Review/Response/Appreciation: Jo Beverley’s EMILY AND THE DARK ANGEL, Seeing Lucifer, Finding Michael

Emily_2Jo 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.
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Betty Neels’ FATE IS REMARKABLE: The Permanence of Beautiful Things and Places

Fate_Is_Remarkable_2007Miss Bates is going to make wild and wooly assumptions about Betty Neels. Her 1971 Fate Is Remarkable will be the ground in which Miss Bates will sow outlandish seeds by saying that Neels’ romances can be read as historical romances in disguise, or at least that Neels was NOT interested in telling a romance of her day. This is not unique to Miss B. Liz from Something More said that Neels’ romances are set in a post-WWII England, rather than the 1970s, 80s, and 90s in which Neels wrote. As long as one is willing to suspend one’s disbelief and replace a fast car with a fast curricle, then they may as well be set in the Regency Era as well. This comes through in Neels’ to-some-tedious, detailed descriptions of interiors and architecture. Miss Bates eats them up … along with any references to clothes, food, or gifts, as she’s written about before. Neels often fails in incorporating details from the time and place in which she actually wrote. In Fate Is Remarkable, for example, there are references to awkward cigarette moments, which Sarah, the heroine, dismisses with a titter. Hugo, the hero, smokes a pipe, like a good Victorian gentleman. There are a few telephone conversations, but one knows that Hugo and Sarah would rather correspond. As a matter of fact, more often than not, their day begins with the post. Neels is good on sleek cars, but even those are the kind that last forever, that go from showroom to vintage in a lifetime. Neels’ interiors and her descriptions of furniture and objets d’art are about finding permanence in a changing world. Miss Bates would say that this is her appeal to readers as well. Continue reading

Georgette Heyer’s DEVIL’S CUB Foiled By A Heroine “Mistress of Herself”

Devil's_CubIn April, Miss Bates followed a discussion about the question of a romance canon. The debate began with a thorny Salon article which, nevertheless, inspired interesting responses. For Miss Bates, said article was of minimal regard: its noblesse oblige attitude towards the genre ensured she stop reading by first paragraph’s end. The responses, however, were a boon: the always fearlessly incisive Vacuous Minx, no-nonsense sharpness and smarts of Wendy the Superlibrarian, perspective of Love In the Margins, take of Romance Novels for Feminists, and Jody at Momentum Moonlight. Miss Bates, though agreeing with these points of view, found Jody’s stance the most helpful because it summarized the problematic nature of canon setting/launching/exploding and offered an alternate term and means of pointing to seminal texts in the genre. Jody defines “iconic” texts as those which “affect the genre in a meaningful way.” Simple, direct, flexible, and workable. Miss Bates borrows Jody’s term “iconic” to identify “affective/effective” romance texts, such as Heyer’s, subject of her present post. Jody’s definition implies that iconic romance texts are those to which other romance texts accrue. They represent something important to the genre, not that they are necessarily meritorious in and of themselves, though they may very well be. They’re a hub; other texts are the spokes. They’re texts around which discussion occurs. (Sometimes, they may be denigrated, or rejected texts, representing things we don’t want to see in the genre, such as elements found in Old Skool romances.) They may change; more may be added, or forgotten, as the genre develops, grows, or regresses. Time is the only given. Miss Bates also thinks that the genre benefits more from pointing to an author, rather than individual texts, to identify an iconic moment in it. Heyer would certainly be present in such company.

When Miss Bates read her first Georgette Heyer, These Old Shades, she wasn’t aware of Heyer’s iconic status for romance readers. On reading her second, Devil’s Cub, published 1932, a sort of sequel to Shades (not 50!), educated somewhat in the genre (though by no means is she done, nor does she purport to be an expert), it’s evident that Heyer contributed iconic texts. Heyer’s tropes echo in every duke, rake, and plain-Jane; nonetheless, reading Devil’s Cub was alienating. That may be because of a narrative shift in more recent romance that Miss Bates’ refers to as the main characters’ endless internal ruminations. In that sense, Heyer appears quaint vis-à-vis character development and an excess of madcap plot; she forewent modernism. Yet, Miss Bates found something refreshing about a romance narrative where reader has to decode gesture and pose rather than thinker-tells-all of characters’ internal worlds in close point of view. Ye shall know them by their gesture … this is her subject. Bear with her: bodies in Heyer, what do they tell us? How does she establish character through the physicality of gesture, pose, tone, and gaze?  Continue reading

The “Beginning of a Beautiful Friendship”: Mary Stewart’s MADAM, WILL YOU TALK?

