Lord Livesey’s Bluestocking, Audrey Harrison, 2018Phoebe doesn’t quite fit in with society. She’s not conventionally attractive, wears glasses, and has a reputation as a bluestocking, thanks to being intelligent. She has no need to marry, and little desire to. But, at the request of her family, she spends a couple of weeks at the estate of Lord Livesey. Livesey is a young widower with three girls, who has largely withdrawn from society after the suicide of his wife six years ago. His sister and aunt convince him that his girls need a mother, and arrange for half-a-dozen eligible ladies, along with an equal number of single but less-appealing-than-Livesey men, to spend two weeks at his estate. Livesey decides not to follow his heart, and selects Lady Jane for his bride, but the aunt keeps Phoebe in view, and a few assumptions add complications. Sweet and light, with a strong heroine and good writing. The Complicated Earl, Audrey Harrison, 2014 I went from what appears to be Harrison’s latest to her first, sold with the notice that it was professionally proof read after the initial release. Isabelle grew up with loving parents, but found her suitors distasteful, and has settled down with a cousin, planning to live independently. Now her brother is planning to marry the sister of the Earl of Standish, Tom. Tom is cynical of marriage, having witnessed his mother’s affairs, but kept that from his sister. When problems arise in the planned marriage, Isabelle and Tom work together to resolve matters, and both reconsider their view of marriage. But her brothers attempt to rush her into to marriage, concerned they may given her too much freedom, leads to problems, and a previously rejected suitor leads to a suspense subplot. Not as sweet or as light as Lord Livesey’s Bluestocking, but still a good read. The Duke’s Cautious Governess, Fanny Finch, 2018 Lady Agnes lost her mother many years ago, and when her father dies unexpectedly she is penniless and shunned by relatives. She finds work as a governess to a spoiled little girl, the young sister of a Duke. The Duke and his sister also lost their parents early and unexpectedly. While Agnes was taught how to run an estate, the Duke was not, and she winds up teaching him as well – everything from how to manage the staff to how to host a ball. The ball is a great sequence. Although balls and associated events are common in historicals, this is the first one I’ve read from the perspective of a hostess, as she tries to keep guests entertained and sober, and breaks up fights. The conflict and resolution are predictable (and no less enjoyable for that), but the subplot of the late mother is dark, so this is sweet but not that light. Having the epilogue as an online bonus is mildly annoying, and unusually, the story is almost completely from the perspective of Agnes. The Love List, Deb Marlowe, 2013 Brynne Wilmott’s father has arranged for her to be married to an evil man, so she runs away to a home for women. But her troubles are just beginning. Someone is planning to republish an updated version of Harris’s List of Covent-Garden Ladies, with her and some of her acquaintances in it, for both personal revenge and political gain. Meanwhile, the Duke of Aldmere, who rescued Brynne from her nominal fiancé at a ball, is looking for his missing brother, who is somehow involved in the new book. Lots of action and suspense as the couple work together, lots of time in the seamier side of London, and we are back where this list started, with political terrorism in the Victorian age. As this list makes clear, historical romances, even limited more-or-less to Regency, have a variety of heat levels and plot structures. I appreciate those that show me famous figures, and provide insights into lesser known aspects of Victorian life, and escapes from peril are fun. However, as with contemporary romances, my preferred reading is towards sweet and light.
After several years of reading romance novels, I’ve narrowed my preferred romance story type for reading and writing: Contemporary tales featuring ordinary people, with strengths, flaws, and pasts, who are happy on their own, but find another person who helps them grow. I’ve enjoyed other types – paranormals, millionaire, billionaire, suspense, and so on – but the realistic tales resonate more.
On the other hand, reality sucks sometimes, or at least current political events. Stories of happiness in this world are good, but sometimes I want reading time to be time away from this world. Then I turn to historical romances – Regency or Western. While I will always love Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion, I’m fond of stories that show strong women defying conventions – in part because I have my doubts about the reality of those conventions. It is true that social roles were more constricted in the past, but there have always been people who act outside the roles, and probably more than we know. The same forces that limit social roles suppress stories of people who don’t follow the roles. In the less connected and documented world of the past, or on the frontier, it was sometimes easier to reinvent yourself, or otherwise be unconventional, and I believe many women took advantage of that. With our histories dominated by stories of powerful men, there’s a lot of satisfaction in reading stories of powerful women.
