Continuing with my category romance reading for Wendy’s TBR Challenge 2022 I was happy to see this month’s fairy-tale theme. After all, what are romance novels but fairy tale retellings? And what is closer to fantasy and wish-fulfillment than the HP category romance? Which is why I chose to read Caitlin Crews’s The Man Behind the Scars. When an HP is done right, you stay up reading till past your it’s-a-work-day bedtime, as I did with Crews’s little HP gem. It’s over-the-top and groans under the weight of its melodrama, but I enjoyed it. Is the premise ludicrous? Yes, that’s what makes it fun. The scarred hero, Rafe McFarland, eighth Earl of Pembroke, is lurking in the shadows of a society wedding when Angel Tilson, “former model and tabloid darling,” spots him. On the lookout for a rich husband, one waltz later, Rafe and Angel are engaged! She needs money and he, an heir. Before you know it, they’re ensconced in Rafe’s “remote Scottish estate” as husband and wife and the interplay of two lonely people who feel unworthy of love prove how much they deserve it. (more…)
I had mixed reactions to Balogh’s Silent Melody: puzzled, enthralled at what she could do with the genre, dismayed at what she did with the genre, and always aware there was something fearless about what she did in Silent Melody. If we consider the romance from the perspective of today’s romance cognoscenti, it would be in its “representation” of its deaf heroine. On this level, I’m sure Balogh’s representation invites the damning “problematic”. I didn’t find it “problematic”, but I did dislike it for reasons having nothing to do with the heroine’s sensory challenge.
I think Balogh’s purpose was, not realism, but an exploration of a sensory deprivation and how, from it, she could build a character of strength, will, determination, and independence. There are, I believe, two things that stymied her: Balogh equated Emily’s deafness with an ability to commune with nature and she could not avoid, in the telling, that most pernicious romance pitfall, the lapse into plot-centred melodrama.
To start, a little background, since I haven’t said a thing about the hero. Lady Emily Marlowe lives with her sister’s family, Anna and Luke, the Duke of Harndon, and brother to the hero, Lord Ashley Kendrick. She is beloved, privileged, wealthy, and roams the vast estate, dishevelled and barefoot, at her will. She is beautiful, kind, highly intelligent, and a talented artist. The love her of life, Ashley, left seven years ago, to make his fortune with the East India Company. He returns a wealthy, broken man, guilt-ridden and tormented because he was away the night of a fire that killed his wife and infant son. Reunited with his family and Emily, merely fifteen when he left and his then-companion of forest and dell, he feels unworthy of forgiveness and love. Nevertheless, his family loves him and Emily was and is still in love with him. (more…)
I’ve enjoyed every one of Holiday’s Matchmaker Bay novels. Looking back at the three titles (hoping for more), I admire how she set a different tone to each couple, balancing the familiar and whimsical with the fresh and heart-tugging. Of the three, Paradise Cove chewed my heart to bits. Sandcastle Beach made for a nice contrast: low-stakes romance, likeable hero and heroine with supportive family, friends, and town rooting for them and, my favourite bit, a nod to one of Shakespeare’s great comedies, Much Ado About Nothing. If Mermaid Inn brought us reunited high school sweethearts and Paradise Cove saw a tragedy healed in its love story, Sandcastle Beach had the frothy fun and banter of Shakespeare’s delightful paen to love’s headiness, but also to how we resist it and fight against it.
We watched Ben Lawson and Maya Mehta snark at each other through the first two series books. Like to their friends and family, that they were in love was obvious. This does not make their romance journey any less engaging for being so apparent. (I also enjoyed Holiday dialing down the sexy times and going for slow burn with this one: she nailed it.)
The blurb offers further detail:
Maya Mehta will do anything to save her tiny, beloved community theater. Put on musicals she hates? Check. Hire an arrogant former-pop-star-turned-actor? Done. But what Maya really needs to save her theater is Matchmaker Bay’s new business grant. She’s got some serious competition, though: Benjamin “Law” Lawson, local bar owner, Jerk Extraordinaire, and Maya’s annoyingly hot arch nemesis. Let the games begin.