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Love these Hodder & Stoughton re-issue covers.

As a life-long bookworm, Miss Bates has fallen in love with many a writer. Sometimes, the relationship is long-lasting (hello, Charlotte Brontë); sometimes, not (good-bye, D. H. Lawrence). But the experience has always been love at first sight: it’s rare that an author woos her over several books. Reading the first sentence of Mary Stewart’s Madam, Will You Talk? was like Romeo recognizing Juliet across the ballroom. “The whole affair began so very quietly”: Stewart’s novel and Miss B.’s tumble into amore was as lovely and definitive as reading “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.” A turn of phrase pulling the reader into the writer’s world, a declarative sentence mysterious, question-inducing: What is this “affair”? How was it “quietly” begun? What came next? If a walk wasn’t possible: why not? what happened instead? What other possibilities were explored? Reading further in Madam, Will You Talk?, Miss Bates discovered more similarities to her beloved Jane Eyre: a heroine moral and fearless, standing on principle, defending the vulnerable, showing compassion, and answering to the unknown with firm purpose and stalwart spirit. Moreover, in the midst of danger and a world of corruption and crime, our heroine finds love in confrontation with a man who is hero and possible villain. Our heroine’s moral stance and fortitude set the world aright for herself and her hero, who emerges worthy of her. There were bumps on Miss B’s Mary Stewart ride, discomfiting jolts encountered on rough country roads by the Bentleys and Mercedes her heroines and heroes drive, but oh what a ride, what views and vistas. Stewart’s novel did not have Brontë’s scope or brilliance, but as Stewart claimed, her stories “love and imitate the beautiful and the good,” marvelously so, says Miss Bates. Continue reading

Romance Panacea Part II: The Betty Neels Canon, Gifts That Keep Giving

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Weird cover: what’s with the “rival” nurse? Not in book, Harlequin.

As you know and may be tired of hearing, Miss Bates is revising and renewing her blogging project without straying too far from her original purpose. One way she’s done so is by reading outside her romance comfort zone, tackling a Big Fat Book over the summer (Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which she’s enjoying more than she expected to). At the same time, she’s revivifying her blog by writing about romance beyond the review (rest assured she’ll still review romance). In her previous post, she considered the idea of romance reading as panacea, as a comfort zone in the daily grind, when “troubles come not single spies, but in battalias,” as Claudius says to Gertrude in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Romance reading, however, doesn’t happen solely as an escape, or coping strategy. Romance is read for comfort, but it’s also read for pleasure. Miss Bates offers this eloquent summary of what she’s been trying to say about romance, which she found quoted in the Mary Burchell Wikipedia article (thanks to a Twitter convo with Sunita). Burchell, one of the founders of the Romance Novelists’ Association, wrote in one of their newsletters, ” … a good romantic novel is a heart-warming thing which strikes a responsive chord in those who are happy and offers a certain lifting of the spirits to those who are not.”  There is one writer, at least for Miss Bates, who exemplifies Burchell’s point: the Immortal, Inimitable Betty Neels.

Divine BettyN. is Miss Bates’ heal-all turn-to writer, good for all occasions, and when no other romance will do. When Miss B. wrote about her bad-day reading of Judith McNaught’s Paradise, it was a sheepish admission. She returns Paradise to the keeper shelf feeling a tad soiled … she can’t believe she read that … AGAIN. Like eating too much chocolate, or ice cream straight from the tub. Betty Neels’ romances have an opposite effect. Neels validates how very very good romance can be, as good as honeyed tea, buttered toast, orange marmalade, and a slice of sharp cheddar. Food to be eaten every day, at any time of the day. A staple, a stalwart reading friend, a BFF when the BFF can’t come ’round. She’ll explore this by writing about her fifth Neels read, Damsel In Green (again, with thanks to Sunita, for the rec). Miss Bates has read Sister Peters In Amsterdam, Visiting Consultant, Tulips For Augusta, and “Making Sure of Sarah.” Tulips is her favourite thus far, but Damsel vies with Visiting Consultant for second place. Continue reading

