REVIEW: Kate Noble’s THE GAME AND THE GOVERNESS, Standing in Someone Else’s Shoes

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Run-of-the-mill cover for a unique romance novel!

Lessons are learned in Kate Noble’s historical romance, The Game and the Governess. One article led Miss B. to reading it: Jessica’s Book Riot recommendation and one made her think about it, Robin Reader’s DA essay on “Romance and the ‘Meaning of Life’.”  Robin Reader’s questions about romance’s reluctance to engage in existential speculation, which centred, in the discussion, on inspirational romance, raised interesting ideas. Miss Bates thinks that romance is even more enjoyable when it implies an ideological basis. And really, is there any way to escape the ideological, even when an author purports that she’s just telling a good romantic story? That, however, is not the job of the author, but the critic, which is why, with Northrop Frye, Miss Bates would agree that criticism can be as “creative” an act as fiction-weaving. Miss B. digresses, as is her wont. Suffice to say for her purpose here that Noble’s romance novel is, like Jane Austen to whom she has been compared (see Jessica’s review), a novel of ideas, interesting, reader-chewable ideas of privilege, class, merit, and personality.

Noble begins with an interesting premise, years before she brings her hero, “Lucky Ned” Granville, Earl of Ashby, and heroine, governess Phoebe Baker, together. Her premise is “fortunes falling, fortunes rising.” When Ned was twelve, living modestly with his mother in Hollyhock, Leicestershire, his uncle, the then earl, sent him to school, grooming him to be the future earl. Ned never saw his mother again. When we meet him, Ned is a careless, carefree, amoral aristocrat; he’s not a charming rake, hiding his kindness and consideration. It’s not his dissipation that is important, but his attitude towards others and self-importance. When Phoebe was seventeen, she, because of her father’s bad investments, lost her place in the world: from soon-to-be débutante to orphaned governess (and unlike Jane Eyre, whom Miss B. couldn’t help but think of, no fortune lurks in the shadows to make her palatable to an aristocratic husband). In the midst of her loss of fortune is a fraudster, Mr. Sharp, who also milked the then young earl, Ned. Phoebe’s rage, at the time, led her to writing two hate-filled letters to the young man who had the power and privilege to put an end to Mr. Sharp and did not, though he too had been defrauded by him. When we meet her five years later, Phoebe has wrested equanimity from her situation; she makes the best of her governess role, loving her charges, the delightful Rose and Henry, daughter and son to Sir Nathan and Lady Widcoate, and reveling in her teaching role. Her misfortune has given her, if not passion, then contentment and occasionally delight. Phoebe remains a model of hard work and positive attitude: a lesson that Nat needs to learn if his life is to have purpose. Continue reading

REVIEW: Julia London’s RETURN TO HOMECOMING RANCH, Or “So Much Crap To Overcome”

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Pretty cover!

Miss Bates selected two Julia London titles as part of her 2013 favourite reads list. She wrote lovingly of London’s first book in the Pine River trilogy, Homecoming Ranch, and an unrelated, but terrific novella, “The Bridesmaid”. She eagerly awaited the sequel to Homecoming Ranch, Return to Homecoming Ranch, despite the uninspiring title. Return features the same alternating narration of first-person Leo Kendrick, the physically-challenged brother of the first book’s hero and voice of wisdom, and third-person omniscience. It is set in the same beautiful Colorado mountains, though descriptions of nature and wildlife, which Miss Bates loved in Homecoming Ranch, were less of a focus. The prose is as smooth and controlled in the second Pine River novel as it was in the first. It offers a hero and heroine who, like Madeline and Luke of the previous volume, are hurt, broken by what life threw their way. In Homecoming Ranch, the reader glimpses Madeline and Luke’s potential, the capacity for shoring their failures and starting anew, their capacity for happiness. Though similar elements are present in Return To Homecoming Ranch, Miss Bates couldn’t warm to it. Pages turned; the story held her attention, but she didn’t embrace it as she had London’s previous effort. Miss Bates’ dissatisfaction comes from feeling a tad cheated in the romance department, and a tad cheated in the believability of the HEA, and she feels a heel for saying so. She’s coming down hard on Return because it is women’s fiction, a designation she abhors and books she avoids. As a critic, she should review a novel on the basis of its parametres, not her expectations and preferences. As a reader, she didn’t enjoy it. She respected it, though. London took on serious issues: a mental breakdown in her Libby and alcoholism in her Sam. She handled them with sensitivity and originality … with caveats. Libby and Sam apart dominate the narrative; Libby and Sam together, though sexy and funny in places, are unconvincing; their love and future, dim. Continue reading

REVIEW: Emma Barry’s PRIVATE POLITICS Happened One Night

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Carina’s covers for Barry’s series have been great!

