After reading Amber Belldene’s Not Another Rock Star, with its unique, true-to-life mix of messed-up faith characters and non, minister-heroine, earthy love scenes, the wonder of its ability to posit a faith-based romance with an atheist hero, a novel where sexuality, love, faith, romance, community, goodness and integrity don’t come within the strait-jacket of inspirational romance tropes … well, I really wanted to read an inspirational romance and consider my response to it. Karen Kirst’s The Engagement Charade fit the bill, especially because I’ve loved her books in the past and I’d be inclined to do so again. And, I did … mildly (it isn’t her best). However, it also solidified why the either-or, evangelical-Christianity-based romance narrative brings me out of reader-pleasure-zone to render me hyper-conscious of its flaws.
First, to set the scene: in late nineteenth-century fictional Gatlinburg Tennessee, our hero, Plum Café owner Alexander Copeland broods in his office, tormented by memories of a fire that killed his wife and son back home in Texas. Meanwhile, widowed, pregnant heroine Ellie Jameson cooks and runs his business. Continue reading
Kate Hewitt’s Willoughby Close series is more women’s fiction than romance and yet, even though Miss Bates is no fan of women’s fiction, she embraced Hewitt’s little English-village-life novels. They’re written with a poignant, gentle touch. Their protagonists are often people with difficult pasts. They’re squarely focussed on the heroine’s growth and POV, but contain heroes no less likeable, sexy, and burdened with their own compelling baggage.
Kiss Me At Willoughby Close opens with the will-reading of Ava Mitchell’s older, moneyed husband and the news that David left Ava only 10 000 pounds, his vast fortune going to his grown, rapacious children by his first wife. Ava is genuinely grief-stricken over her husband. She may not have been in love with him. Five years ago, she was urged by poverty and lack of opportunity and education to marry him for the creature comforts and ease he could provide; nevertheless, she cared for and about him and been content in his company. Now, Emma and Simon are staring her down coldly and informing her she must leave the only home she’s ever known in a week’s time, with only her clothes and David’s “generous” gift of a mini Austin only. As Ava quips, “For being a trophy wife, she didn’t possess that many trophies.” She moves into Willoughby Close, following the heroines of Hewitt’s previous novels in the series, who become neighbours and, eventually, friends. Continue reading
Miss Bates is a fan of Gifford’s medieval-set romances. Rumors is set among the machinations and intrigue of Edward III’s court. One of Gifford’s many appeals is her hero’s and heroine’s place among royalty and aristocracy. Though not of peasant descent, they are always subject to the whims of the royals they serve. Decisions are made for them, even by benign lords and masters such as the ones featured in Rumors.
The romance opens as John of Gaunt, Edward III’s third son, marries Constance of Castile and becomes, in potentia, King of Castile (once he wins it back from the present king). Gifford’s hero, Sir Gilbert Wolford is a man of war who yearns to return to Castile, retake the kingdom, and make his life there. Gifford’s heroine is the widowed Lady Valerie Scargill. John decides one of his greatest warriors, Gilbert, should marry, and who better than the genteel Lady Valerie. Valerie and Gilbert both have reasons for being averse to this marriage, but the royal’s word is law and their lives not their own. They agree to marry, despite the emotional impediments to their marriage becoming a love-match.
Now Miss Bates has read several Rimmer romances, she can speculate why she enjoys them so much. How are they sufficiently atypical to offer jolts of reader-surprise and predictable enough to be comfort reads? Miss B. has ideas. First, what her latest reading installment is about. Her click-happy finger on Netgalley amassed one too many Christmas roms, but the pleasure of reading one in June is no less. And it’s her favourite kind: the type that opens on Thanksgiving and builds to Christmas Eve and Day. When our romance opens, heroine Ava Malloy, fallen hero’s widow and single mum, “had the medals and the folded flag to prove it,” is contemplating taking a lover: “Ava wanted the shivery thrill of a hot kiss, the glory of a tender touch. To put it bluntly, she would love to get laid.” She’s in a good place: successful, with a great six-year-old daughter, Sylvie, and happy in her friends and family. Enter almost-high-school-flame Darius “Dare” Bravo and his irresistible charm. Moreover, he’s volunteering with a local girls’ Blueberry troop, helping them build dollhouses for underprivileged children. What with Sylvie a part of the troop and Ava having to pick her up and Dare’s persistently compelling flirting, the staid, serious single mum cracks and makes Dare a proposition he cannot resist, especially given he’s carried a torch for Ava since high school: secret lovers from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day, no strings, no obligations, not even friendship, all the benefits, commitment – bupkis.