Which brings me to The Rock Creek Six, a series of independently published books alternately written by Lori Handeland and Linda Winstead Jones, who have been writing romances since the mid-1990s. The books were originally published four years ago, but I discovered them from a recent promotion of the first story (yes, promotion works, even on older stories).
Rock Creek Texas, in the late 1800s, is an undistinguished small town, partly abandoned thanks to raids from local bandits, and lacking men after the civil war. School teacher Mary wants a quiet home, after fleeing two other towns during the war, so she travels to Dallas and hires a gunman to save the town. Reese laughs at her offer of $150, but is attracted to her even though, or perhaps because, she reminds him of his prewar past. And his hotel bill is overdue. Mary’s first sight of Reese is him lying on his bed, shirtless. That, his general lack of propriety, and being well-spoken, calls to something in Mary. The sexually charged dialogue in their meeting (and the steamy covers) is appropriate to the heat level in this series – definitely hot, but sex scenes are well-integrated into the plots (and I will never again be able to say I am “cleaning the bathtub” with a straight face).
Reese wants to bring his friends and fellow gunmen, Sullivan, Rico, Jed, Nate and Cash. They fought together in the civil war, and continue as a loose but fiercely faithful group. The premise is common enough – the comitatus arriving to save the town goes back at least to Beowulf, and the series references The Magnificent Seven, both in promotional material and in Reese’s line about his friends: “Together, we’re downright magnificent.” The bandits, and other old west hazard tropes, are subplots to the real stories – the healing and domestication of the men.
Western plots are typically about bringing order – taming the wild people (or outlaws) just as the wilderness is tamed (and in older stories, this has all the colonialism, racism, and sexism you’d expect). The gunslinger or the comitatus come to town to restore social order, but not become part of it. (At the end of The Magnificent Seven, some are dead, some leave town, and one man stays.) In the Rock Creek Six stories, all the fighting men become part of the social order. They stick around, get jobs, fall in love, marry, and have children (not necessarily in that order). To integrate, they need to change, including overcoming past wounds. They are heroic in their actions and passions (and easy on the eyes), but need direction. A group of strong women provide it.
Sullivan, half Comanche and half Irish, is rescued from a bar fight by Eden, on her way to Rock Creek. She already rescued two children during her trip. She’s Jed’s sister, so he accompanies her for the rest of the trip, then tries to keep her out of trouble while they wait for Jed to return. Rico is smitten by Lily, who arrives in town with the deed for the saloon, big plans and a few secrets. He has secrets of his own. Jed admires the wealthy Hannah’s behaviour when the stage they are sharing is robbed. She’s coming to Rock Creek to prove her sister did not commit murder, and recruits Jed to help, but he has conflicting loyalties. Nate is an alcoholic former preacher. Jo is fond of him, and tracks him down when he disappears. He welcomes her into his bed, thinking she’s his long dead wife, easing him into the heaven he doubts exists. And Cash discovers he has a teenage son, who needs to be talked out of becoming a gun for hire.
The stories take place over at least six years, allowing glimpses of the growth of the town and earlier characters. The chronological separation of the stories keeps them relatively independent (though I had to read the whole series). The backgrounds of the heroes and heroines are sufficiently different to keep things interesting, and the sexual histories of the women vary from clueless virgin to relatively experienced (though not necessarily good experiences). All of the men are, of course, well experienced, but I was delightfully surprised to see a first encounter between a couple that was not wonderful for the woman (even if in a flashback). There are a some great bits of dialogue, lots of heartwarming scenes, erotic moments, and good pacing throughout.
I have my doubts about the realism of aspects of the stories, including the three-story hotel central to the series. Would a small town have a structure that tall? And the women have modern and liberal attitudes to everything from sex to the treatment of the Indians. But I love the happy endings, the happy families, the equality, the redemptions, and the eventual paradise on earth that Rock Creek becomes, thanks to women who take charge.
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.
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.
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
The 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.
I 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.
Fury’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.
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.
The 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.
Donna 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.