The Great Betty Read: Neels’s GRASP A NETTLE #38

Grasp_a_NettleThe quotation opening Neels’s Grasp a Nettle is quite the thing: “Tender-handed stroke a nettle/And it stings you for your pains;/Grasp it like a man of mettle/And it soft as milk remains,” attributed to Aaron Hill and eponymously referring to the romance’s heroine, Jenny Wren, her surname suggestive of bird-like cuteness. Well, there’s nothing “cute” about Jenny, or her hero, the acerbic, temperamental Professor Eduard van Draak te Solendijk. Jenny is, like the majority of Neels’s heroines, a nurse, but she is independently wealthy, of a storied estate family, and has neither a need to work, or marry to ensure a living. Her parents are long dead, but she may go home whenever she likes to Dimworth House, where her Aunt Bess, aka Miss Elizabeth Creed, would welcome her any time, indeed, would prefer that Jenny remain with her, take care of the estate as it receives visitors and be at her beck and call. Aunt Bess is loving, but imperious, expecting Jenny to care for her and marry her neighbour’s son, Toby. But Jenny is Neels’s attempt at a more modern heroine: Jenny wants to work at her nursing because she loves her work and is devoted to it, is ambitious for herself, and willing to wait until she meets “the one”: “There would be someone in the world meant for her; she had been sure of that ever since she was a little girl, and although there was no sign of him yet, she was still quite certain that one day she would come face to face with him, and he would feel just as she did — and in the meantime she intended to make a success of her job.” How beautifully Betty sets us up for The Man’s entrance. Aunt Bess takes ill, Jenny leaves her job to devote herself to her aunt’s care … and thus encounters and spars with Draak, through England, a cruise, and Holland. Continue reading

MINI-REVIEW: Lisa Kleypas’s COLD-HEARTED RAKE (Ravenels #1)

Cold-Hearted_RakeIf I can say a few things about Kleypas, they would be: she still writes books that made me fall in love with romance in the first place (Derek Craven!) and she’s only gotten better over time (except for the woo-woo books). It’s sad that I side-eye so much romance these days: afraid I’ll find yet another novel with trite, or formulaic ideas; or another trying so hard to do something new that it fails to come alive. But Kleypas still takes joy in the genre and it comes through in the Ravenel series. Though I’d read and reviewed Chasing Cassandra (back when the pubs most likely to decline a small-time reviewing outfit like Miss Bates went into pandemic-sales panic and granted ARCs right left and centre), I’m glad I went back and started the series from the first volume.

The pub-blurb makes Cold-Hearted Rake sound like any other standard-fare histrom, but the sheer delight and reader-joy I took in it was more than most historical romances I’ve tried to read have offered:

Devon Ravenel, London’s most wickedly charming rake, has just inherited an earldom. But his powerful new rank in society comes with unwanted responsibilities . . . and more than a few surprises. His estate is saddled with debt, and the late earl’s three innocent sisters are still occupying the house . . . along with Kathleen, Lady Trenear, a beautiful young widow whose sharp wit and determination are a match for Devon’s own. Kathleen knows better than to trust a ruthless scoundrel like Devon. But the fiery attraction between them is impossible to deny-and from the first moment Devon holds her in his arms, he vows to do whatever it takes to possess her. Continue reading

Mini-Review: Kearsley’s, Huber’s, Trent’s, and Harris’s THE DEADLY HOURS

I never have been, nor will I ever be a fan of the genre novella. The reader-deliciousness of romance and mystery is in the sinking-in for a long, luxurious, fully-developped read. (Despite its spareness, I would say that a great category romance accomplishes this very thing as well.) BUT two of my favourite authors were featured in this inter-connected anthology of novellas and I couldn’t resist. I was especially lured by the promise of Kearsley and Harris goodness, even though Harris’s narrative isn’t Regency-set, nor features my frisson-inducing favourite hero, Sebastian St. Cyr, but I’ll take what I can get. I thought the premise and historical arc, linked by this “cursed” pocket-watch, intriguing:

A stellar line-up of historical mystery novelists weaves the tale of a priceless and cursed gold watch as it passes through time wreaking havoc from one owner to another. The characters are irrevocably linked by fate, each playing a key role in breaking the curse and destroying the watch once and for all.

