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REVIEW: Blue Smoke by Nora Roberts

I Bring You Fire – Blue Smoke by Nora Roberts

Blue Smoke by Nora RobertsBlue Smoke was my first foray into the world of Romantic Suspense, and it threw me a bit of a curve ball. I’ve said before that reading genre fiction is, in part, a process of habituation. You gradually get used to certain signs, signifiers and conventions which allow you to get – for want of a better term – on the same page as the author. And until you do get used to the conventions of a genre, you tend to spend a lot of time saying things like “why are there twenty made up words in the first paragraph of this book about spaceships?” or “why has nothing been resolved three pages from the end of this book about wizards?”.

I’ve been doing the Romance Thing on DA for a good few months now and I’m slowly getting used to some of the major conventions of the genre – I’m a lot less thrown now when random dudes start fixating on women they’ve hardly met, or when a completely ordinary guy with a white collar job takes his shirt off to reveal perfectly sculpted abs and biceps thicker than my waist (I mean, I’m not confused when it happens in a book I’m reading – I’d be pretty confused if it happened, like, at work or something). And I’ve always been familiar with the conventions of secondary-world fiction, so paranormals and the like have always been fairly easy for me to get my head around.

But I don’t read thrillers. Okay, I tell a lie, I think I’ve read two in my life, and one of those was a Dan Brown. This meant that Blue Smoke was, for me, a mashup of tropes from two different genres neither of which I’m really familiar with.

As always, this is a discussion as much as a review, so we’re about to set sail on the good ship spoiler. And again I should probably say that since this is, y’know, suspense that spoilers might make quite a big difference to your reading.

One of the things I’d got used to in my romance reading thus far was the central relationship being set up early – in most of the books I’ve read the hero and heroine have met by chapter three at the latest. I was a bit disconcerted, therefore, when I found myself 10% of the way into Blue Smoke and the heroine had not only failed to meet the hero, but had also failed to get past the age of eleven. Nearly the whole first half of the book was set five years or more before the “present day” of the story, setting up the heroine’s background, her circumstances, and her relationships with her family, with men, and with fire. I should stress that this isn’t a criticism – I understand why this stuff needed to be established – it’s just very much not the kind of structure I was used to seeing from the genre.

Anyway, our heroine is Reena Hale – an Irish-Italian-American arson investigator, who chose her career at the age of eleven when her parents’ pizza restaurant was burned down by an irate neighbour. A tiny, pedantic part of me is a little tired of trauma-induced-career-choice as a trope, on grounds of plausibility if nothing else. I might be completely misinformed here, but I understand that most degree programs really don’t want to be told that you’re only studying the subject because you were in some way personally affected by it. When Reena is eighteen a mysterious pyromaniacal psychopath burns her boyfriend to death, making it look like an accident, and when she’s twenty-something the same psychopath murders her next boyfriend and lights up the body. In her late twenties, the psycho visits her again just as she’s breaking up with an abusive, controlling asshole – this time torching said asshole’s car and trying to pin it on Reena.

This picaresque tour of Reena’s fire-damaged love-life is interspersed with scenes from the viewpoint of our hero Bo who, having seen Reena for literally seconds across a crowded party in 1992 has been fantasising about her ever since. It is, I think, testimony to the quality of the book and the handling of Bo’s character that this does not make him come across as an irredeemable nutcase. The action finally catches up with the present day (2005) when Reena buys a house that just happens to be next door to Bo, and at exactly the same time the mysterious psychopath comes back to burn everything the hell to the ground.

As I have already intimated, I made some basic genre errors reading Blue Smoke. My first mistake was assuming that it would start with an adult heroine and make her relationship with the hero the primary focus, rather than starting with the heroine at the age of eleven and making – in a way – her unwitting relationship with the villain (and with fire itself) the primary pillar of the narrative. My second mistake was reading the book as a mystery when it’s actually a thriller.

I should probably stress that I’m even more out of my depth talking about subgenres in Crime than I am talking about subgenres in Romance, so this may be complete nonsense. The distinction I’m trying to draw is between a story in which the primary narrative tension comes from uncertainty about what is happening and who is causing it (a mystery) and one in which the primary narrative tension comes from what is going to happen next (a thriller). Obviously subgenre conventions are a lot more complicated than that in real life (Hammett, for example, wrote stories in which it wasn’t clear what was happening, or what would happen next), but a defining feature of what I’m calling a “mystery” is the invitation to the reader to play along at home, to try to work out what the “answer” is before the protagonists do.

Because I read most of Blue Smoke as a mystery, I spent at least half of the book assuming that the misogynistic, Reena-obsessed serial killer was going to turn out not to be the transparently sociopathic kid from the first chapter who killed his own dog and left its burning corpse on Reena’s doorstep, because that would surely have been too obvious. Instead I managed to convince myself that he would turn out to be the kindly fire investigator who takes Reena under his wing at the start of the book. This meant that I spent about a quarter of the book fighting a kind of weird cognitive dissonance, as my thought process went something like this:

Hey, she’s mentioned that the kid over the road is staring at their burning restaurant with a crazy look in his eyes. That’s clearly a red herring. Hey, now the kid has left a burning dog corpse on her doorstep. Clearly another red herring. Hey, now somebody’s murdered her boyfriend but I am so clever that I have spotted the subtle clues – the killer was clearly somebody who looked respectable enough to get this guy to let his guard down, and he clearly knew about the way fires spread and the way they were investigated, so clearly it’s the fire-investigator guy. Okay, now she’s realised that somebody’s after her, okay, now she’s going over the possible suspects – and now she’s decided it’s probably psycho-dog-burning-kid which means we’re just about ready to set up for the big revelation that it isn’t. Which should be coming about now. Right about now. Hey, I’m kind of at the 90% mark here and she still thinks it’s the dog-burning-kid, it’s getting kind of late in the day for a major plot twist. Oh, she’s finally confronted the guy. Oh…

It probably says something about my tendency to overthink things that the most surprising plot twist I’ve encountered in a book this year was when the killer turned out to be the guy it was clearly set up to be from the start.

