When Cheri asked if I’d be interested in reviewing advance copies of Bella Book’s July releases, I wasn’t too sure. Two books were by authors that I haven’t come across before and one book was by an author that I’ve never really had great luck with. What the hell though – with summer coming on hot and heavy, I’ve been spending most evenings sitting out on the patio reading. Imagine my surprise when I found myself still out on the patio after 11 pm, unwilling to stop reading. I’m not sure if I should be blaming the creeping humidity or the quality of books this month for interfering with my sleep.
Overall, this month’s releases from Bella are refreshingly different romances that break out of some the tropes and standard plots/setting/characters that are often found in lesfic novels. I usually like my romance with a dash of another sub-genre to keep things interesting, but these ones captivated me. I strongly recommend In My Heart and The Secret Chord and I have high hopes to see them shortlisted for the 2020 GCLS awards.
In My Heart – Bette Hawkins
For a number of reasons I wasn’t too sure if I’d like this one – historical setting, country music, southern US setting. Surprise surprise – it sucked me in and I loved it. Set in 1958 in small town Southern US and focused on the early days of the country music circuit, this is a really sweet and gentle romance. The setting gives it a bit of a nostalgic feel, but Hawkins keeps things realistic and the setting comes alive. Hawkins provides enough detail to set the scene and give the reader a feeling of being in the moment without resorting to dumping information and context.
Narrated by Alice, In My Heart follows her struggle to find her place in the world. There’s a wonderful innocence and inner strength in Alice – smothered by her life in a small southern US town, she wants more than to follow in the footsteps of her mother and sister, she wants to make her own way in the world and make her own mark. I especially appreciated that Hawkins wrote Alice within the context of the time and place – in some novels, the main characters openly, and rather unrealistically, challenge the societal norms but Alice’s resolution and rebellions are subtle and small – working with her wild aunt May (she drinks gin and tonics on Friday nights, plays records and has a gentleman friend … pretty wild for Alice’s family) at the phone company, resisting her family’s pressure to marry and settle down, leaving her home to join a country music band and buying pulp novels on the sly. Alice’s challenging of the norms are personal and she never settles or gives in – she is remarkably self-aware and accepts her differences – and actively chooses to follow her heart and dreams.
There are no “big bads” or dastardly events in this – just real people and the lives they lead. The secondary characters are well developed and the interactions with Alice and her family have an authentic feel – her parents especially being so stoic and practical and not really understanding their daughter, but there is still a strong unspoken love and you know they want the best for her even if is something so far out of their own knowledge or experience. Alice’s friend is wonderfully and subtly drawn – the words gay or lesbian are never used or acknowledged but he and Alice find themselves to be kindred spirits not only in their love of music but also in their acceptance that neither of them fit in and they are both fine with that.
Dorothy, the lead singer from the band, is talented, bright and confident – everything that Alice wants to be and their relationship builds slowly. Alice is drawn to Dorothy by her voice, and falls deeper under her spell as they spend more time together – initially, there’s lots of adoration from afar as Alice realizes she is crushing hard, but as the two spend more time together, the bond and relationship builds. Dorothy may be more certain and experienced, but she is also more cautious and careful than Alice – which gives this a slow burn build up. It also propels a bit of angst as Dorothy’s caution pushes them apart but the resolution works and emphasizes Alice’s inner strength and building confidence.
This isn’t a long book but Hawkins uses the time she has with the reader to focus on the characters and creates a wonderfully sweet romance.
The Secret Chord – Virginia Hale
This is a wonderfully poignant slow burn, second chance romance that has lingered in my mind for days after I finished reading it. The story unfolds slowly but I never felt bored – I was captivated from the first page and that lasted right to the last one. There’s just the right level of angst and pining to propel things along but this isn’t a total hand-wringer. Instead, this is an intelligent and mature novel of love.
The story itself is pretty simple – Kate, a music teacher, takes a year long position at the isolated Catholic boarding school she had attended as a young girl and finds herself reunited with her first love, Tilly, who has also returned to the school as a teacher. The complexity is in the characters and the way the story unfolds – I really was impressed with Hale’s writing as it drew me in and kept me engaged.
