No matter the claims to originality, no matter how new and fresh the voice, 99.9% of romances follow the narrative pattern of encounter, attraction, obstacles, false Eden, betrayal/estrangement, and resolution/HEA, and all centring solely, exclusively on the central couple, their conflict, their feelings, and their between-the-sheets time. But Bliss always manages to surprise me, always twists that old familiar, comfortable pattern to make me stand up and notice. In historical romance, only Rose Lerner has managed to do the same (see especially my review of True Pretenses). I’ve loved each of Bliss’s Rock Star romances. She delighted, moved, and surprised me in each one, but her fourth, Resurrection, might be the best one yet. Surprisingly, its quota of romantic tension is near-zero. The hero and heroine’s feelings are so apparent and easy that all the while, Bliss sneaks in other interesting things, themes and ideas, and still, in the end, makes me sigh with the perfection of her HEA (I also ugly-cried, but the scrunched-up faced Miss Bates is a thing best left unimagined).
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
Truth be told, Miss Bates would advise you not to read past this sentence because she loves every Maisey Yates romance she reads. You’ve been warned: you may have heard this before.
With each Copper Ridge and related romance novels that come out, MissB. anticipates disappointment: “finally, this one will be stale, tired, Yates will just go through the motions”. Nope, each and every one is good: thoughtful, sexy, centred on love, romance, healing, fidelity, and commitment. Hero and heroine are often many kinds of messed up, in need of healing what is soul-and-heart broken. They skirt around what their fabulous love-making intimates, dismiss it as lust, run away from what their bodies already know: this is your soulmate, the one person you’ve waited for, the one who ends all others for you, the one you love and will share a family with. It’s simple and familiar and Yates makes it fresh and wonderful every time. You either buy her view of love and marriage, or you balk at the notion of what the body knows, the mind must get used to; and, what the body knows, the soul recognized a long time ago. This is as true for Golden-Good-Girl Sabrina Leighton as for returned bad-boy, wrong-side-of-tracks Liam Donnelly.
About three years ago, Miss Bates loved Maisey Yates’s HP, Pretender To the Throne. Her recent Yates read, Last Chance Rebel, has much in common, though the mythical-kingdom setting is nothing like the small-town-feel of Copper Ridge, Oregon. Nevertheless, both novels are about contending and making peace with the past, recognizing internal patterns hindering connection and love, and how forgiveness of self and others heals us, the other, and the community.
Last Chance Rebel is Yates’s eleventh Copper Ridge, Oregon series romance and more are out, or planned. Yates has created one of the great contemporary rom series around this community. Her view of it is neither rose-coloured nor condemnatory. Instead, she focusses on interweaving various members’ lives as they come face to face with the incontrovertible fact of love, a feeling so strong, so vibrant, and so frightening that Copper Ridge’s men and woman alternately run to and from it. Like Pretender To the Throne, Last Chance Rebel has a physically scarred heroine, scars caused by the hero’s carelessness. Like Pretender To the Throne, family circumstances bring the hero home to confront his past and role in the heroine’s life. Like Pretender To the Throne, the heroine’s rage against the hero is explosive and the hero’s guilt and atonement, spectacular. Continue reading
One of Miss Bates’s favourite romance tropes is the villain’s redemption, the character who serves as the foil and nasty in previous books FINALLY! gets his story, or enters a rom nasty as death and emerges a poignant hero. Miss Bates counts some of her favourite romances among these tropishly-delicious rom-narratives, especially Kleypas’s The Devil In Winter and, oh my goodness such goodness, Georgette Heyer’s first two Alastair trilogy books, These Old Shades and Devil’s Cub. Elizabeth Hoyt’s tenth Maiden Lane novel, Duke Of Sin, has a villain-hero who combines the qualities of Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent; Justin Alastair, Duke of Avon; and, his son, the Marquis of Vidal. Valentine Napier, Duke of Montgomery is “the most wicked man in London … as deadly as a coiled adder.” He’s beautiful, decadent, a blackmailer and murderer and, though exiled, he’s back and ready to restore his rightful place in society by all unsavory means. But into his blackened heart and hollow soul crawls a little avenging angel of a housekeeper, Bridget Crumb.
Ever since she was a tween, Miss Bates has loved the film version of Breakfast At Tiffany’s. Miss Bates cannot resist the ethereally beautiful, vulnerable Audrey Hepburn or poignant Golden-Boy George Peppard. What Blake Edwards made of Capote’s novella is pure romance genre. More than anything, Miss Bates loved watching two morally compromised characters find love. They are, of course, morally compromised in their eyes, not the viewers’. Their growing love helps them re-evaluate who they are, see themselves in a better light, and give themselves what they deserve: love and belonging. In Nicole Helm’s Outlaw Cowboy, second in the Big Sky Cowboys series, Miss B. found just that, a viscerally satisfying romance about two people who are hardest on themselves emerging out of their dark nights of solitude to love, connection, family, and hope. Caleb Shaw is Mel Shaw’s brother; Mel is the heroine of Helm’s first romance in the series, Rebel Cowboy. That novel opened with Mel’s struggles to keep the Montana family ranch afloat. Bro’s on the bottle and father, paralyzed in an accident five years ago, has given up, checked out, and broods throughout the family home. When Outlaw Cowboy opens, baby bro Caleb has taken the ranch reins. He stopped drinking and desperately wants to retain ownership of the family land. Caleb is haunted by his mother’s abandonment and one terrible night he almost beat a man to death when he saw him holding a gun to his daughter’s head.
