I both dreaded and looked forward to Barbara O’Neal’s The Art Of Inheriting Secrets, dreaded because I dislike women’s fiction and looked forward to because the blurb offered gothic potential. In the end, the novel’s gothic and romance aspects outweighed the women’s fic. I was one contentedly satiated reader at pages’ end. Be warned, there’s also first-person narration, but the narrator is engaging, funny, self-deprecating, intelligent, and as the hero notes, looks like Kate Winslet (I adore Winslet, ever since I saw her in Heavenly Creatures). Our narrator-heroine is San Francisco-based food writer and editor of the fictional magazine Egg and Hen, Olivia Shaw. When the novel opens, Olivia’s life has taken some spectacularly difficult, life-altering turns. She arrives in Hertfordshire’s Saint Ives Cross having recently learned she has inherited a crumbling estate, Rosemere Priory. She is mourning her mother, only six weeks gone, but she’s also learned that her mother kept her identity as Lady Caroline Shaw secret. The drippily unhappy heroine, the rain, the English countryside, the quaint village, down to the country-accented friendly cab-driver who drops her off at the local inn, absorbed me. I loved the premise of the family secrets, the crumbling priory, Olivia’s voice, and the notion of a heroine navigating a new place, culture, community, and her own new-found, strange identity.
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).
Nicole Helm’s Navy SEAL Cowboys series builds a world of hope and love for broken people. It is no wonder that its geographic setting, fictional “Blue Valley” Montana, is a land of sky, mountain, and range, a world the noise of urban life, or the bombs of deserts far away haven’t touched. Except they have. By war and those who’ve returned from it, broken in spirit and body. Helm’s heroes are men who served in Afghanistan and were injured externally and internally, when one of the them, the ghost who stands sentry to their worst memories and their best (because they cared so much for one another), Geiger. But they are now in Montana, Alex Maguire, Jack Armstrong, and Gabe Cortez, to bring renewed life and hope to broken vets at their aptly-named Revival Ranch. Helm’s heroines are often survivors of domestic wars, now grown women who knew a childhood of abuse, fear, and neglect. Helm brings the broken man and woman together so they can build a new life. Sex doesn’t have the answers (though there’s that too and it’s good), romance doesn’t (though candles are lit and flowers are bought), but healing comes through therapy, talking to each other, striving for understanding, and being honest with, and true to, oneself. Like her obvious professional buddy Maisey Yates, Helm writes to her own tune of redemptive love, through confession (secular and personal), connection, and creating bonds with others, rather than breaking or avoiding them. To reach this point, however, hero and heroine must go through an agon of being broken open and exposed.
I enjoyed the first in Roni Loren’s series “The Ones Who Got Away”, centred on a group of school-shooting survivors as they heal from the past and find love, twelve years after the shooting. I thought the first was great and looked forward to the second, the here named The One You Can’t Forget. Though heroine Rebecca Lindt is the high school shooting survivor, the hero is a survivor of a sort too: from loss, financial ruin, divorce, and alcoholism. Between the two of them, you’d think Loren’s novel’d be a misery-fest. While it’s a serious novel about serious things, it’s also funny, hopeful, and sexy.
We met Rebecca Lindt in the series début, The Ones Who Got Away, as the stiff, cool prom queen to the heroine’s sexy wild child persona. But Rebecca was Liv Arias’s great love’s prom date: Finn may have put Rebecca on his arm, but he was kissing Liv in the supply closet … when tragedy struck. In the first book, Finn and Liv are reunited lovers and Rebecca is the rejected girl next door. Loren more than makes up for Rebecca’s losses by giving her Wes Garrett, tattooed chef extraordinaire. I thought, from Loren’s spectacular start, that I would love The One You Can’t Forget more than The Ones Who Got Away … but nope, the latter still edges out the former, but the former came very very close. Part of that was thanks to a spectacular “meet-cute”, which wasn’t so cute, but definitely memorable.
Eons ago, I read Julie Anne Long’s I Kissed An Earl and liked it well enough, but not with the passion of anticipating the next book in the series or eye-balling the newly-arriveds for her author’s name. I was surprised to see her turn to contemporary romance as she seemed quite ensconced in the former. But, hey, what do I know about author inspirations or the changing face of romance publishing? Bupkis. I was curious, however, and since contemporary is my sub-genre of choice, happy to give her a try with book four of the Hellcat Canyon series, The First Time At Firelight Falls, and even happier to eat reader humble-pie when I was *forced* to reassess my initial ho-hum judgement of it. It is seemingly run-of-the-mill contemporary small-town romance: Hellcat’s denizens are eccentric and supportive, there’s a good dose of wholesome humour and a modicum of conventionally-positioned, hot sex between the leads, and, at least initially, a whole lot of not-much-ness.
