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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

What I'm Reading: Smooth Talking Stranger

So back in January, I posted my reading resolutions here.  One of those resolutions was to read 2 new (to me) contemporary romance authors.  A month later, in this post, I solicited author and title suggestions for my first novel.  Today, I am fulfilling the first half of this resolution by reading AND reviewing Smooth Talking Stranger by Lisa Kleypas.

First, why Kleypas?  Well when her name came up in the comments I realized right away that I knew her name, knew she won awards, but had never even picked up one of her books.  So, she was the obvious place for me to start.

Second, why this title? We own many of her novels at the BPL.  I picked Smooth Talking Stranger because it got solid reviews, is part of a \series, and it had an inviting cover.

So, what did I think?  Well, I have not been converted into a romance fan by reading this novel, but that had nothing to do with the quality of the book.  As a contemporary romance goes, I think it had everything readers would want and a little bit more.

A good romance follows a formula, and that is not a bad thing.  You have the damaged but independent heroine, the hero who shouldn't be right for her but their connection is strong, conflict or obstacles that keep them apart, and the final resolution which brings them together in marriage. Smooth Talking Stranger added a bit of a wrinkle in that it had a bit of Women's Lives and Relationships undertones. 

Let me set the stage.  Ella has not had an easy life.  No father, an emotionally abusive mother, and an insecure sister, Tara, who may have been the victim of sexual abuse by one of their mother's boyfriends as a child.  Somehow, Ella has managed to get out, get a good job as a relationship advice columnist, and has a relationship with a very laid back, sensitive, vegetarian, live-in boyfriend, Dane.

However, one day Ella's mom back in Houston calls to say Tara has abandoned her out of wedlock newborn (Luke) at their mother's house.  Ella is pulled back into the family drama.  But in her journey to find Tara and identify Luke's father, she meets Jack Travis, a millionaire playboy and member of one of Houston's most wealthy families.  As Ella's feelings for Luke grow, Jack also tries to teach Ella how to trust and love a real man.

Ella needs to figure out what she wants, but as the story goes on, it appears both Luke and Jack will have to be a part of her life if she wants to be truly happy for the first time in her life.

Smooth Talking Stranger is part of the Travis series.  For those of you who are not big romance fans, I should point out that since a romance must end with the couple getting married (or else it is not a romance), series in the genre are different than other genre series.  Romance series tend to take characters who pop up as secondary characters in one book and then give them their own story in another book.  So, for example, this series follows the wealthy Travis family in Houston, giving each member of the family their own chance to find true love.  The same characters pop up in all of the books, but since entry each has its own complete story, you can read the novels in any order.

In terms of appeal, this is a steamy contemporary romance with a dash of humor.  There is a lot of sex here.  The story lends itself well to it too, since Ella has only ever been with her wimpy college boyfriend, Dane, so Jack needs to "teach" Ella a lot.  However, the steamy scenes are nicely balanced by Ella's growing relationship with baby Luke.  She truly needs to find love with Jack and Luke in order to develop into her true self.  It is as if she was merely existing before and by the end of the book, she is truly living.

I found Ella to be a compelling heroine, although I felt she got a bit whiny at times.  She really needed to grow up and drop her guard a bit.  For someone who claimed to have had a lot of therapy, I felt she was not as self-aware as she could be.  However, I was happy with how she finally pulled it together.

Jack is a great character that romance fans would love.  He is rich by birth, but self-made at the same time.  He is sweet, kind, and loves Luke.  But he is also sexy, kind, and understanding.  

The sub-plot involving Tara and who Luke's father is added a bit of suspense to the story.  It involves a mega church.  I identified the red-herring and the true father quite quickly, but it was still a nice subplot.  

The banter and bickering between the hero and heroine is moderate.  Enough to create tension, but not overwhelming.  Honestly, Ella had more reservations about Jack than I did.

Also, I have never been to Houston, but there is a lot of detail about the city and neighborhoods here.  That might of interest to some people.  In fact, it is probably of interest to a lot of readers since there seems to be a wealth of contemporary romances set in Texas.

One thing I did not like was how obviously wrong for Ella Dane was.  It meant their was no tension about which man she should choose.  Even when Dane basically gives her up without a fight, Ella still feels she owes him something.  From the start though, Dane does not want Ella to help out with her nephew because it is not "her" problem.  Of course it is her problem, it is her nephew. Luke is her blood.  She must help him.  Dane sets himself up as "the bad guy" right from the start with this attitude.

Also, I did not appreciate how the Travis family were assumed by Ella to be nasty just because they were rich.  I felt that was a big character flaw in Ella, one that I had trouble over looking. On the other hand, I appreciated how Kleypas spent the time to introduce the Travis family to us and did not resort to stereotyping them.  Each was developed enough so that you would want to read another book in the series about them.

Overall, I would have no problem suggesting this book to any contemporary romance fans.  I am glad I read Kleypas and will pass her books on to readers more frequently now.  And it did have a nice, resolved, happy ending with an epilogue that shows Ella and Jack a few months after the action of the story ends.

I however, have not been converted into a romance fan. I think ultimately, I do not care about the tension between the characters.  Usually, the women annoy me because they are too weak in my eyes.  I wanted to shake Ella and be like, get over yourself.  So your childhood sucked, but you are a strong, professional woman who deserves a good man. Go out and get it lady!  But that is just me.  Also, I think the real reason romance doesn't work for me is that I like ambiguity in my fiction.  Romance is all about clarity.  You know what happens and why and the ending is clear.

However, to each their own.  I still have one more contemporary romance to go this year.

Three Words That Describe This Book: steamy, families, character-centered

Readalikes:  I am going to focus here on authors.  Here is a list of contemporary romance writers, who write steamy stories with well developed characters and humor:

Rachel Gibson (less steamy)

Also, check out some of Sandra Brown's older romances from before she moved exclusively to romantic suspense.  They would be a good match and many are set in Texas.

The authors listed here are all ones for which I have read at least one of their books.  Now, I will start trying to pick another contemporary romance author who is "new to me."  Your suggestions are appreciated.  This time, I am looking for less steamy so that I can have a range of experiences.  I am leaning toward Katie Fforde, but if you are a fan, let me know.

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