fiction · romance

Book review: Love Starts Here (A Morgan’s Grove Novel #1) by Traci Borum

Cozy comfort reads. So many of us are looking for those right now, and I’m no different. I enjoy a good romance novel (of any heat level, to be honest); there’s just something about a couple falling in love, the yearning, the anticipation, the sparks, that speaks to me and tugs at my heart. So when Traci Borum contacted me and offered a copy of her new novel, Love Starts Here (A Morgan’s Grove Novel #1) (Red Adept Publishing, 2020), I was intrigued by her description of the novel as having a “Hallmarky” feel. I’ve only seen a handful of Hallmark movies (no cable here), but I know plenty of people enjoy their movies and find them comforting, so I was in.

Jill McCallister, author of a popular four-book mystery series, is stuck. Writer’s block has struck hard after she finished her series, and she has no idea what to write next. Desperate for inspiration, she accepts an assigned article on genealogy from a friend’s struggling magazine, only to discover her very own ancestor founded a small Texas town called Morgan’s Grove. Figuring a change of pace could only help, Jill packs up, leaves her small Denver life behind, and heads off in search of creativity and answers about her family in the Lonestar state.

What she’s not expecting is to be pulled so deeply in by the town. Morgan’s Grove and its residents are immediately welcoming, presenting her with the friendly, charming hometown Jill’s never had. Lucille, the woman at whose house she’s staying, quickly becomes a trusted friend and surrogate grandmother, and Rick, Lucille’s handsome, quiet, somewhat distant grandson, slowly moves from mysterious to sympathetic, and then more. After having spent her childhood on the run, Jill’s finally found a home…and maybe even a home for her heart.

Ms. Borum wasn’t exaggerating in her description; Love Stars Here is all the Hallmark without the cheese. The story is set during the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, which qualifies this as a Christmas novel for those of you who look for those kinds of things (but it worked out just fine at the end of April, thankyouverymuch!). There’s cool weather, gingerbread cookies and a homegrown baking business (and even a yummy-looking recipe at the end of the book!), decorations, Bing Crosby crooning Christmas carols, a million mugs of cocoa…if you’re looking for cozy, you’ll absolutely find it here. The romance is a sweet, slow burn and is absolutely appropriate for the youngest of romance lovers.

(And if you like Corgis? There are Corgis in the book. As someone who has been absolutely dying over a friend’s pictures of her new Corgi puppy lately, this made me ridiculously happy.)

Jill McCallister is a delight of a heroine, and her realistic struggles with writer’s block and her difficult relationship with her almost entirely absent mother lends her an air of empathy from the start. Her giving nature with Lucille and faith that her writing mojo will return, even when it feels as though her Muse has abandoned her for good, makes her a joy to read. Rick remains enigmatic through much of the story, but the fact that their romance didn’t move from zero to one hundred immediately made that work for me.

Ms. Borum has nailed small town charm in a big way with Morgan’s Grove. The town has all the appeal of any tucked-away New England seaside village or midwestern crossroads, but without the reality of what we know small-town life can be (no gossip, no true town busybody, no dark secrets). It’s the quaint hometown of our dreams, sweet without veering into saccharine, crisp holiday weather without the glop of five day-old slush, spooky, wind-whipped storms with only minimal property damage, friendly neighbors who are always willing to pitch in and who have your back without talking behind it. If you’re looking for a cozy book-vacation destination, traveling with Jill McCallister to Morgan’s Grove, Texas needs to be on your literary map.

One of the best things about this book was that it wasn’t a high-stakes, edge-of-your-seat novel. Sometimes we as readers want that, and other times, a slow, gentle read that presents each story component wrapped in a soft, hand-knit blanket and accompanied by a steaming mug of our favorite warm beverage is more in order. Love Starts Here fits easily into that latter category and was a sweet, enjoyable read during a time when the outside world’s roar needed to be tamped down by something that felt more familiar, more palatable. Escaping into Morgan’s Grove was the literary break I needed.

Thanks to Traci Borum for sending me a copy of Love Starts Here to read and review!

