REVIEW: Elizabeth Camden’s WITH EVERY BREATH

With_Every_Breath

Attractive cover!

Miss Bates anticipates an Elizabeth Camden novel. She appreciated Camden’s previous novel, Into the Whirlwind. Since then, she follows Camden into her inspirational-lite, historical bent because Camden is a writer with ideas. Into the Whirlwind had grand sweep and great drama in its setting, the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Camden is a thoughtful writer who considers context and a story to tell about how historical circumstances affect individual lives, important. She researches carefully and conveys time, place, and the concerns of ordinary people living in that time with skill and sensitivity. Miss Bates lays, however, the same caveats at With Every Breath as she did Into the Whirlwind. Those shortcomings are more apparent in the former. Set in the fictional Washington Memorial Hospital in 1891 Washington D. C., Camden tells the story of Dr. Trevor M. Kendall, tuberculosis specialist and researcher, and his statistician assistant, Kate Livingston, as they battle to cure a deadly and widespread disease. What a compelling idea for the background to a romance, thought Miss Bates, how unique and interesting. Moreover, how inspiring to have a mathematician heroine! Camden’s novel offers all this in concept, but suffers somewhat in execution. Continue reading

REVIEW: Ruthie Knox’s TRULY Yourself

Truly

Finally, a lovely Loveswept cover (no waxy mannequins)!

Ruthie Knox’s latest (previously serialized) novel and first in the New York series, Truly, exemplifies a theme dear to Knox: the discovery and triumph of the hero’s and heroine’s authentic selves. The discovery of the authentic self on the part of heroine and hero is worked out in the romantic relationship of desire, conflict, and love; push-back comes from their masked, or social selves and embedded family neuroses. Miss Bates must say she loves this about Knox and finds it endearingly American: the notion that authenticity is at the core of the self and the self can be remade in a more open, psychically healthier and happier way. When Knox is at her best, her core characters’ authentic selves emerge by abrading the old skin of past hurts and habitual patterns of self-sabotage. This was so in Miss Bates’ favourite Knox novels, Ride With Me and About Last Night, as it was of the less-successful Camelot and Roman Holiday series. (It is a theme that runs throughout her Robin York NA Caroline and West series, more successfully than the latter titles.) Knox’s writer’s-triumph depends on her willingness to free her characters to gambol and screw up and argue and have messy passionate sex; her weakness is a tendency to use them as mouthpieces. Where does Truly fall on that spectrum? Miss Bates loved most of it: the writing is smooth and funny and touching. She loved the opening with the surly hero and innocent-in-the-city, “dairymaid”-wholesome heroine; she loved the interactions between Ben Hausman and May Fredericks. She loved the NYC setting and the hero and heroine wandering through it, falling in love, kissing, challenging each other, and exploring its parks, restaurants, and denizens’ mosaic. However, once again embracing the journey narrative that Knox favours, she transports her couple to Wisconsin … and there, things fall apart and the centre doesn’t hold. Continue reading

REVIEW: Molly O’Keefe’s BETWEEN THE SHEETS, “A Broken Hallelujah”

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Loved the cover; for once, the models look like heroine and hero!

Miss Bates finally made her way to the third novel in Molly O’Keefe’s “Boys of Bishop” series, Between the Sheets. She reviewed the first one, Wild Child, and second, Never Been Kissed. The latter emerges as her favourite, but the beauty and pain of Between the Sheets remain with her. There was so much going on in the hero’s and heroine’s lives that while the relationship made sense … romance showed up too-little-too-late in a schmaltzy epilogue. The sheer daily nightmare of the heroine’s life detracted from the warm-and-fuzzies that romance readers expect, nay demand, ’cause damnit isn’t life hard enough that I have to confront it in my comfort corner? There were moments when Miss B. resented this novel: with its harsh realities and stubborn personalities. BUT, O’Keefe is writing some of the best in contemporary romance. Between the Sheets, like the two previous novels, is set up in the aftermath of a media debacle, Shelby Monroe’s media debacle, one we cringed over in Wild Child. Between the Sheets fills in the cracks of Shelby’s humiliation, hauls in her mother and memories of her father and closed-in, cool-as-a-cucumber spinster’s existence. Between the Sheets isn’t a picking-up-the-pieces story, it’s a darkest before the dawn tale … and the hero is an unlikely and dealing-with-his-own-crap knight, with his own vulnerabilities and burdens. O’Keefe’s novel grabs you like Fay Wray in Kong’s fist and tosses you around emotionally … you should read it. It is a spinster’s tale told by a master of the genre. ;-) Continue reading

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

Private_Politics

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