Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Ready-Made Family

Cheryl Wyatt
Inspirational Romance
Steeple Hill Books - April, 2009

Based on my reading experience of over 2,500 romance novels over the past eight years, Cheryl Wyatt may be pioneering the Contemporary Christian Military Romance genre. She suspects it might even be destiny.

Cheryl Wyatt was born on a naval base—there’s the military. She was born on Valentine’s Day—there’s the romance. But unlike in the military, Wyatt reports that her characters don’t always obey her orders and “take the hill” she had planned to advance the story. But authors tell me that that rebellion is a good sign.

When characters become real in an author’s mind, more than fiction, they always want to usurp the author’s authority. Usually that rebellion makes for a realistic, more surprising, more rewarding read, often better than the one the author had in mind at the outset.

In Ready-Made Family, the third in Wyatt’s “Wings of Refuge” series, her interesting cast of characters seemed to be badgering her to keep themselves all front-and-center, all the time. In some scenes, it’s as if all her creations are jumping up and down, yelling, “Me! Me!” As a result, these scenes lose focus, and the reader—this reader, at least—is not always sure where Wyatt wants me to look. Too many of her scenes are a clattering mayhem like the din of a family of 20 whipping up Thanksgiving dinner. “I thought you brought the cranberry sauce.” It’s a friendly din, to be sure, but it weakens the narrative thrust. (Or maybe I shouldn’t be making dinner and watching the evening news while reading.)

In any event, Ready-Made Family opens with a bang: “Mister! Mommy needs help!”
The panicked voice comes from seven year-old Reece North clutching her ever-present stuffed toy, Bearby. She asks Ben Dillinger for help. Reece’s mom fell asleep at the wheel and slammed into a light pole. Reese and Bearby survived, but the little girl isn’t so sure about her mom.

Wyatt falls into a similar trap in some action scenes. She brings to them too many details that I don’t see contributing to the action. I assume she does this in an effort to give the scene greater life while further illuminating her characters. Not good when a life’s at stake.

But I did find the psychology of the characters more true to life. Amelia, Reece’s mom, was on her way to St. Louis for a job when she fell asleep at the wheel. She was trying to gain independence. Her father repeatedly told her that she’d never amount to anything. After all, she’d had Reece out of wedlock with no man in sight. Her dad thought that behavior just showed how worthless she was. Needless to say, Amelia didn’t feel too good about herself. Ben Dillinger was ashamed at the way he had treated his brother who had Mosaic Down Syndrome. That gave him some guilt problems which caused him to doubt his worth. The characters continued to live out their scripts until a hurricane in the Carolinas gave them all something more important to use their energy in a cooperative way. Amelia’s dad came around and even acted like the Christian he’d always claimed to be. Ben and his brother spent time together and even enjoyed it. Gradually, the story unfolds to a very satisfying people story.

All in all and for me, the mechanics got in the way of an otherwise compelling story. The military environment and the hurricane events aren’t the usual stuff of romance novels. Typical of the Steeple Hill books, Wyatt seamlessly wove the Christian elements into her story. We’ll watch Cheryl as she grows and I think she’ll make it.

The Cowboy Next Door

Brenda Minton
Inspirational Romance
Steeple Hill Books - May, 2009

In my next life I’m going to copyright “Cowboy” and “Viking.” The royalties from romance covers alone should keep me in designer clothes. (I had a designer body once, but, alas, not now. Ask any of my great grandchildren.) The cover of Brenda Minton’s new Steeple Hill romance shows a smiling cowboy, a rocker, a baby, and the family dog. Tell me this is going to be a murder mystery in which a baby kills a dog.

No, dear reader, The Cowboy Next Door is Minton’s fourth Steeple Hill outing, and it moves along at a much greater-than-rocking-chair pace. As a matter of fact, Minton seamlessly sets her stage. She introduces her central characters and the emotions driving them all in a few hundred or so smooth flowing, fully packed words. Every word ringing with purpose.

