Though I don’t read as much historical romance as I used to, Mimi Matthews is one histrom author whose books I’d never miss. They’re elegantly written, with finely-drawn characters, and thoughtful themes; her protagonists’ journey to the HEA is sigh-worthingly romantic. Her heroes and heroines are beautifully compatible, showcasing Matthews’s ability to match characterization to plausible future happiness. Her ethos agrees with mine and mine with hers.
Matthews’s novella, “Fair as a Star,” (“A Victorian Romance”) is a wonderful introduction to her work if you’ve yet to read her and thoroughly satisfying an addition if you have and are a fan. Matthews’s Victorian Era is neither idealized, nor villified; if the HEA is an argument for the idyllic over the realistic/pragmatic, this is why I read romance. To follow, verbatim, the blurb-ish summary of “Fair as a Star”:
After a mysterious sojourn in Paris, Beryl Burnham has returned home to the village of Shepton Worthy ready to resume the life she left behind. Betrothed to the wealthy Sir Henry Rivenhall, she has no reason to be unhappy–or so people keep reminding her. But Beryl’s life isn’t as perfect as everyone believes. As village curate, Mark Rivenhall is known for his compassionate understanding. When his older brother’s intended needs a shoulder to lean on, Mark’s more than willing to provide one. There’s no danger of losing his heart. He already lost that to Beryl a long time ago. During an idyllic Victorian summer, friends and family gather in anticipation of Beryl and Sir Henry’s wedding. But in her darkest moment, it’s Mark who comes to Beryl’s aid. Can he help her without revealing his feelings–or betraying his brother? Continue reading
When I first started this blog, I was reading romance exclusively. Now, I balance romance with crime and nonfiction, and the occasional classic, or litfic. I like the variety and I tend to have three books going at the same time. I’ve been thinking about what I get from each genre, but mainly been focussing on romance and what it offers a reader, especially because I think it is still maligned in many quarters. There is no one better to show the romance genre’s virtues than Jenny Holiday, one of the masters of contemporary romance. The blend of humour, character growth, and the delightful journey to commitment for her two protagonists are perfectly executed. Though they’re unique, I find similar joy in reading Lucy Parker. The present Holiday volume I consumed, Mermaid Inn, first in the Matchmaker Bay series, adds a magical Canadian small-town setting to the Holiday trail-mix of goodness. In a pandemic panic, I’ll often wake up in the wee hours and reach for a romance to keep the ghosties away. Mermaid Inn kept me company the past three nights and I brought it to a final-page flip this AM with a satisfied sigh.
Now that I’ve arrived at the end of Roni Loren’s conclusion to her four-book series based on the adult survivors of a Texas high school shooting, I can confidently say that, with Molly O’Keefe’s Crooked Creek Ranch series, Loren has written one of the best contemporary romance series of the past ten years. Though #4 wasn’t my favourite (my heart remains with The One You Fight For) it was a most satisfying conclusion. The One For You tells the romance of two of Long Acre High’s shooting’s survivors, prom queen beauty Kincaid Breslin and her best friend, Ashton Isaacs. Cue sixteen years. Ash returns to Long Acre from NYC (after having left soon after the tragedy, abandoning Kincaid) to stay with his deceased friend’s parents, Grace and Charlie Lowell (his ex-fiancée left him homeless). Ash is a globe-trotting successful writer and the opportunity for some down time to let the Muse have her way with him is welcome, even in the town he’d hoped to never see again … and the friend he can’t forget. Meanwhile, wrong-side-of-the-tracks Kincaid is now a successful realtor and in the midst of clinching a sweet deal on a charmingly dilapidated farm house … except, like most things, Kincaid can’t resist the call of the broken, so she buys it instead, hoping to juggle job and renos and start her own B’n’B. Like estranged friend Ash, Kincaid is still close to the Lowells; their son, one of the shooting’s victims, was her high school sweetheart. The Lowells own Long Acre’s sole bookstore, but decide it’s time to sell and retire. They ask Ash, who’s staying in the bookstore’s upstairs apartment, and Kincaid, to spruce it up and put it on the market for them. Continue reading
I read a lot of Maisey Yates romance, rarely missing a new release. I read her as much for the intensity of the romance as for its ethos. Because it aligns with mine. And so, even though from a critical viewpoint there’s something repetitive about her romances, I enjoy each and every one. In Cowboy Christmas Redemption, Yates has dropped some of the relentless interiority of her recent work and created something deeper, better developped, with a more expansive theme and characters.
On the sidelines to Yates’s recent Gold Valley books (this latest is #8) are Caleb Dalton and Ellie Bell. Caleb is Ellie and her four-year-old daughter’s shadow. Since Ellie’s husband and Caleb’s best friend died, Caleb has been Ellie’s ” … rock. Her salvation.” Caleb was there to tell Ellie about his death, hold her when she grieved, hold her hand when she gave birth to Amelia, been there to repair the porch steps, drive Amelia to pre-school. He’s been everything stalwart and good Ellie could ever want, or need. But four years have gone and as Ellie emerges from grief, she wants more than being Clint’s widow. She makes a Christmas wish list, checks it twice, and goes out to get what she needs and wants after four years of single-motherhood and grieving widowhood. She wants a new dress, shoes, to dance in a bar, and flirt with a man. She wants to “feel like a woman again,” to experience intimacy once more.
