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Camelot series

REVIEW:  Along Came Trouble by Ruthie Knox

REVIEW: Along Came Trouble by Ruthie Knox

Dear Ms. Knox:

Along Came Trouble is the second entry and first full novel in your Camelot series. The series is built around the Clark siblings who live in the small midwestern town of CamelotI’ve read that your original story idea was about an LA rock star and the pregnant woman in Camelot he falls in love with. Then, as you thought about the secondary romance in that story, one about the pop star’s sister and a bodyguard, it became clear to you that story was the one you wanted to write. This was a good call. I enjoyed both romances but found the dynamic between Ellen Callahan (the sister) and Caleb Clark (the bodyguard) more interesting than the one between Jamie Callahan (the rock star) and Carly (the knocked-up divorcée).

Ellen is a single mom and lawyer whose twin brother Jamie is a rock god. Several months before this book begins, while visiting Ellen and her pronoun challenged toddler Henry, Jamie fell for Ellen’s pregnant next door neighbor Carly. The two had a very public break up (over what seems to me to be a dumb issue) and now the international press is camped out on Ellen’s cul-de-sac aggressively taking photos and pressing for gossip updates. Jamie, now back in LA and still madly in love with Carly, hires Caleb Clark’s nascent security company to manage the paparazzi and keep Ellen, Henry, and Carly safe. Caleb has his work cut out for him for neither Ellen or Carly have any interest in having Caleb–or any man–telling them what to do or how to live.

I thought both women were unreasonable and almost undeserving of the men who pursued them. That almost is key. One thing I liked a lot about this book is how flawed and screwed-up Ellen and Carly are. Both have perfectly awful ex-husbands and because of that both treat the current men in their lives rather poorly. Both are terrified of the risks inherent in loving and depending on a new guy. Both, for much of the book, made me want to shake them and yell “Wake up and smell the flowers that nice guy has brought you!” But, even as I shook my head at their foolishness, I rooted for these misguided females to wind up happily ever after. Ellen and Carly both come close to acting TSTL emotionally but they never cross that line. Instead they come across as real and justifiably deserving by the novel’s end of their HEAs.

Ellen’s and Carly’s shortcomings are especially obvious because the two main men in the novel have so few.

Jamie is a literal superstar of a guy. He’s gorgeous, famous, wealthy, funny, great in bed, and willing to put every bit of his pride and fame aside to win back Carly. His greatest flaw–that he’s let others do much of the heavy lifting in his life–he overcomes with grace and determination. This process is best evinced by his outlook on cooking. At the beginning of the novel, Jamie doesn’t cook. Ever. As he reasons, “He’d never seen the appeal of doing everything yourself when you could hire someone to do it for you.” But, once Jamie returns to Camelot, he realizes that attitude is neither going to win him love nor fill his stomach. Even though he’s never learned to make anything–scrambled eggs are beyond his purview–he asks both Ellen and Carly’s hot-to-trot (in the best way possible) grandmother to teach him. Although “Cooking turned out to be both difficult and time-consuming, which was, of course, why he’d avoided it all these years,” Jamie masters it. It’s a “competency” he needs to have to be a better man so he does it. Period, end of statement. Jamie was fun to read about but he, out of the four main characters, was the least likely to exist. He’s too good to be true and his relationship with Carly is thus harder to care about.

Caleb is also a stellar specimen of manhood but he, primarily because he’s an ordinary guy, was easier to believe in. I really liked Caleb. Like, liked him enough to put him on my “if I had to be a paired with a the hero of a romance novel, I’d take this guy in a heartbeat” list which somewhat surprisingly isn’t that long. Caleb served in the military police for fifteen years before moving back to his hometown of Camelot. He returned home to take care of his family none of whom especially want to be taken care of. This doesn’t deter Caleb. For him, protecting and helping others is just who he is. Physically, the guy’s smoking. The first time Ellen sees him “she hadn’t had a single thought in her head except Whoa.” He’s also an utter sweetie with everyone except possibly his mom who drives him crazy. Whether he is letting Henry “help” him install deadbolts on Ellen’s door, giving Ellen spectacular orgasms, listening to Carly explain–which makes no more sense to Caleb than it does to me–why she won’t (yet) take back Jamie, or caulking crappy skylights with his dad in their family owned apartment complex Caleb is a prince among men.

