It’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
Yes, you’re still with Miss Bates, romance-reader … but the first 2020 book I read was one that come-hithered me for weeks and it certainly wasn’t romance. Coupled with a new year’s resolution to broaden my reading horizons, given the coming election year for my southern neighbours and that Kakutani’s analysis clocks at 173 pages, I thought, this I can do. And I did, reading it with enough attention for it to resonate, in a few hours. In retrospect, I appreciated Kakutani’s connections to post-modernism and deconstructionist theory with the Trump phenomenon and our inability to navigate what is good, what is right, and what is true. I don’t think I learned anything new about Trump’s methods, or appeal that able political analysts haven’t already stated, but Kakutani’s positioning the former and latter within an interpretive model that elicits my unease made this a compelling read. Continue reading
Though 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.
I 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.
It 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.
Reading Caitlin Crews’s Cold Heart, Warm Cowboy right after Yates’s Lone Wolf Cowboy was like seeing the two romances in a two-way mirror. They are linked by ethos and setting and would be, you might think, too much of a good thing one after the other. Nope. I was as immersed in the former as the latter. Besides, who can resist amnesia and secret-baby trope combined!? Maybe a lot of romance readers can, but I can’t! Moreover, Cold Heart, Warm Cowboy was the follow-up to one of my favourites 2018 romances, A True Cowboy Christmas, though not as good and there be reasons. Cold Heart, Warm Cowboy picks up where True Cowboy Christmas departs, centering on Everett middle brother, Ty, though we have delicious glimpses of the hero and heroine of True Cowboy enjoying married bliss. Cold Heart, Warm Cowboy opens with the heroine, former-rodeo-queen Hannah Leigh Monroe. She’s on her way to Cold River Ranch to confront Ty with the cold hard facts of: exhibit A, their marriage (Las Vegas certificate and all) and exhibit B, their 10-month-old baby, Jack, though Jack’s safely with her mother back in Hannah’s hometown of Sweet Myrtle, Georgia. After what happened eighteen months ago, Hannah thinks it’s high time Ty and she divorced.
I 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.
I always approach a new-to-me author with trepidation; like Captain Wentworth, I am “half agony, half hope”. Matthews did not disappoint, however; au contraire, I may, with a heavy heart for my least favourite rom-heat-designation, “closed-bedroom-door,” have discovered another historical romance autobuy.
Reading Matthews’s The Work Of Art, I was pleasantly surprised, often delighted, definitely engaged, and intellectually stimulated. In a nutshell, for the most part, I loved it. The play on the heroine as a “work of art,” the “My Last Duchess” allusions, and the tropish-goodness of marriage-of-convenience drove me to request the title. What kept me reading, however, was everything Matthews did with it. The premise in and of itself is compelling: zoophilic, penniless, and orphaned heroine, Miss Phyllida Satterthwaite, is brought to London by her uncle and heir to her beloved grandfather’s estate, Mr. Edgar Townsend, to début and put on the aristocratic Regency ton’s marriage mart. A generous gesture on his part, perhaps. But Philly is a deeply introverted young woman who prefers walking her dogs (various injured and decrepit strays she rescued over the years), reading, playing pianoforte, over balls and gossip. She finds a kindred spirit in one of her uncle’s guests, the hermetic former soldier, Captain Arthur Heywood, beloved second son, who keeps his own counsel, and still suffers physical and emotional war wounds.
I 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.
It’s been another super-busy work month, but I have three books going and Molly Fader’s McAvoy Sisters Book of Secrets is the first I finished. Thanks to a compelling last third, I left the others idling on the nightstand. In the course of reading Fader’s novel, I decided I will no longer scoff at women’s fiction. No, I haven’t been converted to its smarmy, inward-looking, self-absorbed protagonists, or its not-without-my-daughter obsession with mother-child relationships, of no interest to me whatsoever — merely that, in the hands of a beloved writer, even a genre pandering to privileged women, can be redeemed and — gasp, enjoyed and celebrated. Molly Fader is, as you may know, one of my most beloved romance writers, Molly O’Keefe, whom I’ve been reading since she wrote categories! One of my favourite and I think most masterful contemporary romance series, Crooked Creek Ranch, was penned by O’Keefe (if you haven’t read it, address this stat). There was enough of the O’Keefe edge and intensity of emotion that I found in the romances to make me happy-reader-sigh through The McAvoy Sisters. And enough love interest to make me yearn for more … but I’ll take it. 😉 Continue reading