The Bounty Hunter

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Bounty Hunter - Thompson - CoverThe Bounty Hunter, by Vicki Lewis Thomson, is a 1994 Harlequin Temptation. No link, as it seems to be out of print, not available as an eBook, and not widely available used. This is a more-or-less country and western romance – the heroine lives in a rural trailer (she bought, on land she owns), keeps a couple of horses and rides them for fun, and runs a hair salon which is part of a large country and western bar/dance hall/mini-mall. I guess places like this exist, or at least existed. A little research tells me the club model could be Gilley’s, featured in the film Urban Cowboy. I missed the whole Urban Cowboy thing, including the movie, but since this novel is from a decade later, presumably there was a second wave.

A brief biography notes that the author and her husband “recently joined the line dance craze,” and that she listened to country music to help set the writing mood. That, and a few elements of the story, suggest this is an earlier work, but she was getting writing awards in the 1980s. A quick view of her site shows her interest in country and western, at least for romance, was not a passing fad, although I’m intrigued by the Nerds, and Nerds and Geeks series.

I say more-or-less country, as the plot leans to the action genre rather than country and western. Dallas (how’s that for a country name?) led a jury that acquitted Neal of rape. He’s sleazy as all get out, and she’s not interested when he wants to express his appreciation for her careful consideration of the evidence. Then Gabe shows up, seeking justice on behalf of his sister, Neal’s victim. Gabe suspects Dallas is a friend of Neal’s, and when he learns that is not the case, he believes she might be in danger.

The setup is good, though there is never any doubt about Neal’s guilt or intentions. Gabe and Dallas start as enemies, become friends, and things go from there. I like the working class characters, and Thompson does a great job of evoking the country and western nightlife scene. Dallas is ambitious, hard working, smart, and her goals in life are wonderfully described by her plans to carefully breed her dog.

Unfortunately, the characters hopped into bed a little too quickly, squandering some great opportunities for romantic tension, and the remaining tension (is this a short affair or a long term thing?) is diluted by the growing importance of the suspense plot. On the other hand, that plot works well to keep reader interest and show the couple working together. The resolution of the relationship question comes quickly – so quickly that I checked to see if some pages were missing before the last chapter. The quick resolution made the character growth almost an afterthought, but at least there was some.

Overall, this is well constructed, with a good amount of realism, a strong female lead, and some narrative tricks I might try and use. I might have liked it more if Dallas was even stronger, and was not set up for multiple rescues, but a couple of lines in the epilogue gave me confidence that this couple found a solid happy ending.

 

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Taylor’s Temptation

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cover image - Taylor's TemptationTaylor’s Temptation is a 2001 Silhouette Intimate Moments, by Suzanne Brockman – part of her Tall, Dark, and Dangerous series. I wanted to like the book, because I admire the author, but I was disappointed.

Bobby is a Navy SEAL. Recently wounded, he’s taking a short leave when his buddy Wes asks him to visit Colleen, Wes’s sister. Colleen lives in another city, and in about a week, she is traveling to the war-torn country of Tulgeria, on a relief mission to an orphanage. Wes wants Bobby to convince Colleen not to go. Bobby and Colleen have known each other for years, and have always been attracted to each other, but nothing has come of that.

So far, so good. Man in uniform stories sometimes work for me, and sometimes don’t, and Wes is a controlling and hypocritical jerk, since his career is dangerous missions, but it’s a solid friends become lovers plot, there’s a reason for them to be together, and there’s a deadline. Unfortunately, I kept tripping over reasons to dislike this story.

Spoilers ahead, for those who want to be warned of that.

Things get off to an awkward start with an action prologue that is actually a flashback, told by one minor character to other minor characters, but used to introduce Wes and Bobby. Early on there are some repetitive descriptions and back story that could have come later. Occasional swear words are omitted with varying degrees of awkwardness. But these are minor quibbles. The big problem is that the sole obstacle to the relationship is Bobby’s fear that Wes will not approve. Bobby has this silly male bros thing about not getting involved with your best friend’s sister. I’m just not convinced that’s a thing, especially after high school.

