A couple of weeks ago I splurged with glee over this. Libertà is sponsoring the award for the shorter romantic novel this year and the short list was out!
As it happened, I hadn’t read any of them, so added them all to my TBR list, in the full expectation of some cracking reads, when time allowed. And then life got complicated.
Cometh the Hour, Cometh the Shorter Romantic Novel
There was a water leak in my road. Actually, more of a small fountain. It continued to flow for the best part of twenty-four hours. My basement flooded.
(Not for the first time. And yes, last time it was also down to the utility company which provides my water.)
Over the course of a very long, wet and cold day, I mopped and baled at least 75 litres of water. I say at least because I’m not sure how much I had mopped and baled before I started counting. My fingers turned to ice. By the time I’d warmed them up, I needed to start baling again.
But lo, the Universe had Provided. For there were six of the best, sitting there waiting to take me out of myself into a world where I could shuck off anger, anxiety and weariness and luxuriate in story where things came out well.
Reading Contenders for the 2021 Shorter Romantic Novel
You will have grasped by now that what follows is, as Jane Austen said of her teenage History of England, personal, prejudiced and, if not quite ignorant, certainly unwriterly.
Do I consider pacing, characterisation, clever plotting, elegant style?
Um, no. This is not criticism. This is the spontaneous outpouring of a grateful reader’s heart.
So, in the order of the short list, above, reading from left to right…
A Will a Wish and a Wedding by Kate Hardy
It’s about a couple of strange people I felt I knew after the first couple of pages. He is broken inside but holding it together—just. She has deep insecurities, mainly well-founded, but she still manages to fight her corner. And stays polite while she does it. (Gosh, how I hate the Feisty Feminist Heroine looking for any old excuse to go to war before winning the Brute’s Heart.) This woman has real obstacles. And tackles them.
Favourite bit? “Flirting by nerdiness.” Congratulations to Mills and Boon for keeping the typo out there, too. Not easy.
Eye-misting moments? I went three times.
Added bonus? Butterflies. Gorgeous!
The Day That Changed Everything by Catherine Miller
We know we’re on a mystery tour in this novel from the first page, headed “The First Love”, and the first sentence “This is the one you think will last for ever.” Aha, you think. So this one won’t last for ever then. Well, yes and no.
Tabitha wakes up to find her husband dead beside her. (From natural causes before you set off for another dead end.) The book tells you what happens in three time zones: Then, Before Then and Now— which travels forward, as Tabitha heals and learns and makes sense of stuff that hurt her before.
I loved Tabitha. Even though I thought she was crazy quite a lot of the time, I saw that she made sense to herself. I loved her lunatic foster kids, her practical, accepting neighbours, her late husband, her Dad, her old friend and her new love.
Favourite bit? “Not everything that’s beautiful is kind.”
Eye-misting moments? Stopped counting.
Added bonus? Shooting an intrusive drone out of the sky. YES!
The Warrior Knight and the Widow by Ella Matthews
School of Ivanhoe, Robin Hood and The Sea Hawk, this book is as full of danger and suspense as a James Bond with added female empowerment. We’re in mediaeval England with warring lords, the right of might, and women primarily useful as political pawns and bearers of heirs.
Ellena, widowed when her much-loved husband died, is making a pretty good fist of running her estate, when her father summons her back to his castle. An unprepossessing neighbour lord wants to marry her. Her father has another candidate in mind. And the leader of her escort back to her father’s is a dispossessed man with a fearsome reputation. Just as well, as the villainous neighbour is in hot pursuit.
Favourite bit? “What sort of imbecile attacks a sword-wielding man with a stick.”
Eye-misting moments? 2 for me, but this is as much an adventure as a love story and the edge-of-the-seat moments were fast and furious.
Added bonus? Moment when her father eventually admits Ellena does a good job running Swein. A deep , quiet sense of satisfaction, there.
Second Chance for the Single Mum by Sophie Pembroke
This is a complex contemporary story, where coming to terms with the past is a major challenge for the widowed heroine. It has the feel of a family saga — not just the family into which the heroine has married but the family that is Welsh rugby, too.
Gwen is a gentle soul, trying to protect her small daughter Evie and other family members too, not to mention being in borderline denial herself about the problems in her marriage before her husband died. The hero, a returning prodigal, has a bad boy past. And he doesn’t get the fatted calf from his parents, but rather arouses old resentments. Add that he is the younger brother (and fellow team member) of her late husband, and you have a minefield! Almost to the end, you can’t see how they can possibly manage a Happy Ever After. So a huge fat smile when they do!
Favourite bit? Caerphilly Castle, Monsieur Jean Lapin (he’s the stuffed rabbit our hero brings little Evie from France)
Eye-misting moments? just the two for me, Monsieur Lapin and that against-the-odds happy ending. Aaah!
Added bonus? Welsh rugby. Lovely stuff.
The Return of the Disappearing Duke by Lara Temple
This one’s a Regency, Jim, but not as we know it. Most of the action takes place in Cairo and is another story full of spies and assassins, with a thick vein of complicated family relationships and some serious forgers, tricksters and unreliable antique dealers.
It starts in full Gothic mode with a truly horrifying scene in which a courageous teenage son protects a servant girl from his religious maniac ducal father, gets seriously beaten and banished, and then runs away anyway. Phew.
Forward 22 years and we find him, by now six foot tall and impressively muscled, shaving in an Egyptian inn, when our heroine dressed as a boy bursts in on him and ask for his help to get back to Cairo. And the way he deals with her makes me laugh. Well, he makes Cleo laugh, too. He’s a cynical, outspoken soldier of fortune, with a clear eye (he doesn’t buy the boy’s disguise for a moment), a trusted truth-telling servant, his own private demons, a good deal of kindness and absolutely no party manners at all. Love him to bits.
Favourite bit? “‘Amazingly, you did not make a fool of yourself, though I would be sure to tell you if you did.’ She glared at him. ‘That’s right,’ he approved. ‘Annoyance is healthier than embarrassment. Have at me.'”
Eye-misting moments? Possibly two. But loads of laugh-out-loud moments
Added bonus? Well, along with all the adventure and villains and troublesome family and witty exchanges, it’s truly romantic. “I don’t know you very well, but I hate the thought of you being hurt.” Oh yes.
Cinderella and the Surgeon by Scarlet Wilson
Esther is a sweetheart but no pushover. When a junior doctor mauls an elderly patient, stabbing away trying to get an IVF into an elderly patient rather than ask for help, she lets fly at him. The angrier she gets, the more Scottish she gets. And ends up netting the nickname Crabbie Rabbie. I really relate to that.
And aristocratic surgeon Harry hasn’t met a sweetheart before. Or much love for that matter. And he puts her back up because he’s not only posh, he’s rich. (And good at his job, which I quite see would be very galling in the circumstances.)
Favourite bit? “You were the first person that made me think I might be good enough.”
Eye-misting moments? Pretty much the whole of the last two chapters.
Added bonus? The nursing camaraderie. This is a world I love and believe in.
Reader Satisfaction from the Shorter Romantic Novel?
Pretty damn high. Every single one of these books hits the spot in one way or another. They made me forget numb fingers, aching arms, a house that smelled of damp and was full of displaced cellar treasures and even lockdown.
Liz Fielding is absolutely right when she says that the best shorter romantic novel is like a hug.
It makes you feel human again, gives you hope. Whichever book wins, I am so, SO grateful to all these authors for that.