Despite my confusion, the suspense plot in Blue Smoke worked pretty well for me. The resident psychopath was sufficiently psychopathic that I kept reading to find out what he’d burn down next, and sufficiently horrible that I wanted to see him get his at the end. The romance plot felt a little secondary to me, but I’m not sure that was a problem in and of itself and I suspect that part of the reason it felt so secondary was that it was well enough integrated into the suspense plot that it didn’t intrude. Besides, when an evil madman is trying to burn everybody you care about to death your love life naturally takes a bit of a back seat.

The other thing I found a little surprising about Blue Smoke was how well I responded to its core ideas about family, despite their being rather more conservative than I’d usually find comfortable. A massive central theme of the book is the overwhelming importance of a very traditional marriage-and-kids based family life. The heroine’s family is basically the most important thing in her world, the villain’s raging psychosis is frequently shown to stem from his growing up in an unstable family (and being jealous of Reena’s perfect one), and while the hero did not come from a traditional nuclear family (I think he was raised by his grandparents or something, I’m afraid I’ve forgotten) he pretty much unreservedly accepts that Reena’s family is the ideal of which his fell short.

I think the reason I was okay with the book’s portrayal of family was that it seemed to be taking a close look at something specific, rather than a broad look at something general. I find these sorts of story problematic when they start promoting the traditional nuclear family at the expense of other, less common family structures (I was really annoyed when Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince seemed to suggest that Voldemort grew up evil because his mother had the temerity to die in childbirth). Although Blue Smoke seems to take “husband, wife, and two or more kids” as its ideal family structure, it spends a lot of time exploring ways in which that structure can fall short of the ideal, and ways in which it can encompass a plurality of lifestyles and choices without necessarily sacrificing the basic idea of the traditional family unit.

So for example Reena puts her time and energy into her career but, once she meets Bo, it is pretty clear that she intends to settle down with him and have kids, and this isn’t shown as being incompatible or a compromise, just as being a different way in which she can have the same things that her brother and sisters have had. Conversely while the villain comes from a broken home, it isn’t a non-traditional broken home, he’s still got a mother and a father who are married – it’s just that his father is an abusive dickhead.

Perhaps most interestingly, Reena’s older sister Bella marries young (and to a much richer man) in a specific attempt to get the ideal fairytale wedding and (presumably) perfect family life. It all goes wrong and she winds up stuck in a loveless marriage with a guy who cheats on her. What I found interesting about this was that she resolves to stay with the guy, and that this is seen as a valid decision if not a hundred percent happy one. At the same time it didn’t seem like she was staying with him because divorce was unconscionable, just that she’d made a decision that – for her – a stable home with children she loved and a husband she didn’t was an acceptable situation, even if it wasn’t what she’d hoped for.

I’ve not said much so far about Bo (although I should probably mention that it took me a reasonable amount of time to get over the name). I feel a bit bad about this because he’s a lot better than many of the heroes I’ve read. Thirteen-year-crush aside, he’s basically a very ordinary person who has a nice straightforward healthy relationship with the heroine and doesn’t try to blackmail her or threaten her or rape her or any of the other dickish, controlling or outright criminal bullshit I’ve seen from the leading men in other books. Given the amount of facepalming I’ve done at alphole shitbuckets over the last few months, I was quite pleased to have a hero who just seemed to be a straight up decent guy – it’s just that because he was basically quite a nice person he didn’t really do much to drive the narrative.

Bo’s relationship with Reena is perfectly grown-up and sensible. They have a small fight because he gets worried about her doing dangerous things, but he never actually tries to stop her doing them. There’s even a scene where Reena sees him hugging a female friend, and then afterwards he’s like “oh my god it wasn’t what it looked like!” and she’s like “it’s okay, she was clearly your friend and she was clearly upset and I’m glad you looked out for her.” I wonder, incidentally, if this is something to do with the book being Romantic Suspense. Since there is a large external threat providing the main conflict in the narrative, there’s less need for the central romance to be an additional source of tension. As obstacles on the road to true love go “a pyromaniac from my childhood has literally murdered anybody I have ever been romantically involved with” is kind of hard to top anyway.

Everything I learned about life, love and arson from reading Blue Smoke: Waxed paper can be used to make effective trailers promoting the spread of fire throughout the target area. Just because you’ve seen a girl twice in thirteen years, doesn’t mean you won’t be able to work it out eventually. Air circulation is important for fires, so be certain to crack a window particularly if you’re torching a vehicle. Pizza joints are a great place to meet your future wife. Breaking a wall open will allow the fire to spread into the wall cavity, increasing structural damage to the building, the risk of collapse and the hazards faced by rescue personnel. Date a carpenter, they’re good with their hands.


  1. Meri
    Jun 21, 2013 @ 12:22:20

    I haven’t read Blue Smoke – I’m not a big fan of Nora Roberts – but I do want to point out that focusing on the heroine as a child and not having her meet the hero until well into the book is by no means standard in romantic suspense novels. Do you have any other RS titles on your TBR list?

  2. lawless
    Jun 21, 2013 @ 13:08:10

    Sold! I might have to check this out. And as someone who likes mystery/detective/thriller/suspense, yes, you’ve described the subgenres correctly.

    I suspect that part of the reason it felt so secondary was that it was well enough integrated into the suspense plot that it didn’t intrude.