The relationship progresses, with various plot threads introduced and abandoned, and eventually there is immediately fantastic sex (sigh). That’s an annoyed sigh, immediately fantastic sex being one of my romance novel pet peeves. And there are more sex scenes than necessary, but perhaps that’s a requirement of the Intimate Moments line. Room mates appear and disappear as required by plot convenience.  When Wes learns of the relationship, there is a knock-down nose-breaking brawl, which involves the whole comitatus. Then, having settled their disagreement in a suitably macho fashion, they go back to being best buds and it’s fine that Bobby and Colleen are a couple. This is the first climax of the book, but it’s between Bobby and Wes. Arguably they have grown – Bobby defies Wes, and Wes accepts Bobby as Colleen’s lover – but I’m not that interested in their relationship.

What about that dangerous trip to Tulgeria? It’s the location of a second climax, but after all the buildup about the trip, I was hoping for more. I felt a great opportunity for rich character growth was ignored in favour of a quick and flashy cliche.

Despite all this, a few things in the book appealed. Colleen is largely presented as naive,  and the plot has her rescued a few times, but at other times she’s ambitious and capable.  She takes the lead in the relationship, and she is not talked out of her trip. There are multiple not quite subtle references to various types of diversity, and this is apparently consistent in Brockman’s writing – at least one of her books has a male couple, and the earnings of that book are donated to a foundation for marriage equality.

The plot references AIDs several times, and the fictional Tulgeria is a place of terrorism, poverty, and natural disasters.  This gritty reality makes the ‘don’t date my sister’ conflict seem more ridiculous by contrast, especially since the ‘loving a soldier is risky’ conflict is also mentioned. And a conversation about risks leads to the most impressive moment in the book.

Early in the story, Bobby learns that a woman who works at a community AIDS center has been attacked, and a day earlier he witnessed a man threatening Colleen at an AIDS fundraising car wash. He tells her she is in danger. She admits to being afraid, but points out that Bobby takes risks too. He says:

“I’m trained to do those things.”

“Yeah, well, I’m a woman,” she countered. “I’ve been trained, too. I’ve had more than ten years of experience dealing with everything from subtle, male innuendo to overt threats. By virtue of being female, I’m a little bit afraid every single time I walk down a city street – and I’m twice as afraid at night.”

He shook is his head. “There’s a big difference between that and a specific threat from a man like John Morrison.”

“Is there?” Colleen asked. “Is there really? Because I don’t see it that way. “

She goes on to describe receiving sexual threats from strangers on the street, though, as usual, the language is awkwardly censored. She continues:

“After someone,” she said more quietly now, “some stranger says something like that to you–and if you want a real dare, then I dare you to find a woman my age who has not had a similar experience–you get a little–just a little, nervous just going out of your apartment. And when you approach a man heading toward you on the sidewalk, you feel a little flicker of apprehension or maybe even fear. Is he going to say something rude? Is he going to take it a step further and follow you? Or is he just going to look at you and maybe whistle, and let you see from his eyes that he’s thinking about you in ways that you don’t want him to be thinking about you?

“And each time that happens, ” Colleen told him, “it’s no less specific–or potentially unreal– than John Morrison’s threats.”

I suspect the passage particularly resonates in the current environment of many powerful men being brought down by their history of harassment – and also reminds us that women have been speaking up about sexual harassment for a long time.  The passage is strong dose of reality, though it’s another example of why the ‘don’t date my sister’ obstacle seems too light for the story. Bobby admits being “that guy,” who whistles at women, but says he never thought something like that would frighten a woman. It’s not very heroic of him, and it could be a character growth moment, but the moment slips away with a change of subject. Colleen does not get much opportunity to demonstrate the strength she talks about. The Morrison threat subplot is resolved, but it’s Bobby that finds out why Morrison is a threat, and how to handle him, even though it’s something Colleen could have found out, and probably more easily than Bobby.

