REVIEW: Elizabeth Kingston’s DESIRE LINES

Desire_LinesThough I appreciate a medieval-set romance, I’m aware of its challenges. It is difficult for a romance author to capture the strangeness of the medieval world and still make the romance familiar. Thus far, only two romance authors I’ve read achieve this successfully (mind you, I haven’t read much medieval romance, these are the ones who work for me): Blythe Gifford (Secrets At Court is my favourite) and Elizabeth Kingston. But, like Kingston’s mentor’s books, Laura Kinsale’s, it took me a long time to warm to Desire Lines.
To look to the novel’s opening, “It began in beauty and in blood.” A beautiful, knife-laden young woman, Nan, rescues a Welshman, originally sent to the English King Edward I as obeisance from the young Welshman’s father, Welsh royalty.
(England’s 13th-century conquest of Wales is the historical context of Kingston’s novel.) Gruffydd ab Iorwerth has been knight, prisoner, and captive. He’s lived in the luxury of the English court, then hid for years in a monastery, made friends and enemies, tamed and hunted with his beloved falcons (his marketable skill, important to English lords) and been chained, starved, and beaten.

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REVIEW: Theresa Romain’s LADY NOTORIOUS

Lady_NotoriousTheresa Romain has the wonderful capacity to sustain a delightfully funny, rompish feel to her romances while underlying them with seriousness. Her latest, Lady Notorious, 4th in the Royal Rewards series and one of her strongest novels yet, exhibits this balance. It’s heartfelt romance, adorable hero, loveable heroine, compelling suspense plot, thematically underlined with the idea that love coupled with purpose make for contented lives. Romain brings together her cross-class heir-to-a-dukedom hero, George Godwin, Lord Northbrook, and Bow-Street-Runner heroine, Cassandra Benton, via the mystery surrounding George’s father’s, Lord Armore’s, involvement in a “tontine”, a monetary agreement whereby a set amount increases on interest and is “won” by the last person left living. But many of the tontine’s members are dying under mysterious circumstances. George fears for his father’s and godfather’s lives and sets Cassandra Benton the task of helping him both protect and discover who’s threatening them. Cassandra joins the Ardmore household disguised as a notorious cousin, hence, how the “notorious” made it to the eponymous “lady”. Continue reading

REVIEW: Alyssa Cole’s AN UNCONDITIONAL FREEDOM

An_Unconditional_FreedomI requested an ARC of Alyssa Cole’s An Unconditional Freedom for the most superficial of reasons: I couldn’t resist the hunk on the cover. I’m a sucker for an open-necked shirt, soulful brown eyes, and the man is holding a scroll and lantern … can it get any better? As for the contents, I was open to them, but didn’t go in with any great expectations. What I found was, finally, FINALLY, someone who can put the history back in historical romance. You can’t historically “wallpaper” a history so unjust and ugly: how Cole managed to make me hold my breath with excitement, stop my heart with fear for her characters, and root for a slow-burn romance is testament to her mad writing skills.

At the end of the novel, a seasoned revolutionary in the war against slavery advising the heroine on when to hold’em and when to show’em in this righteous war says: ” ‘First thing you learn about being a Daughter — sometimes you gotta be subtle, and sometimes you gotta burn it all down.’ ” As a Daughter of Romance, Cole sure knows how to be subtle and how to burn it all down, navigating American Civil War history with sureness and skill, steering her characters’ inner worlds with insight and sensitivity and though there are moments when she burns it all down with action, she brings the ship to moor with a light touch of love, commitment, hope, and joy. Her narrative is serious, historically fascinating, and in places, even horrific, but it is never sombre, dark, or hopeless. Its movement is ever towards the light of possibility, even though the journey darkens and the way wavers. Continue reading