    This is my kind of romance, where there’s something else going on besides the relationship itself. I suppose I’m partial to romantic suspense anyway because of my love for mystery/thrillers. Mostly what I ask is that it not involve the male MC continually rescuing a damsel in distress. Also, romantic suspense probably lends itself less well to the alphahole hero (something of an oxymoron there). I can tolerate, even welcome, a few here or there, but the genre is overloaded with them.

  3. Dabney
    Jun 21, 2013 @ 13:34:00

    This has me trying to think of Romantic Suspense novels where the identity of the baddie is a mystery. A few Cynthia Edens, Susan Sey’s Money duo, some Karen Robards. Not a lot are occurring to me.

  4. Kate McMurray
    Jun 21, 2013 @ 13:59:54

    Aw, Blue Smoke was the first Nora Roberts book I ever read, too. I actually read it all in one sitting on a long bus trip. It’s weird that I remember that. Anyway this is good timing, because I’m currently reading The Witness and keep thinking, “Gosh, it’s been a long time since I read a Nora Roberts book. Why is that exactly?”

    I don’t have much more to add than, “Yay! I enjoyed this review/discussion!” So thanks! Keep them coming.

  5. Jane Lovering
    Jun 21, 2013 @ 14:15:14

    Yep, it’s me again, still whingeing on about the fact that you should read some Brit romance, where the tropes are completely different, even though the genres are broadly the same.

  6. Meri
    Jun 21, 2013 @ 14:18:52

    @Dabney: I can think of others – Some of Jill Sorenson’s books, maybe a few of Toni Anderson’s, and I think Pamela Clare’s Naked Edge. It’s not necessarily difficult to figure out who the bad guys are, but it’s not revealed until later.

  7. hapax
    Jun 21, 2013 @ 14:22:19

    Besides, when an evil madman is trying to burn everybody you care about to death your love life naturally takes a bit of a back seat.

    And this right here is why I DON’T usually read romantic suspense. Call me cold hearted and practical, but if I were on the run from a psychopathic murderer, sweet sweet sexxoring would be about the last thing on my mind (well, okay, I might bump it up ahead of vacuuming the cat, but you know what I mean).

    It sounds like La Nora is much more sensible about this than the run-of-the-mill romantic suspense. (No surprise there!) I might have to give this one a try.

  8. Darlynne
    Jun 21, 2013 @ 15:08:31

    To your definition of a thriller (narrative tension coming from what is going to happen next), for romantic suspense, I would add “to the heroine.” And, with very few exceptions, that’s exactly why I choose not to read it.

    It is true that most crime fiction depicts violence against women, a reflection of an awful reality. OTOH, romantic suspense seems to be more about the efforts of the stalker/killer/fire bug to control/possess/destroy a woman; without him, we wouldn’t have a woman in jeopardy, right? Even though our heroine generally triumphs, at least fictionally, the genre is not one with which I am comfortable.

    I married a carpenter; he’s good with hands, tools, what-have-you. Thanks for another great Friday review.

  9. Jen
    Jun 21, 2013 @ 16:10:09

    Romantic suspense is probably my personal favorite sub genre of romance, but it’s hard for authors to get right. (Which is why there’s so much truly awful romantic suspense out there.) Authors still have to develop an actual romance, which means they need to allow the hero and heroine time to converse, build sexual tension, etc. But they also have to handle the often complex thriller or suspense plot lines, which tend to be full of action and therefore allow little time for conversation and sex. This is why you get what Sarah Wendell at Smart Bitches calls the dangerboner, which I think is the most brilliant word ever. It’s the tendency for heroes to feel frisky during dangerous moments, like they’re hiding under a bed from the guy with the machine gun, and the hero will suddenly get turned on by the heroine’s shapely thigh pressed against his. Many people hate the dangerboner, but I love it! Again, it’s a balancing act. Too much of it and the book just becomes totally ridiculous. A tiny bit of it and it sort of helps shortcut the sexual tension. Of course for some readers any dangerboner is a deal breaker. :)

  10. JoanneF
    Jun 21, 2013 @ 16:20:49

    I think the fact that the hero is more normal and less alphahole is a Nora Roberts trait rather than a romantic suspense trait. Often RS books have heroes who are active duty or retired cops, SEALS, SWAT-team members, assorted commandos, CIA, etc, which can lend itself to overdone machismo from the hero. I find Nora Roberts’ heroes to usually be much more sane and modern than many romance heroes, if a bit too perfect at times.

    Although I have read a few of Roberts’ books, I haven’t read many; and I really disliked this book. The h&h were fine, but it spent too much time inside the bloodthirsty head of the villain for me, going over the gore in loving detail. Plus I just wanted to smack the heroine for not figuring out who the bad guy was sooner. I listened to this book on tape, rather than reading it, so that may have affected my reaction.

  11. AJH
    Jun 21, 2013 @ 16:22:33


    I hadn’t assumed the heroine staying 11 years old for the first three chapters was a core feature of the subgenre because that would be weirdly specific ;) I kind of felt like I was stuck in the Belgariad, or something, where I seem to recall the hero is a child for about three books.

    The list is a bit random, to be honest. I know I’ve got Nora on it again, this time writing as JD Robb.

    Is CS Harris romantic suspense? Though historical I think.

    Mind Games by Carolyn Crane sounds like it might be thrillery?

    Sorry, I’m a bit vague on subgenres.


    I’m glad I got my classifications right. I’m not really a big reader of thrillers and mysteries. I went through a Hammet phase a couple of years ago, and, of course, I love Lord Peter Whimsy. But I’m generally even less clued in about this genre than I am about romance.