Still, on the strength of that one passage, I’m keen to try something else by Brockman. She’s a prolific writer, and although action heroes seems to be her main area, she’s written in other romance genres. She’s also an independent film maker.  The book was a disappointment, but it had hints that suggest I may enjoy some of her other work.

The Christmas Night Miracle

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Cover - the Christmas Night MiracleThe past month has been good for reading (and book shopping with Christmas money), but not so good for writing – reviews or anything else. But with the first weekend of the new year I am heading back to more regular routine. And yes, it may seem odd that I am publishing a review of a Christmas themed story after Christmas, but I find it odd how quickly we abandon all things Christmas by the evening of the 25th, as if we can’t wait to move on from what is supposed to a pleasant time.

The Christmas Night Miracle is a 2006 Harlequin from Carole Mortimer. It’s from the Harlequin Presents line, specifically a series called Marriage and Mistletoe. According to Harlequin, Presents is “alpha males, decadent glamour and jet-set lifestyles,” but it wasn’t that way in 2006 – at least, not in this story.

Meg is a single mother, travelling from London to the country, in a rented car, to visit her parents. Lost in snowstorm, she crashes into a cottage, occupied by American writer Jed.  This author wastes no time bringing her characters together. And while severe weather, especially snow, may seem a cliché way to bring and keep our couple together, it’s a meet cute that easily cuts across normal class and social boundaries, and reminds us of the natural world beyond our control, with a dash of reminder of mortality thrown in. That can get the blood going. Full disclosure – heavy rains plays a significant role in my draft titled “Romance One.”

Jed has written several best sellers, and his last brought fame, but now the pressure is on to produce another masterpiece, and he’s spent the last few months in a borrowed English cottage, fretting over writer’s block. Meg knows of him, but does not recognize him when they meet, in part because of the circumstances, and in part because he does not use his full name when he introduces himself. He’s avoiding publicity, and the last thing he needs is a young single mother and her three-year-old, stuck at his cottage for the night. He’s attracted to her, but dismisses that as a natural result of his forced social isolation. Then he hears Meg’s peculiar conversation with her mother.

The next day, roads are clear enough that Jed can drive Meg, in his luxury SUV, to the country estate home of her parents. He stays, partly due to worsening weather, partly to protect Meg from her cold and mysterious family, and partly due to the power of a few kisses. Throughout the day, Christmas Eve, his attraction to her grows, and his puzzlement over the family situation increases. That night, he’s inspired to outline his next novel, and Christmas day brings a series of revelations, and a proposal.

From meeting to proposal in just a few days is very quick, and yet it seems to work for this couple. Perhaps it helps that money is not something this couple has to think about. Though Meg does not live in luxury, she does not have money concerns either, and her family is wealthy. Jed is living a relatively quiet and simple (non-decadent) life, and he is not far from his farming family roots, but a couple of references to his “homes all over the world” remind us that he is wealthy (and is perhaps a nod to the jet-set lifestyles concept of the series). It also helps that he is a celebrity, as opposed to a stranger, and he sees her almost immediately in her childhood home and with her family, so there are some shortcuts to the ‘getting to know you’ phase. While they meet in unusual circumstances, both are mature and stable, and they have the ideal situation of not actually needing a partner, but recognizing that are better together. Multiple reminders of mortality also encourage moving quickly.

Then there are the many heartwarming elements. Winter stories naturally introduce cozy scenes of snowman building and hot chocolate around a fire, and even those of us who recall too many outings where we or the kids are quickly frozen, tired, and otherwise miserable are susceptible to these scenes of what is theoretically possible. On top of this we have multiple family reconciliations (theoretically possible), and some impressive displays of family support and selflessness (also theoretically possible).

So, strong characters, who are flawed and down to earth, thus likeable and sympathetic despite their wealth, and a fast paced narrative with sweet romantic tension, that hits a lot of heartwarming notes. There is a lot to like here. On reflection, it might have been nice to know more about the couple. For example, the story focuses on short-term issues, and I wouldn’t mind knowing more about our couple’s long-term goals. That could increase my confidence that this will be a lasting relationship. However, the  sub-plot mystery of how Meg became a single mother adequately distracts from weaknesses in the romance plot. And there’s no mistletoe kiss cliché, thank goodness.

