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.

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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.

His Diamond of Convenience

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His Diamond of Convenience coverA recent trip meant lots of reading in a short period of time. On one flight, I enjoyed the gentle realism of Donna Alward’s Almost a Family followed by the playful Playboy’s Proposal, from Ashlee Mallory. A few days later, it was much further into escapism, with His Diamond of Convenience, from Maisey Yates.

His Diamond of Convenience is a 2015 Harlequin in the Presents line. Yes, there is still a market for stories of idle rich virgins meeting idle rich macho men in exotic locations for hot kinky sex, leading to marriage. It’s not my cup of tea, and I’m tempted to say that if you removed the sex and made the woman poor, this could have been written decades ago, but on second thought, that’s not true.

Victoria was in her teens when she was romanced by an older man, who used her infatuation to learn about and take over her father’s high-end retail clothing business. The loss did not bring poverty. Now in her late twenties, she lives, quite well, off income from investments purchased with a loan from her trust fund, and occupies her time serving on the boards of charities. However, her relationship with her father was damaged, as was her trust in men. A later arranged marriage to European royalty failed spectacularly when her intended prince ran off with the matchmaker, further lessening her interest in romance. She’s all business, and her goal is to get her family company back.

Dmitri is a former prize fighter, from Russia, now living off the businesses he purchased with his winnings, including a chain of gyms, and the business once owned by Victoria’s father. His rowdiness and womanizing is often in the press, which is making it difficult for him to start a children’s charity in memory of his mentor. Victoria finds Dmitri, and offers him a deal: They’ll pretend to be engaged, to clean up his image, and she’ll use all her charity and society connections to launch his charity. In exchange, he’ll give her the former family business.

After a racy meet cute, this settles down to a ‘marriage of convenience turns into marriage of love’ story. And while our hero is immediately presented as extraordinarily crude and obnoxious, his tender side is already known to the heroine and presented in his introduction. This does not leave much room for character revelations and development. However, there is good tension as our couple give in to propinquity and come to terms with the notion of a long term relationship, something new to each of them. Though he is coming from one-night stands, and she is coming from betrayals, their common obstacle is trust.

I’m not sure I buy how quickly both learn to trust, as usual I’m annoyed by first-time sex being fabulous, and while the minor kinks (public sex and bondage) are narratively appropriate, they still seem a little out of place for people who barely trust each other. Perhaps I’m just being old-fashioned, assuming first-date sex should be vanilla, and my dislike of wealthy characters probably reveals a personal bias. On the other hand, maybe it’s a valid plot hole that wealthy Dmitri could have started offering discounts at his own gyms, instead of going the children’s charity route and relying on other people to fund his dreams, boost his reputation, and lower his taxes. At least he’s only targeting the 1% (yes, that phrase is used).

For all this story’s dated romance trappings, it’s not one that could have been written a few decades ago. His Diamond of Convenience is a woman rescuing a man.  It’s almost a role reversal, in that the hero cannot redeem himself and achieve his goals without the help of the strong heroine that walks into his life, and tells him what to do. She’s the Victorian angel in the house, but she’s also clearly in charge of more than the domestic sphere. He acknowledges as much when he suggests how she can indicate when she is ready for a sexual relationship (though it does not take long), and throughout the story she represents the couple in public.

I appreciate the role reversal, but I still prefer stories where no-one needs to be rescued, and I prefer more ordinary characters, for whom losing or gaining a business has financial consequences. So why did I read this? It was in a free library, any book is better than no book, and it made a couple of hours in an airport much more pleasant. And now it goes to the laundry room in my apartment building, to bring a couple of hours of pleasure to someone else.

 

 

The Playboy’s Proposal

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Cover - Playboy's ProposalThe Playboy’s Proposal, by Ashlee Mallory, is a 2016 publication from Entangled, a romance publisher.

Benny, a doctor, has recently finished her residency, and celebrated by moving into a new high-rise condo. Unfortunately her neighbour, Harry, has a reputation as a local playboy, and often has loud, late parties. He also parks in her spot. Late one night, she visits him in a too-cute meet: While the young and beautiful are enjoying the party, she slinks in, wearing revealing pajamas, disheveled, complete with dinosaur slippers, in a scene that unfortunately reminded me of Rosemary entering the party at the climax of Rosemary’s Baby. Benny gives Harry piece of her mind, and threatens to go to the condo board. For reasons not entirely clear, Harry is promptly smitten with her. Perhaps it is simply seeing a woman not all dressed up or otherwise keen to impress him.

Harry is suddenly required to shed his playboy image. First, the condo board warns him of escalating fines and possible eviction for complaints against him. Second, the ad agency he works for is hoping to land a client with a strong family values outlook, and wants him to settle down. And third, he’s required to look after a young niece for several days. No more parties, and he starts parking in his own spot.

