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There was recently a story making the internet rounds about Google feeding romance novel text to its artificial intelligence engine to help the AI develop conversational skills. As of now, there seems to be no sign that Google’s AI has written a romance novel of its own, but if it did, it might be a lot like Hot in Hellcat Canyon. Julie Ann Long’s new romance follows the all of the genre rules so closely that it almost feels like she’s perfected the science, leaving no room for human error. Or human emotion. Or humanity of any kind. And suddenly the charming Hellcat Canyon starts to feel a little like the uncanny valley.

Type: Contemporary small town romance

The couple: Britt Langley is perfectly happy to be a waitress in Hellcat Canyon. The people don’t ask questions about her secret past, and everyone seems eccentric enough that her habit of fostering dying plants through care and pep talks doesn’t seem any weirder than the stuff other people are doing. Her eventually beau, John Tennessee “J.T.” McCord, has so many romance novel characteristics that he could be a satire of a romance novel hero. He has three names, but of course he unassumingly goes by J.T. He’s an Emmy-winning actor who served in the army, has carpentry skills, has earned a black belt in Karate, and speaks multiple languages. He also handles every social situation perfectly: he can shame an obnoxious barfly, banter with his love interest, and charm elderly ladies over Dr. Pepper and rum. He’s also probably been People’s “Sexiest Man Alive” on multiple occasions, but strangely that doesn’t come up.

The story: J.T. is in Hellcat Canyon to do some scouting for the television project that’s going to resurrect his acting career (a prestige series on AMC about the gold rush, since I know you were wondering). But while in the area, he gets distracted by his broken down truck and the pretty, clever, quirky Britt. Sure, as a handsome and talented movie star, he could be pursuing more beautiful women, but he’s grown bored of the beautiful people of Hollywood. Plus, his beautiful ex-girlfriend is terrible – as beautiful ex-girlfriends tend to be – so he’s looking to go in a different direction. And he and Britt happily move in that different direction, which includes porch-building, delicious burgers, working through troublesome past issues, and gaiety of all kinds. Until the terrible ex-girlfriend shows up to mess everything up. As they tend to do.

How’s the sex? Risky, in a couple of ways. First, there’s never any mention of condom use or even a quick conversation where the pair decides not to use a condom. Believe it or not, that’s fairly uncommon in romance. For all of the pieces of reality the romance genre leaves behind, safe sex isn’t one of them. Also, the second time Britt and J.T have (unprotected) sex, they have it outside in a public place, which is especially risky if one of you is a TV star who gets recognized all over town. The idea that neither Britt nor J.T. has any reason to be worried about STIs or pregnancy is actually more believable than the possibility that TMZ wouldn’t track down a celebrity having public sex, even in Hellcat Canyon.  

Is this book for you? Julie Anne Long would be a force to be reckoned with on OKCupid. She is clearly a woman with a gift for flirty banter, even if J.T. might have been slightly more impressed than necessary with Britt’s use of words like “enigmatic” and “adroit”. The quick dialogue and way the main characters obviously like each other is one of the things that helped Hot in Hellcat Canyon keep me engaged. And that’s no small feat – this book is nearly 400 pages long.

Still, the way Britt and J.T. always have exactly the right line or quip for every moment is just one more way this story seems to exist in an alternate storybook universe. The people feel very much like characters, the town feels very much like a setting, and twists and turns feel very much like plot. The book is fiction, of course, but usually something that feels this much like make-believe involves wizards, sparkly vampires, or a Cheshire Cat.

But maybe make-believe is your speed. Some romance novels are more based in reality and real life than others, but part of the purpose of these stories is that they’re a fantasy where the tough parts of life are manageable and get resolved. I like something slightly more relatable, but if you’re in the heavily escapist camp, more power to you. Hot in Hellcat Canyon is perfectly fun. There’s something for everyone in romance, and part of the fun of exploring the genre is figuring out what kinds of books you like. I only hope Google’s AI has the same chance to decide what it’s looking for: romantic comedy or suspense? Erotica or inspirational? Who can say? You do you, Google robots.

Conclusion: Hot in Hellcat Canyon has a lot of what makes romance novels good, if not enough of what makes them recognizably human. If you prefer that your romance worlds exist through the looking glass, you’ll be right at home in Hellcat Canyon.

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