Jo Beverley’s 1991 Emily and the Dark Angel restores your faith in the genre. That was Miss Bates’s thought as she turned the last page with a satisfied reader’s affection-sigh. Miss Bates is glad she read Emily Grantwich and Piers Verderan’s wooing on paper: a traditional format for a traditional Regency, which never loses its freshness, elegance, or emotional power. What brings about that lift, the reader’s spirit-rise, the recognition of “I’m in the presence of one of the genre’s greats”? It’s difficult to pinpoint, as elusive as catching a sunbeam. It’s trope-manipulation, or gentle tinkering; it’s psychological acumen. It’s the bringing-to-life of time and place; it’s secondary characters who breathe. It’s turn of phrase the reader recalls long after the last page is turned. It’s banter and confession and the fulfilled promises of desire and being understood.
Emily and the Dark Angel contains one of Miss Bates’s favourite romance pairings, opposites-attract: Emily is sensible to Ver’s imprudence, countryside respectability to Ver’s citified worldliness, propriety to his flouting of social conventions, innocent to his debauchery, staid to his temperament, plain to his gorgeousness, and Miss Bates’s absolute favourite, her diminutive stature to his gargantuan. When this yin-yang romance combination is handled as cleverly and sensitively as Beverley’s, the HEA is about the couple’s integrating the best of each other in themselves. Core identity is preserved for tension and interest, but tempered to show us how they will live in harmony.
Miss Bates doesn’t understand why Sarah Morgan’s North American Puffin Island romance is marketed in a double-rom volume with Susan Mallery’s Ladies’ Man. If there was ever a romance that deserved to stand front and center on a cover, it’s Some Kind Of Wonderful. Which is why Miss Bates features the U.K. edition’s pretty, whimsical cover.
Morgan’s Puffin Island series has already given us two wonderful romances, one of the best HPs Miss Bates and friends have read, Playing By the Greek’s Rules, and First Time In Forever. Continuing the story of three bosom friends, Some Kind Of Wonderful tells Brittany Forrest’s tale, Brittany whose grand-mother bequeathed her Castaway Cottage on Puffin Island, the college besties’ summer hang-out and sanctuary when things go awry. Brittany returns to Puffin Island after breaking her wrist excavating Aegean Bronze Age weaponry in Crete. Dr. Forrest’s troubles go from “single spies to battalias” when her private plane ride to Puffin Island comes in the form of one silent, sexy stunner, ex-husband of ten years, Zachary Flynn – the bad boy who abandoned her ten days after their marriage.
‘Tis the season when Miss Bates embarks on reading and reviewing Christmas-set romance. There aren’t too many pending in the ARC TBR this year, but enough to tide her over till Christmas. Last year, she opened the Christmas review series with a post on past favourites. (There are great recs in the comments as well.) This year, for her début Christmas romance review post, something a little different: a brief discussion of a past favourite and mini-review of a recent Christmas-set read.
Miss Bates thinks the Christmas setting gives romance writers the opportunity to weave a healing theme into the romance narrative arc of encounter, attraction, consummation, repulsion/dissolution, and reconciliation/HEA. Carla Kelly’s Marian’s Christmas Wish, one of MissB’s favourite Christmas romances, embodies this idea. The eponymous Marian, a maybe-too-young, irrepressible, exuberant heroine meets Gil Collingwood, gentle, older, charming, but a little tired of life’s struggle, when her brother brings him home for Christmas. Their romance is sweet and funny; moreover, it also strikes a serious note when Marian uses her healing salve, created to help her beloved animals, on a persistent, painful sore on Gil’s cheek. The physical healing reflects the heart’s healing of Gil’s reintegration into a family and a hope for the future in the love he’ll share with his betrothed, Marian. The theme of healing through love and the creation of a new family/reintegration into a broken family can also be found in that unlikeliest of genre places, the HP, and, particularly, in Miss Bates’ latest Christmas romance read, Maisey Yates’ A Christmas Vow Of Seduction.
Miss Bates reveled in reading Maisey Yates’ Shoulda Been A Cowboy like a piglet in her sty. She loved reading and reviewing Laurie R. King’s Dreaming Spies, but it felt good to put on her romance-reading slippers and settle into her favourite genre. She had a moue of disappointment when she noticed that Yates’ story was a novella – not enough, dammit. But she was also glad to see Yates charm her all over again, after a one-too-many sheikh-set duds. Though only a soupçon of romance reading, Shoulda Been A Cowboy delivered a bad-boy-good-girl-unresolved-HS-attraction-prodigal-son-return romance, all beloved romance tropes. Hero Jake Caldwell returns to his home town, Copper Ridge, Oregon, after a fifteen-year absence, to sell his inheritance, a run-down ranch and a few dilapidated buildings. One of those buildings has been given new life by leasee heroine, Cassie Ventimiglia, who runs a coffee shop on the premises, The Grind, and lives in one of the apartments. Jake and Cassie share a history beyond being from the same town. Cassie tutored Jake when they were in high school together, when he was resident heart-throb and bad boy, his Johnny “Wild One” to her “Kathie.” Continue reading