My initial response to Katherine Reay’s Of Literature & Lattes was: “this book is a mess”. Structurally, it’s all over the place. It opens in fictional-small-town Winsome, Illinois, from the point of view of the local bookstore owner, Eve Parker … whom we barely meet again. At first, I thought she was the heroine, given this is labelled a romance. She isn’t. A plethora of troubled and/or sad small-town characters show up. It was hard to keep track of what made them sad/troubled. Then, all of this within the first 20 pages, we’re catapulted to Palo Alto, CA, where one Alyssa Harrison is being investigated by the FBI because the company she worked for took clients’ medical information, ostensibly to predict future illnesses as a preventative exercise, but sold the info. Alyssa, her FBI interview still pending, gets into her car to make her way home, a journey and destination holding nothing but dread and failure. Home is, of course, Winsome, and there await her mother, Janet, an artist who works at the book shop, and father, Seth. Janet and Seth are divorced because Janet cheated and Alyssa, never sharing an easy mother-daughter relationship, has blamed Janet for her parents’ break-up. But Janet and Seth are dating again, forgiveness is in the air … and Alyssa walks right into it and hates it. We leave Alyssa and her troubled relationship with her mother to meet the new owner of the town coffee-shop, Jeremy Mitchell. He moved to Winsome and invested everything he owns in the town, sharing business responsibilities with his friend, Ryan, because he wants to be closer to his seven-year-old daughter, Becca. His marriage broke up soon after Becca was born and his ex-wife, Krista, is hell to deal with. His coffee-shop is not the success he’d hope because he doesn’t have the community spirit, as Ryan tells him over and over again. Continue reading
This summer, Miss Bates listened to a Brene Brown series of lectures called “The Power of Vulnerability: Teachings of Authenticity, Connection, and Courage.” (It’s a wonderful series, especially if you’re given to self-protection and perfectionism, as Miss Bates is. Austen’s Miss Bates is beautifully vulnerable, which leads Emma to take that nasty shot at her at the picnic.) One interesting point Brown made was that vulnerability does not mean oversharing, or as Miss Bates less elegantly puts it, TMI. In reference to the same, Brown said you have to really think about who deserves your story. Reading Judith Arnold’s seminal romance about breast-cancer survivor Beth Pendleton and Ryan Walker, the builder-rogue who falls in love with her, Miss Bates thought about Brown’s words a lot. Too often, in romance, the heroine keeps secrets, secrets that result in an annoying Big Mis (I’m looking at you, secret babies) and a sure-fire way to being dumped onto the DNF pile. Barefoot In the Grass, on the other hand, is about a private woman, not a secretive one, whose story earned its privacy. Beth is a charming, intelligent, sympathetic heroine who confronted physical and psychic pain and fought a hard battle to embrace life, as echoed by the novel’s title and Beth’s oft-declared promise-to-self to find joy in “walking barefoot in the grass.” 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.
Tanya Michaels is a new-to-Miss-Bates author, with titles in the TBR, including A Mother’s Homecoming, an interesting riff on romance’s “bad mom” as heroine. Falling For the Sheriff is first in Michaels’ small-town-USA series, Cupid’s Bow, Texas. Miss Bates had her trepidations with a cutesy town-name like that, screaming love-cupid-arrow, all the obvious. But Michaels’ novel proved to be more than cutesy, with its lower-middle-class protagonists, whose lives as single parents, though comfortable, require cheque-book balancing and caution spending. Kate Sullivan, widowed elementary school piano teacher, and Cole Trent, town sheriff, are parenting a thirteen-year-old son, Luke, and five-year-old twin girls, Alyssa and Mandy, respectively.