MINI-REVIEW: Sally Thorne’s 99 Percent Mine

99_Percent_MineHeroine Darcy Barrett is a mess. Hero Tom Valeska is perfect. Author Sally Thorne has a conceit. When the novel opens, Darcy possesses 1% of Tom Valeska; by its end, 99. Isn’t that a neat little metaphor of the genre’s narrative arc and the reader’s journeying along? Thorne also gives 99 Percent Mine a nice “flip”; just as Tom “flips” the cottage Darcy inherited from her grandmother Loretta, Thorne flips the romance convention of perfect heroine (because women must be perfect) and flawed hero (because a man’s embroiling in the messiness of the world must be redeemed by a good, virginal woman): typical HP-fare. Not in Thorne’s funny, heart-clenching romance of the befriended-boy now turned man and the girl and her twin brother who claimed him as their own, as if he was a stray animal turned family pet. Tom Valeska, six-six and perfectly striated muscles, warm, kind eyes, and gentle, rumbly voice has loved Darcy Barrett and her brother Jamie and their parents for giving him a home, their friendship and love, and the stability the poor boy of a single mum didn’t have. Now, he has a chance to give them their inheritance back a hundred-fold by making their grandmother’s cottage a great big ole moneymaker. And he cannot fail them. 
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MINI-REVIEW: Mira Lyn Kelly’s DECOY DATE

Decoy_DateWhenever I start a Mira Lyn Kelly contemporary romance, I always think how silly her premise and then end up loving it … despite the implausible, low-angst, near-non plot, the characters out of run-of-the-mill rom-com, and the Friends-like atmosphere of the secondary characters (I’m probably one of the few who found that show puerile and boring). Decoy Date checked all the above boxes.

Bar-owner Brody O’Donnel (okay, I have been waiting for his romantic comeuppance) is annoyed with his friend Gwen Danes. She carries a torch for childhood boy-next-door friend, Ted Normandy. Brody wants her to move on, to go for other guys instead of mooning over Ted and because Brody, with his easy-going charm, beautiful green eyes, and bruiser-bod always gets what he wants, he convinces Gwen to fake a relationship with him. He hopes that Ted will be jealous and come after Gwen, Gwen will realize that her “crush” is an adolescent vestige and move on to a better guy. Gwen, in turn, hopes that Ted will finally notice her and they’ll live happily ever after. So, the fake relationship is ON not far into the first few chapters. 
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MINI-REVIEW: Susan Cliff’s WITNESS ON THE RUN

Witness_On_the_RunI’d been looking forward to the next Susan Cliff romantic suspense thanks to enjoying her previous one, Navy SEAL Rescue. The locales were fascinating; characters, complex; and the politics, respectful of time and place. I expected and found no less in Witness On the Run. (And who can resist that marvelous cover? Which, BTW, reflects the characters exactly as they should be, a rarity in romance, sadly.) Witness opened with the same acute danger and desperate circumstances as Rescue, with Alaskan cold and ice in place of Afghani heat and dust; a grief-stricken widower and First Nations spousal abuse survivor heroine in place of a disillusioned SEAL and determined Assyrian-Christian heroine. In both cases, the heroines have reasons to run and the heroes are entangled in their brave flights from danger and evil. Cliff renders the settings with sensitivity to their politics and captures the climate and conditions with realistic, compelling detail. 
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REVIEW: Kate Clayborn’s BEST OF LUCK

Best_Of_LuckLike Clayborn’s hero, Alex Averin, I don’t like “luck” … well, the idea of it, anyway. I don’t like its randomness and I don’t like its hidden possibility in what might NOT happen. It played a much larger role in Clayborn’s third “Chance Of A Lifetime” romance than in the previous one I’d read. In Luck Of the Draw, luck was the set-up: three friends win the lottery and how they use the money puts them in certain circumstances, ones they wouldn’t’ve been in had they not won. It didn’t seem all that important to Luck Of the Draw, but in Best of Luck, it becomes an ongoing debate between hero and heroine. Heroine Greer Hawthorne has reason to believe she’s lucky, not only because of the money she won, but what fate dealt her: an illness that marked her childhood and adolescence and continues to be a daily reminder of both how lucky she is and how unlucky. What are the odds of being diagnosed with a life-altering birth-defect? As good as the odds that the surgery Greer had would help her lead a more active, engaged life. “Luck” for hero Alex is a bane and reminder of a childhood of want and neglect, thanks to his “luck-dependent”, gambling-addicted father. Continue reading