Minton introduces Lacey Gould, our heroine from the city; Jay Blackhorse, the hunky deputy sheriff, and Lacey’s druggy younger sister with a cute plot-driving baby in the first few pages. Although I must say Lacey’s studio apartment with a walk-in closet seems a bit of a stretch, but then I didn’t grow up in Gibson.

It’s no surprise that the story revolves around the baby. The baby is safe, cute, and needy. Lacey becomes the baby’s guardian. Corry, Lacey’s sister, was looking for a free ride and trouble. Lacey had worked hard to become part of this small, wholesome community and certainly didn’t need her sister messing it up for her. What other unwanted family member will show up?

This book moves well. Psychologically, it has trust issues, grief, abandonment, and people with varying degrees of dysfunction. Lacey is working hard to overcome her unsavory background and live a Norman Rockwell life. Jay Blackhorse wants nothing to do with a city girl because he figured all city girls would break his heart like the first one did. Fortunately, Lacey and Jay come to care for one another and not surprisingly, that caring begins to dispel the dysfunctions. Isn’t that what Biblical love is all about? Stir them together and what do you get? One whale of a good story!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Montana Creeds: Logan, Dylan, Tyler

Linda Lael Miller
HQN Books (Harlequin) - 2009

Is it just me or is the hat too big on the smiling cover model. A ten-gallon hat on an eight-gallon head. I can visualize some bunched-up newspaper pages keeping the hat out of his eyes. Remove the newspaper and you have a cover for a Cowboy Comedy Romance, but apparently that wasn’t what series’ author, Linda Lael Miller, had in mind this time—or ever, for that matter.

Logan, Tyler, and Dylan are offspring from Miller’s five-book jaunt featuring the McKettricks. Miller should have better luck keeping her characters out of the bedroom, but then that would handicap the romance part of all this, wouldn’t it? Besides, as Janet Daily has shown in spades, there’s gold in them thar offsprings. Especially when their names are Calder. A good series requires offspring to strut their stuff. I think it has something to do with the economics of romance publishing, but now to the subjects at hand.

The three brothers had a falling out after their dad’s funeral. From that unpleasantness they each went in a different direction. Logan had his law degree and had done well starting a company that did do-it-yourself law complete with forms and instructions. He had sold the company for a tidy sum and decided to go back home and restore the family ranch. Tyler and Dylan worked rodeos and did some film work. Dylan had occasionally had talked to Logan but they still weren’t friends. Tyler was the one who tried never to have contact with his brothers. Logan wanted them to be in business together but the other two didn’t seem agreeable to that. Their dad hadn’t been a loving man. Each son had a different mother. Needless to say, their home life wasn’t pleasant.

Logan and Dylan are what I’ve come to expect from Miller and from the western romance genre in general: Generally well-crafted stories in well-researched settings, with generally interesting principle characters, facing life’s panoply of problems, some a bit stretchy, to be sure, but mostly true-to-life. Oh, yes, and there’s the romance part and my growing recognition that romance novels have more than their fair share of widows and widowers. But Tyler surprised me:

More accurately, the sex surprised me, not that sex is a bad thing (been there; done that, well, not ALL that; but, well, you get the picture.) It’s the quantity and the explicit details that made this last book of the trilogy a much less rewarding read for me.

When I read a Linda Lael Miller book I don’t expect to see the explicit sex like she wrote in Tyler. Not only was it an unexpected dip into porn, but it didn’t add a thing to the story. Needless to say I was disappointed. I e-mailed Miller and asked for an explanation, but I received no response. However, these books are worth the time and are excellent reading except for the sex in Tyler.

