REVIEW: Donna Alward’s TREASURE ON LILAC LANE, Or Letting Your Light Shine

Treasure_On-Lilac_LaneIn her most recent Donna Alward review, Miss Bates declared Alward the “queen of domestic romance” in reference to her category novels. The first novel in her Jewell Cove series, The House On Blackberry Hill, written under a different publisher, introduced new elements to Alward’s winning category themes: a certain mysticism, a woo-woo-ness and preciousness that didn’t sit thoroughly well. Miss Bates is an Alward fan (from the moment she closed the final, sopping-Kleenex page of The Cowboy Who Loved Her, one of Miss Bates’ favourite category romances and one she’s often suggested to successfully turn readers onto the genre); she was ready to like Blackberry Hill. Treasure On Lilac Lane, however, turned out even better. Alward tempered the woo-woo with a gentle inspirational element, whisper-thin but moving nonetheless, cranked up the fleshiness, and re-introduced her signature working-class, or lower-middle-class hero and heroine, battered by life, struggling to find their way and waylaid by attraction, desire, and love. Continue reading

REVIEW: Katherine Reay’s LIZZY AND JANE, Of Sustenance and Austen

Lizzy_JaneWith a book about food, love, and family, Miss Bates launches her review by eating humble pie. “Never say never” should be Miss B’s mantra regarding romance reading. Katherine Reay’s Lizzy and Jane is mild romance; it’s … GASP … women’s fiction, a fictive genre Miss Bates purports to abhor. Indeed, there’s been scorn-heaping. It’s the type of fiction she’s most likely to DNF. She finds it precious and precious becomes boring and boring becomes the worst kind of sentimental. Reay’s novel skirts close to DNF territory: estranged sisters (sibling relationships have never interested Miss B.), acrimony remaining from their mother’s illness, CANCER, one of the two sisters ill with CANCER herself, confronting the past, each other, and salvaging, or sundering, relationships. It focuses on younger sister, Elizabeth, “Lizzy,” Hughes, 33, moving back to the Pacific Northwest (from New York City where her chef’s career was floundering) to come to terms with people she left behind: retired firefighter dad and especially older sister, Jane. Her journey tries to answer: what is home? What do we owe the people closest to us, particularly those with whom we share strained relations? What is family? From where do we derive meaning and purpose? How do we find God amidst acrimony and failure?

It is the start of the Lenten season for Miss Bates, a season of re-evaluation and reflection, and Reay’s novel was a perfect fit. While suffering from the failure of inspirational fiction to make a tangible, ritualistic participation in church life as essential to defining ourselves as Christians, Reay’s novel nevertheless took a eucharistic perspective through Lizzy’s creative food acts. And her spirit guide, and that of others as well, like her sister, Jane, was Jane Austen. Like food, which serves as healer and binder, literature stands in as such as well. Continue reading

REVIEW: Maisey Yates’ TO DEFY A SHEIKH, Or Kickboxing As Seduction

To_Defy_SheikhWith the Middle East in conflagration, Miss Bates’s taste for the desert sheikh romance is less and less palatable, requiring a greater and greater suspension of disbelief. If there’s a sheikh romance that engages and convinces, it’d be Maisey Yates’s. (Miss Bates’ loved last year’s Pretender To the Throne, though it was set in a fictional Greek island kingdom. Settings, in the HP romance, are interchangeable. The circum-Mediterranean world suffices, with its images of heat, passion, and enough foreign-ness to satisfy the safe-seeking sensibilities of HP readers.) In To Defy A Sheikh, Yates sets up a fascinating premise: hero and heroine meet after sixteen years under unusual circumstances. The heroine, Samarah Al-Azem, former princess of Jahar, attempts to murder Sheikh Ferran Bashar of Khadra, her childhood playmate. He is the reason for her father’s execution, the father who destroyed Ferran’s family … though, as revealed in the course of the romance, her and Ferran’s family were embroiled in the most sordid of affairs, with infidelity and control and violence as their causes and outcomes. Not all parties were guilty; the ones who were dealt the hardest blows are the innocents, the children, Ferran and Samarah. As adults, Ferran is tormented by guilt and Samarah burns with revenge. Continue reading

REVIEW: Donna Alward’s THE COWBOY’S VALENTINE, Or Awakening To the Possibilities

Cowboy's_ValentineMiss Bates can’t offer readers chocolates, or flowers such as our lovely cowboy carries on the cover of Donna Alward’s latest, but a review of a Valentine romance, she can deliver! 