    There’s nothing remotely damselly about Reena and Bo sort of worries about her doing dangerous stuff, but it’s never suggested that he would ever be in a place to protect her from it. Reena very much knows what she’s doing, and the book makes that very clear. One of the things I really liked about the book was the way it demonstrated that what Reena does is dangerous and scary, and that she’s, to some extent, scared by it (because she actually has to go into burning buildings) without ever calling her competence into question.


    Speculating wildly from a position of total ignorance, it makes sense to me that romantic suspense books would be more like thrillers than like mysteries. I think, in their different ways, romances and thrillers are quite emotional genres, whereas mysteries are a lot more abstract and intellectualised. Although it occurs to me that a proper country house mystery romance, with a proper gentleman detective, would be excellent.

    His grey cells may have been little but the hot, hard rod she grasped in her hand certainly wasn’t…

    @Kate McMurray:

    I always find it really interesting how much the circumstances in which you read a book play into your memories of it. I was eating a packet of sherbet lemons when I was reading Interview with a Vampire and now whenever I read, or think about, Anne Rice I always faintly remember the taste of lemons.

    I’m glad you’re enjoying the reviews and the discussions :)

    @Jane Lovering:

    Painted Faces was set in Ireland, though I have no idea about either the nationality of the author or how it fits into the Brit romance scene.

    If it’s not a complete pain for you, would you mind firing me a few recs, and I’ll cycle them into my rotation.


    I think it depends a lot on the context. I mean, most action movies will contain at least one sex scene and I think extreme situations can be quite a good backdrop for a love story. From my limited experience, I think it becomes a problem when the protagonists spend more time thinking about their relationship issues than about the things that might actually kill them. But I don’t think it’s unreasonable to bonk in a crisis – as long as you’re not actually in the middle of a car chase or something.

    I genuinely thought it was very well handled in Blue Smoke, so you might well enjoy it, although obviously I’ve got nothing to compare it to.


    That’s a really interesting point, and I can see why it bothers you.

    Obviously, I’ve read exactly one romantic suspense novel so I have no idea what the genre is like – and I suspect it’s one of those things that builds up over time – but, in this book, I very much didn’t feel like the heroine was in any kind of danger, even though the villain was, in fact, a psycho rapist who was sexually obsessed with her. I think it was probably because I knew I was reading a romance, and therefore it had to have a happy ending, and so I was comfortable that the heroine wasn’t going to get killed, or horribly traumatised.

    And, in fact, in some ways I was more worried for Bo, since Reena could demonstrably take of herself and the villain had an established history of killing her partners. So, in a sense, I felt that the heroine was a lot safer than she would have been if I’d been reading a conventional thriller.

    But, equally, I can absolutely see why a book about a woman who spends her entire life pursued by a creepy stalker who wants to set her stuff on fire wouldn’t be a fun read, even with the assurance of a happy ending.


    I’m interested by the strength of people’s reactions to this subgenre – it seems to be either a really love it or a really hate it thing.

    Dangerboner. OMG, that is the funniest thing I think I’ve ever heard.

    Also it sounds like the hero of a 1960s spy series. Jonathan Dangerboner, secret agent.
    As I was saying above, I do think extreme situations can plausibly throw people together in a sex way, and I think it provides of a good backdrop for desperate passion. I mean, literally thinking about the heroine’s shapely thigh rather than the dude about to kill you is a bit silly but, at the same time, I think it makes a degree of … literary sense, in a way.
    It’s a sort action movie trope, isn’t it? Where the leads will be shagging as a building explodes in the background. I mean, in real life, you’d be want to be well out of the blast radius but, in a movie, it just provides a nice visual metaphor.

  12. Jen
    Jun 21, 2013 @ 16:37:35

    “I think it was probably because I knew I was reading a romance, and therefore it had to have a happy ending, and so I was comfortable that the heroine wasn’t going to get killed, or horribly traumatised.”

    And you’ve hit on exactly why I like romantic suspense. I’m a big wuss. I like mysteries and thrillers but I get freaked out easily and tend to hate it when important characters end up dead in the end. Romantic suspense allows me to enjoy some of that but with the knowledge that the main characters will always end up ok. Plus, they have better sexytimes than most regular thrillers/mysteries. ;)

  13. Isobel Carr
    Jun 21, 2013 @ 16:52:26

    Is CS Harris romantic suspense? Though historical I think.

    I would call Harris mystery. The main thrust of the novel isn’t what will happen to either Sebastian or Hero, it’s the mystery to be solved (though I admit *I* read the series for the development of the relationship and skim the mystery).

  14. Carrie G
    Jun 21, 2013 @ 17:21:49

    I love romantic suspense! I prefer it to historical romance, but that might be because I read mysteries and suspense books for decades before turning to romance books. I call romance books with a mystery plot Romantic Mystery. They are definitely different from romantic suspense. But then there are shades of RS. As one person put it, there are romantic SUSPENSE books (like Nora Roberts) and then there are ROMANTIC suspense books–where the relationship is the central plot and the suspense can become almost a subplot. I tend to like those that balance the two plots the best, but if I have to fall to one side I generally like the side of suspense with romance a little in the background.

    I know you have a reading list that reaches several times around the equator, but I would like to suggest Envy by Sandra Brown as a superbly done book in any genre. If you like audiobooks be sure to listen to the audio version. The narrator is beyond good. This book appeals to a wide range of readers, including my husband. It really is that good.

    If you decide to try another Nora Roberts, I can enthusiastically recommend The Witness–also on audio. Fantastic plot and a narrator that makes it even better.

  15. NBLibGirl
    Jun 21, 2013 @ 17:38:32

    I’m a lot less thrown now when random dudes start fixating on women they’ve hardly met

    Thank you for noting this (with some regularity) in your reviews . . . I so appreciate an author with the skill to create/evolve a relationship between the main the characters.

