MINI-REVIEW: Ruth Ware’s THE TURN OF THE KEY

Turn_KeyI side-eyed Ruth Ware’s The Turn of the Key because it nods at James’s “The Turn of the Screw,” one classic I’ve abhorred since I had the misfortune to read it in a 19th century lit class. I hate James’s twisted, labyrinthine sentences, his dunce of a narrator, and the creepy setting. I like my gothic with a good streak of romance, like Jane Eyre, and female protagonists with a brain in their head, like Jane, like Stewart’s, Kearsley’s, and St. James’s. But I’d heard and read reviewers and Twitter friends praise Ware’s The Woman In Cabin 10 and The Death of Mrs. Westaway that I wanted to try one of her books. In The Turn of the Key, I got a fairly satisfying hybrid between atmospheric James and contemporary feminist gothic. Had the first-person narrator/voice been anything like James’s governess, I would’ve DNF-ed. As it stands, narrator Rowan Caine is what you’d get if Bridget Jones was trapped in a horror-gothic-thriller, which made her a heck of a lot more likeable than the anonymous prig James created.   Continue reading

MINI-REVIEW: Allison Montclair’s THE RIGHT SORT OF MAN

Right_Sort_ManIt’s too bad I started reading Allison Montclair’s The Right Sort of Man when I returned to work after the holidays because I wanted the luxury of inhaling it in hours instead of days. First, it came recommended by MissB’s reader, Barb, always spot-on; second, it held much tropish goodness: historical, check; mystery, check; women forging paths in post-war-England, check; engaging voice, check; witty, rapid-sharp dialogue, check; glimmers of love interests, check. And, I cannot say this enough: it’s moving without being lugubrious and the characters grow in believable, positive ways. (More than anything, my ugh with litfic is the latter. If you have any recs about this, they’d be welcome.)

Montclair creates a pair of female amateur sleuths who start a marriage bureau agency in post-WWII London. They’re an unlikely, contrapuntal pair whose professional relationship grows into a friendship. If you’re keen on romance tropes, they’re an opposites-attract version of female friendship. Montclair opens her novel, cleverly-like, with the victim, one Tillie LaSalle, seeking a match from Gwen Bainbridge and Iris Sparks’s Mayfair matchmaking establishment, The Right Sort Marriage Bureau. We soon realize Iris and Gwen are as unlike in personality as they are in height. Gwen is the willowy, still-grieving widow of would-have-inherited-a-title Ronald Bainbridge and mother to six-year-old Ronnie. Iris, on the other hand, a former ton-ish wild girl about town, did some secret service work during the war and has derring-do recklessness to Gwen’s methodical care.    Continue reading

Time and Taste? 2019 Books

Happy_New_Year_2020Another reading year gone and it was a strange one: an intense reading summer, testament to the plethora of reviews I managed to write, and a dry autumn with barely any reading done. Nevertheless, I read some good romance among others genres and I’m going to herein name the ones I think might withstand the test of time and taste. With this first post of 2020, I wish you all the health, happiness, prosperity, and love the world can bring. Without further ado, here are the titles that resonate with me still. I’ve written about all of them, so you’re welcome to check out my reviews to see why I liked them. With apologies that I can’t manage more commentary than that, but 2019 was the year I was tired. I’m hoping to have more blogging energy for 2020!  Continue reading

