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.
I adore Michelle Smart’s category romances. The HP is my romance-ice-cream-tub of choice, so good while I’m reading it and then, disoriented and nauseous from melodramatic hangover. My forehead-slapping reaction: “Did I really just read that?” Yes, dear reader, I read them: the romance guilty pleasure, outlandish, overblown, eye-rollingly breaking every smidgen of feministic progress the genre has made. Some HPs are out there and so badly written, they’re easy to ridicule. Some are written with elegance and humour: I’m looking at YOU, Sarah Morgan. Smart’s HPs usually elicit the latter response, but A Bride At His Bidding? Well, this is one of the strangest HPs I’ve ever read … and that’s saying a whole hell of a lot if you’re one of the category’s aficionados as I am. I’m having a hard time making up my mind whether A Bride At His Bidding is a laughable mess, or brilliant. Maybe both? All I know is that its idiosyncratic narrative and character about-faces gave me reading whiplash, goggle-eyed reactions of gasping disbelief, derision, and heart-clenching delight and enjoyment.
Nicole Helm’s Cowboy Seal Homecoming gave me exactly what I was looking for: Helm’s brand of emotional honesty, quirky animals, uber-masculine heroes whose mission is to set the world aright, heroines who call them on their bullshit and yet don’t shame them for their vulnerabilities, and a beautifully -rendered rural setting, in this case, rancher-country Montana. Honorably discharged wounded warrior hero Alex Maguire comes home to his deceased father’s ranch. He claims an inheritance he shares with heroine Becca Denton, who found, in Burt Maguire’s ranch, a home and father. Now, she’s invited her stranger stepbrother to share in a joint project, creating a therapeutic ranch for war veterans like Alex and the two buddies (sequel-bait!) he brings along on his and Becca’s venture, Jack Armstrong and Gabe Cortez. As far as the romance’s outer trappings are concerned, originality isn’t what makes them up. But then, what romance’s tropes, trappings, and narrative structure do that? The romance’s attraction lies in all the ways the story can be told of how two alone become one united and fulfilled. 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
Caitlin Crews’s Prince’s Nine-Month Scandal opens with as ludicrous a premise as we’ve come to expect from the HP romance. In a bathroom at London’s Heathrow, Natalie Monette contemplates leaving her PA job with billionaire Achilles Casilieris after five years of all-consuming dedication to her volatile employer. In the mirror, she espies her twin, or someone who could be her twin. Princess Valentina of the mythical kingdom of Murin is running away from her arranged marriage to Prince Rodolfo of the mythical kingdom of Tessely. What better solution to both their dilemmas than to “switch” places: Natalie off to a princess’s life and Valentina to escape her impending nuptials by serving the mercurial Achilles. They put on each other’s clothes and take each other’s cell phones, with which they agree to text. Valentina pretty much goes off-grid till the romance’s final revelations and Natalie is left with her princess-fantasy in a bit of a shambles. She must navigate her kingly father, royal duties and protocols, and most importantly, devil-may-care, reckless, promiscuous fiancé. But Natalie hasn’t “handled” the temperamental Achilles for five years without learning a thing or two about difficult men. She sets out to set a few things straight with Rodolfo – for Valentina’s sake. She doesn’t count, this is an HP after all, on her visceral physical and emotional response to him.
When Miss Bates started reading Hewitt’s Forced Bride Of Alazar, she was not pleased. Alazar‘s title, premise, and set-up left much to be desired, but HPs are Miss Bates reading-snack of choice, she loves Hewitt, and she persisted. There isn’t much to recommend Alazar‘s opening. Johara Behar’s arranged marriage to Malik al Bahjat was dissolved when Malik’s long-lost love, secret baby, and kidnapped older brother showed up. For a few days, Johara enjoys the possibility of steering her life her way. To date, she’s lived quietly in Provence with her mother. She reads, tends her garden, and creates plant-based cures for a variety of ailments. Hewitt’s Johara is a classic introvert. Her hopes and dreams of a free life are shattered, however, when her father informs her that the broken engagement has been reinstated with the new Sultan, the long-lost brother Azim. You’re probably thinking, this is standard HP fare, what got Miss Bates’s goat? Patience, dear reader.
When Miss Bates started reading romance again in 2007, she scoured various “best of” lists looking for titles to read. Karen Templeton’s Swept Away was one of those discoveries. It languished in the TBR for ten years before Miss Bates read it and she hasn’t a clue why, except so many books, so much day-job.