Law loves nothing more than getting under Maya’s skin, and making those gorgeous eyes dance with irritation. But when he discovers the ex-pop star has a thing for Maya, too, Law decides he’s done waiting in the wings-starting with a scorching-hot kiss. Turns out there’s a thin line between hate and irresistible desire, and Maya and Law are really good at crossing it. But when things heat up, will they allow their long-standing feud to get in the way of their growing feelings? (more…)
In Love At First, Kate Clayborn penned a perfect romance. How did she manage to keep me engrossed in a novel where nothing happens? Tension and conflict dissipate (the heroine’s feud is silly and it is to her credit she sees it as such). Instead, Clayborn lets her romance stand on characterization, setting, scene, and mood. There has also been an authorial decision on Clayborn’s part that I think has made for her best book yet: she abandoned her previous books’ first-person narration for third. This adds depth and maturity to the writing and removes her reliance on her characters’ first-person voices to provide it, which they don’t. And can’t, given the first-person dependence on personality. As I said, not much happens; here’s the blurb to start us off on the glorious details:
Sixteen years ago, a teenaged Will Sterling saw—or rather, heard—the girl of his dreams. Standing beneath an apartment building balcony, he shared a perfect moment with a lovely, warm-voiced stranger. It’s a memory that’s never faded, though he’s put so much of his past behind him. Now an unexpected inheritance has brought Will back to that same address, where he plans to offload his new property and get back to his regular life as an overworked doctor. Instead, he encounters a woman, two balconies above, who’s uncannily familiar . . . No matter how surprised Nora Clarke is by her reaction to handsome, curious Will, or the whispered pre-dawn conversations they share, she won’t let his plans ruin her quirky, close-knit building. Bound by her loyalty to her adored grandmother, she sets out to foil his efforts with a little light sabotage. But beneath the surface of their feud is an undeniable connection. A balcony, a star-crossed couple, a fateful meeting—maybe it’s the kind of story that can’t work out in the end. Or maybe, it’s the perfect second chance . . . (more…)
When I started Secret Nights, I thought I would end up DNF-ing; instead, it sucked me in and I read into the wee hours and again at dawn. I’m groggy and tired, but trying to understand why I enjoyed it as much as I did. To start, I think the reason I thought I would DNF is there’s something about Crews’s narrative voice that grates. When I start one of her novels, I’m instantly turned off by the feeling she’s leading me along her narrative; I can see her composing on a computer. If I end up enjoying the novel, then it’s because, despite that intrusive storytelling voice, the sheer romance-y-ness of it is compelling. In this case, it was (in others, not) and I don’t even enjoy marriage-in-trouble romance:
Riley Kittredge has always known exactly what he wanted. His land, his horses. His woman. He met and married Rae Trujillo far too young, and their young love combusted right after they said their vows. But their passion has never managed to burn itself out. Yet when Rae shows this time, it’s not a night of pleasure she demands, but a divorce. Rae should have moved on a long time ago. She knows she and Riley just don’t work. They might make great lovers, but that doesn’t make a marriage. And now Rae wants a new life, complete with a baby. But when her husband offers to be a father, to give her the family she’s always secretly desired, she and Riley will both have to face demons from their past—and choose love over fear at last.
Riley and Rae were high-school sweethearts and their young love didn’t exactly combust until “something happened” and Rae left Riley to move back in with her parents. Then, for the next eight years, Rae drove to Riley’s horse ranch, to the house he built for them, to fight and have sex. Eight years of yelling and sex doesn’t seem plausible to me because surely a person needs some peace and friendly conversation? What do I know, though, spinster that I am? A friend of mine once told me that her 30-year marriage consisted of yelling and great sex, so maybe? In any case, when the novel opens, Rae asks Riley to divorce because she wants to have a baby. Her friend Abby’s baby, Bart, has set all hormones firing. This is less of a plot point, in the end, than the blurb suggests and that was a good thing. I’m glad baby-making didn’t play such a great role, instead the working out of a relationship where’s there’s a lot of love, but not much by way of understanding, forgiveness, or communication. (more…)
One of the first great category romances I ever read was Karina Bliss’s What the Librarian Did, making me a category-convert for life. Bliss’s Special Forces series was also among the best I’ve read and the first and last, Here Comes the Groom and A Prior Engagement, among the best romance I’ve read, category, or otherwise. Reading Redemption brought back their goodness and reminded me what wonderful writers some category authors were. I’m so glad Bliss kept writing and publishing romance (after the sad loss of the Superromance line) because reading her is always a pleasure.
Redemption and its “Rock Solid” predecessors have a connection to that among-the-first category I read: What the Librarian Did‘s hero, Devin Freedman, is Rise‘s and Redemption‘s hero, Zander Freedman’s younger brother, also connected by having experienced the rise and fall of their uber-successful, world-famous rock band, Rage. What was Elizabeth and Zander’s HEA in Rise continues in Redemption. While not a marriage-in-trouble romance, it is a relationship-growing-pains romance. Zander and Elizabeth are not estranged, but trying to be vulnerable, work through their fears, and love and support each other. They make mistakes and, out of self-doubt, don’t always communicate. Bliss’s blurb fills in further details:
Like every woman emphatically in love, academic Elizabeth Winston figured she’d fix her rockstar lover’s emotional problems with her shiny, all-encompassing acceptance. Oh boy. Even though she’d heard her minister father counsel couples throughout her childhood, she forgot the take-away. You can’t force someone to heal before they’re ready. Now she’s five thousand miles from the man she loves and hawking intimate details of their relationship to salvage his iconic legacy. Struggling to keep her own identity, and increasingly unsure whether Zander’s even on board. Can she redeem his reputation while holding onto her career, or is she making things worse on all fronts? And that’s before she makes a mistake that changes everything.