What Else I’ve Read

Spy_Among_FriendsThough it’s been a slow-reading year since the fall (thanks, all-consuming day-job), the Christmas holidays offered an opportunity to polish off two books I’ve been making my way through: Ben Macintyre’s A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal and Elly Griffiths’s Ruth Galloway murder mysteries #7, The Ghost Fields. I enjoyed both in that distracted, desultory way one does when other obligations and responsibilities get in an uber-reader’s way. Of the two, Macintyre’s book proved the more compelling. An account of the activities of one high-profile Soviet spy in the UK’s MI-6, Macintyre, rightly so, is more interested in telling the story of how the old boys club that was Britain’s spy agency bolstered, supported, and lauded a traitor, a snake in their arrogant, smug grass. Griffiths’s volume, on the other hand, contained a lacklustre mystery, but my love for Ruth, her five-year-old daughter, Kate, friend Cathbad, DCI Nelson and his team, and Nelson’s wife, Michelle, proved to be strong enough, and their continued relationship complications interesting enough, to keep me reading past the ho-hum mystery plot.  
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MINI-REVIEW: Ruby Lang’s PLAYING HOUSE

Playing_HouseI love Ruby Lang’s voice: fresh, original, droll, sophisticated. “Playing House” is first in a series set amidst NYC-based real-estate-involved characters, whether urban planners, brokers, etc. In “Playing House,” unemployed, gig-economy-victim, urban-planner Oliver Huang is touring houses in Harlem when he meet-cute runs into recently-divorced, college-mate Fay Liu. He helps her avoid “Clompy Brent”, a dude coming on to her who can’t hear, or understand the word “no”. It’s obvious from the get-go that Oliver has harbored an attraction for Fay and Fay reciprocates. They fall into a pattern of pretending to be newly-weds, Olly and Darling, for the chance to urban-plan geek out on beautiful NYC properties. They enjoy their pretend dates and become lovers. In the meanwhile, a potential conflict rears its mild head because Oliver has applied for a job at the urban-planning firm, Milieu, where Fay is partner. Neither Oliver, nor Fay take their affair too seriously and they have a lot of stuff to figure out, given they’re both in transitional life-spaces. But it is serious because feelings are involved, the acquaintance too short-lived to result in anything but misunderstanding, doubts, and hurt feelings.
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MINI-REVIEW: Barbara Wallace’s ONE NIGHT IN PROVENCE

One_Night-In-ProvenceIt was lovely to read a category romance as gentle and subdued as Wallace’s One Night In Provence after Yates’s and Crews’s angsty intensity. One Night‘s first half and premise set-up were wonderful, richly descriptive and chockfull of lovely banter between hero and heroine.

The scene opens in Provence with Jenna Brown, who won a silent-auction luxury trip to lavender-country, something the Nantucket-based hospice nurse could ill afford otherwise. There, she meets lavender-field owner and charming Frenchman, Philippe d’Usay, as close to French aristocracy as it’s possible to be given the French Revolution. The novel’s first half is the better of the two, with Philippe’s charming, tender pursuit of Jenna. It was wonderful to read a romance that was “romantic”: dates with delicious French food, teasing conversation, outings to the countryside and the beauties of southern France the nonpareil. Wallace did the wooing and geographic wonders justice.
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MINI-REVIEW: Maisey Yates’s LONE WOLF COWBOY

Lone_Wolf_CowboyI read Maisey Yates because I know exactly what I’m going to get. I don’t mean this in a predictable, comfort-read kind of way. Yates is NOT a comforting read; she is an angst-queen. I read her because I like her ethos: it’s as close to sexy inspie minus-God-talk as you’re going to get in contemporary romance. In Yates’s romances, encounters are meaningful; the past, redeemable; sex, mystical and earthy all at once; and, love, something huge, frightening, wonderful, and as much to be run away from as to run towards. These themes are reiterated in every romance, but they never get old and are expressed with urgency as the basis of self-fulfillment and a happy marriage. Most importantly, for Yates, as for my long-lamented absent romance-writing friend, Ros Clarke, the body knows before the mind and heart can come into its orbit.

