favourite romance tropes: marriage-of-convenience in the former and second-chance, in the latter. In Ms Lopez’s hands, the tropes dance and sing and come alive. Her characters are MESSY, visceral, intense, their conflict and emotions over-the-top; she carries the reader on a wave of energetic prose, unselfconscious, moving steadily in service to the HEA and her characters’ needs, transformations, and realizations.
Lopez’s premise is outlandish and improbable, but this is what makes romance, romance. I’m never taken aback by the genre’s propensity for “outlandish and improbable,” heck, literature is built on it. (Have you read A Midsummer Night’s Dream?) When an author has the genre’s integrity in sight and writes the outlandish and improbable in service to an arc of love’s redemptive power, I’m cool with an eye-rolling premise.
Hate Crush sees bad-boy, disgraced (rumours of song plagiarism; band-mate’s/best friend’s suicide) rocker-hero, Aish Salinger, answer the call to a fake relationship, in his first and only great love’s fictional Spanish kingdom, Monte del Vino Real, with her, Princess Sofia. Sofia hates his guts, what’s in it for her? A rock of notoriety and publicity lobbed at the nay-sayers of her years-long struggle to bring new wine-making methods to her kingdom. Affair with an old flame? Check. But she lays down the law: keep your tattoos covered and your butt far far away from me. Kissy and moon-eyed for the cameras only. On the other hand, for Aish, this is a chance to clean off his in-the-gutter reputation; truer to his heart, to make amends, ask forgiveness of Sofia. And so, with his hollow-eyed, hungover arrival, we’re off … Continue reading
Susie Steiner’s Missing, Presumed (DS Manon Bradshaw #1) was recommended by Twitter friends whose word is auto-click/buy. A nice “old-fashioned” mass market came in the mail and made for spine-cracking pleasure. After the romance novel disaster (see my review of Kristen Ashley’s Dream Maker), I wanted away from caricatured alpha-heroes and self-sacrificing heroines to something cleanly realistic, devoid of HEA, a police procedural where the pursuit of the truth came in neat, defined lines and the female detective heroine made her way with smarts. What I got was something different, but more complex, compelling, and messy. I loved it, so you know, if you don’t want to read on … get yourself this book. At the centre of Steiner’s mystery is Detective Sergeant Manon Bradshaw of the Cambridgeshire Police. The novel opens with Manon on her nth Internet date, bored, restless, and barely tolerating the company of her desultory, cheapskate date … (when they divvy up the bill, it’s outtathere for me, but Manon stays, even sleeps with Mr. Forgettable.) After he leaves, she turns to the soothing sounds of her police radio to settle into sleep and Steiner’s lines give you a good sense of her fine writing and Manon’s character: ” … it is the sound of vigilance, this rapid response to hurt and misdeed. It is human kindness in action, protecting the good against the bad.” Idealized? Yes. Nevertheless, Manon is this very thing: curmudgeonly, sarcastic, but doggedly kind, relentless in her gruff decency and commitment to solving crime, bringing justice, righting wrong. She’s chaotic and mistaken and not warm, cuddly, or fuzzy, but she is acerbic, least likeable when strident, and I loved her. Continue reading
While always happy to add another Betty to my Great Betty Read endeavour, reading A Gem Of A Girl didn’t come easily and I dragged it over weeks and weeks. Unlike most Betties, this had the Other Man in place of the Other Woman, which I thought would be a refreshing reversal on one of romance’s, and Betty’s, most tired conventions. And yet, I didn’t love it: I recognized Gem‘s virtues, but didn’t relish reading it. It started out great with the nurse-heroine, long-suffering from taking care of something like ten younger siblings, loses her job when the long-term care home where she works burns to the ground. There’s a great heroic scene where Gemma practically runs into the flames and is pulled back by the hero, Ross, a visiting Dutch doctor:
“It’s my ward,” she cried, “the wind’s blowing that way. Oh, my dear old ladies!” She leapt forward and was brought up short by a large hand catching at the back of her sweater.
“Before you rush in and get yourself fried to a crisp, tell me where the fire escape is?” Gemma wriggled in a fury of impatience, but he merely gathered more sweater into his hand.