Kate is a fantastic character who carries the book – she has a remarkable level of maturity that is underscored by her vulnerability when it comes to Tilly. Her love for Tilly shines through the entire book and, knowing that she has and always will love Tilly, she struggles with accepting that Tilly may never be able to return her feelings. Kate’s honesty, in her own thoughts as well as in her interactions with others, is refreshing and particularly amusing. I loved her scenes with the students -some of the more humourous moments of the book – and I found myself invested in each of the girls and their exasperating antics but they also had flashes of compassion and maturity.
The story is told in third person narration from Kate’s perspective. This allows the reader to build a strong bond with Kate, but the down side is that Tilly is a bit of a mystery … to Kate and the reader. We see Tilly through Kate’s lens, but she is almost over-romanticized and too good to be true – beautiful, caring, innocent and naive with a strong devotion to God (and a bit uptight and repressed). She appears to spend most of her time devoted to helping others and working in the gardens while Kate pines and convinces herself not to try and interfere in Tilly’s decisions. Through their interactions, Hale shows rather than tells Tilly’s feelings and conflicts.There’s a lot of conflict that her character has to deal with – raised by her aunt in the convent, she has a strong and clear devotion to God, but the feelings she doesn’t want to acknowledge are at odds with the teachings of the Church she so desperately loves. She is, without a doubt, a good person – better than most, but that innate kindness and love leaves her open to be taken advantage of, especially by the rather vicar who’s own religious devotion seems more shallow and self-serving.
I really enjoyed this one and it was a welcome change from the cookie cutter lesfic romance or intrigue novels I’ve been reading lately.
Because I Said So – Karin Kallmaker
Karin Kallmaker is one of the Grande Dames of lesfic – she’s published around 29 books over the last 20 years and I’ve always respected her as an author who invests so much into the lesfic community. Despite her voluminous back catalogue of books, I’ve only read a few Kallmaker’s books and never seemed to find the one that made me fall in love with her books. Could be I picked the wrong ones to start with or it could be that I wasn’t in the mood for romances when I did read them. Over the last month I’ve actually read two of her newest books and I was really happy to find that I enjoyed them quite a bit more than the earlier forays I had made into her published works. I would like to have a little chat with her about titles and covers though as they really don’t “sell” the stories and without a reading challenge or request for review, I would have passed right by them.
Because I Said So has a lot going on in it, and Kallmaker has gone outside of some of the familiar settings and characters, but there may have been a bit too many things and it detracted from this being a full-on romance. In this story, none of the characters are super rich or super successful – they are more real and believable, with Kesa working to make ends meet to support herself and her sister and Shannon as an analyst for the US Marshalls who works behind the scenes and tries to make a difference in small ways. Kesa and Shannon meet when their respective kids (Josie is Kesa’s sister who she has raised since she was a child, and Pax is a former foster child that Shannon has been watching out for unofficially for the last number of years) announce that they want to marry (after a month of dating) – obviously, neither Kesa nor Shannon approve and they worry about the young people that they have sacrificed so much for over the years and the potential that this decision will impact their bright futures.
Although the Josie and Pax storyline is the impetus of much of this book, it fell a bit flat for me. If I were Kesa, I would have throttled Josie long ago – she is self-absorbed, unappreciative and completely unrealistic. Pax on the other hand is a bit too even-keeled and accepting. The idea that they have met and fallen so deeply in love that they want to marry after a month (you’d think they were lesbians in a lesbian romance) despite the objections of their parental figures was a bit forced and just didn’t work for me. Josie’s reasoning for marrying was trite and didn’t really make much sense – I would have bought an unplanned pregnancy as a better reason for them to push to marry – based on their pasts, I could believe that both of them were determined to have a child raised by two parents in a stable or traditional family.
That being said – Josie and Pax’s insistence at a shotgun wedding is the impetus for Kesa and Shannon’s meeting and gives them the reasons to interact. Based on the development of their relationship, however, they are a bit of a “people in glass houses” kind of situation. There’s a nice and smart kind of twist when Kesa and Shannon meet and it gives the romance a fresh spin. The obvious attraction between the two is tempered by their concern for the “kids”. There’s a push and pull – the attraction is definitely there with a strong chemistry, but life, regrets, and fear get in the way.
I enjoyed the book and some of the chances that Kallmaker took with it – it had enough different spins that I found it intriguing. This is a good read – but I would classify this more as a family drama with some romantic angst.