 

 

 

Jessie’s Lawman

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Jessie's Lawman coverI dropped by my closest used bookstore to pick up some old Harlequins for bubble bath reads, and the 3 for $1 romance shelf, usually just outside the door, was missing. Inside, I found new staff, who were surprised at my request, but decided that explained why the old Harlequins, in boxes on the floor, were missing prices. The owner had died some months ago, and the family were still sorting things out at the business. My modest purchase did not impress them, especially since renovations to the building are forcing them to move soon, and inexpensive retail space is hard to find. Hopefully they won’t move too far.

One of the purchases was Jessie’s Lawman, in the Temptation line, from 1995, by Kristine Rolofson. Now that I’m writing this, I look her up, and her bio seems familiar. Yes, another of hers was a previous 3 for $1 purchase: Plain Jane’s Man.  According to my review, Plain Jane’s Man was comfortable, verging on dull. Jessie’s Lawman, written just a year later, is more engaging, with higher stakes and stronger, more sympathetic characters.

Jessie is a struggling song-writer, fleeing a broken relationship. Driving through Colorado, she picks up a teenage hitchhiker carrying a baby, but when they stop for a meal in a small town, the hitchhiker takes off, leaving Jessie with the baby. Unable to get any local help, Jessie heads for Denver with the baby, but gets caught in a snow storm, and stops at a small roadside diner with a few cabins. There she meets Sheriff Daniel, who lost his wife to cancer last year.

The snowstorm and the baby force them to spend the night together. They talk, she sings to the baby and Daniel, and one thing leads to another. Daniel is impressed by her singing talents, but suspicious of her story about the hitchhiker, and concerned about the baby. He’s observed that Jessie seems completely unprepared to look after a baby, without even a car seat (of course), and there are signs of abuse. In the morning, with the roads clear, he rushes her on her way, promising that the baby will be properly cared for.

Several years later, Jessie is a country music star, thanks to her break-through hit, a romantic ballad about a special night, called “Colorado Snow.” Taking a break from touring to write more songs, she returns to Colorado, planning to step out of the spotlight and look up Daniel.

Daniel kept his promise, and Anna was adopted by relatives of his, but another tragedy brought her back to him. When Jessie rolls into town, he remembers their passionate night together (and knows the song), but also suspects she is back to get her baby, now that she has her life together.

The set up is about a quarter of the book, but well paced with good romantic tension. Once Jessie is back in town, there is the pull of memories and shared experiences, but Daniel has to overcome his suspicions, and heal some wounds from the death of his wife. Both of them will have to make some career and lifestyle compromises to be together.

The plot and pacing keep things moving, interesting, and relatively realistic. Consistent with the Temptation line, sex is an integral but not excessive part of the story. The couple’s relationship requires sacrifices from both, and benefits both. Genre romance books rarely make good movies, but this one, with its rustic settings, storms, and music, is one I’d like to see as a film. It’s a happy balance of drama, passion, and sweetness, with a few dark and unsubtle reminders that life is short and sometimes you need to take chances.

Floating in Saltwater

Floating in Saltwater book coverFloating in Saltwater: A memoir – A Young Girl’s Search for Answers is not the catchiest title. It accurately describes the content of this book, though: long, leisurely, detailed, and intriguing. Over the course of many chapters, Barbara Carter details events of her life from ages five to thirteen.

