July 23, 2013

The Wanderer and The Newcomer: A Robyn Carr Twofer and a Couple of Thoughts on Small-Town Cotemporaries and Branding

Source: both books were provided by the publisher through NetGalley.

After many, many books, Ms. Carr has left Virgin River and moved to Virgin River, I mean, Thunder Point. But it is a change, even if it doesn't feel like a change at all.

The Wanderer and The Newcomer both make references to Cooper, the former Marine who comes to Thunder Point to visit an old friend and ends up staying when said friend dies and leaves him everything. At first, Cooper plans to settle everything and leave, but once he develops a relationship with the community and with helicopter pilot, Sarah, his plans become roots.

Cooper’s story serves as a thread that unites a series of secondary characters whose lives are featured as prominently as his, making this a true ensemble cast. So we also get to know the town’s sheriff, Mac, a single father of a bunch of kids, including a teenage daughter who gets a secondary, YA-ish romance, and Mac’s friend, Grace.

Finally, there’s Sarah, whose role goes beyond being Cooper’s love interest. Add to that a quirky cast of minor characters, and you get the whole picture of the town and the type of book you’re getting. The storylines don’t get a tidy resolution in The Wanderer, so The Newcomer feels like a continuation of the same book, and although the latter does wrap up a couple of the stories, it leaves things open enough to warrant a third book*.

The Newcomer by Robyn Carr
The perfect small town, all-American life is so romanticized and idealized that it almost feels like a fetish. It’s also perfectly white and perfectly straight. This pervasive diversity blindness becomes more obvious and uncomfortable the more books I read, and it’s quite common in small-town romances, which, incidentally, are designed to portray idyllic, ideal settings.  I realize that I’m part of the problem, after all, I continue to read and positively review them, but now that there’s an emphasis on branding and repetitive series seem to become even more widespread, we should question the popularity of stories that seem to sell the idea that the ideal only comes in white.

Back to the books, the only new thing about them is the way each book tells all the stories instead of focusing on one independent couple. Everything else is exactly the same as in Virgin River, and in fact, it almost read like a bizarre alternate universe in which we see Jack come to a new town, set roots, fall in love and become the bartender that moonlights as the moral pillar supporting the town’s social and emotional life.

The sameness of the two series brings me back to the subject of the author brand. Robyn Carr is synonym with small-town contemporary series filled with traditional values. Her books are familiar and comforting, and we know exactly what to expect from them because her brand is clear and perfectly demarcated. But when we begin to expect a particular product instead of general quality, that delimited brand becomes limiting. And this is something I’ve noticed with authors whose brand has become the small-town contemporary series**. My feelings about marketing, branding and the role publishers and readers play in it aren’t fully formed, but I’m worried about the future of my favorite sub-genre when all I see is uniformity and sameness.

The Thunder Point books are enjoyable as well as an interesting departure that still feel familiar, so anyone who has read and liked The Virgin River series should feel right at home here. But what happens when familiar becomes indistinguishable and boring? It may not happen to everyone, and it may not happen soon, but it’s certainly happening to me.

* Book three, The Hero, will be released next month, but I think I’ve had enough Thunder Point, so I don’t have immediate plans to read it.

** I’m sure this isn’t exclusive to small-town contemporaries, but since I mostly read contemporaries, it’s easier for me to use as example.

Grade: 3
Sensuality: McSexy
Purchase: The Wanderer | The Newcomer
Nestled on the Oregon coast is a small town of rocky beaches and rugged charm. Locals love the land's unspoiled beauty. Developers see it as a potential gold mine. When newcomer Hank Cooper learns he's been left an old friend's entire beachfront property, he finds himself with a community's destiny in his hands.
Cooper has never been a man to settle in one place, and Thunder Point was supposed to be just another quick stop. But Cooper finds himself getting involved with the town. And with Sarah Dupre, a woman as complicated as she is beautiful.
With the whole town watching for his next move, Cooper has to choose between his old life and a place full of new possibilities. A place that just might be home.
The Wanderer by Robyn Carr
Harlequin MIRA. March 23, 2013