After savoring the glorious Betty Neels, Miss Bates read a long-established but new-to-her author, RaeAnne Thayne. Snowfall On Haven Point is the fifth romance in Thayne’s “Haven Point” series, set in the eponymous mythical, idealized Idaho town. Heroine Andrea “Andie” Montgomery is a Portland transplant. She arrived in Haven Point after losing her cop-husband and enduring a sexual assault. Miss Bates appreciated that Andie wasn’t a victim. She’s in a good place: working at her graphic design business, establishing a home with her two adorable kids, Chloe and Will, and building new Christmas traditions in her adopted town. She has made wonderful friends and is considering dating again: she doesn’t allow still-lingering grief and trauma to prohibit her from living life fully and well. The encounter with the curmudgeonly neighbour-hero, Sheriff Marshall Bailey, comes when Marshall’s sister and Andie’s dear friend, Wyn, asks her to check on her injured brother. Though Andie finds Marsh taciturn and even gruff at times, she agrees to deliver meals and make sure he’s all right getting around with a broken leg. A romantic suspense element is introduced when we learn that Sheriff Bailey was deliberately run down in a snowy parking lot while answering a tip from a mysterious caller. (Never mind the TSTL hero: what law enforcement officer would answer a call without back-up?) 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’s heart went pitter-patter when Kelly Bowen’s hero in Duke Of My Heart first appeared. The heroine is ignorant of his duca-city and has “the vague impression of a worn greatcoat, battered boots, and a hulking bearing.” This is no ordinary ducal presence, suave, roguish, rakey, or even beta; this duke is PIRATICAL. And piratical is good: we don’t have enough ship-board romance and we need more! Alas, Maximus Harcourt, Duke of Alderidge is no more piratical than a Regency spinster. He is, however, a “hulking” presence and Miss Bates settled into Bowen’s Regency romance with smug satisfaction.
Maximus unexpectedly returns from India to an in-an-uproar household and Ivory Moore’s presence, a stranger in his rarely-occupied home. He is one irritated, confused duke. Max’s beloved eighteen-year-old sister, Lady Beatrice is missing; his Aunt Helen, beside herself; and, one naked, dead Earl of Debarry, aka the “Earl of Debauchery,” is tethered to his sister’s bed with red, satin ribbons. The scandal, she is HUGE! What was a spinster aunt to do but call on the ton’s detective-fixer, Ivory Moore, to hold back scandal and locate Beatrice.
Lily Maxton’s The Improper Bride is the fifth Regency romance in the Sisters of Scandal series. The scandal informing it is one of Miss Bates’s least favourite tropes, the cross-class historical romance. Least favourite because, at least in Regency or Victorian Britain where most of these romances are set, was as unlikely as it was scandalous. And yet, the fairy-tale-like mood of Maxton’s version makes it more palatable.
The Improper Bride possesses Eyre-like tendencies, as any cross-class romance owes its raison d’être to the near-bigamous fraught relationship between a dissipated aristocrat and mousy governess. Like Brontë’s Eyre, the hero’s near-death by fire changes him. Henry Eldridge, Marquess of Riverton suffers burns to his face and arm when one wing of his Buckinghamshire estate, Blakewood Hall, is set aflame. In his pain and delirium, Henry feels the soothing touch of an angel. Cassandra Davis, Henry’s housekeeper, seeing to his comfort, is seized by a compulsion to touch him; she’s always wanted to touch the “coldly perfect marquess”. When Henry recovers sufficiently to grow restless and jeopardize the use of his arm, Mr. Faulkner, his doctor, advises Mrs. Davies to keep him occupied. A poor but cultivated daughter of a country teacher who loves to learn, Cassandra asks Lord Riverton to spend some time each day teaching her German. Continue reading
Karen Templeton wrote one of Miss Bates’s favourite Christmas romances, Dear Santa. Like that fave, Templeton’s A Soldier’s Promise contains the elements that she does so well: a protagonist emerges from a time of crisis, difficulty, or grief; the other manifests as a helping figure; believable, likable children and animals; and, a plot centering on the creation of a new, or blended family. Oh, and humour. And poignancy. And an everyday casualness to the dialogue that makes her characters feel like they’re our neighbours, or we’d like them to be.
After ten years, Levi Talbot returns permanently to Whispering Pines, New Mexico, from serving in Afghanistan. He is a changed but better man than the wild, adventure-seeking bad boy he was. How to convince Valerie Lopez, née Oswald, the woman who best remembers his recklessness and cause of her deceased husband’s enlistment, Tommy following his best friend into the military? Valerie is a widow with two daughters, young Josie and baby Risa. She blames Levi for Tommy’s decision, even if not his death, and Levi is torn: afraid to open old wounds and resentments, but how not to keep his promise to Tommy to help his family? “Because he’d made a promise. One he fully intended to keep. Whether his best friend’s widow was good with that idea or not.”
“The choppers appeared just after the sun.”
Human beings make sense of experience’s ephemerality by embodying it in art. Maya Lin’s controversial Vietnam Veterans War Memorial was/is integral to healing war’s wounds. It offers solace and remembrance as vets and families, foreigners and natives, bring offerings of flowers, pictures, etc., touch, wonder, and heal as they meditate on the war’s wastes and ravages (war is a universal experience, is it not?). Yusef Komunyakaa’s Vietnam-War-Memorial-set poem, “Facing It” also embodies the war, recounting a vet’s turbulent, ambivalent emotions as he touches and is reflected in the wall, naming loss, anger, and the ever-present American tragedy of race. (Don’t read this humble post, but read and listen to the poem as linked. It’s powerful.) The humble romance genre offers its embodiment in Kathleen Korbel’s A Soldier’s Heart (1994). The novel’s opening line is the prologue’s introduction to nurse Claire Henderson, who held dying Marine Tony Riordan and willed him to live. Twenty-three years later, Tony’s final act of putting his war wounds to rest, psychic where physical are long-healed, is to seek, find, and thank Claire. What he finds in her haunted eyes is the confusion, guilt, and self-destructive impulses of his own struggle with PTSD. Continue reading