Carter grows up on the south shore (the coast of Nova Scotia between Halifax and Yarmouth), in the 1960s, in a rural home that sees an assortment of adopted children and boarders, odd visitors and relatives (though most visitors and relatives are odd to a child), and a steady stream of strangers, particularly those renting a nearby home. She frequently battles with her mother, and has a remote father who is occasionally supportive. In some respects, this is a very ordinary childhood. I battled with my mother, while my father was distant but sometimes helpful, and the story is the same among my friends.  We are about the same age as the writer, and I suspect this book particularly appeals to those of us whose earliest memories are from the 1960s: The events are both familiar and strange, and one tends to start comparing. Yes, I remember the moon landing, shown on the little black and white TV; yes, I remember discovering dad’s dirty magazines; no, I was not bathed in the same water as all my siblings, nor was the water heated on a kitchen stove. A lengthy set of discussion points and questions at the end encourages this sort of self-exploration and comparison.

The subtitle notes this is a search for answers, and few are found. Carter relates her story with minimal adult reflection and insight on the events. This strengthens the immediacy and mystery of the action, but some of the chapters are frustratingly brief, and their events seem to slip by with no lasting consequence, leaving one wondering why they happened and why they are remembered. Fortunately there are enough ongoing issues to maintain interest, and the passage and repetition of years provides sufficient structure.

I understand that a memoir is a set of recollections, but, perhaps unfairly, I still expect it to read like a story, with characters, a plot, and a conclusion. Since our memories are stories we tell ourselves, that’s not a completely unreasonable expectation. Carter acknowledges that these are her own recollections, and that she has shaped them in the interests of storytelling, such as reducing the number of boarding children. So there are characters, a plot, and a conclusion of sorts, but it’s gentle and loose. At times I was reminded of Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women, at times it seemed more poetry than prose, and at times I was left hanging and frustrated. That’s life, I suppose. I suspect Carter’s writing style may be influenced by her artistic work in other media, as discussed on her website. Some people seem to have a creative energy that expresses itself in many ways, while others, for better or worse, stick to a narrow field.

It took me a while to be drawn into the book, but I gradually found it more and more compelling. A second book continues the story, and while I’m keen to know what happens next, the blurb promises an exploration of “grief, anxiety, loss, and depression,” and the title is Balancing Act: Memoir of a Teenage Breakdown. I think I need a few Happy Ever After stories before I tackle that.

Dance Cards

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Image of dance card, By Ewing, Gladys (http://digital.lib.uh.edu/u?/p15195coll23,98) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

“Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries.”

Regency Romances often refer to dance cards. Like most lists, a list of your dance partners for the evening is a great way to be organized. No one is overlooked or forgotten, no one gets more time than they should have, and there’s no risk of forgetting names. It’s also a record of the evening, and there are examples where the lady has made notes – such as “pipsqueak.” I’ve wondered if, years later, a lady might look back through her old cards, and savour, or shudder at, the memories of the men listed there. If I ever tackle a historical, I’ll want to use dance cards, but meanwhile I’ve tried to capture some of my thoughts about dance cards in a poem, published in this month’s Open Heart Forgery.

At the risk of offending poetry purists, I consider writing poetry great exercise for stretching one’s writing skills, and overcoming writer’s block. The shift of form is a change that’s as good as a rest, and you can complete a serviceable poem in a few days. When you are struggling to complete a novel, spending a few hours on something that you can finish boosts confidence.

Today is the first of November, and the beginning of NaNoWriMo. According to my profile there, I drafted Romance One five years ago. Since then, it’s been completely re-drafted – twice. It’s also been rejected by Harlequin, revised, and is currently getting its third re-draft. You can see why I might want some proof that I can actually finish something. The good news is that it is a better story than it was five years ago, and I have made progress on other writing projects too. It’s another, older, project, a cozy, also on its third rewrite, that is my priority for NaNoWriMo this year.

Fortunately, I enjoy the writing process. In the past five years I’ve finished and published enough short things here and there that I feel comfortable calling myself a writer. Still, I’d like to get a novel done – at least one, though I have several drafted. This year I made a New Year’s resolution to work one hour a week on Romance One, and I kept that resolution through August before some traveling knocked me off schedule. My latest effort to organize my life to include writing is a list. Everyday, I do something on my writing list (this blog post being one example).