Now, isn’t that marvellous? Only in England to consult with Gemma’s doctor neighbour, after rescuing old ladies from immolation, Ross invites Gemma to Holland where he needs someone to care for his ill sister. Gemma is soon caught up in the life of his wonderful, loving, caring family. She feels centred and happy in Ross’s home, but there’s a snake in the grass named Leo, a “modern” young man who pursues Gemma plain and plump, a double-whammy of unmarriagability in the Bettyverse. Continue reading
I honestly don’t know where to begin with Ashley’s Dream Maker. About a quarter of the way through, I was looking forward to a snarky review, but having slogged through it (not an easy feat), I’m too tired for snark. This romance has much good to say about tossing off the bad and embracing the good (I can get behind the themes), but it says it so badly. If romance had manga, Ashley’s would be it: caricatured characters, thoroughly one-dimensional. Her characters remind me of those Hallowe’en suits, like a Superman one, you “blow up” and get puffy muscles. There’s a kind of breezy, down-to-earth, working-class tone to the novel and characters I found entertaining maybe for ten pages and then, the repetition, the language (woman are “bitches”, “shit” is always going down) and everyone speaks like wound-up comic-book characters. Maybe this novel turns some readers’ crank, but it is NOT a romance aesthetic I enjoyed. To start, plot-non-existent: hundreds of characters, all interchangeable, all men with their chicks, or bitches … and one of them, Lottie, I think, sets up our heroine, Evan “Evie” Gardiner with one of her “boys”, Danny Magnusson. These “boys” seem to run some kind of security firm, not sure what it was, but the room they worked in had a lot of monitors, so what else could it be? It’s insta-lust and like and love for Danny and Evan, so poof, that’s taken care of. Sadly, Evan has a TERRIBLE family and she sacrifices and sacrifices and sacrifices for them: her deadbeat brother in jail, her shrew of a mother, and it goes on. Thanks to the family’s nefarious activities, Evie is embroiled in a drug heist and some gun-running, all for the sake of saving her brother’s sorry behind. Bingo, this means Danny can go totally he-man protective on Evie and have her move in with him. Continue reading
It was nice to start the reading year with a quiet book, with flawed, believable characters, and still get a satisfying HEA. That’s Noelle Adams’s The Return. In a way, it reminded me of another recent read, Lacy Williams’s Small-Town Girl. Adams and Williams manage to convey a certain grit to their heroes and heroines and yet still imbue them with vulnerability and kindness. It’s nice to read, refreshing. My reading world didn’t rock, but it had a nice gentle swing, leisurely and hopeful, for the few days I spent in The Return‘s company. It helped that The Return is a second-chance romance for two good people: florist Ria Phillips and the boy who loved her and left her just when they were new lovers at eighteen, Jacob Worth. The novel opens with more humour and light-heartedness than it ends, despite its HEA. At its opening, Ria is trying to convince her town that, after eight years, she’s NOT holding a torch aloft for Jacob Worth. Until he “returns” to Azalea, Virginia, as his grandfather lies dying (turns out grandfather had a lot to do with why Jacob abandoned Ria and none of it good on gramps’s part). It’s obvious from their first reunited meeting that these two love each other and belong together, but there’s plenty of hurt and years and change to integrate into a new relationship. No matter how difficult and valid Jacob’s reasons were for leaving, he still left without explanation and never again contacted Ria. He was young, proud, hurt, and stupid. But he’s an awfully nice guy and gets softer and more vulnerable as the novel progresses. Continue reading
Dear readers and friends, if there’s one quotation that ran through my mind this annus horribilis, it’s Fitzgerald’s, “It occurred to me that there was no difference between men, in intelligence, or race, so profound as the difference between the sick and the well” (The Great Gatsby). And we have lived it every single day since March, when the subtle rumbling of the covid avalanche came to our attention. Then, lockdown … and a strange, united elation of singing from balconies and applauding health care workers and a kind of strange peace for those of us staying home that took the form of bread-baking and staring out windows. And, what I thought would be “reading time”, despite WFH. It wasn’t. Not the reading time part: instead a length of days, lost, in dream and lethargy. Of the books I did read, few stood out. Here they are. Continue reading
