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It’s no secret that I have a love-hate relationship with Small Town Romance (STR) and that one of the authors on the love side is Shannon Stacey. This year she published two new series, one with Carina, one with Berkley, and I wanted to talk about them, not because I loved them, but because I admire what Ms. Stacey is doing with the familiar sub-genre. Also, I have three review books, and everyone knows that the opinion post is the lazy reviewer’s shortcut to multiple reviews!
The Boston Fire series isn’t technically set in a small town, but is set within a neighborhood and small community that reproduces a very similar feel and environment: generations have lived there, everyone knows each other, there are strong roots, etc. Lydia, the heroine of Heat Exchange left the city after a failed marriage to firefighter and, in what’s a staple trope of the STR, wants nothing to do with the community and the city she left in order to never come back. But family needs her so she’s back temporarily, or so she thinks. We know how that ends.
In Controlled Burn, the heroine is an outsider with recently discovered ties to the community. But whereas the heroines have traditional (in terms of tropes) roles in the books, at least at first glance, the heroes diverge a bit in that, well, they aren’t afraid of commitment. It may sound simple, but unless we’re in a Robyn Carr book where everyone, EVERYONE, wants to get married and have all the babies, commitment-phobe heroes are probably the most pervasive character in STR, followed closely by heroines who can’t wait to go back to their amazing jobs in a big city only to be shown the true path to happiness in her formerly hated small town (the latter repeats itself here, because we’re cursed to have that trope follow us forever). So heroes who are ready to commit, who pursue the heroine within the normal, non-creepy limits, and who may or may not have a bunch of ex-girlfriends but who respect all the women they have been with and are in good terms with them, feel refreshing in ways that, frankly, speak poorly of a genre that creates such expectations for its male leads.
Of course, Ms. Stacey isn’t the first or only Romance author who has written great heroes, but in such a trope-heavy sub-genre in which authors seem to be writing the same book over and over, it’s interesting to come across an author who takes the formula, keeps it familiar, but whose books show growth in subtle but effective ways. The Kowalski series was already a standout, but these new books feel mature in ways those never did.
Under the Lights, which I found incredibly boring (I told you this post was about admiration more than love), features a down-on-its-luck small town in which most characters, main and secondary, have a lot of money and social difficulties. There is no idyllic town here and no anti-city feel to the book. Family ties and community still play a huge role in the story, but it’s certainly not a typical setting. The hero was in a long-term relationship that didn’t end well, and he’s struggling both personally and professionally. The heroine is struggling along with the town she loves. Yet they are aware of the potential negative consequences of a relationship, and ultimately they make a conscious decision that in a different book would feel irresponsible.
So, okay, it’s not groundbreaking work, but I really enjoy and appreciate seeing an author grow with her books and in a sub-genre she clearly loves. In a way, it mirrors my own path as a reader. It also shows that it’s possible to keep things from going stale while still working within the very clear conventions and restrictions--at times auto-imposed--that come with a beloved sub-genre.