Spring Creek Bride

Janice Thompson
Inspirational Historical Romance
Steeple Hill Books - April, 2009

One of the skills shared by Steeple Hill novelists is the ability to seamlessly weave Christian issues into arresting narratives. This suggests an across-the-board editorial policy at Steeple Hill. If it is their policy, it’s sharp because it yields true to life, easy-to-read stories. I don’t want to tell you how many Christian novels I began and never finished because of their off-putting, heavy-handed, often legalistic treatment of Christianity: “Wait everybody! Hold on there. Before we put out the schoolhouse fire that threatens to burn our beloved offspring to a crispy death, let’s consider God’s will for everyone here in this spur-of-the-moment bucket brigade and pray for God’s generous wisdom in this obviously challenging time. May Romans 8:28-39 prevail. Dear gracious heavenly Father. . .”

In Spring Creek Bride, Janice Thompson, clearly doesn’t go that far, but she fails to craft a seamless novel in which the Christian life flows easily.

That not withstanding, Thompson offers her readers interesting characters in a challenging situation. Janice Thompson has published more than thirty full-length novels and non-fiction books. She is a Christian free-lance author and a native Texan.

Twice Upon A Time

Lois Richer
Inspirational Romance
Steeple Hill Books - April, 2009

The subtext we’ve come to expect from the Big Wedding Scene in movies and novels is the best man-bridesmaid tryst. And, yes, Lois Richer’s Twice Upon a Time delivers that scene. Although she bypasses the steam, it is the boy-meets-girl part of Richer’s story.

Olivia Hastings is the bridesmaid and widower Reese Woodward is the best man. He’s the brother of the bride. As a boy, Reese was adopted by the bride’s family. Richer introduced the family in Rocky Mountain Legacy, a Love Inspired novel, the first of this trilogy. Twice Upon a Time is the second with one more to come. While this second book is also a Love Inspired novel, it certainly has its delicious share of things gone wrong.

Reese handles the family’s legal affairs and is the father of twin sons. His wife was killed in an automobile accident, and his grief remains oppressive. While Olivia attracts him at the wedding, Reese’s grief remains all-consuming; and his deep loyalty to his deceased wife renders him helpless. But, tough one to loose, Olivia is taken by the twins, and predictably, by Reese Woodward. Olivia also has a painful past and she is somewhat leery of a new relationship. With that, the story unfolds.

Weddings by Woodwords is the corporate name of this family business. Reese is an adopted son who is active in Weddings by Woodwards. Since he is adopted, he feels extra responsible for doing everything right and on his own. He has some hard lessons to learn. The family is totally accepting of Reese. Reese is the one with doubts. Because of these doubts, Reese is especially hard on himself. This speaks to the psychological problems that adopted are apt to have. A loving family helps, but sometimes psychotherapy can help a great deal.

Lois Richer is good at her craft and this book shows her work well. The next book in this trilogy A Ring And A Promise will be out in June. Watch for it!

Someone Like You

A Night Riders Romance
Leigh Greenwood
Historical Romance
Leisure Books - 2009

Leigh Greenwood is the exception that proves the rule. (I’m still not sure what that old saw really means. It makes no sense to me. The exception disproves the rule; but it is undeniably a good way in which to launch this review.)

Leigh Greenwood is one-of-a-kind in the world of today’s romance writers. He’s not one-of-a-kind because of the quality of his books, although that’s a case I can easily make, he’s one-of-a-kind because in the midst of all those wonderfully creative women novelists, Leigh Greenwood stands tall—as a man. Once a man; always a man. He may not be the only man entertaining us with successful romance novels, but in my view he is certainly the best. That could be because he has devoted his life to the craft with three series, totaling 23 novels, and eleven other novels. Prolific is thy name.

Greenwood titles the fourth book in his Night Riders series Someone Like You. His hero, Rafe Jerry finds his girl friend in bed with his father. That begins the back story that estranges Rafe from his family as he joins the Confederate Army to fight the good fight.

Leigh Greenwood has always been a shocker. He writes romance from a male point of view, but surprisingly his intimate scenes honor the woman. They are delicate, building, and often reveal fascinating qualities in his characters.