When I first started to read romance again, after a thirty-year hiatus (ah, the “lost years”), one of the first romances I read was J. R. Ward’s Lover Eternal (2006), a romance novel I thought at once execrable and utterly compelling. Really, I couldn’t put it down, even though I was embarrassed for enjoying it and yet thinking how laughably bad it was. I can’t say I experienced the same reader self-hatred reading the first of Ward’s new non-vampiric “Firefighters” series, Consumed. Maybe it was the first flush of allowing myself to read romance again, but I’d gained some distance from Consumed in a way I hadn’t with Lover Eternal, though I read it with the same enthusiasm and rueful self-doubt. I can now recognize what makes Ward compelling: there’s a hyperbolic physicality to her characters, a gritty underbelly feel to her setting, and a rawness to it all that makes for a powerful formula. There’s NOTHING small-town cutsie or gentle about Ward’s world and she’s pretty fearless about writing her characters’ edginess. I liked that about her and I liked Consumed, though, at times, it bugged the heck out of me. Continue reading
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about where romance fiction “fits” in the scheme of things literary. I’m tired of arguments either defending the genre or condemning it, discussing its relevance or irrelevance … blah blah blah. Not that these discussions aren’t relevant, they are to those who partake and more power to them. I do enjoy listening “in” to the Twitter debates, etc. But I have been asking why I persist in reading romance when the world around me makes the romance’s domestic world focus feel irrelevant. I think we read romance of any ilk, paranormal, historical, contemporary, conservative to radical in its perspective, because it’s utopian (minus the satire; there is nothing Thomas More would recognize in the genre). End of thought bubble.
The latest “utopian” romance I read was Kelly Bowen’s Last Night With the Earl, depicting the love and closeness of Napoleonic War veteran, Eli Dawes, the eponymous “Earl” of Rivers, and artist Rose Hayward. Like many romance couples, Eli and Rose are “broken” and their relationship, as it plays out, works towards achieving their healing and wholeness. As a narrative, it succeeded and failed in depicting their story. Continue reading
No 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).
Eons ago, I read Julie Anne Long’s I Kissed An Earl and liked it well enough, but not with the passion of anticipating the next book in the series or eye-balling the newly-arriveds for her author’s name. I was surprised to see her turn to contemporary romance as she seemed quite ensconced in the former. But, hey, what do I know about author inspirations or the changing face of romance publishing? Bupkis. I was curious, however, and since contemporary is my sub-genre of choice, happy to give her a try with book four of the Hellcat Canyon series, The First Time At Firelight Falls, and even happier to eat reader humble-pie when I was *forced* to reassess my initial ho-hum judgement of it. It is seemingly run-of-the-mill contemporary small-town romance: Hellcat’s denizens are eccentric and supportive, there’s a good dose of wholesome humour and a modicum of conventionally-positioned, hot sex between the leads, and, at least initially, a whole lot of not-much-ness.
Liz Fielding is one of those romance writers whose “closed-bedroom-door” conceit I forgive. Not to belabor the point, but you know my opinion of the closed-bedroom-door romance and its many shortcomings. Fielding, on the other hand, writes the kind of truth-telling, gently-humoured characters I adore. Her prose is fine, elegant and smooth, deceptively simple and subtly rich. Even flawed, it’s easy for me to enjoy her romances, as I did Her Pregnancy Bombshell.
The bombshell in question opens the novel as heroine Miranda “Andie” Marlowe makes her way to the Mediterranean island of L’Isola dei Fiori and her sister’s dilapidated, recently-inherited Villa Rosa. As she tells the customs officer, ” ‘I’m running away.” An intriguing opening and one that drew me in. Andie is escaping a confrontation with her one-night-lover and boss, Cleve Finch, CEO of Goldfinch Air Services, for which Andie flies charters. Andie, we learn, is pregnant, the result of Cleve and her one night of shared passion three weeks ago. For the past year, culminating in that night, Cleve grieved the loss of his wife, Rachel. His devastation is evident in every gaunt line of his face, every pound lost from his formerly-stalwart frame, the absence of his smiles, the sadness in his eyes. Andie, with whom Cleve has shared an affectionate friendship since pre-Rachel, has loved with him since the day she walked into his life as an eighteen-year-old pilot. Continue reading
I hadn’t read a romantic suspense novel in a long time and I wasn’t sure I really wanted to. Calhoun’s Turn Me Loose has a naked-chest-and-dog-tags cover that always turns me off. But, Calhoun: I’d heard a lot of good about her in the Twitterverse and wanted to give a new-to-me author a fighting chance. Turn Me Loose‘s introduction didn’t cover itself with glory and I came a hair’s-breath away from DNF-ing. But the writing was good, darn good, though I disliked the flash-back routine to the hero and heroine’s past. I recognized its necessity because it made it easier for Calhoun to segue into the present, but those, albeit not significant, parts of the novel never won me over. So, what did?
Let’s begin with basic premise and characterization. Seven years before the present scene, undercover cop Ian Hawthorn arrested eighteen-year-old college student and petty drug-dealer, Riva Henneman. In exchange for her freedom, Riva agreed to act as Ian’s “confidential informant”. Ian and Riva spent a lot of time together in stake-out and/or drug busts, with Riva entering dangerous situations as her CI-drug-dealer-self to help Ian and the Lancaster Police Department make arrests. A resentful attraction seethes between them, but ethical lines and power differentials are not crossed. Seven years pass and Ian walks into Riva’s business, a farm-to-table restaurant operation, Oasis, that takes teens and young adults from food-impoverished neighbourhoods and gives them a chance at fair and engaging labour. The food is delicious, Riva is beautiful, and the attraction between them still sizzles and seethes. Continue reading