Of Twitter and Other Things: “How Old Were You When You Read Your First Romance? Name It, Please!”

Yesterday, in a Twitter conversation about the romance community and its actual, or perceived insularity – one thing led to another, as they are wont to do on Twitter – and Miss Bates ended up posing the question: “How old were you when you read your first romance? Name it, please. She really likes lists.” Miss Bates is grateful to all respondents who shared memories of that one book, or author that/who sparked their love of the genre. What was interesting to Miss Bates wasn’t solely the titles and authors, the ages more so, the stories around them and the effect, impressions, and responses the romances elicited in their readers. These books, in the life of the reader, were threshold books, no matter how humble the category romance now dead to all except the squeal of the find at a church bazaar, books that led and guided romance readers to the genre.

What emerged, from what is only anecdotal evidence, is that these spirit-guide books are sometimes Poohs to our Christopher Robin. Many romance readers/tweeters read their first romance, though by no means all, at twelve, or thirteen, that important moment in a girl’s life when she’s tasted a bit of independence. Her body is strong; her mind, acute. But changes are on the horizon: she’s a filly nosing the spring air: something is coming, something new. A burgeoning sexual self, a budding and newer awareness of her identify. The blessings of being a reader (please read to your kids, parents, please take them to libraries and bookstores and let them explore and choose books) is that we can rehearse and muse and consider so many lives between the pages of a book.

Miss Bates cannot speak for her fellow-tweeps: why that book? What did she get out of it? We most surely bring so many things to our reading of a narrative. Miss Bates speculates that sexual curiosity may have led us to the romance novel. But it’s not the sole reason we read romance: the need to redefine how we negotiate relationships, relationships+: not family, not friendship, but the seeds of what we’d later understand as “cleaving,” to use an old-fashioned term, the physical and emotional attachment to The Other, daunting, exciting, and necessary.

For her part, Miss Bates was twelve, or thirteen. She remembers she was heavily involved and invested in the school musical, Baum’s The Wizard of Oz. She had a behind-the-scenes role as assistant director. It was thrilling to be a part of. But changes were on the horizon: she was leaving her inner-city neighbourhood and school, rich with cultural diversity and history, and moving to a new school and neighbourhood, something more staid and suburbaney. She recalls making production posters, setting up cues, pounding away at the stage set, and rehearsing actors and singers, all the while keeping her copy of Kathleen Woodiwiss’s The Flame and the Flower in her locker and sneaking a few pages during her lunch hour. What happened when Miss Bates posed this question about when and which romance on Twitter? To follow, her list of wonderful women and their younger selves and ur-romances (links to things are provided where Miss B. can). If you were part of the Twitter convo and Miss Bates inadvertently left you off the list, please let her know in the comments, or tweet her! Continue reading

REVIEW: Molly O’Keefe’s INDECENT PROPOSAL, Or “Harrison, Found In Manhattan”

Indecent_ProposalSome time in the late 90s, Miss Bates saw a film she hasn’t forgotten, much as she’d like to. It was bleak, depressing, definitely anti-romance. In it, the heroine had opportunities to save herself, to achieve an HEA. She was so passive, so unable to accept help from the people she encountered that she perished needlessly. The film is Amos Kollek’s Sue: Lost In Manhattan (it’s available, in its entirety, on YouTube, if you’re so inclined). What does this bleak portrait, in the centre of which is an anti-heroine with a strangely compelling passivity, have to do with Molly O’Keefe’s Indecent Proposal? Miss Bates couldn’t help but recall the film as she read O’Keefe’s final book in her Boys of Bishop series. Kollek’s Sue is unemployed, evicted, and meanders through Manhattan looking ethereally, cadaverously beautiful. She worked as a temp and has a degree in psychology. She’s friendless and without family. She cleans up well and is intelligent and soft-spoken. Sue carries a defeated look, her eyes say “I’ve lost even before I’ve begun.” She meets a wonderful friend (actually, she’s a bartender!) and a beautiful man: the friend wants to help her, the man to care for her. She doesn’t reject them: she’s so tired of life she doesn’t call on them.

