Rarely does a romance novel see Miss Bates guffaw, snort-laugh, and read the final page with great, gulping sobs, except Ruby Lang’s Clean Breaks did!
Miss Bates hates it when romance reviewers dub romance novels “fresh”, as if every other romance written to this point were stale. But Lang’s Clean Breaks felt, to MissB. at least, that Lang’s voice, characterization, conflict, were, ugh she hates to say it, a “fresh” take on a genre becoming too familiar. And you know what familiarity breeds … Clean Breaks made MissB. stand up and take notice instead of sink into the comforting, stock romance arc. What was “fresh” for MissB? On a micro-scale, Lang’s ironic quip of a title (too often romance titles, like their covers, are descriptively mundane) – that “clean breaks” aren’t possible. As her heroine realizes, love doesn’t call when one is ready, cleansed of messy conflict and perfected in career, life-style, and balanced inner workings. Nope, it asks admittance and its call must be answered, even when life is uncertain and messy. On a macro-scale, Lang made MissB laugh and cry, and discover a “fresh” new romance voice. Not bad for a few hours reading on a lazy summer Sunday afternoon.
Miss Bates hasn’t read a Crews HP in a while. There can be something overwrought about Crews’s work, but all was toned down, as toned down as an HP can be in Bride By Royal Decree. Crews’s romance’s roots are deeply embedded, maybe deliberately so, in fairy tale. Miss Bates enjoyed it all the more for that reason. Let’s face it: realism, nay plausibility, is not the HP’s companion. We read it as fairy-tale-wish-fulfillment-fantasy and Bride By Royal Decree has this in spades.
Decree‘s premise lies in one of Miss Bates’s favourite fairy-tale elements: the revelation of the heroine’s identity and mysterious past. In Deanville, Connecticut, Maggie Strafford scrubs the floor of her barista-job café when Reza Argos, His Royal Majesty, King and Supreme Ruler of Constantines, walks in with the revelation that Maggy is his long-thought-to-be-dead-and-lost fiancée, Princess Magdalena of Santa Domini. At eight, Maggy had “been found by the side of the road as a feral child with no memory of where she’d come from.” Since then, her “unfortunate childhood in foster care” and subsequent adult poverty made her the snarly, mouthy woman she is. Reza is controlled, proper, and duty-bound, “not a sentimental man” writes Crews, but also an HP-hero. He reveals Maggie’s identity and, despite her lippy disbelief, whisks her away to a private island for princess-grooming where the novel’s main action takes place, soon thereafter to be put in her queenly place in his kingdom. Like many an HP-hero, Reza is a “beast,” not in appearance in this case, but emotionally. He’s coiled inward, with a backstory that makes him balk at emotional entanglement. 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
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.
Now that Miss Bates has read Bliss Bennet’s second romance novel, she can place her in histrom-world with Rose Lerner, Cecilia Grant, and recent discovery Blythe Gifford. They all have the rare, and becoming rarer, ability to create main characters who reflect their times and are in turn uniquely, likably themselves. Their main characters’ constraints are not solely those of personality or circumstance, but political, economic, social, and/or gender strictures. Bennet creates creatures of their time and yet uniquely themselves, approachable and sympathetic to the reader. In her second Pennington romance, Bennet tells the story of Sibilla Pennington, sister to Rebel Without A Rogue‘s Kit Pennington. Like Lerner’s Lydia in True Pretenses, Bennet’s heroine is a young woman grieving her beloved father’s recent loss. Neither Lydia nor Sibilla were daddy’s-girls-spoiled-princesses. Their fathers’ love and acknowledgement allowed them the unique opportunity for women of their time, to lead lives of social and political purpose. Without their paternal lodestones, they’re adrift. Their only recourse is to place their political championing onto their reluctant brothers and make marriages of convenience to further their charitable causes. Continue reading
Miss Bates is fascinated by romance writers’ use of gesture and body language in establishing character. She wrote about her preoccupation in an analysis of Heyer’s Devil’s Cub and cemented her heroine-chin obsession in her quasi-review of Lynne Graham’s The Greek’s Chosen Wife. Since then, ne’er a romance novel goes by without Miss Bates noting the romance writer’s iterations of the heroine’s lifted chin in fury, defiance, revolt, or mulishness. She indulges in a post about some of the chins she’s read in the past few months. Hope you enjoy it! Continue reading
Regina Scott is a new-to-Miss-B author. Miss B’s relentless pursuit of good inspie fiction is running down like an wound-up toy. Scott’s Frontier Engagement is inspie-light (some heartfelt praying and one lovely forest-set singing of “Amazing Grace”), but not inspired to offer anything new or original in the subgenre. If you’re looking no further than the pleasantness that the subgenre has on offer with none of the offense that it occasionally exhibits, Scott’s 1866-Washington-frontier romance will be for you. Logger James Wallin travels to Seattle to bring a school teacher to Wallin Landing, his family’s fledgling town, and finds Alexandrina Eugenia Fosgrave, newly arrived with the Mercer expedition. Like all good inspie heroines, she’s suspicious and mistrustful, but James’ charm and persistence pay off: “So, like it or not, that schoolmarm had an engagement with the frontier.” James convinces Alexandrina, re-christening her with the diminutive “Rina,” as they set off for Wallin Landing, where Rina hopes to “make something good out of the tatters of her life, where she could make a difference.” Readers soon realize that James’ charm and humour, as well as Rina’s regal bearing, conceal psychic wounds. But Rina is barely established in Wallin Landing when the challenges of teaching leave her tear-eyed and on her way to an easier teaching post. To ensure her safety and, frankly, because he’s sweet on her, James accompanies her in the guise of her fiancé and the narrative makes an about-face, becoming an inspie road romance. The “road” provides much fodder for both humorous and dangerous incidents, as well as James and Rina opportunity to know each other better and grow closer in love and friendship. Continue reading