From 1733 Italy to Edinburgh in 1831 to a series of chilling murders in 1870 London, and a lethal game of revenge decades later, the watch touches lives with misfortune, until it comes into the reach of one young woman who might be able to stop it for good.

The four novellas are inter-connected by the watch, as well as the four elements: the watch must endure a test by air, earth, fire, and water before the curse can be broken. The anthology had everything necessary to make for a great read: mystery, a hint of mortality and fate in the cursed-watch motif, and rich historical detail. And yet, while I enjoyed the individual efforts, I can’t say it ever came together … and maybe that is just the nature of the beast. I felt the same way about Willig, Williams, and White’s All the Ways We Said Goodbye. I liked the bits, wasn’t keen on the whole. Kearsley’s and Harris’s efforts, however, were quite enjoyable
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Mini-Review: Jackie Ashenden’s HOME TO DEEP RIVER

We can add Jackie Ashenden to the queendom of the small-town contemporary romance duo of Maisey Yates and Caitlin Crews/Megan Crane to make a triumvirate. Which means you get more of the same if you’re a fan of Yates, or Crews-Crane. I’m not a fan anymore. I’m tired of the formula: former military heroes are now suspect, small-towns are scary “off the grid” loony-territory, and tough-talking heroines hiding lonely vulnerabilities aren’t quite believable when “they doth protest too much”. If these characters turn your crank, then you’re the reader for Ashenden’s first “Deep River, Alaska” romance, Home to Deep River.

Ashenden establishes her series setting with a romance that sees hero Silas Quinn return home when his best friend, RIP Caleb West, the town owner, bequeaths him, well, the town. It’s been thirteen years of bad memories of Deep River, except for Silas’s love for Hope Dawson:

Deep River, Alaska, boasts a fiercely independent though small population. The people who live here love it, and they don’t much care what anyone else thinks. Until the day Silas Quinn comes back and tells them an oil reserve has been found below the town and now it’s neighbor vs. neighbor. Some want to take the money and run, while others want to tell the oil company to put its rigs where the sun don’t shine.

Hope Dawson never expected to leave Deep River. Her mom needs her. Her grandfather died and left her the local hangout to run. Her dreams of college and adventure died long ago. Until Silas comes back to town, holding the key to set her free. But freedom means she loses him again, and he’s the one she’s really always wanted.

As a matter of fact, no oil company shows up, there’s no neighbour vs. neighbour and the oil reserve is a minor plot point in this day and age of climate change and alternative energy to bring Silas and Hope together. Does it matter? Not really. Because the town shenanigans and oil reserves and what the town will decide are the background to Ashenden’s purpose: her protagonists waffling on about their tormented feelings while having a lot of sex, lotso’ sex and lotso’ internal distress and denial.  Continue reading

The Great Betty Read #36: Neels’s A MATTER OF CHANCE (1977)

A_Matter_Of_ChanceAh, beloved Betty, your Matter of Chance took me through many a bathtub reading session and kept me annoyingly flipping pages. You broke the bank with your hero’s inscrutable meanness and heroine’s puckered-brow peevishness. I admit to an eagerness to read my Betty #36 because of the sheer delight I took in your protagonists’ names, as evidenced from the blurb:

Cressida Bingley needs a fresh start, so moving to Holland for a new job seems perfect. Until she finds herself lost in Amsterdam and accepts help from a charming knight in shining armor — who turns out to be her new boss’s partner! Dr. Giles van der Tiele can’t forget the alluring young woman he rescued, and longs to make her his bride. But Cressida refuses to marry for anything less than love.