Some people claim if you have to make an effort to include writing in your life, you are not sufficiently motivated. Hogwash. I have to make an effort to include grocery shopping in my life, including lists of what to purchase. There’s no lack of motivation to eat, write, or dance: lists help keep everything on track.

My Lady’s Honour

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My Lady's Honor cover imageMy Lady’s Honor, by Julia Justiss, is a 2002 Historical Romance from Harlequin. My copy was originally printed in England, so titled My Lady’s Honour and sold by Mills and Boon. I wrote about the book’s history in The Well-traveled Book. I can’t decide if this story is charming or annoying.

Gwennor’s father has died, and the estate has passed to her cousin Nigel. Nigel schemes to promptly marry Gwennor to an elderly man with five rowdy sons, in order to pay a debt and eliminate his costs of supporting her or finding her a more suitable husband. Gwennor’s mother died at her birth, her stepmother died when she was in her teens, and she has long cared for her stepmother’s son, an intellectually disabled young man, Parry. Parry is childlike, and prone to wandering the fields, but good at caring for horses and other animals. Gwennor would accept an unhappy marriage as her lot in life, so long as she can continue to care for Parry, but Nigel plans to separate them, and lock Parry away.

With the groom arriving the next day, Gwennor plans an escape to a distant aunt. To avoid pursuit, she arranges to travel with a company of gypsies, conveniently staying on the estate but leaving that night. Disguised as one of them, she quickly learns the work of picking up cash reading the fortunes and otherwise entertaining the locals, as well as the occasional group of gentlemen seeking diversion. The visitors may ogle the women dressed in clothes more revealing than a lady would wear, but there is a strict hands-off policy.

Gilen de Mowbry reluctantly joins his friends for a visit to the gypsies, and is entranced by a veiled woman who seems more refined than the others, and responds to his literary double entendres in kind. He requests his palm read, taking every advantage of the close contact, then requests a dance, and risks a kiss, which is reciprocated. As I have said before, there’s something about kissing a stranger, and being disguised only makes it better. The gypsy leader intervenes at the forbidden contact, and sends the guests away. Gilen wishes to learn more about the mystery woman, and returns to the camp the next day, but the gypsies have moved on.

A few weeks later, Gwennor is happily receiving court from two suitors, one elderly, and one young, and both pleasant enough. The younger man has been unwisely impulsive in his affections before, and his friend, Gilen, comes to town to meet the lady. Gilen and Gwennor soon recognize each other from their encounter at the gypsy camp, and the dance begins.

This is what I call the French Lieutenant’s Woman plot – man is attracted to fallen woman, who he can have sex with but cannot love or marry, only to discover she is a virgin, and therefore was suitable for love and marriage until he ruined her. Perhaps it reflects the times, but I still find the whole concept unpleasant. And Gilen is particularly repulsive in his treatment of Gwennor. No matter how many times he tells himself that his behavior is only acceptable because she is a fallen woman and deceitful, he still comes off as crude, arrogant, and short-sighted. His awareness of his rudeness just makes it worse. It may be wishful thinking on my part, but my idea of a hero is a man who treats all women with respect, not just those he deems worthy of it.

That’s the annoying aspect of the book, but there are many charms. Gwennor is a wonderful character. Practical, resourceful, smart, and willing to take pleasure in a one-night-stand if that’s the best arrangement that can be obtained. Gilen’s insults set up situations where she can slap him, kick him out of a carriage and abandon him on a country road, and go after him with a whip. There are entertaining twists and turns in the plot, and they are narratively justified. Scenes like the whip attack build erotic tension, and there is fun dialogue, such as when she honestly identifies the man who took advantage of her:

“Are you ever going to tell me the truth about how you ended up with the gypsies?”

“I’d rather not talk about it. Besides, what difference could it possibly make now? You formed your opinion of me long ago.”

“Perhaps, but I’d like to know which of my theories is correct.  . . . your ravisher let you slip away. Should I shoot the careless bastard for you?”

“That would be suicide.”