Near the end of Emma Barry’s Private Politics, second title in The Easy Part series, protagonists Liam Nussbaum and Alyse Philips work together on a news story. Liam, owner and editor of a successful political blog, Poindexter, refers to working with Alyse as being “very His Girl Friday.” At that moment, it clicked for Miss Bates. Barry’s second Washington D.C.-set romance novel about the byzantine wheeling and dealing of America’s capital echoes 1930s screwball comedies (which also happen to be Miss B’s film favourites). She was disposed to like Private Politics on this basis alone, but found so much more. While the obvious connection, given the journalistic and political context, is Hawks’ His Girl Friday, Miss Bates found parallels to Capra’s It Happened One Night, with its journalist-hero and rich-girl heroine and themes of professional integrity and disclosure wrapped in a cross-class road romance. While Private Politics contains only a hint of the cross-class element (indeed, Miss Bates loved the cross-religious element to the romance; Liam, middle-class nominal Jew, and Alyse, self-avowed rich-girl, Manhattan-ite WASP), Liam and Alyse journey, though they never hit the road, by navigating the personalities, complexities, and immoral/amoral machinations that people America’s capital.

One of Barry’s many strengths, especially in this series, is writing about the importance of meaningful work to her characters, even while they negotiate a new relationship. Miss Bates is glad to read a romance writer who doesn’t write a workplace romance (not attractive to Miss B.; only Jessica Hart has done it well in Promoted: To Wife and Mother), but still writes about work in a significant way. Moreover, Miss Bates delighted in Barry’s loveable leads and scenes of what Liam and Alyse call “espionage.” She laughed with them, but was moved by their groping awkwardly towards one of the most convincing, most believable HEA-couples she’s read in romance fiction. In a word, she loved Barry’s novel. In this her third, Barry’s hand shows growth and confidence; her pacing is better, her writing coming across as effortless. Thematically, she never relinquishes the romance’s essence: the difficult choice of vulnerability over isolation, of the soft places of the heart over the comforts of pragmatism,  and of love over will. Continue reading

Miss Bates’ Beloved Historical Romances: Titles Sprung to Mind and Impressionistic “Reviews”

Recently, in a comment regarding Rose Lerner’s A Lily Among Thorns, an MBRR reader requested Miss B’s favourite historical romances. Lists of favourites, like canons, ought to be fluid. Miss Bates doesn’t over-think a list. These titles sprang to mind, followed by the “impressionistic” detritus of the reading experience, as wispy as memory. (Except for confirming a few names, Miss Bates did not reread any title in part, or whole.) If you ask her next week, the list’ll likely be different. Continue reading

REVIEW: Rose Lerner’s A LILY AMONG THORNS, Such Is My Love

In_For_A_PennyIn this past winter’s darkest days, when snow hissed against Miss B’s window and she settled, with a cup of cocoa, into her bathtub-reading ritual, one of the books she read was Rose Lerner’s Regency romance, In For a Penny. She loved that it was a hybrid of cross-class and marriage-of-convenience romance tropes. She loved that heroine Penny (hence, the play on her name in the title) was as capable as she was vulnerable. She loved that the self-centred and inept hero Nev evolved into a good man. She loved that his decency was incipient from the start. When Nev’s youthful, dissipated shenanigans are interrupted by his father’s death, he throws himself into taking care of his family and rescuing the family fortune from his father’s profligacy. To do so, he marries (another play on her mercantile name) wealthy, middle-class Penny, though cultured and better educated than he. In the course of their working together to save the near-ruined family estate and falling in love, Nev acknowledges that he may be titled, but he’s not worthy of Penny. That she loves him and is beautiful in every way? Well, he is blessed. The reader knows that Nev’ll honour and love her till death do them part. If you, dear reader, haven’t read In For A Penny, it’s worth every moment spent in cooling bath water with pruny digits.

