“Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world” says the inimitable, raspy-voiced Rick in Casablanca. And we in romance-landia think, with that statement, Rick capsized the HEA. World events, ideals and ideologies, peace, order, justice, and equality sitting in every HEA’s background and ensuring it, are imperiled. Then, individual desires for the domestic HEA that completes the romance genre’s narrative cycle, are subsumed by themes greater than those the genre embodies. Miss Bates concurs; recent events make reading fiction, much less romance, difficult. Focus is elusive and the safe spaces we once cocooned in are tottering and toppling. And yet, what greater gift can a free, open, and tolerant country offer its citizens than the safety to make choices, love, live in plenitude and generosity and offer something to the next generation in having or succoring children, plants, animals, knowledge, nature, or art. Embedded in the romance narrative is the conviction that every person has the inner resources, given safety and love, to live without crippling constraints, whether they are internal, or external. Though Miss Bates feels “itchy” and can’t always immerse herself in a romance, she still feels life-affirmation after reading one of its best practitioners. Though she started and dropped it restlessly, she read Sarah Morgan’s Sunset In Central Park, a quiet and lovely romance.
Miss Bates has never NOT had a book on the go; once she finishes one, she has the next lined up. Sometimes, new-book-starting is a desultory affair: tepid, reluctant, maybe even a tad depressing. “Will this satisfy my reading-pleasure-principle?” “I have limited reading time, will this be worth the precious half hour I have nightly?” MissB started reading Maisey Yates’s Take Me, Cowboy in this mode: half-heartedly, maybe even sullenly. But she’d loved so many Yates-romances and went into that good-reading-night anyway. Yates’s Oregon-set Copper Ridge series has had one winner after another, would Take Me, Cowboy exhibit series-exhaustion?
Certainly the romance’s opening had Miss B. scowling: wait a minute, this sounds awfully like the last Yates Miss B. read: Bad News Cowboy, with its plain-Jane, best-bud heroine and looker-womanizer hero who find themselves on friendship’s wrong side, as lovers, prey to powerful desires and frightening feelings.
Joan Kilby’s novella, Win Me, is one-third of an interesting rom-concept. Its events occur concurrently with those in Karina Bliss’s Woo Me and Sarah Mayberry’s Wait For Me. Together, the three novellas respectively recount the story of three friends attending a traditional Bachelor and Spinster Ball in the Australian outback. Ellie, Jen, and Beth forged their friendship in boarding school. They saw each other through farce and tragedy. Now, at 28, they’re in various stages of heartbreak. They congregate at Ellie’s father’s cattle farm and resolve to heal their broken, neglected hearts by romping through the bacchanalian shenanigans at the local Bachelor and Spinster Ball. These traditional “balls” are debauched and rowdy; ratafia is nowhere in sight and participants trip the light fantastic only between the flaps of a sleeping bag.
Miss Bates spent many a happy childhood summer in Boston, visiting family, a few days at the Cape now and then. Shannon Stacey’s new romance series, Boston Fire, of which Heat Exchange is the first, was irresistible, thanks to its Bostonian setting. Like most rom of this ilk and length, however, setting didn’t figure prominently, but there was a definite Bostonian working-class urban feel. Stacey specializes in the family saga romance without ever losing sight of the rom. This series is signature Stacey: a large clan, the Kincaids, with a retired firefighter dad, and firefighter baby brother to two older sisters, one of whom, Ashley, is married to a firefighter, and another, Lydia, divorced a firefighter. The men of the family are several-generation firefighters and the ethos makes for the background and conflict to the romance.
Ashley and husband Danny are estranged: Danny’s the strong, silent type and Ashley’s tired of his close-mouthed love. She wants him to communicate, dammit. With good reason, Danny can’t; Ashley kicks him out and calls sister Lydia to help out by taking over her bar-tending duties at dad’s, Tommy Kincaid’s, pub. After a cheating heartbreaking break-up and divorce, Lydia moved to New Hampshire to work in an upscale restaurant and leave behind the firefighting scene and long-suffering women who care for and agonize over the men who fight fires. But when Ashley calls, sobbing and distraught, family bonds are stronger than any desire to start anew. To Boston Lydia returns, to everything that hurt her, and runs smack up against her brother’s best friend, Aidan Hunt. Continue reading
Finding a new auto-read author is great comfort because Miss Bates knows that even if this romance isn’t her best romance, it’ll still be pretty darn good. The reader’s stakes are low; the central couple’s, high. Which is how Miss Bates likes’em. The first romance she read in Talley’s Magnolia Bend, Louisiana, series, Sweet Talking Man, made its way into her heart, head, and running list of 2015 Best Of (to come soon; how time has flown, dear readers). A favourite author’s romance isn’t read because the romance will be good, that’s a given, but to, once again, re-experience the author’s sensibility and world view. In Liz Talley we have an earthier, funnier Janice Kay Johnson. JKJ is one of MissB’s faves, a little more gravitas, a little grimmer, but equally perceptive about the psychology of families, small towns, nuanced child characters (no adorable plot moppets to be found) and love’s challenging transformations. Moreover, Talley does something that Miss Bates looks and hopes for in contemporary romance (maybe there’s a touch in JKJ too, on occasion): a nod to the role religion plays in ordinary people’s daily lives, without the inspirational proselytizing and priggish attitudes to sex and the occasional beer. Bring it on and bring more of it, please! Liz Talley’s third Magnolia Bend romance novel and without the blandness that comes with sweet, or “heartwarming” romance. Sweet Southern Nights, is the friends-to-lovers tale of two firefighting best friends: Eva Monroe, the former new girl in town who’s found a place to belong, and hometown bad boy, Jake Beauchamp, “hardworking firefighter, hard-playing Romeo.” Continue reading
