Lauren Layne is a new-to-Miss-Bates romance writer. Miss Bates read the third in her New York’s Finest series, Cuff Me, without reading the first two. Miss B. makes two conclusions: one, Layne is a rom-writer she wants to read again; and, two, part of the reason is, though third-in-series, Cuff Me didn’t have that tired-formulaic feel that too many “series” books do. It helped that Cuff Me has one of Miss Bates’s favourite rom-tropes, opposites-attract, especially when the opposites are a grumpy hero and effervescent heroine. Layne’s contemporary romance reminded Miss Bates of Maisey Yates’s Part Time Cowboy, which Miss B. adored. So if you love Yates’s Copper Ridge series, you’re sure to love Cuff Me.
Our curmudgeon-hero is Vincent Moretti, one of the NYPD’s finest homicide detectives, his perfect-solution record testifying to his abilities. His bubbly, tiny, blonde partner is Jill Henley. Together, playing on their bad-cop-good-cop personas, they’ve been getting their man for six years. When the novel opens, Vin is anticipating Jill’s return from Florida, where she’s been taking care of her injured mum. Vin’s restless desire to see Jill again perturbs him. He adorably grunts through a haircut, a further sprucing up at his apartment, and several rides around town trying to find the perfect welcome-home gift. He finally settles on her favourite donut, which he brings in a crumpled paper bag to his family’s celebratory dinner on Jill’s behalf. Vin’s close-mouthed happiness at seeing Jill again is dashed when his brothers and sister Elena, Jill’s BFF, corral him at the door to tell him about Jill’s engagement.
This summer, Miss Bates listened to a Brene Brown series of lectures called “The Power of Vulnerability: Teachings of Authenticity, Connection, and Courage.” (It’s a wonderful series, especially if you’re given to self-protection and perfectionism, as Miss Bates is. Austen’s Miss Bates is beautifully vulnerable, which leads Emma to take that nasty shot at her at the picnic.) One interesting point Brown made was that vulnerability does not mean oversharing, or as Miss Bates less elegantly puts it, TMI. In reference to the same, Brown said you have to really think about who deserves your story. Reading Judith Arnold’s seminal romance about breast-cancer survivor Beth Pendleton and Ryan Walker, the builder-rogue who falls in love with her, Miss Bates thought about Brown’s words a lot. Too often, in romance, the heroine keeps secrets, secrets that result in an annoying Big Mis (I’m looking at you, secret babies) and a sure-fire way to being dumped onto the DNF pile. Barefoot In the Grass, on the other hand, is about a private woman, not a secretive one, whose story earned its privacy. Beth is a charming, intelligent, sympathetic heroine who confronted physical and psychic pain and fought a hard battle to embrace life, as echoed by the novel’s title and Beth’s oft-declared promise-to-self to find joy in “walking barefoot in the grass.” Continue reading
Jennifer Hayward’s Claiming the Royal Innocent starts in run-of-the-mill HP romance fashion. Miss Bates was clipping along, enjoying the ride, when something happened a third of the way in: run-of-the-mill turned extraordinary, pleasant -enough became keeper-shelf-worthy. Miss Bates loved Hayward’s The Italian’s Deal For I Do, but she’s persnickety because Claiming gains on it. Following the fine but not-rocking-world Carrying the King’s Pride, Claiming tells the story of that royal hero’s illegitimate, recently-revealed sister Aleksandra Dimitriou and Aristos Nicolades, the casino-owning billionaire whom the king puts in charge of her safety when Akathinia is threatened by war with neighbouring Carnelia.
The novel falls into two thematic parts: the first half is very much about Aleksandra coming to grips with her new-found identity and second, which moves geographically away from the palace and onto Aristos’s private casino island, with Aristos’s struggle to come to terms with his past, a past which leaves him emotionally closed off and jaded. In Miss Bates’s review notes, she found the following scribble: “the first half deals with Alex’s mess and the second with Aristos’s.” In the romance novel’s course, Hayward plays all the delicious notes the HP reader expects: glamor, money, exotic locale, and sexy times. And, in this case, her own quippy, witty brand of It Happened One Night banter. These are but the trappings of any superlative HP, however: the rest is made of the hero and heroine’s believable struggle to relinquish psychic patterns preventing them from achieving connection, commitment, and love. Continue reading
Theresa Romain writes despondent romances. Her characters are noble and good; her prose is elegant. Her hero and heroine are in a bad place when we meet them. Miss Bates likes that Romain doesn’t lay the angst on thick, however. Her characters’ sadness is perniciously persistent, like a low-grade fever. Things are wrong somewhere, but the appearance of things seems all right. Every time Miss Bates reads one of Romain’s romances, she frequently doubts she’ll finish it. And yet, each time, she does and is quite satisfied and rewarded by Romain’s HEA.
