I’d really love to see you tonight: Healed with a Kiss

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When I’m writing stories or essays, I listen to light classical music, or Enya. For other online work, such as these posts, my music of choice is soft rock from the 1970s and 1980s. As I started drafting this post, “I’d Really Love To See You Tonight,” from 1976, started to play, and it seemed appropriate. Most of the lyrics, and the gentle casual vibe, match the story. Let’s listen.

wilkinsHealed with a Kiss is a 2014 Harlequin Special Edition from prolific writer Gina Wilkins. This is the third in series from the same author, using the same location, but it reads like a stand alone.

Alexis tried to make it big on Broadway, but left the big city, and a boyfriend only interested in the trappings of her career. She bought a small town wedding planning business in the Blue Ridge area of Virginia, and got to work making other couples happy. With a family history of bad marriages, and her own relationship disappointment, she has no interest in romance or marriage.

A major customer is a local inn, run by two sisters and their brother, Logan. Logan was a software entrepreneur, but a bad partnership ruined the business, and he’s content to do landscaping and maintenance at the inn, with some consulting on the side. He’s also had relationship disappointments, and is not interested in romance or marriage.

Alexis and Logan regularly meet when there are weddings at the inn. He complains about the promises she makes to brides, and she complains about his grumpiness. A couple of evenings a month he comes to her place for no strings sex (like the song). He never stays the night, of course. Both are happy with the arrangement, and at first they don’t realize how the arrangement is changing their lives.

This is a comfortable story of a couple discovering they are in love, and being unsure how to react. Nothing more. There’s no initial dislike, the complications are mild, the stakes are low, the sex is discreet, the climactic event is almost trivial, and yet it adds up to a satisfying read, thanks to good writing. Wilkins is skilled at including just the right amount of detail to describe a scene, set a mood, and establish realism. (Several years ago I found His Best Friend’s Wife less satisfying, but noted good use of detail). A key sequence in the book does a great job of showing the relationship develop, and demonstrates that you can throw things at your characters other than rocks. It was delightful to see these two hard-working, equally strong, and somewhat cynical individuals overcome past wounds, and accept that a relationship might work.

Hot Stuff: Beautiful Player

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Beautiful Player coverBeautiful Player is a 2013 novel from Pocket Books, by Christina Lauren, a pseudonym for a pair of writers. The cover blurb promised a hilarious depiction of modern dating. Um, no. This is mostly a collection of steamy scenes that is fun sexual fantasy, wrapped in a deeply conservative plot.

Hanna is a twenty-three-year-old sciences grad student, with no social life or skills, who spends all her time in the lab. She’s dated a bit, but has not had any serious relationships, and wants to focus on school. She does not work, but does not seem to have any debts or money concerns, and lives alone in a Manhattan apartment owned by her parents. Her family pressures her to start dating (hmm), and suggests she contact Will for advice.

Will is a thirty-year-old who looks hot and does something high paying in an office. This is a later book in a series, and apparently he was introduced earlier. Will visited with Hanna’s family a few times when she was a teen, and she developed a crush on him, but they have not seen each other for years. He has a reputation as a player. As the story begins, he is seeing one lady Tuesday nights, and one lady Saturday nights, but starting to find the routine rather dull, and has noticed his friends are settling down (as I said, later book in a series). Will and Hanna meet, and he agrees to help her develop dating skills.

This is a friends become lovers plot; specifically, the variation where the safe friend teaches you how to be a lover, and ceases to be the safe friend. What distinguishes it here is copious amounts of sex, of the female sexual awakening variety.

Hanna is not a virgin, in a nod to contemporary lifestyles, but her sexual experiences have been brief, dull, and limited. She’s a virgin for all narrative intents and purposes. She has a remarkable sexual curiosity, but did not explore it with any past lovers, and until she gets together with Will, her work was her focus. Once she and Will decide to be friends with benefits, she is eager to try every position and act, and suddenly sex seems to her focus. The demands of grad school fade away.

Meanwhile, Will is eager to satisfy her – she has large breasts, and keeps asking about things she’s seen in online porn videos. He’s never been friends with any of the women he’s bedded, so spending non-sexual time with a woman is new to him, but he’s also apparently never been with a woman who needed his help with anything. In other words, he was not attracted to independent women, but infatuated with one who worshipped him years ago, and has come to him for help.