Caleb’s nuts about Ellen immediately–the two go from strangers to lovers in two days–for reasons that aren’t completely clear to me. Caleb finds Ellen incredibly sexy and it’s obvious he’s the kind of guy who would only fall for a strong smart woman. Still, Ellen’s a royal pain in his ass and makes it clear she’s only interested in Caleb for his body. She’s so dismissive of all of his other immediately obvious wonderful characteristics that I found myself wondering why Caleb kept coming back for more of her crap. He’s upfront with her from the beginning of their relationship that he wants all of her and she not only selfishly ignores that, she goes out of her way to ignore everything about him other than who he is with her. There was something very discomfiting about their interactions for most of the book which, oddly, made me like the novel all the more.

At times, when I was reading Along Came Trouble, I felt like the world of Camelot was too skewed toward its imperfect women. In every romantic relationship from that of Caleb’s parents to Carly and Jamie, the men are willing to put up with carping and, at times, unfair behavior at the hands of the women. I had the sense of woman-power run amuck: the women are entitled to act poorly and the men are required to accept it. For most of the novel, I didn’t feel great about the way things work in Camelot. (I now have that song in my head. Damn. At least it’s Richard Burton.)

However, even though I didn’t, I guess the word is, approve of the unequal emotional power structure, I enjoyed reading about it. As I read, I thought a lot which, usually, makes me happy. Along Came Trouble critically engaged me in a way most traditional–and it is pretty traditional–romances often don’t.

I have liked most of your books although the first release in the Camelot series, the novella How to Misbehave (Caleb’s older sister Amber’s story) fell flat for me. You are a generous writer who clearly strives to give her readers prose that’s vivid, witty, and often quite moving. This bit about Caleb’s memory of fireflies made me reach for a tissue.

The light shut off, plunging them into darkness. Fireflies lit erratic paths in the air. He’d missed fireflies. The army had sent him all over the world, but nowhere else seemed to have fireflies except Fort Leonard Wood, where he’d gone for MP school. At eighteen, the sight of lightning bugs in Missouri had made him homesick.

One of the reasons I so like your work is because your heroines are women I personally can relate to. I’m married (to a man) and a mom and am at ease with romances where women find happiness in those states. Ellen’s identity as a mom (and Carly’s as a mom-to-be) are perhaps the most important part of their personas. I love that in Along Came Trouble, the hot heroines are a thirty year old single mom with a “pasty white post-baby stomach” and a cranky pregnant woman with high blood pressure. Don’t get me wrong, Ellen’s a damn good lawyer and she supports herself and Henry. She and Carly are both self-determined strong-willed women. They also put their kids before everything else including their work and their love lives. When they let themselves fall in love with Caleb and Jamie respectively it’s in part because both men have proved to be dedicated to their (Ellen’s and Carly’s) children. This works for me but if you’re a reader who is fed up with children and wedded commitment as a HEA, this book is probably not for you.

I’ve read Along Came Trouble twice and though I liked it on the first pass, I really liked it on the second. It’s a smart, challenging, sexy, well-written book. I give it a B+.




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REVIEW:  How to Misbehave by Ruthie Knox

REVIEW: How to Misbehave by Ruthie Knox

Dear Ms. Knox,

Your 30,000 word novella, How to Misbehave, charmed me to my toes. How to Misbehave takes place in the college town of Camelot, Ohio, in the year 1999. This then is Amber’s opportunity to flirt with Tony and see if he’s interested in her. Amber knows it, but she is as afraid of this chance as she is glad to have it.

Ruthie Knox How to MisbehaveNot only is Amber a squeaky-clean, fresh-faced 24 year old who graduated from a Christian college, her two experiences of sex were both disastrous. Tony, on the other hand, is trouble, or so she has been told. Amber is afraid her life will atrophy from too much good behavior, but she doesn’t know if she can handle Tony, or even get up the nerve to ask him to teach her how to misbehave.

Tony is aware of Amber’s crush on him – his younger brother, who works with him, has been teasing him about it. Tony is also attracted to Amber, and as they seek shelter from the tornado in the basement, he grows more conscious of that pull.

So Tony flirts with Amber, but he has no intention of following through on the flirtation. It seems like a bad idea to actually take Amber to bed since Amber wears her dewy-eyed youthfulness on her sleeve to a point where Tony calls her “bunny.” At 28, Tony has nothing to offer someone as sweet as Amber, or so he believes.