Romain’s latest, Fortune Favors the Wicked is typical of the author. In 1817, retired, blind Royal Navy Lieutenant Benedict Frost arrives in London, from on board “The Argent,” to sell his sailing memoir to publisher George Pitman. His minimal pension means he can’t offer Georgette, his sister, anything but a pittance. He hopes his soon-to-be-best-selling memoir will save the day when Georgette leaves their cousins’ home upon reaching her majority. He also learns that 50 000 pounds-worth of the king’s gold was stolen. When his manuscript is rejected, Benedict realizes the reward money may serve to help Georgette. He sets off for Derbyshire to recover the gold and win the reward money. Meanwhile in Strawfield, Derbyshire, we meet heroine Miss Charlotte Perry, vicar’s daughter. She too aims to ensure a young relation’s welfare: her ten-year-old niece, Maggie, named after Charlotte’s deceased sister, Margaret. Charlotte is also in search of the gold. Benedict and Charlotte’s meet-cute is inevitable.
After finishing Jo Beverley’s sublime Emily and the Dark Angel, Miss Bates was in a reading funk. Much like a fussy baby, “grizzling” (as Hart describes adorable Freya in Juggling Briefcase and Baby) from book to book, unable to settle. Miss Bates read the opening pages to at least 15 e-ARCs; none of them took: the writing was stilted, info-dumps galore, and even romance writers she usually loves were giving her the meh-blues. She tried out a few non-roms; that experiment fell flat as well, too many writers too conscious of the prose and ignorant of the pacing, plot, and characterization. She stood in her spinster’s lair, foot a-tapping, index finger beating a dissatisfied refrain on her chin: nothing stood out from the groaning paper TBR shelves. “What to read? What to read?” … always turn to a title from a favourite author! Hence, Jessica Hart’s Juggling Briefcase and Baby, a one-click buy from years ago when Miss Bates read Wendy’s review. Dear readers, Wendy was right: this is a great great rom. There be reasons. There be one reason above all that makes for great rom. The genre runs with a pretty straight forward narrative: encounter, new or reunited; development with obstacles; HEA. That’s all there is to it; characterization, pretty standard, flawed but basically likeable, on occasion, admirable. What distinguishes the romance genre from others is the emotional wisdom, the deep deep astuteness about the bond of falling in love and making the scary leap to commitment. Hart, alas no longer practicing the romance art, is/was one of its most sensitive practitioners.
Jo Beverley’s 1991 Emily and the Dark Angel restores your faith in the genre. That was Miss Bates’s thought as she turned the last page with a satisfied reader’s affection-sigh. Miss Bates is glad she read Emily Grantwich and Piers Verderan’s wooing on paper: a traditional format for a traditional Regency, which never loses its freshness, elegance, or emotional power. What brings about that lift, the reader’s spirit-rise, the recognition of “I’m in the presence of one of the genre’s greats”? It’s difficult to pinpoint, as elusive as catching a sunbeam. It’s trope-manipulation, or gentle tinkering; it’s psychological acumen. It’s the bringing-to-life of time and place; it’s secondary characters who breathe. It’s turn of phrase the reader recalls long after the last page is turned. It’s banter and confession and the fulfilled promises of desire and being understood.
Emily and the Dark Angel contains one of Miss Bates’s favourite romance pairings, opposites-attract: Emily is sensible to Ver’s imprudence, countryside respectability to Ver’s citified worldliness, propriety to his flouting of social conventions, innocent to his debauchery, staid to his temperament, plain to his gorgeousness, and Miss Bates’s absolute favourite, her diminutive stature to his gargantuan. When this yin-yang romance combination is handled as cleverly and sensitively as Beverley’s, the HEA is about the couple’s integrating the best of each other in themselves. Core identity is preserved for tension and interest, but tempered to show us how they will live in harmony.
For a while, it looked like contemporary small-town/rural romance eclipsed historical. Historical is slowly in the ascendant and contemporary looks stale. Or at least those have been Miss Bates’s feelings lately. Then, Tawna Fenske’s Let It Breathe: a perfect combination of humour and pathos, second chances, and sundry laugh-out-loud moments thanks to a hilariously motley crew of secondary characters.
