Saturday, June 15, 2013

Rita Season, Part 3: The Long Contemporary Series Romance

The 33rd Annual Conference of the Romance Writers of America will be held in Atlanta July 17-20. The 2013 RITA winners will be announced on July 20.

The posts that I’ll be sharing on alternate Saturdays between now and July 6 will be self-indulgent, romance-fan posts.  I’m going to be looking only at the categories in which I have read most of the finalists and talking about the books I have read with a nostalgic glance at some favorite winners from the past and a few gripes about treasured books not included among the current finalists. I hope you’ll join me and share your own totally authentic, equally subjective views.

Long Contemporary Series: The Past

It should come as no surprise to anyone that Nora Roberts was a repeat winner in the early years of this award, with RITAs for This Magic Moment (1984), A Matter of Choice (1985), and One Summer (1987), all of which I read. Other repeat winners who were favorites include Cheryl Reavis for A Crime of The Heart (1989) and Patrick Gallagher’s Widow (1991), Kathleen Korbel for The Ice Cream Man (1990), A Rose for Maggie (1992), and A Soldier’s Heart (1995), and Ruth Wind for Reckless (1998) and Meant to Be Married (1999). Another favorite among the winners of that period is Dragonslayer (1994) by Emilie Richards. Harlequin has practically made an industry out of Nora Roberts reissues, and so I’m sure all those titles are still available in both print and digital formats. Amazingly, among the others, only Reckless is available as an e-book. I’d buy them all in a heartbeat if I could download them to my Kindle. Most are on my keeper shelves, but after years of rereading, they are shabby and tattered. I don’t even dare reread A Rose for Maggie and A Soldier’s Heart, two of my all-time favorites, again for fear they will fall to pieces. 

Fortunately, all of these authors are still writing. Nora Roberts has been a fixture on bestseller lists for ages, Cheryl Reavis has a new book releasing next month, An Unexpected Wife (Live Inspired Historical), and Kathleen Korbel, aka Eileen Dreyer, has a new Drake’s Rake book, Once a Rake, available in late October. Ruth Wind aka Barbara O’Neal won’t have a new book on shelves until The All You Can Dream Buffet releases in May of next year, but, if you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend her June 2012 book, The Sleeping Night, written as Barbara Samuel. I reviewed Emilie Richards’s soon-to-be-released Somewhere Between Luck and Trust earlier this week.

Coming Home to You may be Fay Robinson’s only RITA winner (2002) in this category (She won in 2001 for Best First Book) in her tragically brief career, but all five of her books are well worth reading. Sadly, only The Notorious Mrs. Wright and Christmas on Snowbird Mountain, reissued in 2011 as The Wish List (Harlequin Heartwarming) are available as e-books. I especially wish Harlequin would issue her first book, A Man Like Mac, in digital format.

The three most recent winners in this category are all authors whose books I always eagerly anticipate. Janice Kay Johnson won in 2008 for Snowbound, and she is a double finalist in this category for 2013. This has been an incredibly prolific year for Johnson. She has had three Superromances released already: A Hometown Boy (January), Anything for Her (March), and Where It May Lead (May), with two more scheduled From This Day On (August) and Bringing Maddie Home (November). She has also self-published three novellas: Dangerous Waters, Home Field Advantage, and All Through the House with a fourth as part of a Harlequin Christmas anthology, The Christmas Wedding Quilt, to be released November 1. (This is a don’t-miss book with stories by Sarah Mayberry and Emilie Richards as well.) Karen Templeton, who won in 2009 for A Mother’s Wish and in 2011 for Welcome Home, Cowboy, is also a finalist this year. I loved A Marriage Campaign (2013), the conclusion to her Summer Sisters trilogy. Beth Andrews won in 2010 for A Not-So-Perfect Past, part of her Serenity Springs series. This year she introduced a new series: Talk of the Town, the first book in her Shady Grove series was published in April. What Happens Between Friends, Book 2, will release in August, with the third book, Caught Up in You set for December. There was no Long Contemporary Series category in 2012.

Long Contemporary Series Romance: The Present

This is the only RITA category in which I have read all the finalists. I read a lot of Superromances, and five of the eight nominated books are Superromance titles. Four of the six nominated authors are writers whose books I always check out. The downside to all this is that with so many authors I love and books I enjoyed in competition, I can’t pick a favorite for which to cheer. 



A Cold Creek Noel by RaeAnne Thayne is the eleventh book in Thayne’s Cowboys of Cold Creek series. Although I prefer Thayne’s non-category books, she has a gift for creating characters that I care about. I’ve read most of the Cold Creek books and found them engaging. This one is no exception. It’s a heartwarming story of two wounded people, two believable kids, a generous serving of extended family, and lots of dogs. The Cowboys of Cold Creek series includes a number of Christmas stories, and Caidy Bowman and Ben Caldwell’s story is a strong addition to the group.