    (I’m also not a fan of Nora Roberts, despite reading a variety of her titles (para, contemp, historical, etc) – mostly in an attempt to be at least familiar with an author that is so hugely popular. Also not a huge romantic suspense reader; but I do like and recommend Suzanne Brockmann (either of her Navy Seals series) and, ironically, JD Robb (aka Nora Roberts) to people interested in the subgenre.)

  16. Ducky
    Jun 21, 2013 @ 18:23:50

    I am reading my first Nora Roberts right now, “Angels Fall”, and thanks to your review I can add another of her books to my reading list. Her back list is so huge that I have been too overwhelmed to choose.

    Have you read any Linda Howard yet? I think her “Open Season”, “Cry No More” and “Death Angel” are good Romantic Suspense.

  17. azteclady
    Jun 21, 2013 @ 20:25:44

    His grey cells may have been little but the hot, hard rod she grasped in her hand certainly wasn’t…

    oh good lord, you are killing me!

    I loved this book.

  18. Kaetrin
    Jun 21, 2013 @ 20:32:32

    My favorite Nora Roberts RS books are The Search and The Witness. High Noon is pretty great too. Highly skilled, competent heroines who are SMART and are in no way diminished by the hero. Heroes who are also smart and competent and who do not feel they need to make the heroine less accomplished in order to feel better about themselves. Tension, romance and (even though it’s fiction and therefore not real) a certain realism and believability – I love RS done well, but I’ve been burned by couples having sex when bullets are flying and real things like the Witness Protection Program being abused to serve the plot. I listened to one recently where a woman went into WitSec and barely changed her name, barely changed her appearance, didn’t at all change her unique career and, her handler, who apparently had NO OTHER CLIENTS, followed her from start to state for THREE YEARS. At the end, she was moved again by WitSec so she wouldn’t be harassed by the media!! Frankly, that kind of thing just pisses me off and it has meant I’m reluctant to try new-to-me RS authors. Nora is usually reliable, sometimes (even often, IMO) brilliant. Even her “average” books are WAY better than that.

  19. Jennifer Leeland
    Jun 21, 2013 @ 23:32:48

    I’m just glad that by the time I got to this book, I was already a fan and had read a lot of other La Nora books. This one definitely was NOT for me.

  20. Susan
    Jun 21, 2013 @ 23:39:40

    Ack! You keep reading books that I haven’t. At least this one falls under the “he read it so I don’t have to” category. I like mysteries and thrillers. I like romances. But I’m not a big fan of RS for some reason and this one will definitely get a pass from me. (Plus, I’ve never read a NR book. I know–the horror!)

    Glad to see Harris on your list. I love historical mysteries, and I really do enjoy the subsidiary romantic element in this series. And it’s been awhile since I read the Crane book so I may have to try to squeeze in a reread before you get to it.

  21. Meri
    Jun 22, 2013 @ 01:43:24

    I think the Carolyn Crane book is UF and I don’t believe CS Harris is normally classified as romantic suspense. If you feel like adding even more titles to your list, Dabney wrote a post last year about her favorite romantic suspense novels and there were some good suggestions in the comments as well (

    Like others here, I really enjoy romantic suspense when it’s done well, but have a hard time finding such book. It’s a tricky balance to get right.

  22. AJH
    Jun 22, 2013 @ 04:53:32


    Obviously I haven’t read much in this subgenre but, just from looking at book covers on websites, I had the impression that there was a lot of CIA agent / Navy SEAL romances out there. I should probably read one at some point for comparison.

    As I think I said in the review, I felt a bit bad about my reaction to Bo because, while part of me was relieved he wasn’t a complete alphole dick, part of me found him a little bit bland. And I can’t tell if that’s because he was actually a bit bland or because my expectations have been slightly warped by the last few books I’ve read.

    I agree that the stuff from the villain’s POV is really nasty (there’s an especially horrible rape scene at the end) but, obviously not have any RS before, I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be comparing it to, and it positively tame compared to a lot of fantasy novels I’ve read. In fact, in a lot of modern fantasy novels, a character like that would be the actual hero. Sigh.

    I also know what you mean about the heroine not figuring out who the villain was sooner – but, given my own utter failure in that regard, I’m not really in a position to judge that. I did have to sort of consciously remind myself that things that only happened a hundred and thirty pages ago for me, happened nearly twenty years ago for the heroine. In some ways I found it interesting that, while the villain is totally obsessed with Reena, she genuinely hasn’t thought about him in years.


    I’m all for better sexytimes.

    As a rule I’m not usually bothered by important characters getting killed (I’ve read GRRM and that kind of inures to you it). On the other hand, in a lot of genres, that kind of thing isn’t exactly egalitarian. One of things I really appreciated about reading a RS was knowing the heroine wasn’t going to stuffed in a refrigerator so the hero could get his righteous manpain on.

    @Isobel Carr:

    Cool, good to know. I’ll adjust my expectations accordingly :)

    Also, am I right in thinking that in this book the heroine is called Hero? That kind of blows my tiny mind.

    @Carrie G:

    I think one of the things I’m learning about romance in general is that there’s a lot of variation within the genre and its several subgenres. Like, I think there’s a similar distinction within paranormal, fantasy and steampunk – maybe I’m getting in over my head, and trying to over-classify, but, for example, I thought Dragon Actually was probably (to borrow your orthography) fantasy ROMANCE and The Smoke Thief was more like romantic FANTASY. I have read enough RS to really be able to determine where my preferences lie but, in my limited experience, what’s really important in all the subgenres is getting the balance right. I found Dragon Actually a bit difficult because it seemed to render the fantasy world a meaningless backdrop, with things happening largely to facilitate the romance. But, then, again, I often felt The Iron Duke tilted too far the other way.

