REVIEW: “Monica McCarty’s THE HUNTER: Or Two Mules for Sister Jenna”

The Hunter is Monica McCarty’s seventh Highland Guards novel and a solid read. McCarty is obviously enamoured of Scottish history; this comes through in the novel, as well as the extensive and interesting afterword. Miss Bates abandoned reading McCarty’s work after gorging on her Campbell trilogy and the first of the series, The Chief. Miss Bates enjoyed this one too, but had no desire to fill in the blanks between The Chief and The Hunter. Why? It has to do with McCarty’s love of Scottish history. After reading The Hunter, she noted McCarty’s strengths, but also pinpointed her weakness: McCarty loves her history more than her romance. Her historical research is interesting and fresh; her romance, on the other hand, is formulaic, effective but written to type. Miss Bates always learns something from McCarty; while she enjoys her hero and heroine and their journey to their HEA, she can’t help feeling that she’s read something similar in previous books. Her formula is a winning one, but it is a formula nevertheless.

What can McCarty consistently deliver? A competently written, well-paced romance novel, with the right balance of history, passion, endearing if one-dimensional characters, nasty villains, and a suspenseful build-up to a halcyon conclusion. A winning formula, yes? In this case, her interest in Scottish history focuses on the role that monastic couriers played in the establishment of King Robert Bruce in 14th century Scotland.

Her heroine, Sister Jenna, is a courier, though she has not actually taken the veil. She is Janet of Mar, a noblewoman disguised as a nun, working for Bruce as an intelligence agent on the English side of the border. Her hero, Ewen Lamont, is a member of Bruce’s elite Highland guard, on a mission to return Janet to her family and Bruce’s court. When Ewen finds himself attracted to the nun, not only does he have a serious case of libidinal frustration, but his Catholic conscience is in shambles! This part of the novel was quite charming and reminded Miss Bates of a beloved film, Two Mules for Sister Sarah, with a sexy, pre-Dirty-Harry Clint Eastwood and an unlikely nun in Shirley MacLaine. Amidst stealth and danger, with Janet’s disguise eventually compromised, these two fall in lust. It is charming, heart-stirring lust and the physical sparks between them are fun to read.

McCarty didn’t leave these two lusting and challenging the English, she wanted internal conflict driving a wedge between them. She gave Ewen some daddy issues, a daddy dissipated and wild. Ewen wants to be responsible, honourable, and dispassionate. He’s got quite a ways to fall as he struggles with conscience, honour, and his loyalty to the king to bring this noblewoman back to her family and king in tact. Ewen wants to do the right thing so much that he hurts Janet in the process. Janet’s block to her HEA, on the other hand, rings false. She loves Ewen, wants Ewen, but will not give up her work, or her independence to a man. Miss Bates has no doubt that intelligent women of the Middle Ages might have questioned their inferior status, might have yearned to be something more than what their societies afforded them. Nevertheless, Janet’s consideration of these issues makes her sound distinctly contemporary and renders McCarty’s novel anachronistic. The lady just simply “doth protest too much” to make her a viable historical figure.  That Ewen comes to recognize Janet’s competence, intelligence, and usefulness, but still wants to protect her is more believable. What isn’t? The Disney-esque, castle turrets and all, ending.  You’re better off not reading the epilogue, but don’t neglect the fascinating afterward.

In the end, Miss Bates enjoyed this novel, though she was nonplussed by the anachronistic heroine. McCarty delivers, and you’ll get exactly what you expect: nicely paced plotting, admirable hero and heroine who grow to love and respect each other. This is a very competent, enjoyable romance novel that’ll blend in with every other one you’ve read by her. McCarty is not interested in breaking any molds, or asking any questions of the genre. Sometimes Miss Bates wishes she’d try her hand at a contemporary, set in Scotland of course, but a novel where she can maybe let her emancipated heroine run freer.

Miss Bates was moderately pleased and renders a verdict of “tolerable comfort.” Mansfield Park

The Hunter was made available to Miss Bates as an e-ARC from Ballantine Books via Netgalley. It will be released on June 25th and available in the usual places and formats.

REVIEW: “Susanna Fraser’s THE SERGEANT’S LADY: Love Across the Class Divide”

“Let me not to the marriage of true minds/Admit impediments” is key to appreciating Fraser’s début novel. The Shakespearean sonnet’s opening line, quoted in the novel, points to the external and internal obstacles impeding the hero and heroine’s HEA. First and foremost, Sergeant Will Atkins and Anna Arringtons’s romance is impeded by class: Will is a soldier, an NCO, son of an innkeeper and Anna is a wealthy widowed heiress and niece to an earl.  Their social status is solidly internalized; they are creatures of their time and place. They initially recognize these impediments as impossible to overcome, despite the love they share,  and act accordingly and realistically.

As with every neophyte writer, Fraser is guilty of several bumps along the road to Will and Anna’s HEA; overall, however, this is a lovely little novel. It doesn’t break any romantic narrative moulds, but tells a solid story with likeable, believable characters, develops setting and mood, and stays true to its historical context. It provides some lovely dialogue, builds tension around their attraction, and weaves their growing friendship and affection with well-rendered love scenes.

