REVIEW: Emma Barry and Genevieve Turner’s FREE FALL

Free_FallEmma Barry and Genevieve Turner write one of my favourite historical romance series and Free Fall is their fifth story in it. I love that it’s set in the 1960s, a decade I was born into, but don’t remember much of … other than a vague black-and-white memory of MamaB, in bouffant hair, sitting on the coffee table, smoking, and weeping over Bobby Kennedy’s assassination flickering on our tiny, bunny-eared TV. Barry and Turner’s series avoids America’s many ’60s tragedies and focusses instead on the American race to space. Their novels are peopled with astronauts, space scientists and engineers, and Jello-mold-making wives. There is one marvelous female engineer heroine and her grumpy second, Parsons, the scowling engineer who makes an appearance in this present volume. To us, living in these bizarre times, and without the ’60s’ take-to-the-streets ethos, Barry and Turner give their novels a setting that feels like a more innocent, less fraught one. Yet, just around the corner are the women’s movement that will change the genre and us forever and the loss of whatever hope and possibility our American neighbours wrought in Camelot. What I really liked about Free Fall, by way of introduction, is how it’s a domestic novel and more focussed on the heroine’s growth. Vivian Grace “Vivy” Muller is loud, brash, colourful, big in every way, physically, in her laugh, walk, and taste for “bouffant hair” and “winged eyeliner”: “She laughed too loudly, and she did more than wink at boys, and she was always losing her gloves.”   Continue reading

MINI-REVIEW: HelenKay Dimon’s THE PROTECTOR

ProtectorWhen I started to read romance in 2007, after more than thirty years away, much of what I read was romantic suspense. Probably because I was coming to romance from reading mystery novels. One of the first romantic suspense authors I read was HelenKay Dimon. I was new to the genre and she was too: so, we’ve kind of romance grown up together (please note I have no personal acquaintance with Ms Dimon, I meant this solely in a metaphoric way). I read the Men of Hawaii series and enjoyed them (not as much as my favourites, Lucy Munroe’s Mercenary Trilogy or Shannon K. Butcher’s Delta Force) well enough. I remembered how I loved her heroes’ wit and humour, how they were alphas without the hole. And I liked her heroines, determined, smart, but soft and compassionate too, without ever losing their sense of self and identity in loving the hero. Returning to Dimon’s romantic suspense after ten years plus, I can see how the formula worked for her then and works for her now. I’m not sure it’s still what I want the lion’s share of my romance reading to be, but I did enjoy the travel down romance-reader’s memory lane. Continue reading

REVIEW: Barbara O’Neal’s THE ART OF INHERITING SECRETS

Art_Of_Inheriting_SecretsI 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.
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REVIEW: Molly O’Keefe’s THE TYCOON

TycoonI’ve waited a long time for a Molly O’Keefe romance and I’m awfully glad it arrived, finally, in The Tycoon. Which is not to say that Mo’K was idle. The direction her books had taken, however, was not to my taste or sensibility. I measure O’Keefe’s efforts and contemporary romance in general against the greatness that is her Crooked Creek Ranch series. Would this measure up? Delving into The Tycoon, I came smack-dab up against one of those O’Keefe directions I haven’t enjoyed: first-person narration, and a mannered one at that. After the first few pages, I thought The Tycoon was much like an HP with first-person narration. I had to readjust my expectations, give the book a fighting chance … because O’Keefe (I’d loved O’Keefe’s Super-romances so so much).

The Tycoon had one thing going for it that made me stay with it, a superb premise. As you may already know, I’ve been interested in the romance’s “dark moment” (when the HEA is most at stake for the romance couple) as one of betrayal, when one or the other of protagonists does something so wrong, the wrong-doing’s recipient, whether direct or caught in “friendly fire,” may not be able to forgive the other. The Tycoon opens with a doozy of a betrayal (infidelity is one betrayal that a romance cannot recover from, btw, unless in the hands of masters like Mary Balogh. I’m looking at you Counterfeit Betrayal). Continue reading

REVIEW: Linda Castillo’s A GATHERING OF SECRETS

Gathering_Of_SecretsI remember reading Linda Castillo’s first Kate Burkholder murder mystery, Sworn To Silence. I’d been reading romance steadily for two years and had come to realize that my previous mystery reading enjoyed the occasional romance that was included more than the mystery itself. What I missed about reading mysteries, though, was a sympathetic amateur/professional sleuth/detective, a voice of justice that rang true and vibrant and that I felt connected to. While Sworn To Silence‘s opening page was too violent for squeamish me, Kate captured my interest and sympathy. Castillo’s detective is, in this present volume, A Gathering Of Secrets, Painters Mill Ohio’s chief of police. She’d grown up as a member of their Amish community, but a teen-age sexual assault and the subsequent events and estrangements with family and community meant she left her sense of belonging behind. As a cop and now chief, Kate is nevertheless uniquely placed to deal with crimes occurring in Amish country, knowledgeable and understanding, yet very much dedicated to justice and the rule of law that comes with a secular perspective. Kate is a wonderful creation: fair, persistent, compassionate where she needs to be, never deviating from applying the law, but fully aware of the nuances of even the most heinous of crimes, and always, always empathetic to everyone affected, victims’ and victimizers’ families and communities.   Continue reading

