Wendy: Bittersweet, freezer burn, front end…Christian romance? Is it another oxymoron or can a genre largely geared to titillate work god into the relationship between hero and heroine? Inspirational romance has been around too long to question the legitimacy of its existence or perhaps even ponder the necessity of mixing faith into a genre famed for its carnality. But what appeal can Inspirationals have for a readership not interested in finding a morality play intertwined with their foreplay? If Fair Warning, the latest offering from the husband and wife writing team known as Hannah Alexander, is any indication, not a lot.
Unable to recover from the loss of her husband and a miscarriage, Willow Traynor moves to Branson to be close to her brother and hopefully find some peace. Instead, Willow awakes one night to the smell of turpentine—or some other equally strong odor—that is quickly followed by the smell of smoke. While running to alert her brother and the other residence of the complex, Willow notices several trails of fire that run toward the building and immediately suspects that an unnamed enemy has followed her to Branson.
As would happen, the lodge complex is owned by Dr. Graham Vaughn, who arrives on the scene to find Willow helping the other residents out of their homes and away from the fire. Graham immediately concludes that Willow is a local reporter—the great satan of so many romance novels—and despite her injuries and the peril around them, takes the time to make an ass of himself and orders Willow from the property. It is a rote and useless first meeting that is further exacerbated by the fact the reporter Graham has such contempt for and is willing to make a scene over, never actually makes it onto the page, nor is any motivation apparent for Graham’s prejudice or actions. In the end, it’s a contrived beginning for a romance that never gets off the ground.
Like many works of fiction that attempt to balance a suspense plot with a romance, Fair Warning isn’t able to create cohesion between the two so that neither plot line feels neglected. The focus concentrates on the attempts on Willow’s life and the lives of those around her at the expense of the romance. Or, more accurately, there isn’t a romance at all. The wooden and prosaic narrative infects the characters so that neither Willow nor Graham feel comfortable with themselves or with each other. Their time together on the page is severely limited and clings to the hamster’s wheel of Graham wanting to protect Willow and Willow wanting independence. As a couple they lack not only chemistry and attraction, but also any real reason to like each other on more than a passing acquaintance level.
The characters’ faith and god plays a role in their stories, though not an overly large one. Both Graham and Willow are at rocky points in their relationship with their god which each must straighten out in order for the troubles in the world around them to smooth out. Beyond this, there is also a too obvious correlation between Christians and good guys and non-believers and bad guys. Graham, for example, is a selfless doctor who doesn’t charge for the patient care he provides, Willow is an ICU nurse dedicated to saving lives, Graham’s sister Ginger is a physician’s assistant and a missionary. This is all juxtaposed to single mom and waitress Sandi—a character who does not profess a relationship with god—who is a neglectful mother, suspected drug addict, and all around failure as a person whose judgment day comes early. It is a heavy handed detail that lacks any subtlety.
Fair Warning has the distinction of being co-authored. The collaboration is seamless save for the medical jargon which is overly abundant and overly complex. Otherwise the prose is evenly expositional, which is not a good thing, as too often the characters seem to be speaking for the benefit of the readers, not each other, and the narrative itself is heavy on pedantic telling, thus eliminating any real sense of style. Despite a plot that is rife with conflict and a mystery that doesn’t solve itself too early or easily, Fair Warning simply doesn’t rise to a dramatic or engaging level. The non-romance romance plays out on an even and smooth plane that greatly disappoints. Fair Warning doesn’t walk the assumed tightrope between faith and flesh, because it doesn’t even bother to admit the existence of the flesh. It’s a romance of non-Biblical proportions such is the vanilla aspect of its chemistry.
HelenKay: Inspirational romance – like erotic romance, strangely enough – is the new black. A few years back, publishers appeared to climb all over each other rushing to put inspirational romance on the shelves. The genre has expanded and thrived ever since. The new kid on the block appears to be inspirational romantic suspense – a purported mix of romance, mystery and faith. One problem is the reluctance of some romance readers to pick up these books. The book concerns boil down to these: will it be interesting; will it be preachy; will the faith parts feel like add-ons or be intrinsic to the plot; and will every book sound the same. The truth is that reading one book can’t address and answer these concerns for an entire genre. Reading one book can only answer and address those concerns as to that book. Unfortunately, the answers provided by Fair Warning demonstrate why readers have these concerns in the first place.