There comes a time when a reader and a category must part ways and with this, Lynne Graham’s Cinderella’s Royal Secret, the time has come for me and the HP. If you’re looking for the HP’s requisite elements, they’re here, but their mix is a recipe gone bad, or my taste for them is off. Either way, I’m out. The only thing I still enjoyed about Graham was her humour, definitely evident, the rest was meh and way too much telling over showing to bring this baby to baby-filled post-HEA bliss. It started out all right, again because it was funny. Prince Rafiq is in Oxford to inaugurate something. Back home in the mythical kingdom of Zenara, the days are numbered before he must take another wife (yes, even though he’s only 28, this would be wife #2; the first one conveniently dead; they married when he was 16, squeeky-yucky detail #1 among others). Izzy Campbell is the chambermaid at his hotel, toiling at toilettes to finish her teaching degree and help her prodigal parents and twin sister (who also toils) to care for her disabled baby brother. It’s a misery-fest, but this family is CHEERFUL. Rafiq walks out of the bathroom as Izzy enters the hotel suite with her cleaning cart and it’s lust-at-first-sight. They have dinner, fall into bed, and, lo and behold, though Rafiq is infertile, Izzy is on the pill (were it not for those pesky anti-biotics and a butterfly stomach of subsequent heaving and puking, well, it could’ve worked) … tara! Broken condom and a few months later, Izzy makes her way to Zenara to tell Rafiq he’s going to be a father … twins no less. Miracle of miracles, his very own babies … Rafiq and Izzy must marry … and you know the rest. Continue reading
Lacy Williams’s His Small-Town Girl isn’t a perfect romance, but it is true to the genre. And that was something I wanted to read after two lugubrious duds. Williams came from one of my favourite category lines, with favourite authors too, Harlequin’s “Love-Inspired” historicals (aka inspiehistrom). Since that line shut down, she has navigated to self-publishing and this series is, I would say, “kisses-only” contemporary, ne’er a soupçon of inspie content. But it still carries her ability to draw characters, write a fine line, and create a heart-tugging romance. There is something alive about Williams’s characters: they reach out to the reader and the reader cares about them. Even though overall His Small-Town Girl is an angsty read, the quick-fire, at times banterish exchanges between hero Cord Coulter and heroine Molly English lend a light, engaging touch. Angsty as heck is what these two are: Cord has returned to Sutter’s Hollow after years away in Houston to repair and sell his legacy, his grandmother’s run-down ranch. Orphaned with his baby brother, Cord suffered at the hands of his grandmother (and she’s never redeemed, which is a good thing in a contemporary that avoids the all-sunshine label in small-town Texas). As he tries to bring order into chaos, deal with an impending mortgage, and not lose his general contracting work back in the city, Molly English comes walking onto his ranch, sunshine to his grump, willing to do any labour to stay. Continue reading
My initial response to Katherine Reay’s Of Literature & Lattes was: “this book is a mess”. Structurally, it’s all over the place. It opens in fictional-small-town Winsome, Illinois, from the point of view of the local bookstore owner, Eve Parker … whom we barely meet again. At first, I thought she was the heroine, given this is labelled a romance. She isn’t. A plethora of troubled and/or sad small-town characters show up. It was hard to keep track of what made them sad/troubled. Then, all of this within the first 20 pages, we’re catapulted to Palo Alto, CA, where one Alyssa Harrison is being investigated by the FBI because the company she worked for took clients’ medical information, ostensibly to predict future illnesses as a preventative exercise, but sold the info. Alyssa, her FBI interview still pending, gets into her car to make her way home, a journey and destination holding nothing but dread and failure. Home is, of course, Winsome, and there await her mother, Janet, an artist who works at the book shop, and father, Seth. Janet and Seth are divorced because Janet cheated and Alyssa, never sharing an easy mother-daughter relationship, has blamed Janet for her parents’ break-up. But Janet and Seth are dating again, forgiveness is in the air … and Alyssa walks right into it and hates it. We leave Alyssa and her troubled relationship with her mother to meet the new owner of the town coffee-shop, Jeremy Mitchell. He moved to Winsome and invested everything he owns in the town, sharing business responsibilities with his friend, Ryan, because he wants to be closer to his seven-year-old daughter, Becca. His marriage broke up soon after Becca was born and his ex-wife, Krista, is hell to deal with. His coffee-shop is not the success he’d hope because he doesn’t have the community spirit, as Ryan tells him over and over again. Continue reading
My sole response to reaching the end of Samantha Harvey’s The Shapeless Unease was gratitude, not to Harvey, but to reaching the end and not giving up. It was a long, difficult slog, but I made it, sheer stubbornness propelling me forward to its vague conclusion. It’s not a terrible book, not by litfic, and not memfic, standards: it has the requisite lyrical prose, occasional, brilliant insight, only to lapse into lyrical existential-babble that hopes to dissolve the self, or digressive, tangential passages, never coming together with what came before, or what comes after.
Initially, I was drawn to the topic, but driven away by the style. As someone who has experienced bouts of insomnia, one in particular, I’d say, debilitating, and is an obsessive lover of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the greatest account of insomnias ever written, I wanted to read Harvey’s memoir. It started out great: Harvey, a regular sleeper pre-year-of-not-sleeping, recounts the incident at the heart of her not-sleeping: her cousin’s death. My understanding, and who knows, given the impenetrable style, I may be wrong, is that Harvey’s insomnia is linked to an existential dread of death, triggered by her cousin’s loss: “my cousin’s death has invited all deaths”. Continue reading