Kate’s widowhood is two years old and Luke, sadly, is acting out at school out of grief and loss. Leaving Houston and returning to her paternal grandmother’s farm in Cupid’s Bow seems like the best Kate can do for Luke and her harried self. Kate arrives knowing she’ll find warmth, support, and a loving home with her beloved “Gram.” “Gram” throws Kate a big ole party and invites, with the conspiring of her friend Gayle, Cole’s mother, Cole and his twin cutie-pies. Kate and Cole share instant attraction, mitigated by single-parent status and protectiveness towards their children, as well as Kate’s yet sore heart over Damon’s, her husband’s, loss, a policemen killed in the line of duty. Cole’s law enforcement career serves as another deterrent to Kate, who quails at the idea of ever being with another cop. But Kate and Cole, other than sharing an attraction, strike a friendship, share similar dilemmas and questions as single parents, and unite in avoiding their families’ matchmaking efforts. They strike a bargain to feign an interest in each other to evade their families’ machinations. Except a joint-family trip to the pool and a few dates and Kate and Cole’s attraction and growing affection see them consider, approach, and finally admit a relationship. 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
Reading Maisey Yates’ Bad News Cowboy gave Miss Bates déjà [vu]rginity. Indeed, a virgin heroine in Yates’ fourth Copper Ridge romance followed Dahl’s in Taking the Heat. The treatment was different, but equally successful, with Yates falling into a more conventional deflowering scene. We met Kate Garrett as the quiet, tom-boyish baby sister to the heroes of Yates’ previous novels in the series, Part Time and Brokedown Cowboy. Our hero is none other than their flippant, promiscuous poker buddy, the handsome, enigmatic Jack Monaghan, Jack of turbulent waters run deep. Verbal sparring and sexual tension ran throughout Kate and Jack’s exchanges in previous novels and it’s great to witness everything coming to a head … enfin. In Bad News Cowboy, Kate’s changing, suddenly aware that her 23-year-old body and sexual self-effacement don’t suit. The safe emotional “cave” she created as hidey-hole in is too small, ” … she was alone … It was secure. It was familiar.” Her itchy restless feelings are her attraction to Jack. Jack too notices how Kate needles and insults him at their weekly Garrett family poker games. They’ve always teased and tormented each other, but now there’s a tension to their encounters they’ve not had before. As in the previous novels, Yates’ characters’ verbal jibes and jabs conceal emotional feints and this no less true of Kate and Jack. Continue reading
Reading Victoria Dahl’s Taking the Heat means taking the heat. To a love-scene-shy reader like Miss Bates (what else when you’ve lived in a Jane Austen novel?), Dahl’s raw love scenes stand in contradistinction to Miss B’s sensibilities. But Dahl convinces in the best way possible: intelligently, using love scenes to reveal character, show growth, and develop a relationship from superficial fun to emotional stakes that come with vulnerability and openness to the Other. Taking the Heat follows from the thematic concerns we saw Dahl work through in the novel that precedes it in the Girls Night Out series, Flirting With Disaster.
Taking the Heat picks up on the woebegone friend of Isabelle and Lauren, Veronica Chandler, a mysterious young women, déprimée, dominated by her powerful, indifferent-to-her judge father, and difficult to know. But Isabelle and company befriend her and bring her along on their girls night outs. Getting to know Veronica is one of the pleasures of Taking the Heat: she’s an endearing heroine. She’s funny, kind, and intuitively smart, which serve her well because she’s “Dear Veronica,” the local rag’s advice columnist. When we meet her, her publisher-editor has talked her into a stint at the local bar where she’ll pull Dear Veronica letters out of a fishbowl to respond to as bar patrons listen. She’s terrified and, as we soon learn, feels a fraud. Veronica Chandler is a girl living a lie: she dispenses advice like a pharmacist eking out pastilles, but she’s a virgin whose dream of big lights big city ended in failure. She returned to Jackson, Wyoming, needing her father’s help to find work and a place to live. Much of the novel’s success lies in witnessing Veronica’s emergence into strength and confidence without losing her generous heart. Our Veronica-butterfly comes forth from the chrysalis of her encounters with Gabe Mackenzie, librarian, rock climber, search-and-rescue officer, looker and lover extraordinaire. 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
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
Donna Alward’s foray into longer contemporary romance is akin to Sarah Morgan’s: coming from wildly, deliciously wonderful categories to extended characterization, detailed setting, and broader themes with mixed success. Readers, like Miss Bates, who adored their categories, followed them, if not happily, then trustfully into new romance territory. Alward and Morgan never fail to deliver heart-stirring and thoughtful romance, however, and surprise readers in the varied ways they use romance conventions. If you enjoy Morgan’s Puffin Island, you’re sure to like Alward’s also Maine-set Jewell Cove. Summer On Lovers’ Island is fourth in the series, after The House On Blackberry Hill, Treasure On Lilac Lane, and novella, Christmas At Seashell Cottage. It stands alone, but Miss Bates enjoys Alward’s small-town world, especially how she imagines and imbues it with a strong sense of its historical past and interconnected characters and families. Her premise is strong, each novel illustrating a character’s growing pains entering small-town life new, or anew in Treasure‘s case, and meeting, not always cutely, a long-established, town-native mate. Lovers’ Island‘s heroine is newcomer Dr. Lizzie Howard, on leave from her high-powered ER position at a big-city hospital. She agrees to take Charlie’s, her best friend’s, maternity leave practice for a few months, a practice Charlie shares with veteran and goldenboy-hometown-hero, Dr. Josh Collins. Lizzie’s got him pegged when she considers his star status at Jewell Cove’s Fourth of July baseball game, “Local star, hometown hero, Jewell Cove’s favorite son.” Continue reading