In Someone Like You, there is a lot of pain and lack of trust. There is reason for this. When Rafe finds his girlfriend in bed with his father, he immediately loses trust in his girlfriend and experiences pain for his loss. Unfortunately, the psychological effect tends to conclude that no woman can be trusted. It’s easy to generalize such feelings, no matter how inaccurate they are. Once again it may be time for a good psychotherapist.

You can always count on Leigh Greenwood to deal with people in an even handed way. It’s always a joy to read his work.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Give Me A Cowboy

Jodi Thomas, DeWanna Pace, Linda Broday, Phyllis Miranda
Historical Romance
Zebra Books (410 pgs) - 2009

It’s anthology time around the old coral: The four one-hundred page novellas in this Zebra Historical are set at the same time and in the same town, Kasota Springs in the Texas Panhandle. It is rodeo week and the rough-and-tumble festivities drive all four stories, except that with one exception, the characters in the different stories are unrelated.

In Silent Partner, Jodi Thomas builds her story around Rowdy Darnell and Laurel Hayes. Rowdy’s name fits the character. He was a hell-raiser since childhood, but except for the imprisonment for a crime he didn’t commit, he could count on his ready charm to ease the consequences of his patented scrapes. He didn’t know there was going to be a rodeo until he got back in town. But decided he’d give it a go. He had only enough money to enter one event.

Laurel Hayes is the other side of the coin. She’s a solid citizen and a successful rancher’s daughter. She has known Rowdy since they were kids. She knows he’s poison, but she finds it a compelling poison, a spider and fly thing, and Jodi Thomas turns their dichotomy into a fast-moving, rewarding read. Rowdy had always been nice to Laurel and she has never forgotten it. She has a plan. She told him she would pay his entry fees and if he won “All-around-winner” Rowdy could keep the money prize and half the cattle and give her the other 100 head of cattle. One other stipulation – Rowdy had to keep quiet about their deal. It had to be a silent partnership.

Rowdy thought she was crazy to make such a deal, but, he was up for it. Her main objective was for her father not to find out about this silent partnership.

In Luck of the Draw, DeWanna Pace takes us to the rodeo. The legendary bull, Bone Buster, had killed Dally Angelo’s dad. When Dally Angelo’s dad was killed by Bone Buster, Augusta swore that she’d make sure that Dally would never get the chance to ride Bone Buster. Augusta Garrison who broke her engagement to Dally Angelo back in Pecos, with no explanation, was in charge of the drawing for the bull rides. Augusta also didn’t tell Dally that she was pregnant at the time of the break-up. That together with rodeo intrigue builds a story of love laced with action (or action laced with love, depending). Either way DeWanna Pace takes you off to the races. Whoops. Sorry. Off to the bull ride and Bone Buster’s questionable future.

In Texas Tempest, Linda Broday travels outside the box for her western historical. Not that her story doesn’t end well, but it begins in an unlikely setting, the Kasota Springs Community Cemetery. Tempest LeDoux (again the first name fits the character) carefully tends to a group of adjacent graves. Her obvious loving care catches the attention of gunslinger McKenna Smith. After she leaves, he looks closer.

All five graves belong to Tempest’s previous husbands, suggesting serious overuse of the death-do-us-part department. Checking further, McKenna finds they were all natural deaths. As beautiful as this woman was, husband number six would clearly be tempting fate. Husband number six? I wonder who that will be?

In Roping the Wind, Phyliss Miranda has an imaginative title for her page-turning contribution to this Give Me A Cowboy set. Boy meets girl in an unusual way. It involves a bow and arrow. Not Cupid’s bow but Alaine LeDoux’s bow. (Yes, Tempest’s daughter.) While practicing for a rodeo bow-and-arrow competition, she shoots Morgan Payne in the upper thigh, proving Alaine still needs practice. But her bow-driven ballistics does get the boy-meets-girl thing done with some charm.

