Miss Bates puts out a tentative tentacle in writing about her “other” reading: non-fiction. She doesn’t know if this is something she’ll continue, or if it’ll prove of any interest to her readers. But it’s her way of opening up her blog to all her reading and testing the waters of writing about things other than romance. As she abandoned the solipsistic, self-conscious writing of litfit a long while ago, she will endeavour to write about, in this case, a hybrid form she’s long loved that’ll have to be satisfied with the vague name of “travel literature.” Travel literature, enjoying greater popularity in the twentieth century, is on the wane. Miss Bates has a silly theory that its decline coincides with the physical bookstore’s loss and reliance on all things Internet. Though not too long ago from this age of barely-recordable change, travel literature, for want of a better name, looks back at a time when the armchair traveller and bookstore browser, as opposed to Internet surfer and social media lurker, were present in Western culture as intellectual participants and cultural consumers.
One of travel literature’s greatest practitioners was a larger-than-life, dilettante-ish figure, WWII hero and one of the the twentieth century’s greatest prose writers, Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915-2011), whose literary output can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Travel literature is a strange, hybrid form. It is part travel log, part history, part autobiography, part reportage, part memoir; above all however, it is distinguished by its first-person narrator’s unique tone and perspective, a narrator both himself and a chronicler of time and place, participant and observer, observed and observing, in time and out, whose presence (as anthropology posits) changes the alien culture he enters even as he is changed by it. He is a stranger in a strange land and culture-clash places him uniquely in a space where he can reflect on his own time and place “back home” in contrast to the place, time, and people in which he finds himself by will, or chance, or both. Continue reading
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
This summer, Miss Bates listened to a Brene Brown series of lectures called “The Power of Vulnerability: Teachings of Authenticity, Connection, and Courage.” (It’s a wonderful series, especially if you’re given to self-protection and perfectionism, as Miss Bates is. Austen’s Miss Bates is beautifully vulnerable, which leads Emma to take that nasty shot at her at the picnic.) One interesting point Brown made was that vulnerability does not mean oversharing, or as Miss Bates less elegantly puts it, TMI. In reference to the same, Brown said you have to really think about who deserves your story. Reading Judith Arnold’s seminal romance about breast-cancer survivor Beth Pendleton and Ryan Walker, the builder-rogue who falls in love with her, Miss Bates thought about Brown’s words a lot. Too often, in romance, the heroine keeps secrets, secrets that result in an annoying Big Mis (I’m looking at you, secret babies) and a sure-fire way to being dumped onto the DNF pile. Barefoot In the Grass, on the other hand, is about a private woman, not a secretive one, whose story earned its privacy. Beth is a charming, intelligent, sympathetic heroine who confronted physical and psychic pain and fought a hard battle to embrace life, as echoed by the novel’s title and Beth’s oft-declared promise-to-self to find joy in “walking barefoot in the grass.” Continue reading
Jo 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.
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
If you scroll down this page, you’ll see that Miss Bates took part in a “Quote Challenge,” thanks to Willaful’s Three-Day Quote Challenge. Miss Bates opted to write mini-reviews based on her impressions of a romance novel’s opening line. If you follow Miss Bates on Twitter, you’ll also know she indulges in spinsterish bubble-bath romance reading every night (you can follow her musings under the hashtag #bathtubromreading). She loved the quote format and opportunity to be succinct (not too often, mind you) 😉 . Hashtag and quote review married and are ready to have babies. Thus, she’ll occasionally abandon herself to an opening-line mini-review of her bathtubromread. Her latest was Charlotte Lamb’s 1979 Love Is A Frenzy. Like most great romance novels, its opening line is simple and sublime:
She recognized him at once.
Beautiful. And mysterious. Who is she? What previous knowledge does she have of him allowing her to recognize him “at once”? And how clever of Lamb to use personal pronouns instead of the heroine and hero’s first name? Adding to the mystique. Working the reader’s curiosity, drawing her in without being coy, silly, or manipulative. 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