Gilen is eventually punished for his boorishness, but I’m not sure it’s enough. It’s also worth noting that the ‘bloody sheet as proof of virginity’ cliché is mercifully absent here.

It’s a fun story, well told, with a tone that suggests it is not taking itself too seriously. The presumed fallen woman plot is annoying, but that attitude existed, and sadly still exists, so that’s an element of realism, unpleasant as it may be. Gilen is not much of a hero, at least for me, but Gwennor is a great heroine. For a similarly well written story where the hero and heroine are both great, see my review of Justiss’s later and better A Most Unconventional Match.

The Well-traveled Book

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My Lady's Honour - Front CoverMy library is not what it used to be. For decades I accumulated books, dragging them back and forth across the country, and my library was a source of pride. Vanity, to be honest. Changing priorities (a euphemism for not having enough money) meant I had to drastically prune the collection, but that task was made easier by electronic books and online resources. I no longer have my complete set of Star Trek novelizations, but any time I want to read one, I can check it out from Open Library.

I miss the attributes of physical books, particularly those that reveal personal connections or history – bookstore stamps, bookplates, dedications, notes and so on. They don’t have to be for me. I have a book with a note on the inside cover, stating “To my favourite love poet – M.” I purchased the book used, and sometimes wonder about the relationship between M and their poet, and how the book ended up in a church fundraiser. Did they break up, and whoever received the book could not bear the reminder of happier times? Are they still together, but had to prune their books to make room for the baby/cat/sailing adventure? Did the poet die in a car crash, and when her partner found the book, did he wonder who M was, and why this person got poems when he never did? Did M receive love poems from more than one person, and was not shy about admitting that or declaring a favourite? And will my children someday wonder what M meant to me?

My Lady's Honour - Back CoverI recently picked up a book at a little free library in Vancouver, British Columbia. This was a genuine British Mills and Boon historical romance (Harlequin in North America), originally sold 22 years ago, for £3.65. At some point it was listed for £1 on the first page, and it later ended up in a collection belonging to the British Heart Foundation, with a sticker stating “Read me, then bring me back again.” Someone missed that. Did the book fly directly from London to Vancouver? However it got there, I brought it with me back to Halifax, for reading enroute, so it has seen both ends of the country. Once I write my review, I’ll leave it in the laundry room library of my building, and who knows where it will go next.

If an average of about five people a year read this book, it has been held by a hundred people, and I feel a kinship with them – we are closer than those who have merely read the same story. We have taken this book to different places, sharing and spreading happy endings wherever we go. Perhaps among my GoodReads friends is someone who read this very copy. This book has been in hundreds of locations – stores, home, offices, and at least one bath tub (guilty). If this book could talk…and there’s a story idea.

Fury’s Kiss

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Cover - Fury's Kiss - Nicola R. WhiteFury’s Kiss, by Nicola R. White, was published in 2013 by Strange Roads Press, and is the first of four books in her New England Furies series.

This was a venture a little out of my comfort zone. I believe the genre is urban fantasy, though when I was young it was just called fantasy. Besides, the setting is more small town than urban. There’s a romance subplot too. It’s more erotic than romantic, which I’m not wild about, but the occasional steamy action is not excessive, and narratively justified.

Tara Walker is a twenty-something waiter, with the modest ambition of owning her own restaurant. When she’s stood up for a first date, she heads to a local bar, but the one good-looking man who wanders in, Jackson, is not interested. As she leaves, a new arrival tempts her into a parking lot kiss (there’s something about kissing a stranger), but he wants more, and will not take no for answer. She defends herself with unexpected strength she mistakenly assumes is adrenaline, and in minutes he’s dead.

Wow. Great opening, and certainly a strong female character. The opening sets up multiple overlapping narrative threads. Tara needs to learn to manage her new abilities (and what they are), she’s the subject of a murder investigation, and someone or something is after her. Fortunately, there are a lot of characters to help her. Her room mates readily accept her new skills, there’s a kindly elderly neighbour who is not what she seems, and a young child who is more than she seems.  Tara adjusts to sharing her body with an ancient vengeful spirit, and faces ancient dangers.