A_Lily_Among_ThornsLerner’s second novel, A Lily Among Thorns, originally published in 2011, has been re-issued, as has In For A Penny, by Samhain. Its opening scene echoes In For A Penny‘s drunk Nev and drunk friends out on the town. Miss Bates assumed she was in for more of the same. A young man, Solomon Hathaway, is celebrating his 21st birthday by getting drunk and, with some wild friends, visiting a brothel. Once there, he is struck by a beautiful and tragic prostitute. Without availing himself of her charms and to his own detriment, he gives her the one hundred and twenty-five pounds that was his birthday gift and what he had to live on at Cambridge. But the scene is different from In For A Penny, as are the characters. Solomon’s goodness and generosity are immediately evident. Our aristocratic prostitute-heroine, Serena, is beautiful and alone. They glimpse each other, but there is no marriage-of-convenience to unite them. Instead, six years elapse. Serena is a different woman when Solomon approaches her for help finding a pair of ruby earrings, a precious family heirloom without which his sister, Deborah, to his parents’ and her fiancé’s consternation, will not be married.

While In For A Penny was as perfect a romance novel as the genre produces, A Lily Among Thorns is worth reading, but flawed, a novel better in its parts than its whole. Some parts were marvelous, though. It took Miss Bates a long long time to immerse herself in it, without growing frustrated, or restless. In the last quarter, she fell in love with it. Lerner is a writer with and of ideas. She worked hard to avoid repeating herself in her second novel. She tried out new things: a different kind of hero and heroine, a broader canvas, with a London setting and tale of intrigue in the year of Napoleon’s final defeat. For these reasons alone, Miss Bates was glad to have read A Lily Among Thorns because these are things that make a romance writer’s development interesting to follow, as much into her not-so-successful efforts as her successful ones. Continue reading

REVIEW: Inez Kelley’s SHOULD’VE BEEN HOME YESTERDAY To Be With You

Miss Bates loves trees and lives in a country with plenty! She writes and reads and ponders in company with the maple tree in her front yard and records time’s passage by its changing leaves. This is one reason she enjoyed Inez Kelley’s “Country Roads” series. Kelley has set her three romances in West Virginia’s forest and the intricacies of a traditional logging industry (something else Kelley’s setting shares with Miss B’s country) making its way in the modern world, walking a fine line between profit and conservation. Moreover, Miss Bates enjoyed the romances: they’re sexy, heroines don’t take gaff from the heroes, and the heroes are manly-men who concede. Of the three, Take Me Home, The Place I Belong, and Should’ve Been Home Yesterday, Take Me Home edges out as her favourite. The first and third in the series were un-put-downable: the prose is smooth; the setting, beautiful; the heroine and hero, lovingly conflicted. Should’ve Been Home Yesterday had the added advantage of being a convincing contemporary marriage-of-convenience narrative, one of Miss Bates’ favourite romance tropes. Furthermore, it was a second-chance-at-love story, a wonderful combination of flashback, forward action, and two people meant to be together if they would only be honest with each other. At least there are reasons in their past that make the close-mouthed agony understandable. Despite the wonderfulness, Should’ve Been Home Yesterday suffered from the same problems, to a lesser degree, that Miss Bates found in The Place I Belong. Continue reading

MINI-REVIEW(s): Sarah Frantz, ed. SUMMER RAIN and “Let the rain sing you a lullaby”

Summer_RainRAINN stands for Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network and the short story anthology, Summer Rain, conceived and organized by Audra North (wow, what a labour of love!) and edited by Sarah Frantz, was created to raise money for it. It was an act of generosity and care on the contributors’ and editor’s parts. Moreover, there are some darn good stories here: the romance reader enjoys some wonderful short stories, while contributing to a worthy organization. Win-win! The stories are an interesting variety of contemporary romance modes. Some are quite explicit while others are sweet. All are solid; some stand out as Miss Bates’ favourites.

In Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, Portia says, “The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven … ” There is no better phrase to describe these stories and, indeed, when the romance genre succeeds in moving us. In a broken world, romance fills tiny rifts that appear in the daily grind. This humble and heartfelt anthology is, like the best of the romance genre, sprinkling a little mercy over terrible events. Many characters in these stories are in need of healing and mercy: a reaching-across of one character to another to make a connection, heal an old wound, create a new and better space for two people offering and sharing fellow-feeling and, for some, love, or at least love’s possibilities.  Continue reading