While Morgan Payne (who should change the spelling to “Pain”) has come from the distant city, beneath his dude-like facade lurks a Pinkerton undercover man and one hell of a cowboy. Not unexpectedly, Morgan Payne will become Alaine’s husband number one. Hopefully the curse of the mother will not be visited upon her fetching daughter.

Personally, I like anthologies. Each story is shorter than a novel and therefore moves faster. I especially like that part. This anthology leads off with a story by Jodi Thomas, one of my favorites. The other three writers were new to me. The writing was all acceptable, however, some of the stories seemed to have a lot of western jargon in them. I understand that is an issue that has had a lot of discussion. Evidently, each section of the country had its own jargon. Therefore, it’s too confusing to use all of the jargons, so we usually see a generally accepted mix that won’t throw anyone.

In a Mother's Arms

Jillian Hart & Victoria Bylin
Inspirational Historical Romance
Steeple Hill Books - April, 2009

In a Mother’s Arms is two great reads for the price of one in a Mother’s Day anthology from Steeple Hill.

The first story is Jillian Hart’s Finally A Family. Her plot echoes familiar. The kids in the story, the hero’s twin daughters, rabble rouse for their widower dad to marry the heroine and give them a complete family. They want a real mom, not the housekeeper. The twins Hart draws are wildly assertive, often to an amusing fault. They refuse to take no for an answer and their continuing refusal fuels the story.

The twin’s dad is the local doctor. He doesn’t want a second wife because he’s been there, done that; and the hurt from her loss continues to haunt. Never again! Doctor Sam Frost no longer believes in romantic love. It could open the door to the possibility of yet another loss which would aggravate the pain with which he still deals.

Hart’s heroine, Mollie McKaslin, lost her husband and only child to scarlet fever. Self reliant and fighting the pain from her loss, she wants nothing to do with a relationship that isn’t based on true love. But she finds the obstreperous twins more than engaging, and their pet cow, who insists on going in the house, adds to the story a Disney-like charm.

The second novella is Victoria Bylin’s Home Again. So far she’s published six novels and three novellas, the most recent of which is this one. Six of her stories are under the Harlequin imprint with the other three Love Inspired Historicals. She’s under contract for four more which makes for job security as long as she keeps her Muse happy.

Victoria is leaning to the Love Inspired brand because she tells me, “it’s a better fit for her voice.” She has a heart for romance readers who may also be struggling with spiritual concerns. When she got serious about writing, she was drawn to westerns, not only because of the physical challenges of survival during the period, but because “church and Christianity were a vital part of the culture.”

Fourteen years ago, Cassiopeia O’Rourke left Gabe Wyatt at the altar without explanation. She wasn’t sure why herself, except that there had to be more to life than Guthry Corners, Colorado. Her father had given her her mother’s diary. Upon reading it she found that her mother hadn’t been satisfied with her life and always wished she had put off marriage and spread her wings. Cassie was afraid that would happen to her. She hightailed it to Chicago and gave life to a childhood dream of becoming an actress. After getting married, she also gave life to a kid. As so many before her, she soon discovers that life upon the wicked stage is nothing like a girl supposes. The man she had foolishly married in hopes of that career-making part turns out to be a liar, a drunk, and a wife beater. A trifecta of wedded bliss.

Surprisingly, she is saved by her dad’s death. He left her his mercantile store in Guthry Conners which gives Cassie an escape from her Chicago nightmare.

The once and only Gabe Wyatt is now the town deputy sheriff, and Cassiopeia’s 12-year-old boy, Luke, fast becomes the local hellion. Victoria’s story unfolds with Wyatt wishing that the burgeoning town hellion was actually his son. Gabe can see that Luke is having a tough time and needs a father and he wants to help him.

Psychologically, these two stories have similarities. In Finally a Family, Dr. Frost, now wants to protect himself and thinks that not having romantic love is a way to do that. Molly had had a loveless marriage and it hurt so much she wanted to make sure she was not caught in that predicament again.