From Father to Son by Janice Kay Johnson is the middle book in A Brother’s Word trilogy features a dour detective with heavy baggage, a heroine with heavy burdens, and two kids and a dog who are real heart stealers. I probably would have liked Niall MacLachlan and Rowan Staley’s story even if it hadn’t been written by JKJ, but her ability to create engaging, credible characters and add twists to the plot makes this another memorable book by this author. I also liked the other books in the trilogy, Between Love and Duty and The Call of Bravery; the latter is actually my favorite of the series.

A Gift for All Seasons by Karen Templeton is the second of the Summer Sisters books. Templeton says in a letter to her readers that the character of Patrick Shaughnessy was inspired by J. R. Martinez, the former soldier turned actor who was severely burned during his service in Iraq. Templeton was beginning April’s story as Martinez was winning Season 13 of ABC’s Dancing with the Stars, and the idea for her hero was born. Of course, Martinez is eons ahead of Patrick in self-acceptance and the courage to live life. These are the lessons Patrick learns over the course of the book, lessons that his family, Lili, and, most of all, April Ross have to teach him. This was one of my favorite Christmas stories of 2012.

A Life Rebuilt by Jean Brashear concludes her 2012 MacAllister trilogy, but my love affair with the Montalvo/MacAllister family goes back to the first Brashear book. Jenna MacAllister, the adored younger sister of Diego and Jesse Montalvo and Cade and Zane MacAllister, is an effervescent optimist who deserves the nickname her father gives her, Sunshine. Roman Gallardo, tormented by all he saw as a member of an Army Special Forces team in Iraq, has become a recluse who runs through the night streets to keep himself in shape and works on restoring the house he grew up in. Jenna’s innocence and idealism capture Roman’s interest, when he saves her a second time, the bond between them strengthens. But Roman can’t believe the darkness that surrounds him can be overcome even by the brightness that is Jenna—until she shows that she’s strong enough to save him as surely as he saved her. This novel is filled with characters who show brokenness and courage can co-exist.

Making Her Way Home by Janice Kay Johnson is not one of my favorite books by JKJ, but that has more to do with the fact that child in jeopardy books make me a basket case than it does with the book’s quality. Detective Mike Ryan is a stubborn, honorable, compassionate hero who gets past the walls Beth Greenway has in place, hardly surprising given her abusive childhood. He gets her through the harrowing experience of her niece’s kidnapping and shows her an HEA is possible.

No Ordinary Joe by Michelle Celmer features a heroine with big dreams of making it in Nashville and a hero with a history of women who leave him. Reily and Joe are warm, winning characters, Joe’s daughter is a darling, and Paradise, Colorado is a place I’d love to visit. I’m a fan of small-town romances and sweet love stories that show the extraordinary in the ordinary. This book qualifies on both counts.

Out of the Depths by Pamela Hearon is a reunion story complicated by class issues, and it’s set in Kentucky, not a common setting. I also have a fondness for photographer protagonists. These facts earned this book three stars from before I read the first page. This was fortunate because when Kyndal Rawlings and Chase Brennan are trapped in a cave for four days, I was tempted to bail. Just the thought was enough to give me nightmares, but I persisted and found this a rewarding story. I found Kyndal with her tenacity and vulnerability the more sympathetic character, but Chase redeems himself, especially when he finally puts his father in his place.

A Texas Chance by Jean Brashear is the first book in the new MacAllister series. Cade MacAllister, an adventure photographer, has spent twenty years wandering the world and taking photographs of some of its most beautiful and inaccessible spots. Cade returns home after an accident on a shoot leaves his friend dead and Cade critically injured. He is also burdened with guilt so severe that he has lost his passion for photography. Sophie Carlisle is used to depending only on herself. Orphaned at fifteen, left alone again after the death of her husband and three-year-old daughter in an automobile accident, she has built a life devoted to her work, allowing only a very few friends into her inner world. Wounded characters in need of healing and fighting it every step of the way are Brashear’s specialty. I loved the reluctant vulnerabilities of Cade and Sophie, and I loved seeing them achieve their HEA. Catching glimpses of all Cade’s extended family as they come together to help Sophie and her reaction to the big, loving family made this book even more special.