Hanna’s sudden interest in sex seems a little odd, but Will offers the perfect chance for her to explore sexuality without risks or the challenges of a relationship. I can appreciate the appeal of this. What’s troubling though is that Will is not just a sexual tutor, but a lifestyle coach. Will runs every morning, and invites her to join him. At first, she finds this challenging, but she gradually loses a little weight and tones up. Will also asks the girlfriends of his friends to take her shopping for clothing, including better bras. When a guy at a party asks her out, is it her new sexual confidence, or her improved figure and better supported breasts? We know it’s not her apparently impressive research skills.

A happy ending usually means the couple coming together, but in this case I wanted Hanna to thank Will for the sexual initiations, and start her own decade of playing the field. But the story is too conservative for that. Not that I cared much for either of the characters – the assortative mating habits of rich and beautiful people are not that interesting, they have few interests apart from work and sex, and the relationship obstacles here are so minor there are never any doubts. This is nothing like the dating I’ve experienced, or that of younger friends I know. Being friends with benefits has challenges and awkwardness, which are humourously portrayed here, but all relationships have challenges and awkwardness.

Lauren writes well. There’s lots of fun dialogue, thanks largely to Hanna’s uninhibited manner of speaking, and the sexual tension of escalating acts, though the descriptions themselves get a bit tiresome. Yes, she’s wet, he’s hard…I know. That’s usually how sexual arousal goes. And after the first time they never thought it could be like this, why do they keep getting surprised? The chapters are alternating points of few, which helps maintain reader interest, though I found the use of different typefaces distracting rather than helpful.

I’ve nothing against erotica, but when it’s paired with a very traditional relationship (parents encourage daughter to connect with older man acceptable to family), and the woman’s impressive intellect is considered less attractive than big breasts in a good bra, I begin to suspect I’m being fed candy coated asparagus. A sweet romance of equal partners is ultimately hotter, and more modern, than a sexy tale of a nice girl who reforms the rake.

Second Chances

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Travel, when it comes to my reading and writing, is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, I get extra reading time. Light reading is a perfect way to pass nervous hours on planes, and during long bus rides. On the other hand, I get less writing time. Although I can write in noisy areas like food courts or coffee shops, I can’t do it on a bus or a plane. Now I need to catch up on reviews – and that’s not procrastination. Honest. I read for pleasure, but also to learn how to write better. True, I’ve been working on Romance One for almost six years, but each revision makes it a better story, and the current set of revisions may be the last. I’m also enjoying the process of building the story. Even if I sell very few copies, a likely outcome, the time is well spent.

Today I’m looking at a set of second chance romances by one of my favourite authors, Donna Alward. I’m not sure why collections like this are called boxed sets – this is strictly an ebook offer. Regardless of what they call it, it’s a great deal, and Alward writes great sweet and semi-sweet romances. Buy it.

The first book is Almost a Family. I previously read and enjoyed that, and it’s reviewed here.

The Girl Most Likely, from 2014, reunites Katie and Ric. Close friends in high school, she turned him down for a prom date, in a humiliating fashion, and they went their separate ways. He grew from gawky math geek to successful but lonely Calgary real estate developer. She struggled through restaurant jobs and an exploitative workplace relationship that left her unemployable. Ten years after high school, she wants to open her own place, and approaches Ric for financing. He agrees, but he’s looking for a new challenge, and proposes they be partners in the project. She wants to make it on her own.Though there is a prior relationship, much of the plot is more friends become lovers than second chance.

Breathe, from 2017, opens with Anna, her baby, and her four-year-old, arriving at the home of Jace. Anna and Jace were teen lovers, but he was the son of an employee at her wealthy family’s winery, and after they broke up she quickly married someone more acceptable to her family. It was an unhappy marriage, but when her husband dies in a boating accident, out with his mistress, Anna needs some time to sort out her feelings. She and Jace have kept in touch, and she thinks a guest house at his winery in BC’s Okanagan area would be the perfect hideaway. Unfortunately, the guest houses aren’t ready. He’s prepared to let her stay in his house, but his bachelor lifestyle is not prepared for children, and he’s always resented her quick marriage.