REVIEW: Beatriz Williams’s THE SUMMER WIVES

The_Summer_WivesOne of the many things I love about Susanna Kearsley’s, Lauren Willig’s, Karen White’s, and now Beatriz Williams’s writing is their fidelity to the HEA. They hybridise various forms, historical novel, romance, gothic novel, mystery, murder or otherwise, social novel, they mash it up and produce novels that never fail to end up among my year’s favourites. Like their closest predecessor, Mary Stewart, they write in the first person (which used to be a romance-rarity but not so these days), creating a young, female protagonist who moves from innocence to experience during the narrative’s course. All this can well describe Beatriz Williams’s The Summer Wives, a novel that had me in its thrall over two days, waking up at dawn today to finish it. Initially, the novel impressed me as convoluted, with a plethora of characters and three historical narrative strands, but the voice of its central character and first-person narrator, Miranda née Schuyler Thomas, offered an Ariadne ball as I made my way through Williams’s labyrinth of love, hate, revenge, and betrayal. Underlying it was the susurration of Shakespeare’s Tempest, not only thanks to the eponymous heroine, but an island with native and visiting denizens, the sea’s ever-present beauty and danger, and a mystical, outside-of-time atmosphere. I would read it, stopping for a cup of tea and a biscuit, and whisper to myself, “Full fathom five thy father lies … ”   Continue reading

REVIEW: Amie Denman’s IN LOVE WITH THE FIREFIGHTER

In_Love_With_the_FirefighterI confess the reason I wanted to read Amie Denman’s In Love With the Firefighter was the cute cover. I pride myself on selecting my titles for my precious reading time with the confidence that this is an author I’ll enjoy; ALL are carefully curated. BUT, *throws hands up*, the kitten got me … also the word “firefighter”. I do love a firefighter hero, so much easier to pull off than policemen, or military, so much more convincing as heroes. I admit I was leery of the “heartwarming” label: how saccharine will this be? I’m as guilty as the next romance reader of being addicted to the Hallmark Christmas movie, but I don’t want to watch them year-round. I’m happy to say that Denman’s Firefighter+kitten takes place during a hot Virginia-Beach-like summer in fictional Cape Pursuit and is surprisingly un-saccharine. It opens with firefighter Kevin Ruggles and his firefighting crew barrelling through tourist-heavy streets to reach the site of a fire. Though Kevin is a seasoned rig-driver/firefighter, the call’s urgency sees his fire-truck swerving skills take down a double-parked car’s driver-side door. Said car belongs to newly-arrived-to-Cape-Pursuit heroine, Nicole Wheeler. Their meet-cute is hardly the stuff of romance, more of annoyance, insurance claims, and shame-faced remorse on Kevin’s part. Continue reading

REVIEW: Jenny Holiday’s IT TAKES TWO

It_Takes_TwoI admit I was very curious to try a Jenny Holiday’s romance, after hearing Twitter-praise amidst murmurs of rom-com … BUT, I’m not a rom-com fan. Sex and the City is puerile (Holiday takes a sentimental nod to it here). I like some gravitas to my roms; I like wit, but not humour. With lawyer (*moue of disappointment*) romantic leads, Holiday had several prejudicial strikes against her. Add protagonists who watch baseball over hockey (even though, as a Toronto-set romance, *shudders* that would mean Leafs), I can’t really say I was disposed to love this. I’m also not a fan of wedding settings, especially contemporary wedding settings, with their propensity for destination, vineyards, officiates in place of synagogues, rabbis, priests, and churches, imams and mosques. I sound like a cranky, old lady, but I might as well own it and enjoy it. It’s my crank and I’ll cackle and snark if I want to. So, the series premise: weddings of (best) friends, wedding planning, brides and maidens of honour, dress disasters, bachelor and bachelorette parties. In the case of series novel #2, It Takes Two, the heroine is Wendy Liu, best friend to bride Jane. The hero? The bride’s brother, Noah Denning, the guy who took care of Wendy when her father died, the guy Wendy’s been sparring with for years … and the guy who also stood her up at the high school prom. Continue reading

REVIEW: Karina Bliss’s RESURRECTION

ResurrectionNo 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).
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MINI-REVIEW: Nicole Helm’s COWBOY SEAL REDEMPTION

Cowboy_SEAL_RedemptionNicole 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.  
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