In Home Again. Cassie had a terrible marriage in Chicago. She wanted to make sure that never happened again! Consequently she wasn’t that anxious to marry again. She was afraid to try. She too was protecting herself. Gabe was so broken hearted over Cassie leaving him at the alter that he didn’t even look for a wife. He just waited, hoping that she would come back. She did come back and he was still willing to wait, but he feared another heartbreak.

We, as humans, try to solve our problems but don’t always try in an effective way. Often the solution is actually simple, difficult for the people going through it to see, but easy for a good psychotherapist. Like any trained professional not directly involved in a situation, they can often recognize an easy solution. Thank God for good therapists. Thank God for romance novels, too, because they always deliver a happy ending.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Homecoming Blessings

Merrillee Whren
Inspirational Romance
Steeple Hill Love Inspired - April, 2009

Author Merrilee Whren lives with her successful businessman husband on an island off Florida’s east coast. That’s where they finally settled, but their 30-plus-year relationship took them all around the United States. That provided her with lots of picturesque settings. Now their lovely island gives her the opportunity to stroll a sandy beach to think about the plotting. How could she not have become a romance writer? Where do I sign?

Homecoming Blessings is a contemporary Love Inspired Steeple Hill effort that, as expected, easily weaves a story of faith into its character-driven (beach inspired?) plot. In this case the beach turned in a gentle plot in which the action drifts like a lazy sea gull on the wind.

The action revolves around the different values held by the fresh-from-the-field missionary, Ashley Hiatt, and big-city businessman, Peter Dalton. Ashley’s dad, Peter’s boss, has paired the two on a project that ultimately changes them both. Homecoming Blessings is about that change, and it asks both characters to stretch.

Peter is a worldly guy who doesn’t want to settle down and Ashley is a godly gal for whom settling down is all but logical. Psychologically, Peter judges his worth by how much money he makes. Ashley judges her worth, not by money, but on serving people who need to be ministered to. She also always puts others first and is comfortable doing that. Peter and Ashley make quite a diverse pair, however, they make it work and adjust to reality. And, end up feeling good about themselves.

Merrillee Whren won the 2003 Golden Heart Award for best inspirational romance manuscript presented by Romance Writers of America. We always look forward to Merrillee's books and know that we'll get a nice flowing book that will keep us calm as we read.

Rachel and the Hired Gun

Elaine Levine
Historical Romance
Zebra Books - 2009

No one wants to find themselves in the middle of a hassle, especially a hassle that could kill—especially when you’re the “bait,” the “target,” or the “score.” That’s what Rachel Douglas discovered when summoned west to live with her dad. She thought she was lucky to leave the eastern situation in which she was nearly a slave. But with her unscrupulous dad she found herself a pawn in a ranch war.

But then there was this hired gun named Sager. He was a tall, dark, and, yes, handsome half-Indian guy who was handy with his gun, his fists, and, well, it’s a romance novel, right?

While the old west did have lawmen, they were few and far between, especially in the Eastern Dakota Territory; and the ranchers there “had a hankering” for making up their own law, especially Rachel’s dad who hired Sager to do the dirty work. Sager had his own score to settle, so for him it was two for the price of one, getting well paid for seeking making a score in his own vengeance column.

Thus unfolds Elaine Levine’s first book, Rachel and the Hired Gun. This is a well crafted book. It moves right along advancing the story at a good pace. Rachel's dilemma is a tough one, but she managed to make the best choices. Elaine had lived with relatives in Virginia. They treated her like a servant. Her mother had died when she was very young and her dad thought it wouldn't be safe to keep her in the wild west so he sent her to Virginia. Psychologically, that had led Rachel to think she had little value and that no one really cared for her. Needless to say her self-esteem was really low. It seemed to aid her self worth when she really had to take care of herself in the wild country.

We can all look forward to more books from Elaine Levine and hopefully it won't be long!