Sold to the Highest Bidder, also from 2017, stretches the boundaries of second chance stories. Ella and Devin married at eighteen, but when she left town for college, she wrote a letter saying she was not coming back. They have not seen each other for twelve years, and she’s avoided learning anything about him, believing her future happiness means leaving the past behind. She wants a divorce, but he won’t sign the papers. (Where I live, if the other person does not reply to the request for a divorce, it’s granted, but either the law is different in Colorado, or this is a narrative gimmick). When her newspaper sends her to her hometown to cover a medical insurance story, she plans to visit Devin in person, and get the papers signed. And he can’t avoid her if she buys him for the weekend at a charity bachelor auction. He agrees to sign the papers – at the end of the weekend with him. But his reluctance to sign is not just stubbornness.

Alward’s characters, male and female, tend to be wounded. Difficult childhoods abound, compounded by mistakes and assumptions in the early relationships, often organically rising out of the childhoods (and the characters were essentially children when they met – there are elements of YA in these stories). The common situation is a couple re-examining their former relationship with a more mature perspective, but still making mistakes and assumptions. Even the heroes are imperfect, and they don’t outgrow it so much as acknowledge it.

No one here is really broke, but several characters have or had money concerns, and the American set Sold to the Highest Bidder addresses the challenges of getting sick in a country without universal health care. This is part of the gritty realism Alward often incorporates. On the fantasy side, entrepreneurial ventures always seem to work out well. I’m torn between praising the independence of characters (male and female) who make their own success, and wondering if there is a little too much Horatio Alger in romance stories. (Alward is hardly the only writer to do this, and I must confess that both my characters in Romance One are self-employed, and the hero has worked his way out of poverty.)

Although a set, these are all different and discrete stories. There’s no location, location type, or character continuity, and heat levels vary. Breathe has the sexual tension and results you’d expect from former lovers sharing a house, and Sold to the Highest Bidder has a couple of well-integrated bedroom scenes. The Girl Most Likely keeps things sweet, but has a great seduction scene. It’s all the more powerful because it’s not a seduction – at least, not immediately. Sometimes the best seduction is just being a good friend.

There are a few hard to swallow moments, which the characters themselves observe, some playful incidents where Alward is clearly having fun, and few loose ends, but there are also some darker elements, in the past and the present. I’m happy to see a story where children are brats, at least some of the time. Each of these stories has at least one standout aspect to recommend it, and the collection gives a happy variety of variations on the second chance theme. Alward is a former Harlequin writer who now publishes independently, and I suspect that freedom allows her to bring up certain subjects and increase suspense, leading to sweet romances that still have a happy ever after ending, but are more complex, interesting, and ultimately more heartwarming than many of the genre.

Harder to Love a Rich Man: Billionaire’s Forgiveness

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Cover - Billionaire's ForgivenessBillionaire’s Forgiveness is the rest of the story started in Billionaire’s Love, which I just reviewed. Yes, I’m reviewing another recently released book. The world is full of wonders. Brenda Pearson took a couple of years to put this together, but since I only just read her first one, I was spared waiting.

The opening is fabulous, with a disorienting, surprising, and engaging twist on where we left our couple at the end of the previous book. As the excerpt in the previous book suggested, this one has an action/suspense plot, and the romance plot is wrapped up relatively easily. That’s fine, since “will they live?” has much higher stakes than “will they get back together?” In between shootings and explosions there are several steamy scenes – the heat level is significantly higher than the previous book.

We get more character development, which helps explain why the initial relationship had such staying power, and increases character sympathy. There’s more use of the Montreal (and Quebec) setting, too. Max is still an alpha male, but for much of the story he is relatively powerless, which is an interesting angle, and there’s some appreciated role reversal. This does not affect his virility, which is made apparent through not one, but two cliches about fertility, complete with a wink to the reader.

At various times there are hints of romance story lines for other characters, which could become subplots or other books, but none of them get very far, except for one mentioned in the epilogue. The epilogue is longer than they usually are, and in several ways it does not match the rest of the book. There are also a few loose ends, but since an excerpt shows another book starting where this one ends, presumably those will be addressed.