Long Contemporary Series Romance: The Missing

It’s harder to argue for a book that should have been in a list of best books in its category when the list of finalists includes so many beloved authors. Certainly there are long contemporary romances I loved that I would have liked to see included. Among them are the following:

Bring Him Home, Karina Bliss’s third Special Forces book that offers her usual engaging, adult characters and with its story of grief and second-time-around love adds a greater emotional richness

The Long Shot, Ellen Hartman’s story of a pro basketball player who ends up coaching a girls’ basketball team, a bad girls’ basketball team, with all its complex layers of bad memories, illiteracy, and fraternal relationship plus a romance that is an unusual pairing.
Unexpected Family, Molly O’Keefe’s sequel to His Wife for One Night (2011), that takes a pair of failures and makes them a hero and heroine who triumph without losing their authenticity as complicated, flawed human beings.
But my top category read of the year, and the book I sorely miss on this list, is Sarah Mayberry’s Within Reach. It’s not only my favorite in a long list of Mayberry keepers, but it’s one of those books that resonated with me so powerfully that I still think about it many months after having finished it.
Mayberry’s characters always seem real; they behave like adults who know what it is to hurt, to dream, to grow. And Mayberry has the knack for giving her readers romances with plenty of sizzle without making the characters appear to have the libidos of adolescent males. But Within Reach goes beyond her usual excellent romance to present a powerful and moving look at grief and recovery.

Because the reader meets and likes Billie Young in the prologue and sees her interacting with her husband Michael and their children and with her best friend, Angie Bartlett, the empathy evoked for both Angie and Michael has a dimension it would lack had Billie been merely a name. The unrequited love for a best friend’s spouse or lover that blossoms into mutual love after the death of the friend is standard fare in romance fiction, and it has been handled skillfully by some authors, disastrously by others. But what Mayberry does is different, and I think more difficult. Before Billie’s death, Angie and Michael’s relationship is solely through Billie. They like one another, but they define one another in terms of Billie. Angie sees Michael as Billie’s husband; Michael sees Angie as Billie’s best friend.  This removes any sleaze factor from what happens later, and it allows Mayberry to show their relationship develop gradually with the emotional connection strengthening as the sexual tension increases.

The intimacy between them grows naturally from the time they spend together, from their mutual commitment to the children Eva and Charlie, from the honest conversations they have, and from their concern about each other’s well being. And Mayberry never oversimplifies the process. The relationship, emotional and physical, is a series of advances and retreats, and both Angie and Michael struggle with feelings of guilt and disloyalty each step of the way. Within Reach is an unforgettable book.

Do you read Harlequin Superromance or Special Editions or some other long contemporary category romance line? If so, what was your favorite long contemporary series romance novel of 2012?


Kathleen O said...

I love SuperRomance and Special Editions. Have been reading them for many years. I love RaeAnne Thayne's Cold Creek series and Leanne Banks Royal babies series. One of my fav in SuperRomance is Kay Stockham's North Star, Montana series as is her Tulane's of Tennessee series. But there are so many wonderful series in both categories, just to many to name.

Wendy said...

I love both HSE and HSR - but sadly didn't read ANY of the finalists this year. I have no excuse other than not-enough-time since I have several of them in my digital TBR.

Cheryl Reavis is one of my favorites and one of the few authors who contemporary and historical voices work equally as well for me. In fact, I read one of her past RITA winners for my TBR Challenge this month :)

Anne said...

I'm not a big reader of Supers, I admit, but I'll follow Sarah Mayberry wherever she goes. I agree with your comments about her 100%, Janga.

Janga said...

Kathleen, I keep meaning to read Maya Banks. I've heard good things about her books. I do read Kay Stockham's books and am particularly fond of her Tulanes.

Janga said...

Wendy, I agree about Reavis. I've been delighted to see so many of her older titles made available as e-books. Blackberry Winter is probably my favorite Reavis, but I have many keepers with her name on the cover.

Janga said...

Anne, I'm a huge Mayberry fan too. An e-galley of her September release is calling to me from my Kindle as I write these words. :)

The Romance Dish said...

I'm a big SuperRomance and Special Edition reader. Kay Stockham is a favorite as well as Holly Jacobs, Karen Templeton, Molly O'Keefe, Karina Bliss, Sarah Mayberry, Helen Brenna, RaeAnne Thayne and more.

I've read a couple of this year's finalists and would have liked to read more but, like Wendy, there just aren't enough hours in the day!

PJ Ausdenmore said...

Oops. That comment above was from me. Forgot to change hats!

Janga said...

I knew it was you, PJ. LOL

I like your list. Do you have any news of Helen Brenna? Her web site has disappeared, and she's no longer with the RWTTD bloggers. And I can't find any mention of books by her since last September's Redemption at Mirabelle.