Visit Traci Borum’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Everything I Know About Love I Learned From Romance Novels- Sarah Wendell

Ahhhh, love. And books about love. Aren’t they both grand? And no one knows books about love better than Sarah Wendell, the woman behind Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. If you’ve never checked them out, don’t let the name fool you: this is a site about feminism, female empowerment, and encouraging and promoting the best of ourselves and our sisters, all under the guise of kissing books (and I love it all!). I’ve been listening to the podcast for two months now, slowly (I start it up as I get into bed, and then the next night, I start it again where I fell asleep…A single episode sometimes takes a few days!), I enjoy their cover snark posts, their reviews, their sense of humor and their ability to snark on anything, and I’ve learned so much from them. Years ago, I read and enjoyed Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels by Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan, and so I knew I’d also love Ms. Wendell’s Everything I Know About Love I Learned from Romance Novels.

Straight off, this is a love letter to the genre. It’s a book that emphasizes everything good about romance novels, from empowering women to take charge of their own lives and destinies, to helping women understand what they do and don’t want in a romantic partner. There are so many myths out there about romance books- that they raise women’s expectations in an unrealistic manner (trust us, we all know we’re not getting a mullet-haired, open-shirted, kilt-wearing beefcake whose abs have more waves and ripples than the Pacific, to bend us backwards for an almost-kiss in the moonlight with a snow-capped mountain in the background), that they’re so formulaic and predictable ANYONE could write them (the people who say this never seem to have author credits to their name, nor can they name any romance novels that they’ve read), etc, but Ms. Wendell blasts these myths out of the water with real-life examples from both readers and authors. It’s charming, it’s funny, it’s moving and inspiring, and I added a few books to my TBR list because of it. (And the podcast. Dear God, that podcast has added SO much to my TBR. I woke up the other morning around 4 am with the podcast still going in my ear, just in time to hear the guest talk about a book she recently loved and it was 100% right up my alley, and I added it to my Goodreads list at that very moment, in the dark, at 4 am. It’s a dangerous listen for the TBR!)

If you write romance or write books or stories with any kind of romantic element in it, you NEED to read this book. Trust me. There is SO much good advice in here when it comes to writing the kinds of healthy, realistic relationships that readers want in their books. I spent a lot of time reading this nodding my head, then staring off in the distance to think of how I was handling whatever issue was being discussed in my current WIP (on which I’m rarely able to W, because my daughter is engaged in an all-day-long monologue, broken up only by her need to have 27483274932 questions answered, and I’ve tried, but it’s utterly impossible to write when she’s here, so come August, I’ll hopefully get some writing done when she’s off to school!)

I definitely enjoyed the advice from the romance authors, but what stood out the most to me were the sections where the readers chimed in with the things they learned from the books they read: “That kind of hero makes for a good read, but I wouldn’t be able to stand him in real life,” “When the heroine was acting like that, I realized I do that too, and I immediately began to change my behavior,” and “It helped me to understand that I’m worthy of being treated better than I had been in my previous relationships” are all epiphanies that dawned on romance readers while they had their noses buried in a book. Who says you can’t learn anything from romance???

Everything I Learned About Love I Learned from Romance Novels is a fun, insightful look into a genre that has been demeaned since its inception but still marches on strong and never backs down. I for one am seriously glad that it does not, and I very much look forward to whatever Sarah Wendell offers us next, because her keen observations on the romance genre always strike the perfect chord with me.

Visit Smart Bitches, Trashy Books here.

magic · used book sale

The absolute magic of used book sales.

I never say no to a used book sale.

Who would? Stacks upon stacks of previously loved literature for a low, low price. There’s nothing better than perusing dusty stacks of books, looking for a treasure or twenty, and know that you’ll be able to haul a ton of them home without breaking the bank. Used book sale? I’m in. I’ll be there. Putting it in my calendar now.

This past weekend was one such sale. A women’s education nonprofit holds used book sales every few months around here. “Do you want to sign up for our emails, to know when our next sale will be?” the charming lady who took my money asked me at the previous sale. YOU BET I DID. I signed up immediately, and when the email hit my inbox, letting me know that there would be a sale on May 4th, I slapped that baby in my calendar and then showed up as soon as the sale opened on the second day. The second day, you see, is bag sale day. Everything you can cram into a bag for ten dollars…but if you’re on their email list and show them the email, you get a discount: everything you can cram into a bag for seven dollars.

Even better.

So what followed me home this weekend? First, a picture; then, a story.

