Carly Bloom is a new-to-me author and Big Bad Cowboy, her début romance. If she sustains this level of humour and pathos, then she has a good chance of becoming many romance readers’ autobuy. Big Bad Cowboy is a tongue-in-cheek pastiche of many romance conceits and in its combining of them, uniquely itself. Be warned, however, Big Bad Cowboy is busy with conceits and stories within stories. To start, the hero, Travis Blake, newly-returned Afghan vet to his dilapidated, tax-debt-ridden Texas ranch and uncle to his incarcerated brother’s and dead sister-in-law’s five-year-old, Henry. Henry is precocious, hilariously sharp-tongued, and Travis knows it from the get-go: “Henry struck him as being smarter than the average five-year-old, which was probably the very worst kind of five-year-old.” Henry provides so much of the novel’s humour; he’s not twee, but acts very much like a Shakespearean sprite: mischievous, temperamental, smart … with moments of heart-breaking pathos. Travis cares for him, indulges him, and knows exactly the right touch to let him know he’s safe, cared-for, loved, cherished. So, for Bloom, there’s one relationship that makes the heart glow and lips grin, what of the rest?
My reading trajectory through Alisha Rai’s Hurts To Love You, third in her Forbidden Hearts series, went from gleeful enthusiasm to tempered affection. The novel tidies and resolves the story (I assume because I haven’t read the first two in the series) of the complicated, convoluted relationships between the Kane and Chandler families. Complications and convolutions that must’ve been illuminated, to an extent, in Hate To Want You and Wrong To Need You. Reading Hurts To Love You felt like I was late to game, like walking into a dinner-party when the crux of the conversation is already underway. After a while I gave up trying to keep up with the sundry relationships and backstories and just enjoyed the romance between outsider Gabe Hunter and Baby Chandler rich-girl, Evangeline, or “Eve”. Gabe and Eve’s romance opens with a lot of mutual lusting from afar, which is a lot of fun. But, to start, to the premise. While Eve might be a wealthy Chandler, Gabe is the adopted son of the Kane family housekeeper. The Kane-Chandler family “feud” started when Maria Chandler and Robert Kane were killed in a car accident years ago, with the mystery of why they were in the car together in the first place resolved by the end of this third-in-series book. 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
The day-job ate all of MissB’s reading time in the past few weeks. She greatly missed writing her blog and is so happy to be back this week with a review of Ruthie Knox’s Madly. Hopefully, a two-week hiatus won’t be repeated.
Truth be told, part of it was work and part of it was MissB trying to get through Knox’s long-anticipated return to romance with New York #2, Madly. And, it is “mad,” a wildly unhappy, chaotic romance about Allie Fredericks (Truly‘s heroine’s, May’s, baby sister) and Winston Chamberlain (About Last Night‘s hero’s, Nev’s, older brother). Madly is one of the most fraught romances Miss Bates has ever read (barring Judith Ivory’s Beast, which MissB. loathed) and she struggled to get through it. Continue reading
Tiffany Reisz is a new-to-Miss-B author writing in a category Miss B doesn’t usually read. Miss B. likes her candles and avowals of love with only the mildest of love scenes. Harlequin’s soon-to-be-defunct Blaze line is more ero than Miss Bates likes, BUT Reisz is an author Miss Bates wanted to try. However, Miss Bates knew Reisz’s erotica would not have been her cuppa. Miss B. thought the waning Blaze, a category from which she’s only read Sarah Mayberry’s marvellous romances, would be – well, less erotic. And it was: one woman, one man, yes explicit love scenes, but an HEA to end and some tender, falling-in-love moments. Miss B’s experiment didn’t leave her with a desire to snap up every Blaze title out there, but it wasn’t distasteful either … at least not when she started to skim the love scenes. Continue reading
Miss Bates greatly looked forward to Joanna Shupe’s Magnate. She loves the Gilded Age setting and an opportunity to read a historical romance “beyond-the-Regency”, with characters from America’s class system. Because, make no mistake, Shupe’s romance is a cross-class romance. Heroine Lizzie Sloane is a blue-blooded beauty from one of New York City’s oldest and most prestigious families. However, there is a hint of failure with, of finances gone awry for, the Northeast Railroad Company her family owns. William, Lizzie’s brother, struggles to keep the family fortunes running. What he won’t accept is help from his baby sister. Unlike the social-whirl focus of most young women of her circle, Lizzie wants to operate her own stockbroking company – unheard of for a woman in the day and age! But Lizzie is as determined as she is beautiful. She brings her appeal to a self-made man, a man whose past is couched in the poverty and violence of his Five-Points childhood, Emmett Cavanaugh. Emmett is big, powerful, fastidious, and unrelenting in his pursuit of wealth and influence. Lizzie, who’s aware of her attempt to flout social conventions, believes she’ll find a kindred spirit in the man who had to break them down to prove his mettle and worth. While Lizzie’s worth comes in gown-form, she does find, if not a kindred spirit, at least someone who listens to her plans and ambitions.
Jennifer Hayward’s Claiming the Royal Innocent starts in run-of-the-mill HP romance fashion. Miss Bates was clipping along, enjoying the ride, when something happened a third of the way in: run-of-the-mill turned extraordinary, pleasant -enough became keeper-shelf-worthy. Miss Bates loved Hayward’s The Italian’s Deal For I Do, but she’s persnickety because Claiming gains on it. Following the fine but not-rocking-world Carrying the King’s Pride, Claiming tells the story of that royal hero’s illegitimate, recently-revealed sister Aleksandra Dimitriou and Aristos Nicolades, the casino-owning billionaire whom the king puts in charge of her safety when Akathinia is threatened by war with neighbouring Carnelia.
The novel falls into two thematic parts: the first half is very much about Aleksandra coming to grips with her new-found identity and second, which moves geographically away from the palace and onto Aristos’s private casino island, with Aristos’s struggle to come to terms with his past, a past which leaves him emotionally closed off and jaded. In Miss Bates’s review notes, she found the following scribble: “the first half deals with Alex’s mess and the second with Aristos’s.” In the romance novel’s course, Hayward plays all the delicious notes the HP reader expects: glamor, money, exotic locale, and sexy times. And, in this case, her own quippy, witty brand of It Happened One Night banter. These are but the trappings of any superlative HP, however: the rest is made of the hero and heroine’s believable struggle to relinquish psychic patterns preventing them from achieving connection, commitment, and love. Continue reading
“She was there. At the bar wearing a dress the color of a bruise’s dark heart.”
Miss Bates first read Molly O’Keefe’s short story, “The Heart Of It,” in the Summer Rain romance anthology, which she reviewed in 2014. Miss Bates reread it when it was recently self-published as a standalone and was struck again by its fineness, the delicacy with which O’Keefe recounts her story. “The Heart Of It” isn’t a happy story, but it is a hopeful one. Gabe and Elena’s baggage is contained in the lovely opening line. Their initial encounters are monetary, self-interested, and heartbreaking. They are bruised by life, hurt; like a bruise, visible, when pressed, painful. In O’Keefe’s description of Gabe’s perception of Elena’s skin lies the hope at the story’s heart:
“Her skin was the color of the harvest moon, or the inside of a shell, something white and creamy and perfect.”
Purple bruises give way to an HEA wrested from pain, like the delicate, recovering skin emerging from a fading bruise. 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