True to characters cover!
One of the first romance novels I read when I returned to the genre and combed through best-of lists for titles to throw money at was Lisa Kleypas’s Dreaming Of You. I adored Sarah and Derek, the casino setting, the pesky, bespectacled heroine and hardened with a secret heart of gold hero. Ostensibly, Lorraine Heath’s Beyond Scandal and Desire has echoes of Kleypas’s romance classic, but in many other ways, it is an entirely different beast, unique to Heath’s vision. Beyond Scandal and Desire‘s cross-class promise, its ingenue heroine who’s too smart to stay that way and guttersnipe-made-good hero kept me reading through a slow, though evident of a sure writing hand, first third. The similarities to Kleypas saw me through the premise’s set-up. What kept me rivetted was Heath’s weaving of a tale about the need to be recognized, acknowledged, loved, and validated, a journey both hero and heroine take in their unique ways, about what family means, and where we can meet on a plane of forgiveness and reconciliation. To start, the novel’s gothic opening sees a London aristocrat deliver a new-born to the East End Widow Trewlove, by-blow of an affair? shame of the aristocracy? Yet, the birth scene had been one of tenderness and love between mother and father … whatever happened here, I wanted to know.
Deanna Raybourn’s third Veronica Speedwell, Victorian-set mystery finds her prickly, sleuthing pair, Veronica and Stoker, where they’ve settled since book one’s conclusion: in Bishop’s Folly, setting up the Earl of Rosemorran’s museum from his vast, eclectic, esoteric collection. In A Treacherous Curse, their museological endeavours are interrupted by a mystery that tickles their adventurous spirits and curiosity, challenging and deepening their relationship. Unlike my other favourite historical mystery series, C. S. Harris’s Sebastian St. Cyr, it is interesting to note how Raybourn’s sleuthing protagonists are not endowed with a strong sense of justice. They’re driven by a crossword-puzzle-doer’s instincts, the need to solve the quandary, or as Veronica quips, “To investigate one murder is a curiosity. To investigate two is a habit.” This is not by way of criticism. It isn’t fair to compare persimmons with pineapples, but I do like to muse on authors’ world-building and thematic choices. What gives Raybourn’s series moral impetus, at least in these initial volumes, is the revelation of our main characters’ pasts. (In A Treacherous Curse‘s case, Stoker’s is under scrutiny.) Maybe this will change in future volumes? What else informs Raybourn’s series’ moral impetus is the fierce protectiveness and loyalty that Veronica and Stoker (aka Templeton-Vane) hold for each other. There’s romance dearth for romance readers, but enough of a spark to keep me reading, for this and sundry reasons. (I am delighted that Veronica ogles Stoker’s Laocoönian body, while he exhibits near-prudish bashfulness. So much fun in those scenes!) Continue reading
A groggy, caffeine-heavy morning for me after a night reading into the wee hours, thanks to Lauren Willig’s Gothic romance, historical mystery The English Wife. The novel opens in January 1899 in Cold Spring NY, at “Illyria,” Bay and Annabelle Van Duyvil’s country estate. Bay and Annabelle’s hermetic existence has thus far been the bane of Bay’s appearances-are-all mother, Alva. Formidable, humorless Alva is ever flanked by Janie, her mousy, silent daughter and Anne, the mouthy, flamboyant niece she took in. To Alva’s great society-loving heart, Bay and Annabelle are finally celebrating the opening of their magnificent estate by holding a costume ball for New York’s best, brightest, and finest. Until now, Bay and Annabelle’s life has been a mystery. Rumours of eccentricities and infidelities swirl around them, about them … maybe because they keep to themselves and, at least on the surface, appear to live an idyllic existence with twins Sebastian and Viola. Bay and Annabelle don’t seem to give a fig about what the “best people” think, rendering them endlessly fascinating to the society pages and ensuring Alva Van Duyvil’s frustrated, officious meddling. Continue reading
Uncertain and with trepidation, I picked up Roni Loren’s The Ones Who Got Away. After watching the news reports about Margery Stoneman Douglas HS and its mass-shooting aftermath, I wasn’t sure I wanted to read a romance with this premise. But I ploughed ahead and read it because I thought: dammit, is that a niggling doubt that the genre can’t, shouldn’t, would botch, a premise so raw and horrific? Can romance do the subject justice? That little snooty inner judgement said “No, spinster-girl, you’re giving this genre a chance to tell this story.” What I discovered is that Loren got some things right and others, wrong. What Loren got right was situating the story twelve years after the school shooting. While her protagonists’ lives were marked by their experience, the initial horror/trauma has dulled. They have built lives as best they can, found some peace, but the shooting has dictated to them too. The time lapse gives Loren some romance narrative wiggle-room: her hero and heroine are adults focussed on adult things, working, paying their bills, being responsible citizens. They achieved this by leaving their Texas town and what happened at Long Acre High. Continue reading
Romance 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
I 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
Kate 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
My 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
2018 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
Nicole 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