Finding a new auto-read author is great comfort because Miss Bates knows that even if this romance isn’t her best romance, it’ll still be pretty darn good. The reader’s stakes are low; the central couple’s, high. Which is how Miss Bates likes’em. The first romance she read in Talley’s Magnolia Bend, Louisiana, series, Sweet Talking Man, made its way into her heart, head, and running list of 2015 Best Of (to come soon; how time has flown, dear readers). A favourite author’s romance isn’t read because the romance will be good, that’s a given, but to, once again, re-experience the author’s sensibility and world view. In Liz Talley we have an earthier, funnier Janice Kay Johnson. JKJ is one of MissB’s faves, a little more gravitas, a little grimmer, but equally perceptive about the psychology of families, small towns, nuanced child characters (no adorable plot moppets to be found) and love’s challenging transformations. Moreover, Talley does something that Miss Bates looks and hopes for in contemporary romance (maybe there’s a touch in JKJ too, on occasion): a nod to the role religion plays in ordinary people’s daily lives, without the inspirational proselytizing and priggish attitudes to sex and the occasional beer. Bring it on and bring more of it, please! Liz Talley’s third Magnolia Bend romance novel and without the blandness that comes with sweet, or “heartwarming” romance. Sweet Southern Nights, is the friends-to-lovers tale of two firefighting best friends: Eva Monroe, the former new girl in town who’s found a place to belong, and hometown bad boy, Jake Beauchamp, “hardworking firefighter, hard-playing Romeo.” Continue reading
Reading Maisey Yates’ Bad News Cowboy gave Miss Bates déjà [vu]rginity. Indeed, a virgin heroine in Yates’ fourth Copper Ridge romance followed Dahl’s in Taking the Heat. The treatment was different, but equally successful, with Yates falling into a more conventional deflowering scene. We met Kate Garrett as the quiet, tom-boyish baby sister to the heroes of Yates’ previous novels in the series, Part Time and Brokedown Cowboy. Our hero is none other than their flippant, promiscuous poker buddy, the handsome, enigmatic Jack Monaghan, Jack of turbulent waters run deep. Verbal sparring and sexual tension ran throughout Kate and Jack’s exchanges in previous novels and it’s great to witness everything coming to a head … enfin. In Bad News Cowboy, Kate’s changing, suddenly aware that her 23-year-old body and sexual self-effacement don’t suit. The safe emotional “cave” she created as hidey-hole in is too small, ” … she was alone … It was secure. It was familiar.” Her itchy restless feelings are her attraction to Jack. Jack too notices how Kate needles and insults him at their weekly Garrett family poker games. They’ve always teased and tormented each other, but now there’s a tension to their encounters they’ve not had before. As in the previous novels, Yates’ characters’ verbal jibes and jabs conceal emotional feints and this no less true of Kate and Jack. Continue reading
Reading Victoria Dahl’s Taking the Heat means taking the heat. To a love-scene-shy reader like Miss Bates (what else when you’ve lived in a Jane Austen novel?), Dahl’s raw love scenes stand in contradistinction to Miss B’s sensibilities. But Dahl convinces in the best way possible: intelligently, using love scenes to reveal character, show growth, and develop a relationship from superficial fun to emotional stakes that come with vulnerability and openness to the Other. Taking the Heat follows from the thematic concerns we saw Dahl work through in the novel that precedes it in the Girls Night Out series, Flirting With Disaster.
Taking the Heat picks up on the woebegone friend of Isabelle and Lauren, Veronica Chandler, a mysterious young women, déprimée, dominated by her powerful, indifferent-to-her judge father, and difficult to know. But Isabelle and company befriend her and bring her along on their girls night outs. Getting to know Veronica is one of the pleasures of Taking the Heat: she’s an endearing heroine. She’s funny, kind, and intuitively smart, which serve her well because she’s “Dear Veronica,” the local rag’s advice columnist. When we meet her, her publisher-editor has talked her into a stint at the local bar where she’ll pull Dear Veronica letters out of a fishbowl to respond to as bar patrons listen. She’s terrified and, as we soon learn, feels a fraud. Veronica Chandler is a girl living a lie: she dispenses advice like a pharmacist eking out pastilles, but she’s a virgin whose dream of big lights big city ended in failure. She returned to Jackson, Wyoming, needing her father’s help to find work and a place to live. Much of the novel’s success lies in witnessing Veronica’s emergence into strength and confidence without losing her generous heart. Our Veronica-butterfly comes forth from the chrysalis of her encounters with Gabe Mackenzie, librarian, rock climber, search-and-rescue officer, looker and lover extraordinaire. Continue reading