Donna Alward’s The Crown Prince’s Bride seemed a romance palate-cleanser after Willig’s intense English Wife. Certainly that’s what it felt like – initially. But Alward is a writer who transcends what I call the trappings of trite, with emotional wisdom and psychological acumen. While I settled comfortably into a mild romance read – not too much drama, not too intense a plot, decent protagonists – Alward managed to surprise and delight me.
First, the trappings. In the fictional kingdom of Marazur, heroine Stephanie Savalas is the supremely competent right-hand woman of Crown Prince Raoul Navarro, grieving widower, single dad, and his homeland’s hope (now that King Alexander, his father, has handed kingly responsibilities over to him). The novel opens as Stephani plans Raoul’s brother’s wedding to Raoul’s children’s former nanny, all the while juggling the country’s well-being and the big-ole torch she carries for her boss. Raoul is deep in mourning for his beloved wife, Stephani’s cousin Cecilia, who died in a car accident. And yet, dear reader, stirrings! Raoul always cared for Stephani and their platonic relationship is warm, friendly, affectionate, and caring until one night, these vague “stirrings” lead to a passionate kiss. Continue reading
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
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
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 loves pie, apple, cherry, strawberry-rhubarb, but nothing beats humble pie. She happily munches on it after sneering, snarling, and dramatically slapping her forehead with “What was I thinking?” reading Jodi Thomas’s Ransom Canyon – it’s women’s fiction. More fool Miss Bates because Thomas’s novel has as much going for it as it does going on.
Ransom Canyon is braided with three narrative strands: the romance between dour, tragic Staten Kirkland, rancher, and Quinn O’Grady, lavender farmer, reclusive pianist, and his dead wife’s best friend; the burgeoning feelings between Lucas Reyes, ambitious teen-ager and hand at Staten’s ranch, and Lauren Brigman, dreamy girl and sheriff’s daughter; and, Yancy Grey, ex-con and handyman to the adorable old coots, all former teachers, at the local retirement home. Add the blue-cape-swirling, curvaceous, sharp-tongued Miss Ellie, nurse-in-training, and frequent visitor to the retirement home and Yancy Grey, at 25, newly released from the big house, has himself a serious case of desire. Ransom Canyon is set in Texas ranching country, in the allegorically-named town of Crossroads, not far from Lubbock. Thomas weaves the three story-lines beautifully, offering redemption, renewal, and love to the broken and troubled – and leaving pending romance threads in the stories of the young ones, Yancy and Ellie, Lucas and Lauren. 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
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
Welcome, Willaful, to the Alphabet Challenge! Whittling the TBR one letter at a time! For her “E” read, Willaful read a meh m/m romance, but her voice is droll and astute.
Miss Bates returns to her personal, too-long-abandoned TBR challenge: reading through the Doddering TBR one alphabetical letter at a time. She last posted in this vein in September of 2013! In tackling “e,” Miss Bates opted for a book about which she knew bupkis, but whose cover drew her: a foxy-looking pooch, pretty little girl, and smiling man in high-waisted jeans and bare feet, also leis … it looked awful and turned out great. In Margot Early’s 1996 Harlequin Superromance, Mr. Family, Miss Bates had the rare experience of reading an unexpected, unusual, a true original of a romance. Mr. Family blew her away: it was unlike anything she’s read in romance fiction in ages. Though it dragged in a few places, and its suffering-protagonists’ pitch had strident moments, it was terrific. She hopes that her post urges some of MBRR’s readers to try it: she’d love to hear what new readers make of it. It stands a cut above mundane contemporary romance in several ways: its believable portrayal of a modern marriage-of-convenience narrative (with epistolary element!) its treatment of grief and loss, self-loathing and sexual frigidity, its extensive creation of a cultural context for the protagonists and portrayal of religious ritual that isn’t Christian romance-inspirational. Continue reading
Miss Bates is always interested in a romance novel portraying an ill hero, or heroine (though it’s interesting that she has yet to read an ill hero). As Fitzgerald’s narrator, Nick Carraway, said in The Great Gatsby, ” … there was no difference between men, in intelligence or race, so profound as the difference between the sick and the well.” This has made for some great romance novels; in both cases, the heroine is ill, or recovering from a life-threatening illness: Donna Alward’s How A Cowboy Stole Her Heart and Karina Bliss’ Here Comes the Groom. Indeed, how a romance writer treats the topic (sorry for the pun) makes for compelling reading, especially the hero and heroine’s navigation of their relationship in mortality’s crosshairs. It’s the only reason Miss Bates made it through the sole J. R. Ward Blackdagger Brotherhood novel she ever read, Lover Eternal. (She quite liked it, but one was enough, thank you.) Trish Milburn’s The Texan’s Cowgirl Bride, a mouthful of a title, held that promise for Miss Bates. She really, really wanted to like the story of Savannah Baron, peach-pie-baker par excellence and store-owner, faced with a life-threatening illness, and soldier-turned-private-investigator, widowed hero, Travis Shepard. Milburn’s romance novel is set up with interesting premises: its problems lie in their execution. Continue reading