Nurse Willow Traynor lost her husband, an undercover narcotics agent, in the line of duty. Shortly after, Willow lost her unborn child in a strange incident where she believes a car tried to run her over. Two years later, still reeling from the loss of her husband and child, and causing great concern to her loved ones who fear she is mentally unstable and possibly headed down the same road as her schizophrenic mother, Willow moves out of the city to her brother Preston’s cabin in the Ozarks. While there, someone tries to run a Willow look-alike off the road, and someone tries to burn down Preston’s cabin with Willow in it. With all this, is it any wonder Willow believes someone is out to get her…?
The night of the fire, Willow meets Dr. Graham Vaughn and his ex-missionary sister Ginger. Graham happens to own the set of cabins in which Preston lives in and that he manages. Graham arrives at the scene with a host of other folks, mistakes Willow for her look-alike (a nosy and nasty reporter), insults WIllow and, eventually, tries to comfort her. Graham and Ginger set off to help Willow and try to figure out why these events keep happening around her. And why someone is trying to frame her for the cabin arson.
All of this amounts to a great deal of action. The problem is, there is very little emotion connected to that action. Alexander piles on a history of pain on to both Willow and Graham – from a bad marriage, to a dead husband, to a dead baby, to a mentally ill mother, to crises of faith. You name it, these two suffer through it. But at every turn when their pasts and the current conflicts could drive them together, the tension and push/pull between them is lacking. The sense of need and attraction never rises to even a boil. The romance portion turns more on a tell, not show basis. Graham finds Willow attractive because he says he does, but the reader never feels it or sees it in a way that would allow an investment in these two characters as anything other than characters.
Willow spends a great deal of time attempting to convince Graham, Ginger and Preston that she doesn’t need help or coddling or special treatment. The I-can-stand-alone speeches start early and continue throughout the book. While the point may be to show Willow as a strong and vibrant woman, her protestations ring hollow. Someone is trying to kill her, no one believes her when she says smeone is after her and her life is in shambles – of course she needs help! It’s okay for a heroine to need help. Wallowing is the annoying issue for readers. Wallowing in an I’m-okay mindset when a heroine obviously is not, still qualifies as wallowing.
This refusal by Willow to grow and deal with her life, coupled with the lack of sizzle and spark between Graham and Willow, make for a flat plot. While the suspense ticks along at a good speed and draws the reader into the Willow’s past, the romance portion of the book never takes off. The issue could be written off as the mix between romance and suspense not being quite right here, but that is too simplistic. The real issue is that the romance never takes off at all, so that the only element driving the story forward is the suspense. While the suspense is compelling – even though the introduction of a substantial number of characters in first few pages is cumbersome – this book is marketed as a romance. As such, it should have some.
Wendy’s Question: You and I have–both publicly and privately–resisted attempts to pigeon hole romance and have flatly refused any sort of blanket definition of what should or should not be included in the genre. Before reading Fair Warning my own personal definition of romance was: love story with a satisfying ending. After this read, I’m amending my short list to include: sexual tension (note: this does not mean sex, but rather the hope of it). What do you think? Can there be romance without sexual tension?
HelenKay’s Response: I’m not one for sweeping statements, but… No. I’d go as far as to say absolutely not. There must be something driving the hero and heroine together – some discernible feeling between them that pops off the page and grabs the reader’s interest. If all that’s there in the book is suspense or fantasy or some other element, that’s fine, but the book then is a suspense or a fantasy or whatever other element is in there. A romance novel without any actual romance or romantic ramping up is, to put it nicely, annoying. I can think of stronger words, but I’ll go with annoying.
And, to be clear, sexual tension and sexuality are two different things. If you like sweet romance or hot romance, that’s fine. How the book is written on a sensuality level is an issue for the author and her style and the needs of the publisher’s imprint. Readers who prefer certain sensuality levels gravitate to books that meet those needs. But, all romance – regardless of whether the work is an inspirational, category, novella or mass market single title – needs sexual tension. The bottom line is that if the hero and heroine don’t feel something, I don’t etiher. Actually, that’s not true. I feel bored and a bit cheated.
Wendy’s Final Thoughts: Fair warning: Fair Warning is flat.
HelenKay’s Final Thoughts: Interesting suspense, but little else.
You can visit the writing duo known as Hannah Alexander here and puchase this book here and here.