Dear Martin by Nic Stone and Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen, I’ll share with my son; Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson is his outright (I’ve already read it, and if you haven’t read it yet, you NEED to. It’s incredible). The rest are mine, and I also grabbed a few things for my daughter. Not bad for seven bucks and about an hour of my time. 🙂

But.

BUT.

There’s a bigger story here, one that’s so wacky, I can barely believe it.

You might not be able to tell from what I’ve read so far this year, but I love a good romance novel (I recently finished reading Jennifer Crusie’s Welcome to Temptation; she’s been one of my favorite authors for ages). I love watching a couple get together, I love one person pursuing another, I love romance tropes, I love happily-ever-afters. All of this started with the stack of books my mother kept stashed in the coat closet, and which I began raiding when I was about twelve years old. Recently, Book Riot had an article titled ‘The Books That Turned Us On to Romance,’ and that, along with my love of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books and their amazing podcast, brought to mind yet again the nameless book from that closet stash that introduced me to my love of the genre.

I’d thought of this book many times over the years, but I could never remember the title. I’ve known about Smart Bitches, Trashy Books’s Help a Bitch Out feature, which helps romance readers remember those forgotten titles via crowdsourcing, but I feared I didn’t have enough information for them (I mean, I was twelve when I read this, so my memory is pretty fuzzy), and I didn’t want to be disappointed if no one knew what I was talking about. Here’s what I had: there was a character named Dulcy who was a pretty heinous bitch, but she wasn’t the main character; it took place during the Spanish-American war; one of the male characters, at least at one point, had some sort of involvement with Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders; a vague detail about a sex scene that could have happened in basically any historical romance.

And that was it. Not much to go on there, huh?

So this unnamed book had been rolling around my brain lately, moreso than it usually had over the years. It wasn’t anything I was actively considering when I was at the book sale: I started at the YA and kids sections, stopped by the cookbooks, browsed the romance novels, hit up the classic fiction section, perused the mysteries and general fiction, then made the loop again.

And there, sitting on top of the paperback romance novels, that I had somehow missed in my first go-around, was a book that looked…familiar.

I paused.

Was that it?

Was THAT my book?

I flipped through it briefly, very briefly, because I was running out of time (I had two more errands to run and only an hour left). I thought it *might* be it, but I wasn’t entirely certain, but for seven bucks a bag, I could afford to take a chance. Into the bag it went, and I’d figure it out when I got home.

And later on that afternoon, once I got a chance, I opened the book and flipped through it. SHUT THE FRONT DOOR.

YOU GUYS. I found it! I found the book that got me into romance, all on my own! THE BOOK GODS AND GODDESSES HAVE SMILED UPON ME!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Now, I am FULLY prepared for this book to be absolutely terrible and problematic as hell. Obviously, my tastes have changed and matured after twenty-six years of heavy reading; this book was published in 1982 and romance (and what romance readers are willing to tolerate in their books) has changed substantially. And just read that blurb from Goodreads:

SHE WAS TORN FROM THE ARMS OF LOVE AND IMPRISONED IN THE HOT EMBRACE OF PASSION…

Sultry Tampa, crossroad for gallant soldiers of the Spanish-American War, was the beloved home of young Jessica Manning. Her elegance and delicate beauty entranced the most valiant men, but fate gave her the most ruthless–hot-blooded Brill Kroger. Ignited by selfish passion, Brill abducted Jessica, then swept his anguished prize on a blazing seaward quest for Aztec gold. Through it all, Jessica dung to one aching wish–a return to her glowing moments of surrender in the strong arms of dashing Rough Rider Lieutenant Neil Dancer. Neil’s heart burned wildly for his lost Jessica, and his fury now drove him to pledge his very life to rekindle the flames of their glorious love.

OH MY GOD, is that not awful???????? (Including the typo of ‘dung’ for ‘clung,’ which comes straight from the Goodreads blurb. My back cover reads ‘clung,’ fortunately.) I’m in love. I’ve got, of course, a stack of books to read before I get to this, but I’m absolutely going to read it and review the crap out of it for all of you. I feel more giddy than one of those puppies that wags its tail so hard, it pees a little. This is BEYOND exciting!

Have you ever spent years wondering about a book you lost track of, only to have it just pop up seemingly out of nowhere? I don’t know that I’ll ever get over how seamlessly this reappeared back in my life. Serendipity at its finest. 🙂