But when the storm knocks the power out and the basement goes dark, Tony is defeated by something unexpected: his fear of the dark. For Tony, the dark is scary, and Amber’s voice, her conversation, is the only thing that keeps his panic attack from blossoming into complete terror.

For Amber, the dark is liberating in that it allows her to claim aspects of herself that she has repressed or shut away. Amber knows what people see when they look at her exterior isn’t who she is, and she wants to be the person she feels she can be– someone bolder, stronger and more directed than she has been until now – both externally and internally.

Amber introduces the topic of the difference between people’s exteriors and interiors, and Tony grasps it like a lifeline. In the darkness, Amber feels safer and braver, Tony more vulnerable and open, and this forges a connection that leads them into each other’s arms when the lights come back on.

But Amber still has those painful experiences of sex to contend with, and there is something in Tony’s past that he has not shared with Amber, something he still carries with him and which may come between Amber, Tony, and the happiness they could find together.

How to Misbehave hews to romance tropes that have been around for a long time, yet it manages to read like something fresh and new. As I was reading, I reflected on the reasons for this, and I think they have to do with specificity of detail and a willingness to go to places that we or people we know have gone, places where the genre itself rarely ventures.

Take, for example, Amber’s sexual past. Amber is cast by Tony and to a lesser degree, by the fact that this is the story of how she learns what sex can be like with a good lover, in the role of the innocent. A common enough trope, though Amber is not a virgin (She has had sex with two men, and both were traumatic experiences in different ways).

This too is not new in romance – the heroine who hasn’t achieved orgasm in intercourse due to a traumatic sexual experience. But when this comes up in the genre, it generally has to do with rape. That isn’t the case here. I don’t want to spoil all the details for readers, but one detail revealed early on in the story is that Amber’s first sexual experience was with a fellow student from her Christian college, a boy who felt that premarital sex was sinful and who cried after they did the deed.

As someone who has been reading romance for a long time but hasn’t read that many contemporaries, I found this background thrilling because it reflected a type of sexual experience I haven’t come across in a romance before.

I don’t want to go into the nature of Tony’s own trauma, since it’s revealed quite late in the story, but his too was something that fell into the spectrum of human experience but that I haven’t often seen depicted in the pages of a romance novel. That description also fits some of the smaller details of the story, such as Amber’s living arrangement (she lives in an apartment complex owned by her parents) or her degree (Sports Management).

I did have a few niggles. One was that except for a brief mention of Y2K, the time period aspect of the setting isn’t utilized much. The story could just as easily have been set in 2013, and that was a bit of a disappointment.

Another issue was that although Amber gained in confidence and her hang ups in bed were resolved, her hang ups outside of bed were not completely. At one point, in a moment of unhappiness, Amber thinks, “There were word for […] what she’d done, too. Spread for him. Slut.

This comes pretty late in the novella, and while it makes sense that someone with Amber’s background would look at it that way, I would have loved to see her grow further past this self-shaming view. It’s unlikely, but I hope to get a glimpse of something like that in the upcoming novel, Along Came Trouble, the story of Amber’s younger brother.

Also, while I felt I knew Amber quite well (and loved her, too) by the time the novella ended, I had less of a bead on Tony. His backstory indicated that some early experiences led him to behave irresponsibly, but the irresponsibility went on into early adulthood and I felt that there had to be something more that led to it than just what we were told about. I found myself feeling curious about the dynamics of his family prior to the tragic event that changed his life.

Even though this kept me from loving Tony quite as much as I loved Amber, I thought he was pretty wonderful with her. The sex scenes between Tony and Amber were smoking hot largely due to his generosity and sweetness, and I loved that he was such a good guy yet still had something significant to angst about.

I also loved the themes. One great theme was how hard it is to “misbehave” to the right degree. The novella made it clear that acting out in excess can lead to bad things but too much “good behavior” can also lead to bad things. The just right amount of “misbehavior” that Tony and Amber found with each other was liberating to them both and made them click as a couple.

Another terrific theme was that of exterior/interior and the importance of matching the two to achieve congruence, integrity, and a full life. With Tony, Amber learns to be more true to her confident inner self. With Amber, Tony learns to give himself permission to be happy.

Like your novel About Last Night which I read and loved last year, this was a buoyant story. I will be rereading it, I think. B+.