When I devour an HP romance, I wonder, all over again, why I do? The plots are preposterous; the characters, ridiculously exaggerated; and the theme of a moneyed, ruthless hero entrapping the heroine with a pitiless, self-serving scheme. Her innocence, yuck her virginity, turns his ruthlessness into helplessness and leads to the hero being a better man, the man lurking behind layers of survival and necessity over empathy. The hero is left bare, stripped of all his power in the face of his love for the heroine; he goes from tempered steel to marshmallow in 150 pages. It never ceases to amaze me why I, and countless others, enjoy them so darn much. Smart’s Billionaire’s Bride For Revenge is a perfect example. I think, I suspect, that the reason I and others enjoy them is that life’s petty, everyday, economic impediments are pushed aside by the hero’s wealth and we are left only, solely, with the emotional impediments that thwart hero and heroine from finding fulfillment and happiness in and with each other. The ways they manoeuvre their way through these emotional barriers are sex, conversation, and internal, personal realization, acts of self-honesty. Continue reading
I’d never read a Maxwell romance and embarked on A Match Made In Bed with curiosity and enthusiasm. Because I’m a naïve, gullible reader who’s too easily pleased, I lauded Maxwell to a Twitter friend and smiled smugly to myself on having “discovered” a great, new-to-me historical romance author. Unfortunately, I didn’t end up where I began. A Match Made In Bed showed initial promise. The hero and heroine intrigued me and the narrative promised compelling themes about money, women’s place in society, class, and family dynamics.
Soren York, Lord Dewsberry, and Miss Cassandra Holwell meet at a house party held outside of London. It’s not their first encounter. They share an interesting history: their Cornish-origined families have long feuded over past deception. Soren, aware of Cassandra’s dislike, yet woos her … because he needs an heiress’s money to bolster his soon-to-be-lost estate, Pentreath Castle. The novel opens with great banter and a wonderful antagonistic attraction between Cassandra and Soren. Even though Soren is mercenary, Maxwell manages to show us how he’s also kind and honourable. Cassandra is bookish and intelligent and has a lot of our sympathy, nursing a childhood hurt inflicted, unknowingly mind you, by Soren.
I never knew I was a fan of the tropish goodness of a marriage-in-trouble romance until I read Nicole Helm’s Bride For Keeps. It’s not that I avoided the trope, it’s just not one that’s done often, or at least favoured by the authors I tend to read. One of my earliest reviews was of Ruthie Knox’s marriage-in-trouble novella, “Making It Last.” There was an edge to Knox, an anger, that made the marriage compromise, no matter how cheerfully I tried to review it at the time, about diminishing the hero and heroine. This is not the case for Helm’s category-length romance.
Bride For Keeps opens with a family bombshell for the hero: the diagnosis of his father’s MS accompanied by the revelation that he is the product of his mother’s affair. Dr. Carter McArthur is floored: he has striven to be the perfect son, to stand in his father’s medical and community footsteps, giant, important, arrogant footsteps. His one rebellion, his one out-of-perfection decision was to marry wild-child Sierra Shuller. Continue reading
With much sadness, I read Janice Kay Johnson’s note on her Superromance, In A Heartbeat. It is her last, alas, and the category is no more. I’ve loved so many of JKJ’s Superromances, especially the early ones. I read In A Heartbeat with enjoyment, for it is JKJ signature good. I didn’t always love the category’s authors and found some tedious, but I loved the idea of what it represented: a fantasy-based genre coming as close to realism as it could.
I read Betty Neels’s Tabitha In Moonlight at the same time as I read Johnson’s In A Heartbeat and, given Neels’s comfort-read status, I expected some dissonance. In the end, I wasn’t surprised to find none from two authors whose moral impetus is writing about decent people doing good and falling in love. The only difference, given Johnson’s preference for realism, is that her characters do the best they can, in often difficult circumstances. Betty Neels’s characters are about being the best they can. Continue reading
Things are looking up reading-wise since my last post. I had a few quiet days at home to catch up on work and find some leisure reading time. DNF-ing a few turgid titles helped too: there’s no greater reading downer than that awful reviewer’s ARC-obligation. You can kill it with snark, or you can kill it by shutting down the Kindle before crossing the reading Rubicon. You know, that point where you’ve bloody read 68% of The Thing and you might as well finish it. Enough, though, of reading despondency.
I made a few decisions about reading and things are looking up. When I’m in a romance-reading slump, there’s only one author who can coax me back from the reading blues: Betty Neels. I put the ARC list away and started Betty Neels’s Tabitha In Moonlight (you can follow along with my nightly #bathtubromreading hashtag on Twitter). I put Frankopan’s The Silk Roads away for a less fraught working time. Then, I plunged back into the ARC pile with the express purpose of divesting myself of a few more dreary, meh titles. What I found instead was a funny, charming, flawed little romance in new-to-me Lenora Bell’s What A Difference A Duke Makes. It has all the eyebrow-raising qualities of wallpaperhood, but it delighted me. It’s first in a new series and I liked the characters so much that I’m looking forward to reading the second, about the hero’s Egyptologist sister and her archaeological rival and nemesis. Continue reading