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 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
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 True-Blue Cowboy Christmas is the third and final volume of her Montana-set Big Sky Cowboys series. Miss Bates enjoyed the series’s combination of humour, angst, strained family dynamics, and theme of love’s healing, reconciling power. And when it comes wrapped in a Christmas-set romance narrative, all the better! One of the thematic aspects Miss B. enjoyed the most about Helm’s series is her creation of characters at a crossroads. Helm’s MCs come from difficult places, with pasts that hurt and thwart. When we meet them, they’re caught between a crippling past and the glimmer of breaking free of it, with the help of the transformative experience of love. Breaking out of old psychological habits and personal-history constraints is painful, like giving birth, but the potential rewards are great: the promise of living a better, different way is too potent and our protagonists too honest, desirous of it, and good, to forego the opportunity. Continue reading
Ever since she was a tween, Miss Bates has loved the film version of Breakfast At Tiffany’s. Miss Bates cannot resist the ethereally beautiful, vulnerable Audrey Hepburn or poignant Golden-Boy George Peppard. What Blake Edwards made of Capote’s novella is pure romance genre. More than anything, Miss Bates loved watching two morally compromised characters find love. They are, of course, morally compromised in their eyes, not the viewers’. Their growing love helps them re-evaluate who they are, see themselves in a better light, and give themselves what they deserve: love and belonging. In Nicole Helm’s Outlaw Cowboy, second in the Big Sky Cowboys series, Miss B. found just that, a viscerally satisfying romance about two people who are hardest on themselves emerging out of their dark nights of solitude to love, connection, family, and hope. Caleb Shaw is Mel Shaw’s brother; Mel is the heroine of Helm’s first romance in the series, Rebel Cowboy. That novel opened with Mel’s struggles to keep the Montana family ranch afloat. Bro’s on the bottle and father, paralyzed in an accident five years ago, has given up, checked out, and broods throughout the family home. When Outlaw Cowboy opens, baby bro Caleb has taken the ranch reins. He stopped drinking and desperately wants to retain ownership of the family land. Caleb is haunted by his mother’s abandonment and one terrible night he almost beat a man to death when he saw him holding a gun to his daughter’s head.
After Miss Bates read the first few chapters of Nicole Helm’s Rebel Cowboy, she thought, “I get it. This is what happens when you cross Molly O’Keefe with Maisey Yates.” At times, Helm felt derivative; at others, uniquely her writerly self. Helm writes a hockey-playing hero and that’s one kind of hero Miss Bates never passes up. No one writes about the game’s darkness as O’Keefe does; if you’re looking for that kind of profound understanding in hero Dan Sharpe, you ain’t gonna get it. On the other hand, Helm offers a rich narrative, balancing guffaw-inspiring humour with wrenching angst.
Dan Sharpe’s and Mel Shaw’s legacies are Montana ranches. Mel’s cared for the land and animals her entire life: “On her eighteenth birthday … her father … told her, someday, what lay below would be hers. It had all been very Lion King.” Ten years later, Mel’s “Lion King” moment has turned nightmare: ” … a barely surviving ranch, a delinquent brother determined to burn every Shaw bridge, an injured and withdrawn father, thousands of dollars in medical bills, and livestock that needed to be cared for … These days it felt more like a noose than a gift.” Mel leaves the Shaw ranch in brother Caleb’s less-than-capable hands to rent her ranching know-how to Dan, whose Chicago hockey career is imploding with rumours of cheating. Ranching expert meets ranching wannabe. Continue reading
Donna Alward is one of Miss Bates’s favourite category romance writers, How A Cowboy Stole Her Heart one of her favourite romances. Miss Bates has reviewed wonderful Alward roms, including 2014 fave, Her Rancher Rescuer. In The Cowboy’s Convenient Bride, Alward tackles a contemporary marriage-of-convenience romance. It’s spring in Gibson, Montana, and ladies’ man Tanner Hudson is “sick of the bar scene”. Tanner’s wife left him, claiming he was “built for fun, but not for a lifetime.” Since then, he hides his yearning for love and commitment behind a loose-and-free persona. Laura Jessup is town pariah because she slept with Gavin, golden-girl Maddy Wallace’s husband. Gavin died and Laura is mama to four-month-old Rowan, apparently Gavin’s daughter. Appearances are deceiving, however, because Gavin was a friend, offering his lawyer-services to help Laura extricate herself from drug-dealing boyfriend Spencer. Spencer was in jail when EMT Tanner helped Laura give birth: ” … she vaguely remembered pleading with him to stay with her. She’d felt so alone, so afraid, so … adrift”. Laura breaks down and tells Tanner the truth, also confessing she fears Spencer discovering Rowan and pursuing them: “If Spence ever found out that he had a child … It would be nothing short of a nightmare.” Kind, chivalrous Tanner offers Laura a marriage-of-convenience to protect Rowan and allow Laura to establish her online website design business using Tanner’s name.