Swept Away opens with three-years widowed Sam Frazier, single dad and one of Haven (pop. 1000), Oklahoma’s family farmers. We’re introduced to his brood: teen daughter, Libby, and five younger brothers, baby Travis, Mike, Matt, Wade, and Frankie, all school-aged, as well as farm animals and sundry house-pets. Having put all the kids but Travis on the school bus, Sam is making his way to the hardware store when he rescues a maiden of stick-like proportions and her father from their ditch-succumbing vehicle. Lane Stewart introduces himself and Carly, his daughter, quipping, ” ‘My daughter, Carly. To whom a certain squirrel owes its life.’ ” The Stewarts, it turns out, are on a road trip, hoping to recover from lives that have been too sad for too long. Lane and Carly lost a beloved wife and mother, and Carly is nursing an injured knee that won’t see her resume her balletic career. With this “meet-cute,” Templeton tells the romance of how nice-guy farmer and prickly, wounded dancer fall in love and reach an HEA that promises family, love, laughter, and community. Continue reading
Marguerite Kaye’s The Soldier’s Dark Secret and The Soldier’s Rebel Lover were two of Miss Bates’s favourite 2016 reads. Kaye’s latest historical sheikhs series has been less successful in MissB’s humble opinion, but the Christmas-set novella, “A Governess For Christmas” sees Kaye return to finer form: Regency-set, military hero and heroine of humble means and huge spirit. Set on an English-countryside estate during Christmas season, hero and heroine being the charity-case invites, the Duke and Duchess of Brockmore hold lofty sway over their guests, but throw all the seasonal festivities in grand style. Scottish hero, ex-Major Drummond MacIntosh, at 32, has been dishonourably decommissioned for several years. The reason behind his military ousting, by Wellington no less, is a heart-breaking, visceral tale, of which we learn when he tells ex-governess heroine, Miss Joanna Forsythe. Drummond and Joanna, who shares Drummond’s social disgrace, though not military, in having been dishonourably dismissed by her previous ward’s family, are the Brockmores’ socially-redemptive causes. Joanna’s and Drummond’s presence at the Christmas celebrations is an attempt to redeem their reputations and regain the respect and patronage of their social superiors. As Drummond notes, encompassing the season and what he hopes from it, he has “twelve days to impress his hosts sufficiently to earn their patronage and repair the wound he had inflicted on his reputation.” Little does Drummond know that a beautiful governess will repair a far greater wound, that to his heart.
If there’s one underused trope Miss Bates loves, it’s marriage-in-trouble, which is why she pounced on Barry and Turner’s novella-ish, category-length A Midnight Feast. It centres on the leader and doyenne of the space-race, 1960s-set American astronaut world that makes up Barry and Turner’s Fly Me To the Moon series, Colonel Mitch Dunsford and his wife of twenty-years-and-six-kids, Margie.
Barry-Turner have produced an adept narrative: alternating, especially in the first half, between Mitch and Margie’s present estrangement, set in 1965 Houston, and their courtship, young marriage, and flat middle years of care and children on her part and demanding, exhilarating career-making on his. Barry-Turner adroitly portray a marriage void of friendship, connection, and mutual desire, interspersed with chapters that chronologically fill in the intervening years, starting with a heady, whirlwind courtship set in 1945. In that sense, Barry-Turner tell a whole lot of story with a circumspect page-count; yet, their carefully-crafted snapshots of love, lust, affection to benign neglect and cutting indifference still allow the reader to get to know and possibly like their hero and heroine. The narrative is also beautifully bound together with a holiday sequence: starting with a make-it-or-break-it Thanksgiving for Mitch and Margie’s troubled marriage to a lovely Valentine-Day’s-1966-set epilogue. Continue reading
Donna Alward’s migration to the lengthier contemporary (from MissB’s beloved categories) has resulted in hit-or-miss romances. With the third in her Darling, Vermont series, Somebody’s Baby, Alward hits her stride. Like one of Miss B’s favourite categories, Alward’s Her Rancher Rescuer, the protagonists of Somebody’s Baby are young – really young – not the usual put-together super-people that contemporary romances tend to give us, but callow. Because Alward makes them somewhat unlikeable, at least initially, in their callowness, their growth is more believable.
Oaklee Collier is 24 and works in Darling’s publicity department. She is all things FB, Twitter, promoting tourism and local businesses. It’s no wonder Twitter plays a clever, interesting role in the narrative. As a Twitter aficionado, MissB enjoyed this, among many others of the novel’s aspects. Oaklee is texting, tweeting, and being phone-distracted when she hits a mangy dog with her car. Overwhelmed by guilt, hoping to save the dog, she carries him to the local vet’s, where her brother’s best friend and high school “white-steeded knight” works, Dr. Rory Gallagher. When Rory overhears her, as she enters the clinic muddied, bloodied, carrying whimpering doggie, he has the typical rom response to the best friend’s little sister, “Unless he was mistaken, that voice belonged to Oaklee Collier. A complete and utter pain in the ass.”