    So I think what I’m getting at here is that I’m just impossible to please. :/

    Oh, Envy is on my list, I just hadn’t remembered it was RS. I’ll probably shift it up a bit, because I’m definitely a bit light on this subgenre. I find listening audiobooks difficult (although I really enjoy them) because I do find it a meaningfully different experience from reading, and that changes your whole response to the text. I listened to The Fault in our Stars on audiobook, and it was so beautifully done, that I was sad for days and days. But now my responses that book are very much bound up in that particular narrator. Like Hazel Grace has a voice for me now, and is that voice, and it cannot be another voice. (argh, sadness).

    I would like to try another Roberts but probably not until I’ve made a bit more progress with my list.


    Sorry, I know it’s probably getting a bit repetitive and I don’t mean to be “hey a trope, look a trope” all the time but I do frequently find it difficult. I think it’s not about rapidity so much as intensity. Like, Bo sees Reena at a party and thinks he’d really to like know that woman, and keeps thinking it for 13 years, but it didn’t seem implausible to me because it just felt like a long-standing crush, and he only thinks about it again when it sees her again. By the same token, Ruck is sort of obsessed with Melanthe but in quite an abstract way that fits in with ideals about chivalry and honour. But I find it really difficult to deal with when the hero sees the heroine and thinks about literally nothing else except how, and when, to get in her pants. Even when, as is remarkably often the case, his entire society is under threat.

    I just read a Brockmann but it wasn’t the Navy SEAL stuff because, although I’m sure it’s great, I’m not really that into machismo. But I should probably man up and try this stuff, so I can have a better idea what people are talking about. I do have JD Robb on the list but she got shuffled down to the bottom once I realised she was Nora Roberts again.


    I think my random cry for recs suggested Blue Smoke and Northern Lights, and I chose between them based on liking fire slightly more than I like snow. As you can see, this process is very scientific. I hope you enjoy Angels Fall – Roberts does have a ludicrously extensive back catalogue, so I can see why you’d feel overwhelmed. Also I just looked up Angels Fall on Amazon, and it appears to be set in somewhere called Angel’s Fist, Wyoming. Smirk. Sorry.

    Linda Howards is definitely on my list, but I can’t remember what books off the top of my head. I’ll have a rejuggle later today.


    I clearly have a career ahead of me writing erotic country house mysteries.

    I think giving both the heroine and the hero space to be competent without that diminishing either of them is very important, and it comes across very well in Blue Smoke. I think Bo’s got a really mix of traits – he’s kind and emotionally supportive, and good with the family, but, at the same time, he’s got a very masculine job, and he works with his hands, and he’s good at Making Things, so it all balances out really nicely. Oh, I’ve just realised that Bo spends his time creating new stuff and Reena spends hers investigating things other people have destroyed, which sets up a really nice counterpoint that completely passed me by while I was, y’know, reading the book.

    I suspect realism and believably are a bit of a moveable feast. Incidentally, I was just listening an old episode of the DBSA podcast and they were discussing the ridiculousness threshold, and how it varies wildly from genre to genre, author to author, imprint to imprint and reader to reader. Like the other day I was reading a very lovely book set vaguely around Cambridge academia and I freaked the heck out because some minor details of academic life were portrayed incorrectly. And I knew that I was being unreasonable but it still bothered me, even though any sane person wouldn’t have noticed or cared.

    On the other hand, I can completely why in a supposedly serious about someone in WitSec, it would completely break the text if it didn’t feel like they were genuinely protecting a witness.

    @Jennifer Leeland:

    I can see how it wouldn’t work for some people for all kinds of reasons. But I guess that’s the advantage of having a huge and varied back catalogue – readers have the freedom to pick and choose.


    My apologies ;)

    I think from the comments, people tend to have pretty strong reactions to RS, either positive or negative. I think it’s also very much its own thing, so liking thrillers and mysteries doesn’t necessarily make you more likely to enjoy RS. I think one of the reasons I tend to react less well to romantic fantasy is because, even if it works as a romance, if often doesn’t work for me as fantasy.

    I’m looking forward to Harris, I’ve heard some really good things, and historical mysteries are always excellent. My list, in general, is bit low on suspense and mysteries.

    Sorry, I guess I just failed across the board there. The list is so long that I can’t quite remember what all the things on it actually are. Thank you for the link, I’ll definitely try to round out my RS reading, because it’s a bit thin on the ground on the moment. Or maybe it’s not, maybe half the books on my list are RS and I just haven’t noticed. Having read lots of Dabney’s reviews, I think we have quite similar tastes so it’s a probably a good starting point for me.

  23. Jayne
    Jun 22, 2013 @ 06:43:24

    @Dabney: The i.d. of the villain is a mystery in most of Laura Griffin’s books too.

  24. Becca
    Jun 22, 2013 @ 07:40:28

    I’m a Nora fangirl, and Blue Smoke is one of my favorites.

    One of the things I like about Nora’s books is that she excels at describing non-romantic relationships as well as the romantic ones. Friends and family are just as important in a NR book as the main characters.

    Blue Smoke is probably one of the roughest of her books to read, with more overt and more nasty violence than in most of them. I’d have suggested Northern Lights over Blue Smoke for your first introduction to Roberts, or The Witness.

    But if the Chesapeake Bay trilogy isn’t on your list, it really should be – very different from Blue Smoke, and truly lovely.

  25. Laurla
    Jun 22, 2013 @ 09:24:28

    RS is my absolutely favorite genre. I’ve actually fallen away from it recently but this past week picked up one that was done so well it felt like coming home. I think what I love most is what you said about the outside factors lending tension to the romance rather than the romance itself – though there is no shortage of the BIG MISUNDERSTANDING in RS…but like anything else, when done well, it adds to the story rather than detracting.