O’Keefe’s heroine, Ryan Kaminski, could have easily been Sue: a high-school drop-out, a divorcée who survived a shiftless and violent man, a 15-minutes-of-fame teen-age model who makes ends meet by working as a bartender in a Manhattan hotel. Ryan lives in a tenement and buys used psychology books because that’s what she’d like to study if she ever goes back to school. She’s 32, too old, she feels, to call it opportunity. The connections between Sue and Ryan are compelling. Miss Bates couldn’t help but think of these disparate texts because their juxtaposition spotlights what distinguishes the romance narrative. Same girl, same narrative, same edge of hopelessness, same seediness, cheap clothes and worn-out beauty … what does the romance narrative do with the same stuff, the same material, but imbues it with hope in place of despair? (As a side-note, she loved O’Keefe’s Indecent Proposal: marriage-of-convenience, a heroine who gains in strength and love, a Hubbell-hero humbled. What’s not to love?) Continue reading

Miss Bates’ Favourite Christmas Romances

Christmas_IvyMiss Bates loves Christmas: stars, trees, lights, baking, candle-lit church services. Carols! She decorates; she cuts out gingerbread people. She even mails Christmas cards. And, with Mrs. Bates, they haul a beautiful sapin de Noël up the narrow staircase to her apartment and spend happy hours with tinsel, glitter, garland, and ornament. Early December finds her ribbon-cutting the season by bringing out her Christmas tea mugs. Every year, on November 25th, the feast day of St. Catherine, patron saint of spinsters (also lace-makers) Miss Bates embarks on a month-long reading of Christmas-themed, Christmas-set romances. The genre presents her with a plethora of choices and the covers are sentimental favourites. She’s read some duds and she’s read some wonders. Here are her wonders; if you’re a Christmas-romance fan, you might have read them, or you might consider reading one, or two 😉 this year. Continue reading

Stretching Reading Muscles and Learning to Listen

Barefoot_BrideIn the after-math of blogger black-out, midst a stressful, busy work month and nasty flu, Miss Bates turned to her old stand-by and greatest romance love, the category, to help her find pleasure in a few snatched hours of R&R. She coupled reading with listening to an audiobook on dark morning and, thanks to the end of DST, equally dark evening commutes. She didn’t have energy to read more than a few chapters in the evening and wanted the e-reader to tell her that the end was nigh, a you-have-38-minutes-to-finish-this-book message. As for the audiobook commute, let’s say that taking her mind off the sundry tasks she has to fulfill and personalities to juggle are blessings. She hoped that her paltry minutes of comfort and pleasure would offer the thrilling jolt of reading, or listening to things truly great. And the book gods visited boons upon her. Miss Bates read a lovely category romance, Jessica Hart’s Barefoot Bride. It is as thoughtful, well-written, and heart-stoppingly romantic as its title and cover are trite. (Why oh why does Hart have terrible luck with titles and covers? Miss Bates’ favourite Hart, Promoted: To Wife and Mother, is probably the best worst example. Don’t let the title fool you, though, this is one of the best categories Miss Bates has read.) She listened to and is still listening to (it’s a long one, folks) Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley, not The Charlotte’s best known book, but sheer pleasure to Miss Bates. She sends out her heartfelt thanks to Sunita for finding the audiobook and Sunita and Liz for listening along with her. Continue reading

Blogger Black-out at MBRR

Miss Bates is going post-less until October 28th to support fellow bloggers’ protest against The Guardian‘s choice to publish an account of an author’s self-admitted stalking of a reviewer-blogger. Miss Bates Reads Romance is tiny potatoes; her stance will not influence, or effect the situation, nor will she link to it. It’s been talked to death and she’s mighty tired of giving the piece more space than it’s already taken. She links, however, to some fellow-bloggers in comradeship: Vacuous Minx, Romance Around the Corner, Love In the Margins, Book Thingo, Sonomalass’s Blog, Wendy the Superlibrarian, Immersed In Books, Badass Romance, Something More, Mean Fat Old Bat, and Kaetrin’s Musings. Continue reading

REVIEW: Ruthie Knox’s TRULY Yourself

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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: 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

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