Romance Panacea Part I: “Taking the Waters,” Searching for Paradise …

DontBeAfraidAbout a month ago, Miss Bates, stuck in afternoon traffic, listened to a favourite CBC Radio podcast, Tapestry, a show that self-describes as offering “the more subtle news of life – a thoughtful consideration of what it means to be human.” Their motto is Kant’s “The human heart refuses to believe in a universe without purpose” (which is also a darn good motto for the romance genre). One segment of that particular podcast was “The Novel Cure,” an interview with Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin who run Bibliotherapy at The School of Life in London, England, and have published a book called The Novel Cure: An A-Z of Literary Remedies. What a great idea, thought Miss Bates, a book recommendation for what ails you: feeling blue, out of sorts, plain pissed off, or having the “mean reds” as Holly Golightly said. Have you been dumped, are about to embark on a voyage, be married, divorced, change jobs, or cities? Berthoud and Elderkin’s prescribed book eases the transition, comforts, and diverts. Books as “prescription” medicine for the under-the-weather soul, mind, and heart.

She listened, rapt, as Berthoud and Elderkin suggested titles for a variety of moods and circumstances: H. E. Bates’s The Darling Buds Of May for cynicism; Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity for a recent break-up; Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Night Flight for fear of flying; and, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road for a new father. Miss Bates considered their choices lugubrious. Blatty’s The Exorcist for a loss of faith!? She’s read de Saint-Exupéry’s Vol de nuit and there’s nothing in it to comfort someone who’s afraid to fly (especially in light of de Saint-Exupéry’s night flight disappearance during WWII). What cheer is there for a new dad in the post-apocalyptic world of The Road? Great books all, but do they comfort and divert? They are intelligent, well-written, and challenging; they offer answers and considerations. They are great choices, BUT! Miss Bates protested WHERE ARE THE ROMANCE NOVELS? Do they not offer comfort, diversion, and thought to feeling blue, turning green, and seeing red? To despair, uncertainty, ennui, malaise? On the occasion of birth, death, and everything in between? Don’t they have a place in the prescriptive canon?

Anecdotal or not, Miss Bates has encountered many women who find respite in reading a romance novel (which is not to say men don’t, she simply hasn’t met any). For many, including Miss Bates, who can’t “take the waters” at Baden-Baden, cracking open a romance novel and being lost in it, laughing, crying, mourning, and celebrating with heroine and hero, thinking about its thematic implications, enjoying its wit and wisdom, serves as panacea to a day gone terribly wrong. Continue reading

2013 In Reading and Reviewing: The State of MBRR and The Year’s Favourite Romance Reads

Miss Bates started MBRR with the idea that she’d blog for herself, as a way of keeping track of what she read and how she felt and thought about romance fiction.  She assumed she’d sporadically pick up readers researching a title, stumbling on Miss Bates’s musings via a search engine.  She’d entrenched the endeavour with a blog-name that served as an amusing persona; the loquacious spinster fit perfectly. 😉

What ensued took her completely by surprise.  Pleasantly surprised, but surprised nonetheless.  Within weeks of writing her first posts, she did not accumulate hundreds of followers, or have publishers and authors clamoring for her reviews.  What she felt was championed by the spirit of generosity extended to MBRR by these wonderful writers/bloggers/thinkers and lovers of romance fiction:

Pamela at Badass Romance

Liz at Something More

Jessica at Read React Review

Emma at Emma Barry

Gen at Gen Turner

Natalie at The Radish

and Janine at Dear Author

Being championed beats all.  Miss Bates thanks you for encouraging, commenting, and supporting.  She is privileged and humbled to be in your company.  And your company is a lot of fun!

