I’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
Priscilla Oliveras is a new-to-me contemporary romance author and one I’d heard good stuff about from romance-reading Twitter friends. I was happy to add her title to my TBR and appreciated what she had on offer: as Oliveras herself self-identifies on her bio, a “Latinx” heroine, Sofía Vargas.
Resort To Love opens with the hero’s, Nathan Hamilton III’s, arrival at the now-defunct, dilapidated, Floridian Paradise Key Resort, where he and Sofía fell in love, consummated their love, and set a path to an on-again, off-again romance through their college and early-career years. Sofia hasn’t seen Nat in two years, but the sight of him sets her immediately back in their high-school sweetheart days and everything their love entailed, especially as illicit “cross-class romance”: “Their forbidden romance – him in management, her a summer employee – had heightened their adolescent hormones.” Sofía is beset by memories and feelings, but her primary emotions are grief (she’s recently lost a friend), anxiety, and anger. On his part, Nathan too is overcome by tidal waves of desire and love, but he’s also hurt from Sofía’s rejection: “It’d been two years since they’d been together. Two years since she told him not to contact her again.” There be reasons! Continue reading
Uncertain and with trepidation, I picked up Roni Loren’s The Ones Who Got Away. After watching the news reports about Margery Stoneman Douglas HS and its mass-shooting aftermath, I wasn’t sure I wanted to read a romance with this premise. But I ploughed ahead and read it because I thought: dammit, is that a niggling doubt that the genre can’t, shouldn’t, would botch, a premise so raw and horrific? Can romance do the subject justice? That little snooty inner judgement said “No, spinster-girl, you’re giving this genre a chance to tell this story.” What I discovered is that Loren got some things right and others, wrong. What Loren got right was situating the story twelve years after the school shooting. While her protagonists’ lives were marked by their experience, the initial horror/trauma has dulled. They have built lives as best they can, found some peace, but the shooting has dictated to them too. The time lapse gives Loren some romance narrative wiggle-room: her hero and heroine are adults focussed on adult things, working, paying their bills, being responsible citizens. They achieved this by leaving their Texas town and what happened at Long Acre High. Continue reading
After finishing Jo Beverley’s sublime Emily and the Dark Angel, Miss Bates was in a reading funk. Much like a fussy baby, “grizzling” (as Hart describes adorable Freya in Juggling Briefcase and Baby) from book to book, unable to settle. Miss Bates read the opening pages to at least 15 e-ARCs; none of them took: the writing was stilted, info-dumps galore, and even romance writers she usually loves were giving her the meh-blues. She tried out a few non-roms; that experiment fell flat as well, too many writers too conscious of the prose and ignorant of the pacing, plot, and characterization. She stood in her spinster’s lair, foot a-tapping, index finger beating a dissatisfied refrain on her chin: nothing stood out from the groaning paper TBR shelves. “What to read? What to read?” … always turn to a title from a favourite author! Hence, Jessica Hart’s Juggling Briefcase and Baby, a one-click buy from years ago when Miss Bates read Wendy’s review. Dear readers, Wendy was right: this is a great great rom. There be reasons. There be one reason above all that makes for great rom. The genre runs with a pretty straight forward narrative: encounter, new or reunited; development with obstacles; HEA. That’s all there is to it; characterization, pretty standard, flawed but basically likeable, on occasion, admirable. What distinguishes the romance genre from others is the emotional wisdom, the deep deep astuteness about the bond of falling in love and making the scary leap to commitment. Hart, alas no longer practicing the romance art, is/was one of its most sensitive practitioners.
For a while, it looked like contemporary small-town/rural romance eclipsed historical. Historical is slowly in the ascendant and contemporary looks stale. Or at least those have been Miss Bates’s feelings lately. Then, Tawna Fenske’s Let It Breathe: a perfect combination of humour and pathos, second chances, and sundry laugh-out-loud moments thanks to a hilariously motley crew of secondary characters.
Reese Clark, thirty-four-year-old divorcée, manages her family’s Oregon wine business, Larchwood Vineyards. She has big plans to expand the business by building a new tasting-hall, hosting tours, and getting LEED-certified. In her meagre spare time, she fosters injured wild animals and plays straight-woman to her outrageous grandpa, Albert, aka, “Axl,” her cooingly-in-love parents, her wild-living cousin Larissa, and Eric, vintner ex-husband, and Sheila, his wife. Clay Henderson re-enters their lives. He’s the Dorrington Construction manager and the man Reese has loved since college, Eric’s best friend, and the alcoholic everyone rescued and succoured until one night fifteen years ago when Reese didn’t bail him out. Clay Henderson is four-years sober-and-serious and back to build Reese’s vineyard-dream and make amends.
Donna Thorland’s Renegades Of the American Revolution series, of which The Dutch Girl is fourth, is unique and wonderful. Miss Bates thinks it should become one of the great rom-sagas and certainly deserving of the same status as the dubious Outlander (Miss Bates isn’t a fan). Thorland cleverly interweaves history, adventure, spy thriller, and romance. Thorland’s Renegades are as much fun to read as Willig’s Carnation series (Miss Bates is a HUGE fan).