    “I do have JD Robb on the list but she got shuffled down to the bottom once I realised she was Nora Roberts again.”

    While I know you don’t like to repeat your authors too soon, JD Robb has a completely different voice than Nora Roberts. I sometimes actually forget they are the same person. Eve is one of my favorite heroines in all of Romancelandia, across all sub-genres. She might (I haven’t read her book, so I could be wrong but she MIGHT) kick ass better than your Jessica. She certainly doesn’t put up with any sh*t from her hero, Roarke, who is as alpha as you can get, not alphahole, though, which is another reason I love the series.

    Great, now I’ve got my mind all filled with Roarke. Sigh. Going off to dig up an Eve and Roarke book to read today….

  26. Tamara Hogan
    Jun 22, 2013 @ 11:09:29


    Great, now I’ve got my mind all filled with Roarke.

    A very fine problem to have. ;-)

  27. Dabney Grinnan
    Jun 22, 2013 @ 12:14:28

    @Meri: That list is up to 34! I’ve found more in the past year, thanks to recs from readers.

  28. Meri
    Jun 22, 2013 @ 12:58:08

    @Dabney Grinnan: Will you be posting an updated list? :)

  29. Dabney
    Jun 22, 2013 @ 14:15:18

    @Meri: Yes. If not here, on my blog

    Soon, too!

  30. Jane Lovering
    Jun 22, 2013 @ 14:27:10

    Well, any of my books, obvs, (I’m ‘dark psychological romance, with jokes’, just Google me) ,but also Jenny Colgan (try ‘Talking to Addison’), Kate Johnson (particularly ‘The Untied Kingdom’) Rowan Coleman, (‘Dearest Rose’), Julie Cohen (who’s actually American, but lives and writes Brit books , any of hers are brilliant)… and for the off the wall romance, have you read any Jasper Fforde? (Start with ‘The Eyre Affair’ if you don’t want your brain to explode).

    These are all examples of what I’d call ‘Brit Romance’, slower burn than the US version, more characterisation and less ..umm. how do I put it without prejudice?… less ‘we have great sex so we must be a fabulous couple, let’s get married!’

    Just suggestions. Feel free to ignore.

  31. AJH
    Jun 22, 2013 @ 15:21:47


    I agree that the family relationships were really well articulated which, given how big Reena’s family is, was no mean feat. As ever, I’m not a massively experienced reader but I’m always very pleased when a romance pays attention to relationships outside the central couple. It just feels kind of healthier.

    I actually kind of deliberately picked Blue Smoke because I thought it was going to have more, well, violence in it. The summary for Northern Lights just talks about some guy retiring to Alaska whereas Blue Smoke was arson, adventure, really wild things. I wasn’t particularly put off by the nastiness (as I’ve mentioned above, I’m just used to genres where nasty is kind of de rigueur)

    I’ll certainly be re-visiting Roberts further down my list, although it might take me a while to get through a whole trilogy.


    I’m wondering now what a big misunderstanding in RS looks like – is “I thought you were having an affair with that guy but it turned out he was your CIA handler” or possibly “I thought he was your boyfriend but actually he was just trying to kill you.”

    You’ve got me all confused now – maybe I should leave JD Robb where she is. I’d certainly be really interested in reading about an alpha hero wasn’t also a total arsehole, although I’m not sure about this scheme to dethrone Jessica ;)

    @Jane Lovering:

    Oh crap, I’m really sorry – I didn’t realise you were an author. I’m so new to this I’ve heard of basically nobody. But I will certainly investigate some of the British authors you mention. Thank you :)

    I have read The Eyre Affair, and some of the sequels, though, and I’m not sure I’d categorise as a romance. It’s got a relationship in it, but I’d probably call it … actually I’m not sure what genre it is … zany time-travel lit-theme sci-fi/fantasy. Yes. That genre. I remember enjoying it a lot though.

  32. FD
    Jun 22, 2013 @ 15:33:26

    British romances tend to sit a little closer to what gets described as women’s fiction on the US side of the pond. Tend to have more knife stuff; careers, kids hobbies etc. Also more and darker humour.
    Katie Fforde and Freya North’s earlier books – I liked Chloe in particular. Hazel Hucker’s Claudia Charles book. Catherine Fox if you can bear a little anglicanism, they are beautiful, brilliant. Will think on and see if I can suggest a few more.
    I don’t class Jasper Fforde as romance either although there’s certainly romance in it.
    The big mis is a last 3/4 romantic plot obstacle, usually stemming from characters stupidly keeping things from one another. British romances tend to have more existential plot obstacles than bad communication obstacles as a generic trope.

  33. FD
    Jun 22, 2013 @ 15:39:49

    Forgot Dorothy Koomson, dreadful omission!

  34. Ducky
    Jun 22, 2013 @ 17:29:43

    What is a good Nora Roberts romantic suspense book for a NR virgin besides Blue Smoke and “Angels Fall” (which I am now reading and liking)? And nothing too gruesome and serial killery because I like my suspense on the cozy side. Maybe something about a heist or savvy thiefs. Something where nobody gets killed in horrid ways.

  35. cecilia
    Jun 22, 2013 @ 18:25:50

    @Dabney: I’m pretty sure Susan Crandall’s books have mysterious evil-doers as well, which made them genuinely suspenseful for me. I hate when authors spend a lot of pages on the villain’s perspective, especially if they commit particularly heinous crimes (*cough* Lisa Marie Rice).