Many thanks to everyone who dropped by, read, mused, followed, commented, and returned time and again.  Miss Bates hopes you’ve been entertained, amused, and found the reviews/readings interesting, thought-provoking, and considered.  It’s been a wonderful year and the state of Miss Bates Reads Romance is happy, healthy, and looking forward to another year of reading and reviewing.  In the spirit of the genre that we love and love to debate, as every hero/heroine avows, “You [dear readers] are perfect for me.”

To follow are Miss Bates’s favourite romances  and posts of 2013.  Some are new, some old, some historicals, some contemporaries, some you’ve read, some might spark your interest.  Miss Bates briefly comments on each and links to the original review.

Released in 2013

Historical Romance: is Miss Bates’s first romance reading amour and it scored some coups this year.  Grant’s A Woman Entangled followed upon Miss Bates’s love for A Lady Awakened and A Gentleman Undone.  Her other two favourites were by new-to-her authors: Emma Barry’s Brave In Heart and Tracey Devlyn’s Nexus Series. Continue reading

REVIEW: Grace Livingston Hill’s THE SUBSTITUTE GUEST, Or “Pilgrim and Stranger Man”

TheSubstituteGuestTo appreciate Livingston Hill’s 1936 The Substitute Guest, one must read it as an artefact. Thus did Miss Bates and was equally fascinated and horrified; the experience was akin to looking at a train wreck, wanting to look away yet unable to. To the general romance reader, this author will have little appeal. To the historian and critic of the romance genre, she is of consequence. To the reader of inspirational romance, she may prove engrossing, if your tastes run to heavy-handed religious content, religious conversions that rival a non-inspirational’s heightened love-scene diction, and characters reminiscent of 1930s Hollywood melodrama. To the women’s studies scholar, this will provide a spellbinding picture of the idealized fantasies of the thousands of women who read Hill. For Miss Bates, reading her was like reading an evangelical Betty Neels, though Neels is, by far, the better writer. (Miss Bates would add that both have a penchant for writing good food descriptions … and in 1936, at the height of the Depression, this too may have been a fantasy for some readers.) Hill’s narrative (and she wrote over a hundred) is the epitome of all things being well that end well. This is not truer anywhere, Hill asserts, than in her vision of the Christian narrative as reflecting her time, place, and concerns. Continue reading for Miss Bates’s commentary on this iconic writer of inspirational romance

A REVIEWish Reading of Carla Kelly’s SUMMER CAMPAIGN, or The Hero-Suitor as Grand Strategist

Summer CampaignWhen Miss Bates rediscovered romance and dipped into various authors to determine who would suit for long-term relationships, she resolved to read certain authors’ oeuvres because she enjoyed, appreciated, or found the initial sampling thought-provoking . One of those was Carla Kelly; this reading comes of Miss Bates’s reach into the back-list. Summer Campaign did not disappoint. After a slow start, Summer Campaign was wonderful and had the rare honour of turning Miss Bates into a watering-pot on several counts. What is it about Kelly’s stories that Miss Bates finds poignant, slow in places and imperfect, but moving and loveable? In the case of Summer Campaign, it lies in Kelly’s use of a military metaphor to tell a story about laying a siege of the heart. If you are vulnerable to her writing and the type of stories she tells, Kelly’s novels besiege the reader’s heart, tear down the walls, and expose vulnerable centres all the while reminding us that the purposeful life is a life of service conducted with humour, strength, and good will. Read on for more of Miss Bates’s watering-pot commentary

REVIEW: Elizabeth Hoyt’s THE RAVEN PRINCE, Or Writing the New Jane

The Raven PrinceElizabeth Hoyt’s The Raven Prince hasn’t been around long enough to be “classic romance,” but give it another ten years and it will be. Miss Bates is jumping the gun, but she’ll stick by this claim. Hoyt’s been in Miss Bates’s “get-to” pile of romance novels for a long time. Silly spinster should have read them ages ago because, if The Raven Prince is typical of Hoyt’s writing, she missed out. She now says with confidence that the reading of The Raven Prince is “the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” This is as wonderful a romance novel as one can get and especially so because it plays with references to Miss Bates’s most beloved romance, Jane Eyre. Continue reading