Hmm, the blurb is deceptive because Giles doesn’t propose to Cressida until near the end and the blurb moves this into the preamble to MoC territory, which it isn’t. As a matter of fact, I hate to say this, but Giles spends most of the novel being so incredibly unkind that I came as close to being mad at precious Betty as I ever have. I loved Cressida: she’s smart, competent, beautiful, and hard-working. So what gives, Giles, why you gotta be so mean? Continue reading

Mini-Review: Kaki Warner’s ROUGH CREEK

Rough_CreekIf you are looking to read great historical Western romance, you’re in for a treat with Kaki Warner’s Blood Rose Trilogy. Because I’d loved it and despaired of seeing more from Warner, I was delighted to see she was back with contemporary Western romance. I’m not keen on cowboys and I hate horsey stories, but, hey, Warner! And I happily plunged into Rough Creek. The blurb made me nervous there would be too many horsey details and I was right, but the protagonists are always what’s best in Warner. The blurb was encouraging:

 
I do love me some simmering “heart-pounding tension”. Sadly, it’s not what I got: instead, a story about two careful, caring people who hadn’t exercised their heart muscles, or any others for that matter, in ages, a drawn-out dance of closeness, then distance, and a halting pace to the HEA.

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Mini-Review: Deanna Raybourn’s AN UNEXPECTED PERIL

An_Unexpected_PerilAn Unexpected Peril is the sixth “Veronica Speedwell” Victorian-Era-set mystery Raybourn has penned and as solid an addition to one of my favourite series as any. While the mystery component didn’t engage as well as the previous two volumes, the marvelous A Dangerous Collaboration and A Murderous Relation, Veronica and lover-and-fellow-sleuth, Stoker, were as charming, sharp, and funny as ever, with, on Veronica’s part, a tenderness and vulnerability that made me like her even more. As for Stoker: his candy-eating, Keats-quoting, animal-obsessed nerdiness, broad shoulders, and good looks, are easy to love. His love for Veronica and one heart-stopping avowal in this volume would make him irresistible to any romance reader. But first, to the mystery, best recounted by the novel’s descriptor:

January 1889. As the newest member of the Curiosity Club–an elite society of brilliant, intrepid women–Veronica Speedwell is excited to put her many skills to good use. As she assembles a memorial exhibition for pioneering mountain climber Alice Baker-Greene, Veronica discovers evidence that the recent death was not a tragic climbing accident but murder. Veronica and her natural historian beau, Stoker, tell the patron of the exhibit, Princess Gisela of Alpenwald, of their findings. With Europe on the verge of war, Gisela’s chancellor, Count von Rechstein, does not want to make waves–and before Veronica and Stoker can figure out their next move, the princess disappears. Having noted Veronica’s resemblance to the princess, von Rechstein begs her to pose as Gisela for the sake of the peace treaty that brought the princess to England. Veronica reluctantly agrees to the scheme. She and Stoker must work together to keep the treaty intact while navigating unwelcome advances, assassination attempts, and Veronica’s own family–the royalty who has never claimed her.

That final element, the family “who has never claimed her” and her love for Stoker make for a new facet to Veronica: the young woman who never belonged suddenly belongs to someone, the child who yearned for family has it in her grasp. But the years of solitude, solitary adventure, and a certain steeling of the heart have rendered Veronica uncomfortable with attachment, and Stoker, loving, funny, astute, gorgeous Stoker, drives a stake through the heart of Veronica’s strikes-out-on-her-own existence and scares her more than any villain. And this is the best part of An Unexpected Peril. Continue reading

Mini-Review: Roni Loren’s YES & I LOVE YOU

yes_&_i-love_youRoni Loren’s series, The Ones Who Got Away, about the grown-up heroes and heroines who share a high school shooting, is one of the best contemporary romance series I’ve read; therefore, any new Loren series comes with anticipation and high expectations. This latest “Say Everything” series sees Loren pull deep from her counsellor background in creating her protagonists. Her heroine, the lovable Hollyn Tate, has Tourette’s, and her hero, the less lovable Jasper Deares, ADHD. Their portrayal, Hollyn’s in particular, is sensitive and knowledgeable. The premise is a tad ludicrous, but aren’t many in romance fiction? The blurb will give you an idea of it:

Everyone knows Miz Poppy, the vibrant reviewer whose commentary brightens the New Orleans nightlife. But no one knows Hollyn, the real face behind the media star…or the fear that keeps her isolated. When her boss tells her she needs to add video to her blog or lose her job, she’s forced to rely on an unexpected source to help her face her fears.

When aspiring actor Jasper Deares finds out the shy woman who orders coffee every day is actually Miz Poppy, he realizes he has a golden opportunity to get the media attention his acting career needs. All he has to do is help Hollyn come out of her shell…and through their growing connection, finally find her voice.