    As for Nora Roberts, I barely remember this book, but one of the things I like about her is her tendency to feature a large family and friends support network for at least one of the main characters. I don’t think she’s politically super conservative, so the emphasis doesn’t seem like a push for “family values,” but more one for personal community building.

  36. Kaetrin
    Jun 22, 2013 @ 20:18:00

    @Ducky: maybe the Witness? There is people getting killed (there is ALWAYS people getting killed) but it’s not too horrible or graphic compared to say Blue Smoke. The Search has a serial killer baddy and, while I loved it, it does have some graphic scenes. In The Witness, the tension comes more from the heroine hiding from the bad guys for a long time. There is a wonderful romance too. Hope that helps.

  37. Ducky
    Jun 22, 2013 @ 20:23:14


    Thank you very much for the recs!

  38. AJH
    Jun 23, 2013 @ 05:38:37


    I’ve actually read Catherine Fox – I can’t remember in what context, but I thought they were lovely. And I can certainly bear a little Anglicanism. Angels & Men, Love for the Lost and one I can’t remember the name about a really angry doctor and a trainee vicar, I think? I wouldn’t really have classified them as either chicklit or romance, though, although obviously they have romances in them.

    Thanks you for the recommendations, I’ll be sure to check them out.

  39. Zizie
    Jun 24, 2013 @ 04:40:54

    I’ve read this a long time ago, it was an okay read for me. Quite love Nora Roberts but haven’t read her for a long time. AJH, I love reading your reviews, awesome, DON’T EVER STOP!!
    I’ve read hundreds of books over the years and one of my favorites (romantic suspense) is Still Waters by Tami Hoag. Please please review it and also “It had to be you” or “Nobody’s baby but mine” by Susan Elizabeth Phillips (not a mystery or thriller) just plain old romance but I totally love it. I would really like to read your take on it. Thank you AJH.

  40. RowanS
    Jun 24, 2013 @ 10:09:37

    I’m going back a long ways but Mary Stewart’s books, except for the Arthurian ones, were all romantic suspense. They were the first “romances” I ever read, since they were suspense novels first (my mom has a thing against romance novels) and thus allowed in the house. They’re rather classic, IMHO.

  41. LibrarianLizy
    Jun 26, 2013 @ 15:41:03

    I think the answer to everyone of your “is this typical?” or “why is this so weird yet works so well?” can be summed up with one answer: Because this is Nora Roberts. She’s one of the most beloved romance authors for a reason. :) Her books just work. There are very few times I’ve ever truly disliked a NR book, and I think most of that is personal opinion and not poor writing or storytelling.

    That said, Blue Smoke is definitely not the book I would have recommended for your first Nora experience. Blue Smoke is one of my least favorite (along with High Noon, Chasing Fire, and Black Hills) among her RS titles. The Witness, Brazen Virtue, and Carolina Moon, and her “Night” series are better choices, IMO. Three Fates, Sanctuary, Whiskey Beach, and Montana Sky are all technically RS, but there are a lot more family dynamics, secondary romances, and “life” stuff with a dash of mystery/thriller thrown in for fun. But they’re still good. To get completely away from RS with her, you have to read her series books; those are all pretty much straight up contemporary romance.

    After re-reading this comment, I really can’t remember what my point is. Other than Nora Roberts is awesome. And you should read more of her. :)

  42. AJH
    Jun 28, 2013 @ 03:35:37


    Awww, thank you – I have no intention of stopping, at least not until everybody gets bored and Jane tells me to go away :)

    I will certainly add Tami Hoag to my list, I’m a bit low on romantic suspense in general, I think, although I’ve tried to balance things out by using Dabney’s guide – and, err, to be honest I’ve probably just noticed half the books are suspense, so I’ll get an interesting surprise when I get there.

    SEP is definitely on there, though – but I can’t quite remember which book. I have a feeling it was one or both of those.


    Huh, interesting. I can remember reading her historical novels (The Crystal Cave was the first one, I think) back when I was a teenager, but I have a thing for Authurian stuff. Well, who doesn’t ;)

    I haven’t thought about her for years but now I will definitely definitely look at her other stuff.

    (Actually you’ve also made me want to re-read the Merlin books, dammit)


    My book choices are, honestly, a little bit random. I usually have a short-list of 2-3 titles that people have either vaguely mentioned or actively recommended to me. And then I usually do some random Googling or go with the thing that is either cheapest or most readily available. As you can see, it’s all very scientific. I think it came down to Northern Lights or Blue Smoke, and I went with Blue Smoke because I’m shallow enough to find arson more exciting than Alaska.

    I think one of the slightly odd things I run into when I’m dealing with authors with huge back catalogues is that I often end up reading something slightly atypical. But I did really like Blue Smoke, even if it’s not the “obvious” choice, and I’m definitely going to read more Nora Roberts when I’m in a position to start looping back on myself.

  43. KarenF
    Jun 28, 2013 @ 12:18:51

    Catching up after being out of town…

    While I liked “Blue Smoke,” I probably wouldn’t have picked it as an intro to diva Nora. I keep coming back to “Northern Lights” (which is written primarily, but not completely, from the hero’s POV), or “Tribute,” (her graphic novelist hero is probably my favorite in all of romancelandia – if he actually existed in real life, I be camping out on his doorstep until he noticed me). But even Nora Robert’s weaker books, are better than many author’s stronger ones.

    Tami Hoag is an interesting case. I know I’ve read some of her RS, but didn’t find any memorable, but her straight up mystery novels rock my world. “Ashes to Ashes” and “Dust to Dust” had me reading for nearly 72 hours, with only a few breaks to sleep when I absolutely had to. I’m not fond of her romance novels either, for that matter. For seriously engrossing detective stories, though, she’s at the top of my must-read list.

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