REVIEW: “Tonya Burrows’s SEAL Of Honour: Action Heroes and Damsels In Distress”

Burrows’s soon-to-be-released début, SEAL  Of Honour, is action-packed, well-paced, and entertaining. It is also raw, crude, caricaturish in its characterization and cartoonish in its ethics. The writing is uneven, typical of the newbie writer, but improves as the novel progresses. It doesn’t break any ground, or say anything new about the genre. Even though it is not to Miss Bates’s taste, it was obviously written with commitment and heart. Ms Burrows loved her story and characters and this comes through. It disturbed Miss Bates’s sensibilities in places, but it is genuine and engaging, reminiscent of a good action flick with accompanying romantic interest. Good for a sleepy, rainy Sunday afternoon curled up on the couch.

In principle, SEAL Of Honour, is simple: good guys, former SEALS turned rescue team for kidnap victims, extract the heroine’s brother who was kidnapped by unsavoury ones in Colombia. The love story happens between the stalwart leader of this motley crew, injured and retired SEAL Gabe Bristow, and the victim’s sister, free-spirited artist Audrey Van Amee. They fall in lust, then love, are taken hostage, shot, beaten, abused in sundry ways by such a variety of bad guys that Miss Bates had trouble keeping track of them. Like an Indiana Jones film, after a while this didn’t matter. The action sequences swept her along and just when things reached an idyllic point for hero and heroine, bad guys reared their ugly heads again and again … were foiled again and again …   until the true happy ending was enacted.  A neat and entertaining package, if that’s what you’re looking for.

Miss Bates made a point of saying this novel was not her cuppa and she needs to back that up. To start, Burrows’s novel had passages of awkward writing, stilted dialogue, and convoluted plotting. One of the things that Miss Bates loves about romantic suspense novels is that hero and heroine are motivated by honour and integrity. What she doesn’t love about them, and this comes through loud and clear in this novel, is the glorification of vigilante justice and passionate and acrobatic love scenes in circumstances where that would be the last thing on anyone’s mind. The superhuman ability to enact lustful scenes, especially when hero and/or heroine are injured or beaten is ludicrous. This is especially evident in SEAL Of Honour. Miss Bates was also nonplussed by love scenes that were crude and … well, a trifle too clinical for her taste.

One loves one’s heroes larger-than-life, yes, but these guys sound like their muscles are blown up using a bicycle pump. The heroine is harder to pinpoint: her characterization is uneven. Initially, she is supposed to be free-spirited and fey, but comes across as puerile and immature, calling the hero “numb nuts” and “grumpy butt”! As the writing improves, she does too: she is honest and forthcoming about her physical and emotional needs and this was refreshing to read. A heroine who is not coy, or strident. It’s unfortunate that she’s constantly weeping: read it, you’ll see what Miss Bates means. Miss Bates is circumspect about crying a river, but then Miss Bates isn’t a free-spirited artiste! The violence in this novel is over-the-top and Miss Bates had a hard time reading certain scenes. If you like that kind of thing though, you’ll definitely enjoy this book.

Burrows’s SEAL Of Honour doesn’t break any ground, or do anything more than a good Cindy Gerard novel does. It doesn’t reach the goodness of the early Suzanne Brockmann, but it’s entertaining and will keep your interest, if you can stomach it.

Miss Bates is a tad displeased and may not come calling here again, but she does say, “Tolerable comfort.” Mansfield Park

This review was made possible by a generous e-ARC from Entangled Publishing via Netgalley.

REVIEW: “Allie Pleiter’s HOMEFRONT HERO: Casting Off the Old Adam”

Allie Pleiter’s Homefront Hero is a gem. Pleiter wields the strict parameters of the category and inspirational romance like a sonnet in the hands of the Bard. If inspies aren’t your thing, this lovely little book may change your mind. This is one of the best romance novels I’ve read in a sea of uninspired ones!

What does Pleiter accomplish? Because this is an accomplished book. She depicts established and burgeoning faith as something living, breathing, elemental, and essential to a full life.  She does so without preaching, only weaving her characters’ faith effortlessly into the narrative in a believable and moving way. In her hero and heroine, she creates two loveable, sympathetic, and flawed individuals. She makes history come alive with detail and atmosphere without over-riding the plot or the romance. She makes wonderful use of a central, unifying metaphor. Her romance is a fully fleshed romance as well as an allegory of death and resurrection of body and soul. Some of the writing is simply superb. There is banter, delightful dialogue between the two leads and secondary characters with “character,” not just functionality.

The story is set in the midst of America’s involvement in the Great War, at Camp Jackson in S. Carolina.  A wounded, recovering war hero, John Gallows, and a neophyte nurse, Leanne Sample, meet when General Barnes orders him to assist with her project. He has been the driving attraction of an army recruitment campaign; he’s handsome, cavalier, charming, wealthy … and wants only to return to battle. Leanne is also on a mission to convince men and boys to join women in knitting socks for the troops. What better poster boy than John Gallows? John uses his acquiescence as a bargaining chip with General Barnes to return to the front, even though his leg is not, nor ever will be, healed and he is in constant pain. What follows is a wonderful, humorous undermining of an alpha male as he learns to knit at the hands of this beautiful, intelligent, pious, and sharp-tongued young woman who takes a stand against his charm.