Single dad and Thunder Point's deputy sheriff "Mac" McCain has worked hard to keep everyone safe and happy. Now he's found his own happiness with Gina James. The longtime friends have always shared the challenges and rewards of raising their adolescent daughters. With an unexpected romance growing between them, they're feeling like teenagers themselves-suddenly they can't get enough of one another.
And just when things are really taking off, their lives are suddenly thrown into chaos. When Mac's long-lost-and not missed-ex-wife shows up in town, drama takes on a whole new meaning. They're wondering if their new feelings for each other can withstand the pressure...but they are not going down without a fight.
The Newcomer by Robyn Carr
Harlequin MIRA. June 25, 2013


  1. Interesting...this sounds like a great series and since I've never read anything by Robyn Carr, I'm sure I wouldn't feel exactly the same way you do without any previous experiences with her writings. With that being said, I love to find an author that I like and read all of their work...that is where I become a little apprehensive about picking up this series. However, I might give book 1 a try since I do enjoy the sound of the story lines and then go from there. :-) Thanks for your review and honest observations!!

    1. Book one is a good place to start, especially because her other series is super long and it can be a bit daunting. If you enjoy it and like Carr's style and voice, then you probably will like the Virgin River books as well.

  2. Your points about branding are excellent. I kind of wonder if it's possible for an author to be as prolific as Carr is without a kind of "template" (to use a polite word). Stephanie Laurens, Nora Roberts, Jayne Ann Krentz and aliases--I've read enough of all of them to see the common threads of their work. (You could probably say the same thing about, say, Agatha Christie). But there's definitely a tipping point for every reader from "yay, more of that good stuff!" to "I feel like I've read this before/she's phoning it in." That's a downside of branding, I think; it doesn't encourage authors to branch out. It helps if, like Roberts and Krentz, they write across different subgenres. But I can still see the tics and common themes/character types.

    1. All authors have a certain formula and it’s easier to see and identify it when the author happens to be prolific. Genre fiction and Romance in particular makes it harder because it also has its own formula (I guess Science Fiction has it a bit easier in that regard). I’ve always found Nora Roberts incredibly formulaic, but it helps that she mostly writes standalones and that her series are usually trilogies (I didn’t like the first In Death book enough to keep going, so I can’t speak for those). But I think that Roberts’ brand is more general that what we are seeing with other authors who do seem to be writing the same book over and over. I guess my problem and worry is that we’re equaling brand with series, which is incredibly limiting, especially since we know from experience how fleeting popular trends are; maybe some type of series and sub-genres are popular now, but who knows how long it will last (remember when Contemporary Romance was almost dead?).

      To be fair to Robyn Carr (and to further illustrate my point) the best Virgin River books happened later in the series when she introduced new characters that had nothing to do with the town. Those book still had her distinct voice and quirks, but they were refreshing and new.

    2. The particularity of Nora Roberts I find is that she's willing to research a topic really well for the backdrop of her books. For example, search and rescue for The Search, the jumpers for Catching Fire, negotiations for High Noon, etc. So while the romance feels formulaic, there is something new and different about her books at the same time.

      One thing that I feel also help is not binging on a series or an author's books...

      I guess it's hard not to fall into a pattern, considering that the end must be a HEA one. In addition, I feel like us readers are also part of the problem. We expect certain things...

  3. I found this book to be a real chore to finish. I like some small town contemporaries, like Fool's Gold series by Susan Mallery. But I completely agree with you that they can begin to be a bit of a snooze. Nothing really changes and the stories aren't all that unique. I especially didn't like this series by Carr. BORING! Thanks for your review.

  4. Nice post, Brie. I'm trying to make sure I read more in general and now I want to try Carr's stuff if only to check out what exactly you describe in this post. You also mention somethings that I think a writer should pay attention to when building their brand. It's good to know/think about what kinds of stories you want to be known for.

  5. I actually quite enjoyed the first book, Brie :) Thought the Wanderer was different enough from VR... However, after the second, it became a little bit too familiar. I think what we need is Ms Carr changing completely setting...


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