Hmm, this doesn’t quite honour the novel’s attempted complexity: Jasper is the barista in Hollyn’s work co-op. When she learns his acting expertise is improv, they strike a deal to help her prepare to do video using improv games and help him get his theatre troupe off the ground with a Miz Poppy review. In some muddled and muddy way, they also end up agreeing to a pretend-relationship/affair: something about helping Hallyn emerge from her sexual naïveté and give her amorous wings? But the heart will do what the heart will do and Hallyn’s heart, and eventually, I guess, Jasper’s, falls in love. Continue reading

Mini-Review: Jenny Holiday’s PARADISE COVE

Paradise_CoveParadise Cove is Holiday’s second Matchmaker Bay romance, after Mermaid Inn, and, on some level, it may be even better, its theme more complex, though its romance, weaker. As far as tropish goodness is concerned, Holiday moves from reunited-high-school-sweethearts to friends-with-benefits and what makes for Paradise Cove‘s strength, the “friendship” component, weakens the romance. Even the protagonists agree, early on, and maintain the agreement that romance doesn’t enter their relationship. This, for me, skirts women’s fic territory and that’s one country I don’t enjoy visiting. Nevertheless, there is much to love about Paradise Cove. The synopsis-blurb doesn’t give much of the novel’s essence, but it’s a good starting point to learn about Jake Ramsey and Dr. Nora Walsh:

Dr. Nora Walsh has just been dumped in spectacular fashion, making it the perfect time for a major life change. She figures taking over the medical practice in tiny Matchmaker Bay for a couple of years will help her get over her broken heart, and then she can head back to the big city. But when the first man she sees looks like a superhero god, she wonders if maybe there’s something to small-town living after all.

Jake Ramsey also has a broken heart — one he never expects to heal. He doesn’t need people anyway and is content hiding out in his secluded cottage on the beach. But after helping Nora with a medical emergency, he finds himself opening up to the witty, warmhearted doctor. Soon the local matchmakers are working overtime to pair them off, and Jake begins to wonder if his campaign to get Nora to stay is for the town or because he can’t bear the thought of her leaving.

This romance novel’s uniqueness lies in the source of Jake’s “broken heart”; while Nora’s is your standard a-hole, cheating, selfish BF, fellow-doctor, Rufus (I wonder if this is a nod to Rufus Sewell’s a-hole character in The Holiday?), Jake’s is viscerally difficult to read about, his baby son’s death, of the flu, at nine months. (Let this also serve as a CW.) Continue reading

Mini-Review: Marion Lennox’s PREGNANT MIDWIFE ON HIS DOORSTEP

Pregnant_Midwife_on_His_DoorstepMarion Lennox’s Pregnant Midwife on His Doorstep should have, could have, and on some level, probably was a fine romance. It contains many love-worthy elements: forced-proximity, one-bed, puppies, a super-nice hero, and likeable heroine. And yet.

Here is, verbatim, Pregnant Midwife‘s blurb-summary:

Neurosurgeon Josh O’Connor’s isolated island hideaway is on lockdown, but nothing will stop him entering a raging cyclone to rescue mom-to-be midwife Hannah Byrne. Hannah hasn’t found happiness since leaving her beloved Irish village. Yet stepping into Josh’s warm house, she starts to feel she might finally have found a home—for her and her unborn baby. Might Josh’s rescuing Hannah from the storm change both their lives for the better?

It doesn’t do justice to Lennox’s fine writing, her ability to capture landscape and stormy weather, to draw the reader in with a knight-in-shining-armor, breath-holding rescue scene, one of Lennox’s favourite openings. Put the heroine in danger, match her with a knight-hero, have her be rescued and then, have her, in turn, emotionally rescue the hero. It’s a lovely theme and it should have appealed more than it did. Together, Josh and Hannah are lovely. They’re not given to sentimental dialogue, nor do they snap and banter their way to a reluctant liking and truce. They’re gently humourous, no-nonsense, and good at their work. They make a great team when they have to rescue another family stranded in the storm on the other side of the island. So, what made this a desultory read? Continue reading