What starts as a gentle inspie romance soon grows into a dark night of the soul. John grapples with feelings of self-hatred and worthlessness, declaring himself “an unfinished hero,” even while his feelings for Leanne and her gentle persuasion towards God have him in knots. Once the hero’s and heroine’s feelings are fully engaged, John’s imminent departure, his need to be worthy of his heroic status, brings the first of the dark moments for this couple: separation, possible death. But death comes in another form and John cannot abandon Leanne to it. The Spanish influenza epidemic strikes; John and Leanne are plunged into a dark night of the soul. But it is always darkest before the dawn and this novel concludes with stirring scenes of redemption and rebirth. It also has the best “baby” epilogue I’ve ever read … with nary a baby in sight.

For me, the most appealing aspect of Homefront Hero is Pleiter’s use of the unifying metaphor of knitting. If you’re thinking how prosaic … you’d be wrong. Witness the following lovely little phrases. We are introduced to Leanne as she asks that “God cast her life’s reach far and wide,” playing on the notion of “casting” stitches and nets, as in the Christian reference to fishermen’s nets. She uses an understanding of tension in a knit’s weave to represent the tension that attraction brings between the hero and heroine. It stands as the central metaphor of a communion with God: “God spoke to her thoughts and breaths, in colours and sensations.  All her senses seemed to weave together — sometimes tight and coarse, other times loose and billowy.  When the world was tight and coarse, she would feel God beside her, holding, protecting. When the world was loose and billowy, she would feel Him underneath her like the wind under a seagull.”

Homefront Hero is a story, to quote the hero, of “love and God,” of redemption and hope, of humour and everyday life and heroism.  It is not insipid, naïve, or simplistic, which are the adjectives we can sometimes lay at the feet of inspirational romance.

Miss Bates is very, very pleased and says “You have bewitched me.” (Pride and Prejudice)

REVIEW: Iris Johansen’s The Lady and the Unicorn: The Myth Of the Alpha

Iris Johansen’s The Lady and the Unicorn was published in 1983; it is available to readers via Loveswept’s digital reprints. This is a romance novel stamped with the flaws of its time and a reader must suspend certain sensibilities to enjoy it. Enjoy it Miss Bates did, however, even while gritting her teeth and squirming with embarrassment in places. No matter its failings, Johansen is a lovely writer and can paint a scene with beauty and subtlety. For that alone, it is worth reading.

The compelling opening to The Lady and the Unicorn puts it in the Brontë Camp of romance novels. For this reader, one of whose favourite novels is Jane Eyre, this is a sure way to hook and reel me in. An original scene opens the novel: Janna Cannon rappels into millionaire Rafe Santine’s fortress, his “Thornfield,” determined to convince him to donate prime development-bound real estate to her employer, a wild life reserve looking for a new home for its wards. The associations to Jane Eyre are immediate: a lowering citadel; a heroine named Janna, an orphaned innocent with an independent spirit and a moral and spiritual bent; a hero who is irascible, discontented, impatient, officious and, to quote the Bard, at a point in his life where “man delights not me, nor no woman neither.” Though brooding, petulant, and seemingly indifferent to her, he’s affected by Janna’s beauty and purity. Her conquest of his stronghold walls is a foreshadowing of her triumph over his emotional ones. (Even her last name, Cannon, is indicative of the power she’ll have over them.) Like Jane Eyre, Jenna is cared for, coddled, protected; she converses as an equal and roams the grounds, experiencing sublime natural surroundings.

Johansen’s writing is graceful, fluent and makes interesting use of natural and animal imagery. The romance is structured around these metaphors and they both elevate and damn it. On the damning side, Rafe strikes a deal with Jenna: he will donate the land and she, in turn, will spend two months isolated in his fortress as his “pet.” Jenna is the “gazelle” that arouses his “hunting instincts.” Metaphors of hunter and prey, pet and keeper necessitate the reader to suspend certain sensibilities regarding the novel. Rafe and Jenna work out their relationship on the basis of this uncomfortable premise, made worse by the fact that Jenna is part Native American. Jenna is stereotyped when Rafe calls her “my little earth mother,” “Pocahontas,” and “little doe.” Rafe holds her captive, manhandles her, and flies into jealous fits. He is always, as he tells Jenna, on the brink of “losing control.” Thus, Rafe is the beast and Jenna the dove who will tame him. He, in turn, will domesticate her and rein her desire for the open spaces and independence. A distasteful scenario of captivity and compulsion.

The Lady and the Unicorn comprises passages of beauty; the writing is consistently polished and flows with ease and grace. As I said above, the use of animal and natural imagery elevates the novel and makes it worth reading. The reader will appreciate and enjoy the lovely passage where Jenna tames Rafe’s vicious guard dogs, the descriptions of the wild and craggy lands that surround Rafe’s castle, whose beauty sustain Jenna’s spirit, and the comfort Jenna draws from the splendor of a sunset when she is sorrowful. Most importantly, the legend of the lady and the unicorn serves as an elucidation of Rafe’s volatile, capricious moods and meteoric personality. In the end, Janna is free to decide her role in the legend and the answer lies in love, compromise, and sacrifice for both characters.

There is much to love about The Lady and the Unicorn and much that one can deride too. It is undeniable that the descriptive writing is a cut above; it is true that Johansen deftly makes use of a charming mythical reference. In the end, it reminded me somewhat of Laura London’s Lightning That Lingers, with the animal and natural world coming to bear upon the romance. You won’t like everything about it, but you won’t easily forget the lady and her unicorn either.

Almost pretty.”  Northanger Abbey

This review is the result of a generous e-ARC from Random House/Loveswept via Netgalley.