Three Nights Before Christmas is the second Kat Latham romance Miss Bates read this year. When Miss Bates thoroughly enjoys two romances by the same author, said author enters auto-buy territory. Latham’s work is quirky, interesting; it stands out. It feels special and different, fresh. When you consider Three Nights Before Christmas‘ premise, it’s easy to see why. On Thanksgiving, Lacey Gallagher is released from prison, having completed three of a ten-year sentence. She will serve parole in her Montana hometown, live at home with older brother, Sawyer, and work at the family’s Christmas tree farm. Lacey was convicted of transporting drugs thanks to Dave Dugger, a charming, lying, manipulative ex-boyfriend. The man who arrested and helped put her in prison, nemesis Austin Wilder, letter-of-the-law forest ranger and looker, features in Lacey’s best and worst dreams. But Miss Bates tosses frivolity where she oughtn’t – yet, as serious and painful as it is to witness Lacey’s struggles adjusting to the world outside prison walls, the wit and warmth with which the novel is written and the love with which Austin, Lacey, and everyone around them are rendered, puts a smile on a reader’s face, even during some of the novel’s darkest moments. Continue reading
There’s no doubt Miss Bates loves category romance. She believes that in its modest and succinct form lie the genre’s treasures. Many a great (Nora Roberts, Sarah Morgan, to name only two) longer-length rom-writer has her start here – and many a rom-reader, like MissB., often yearns for her return. Category romance is the sonnet-form of the genre, circumscribed and specific, its potential for going from formulaic to treasured a mere trope away.
Christine Rimmer is a category name Miss Bates has watched knocking around the rom awards lists for years and, as a result, someone Miss B. wanted to sample. Christine Rimmer’s The Maverick’s Accidental Bride is as implausible and ludicrous in its premise as non-rom readers accuse the genre of being. At a Fourth of July friends’ wedding, childhood family friends, Jordan Leigh Cates and Will Clifton, unknowingly marry, waking to a morning-after near-naked in bed, without any memory of the ceremony, or consummation. Thanks to spiked punch and subsequent wild wedding reception that took many attendees’ memories, Jordyn and Will find rings on their left-hand ring fingers and the congratulations of friends and family. Before their heads became “hazy,” Will noticed Jordyn by the punch bowl all grown up and looking mighty sexy. Jordyn and Will grew up in Thunder Creek, Wyoming, Jordyn as little sister territory to Will’s older-brother-like protectiveness. Now, with their re-acquaintance at the Rust Creek Falls, Montana, wedding, they see each other a whole lot differently. They flirt, dance, sip punch, and kiss … and the next morning have to agree, for the sake of friends, family, and a possible baby resulting from a blacked-out night of passion, they’ll keep up the charade of their newly-in-love marriage until they can be sure they’re not going to be parents. Continue reading
Miss Bates can’t offer readers chocolates, or flowers such as our lovely cowboy carries on the cover of Donna Alward’s latest, but a review of a Valentine romance, she can deliver!
Donna Alward is the queen of domestic romance. How she manages to keep Miss Bates riveted with ordinary lives of ordinary people, doing no more than making dinner, watching TV, and drinking a beer at the local pub is a wonder. But that is exactly what Alward does: expose the soft core of her characters, their fears, vulnerabilities, dashed hopes and dreams, all the ways in which life has worn them down amidst everyday ordinariness. Alward is good at depicting characters vacillating between giving in to the fears received from life’s knocks and reaching towards hope, counting on love to renew them. This rich inner life is enacted amidst simple possibilities and domestic chores: a place to belong, meaningful work, a partner to love, a child to rear, and puppy to walk. Miss Bates says that Alward is the only romance writer she knows who has her rushing home from work to read her novels when the only exciting moment that makes up a scene is the flip of a pancake! Well, there’s all that and pancakes, chocolate-chip ones, in Alward’s latest romance novel, The Cowboy’s Valentine. Continue reading