Overall, this is a fun and fast-paced read.

Hard to Love a Rich Man: Billionaire’s Love

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Billionaire’s Love is a 2016 romance novel by Brenda Pearson, from Friesen Press. First, I have to say that I love this cover. A beach at sunset, the pose, minimal detail, and lots of clear space for title and author. And this scene is implicit in events in the book. Great work from Katie Harding Photography.

This is a second chance story. Max and Megan bumped into each other (literally), and it was lust at first sight. It did not last. He dumped her, with a note stating he does not do relationships. Now they are working together, as their respective companies have a joint project. He has realized dumping her was a mistake, and wants to win her back. She’s torn between her ongoing attraction to him (and fond memories) and the memory of his betrayal.

The plot is reasonable, but I had trouble accepting the endurance of the original relationship. It was only two weeks, while both were on vacation, and three years ago. He was her first lover, which heightens the betrayal, but, for both of them, their recollection of the relationship implies something that was longer, more committed, and/or more recent.

The couple are more or less equals, which I like. She’s not a billionaire property developer like him, but moves in the same social and business circles, and she’s not struggling. After being dumped by Max, she finished her degree, got a good job at her parent’s construction company, and bought a condo with a fabulous view, which she shares with a friend – for the company. When stressed, she likes to hang out at a spa. So there’s a touch of lifestyles of the rich, if not famous, going on here.

The good news is that their relationship has no elements of financial necessity. The bad news is that when both characters are wealthy, the stakes are often lower. It’s true that Megan has to work with Max for the benefit of her family’s company, but her choice is not forced by the possible failure of the company or homelessness. Her choice is forced by her pushy brother/boss.

I appreciated the urban and Canadian setting (Montreal), though I would have liked to have seen more of it. I also appreciated that Megan has a male friend, who is close, but just a friend. Max is too aggressive at times, but this book was published a year before #metoo, and relationship creepiness is a common issue in second chance stories. We know that Megan is still attracted to him, but when Max has an opportunity to take advantage of her, he is almost a perfect gentleman (and his actions allow for a couple of touching moments and some erotic tension).

There are some rough spots in the writing. For example, a couple of descriptions seem out-of-place. However, the pacing is strong. As I was reading a paperback version, and not an ebook, it looked like the end might come too quickly and be incomplete, but instead there’s a cliffhanger ending, and the note that this is book 1 of 3. Sneaking a look at the blurb for book 2, Billionaire’s Forgiveness, (recently released) it looks like the relationship plot is complicated by a suspense/action plot, which would also raise the stakes. The blurb also notes that book 2 is the conclusion of the story. From reading Pearson’s blog, it looks like book 2 got lots of editing and review.

This was Pearson’s first book, and it’s a good start. I just purchased book 2, and I’m looking forward to find out more about Max and Megan, as well as seeing what Pearson has added and improved for this story.

Romance One Excerpt: Does this Conversation Work?

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Here’s a longer excerpt from Romance One. I’m still tweaking this, but would love to have your comments.

Darwin arrived at Marianna’s campground earlier in the day. She found him attractive, but unprepared for camping. She’s curious about why he is there, but happy to have a paying customer. He’s there on business – his employer holds a mortgage on her property, and wants the land. He’s not above a little flirting to get information his company can use against her.

This is their first conversation of any significance, and it’s a challenge, as I need to establish the mutual attraction, his duplicity, and her hesitation, and do a little foreshadowing. Does it work?


[Marianna is in the pump house for her well].

Marianna was replacing a clogged filter when it started to rain . She could hear it lightly tapping on the tin roof, slowly increasing in volume and frequency. By the time she had put away the tools and opened the door, it had become a heavy, wind-driven downpour. As she headed for house, she looked over to Darwin’s site. She could not see him, but it looked like there was a light inside his truck. He might be drier sleeping in there, she thought. By the time she reached the house she was soaked through to her underclothes.