Then there’s Jackson. Tara is attracted to Jackson, and he, reluctantly, to her, but their relationship is hastened and complicated by the different sexual attitudes of the Fury that possesses her, and his connection to the dangers Tara faces.

If I was being picky, I’d say fantasy must be symbolic,and pull out some coming of age symbolism – Tara’s inner fury is the loss of innocence we adults learn to live with, etc. But this story is too gritty and realistic for an easy symbolic reading. There are gender issues too. When Tara is being mauled at the bar, she recalls that a serial killer of women is on the loose, and it seems much of a Fury’s work is protecting women and children from men. However, the pace and action discourages dwelling on this.

[Spoiler alert]

The conclusion brings some good twists, and, after all the excitement and danger, a relatively conventional romantic happy ending. Although Tara retains her powers, the blurbs for the other books in the series focus on other characters who become Furies. In this aspect, the stories are more romance than fantasy. There does not appear to be an overall arc of some growing danger that might explain why multiple Furies appear in close proximity. However, I’m not sure I’d call these romances. Compared to other romances I have read, even paranormals, there is more action and complexity. That also makes this a much richer story than many paranormal romances.

I’ve already picked up another book by White, and looking forward to reading it. That’s probably the best indicator of how much I enjoyed this. Although it’s not the sweet semi-realistic romance genre I prefer, the characters, plot, action, and pacing, and even the grittiness and sex, make it a great read.

Evening Stars

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Evening Stars is a 2014 novel by Susan Mallery, from Mira books (a Harlequin imprint that features longer and more complex stories than genre romance, aimed at a broader audience). As the cover states, this is ‘A Blackberry Island Novel’ which tells us there are other stories in this setting. The Booklist review excerpt blurbed on the back notes “Mallery pulls out all the stops,” but that’s not always a good thing.

Nina is the practical, sensible, caretaker in her family, looking after both her mother and her sister, and sacrificing her ambitions in the process. She’s thirty, lives with her mother, and is starting to feel frustrated with small town life and financial struggle (although she has been away to college, and helps run a family antique business as well as working as a nurse). The story begins with two (2) meet cutes, as different men from her past return to her town. Dylan, a couple of years older, was her first lover, and they were together for years, but he broke up with her, under pressure from his parents. Now a doctor, he’s returned to practice with his father. Kyle, several years younger, desired her when she babysat his younger sister. He’s now a military pilot, stationed nearby for a few months, and keen to fulfill some long-held desires.

It’s been ten years since she’s had any contact with either of these men. Ten years! In which neither of the men married, and she married only briefly – just long enough to be married when Dylan made a rare trip home. Now Dylan apparently just wants to be friends, and Kyle just wants a fling. So this is a second chance story, but without much to sustain the desire, or much explanation as to why it endured.

Nina’s up for a fling, and good for her, but it gets awkward when Kyle wants something more serious, and she rediscovers how good it was to be friends with Dylan. The romantic triangle never feels quite right, or quite wrong. Meanwhile, Nina’s wacky mother is upending the family with a plot twist that sends the narrative off in slightly disturbing directions. Nina’s sister interrupts the story with her struggling marriage subplot (including too much self-referential material about being a writer), and there’s another subplot involving the woman Nina hires to run the family’s antique store. Someone’s having an affair, too, but I don’t think it was anyone important. There’s a lot going on here, and too much of it is happening to characters I don’t care about.

A big revelation is Nina’s bird’s-eye view of the island, which pushes her to get on with her life, and expand her horizons. However, it’s not as if she has never left the island, since she did spend two years in Seattle at college. Her experience with life in the big city weakens that revelation.

The story expands from Nina’s second chance at romance to her second chance at making the life she wants. This is good, as sometimes you need time to be ready to seize opportunities, but at the end of the story I’m left wondering why it took so long for Nina to be ready for life and love – and what might have happened if Mr. Right, Mr. Right Now, and Mr. Deus Ex Machina had not shown up to rescue her.