He gave up the world for love. The world isn’t ready to let him go. Fame is a destroyer. Which is why Zander Freedman quit music. These days its moderation in all things, except Elizabeth Winston. But building an ordinary life with an extraordinary woman isn’t easy. For one, she’s deep in the snake pit he left behind. For two, he has a stalker that stops him being by her side. Loving her is easy. Letting her love him is something he works on every day. How hard does Elizabeth’s life have to be before she regrets choosing him? (more…)
When I started reading romance after 30 years away, one of the first romances I read was Sarah Mayberry’s Best Laid Plans. Introduced to the genre with The Flame and the Flower, Mayberry’s romance was revelatory. It told me how much the genre had changed and how wonderful those changes were. I’d never have believed when The Flame and the Flower was the norm to read about an older heroine and hero, professionals both, disappointed by past relationships, agreeing to share a child (and, hey, it’s a romance, so they also fall in love along the way). I was attracted to Stacey’s Their Christmas Baby Contract because I was nostalgic for Mayberry’s romance and because, foolish as this is becoming, I yearn for a wonderful category romance (two attempts with previously beloved authors left me cold). Stacey’s premise captured me. The blurb will set it up for us:
Brady Nash is handsome and anti marriage. And with IVF completely out of her financial reach, Reyna Bishop is running out of time to have the child she so very much wants. Theirs is a practical baby-making deal: no emotion, no expectation, no ever-after. They’ll even “date” through Christmas to silence their hometown gossips. It’s foolproof…till the time she spends with Brady and his warm, loving family leaves Reyna wanting more than a baby…
Brady isn’t anti-marriage, nor a commitment-phobe: he has a reputation, completely unjustified, as a ladies man. Reyna too has an unjustified reputation as a man-killer. Neither of them live up to either and the town, cutesy-Christmas-parade-Hallmark-decorated is unkind in its assessment. But bargain they do and we’re off to the baby races by chapter three, with two calm, responsible introverts falling in love and ever denying it, uncertain of the other’s feelings, hesitant about their own. (more…)
There is much to abhor in the former-military, “band of special ops” brothers romance, but I also cannot take away how compellingly satisfying Crane’s fourth Alaska Force romantic suspense novel, Delta Force Defender, was, the long-awaited story of the Force’s leader, Isaac Gentry, and the curmudgeonly owner of Grizzly Harbor’s restaurant, the shadows-in-her-eyes-and-scowl-on-her-face Caradine Scott. My reading experience alternated between eye-rolling annoyance and page-tapping eagerness, I’m embarrassed to say, but there you have it. There is absolutely nothing terribly original about the premise and, if it were not for Crane’s writing chops, this nears the Kristen-Ashley-badness territory.
Caradine Scott’s past catches up with her one night in her Alaskan-anonymity town, peopled by your run-of-the-mill small town “characters” and the ice-men that make up Alaska Force, a security service solving the world’s ills from their isolated state-of-the-art compound. Her restaurant is bombed and ne-er may be found of her except footprints leading to the water. What can I say, there are monitors. (Given the zip-tie horror of the America Capitol attack, no zip-tie carrying hero can ever be that heroic again. The former-military hero romance, with a protective, San-Andreas-fault-sized man-handling protective streak of said hero incites shivers of anxiety rather than frissons of excitement.) Leader of the he-man pack, Isaac Gentry, who does carry zip-ties, former marine, occasional-Caradine lover, is, atypically, emotionally affected by Caradine’s disappearance, terrified, though he’d never show it to his ribbing mates. Has she been kidnapped, or left for dead, or will soon be? Isaac follows her trail as Caradine takes a round-about driving route from Seattle to Maine, throwing off her pursuers but never losing Isaac, though she doesn’t know it … because he’s that good, better than anybody in the world.
I didn’t think a romance writer could pull off a romance narrative without a betrayal. I’ve thought, until now, the romance narrative needed a tearing-asunder moment to work (executed with varied degrees of success depending on the author’s control of craft). Cara Bastone proved me wrong and her début romance, Just A Heartbeat Away, tossed my assumptions about the romance narrative out the window and bade me reevaluate its elements. Oh, there’s plenty of conflict (without a betrayal, or tearing-apart moment). Bastone replaces betrayal with doubt and misunderstanding with insecurity. She has her hero and heroine indulge much inner-lusting, my preferred form of lusting, and smooshes several love scenes, usually peppered throughout the narrative, into one extended scene as close to the end without making it The End. As a result, a fresh, engaging romance narrative, as original as true to the genre and a new auto-buy author for yours truly. It’s a romance novel like Just a Heartbeat Away that renews my faith in the genre and reminds me why I fell in love with it to begin with.
Susie Steiner’s Missing, Presumed (DS Manon Bradshaw #1) was recommended by Twitter friends whose word is auto-click/buy. An “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 and chutzpah. What I got was something 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 the 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. (more…)