She shucked her wet clothes in the kitchen. She put a kettle on the stove, and while it heated she went upstairs to her room, and put on some sweats. The kettle started to whistle as she was heading back down the stairs, and as she entered the kitchen there was a knock at the door. “Just a minute,” she called, turned off the stove, and briefly considered changing. She decided to get the door. Her hope that it was another guest lasted only until she opened the door and saw Darwin in her porch, in a shiny yellow rain poncho that was too thin to last a week. “Yes?”

“Sorry to bother you, but I was hoping to charge up my phone. Given the weather, I can’t use the outlet at the site.”

“No, of course not. Come in. Wait – hang your poncho over to the left there,” she said, indicating a row of hooks in the porch behind him. “I’m just making some tea. Would you like some?”

“That would be warming, thanks.” Darwin hung up his poncho in the porch, and stepped into the kitchen. “Wow – this is gorgeous.” Darwin surveyed the large kitchen. It ran the length of the back of the house, with a wall of windows facing the ocean, above a long counter. The windows and pink cupboards were decades old. A modern fridge and stove along the far wall contrasted with a huge old wood burning stove opposite the windows. “Do you use that,” he asked, pointing at the wood stove.

“Sometimes. If the power goes out, and it’s a good source of heat in the winter. What kind of tea would you like? I’m making herbal for me – hibiscus, but I have others. Please, take a seat at the table.”

“Just regular tea – with lots of sugar, thanks.” Darwin walked over to the table. Where can I plug in my phone?”

The kettle started to whistle. Marianna turned off the stove and poured the tea.  “Sorry, over here.” Darwin walked over to her, close enough that she could smell a mix of the lingering vinyl scent of the poncho and something like a cedarwood soap. He plugged in his phone. She took a step sideways to put a little distance between them.

“This one mine?” he asked, indicating the mug with the brownish tea.

“Yes. I know it’s not a proper tea cup, but I prefer a larger serving.”

“That works for me.”

She poured water into her mug. The water turned bright red. He wrapped a hand around his mug. Large hands, she thought, but that doesn’t mean anything. “Spoons are in the drawer in front of you.” He took a spoon, and offered her one, but she shook her head. “No thanks – never in herbal tea. Sugar’s on the table.”

Darwin crossed the room and sat at the long side of table, in a chair opposite the window. She followed. Definitely works out, she thought.

“You get rain like this much?”

“Not too often. And it usually passes quickly.” She sat down at the short side of the table.

“Oh? You checked the forecast?”

“No,” Marianna said, “But you can’t rely on the forecast here anyway. Sometimes there is heavy rain on one part of the island, and just a light shower next cove over.”

“Must be bad for business, though.”

“Usually when people go camping, they’re prepared for bad weather.”

“And you’re saying I’m not?”

“I don’t get many tent campers, and they’re usually, more…”

“Outdoorsy?”

Marianna blushed. “Well, no offence, but you look like you work in an office, and you didn’t show up on a bike.”

“People do? But yes, you’re right, I do work in an office. I work out, though. How can you tell I work in an office?”

“It’s late summer, and you have no tan. Short hair, neat nails. And a lucky guess.”

“So you were checking me out?”

“I’m in a service business – I need to know my customers.”

He sipped his tea. “Usually campgrounds have a shelter or some something for rainy weather.” A gust of wind splashed water against the kitchen window.

“I’m hoping to build one next year. I was going to this year, but I had to upgrade the water system, which cost more than I was expected, and it’s hard to get bank loans, especially when you are not an established business, and especially when you’re a woman. As it is, my mortgage is with a shady outfit, at a ridiculous rate, but that’s all I could get. I’m hoping to transfer to a more respectable company next year, and that should free up some funds for a picnic shelter.”

Darwin digested this news. Her interest rate was very fair, under the circumstances, but if she thought she could refinance, she might be more resistant to takeover plans.

“What made you decided to start up a campground, especially with the financial challenges?”

“After I finished my marketing degree –“. The light flickered once, a second time, and went out.

“I guess I can’t charge my phone now.”

“It may not be out very long. I’ve got a generator if it is. For now, I’ll light candles.” Marianna got up and went over to the counter.

“I’ll help.”

“No need. I just need to get a match – there’s already candles beside the table.”

“So this happens a lot too?”