Reese Clark, thirty-four-year-old divorcée, manages her family’s Oregon wine business, Larchwood Vineyards. She has big plans to expand the business by building a new tasting-hall, hosting tours, and getting LEED-certified. In her meagre spare time, she fosters injured wild animals and plays straight-woman to her outrageous grandpa, Albert, aka, “Axl,” her cooingly-in-love parents, her wild-living cousin Larissa, and Eric, vintner ex-husband, and Sheila, his wife. Clay Henderson re-enters their lives. He’s the Dorrington Construction manager and the man Reese has loved since college, Eric’s best friend, and the alcoholic everyone rescued and succoured until one night fifteen years ago when Reese didn’t bail him out. Clay Henderson is four-years sober-and-serious and back to build Reese’s vineyard-dream and make amends.
Miss Bates loves the opposites-attract romance trope, especially when the hero’s and heroine’s surface characteristics mask their opposites. Opposites-attract “squared” describes Sabrina Jeffries’s second Sinful Suitors 1830-set romance, The Study Of Seduction. “Grumpy Edwin” Barlow, Earl of Blakeborough, pits himself against “frivolous beauty” Lady Clarissa Lindsey, his sister’s best friend. In time, Edwin reveals a wicked wit and Clarissa, a gravitas borne of pain.
Edwin is a member of the St. George’s Club, a gentleman’s circle dedicated to protecting their families’ and friends’ women from scoundrels, socalled “sinful suitors.” Edwin’s friend, Warren Corry, Marquess of Knightford, Clarissa’s cousin, has watched out for her and her widowed mother, Lady Margrave. Knightford is called away to the continent to help Clarissa’s brother, Niall. Edwin and Clarissa, long-acquainted, have sparred and jabbed at each other since Clarissa and Yvette, Edwin’s sister, tittered, gossiped, and shopped together. Edwin’s steadfast, stodgy, introverted propriety rubs Clarissa’s social butterfly effervescence and flirtatious energy to poke and prod at his restrained demeanor. Nevertheless, Edwin insists he take Knightford’s place, protecting Clarissa from a stalker. Count Geraud Durand, France’s chargé d’affaires, follows, goads, importunes, and forces his unwanted, oily attentions on Clarissa and infuriates Edwin.
Hmm, Miss Bates had a somewhat bizarro thought after reading Andrea Laurence’s The CEO’s Unexpected Child: can it be that a not-very-good book can’t be discussed without spoilers? Because awfulness lies in the plot dominating, in a bad plot dominating? It struck Miss Bates that she can always discuss a good rom without spoilers. Would love to hear your thoughts on this, dear readers.
Onto to Laurence’s Desire and sifting through Miss Bates’s thoughts. Laurence’s CEO-mystery-mommy-plot-moppet smorgasbord is one of those roms which could’ve been great. The premise is wild (and possibly therein lies some of Miss Bates’s sour-puss face): what happens when an Italian’s CEO’s stored sperm is mixed up and ends up impregnating an IVF-ed woman instead of her husband’s? What happens when said husband dies in a car crash and pregnant lady finds out he was NOT the man she thought him? What happens when ten months later, studly-CEO discovers the fertility clinic’s error and sues new mommy to six-month-old-daughter for shared custody? That, folks, in a nutshell, is Laurence’s premise. When it opens, Luca Moretti, mega-millions CEO of Moretti Family Kitchen, and Claire Douglas confront each other, with their lawyers, across a negotiating table, trying to work out how Luca will play a significant role in his daughter’s, Eva’s, life.
Donna Thorland’s Renegades Of the American Revolution series, of which The Dutch Girl is fourth, is unique and wonderful. Miss Bates thinks it should become one of the great rom-sagas and certainly deserving of the same status as the dubious Outlander (Miss Bates isn’t a fan). Thorland cleverly interweaves history, adventure, spy thriller, and romance. Thorland’s Renegades are as much fun to read as Willig’s Carnation series (Miss Bates is a HUGE fan).
Thorland’s heroines are intelligent, beautiful, marginalized, caught up in the politics of war and espionage, but always, at core, ethical, admirable, and independent. They may start out naïve and young, but they’re survivors. They learn to navigate turbulent waters of intrigue and political interests without ever losing themselves. At their side, though often on opposite sides of the American/British divide, are heroes, somewhat more knowing, experienced, and equally embedded in the political interests of their day. The heroines, however, tap into the heroes’ romantic, protective core, an inner self the heroes have forgotten, seemingly discarded, or tucked away as years of political and/or military expediency hardened them. The eponymous Dutch Girl is Annatje Hoppe, whose alias is Miss Anna Winters, spinster New York school teacher. Our hero is childhood sweetheart, disgraced and disinherited-landed-rich-boy-no-more highwayman, Gerrit Van Haren. Continue reading