In Yates’s seventh Gold Valley romance, she tackles a heroine with a daunting backstory. Vanessa Logan (Olivia’s sister, heroine of Yates’s first Gold Valley romance, Smooth-Talking Cowboy) returns to home-town Gold Valley because it is “the last refuge for her demons, and the final locked door in her life … her origin story. And everyone needed to revisit an origin story. She’d gone out on her own, failed, hit rock bottom and healed. But she had healed away, not at the site of her first fall from grace.” Teen-age Vanessa had shamed her family by drinking, carousing, and indulging in promiscuity. Running away to LA, she became an addict to drugs and alcohol. Now, she’s back to confront her family and teach art therapy to the hero’s, Jacob Dalton’s, brother’s therapy ranch for troubled boys. 
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MINI-REVIEW: Laura Lippman’s LADY IN THE LAKE

Lady_In_the_LakeI wanted to read Laura Lippman’s Lady In the Lake after I heard an NPR interview with the author. Lippman was knowledgeable and personable about her city’s fractured history, the state of American politics and journalism, its ills and its profound necessity for examining the state of the nation and ensuring free, open democracy. Certainly, her standalone novel contains threads of these ideas. It is, however, unlike Lippman’s expansive personality and openness, a cramped book. The premise held promise: a recently separated late-thirties beauty, Madeline “Maddie” Schwartz (née Morgenstern) has left marriage and middle-class comfort behind to pursue a reporter’s beat. In 1966, there was a ceiling still so thick for women that not even Maddie’s sledgehammer beauty and persistence can break it. Living in one of Baltimore’s seedier neighbourhoods, Maddie pursues an affair with a black policeman, whose nightly visits, an inter-racial “romance” still illicit and dangerous to both, are vigorous and all-consuming. Maddie revels in her freedom for sex and solitude. There’s a mild regret at leaving her son Seth with his father. Seth proves a snivelling, whiny character and I never warmed to him. If at first Maddie’s pursuit of a journalistic career seems random and half-hearted, once she gets a clerical job at a local paper, she begins a relentless pursuit to find the killer of the “lady in the lake”, Cleo Sherwood, make her mark, and get a beat of her own.
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MINI-REVIEW: Dani Collins’s THE MAID’S SPANISH SECRET

Maid's_Spanish_SecretAfter a work-week from hell, a well-done HP is exactly what can set the mood right and tilt the world back towards HEA in one intense, short take. Dani Collins, a fellow-Canuck, is becoming one of my favourite HP authors. With category romance out of its Golden Age, and taking one step forward and two back trying to remake itself, the good ole HP, as practised by Collins, Smart, Hayward, maybe Hewitt, still stands sentinel to the category virtues.

Collins’s The Maid’s Spanish Secret is open to Romancelandia’s cognoscenti’s derision: secret baby! virginal heroine! emotionally-stunted bazillionaire hero! exotic locales! (Saskatchewan’s Northern Lights!) yet Collins manages to make it fresh, endearing, intense, with tongue-in-cheek banter and wit.

On a European vacation, Poppy Harris, aspiring photographer, loses her money and takes a job as a maid for a Spanish billionaire’s mother. Said billionaire, Rico Montero, the day his arranged-marriage fiancée breaks their engagement, gives in to the attraction he’s had for the maid and the maid for him and they make passionate love in the solarium. Continue reading

MINI-REVIEW: Wendy Roberts’s A GRAVE END

Grave_EndWendy Roberts’s fourth Bodies of Evidence mystery finds our heroine and psychic body-finder caught between her past and future, as she has been for the past three books. Without spoiling the series if you’ve yet to read it, heroine Julie Hall uses “dowsing rods” to find missing, deceased people, bringing closure to their families and, more often than not, helping the police solve cold cases. Set in moody-broody Washington state, our Julie is a trailer park gal with supernatural abilities, an up-close-and-personal relationship with beer and wine, and a past as haunting and painful as the murderous circumstances of the bodies she discovers. In each volume, Julie tries to make peace with her abusive past, fend off dipsomania, and draw comfort from a life she’s forged with will power, the wisdom of a great therapist, and the love of her twenty-years-senior FBI-agent boyfriend (I know, but it totally works). Continue reading