“No, I just like using candles.” She got up, moved some candles from a shelf to the table, walked over to the stove, and returned with a long match. She lit the candles, put the match on the stove, and sat down again.

“Now isn’t this romantic?” said Darwin. “I’m a lucky guy – just got here, and I’m already enjoying a candlelit evening with a beautiful woman.”

Marianna felt the heat of her blushing, and was grateful it was too dark for him to notice. Her hair was a ragged mess from the rain, and she was wearing worn sweats. But no one had shared her bed since that French cyclist at the beginning of the summer, and the season was almost over. Darwin was a little odd but seemed decent. The changed light made him look more rugged, and his stubble was noticeable. “Just trying to show you some good old fashioned Cape Breton hospitality.”

“So you’re from here?”

“No. My family’s from here. I’m from Toronto, but my mother was from here. This was my grandmother’s place, and I used to come here in the summers. I moved out here a couple of years ago, and started turning it into a campground. What about you? How far have you travelled to get here?”

“I’m working in Toronto now, “said Darwin, “but I’m actually from down Yarmouth way. Moved to Toronto when I was 17, and never looked back.”

“So I left the corporate world, and you sought it out.”

“Looks that way. But tonight we are both here. Funny how that happens.” Darwin reached over, gently took her hand, and started stoking his thumb across her palm. She looked up at him, but he was looking out the window. He turned to her, smiled, and took a sip of tea. She smiled at him and took a sip. Another gust of wind splashed water against the windows. The lights flickered on and Marianna jumped up. She picked up her mug with both hands.

“Well, there we go. Power again.” She walked over to the counter, feeling foolish. He was charming enough, but as pleasant as it might be, she didn’t need a one night stand with a pale gym rat who probably wanted to share her bed because he thought it was a better option than a tent in a storm.

“I think the rain is slowing,” said Darwin. He got up and walked around to the window. “Yes, it’s clearer now, and I’ve taken enough of your evening. I can just leave the phone here, if that’s okay with you?”

“Yes.”

“Thanks for the tea.” He bought his mug to the counter, then checked his phone for messages and texts. “No signal. I guess with the power outage it might take a while to restore cell service. Your website said you have internet service, but I’m not picking up Wi-Fi.”

“I don’t have it yet. The internet is a shared computer up front, but it uses the cell service for internet, so until the cell network is back there’s no internet.”

“Well, I wanted a vacation. Guess I can get some reading done. Thanks for the tea.” He opened the door to the porch and put on his poncho.

“You’re welcome. Hope you have a good night and keep dry.”

“You too. I mean, I’m sure you’ll keep dry, but have a good night.” He opened the outer door, and Marianna was relieved to see the rain had almost stopped. She waved as he closed the outer door, then closed the inner door, and leaned her back against it. She touched her palm where Darwin had stroked, and smiled. His phone buzzed. She walked over to the counter, and saw New Message, from Carla, the words “miss you” and a heart. It was only there an instant before the phone locked and the screen went blank.

Just another pig, she thought. It’s a good thing the power came back on before that went any further. She considered calling him back to tell him there was message, but decided against it. He could get his damn message in the morning.

A Redemption Mystery: The Black Sheep’s Redemption

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The Black Sheep’s Redemption, by Lynette Eason, is a 2012 Harlequin in the Love Inspired (Christian Romance) Suspense line. This is number five in a set of six stories, and there are the usual references to recently married family members. Just in case you were not aware of the religious aspect of the genre, a church is prominent on the cover. In fairness, an important scene takes place in the church.

Demi is new in town. Following an attack that left her with amnesia and no identification, she winds up in a rented room above a bookstore, in the small town of Fitzgerald Bay. She gets a job, working as a nanny for Charles. Charles, a divorced doctor with toddler twins, is willing to hire a nanny with no experience, background, or ID, because his last nanny died under mysterious circumstance, and he’s a suspect.  This setup is a little too soap opera for me, but let’s see where it goes.

The suspense plot is good. Someone is threatening Charles or Demi. We don’t know who is targeted, which adds to the suspense. On the other hand, they never suspect each other, which would be a nice twist (perhaps a little too darkly, I’m thinking of the final two in And Then There were None). There is also the mystery of Demi’s identity, and her original attack, though, predictably, that’s related to the current threats, or at least some of them. There are a many loose ends, which I suspect and hope are part of the series arc. The threats provide action to keep the plot bustling along – no outing or event is safe, not even a morning at church.