A minor accident means Harry takes his niece to the nearest clinic, and the attending physician is none other than Benny. At the clinic, Harry notes Benny’s plain Jane approach to appearance, and clumsy attempts to flirt with another doctor. He proposes a deal – he’ll package her so she can get a date with the obvious object of her affections, in exchange for her dropping all complaints about his behaviour.

If you know any version of Pygmalion/My Fair Lady, you know what happens next. To help speed Harry’s conversion along, Benny has a large and happy family, who welcome her new friend Harry (and several siblings have been recently married – a series, of course).

The story is definitely light, and heavy on the coincidences, but it’s a fun quick read, tempered with a few serious and sentimental notes. Both characters grow, predictably and rapidly, though it’s nice to see it on both sides, and Benny is a reasonably strong and independent woman. I can accept that her position in her family, and her focus on her career, might have left her less concerned about appearance and social graces – and while Harry teaches her these things, the plot makes it clear that these are secondary to inner qualities. The story is well told, and the heat level is just right. There are several funny scenes where Benny deals with trying to date her doctor friend while Harry both helps and hinders. I’m looking forward to reading about the other members of Benny’s family.

Almost a Family

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Almost a Family coverDonna Alward’s Almost a Family is a self-published romance from 2014. I’m a fan of Alward, and the gentle mix of realism and fantasy in her books. This one did not disappoint, though it sailed dangerously close to cliché a few times.

Molly and Jason were high school sweethearts, and lovers through university, but when Jason proposed, Molly said no. Jason had their life together completely planned, and she had her own dreams.

Molly goes to law school, and settles in Calgary, a successful corporate lawyer. Jason goes to veterinary college, and returns to Fredericton to work at a clinic. Six years pass. Jason pines for Molly, and Molly focuses on her work.

Then Molly’s sister, Kim, is badly injured in a car crash. Kim is a single mother, and asks Molly to come back to Fredericton to look after her three-year-old daughter Sarah. Kim doesn’t tell Molly that Jason now lives next door, and is already helping look after Sarah.

The set-up ensures that Jason and Molly are thrown together, with a shared goal of looking after a child. It’s what Jason always wanted, and a trial run of family life for Molly. She likes it, but the old problem of Jason dictating how their relationship should go reminds her why she left in the first place.

As usual, with a couple who have been apart for years, I wonder why neither of them moved on. Molly has done some non-serious dating, and Alward delicately implies that she has not spent every night alone since Jason. However, Molly does not want a relationship, and is focused on her demanding career. Corporate law offices are not known for encouraging employees, especially women, to have lives apart from work. Jason wants a wife and children, but has made very little effort to find someone else. His devotion is somewhere between romantic and creepy.

With Jason and Molly back together, there are lots of happy memories recalled, and lots of sexual tension and suspense. Our couple repeatedly find themselves a little too comfortable with each other. To stay together, one or both are going to have to compromise, but who, and how much? I was afraid it was going to be Molly, giving everything up for Jason, since she so readily takes on the mother role, and starts to doubt the path she is on.

Molly starts off as a successful career woman who enjoys expensive hotels, fine clothes, and expensive make up. She has no idea how to look after kids and is challenged by baking cookies. In a few short weeks she decides there are things more important than a high-paying career. It always bothers me when a plot pushes a working woman into being a proper wife and mother. However, Molly’s reconsideration of priorities is organically motivated by a sobering and wonderfully understated plot point, and accommodating Jason and his plans is the last thing on her mind.

In the end, both characters make decisions based on growth they have experienced, and the compromise is more complex than I feared it might be. Unfortunately, the final scene, set at an airport, also has clichés I’ve seen in too many movies, and you don’t have to be reading the book on a flight, as I was, to be aware if how unlikely it is to be heading for security screening when they call boarding for your flight.

In among the too-cute kid scenes and too-good-to-be-true family moments (family sledding invariably includes crying from cold, tiredness, and/or injuries), the platonic relationship between Jason and Kim, Molly’s sister, stands out for its realism and depth. These two people deeply care for each other – heck, they love each other – but as friends, notwithstanding an awkward moment or two that makes their relationship more real. The friend relationship also complicates the relationships between the siblings and the lovers.

One of the reasons I love romances is that they show happy endings for lovers – it does give one hope. Family reconciliations, in this case between the sisters, are another common and hopeful feature. In Almost a Family, Alward shows a third happy situation – a close relationship between a man and a woman who are friends. Jason and Molly have their romantic HEA, but it was the love between Jason and Kim that left me weepy.

As I write this, the book is free on Amazon (click the title above), and if you are weary of millionaire muscled heroes or scene after scene of sex with little else (or even if you are not), I strongly recommend it as an introduction to Alward.