REVIEW: Caitlin Crews’s A TRUE COWBOY CHRISTMAS

True_Cowboy_ChristmasCaitlin Crews’s A True Cowboy Christmas is one of the most convincing contemporary marriage-of-convenience romances I’ve read … and so many other things. It opens with the hero’s father’s funeral. Gray Everett, however, is not mourning his father, but afraid of ending up like him. Gray introduces us to the family with: “Everetts historically lived mean and more than a little feral … tended to nurse the bottle or wield their piety like a weapon, spending their days alone and angry.” Gray’s Colorado ranch, Cold River Ranch, has never been a happy home. His father, a mean, violent drunk; his cheating wife, dead for ten years in a car crash; Gray works the land, cattle, and horses, keeps the bank at bay, and rears his teen daughter, Becca. Back at the ranch, at the post-funeral luncheon, where neighbours and friends have gathered to pay their respects and many to breathe a sigh of relief that Amos Everett’s meanness will no longer touch anyone, Gray realizes that ” … if he didn’t change”, “today’s grumpy hermit” would become “tomorrow’s bitter, old man.” He resolves, there and then, in sight of the funeral-baked casseroles, that he “was going to have to figure out a way to live this life without drowning in his own darkness” and “to make sure that Becca didn’t succumb to it either.” Gray looks up from his thoughts to heroine and neighbour-spinster Abby Douglas’s question, should she warm up a casserole?  Continue reading

MINI-REVIEW: J. R. Ward’s CONSUMED

ConsumedWhen I first started to read romance again, after a thirty-year hiatus (ah, the “lost years”), one of the first romances I read was J. R. Ward’s Lover Eternal (2006), a romance novel I thought at once execrable and utterly compelling. Really, I couldn’t put it down, even though I was embarrassed for enjoying it and yet thinking how laughably bad it was. I can’t say I experienced the same reader self-hatred reading the first of Ward’s new non-vampiric “Firefighters” series, Consumed. Maybe it was the first flush of allowing myself to read romance again, but I’d gained some distance from Consumed in a way I hadn’t with Lover Eternal, though I read it with the same enthusiasm and rueful self-doubt. I can now recognize what makes Ward compelling: there’s a hyperbolic physicality to her characters, a gritty underbelly feel to her setting, and a rawness to it all that makes for a powerful formula. There’s NOTHING small-town cutsie or gentle about Ward’s world and she’s pretty fearless about writing her characters’ edginess. I liked that about her and I liked Consumed, though, at times, it bugged the heck out of me. Continue reading

MINI-REVIEW: Maisey Yates’s A TALL, DARK COWBOY CHRISTMAS

Tall_Dark_Cowboy_XmasMaisey Yates opens Gold Valley romance #4 with the line “Grant Dodge was alone. And that was how he liked it”, ensuring the reader that Grant Dodge is about to NOT be alone and that his hold on his solitude is to be shaken by the heroine. Said heroine, McKenna Tate, is blithely slumbering in an abandoned cabin on the ranch Grant shares with his brother Wyatt, sister-in-law Lindy, and sometimes-around veterinarian brother Bennett and sister-in-law, Kaylee. A “full house” of family and connections, but Grant prefers his solitude: what’s up with that and how will it be “shook up”? My tone may be flippant as I introduce Yates’s romance, but the romance is anything but: it’s angsty, heart-wrenching stuff with two very broken, very vulnerable, pain-filled protagonists. One is broken by his first marriage and the other broken by a life as a foster child, unloved, unwanted, uncared for. Reading their story, I thought Yates penned her most painful story yet, unredeemed by humour, or playful sex, banter (okay, there are soupçons of banter, but hardly) tenderness or joy. Grant and McKenna are two suffering characters, with burdens making Aeneas’s look like fluff, and the romance suffers under their weight as much as they do.
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