Donna Alward is the queen of domestic romance. How she manages to keep Miss Bates riveted with ordinary lives of ordinary people, doing no more than making dinner, watching TV, and drinking a beer at the local pub is a wonder. But that is exactly what Alward does: expose the soft core of her characters, their fears, vulnerabilities, dashed hopes and dreams, all the ways in which life has worn them down amidst everyday ordinariness. Alward is good at depicting characters vacillating between giving in to the fears received from life’s knocks and reaching towards hope, counting on love to renew them. This rich inner life is enacted amidst simple possibilities and domestic chores: a place to belong, meaningful work, a partner to love, a child to rear, and puppy to walk. Miss Bates says that Alward is the only romance writer she knows who has her rushing home from work to read her novels when the only exciting moment that makes up a scene is the flip of a pancake! Well, there’s all that and pancakes, chocolate-chip ones, in Alward’s latest romance novel, The Cowboy’s Valentine. Continue reading

Exorcising DNFs

Miss Bates has many a romance novel languishing in TBR purgatory: narratives half-read until boredom set in, others which triggered something in her she couldn’t abide, some which shifted drastically from their starting-point, and some which pestered her moral, political, or aesthetic sensibilities. She refers to this as her Shame-Ful TBR: books to throw into a dank corner with the exclamation, “What was I thinking?” Sometimes, it’s a book that excited her at time of acquisition, but her taste changed by the time she came to reading it. To whittle down the voluminous TBR and put closure to purgatorial reads, Miss Bates has decided to write an occasional DNF round-up as a cleansing reading régime. Sometimes, it’s as interesting to articulate why we abandon a book, as it to think about why we stuck with it. Thanks to Wendy for the inspiration. Miss Bates’ goal is to NOT to write such a post too often …  Continue reading

REVIEW: Genevieve Turner’s SUMMER CHAPARRAL, Once Bitten, Twice Shy

SCmockup5copyGenevieve Turner’s début, Summer Chaparral, Las Morenas Book 1, is Miss Bates’ first shotgun-wedding-themed romance. Judging from the places Turner’s novel lead her to, it won’t be her last. Her impression is that a “good” shot-gun-wedding-troped romance needs a historical context where codes of family honour are paramount. (This is harder to pull off in contemporary romance, but HPs do it with sheikh and Greek billionaire romances and Orientalism be damned.) Turner’s near-turn-of-the-twentieth-century California-set romance is perfectly situated within that description. The diminished Californios, the Spanish-originned families, are still significant landowners in a California with American statehood. The heroine’s, Catarina Moreno’s, family, is such a one, landed, Californian Hispanic gentry: they speak Spanish in their home, live with Old-World decorum, keep a Spanish kitchen, and expect their daughters, in particular, to maintain a cloistered virtue and marry into one of the equally landed and “aristocratic” long-established Hispanic families. For maximum tension and conflict, Turner places her Morenos, and their oldest and most beautiful daughter, Catarina, into a changing world: statehood and the anglo-Americans who now dominate the state. Her hero, Jace Merrill, with his own family baggage, rides into Cabrillo, looking for land and a home, “The valley had enough space to let a man breathe, while the ranges encircling it were close enough to give the impression of protecting what lay below. Freedom and comfort, all in the same place. Odd, that a landscape could be so reassuring.” The landscape is reassuring, with its green-hued chaparral beauty, but Catarina Moreno is forbidden territory.

The chaparral reaches out to him, as do Catarina’s comely curves and cinnamon eyes. Though Jace carries the secret of his family’s power and hatred of Hispanics, though he doesn’t carry their name Bannister, having run away at fifteen, he yearns for connection and family. A meeting by the town trough and some stolen kisses establish his and Catarina’s attraction. He knows that the Bannisters and Morenos have ancient and nasty history. Animosity, family feud, and blood honour mix with desire, attraction, passion, and yearning for a place in the world: Jace for home and wife; Catarina, now 26, for a husband, home of her own, and freedom from her mother’s austere dominance. Continue reading

REVIEW: Rose Lerner’s TRUE PRETENSES, True Identities

True_PretensesRose Lerner’s True Pretenses is permeated with its protagonists’ sadness and loneliness. Romance readers take it on faith that heroine and hero may be torn by angst and trauma; cataclysmic life-events may alter a person’s consciousness. Yet, we’re often told this about romance heroes and heroines while reading about two people who flail around with pseudo-pain, but seem to have a good time otherwise. Most telling are the love scenes, where angst is forgotten, where traumatic events stop at the bedroom door: all is redeemed in a flurry of physical ecstasy. But people bring their sadness and loneliness, their traumas if they’ve experienced any, into every aspect of their lives. It’s hard to write that into a romance novel: it takes psychological acumen and risk to emerge out of the genre’s conventions to write about two people who are unhappy, who aren’t sure even when they seem to have found someone they’re attracted to and like that they can recover from their sadness. Rose Lerner has done this very thing in True Pretenses, the saddest romance novel Miss Bates has ever read. It’s slow and meandering, and it near broke her heart. As Lerner reached the climax of her story, it intensified; it brought all that disparate uncertainty, ennui, and melancholy into focus: pointed to all the ways we lie and make ourselves unhappy, all the rigid rules and self-regulations that lead to stultified lives.   Continue reading