The romance plot is fair. The couple are together, single, see each other as decent people…sometimes that’s enough, but this is a story, and I expect more. There did not seem to be any internal obstacles to their relationship, and little in the way of external ones. Consistent with the Love Inspired line, the main characters have a religious life. It’s present, but unobtrusive in the story. (Ever notice how often religion comes up in The Simpsons? And the city nearby is Springfield – a common city name, but also the home of the Simpsons. Coincidence? Probably.) Heatwise, there’s mild longing, but no lust or sex.

Charles was married, but his wife left him. Demi also has a good reason for being single. The character histories deftly answer the question of why these people are single, a question I often have, but unfortunately an opportunity for character growth is missed. There’s no explanation why Demi is now open to a relationship, and Charles did not have to redeem himself to enter a new relationship, as he was apparently completely blameless in the divorce.

The title tells us the black sheep is redeemed, but there’s no black sheep in the story, and not much redemption either. The title could refer to Charles being a suspect, and then cleared, but that’s a minor point in the story – it does not happen due to any decision or change by a character. This is not the first time I have questioned a title, and perhaps I expect too much from my titles. Perhaps someone with a draft romance title Romance One should wait until they have come up with a good title before criticizing others.

In the end, the story does not go far from the soap opera set up. The pacing and writing is good, so it reads well enough to pass the time on the bus, but it needs more drama in the relationship to be more memorable.

Danger in a Small Town: Confessing to the Cowboy

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Confessing to the Cowboy is a 2013 Harlequin Romantic Suspense by Carla Cassidy. Given the random nature of my romance book purchases, I’m surprised this is my third title from Cassidy. I’ve previously read Just Joe and Cowboy with a Cause – the latter from the same Cowboy Cafe series. That was number three, and this is the fourth and final.

Cameron, like Adam in Cowboy with a Cause, is a cowboy in name only. He’s the sheriff of Grady Gulch, and, as the book opens, he is at the scene of the third recent killing in his quiet little town. I know this is a suspense, but starting off with a dead body, the third in the story, and all women, casts a shadow that makes it hard to be happy about anything that follows. I prefer the suspense element of my romances to be cozier (and I’m not keen on dead bodies to establish bad character in any story). All three victims worked at the Cowboy Cafe, and Cameron suspects its owner, Mary, might be the next target.

Mary arrived in town eight years ago, baby in tow, and started working at the Cafe, eventually buying it. Cameron is fond of her, but she’s been cool to him, and in eight years he hasn’t given up on her – or bothered checking her background. Most nights he drops in for a late coffee and a chat with Mary, and they have a friendship of sorts. Mary’s attracted to him, but doesn’t want to get involved with someone in law enforcement, so the friendship works for her too.

The set up is a more forced than Cowboy with a Cause, and it’s the friends become lovers plot. The titular confession comes early, which avoids the annoying plot device of a secret causing the climax. On the other hand, once the confession is out-of-the-way, the bulk of the story is the suspense plot, with very little relationship or character growth. The suspense plot is solid enough, but unlike some suspense plots (such as in Cowboy with a Cause), the existence of a killer, their name, and their motivation are all established early, so it’s just of matter of who will find who first.

The timing of the one sex scene contributes to the heat level, and Mary is a strong character from beginning to end, though she takes more risks than necessary. Cameron rescues her more than once, but in the end she rescues herself. That’s good, but her actions were, for me at least, another dark note in the story.

Overall, it’s a competently told story, and it has the ordinary characters I prefer. I preferred Cowboy with a Cause to Confessing, but didn’t mind seeing the loose ends tied up. Now

Pride and Other Worlds: The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic

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The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic, by Emily Croy Barker, is a 2013 fantasy novel. As I said when I reviewed The Demon’s Daughter, many stories marketed under the umbrella of fantasy have the superficial aspects of the genre, but not the core elements. I’m happy to say that Guide to Magic has the core elements. There’s even a dragon, both dangerous and common, as Ursula K LeGuin warned. However, what struck me most was the romance – subtle and sweet.