Thorland’s heroines are intelligent, beautiful, marginalized, caught up in the politics of war and espionage, but always, at core, ethical, admirable, and independent. They may start out naïve and young, but they’re survivors. They learn to navigate turbulent waters of intrigue and political interests without ever losing themselves. At their side, though often on opposite sides of the American/British divide, are heroes, somewhat more knowing, experienced, and equally embedded in the political interests of their day. The heroines, however, tap into the heroes’ romantic, protective core, an inner self the heroes have forgotten, seemingly discarded, or tucked away as years of political and/or military expediency hardened them. The eponymous Dutch Girl is Annatje Hoppe, whose alias is Miss Anna Winters, spinster New York school teacher. Our hero is childhood sweetheart, disgraced and disinherited-landed-rich-boy-no-more highwayman, Gerrit Van Haren. Continue reading
Miss Bates loves the reunited husband-and-wife trope. When Douglas offered her an ARC of A Deal to Mend Their Marriage, she accepted (though she dislikes the line’s closed-bedroom-door “love scenes”). Miss B. was pleasantly surprised when Douglas’s romance followed her own missbatesian edict to keep the relationship “kisses only” (not keeping anything from the reader that might be essential to understanding the protagonists’ relationship). What intense, character- and relationship-building kisses they are! Douglas’s title, A Deal to Mend Their Marriage, plays cleverly with the initial state of the hero and heroine’s marriage, “a deal to end their marriage.” Caro Fielding is at the reading of her father’s will. Their relationship was fraught, with Caro failing to fulfill her father’s expectations. She’s achieved a hard-won independence working as an antique dealer, reconciled to being disinherited. Instead, Rolland Fielding leaves Caro a vast fortune and his loving, devoted second wife, Barbara, zilch. Caro and Barbara share a warm relationship. Caro wants to redress her father’s injustice, until she realizes her father thought Barbara was stealing from him. When an expensive antique snuffbox in Caro’s possession on behalf of her employer goes missing, soft-hearted Caro wants to save Barbara from legal repercussions. She turns to her security-and-detecting-agency-owning, estranged husband, Jack Pearce, to help her solve the mystery of the missing snuffbox and save her beloved step-mother. Continue reading
Candace Calvert’s contemporary inspirational medical romance Step By Step is second in her Crisis Team series. It is Miss Bates’s first Calvert romance novel and won’t be her last. Whatever liking Miss Bates holds for this title, she acknowledges that the problem with inspirational fiction is its appeal to a niche market. This is problematic when Miss Bates finds an author who merits a wider audience. The dilemma remains, however, because inspie romance, even when it’s as well-written and psychologically nuanced as Calvert’s, contains elements that alienate the general reader.
Calvert’s Step By Step is a second-chance-at-love romance for two widowed protagonists. The wounds are deeper and grieving still fresh for nurse Taylor Cabot: ” … the rings had finally come off, after migrating from her left to her right hand in a painfully slow march through grief – like a turtle navigating broken glass.” Step By Step opens with Taylor and her cousin Aimee watching the San Diego Kidz Kite Festival. A private plane crashes, wreaking havoc and death on festival goers. This disaster scene is one of the “crises” that ER health care workers contend with and are heart-stoppingly described in Calvert’s novel. Taylor rushes to help, abandoning her conversation with Aimee about returning to life and love after grieving her beloved Greg for three years. The transfer of patients to San Diego Hope’s ER reunites Taylor with Seth Donovan, crisis chaplain with California Crisis Care and the man who offered Taylor friendship and compassion when she lost her husband.
Miss Bates doesn’t understand why Sarah Morgan’s North American Puffin Island romance is marketed in a double-rom volume with Susan Mallery’s Ladies’ Man. If there was ever a romance that deserved to stand front and center on a cover, it’s Some Kind Of Wonderful. Which is why Miss Bates features the U.K. edition’s pretty, whimsical cover.
Morgan’s Puffin Island series has already given us two wonderful romances, one of the best HPs Miss Bates and friends have read, Playing By the Greek’s Rules, and First Time In Forever. Continuing the story of three bosom friends, Some Kind Of Wonderful tells Brittany Forrest’s tale, Brittany whose grand-mother bequeathed her Castaway Cottage on Puffin Island, the college besties’ summer hang-out and sanctuary when things go awry. Brittany returns to Puffin Island after breaking her wrist excavating Aegean Bronze Age weaponry in Crete. Dr. Forrest’s troubles go from “single spies to battalias” when her private plane ride to Puffin Island comes in the form of one silent, sexy stunner, ex-husband of ten years, Zachary Flynn – the bad boy who abandoned her ten days after their marriage.
Whose Baby? (2000), Maternal Instinct (2002), With Child (2005), Snowbound (2007) and The Man Behind the Cop (2008): romantic suspense, family-centred, child-parent-focussed, believable problems and dilemmas, and all Janice Kay Johnson category novels Miss Bates read and enjoyed. Johnson goes about the business of producing solid, unassuming romance novels without “strum und drang.” Miss Bates can’t say that the Johnson novels she’s read are huggable-loveable and she’d carry them to a desert isle, except for the contemporary marriage-of-convenience and unusual Whose Baby? Nevertheless, they never fail to leave her thoughtful about the complications life can throw at good, ordinary, fallible people, how to contend with troubles in “battalias,” how to make families out of pretty crappy circumstances, and how to love another person in his/her imperfections. Not a bad feat, even if Miss Bates’ reader heart doesn’t miss a beat reading. Johnson does no less in her latest Harlequin Super-Romance, One Frosty Night. Miss Bates has quibbles, but this is a solid romantic suspense, with more suspense than romance. Continue reading