Small-town contemporary romance abounds: cutesy towns, quaint “main streets,” bake-shop-owning heroines, and heroes or heroines who ride into town to meet the hometown girl/boy. But writing small-town contemporary romance requires a particular risk. Contemporary small-town romance is light on plot. It doesn’t have the social whirl/hierarchy of the histrom, nor romantic suspense’s thriller-danger zone. It relies on two conventions dosed light-to-heavy: the small town endowed with utopian character, a harbor, a sanctuary for all, or colouring the hero and heroine’s emotional journey potent and compelling. Maisey Yates’ Copper Ridge, Oregon series has accomplished this with some success, as Miss Bates’ reviews of the novella, “Shoulda Been A Cowboy” and first novel, Part Time Cowboy attest. In her second Copper Ridge novel, Brokedown Cowboy, however, Yates is at the top of her game in portraying a hero and heroine’s emotional journey, imbued with banter, honesty, hard truths. When the contemporary romance’s emotional journey convinces, as it does in Brokedown Cowboy, it’s riveting. Such was Miss Bates’ experience in reading Yates’ friends-to-lovers romance of surly Connor Garrett, hard-drinking, still-grieving widower, and Felicity “Liss” Foster, his secret-torch-carrying best friend of eighteen years. Continue reading
Miss Bates is peeved by the claim, and many readers make it sheepishly eyes downcast, that romance fiction is “a comfort read.” It may very well be, and she’s happy if enjoyed as such, but it’s often used to diminish the genre. She applauds rom writers, like Molly O’Keefe, who make reading romance anything but, who make the reader work to earn that HEA (and why O’Keefe runs the risk of making it meh-anti-climactic). It’s great that romance can be visceral and uncomfortable and we have O’Keefe, and others in her company (Cecilia Grant, Victoria Dahl are two who come to mind) who offer this reader experience couched in the “pretty and titillating” many readers who don’t read romance accuse the genre of being. Convincing them otherwise? That ship sailed with the Pinta and Santa Maria for Miss Bates. Second in the Into the Wild historical romance series, Tempted, like its predecessor, Seduced, proves a fine punch to the reader-gut, tackling how the horrors of war inflict psychic wounds on men and women, obstructing and obscuring intimacy and love. Continue reading
A few years ago, Miss Bates read Michelle Celmer’s Caroselli’s Christmas Baby, a marriage-of-convenience, friends-to-lovers narrative she greatly enjoyed. Celmer’s latest and the subject of this post, More Than A Convenient Bride, is based on similar premises. South African heroine, Julie Kingston, best friend to, and research assistant of Dr. Luke Wakefield, has to leave the US when her work visa is not renewed by immigration. Friends for years since they met working for MSF, Julie and Luke are devoted to the health and well-being of the residents of small-town Royal, Texas. They are also more committed to their friendship and mutual medical mission than any significant others. Workaholics and free spirits, they agree to a marriage of convenience to ensure Julie stays where she can continue to help Luke rake in the millions by inventing life-saving surgical aides, while acting as chief of surgery at the local hospital and continuing his philanthropic work. These are highly intelligent, committed, professional protagonists and Miss Bates looked forward to their come-to-love story. It didn’t hurt that marriage-of-convenience and friends-to-lovers are two of her favourite tropes. Continue reading
Maybe This Christmas is Sarah Morgan’s third contemporary romance in the O’Neill series, preceded by Sleigh Bells In the Snow and Suddenly Last Summer, both of which are in Miss Bates’ Teetering TBR. Starting with the third in the series did not deter from Miss B’s enjoyment. The start was a tad wonky with characters from the previous books showing up in various states of blissful couple-hood, as well as sundry O’Neill family members who’d obviously been established as secondary characters in previous books. Maybe This Christmas, gloriously-set in small-town-Vermont winter wonderland, in fictional “Snow Crystal,” is a friends-to-lovers romance narrative high on humour, but no less on gravitas in two hurting friends admitting to love. The heroine, Brenna Daniels, has carried a smouldering love-torch for Tyler O’Neill since they were best buddies in high school. Single-dad, former Olympic skiing champion, and notorious womanizer, Tyler, has in Brenna the one relationship with a woman he’s yet to abandon. Continue reading
Miss Bates is always interested in a romance novel portraying an ill hero, or heroine (though it’s interesting that she has yet to read an ill hero). As Fitzgerald’s narrator, Nick Carraway, said in The Great Gatsby, ” … there was no difference between men, in intelligence or race, so profound as the difference between the sick and the well.” This has made for some great romance novels; in both cases, the heroine is ill, or recovering from a life-threatening illness: Donna Alward’s How A Cowboy Stole Her Heart and Karina Bliss’ Here Comes the Groom. Indeed, how a romance writer treats the topic (sorry for the pun) makes for compelling reading, especially the hero and heroine’s navigation of their relationship in mortality’s crosshairs. It’s the only reason Miss Bates made it through the sole J. R. Ward Blackdagger Brotherhood novel she ever read, Lover Eternal. (She quite liked it, but one was enough, thank you.) Trish Milburn’s The Texan’s Cowgirl Bride, a mouthful of a title, held that promise for Miss Bates. She really, really wanted to like the story of Savannah Baron, peach-pie-baker par excellence and store-owner, faced with a life-threatening illness, and soldier-turned-private-investigator, widowed hero, Travis Shepard. Milburn’s romance novel is set up with interesting premises: its problems lie in their execution. Continue reading