Nora is in her late twenties; a graduate student with a stalled literature thesis and a ex-boyfriend who dumped her after four years. She’d expected a proposal, not news that he’d decided to a) leave her, and b) marry someone else. Away for a weekend with some friends, she goes for an early morning walk in the woods, takes a wrong turn, and ends up at the fabulous home of Ilissa.

There are days of glamorous parties, with Nora unsure of things, yet happy in a dreamlike state. She meets Oscar Wilde at a 1920s party in New York, while vaguely aware that she is nowhere near New York, it’s not the 1920s, and Oscar Wilde died decades before the party. Ilissa’s son Raclin meets her, courts her, and makes a proposal, which she happily accepts.

The wedding plans are interrupted when Nora, strolling in the woods, meets a group of soldiers patrolling the border. Among them is a magician, Aruendiel, who points out that since she cannot answer how many legs a horse has, while looking at one, she may not be in the best state of mind to marry anyone, let alone Raclin.

The wedding goes ahead, Nora is soon pregnant, and her situation becomes less and less tolerable. Aruendiel rescues her, and she reconnects with reality, to the extent that she can, since reality is now a pre-industrial world with magic. She becomes a guest at the modest castle of Aruendiel, working in the kitchen to pay her own way, and decency is maintained by the presence of a house-keeper.

We are now about a hundred pages into a story of 563 pages, and there are several plot threads established. Common to this type of fantasy, Nora needs to learn about this new world, and therefore herself, in order find herself and her home. Barker has done a good job of creating a coherent and functional world, and of keeping it in the background. The magic is subject to complex rules and conditions, so it cannot be used to solve every problem. Part of the pleasure of the story is the exploration of the world, though it slows the pace at times.

This new world is threatened by a dark force (also a common element), and since that force is Nora’s husband and mother-in-law, both of whom want her back, it’s also a personal threat (but not the foretold destiny variety – the threat arises from her actions). The portrayal of her husband is a great example of what fantasy does best. Then there’s the relationship between Nora and Aruendiel. It grows slowly but surely, allowing the reader to savour every movement and word that builds the bonds between them. They develop that rare and quiet love that can exist between friends or lovers, together or apart.

Nora left for her morning walk carrying only a copy of Pride and Prejudice, and the book plays a couple of roles in the story, in addition to being an unsubtle hint about the progress of the romance. There are also echoes of Jane Eyre, and, in one example of the book’s humour, Nora’s knowledge of poetry literally saves her life. I am also reminded of A Princess of Mars, with the genders reversed, and the heroine battling sexism on top of everything else. Although she is rescued by the hero, she becomes a rescuer.

After some leisurely pacing in the middle of the book, the ending comes quickly, and some might consider it unsatisfying. I found it satisfying, and deeply romantic, but would still like to know more. The characters are rich and interesting, and many elements of them and their world remain unexplored. The sequel has been completed, and is looking for a publisher. I hope it continues the magic of this  book.

An Update and Two Questions

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Opening Update

Thanks to all who responded to my call for comments on the opening of Romance One, whether it was here, on Facebook, or by email. After considering everything, I’ve decided to shift some things around. Instead of starting with the heroine saying good-bye to the honeymooning couple, the story starts with the arrival of the hero. This came about a paragraph after the excerpt. She’s on her way to fix the well, when a new camper arrives, obnoxiously honking when he can’t find anyone at the office. Starting there, with the hero and conflict at the very beginning, works better. The honeymooning couple play no role in the story except to provide some back story for the heroine, so that incident will be presented later. Another excerpt coming soon.

Newsletter?

Many authors have an email newsletter. It’s a great way to keep in touch without relying on social media, and less formal than blog posting. On the other hand, it can end up being more clutter in the mailbox. Do you read or write newsletters? Would you sign up if I offered one? Let me know, thanks.

Blog Content?

This blog is mostly book reviews, with a few posts about what I am working on, and occasionally other thoughts. Are you only here for the reviews? Would you be interested in reading old love poems I’m found of, and other romantic (more or less) ramblings? Romantic photos and images? Again, let me know.

Happy Spring, Beth.