One bump that Fraser’s novel exhibits is a slow start. It took Miss Bates ten chapters to warm to the story and another three before she felt the love. Fraser’s research into the historical context of the novel is to her credit. She obviously knows and loves her Napoleonic Era and sets Will and Ann in the midst of the British campaign, with Wellington’s army, against the French in 1811-12 Spain. How else to bring these two together? Considering the cross-class nature of their love affair, she has to bring them out of normal circumstances into unusual ones. The out-of-the-norm setting of wartime allows them to meet, if not as equals. Unfortunately, Fraser takes so long to bring us to this point that Miss Bates was tempted to leave the novel half-finished.

The other bump that is evident in Fraser’s novel is the cardboard villains, not only problematic vis-à-vis characterisation, but implicating her plotting. As with most début authors, there is too much plot. When we meet Anna, she is married to a cad who has humiliated her, wrongly accused her of adultery, and made her sexuality a thing of shame. Fraser conveniently does away with him and has Anna deciding to return to England via Lisbon, under Sergeant Atkins’s protection and escort. In the meantime, Fraser introduces a new character, a George Montmorency, whose description hints at later villainy. Unfortunately, his villainy doesn’t make an appearance till the last three chapters of the novel, leaving him dangling without purpose. On their way to Lisbon, Will, Anna, and the wounded convoy they accompany are captured by French troops, whose commander then tries to rape Anna. Will comes to the rescue and they escape from their captors. Their journey back to the British forces turns this slow-moving novel into an excellent road romance.

The strength of this novel clearly begins at chapter thirteen when the enforced intimacy of the journey back to the British Army allows Will and Anna to get to know each other, like each other, laugh together, work together to survive, and fall in love. It also gives them, and the reader, heartfelt love scenes. All the while, Fraser manages to evoke time and place and never relinquish the reality of the class divide that separates them or the danger that surrounds them. The final line of chapter thirteen echoes this beautifully, “And outside of this haven of solitude, the world would not allow Anna Arrington, sister of Viscount Selsley, niece to the Earl of Dunmalcolm and heiress to one hundred thousand pounds, to have anything to do with Will Atkins, sergeant and son of an innkeeper. Tonight was all they could have.” This is quite a feat for a début author and Miss Bates is very glad that she didn’t abandon the novel. She is equally glad that Ms Fraser has another two novels in this series that Miss Bates has yet to enjoy and … though she’s sworn off novellas, a soon-to-be-published historical novella centred around an inter-racial couple.

Another strength to this novel, post-chapter-thirteen, are Will and Anna. Will is, at first, too good to be true, too “knight-in-shining-armor.” These are not terribly original qualities in a hero; of course, a hero is strong and honourable, etc., but what won Miss Bates over is Will’s humility. Humility is a rare, but much more interesting, quality in a hero than the usual alpha-male arrogance; Fraser makes Will humble and manly. Will is in awe of Anna, not of her money or title, but her beauty, strength, and resilience. He can’t believe his luck in capturing her heart, but he knows his place and respects the way of the world from which they hail. Anna too is worthy of our admiration; she is everything that Will sees in her and more, for she also loves unconditionally and fiercely and is first to recognize that she and Will, despite their class differences, belong together. Again, Ms Fraser has some trouble letting go of her characters and the end drags, less so than the start, but the insertion of the third “bad guy” definitely makes the novel’s near-end melodramatic. Will and Ann and the reader endure quite a lengthy separation, but Ms Fraser manages to bring our hero and heroine together in a very original way, even while miles apart! Their HEA, when it finally arrives, is convincing, romantic, and poignant. As with the best romance novels, the characters experience growth and their HEA is the well earned result of it.

Though bumpy in places, Miss Bates came to have affection and respect for this romance novel. Will and Anna are eminently loveable, the history and romance very nicely balanced, the hero and heroine products of their time and place but still individuals, and the happy-ever-after bespeaks of shared love, family, and adventure.

Miss Bates is quite content with her read and endows Ms Fraser and her début with being, “almost pretty.” Northanger Abbey

The Sergeant’s Lady is available digitally at the usual places. It was published by Carina Press in 2010.

REVIEW: “Charlotte Lamb’s HOT BLOOD: Passion/Dispassion”

Miss Bates was fascinated by Lamb’s Hot Blood and all that it implied, but she didn’t love it. She couldn’t embrace it as one would a beloved stuffy, a comfort read, a well-worn volume on the keeper shelf. It is a cat, sleek, mysterious, interesting, but definitely not cuddly, or warm. It engaged her and made her think about what defines inspirational romance.

Miss Bates reads, reviews, and enjoys inspirational romance, but has been dissatisfied by its definition and parameters. Inspirational romance is denominationally defined. (The no sex, no alcohol rule is also found in many “sweet” romances. None of these things in the hands of a master writer will detract from the creation of a deeply moving, interesting romantic narrative.) What inspirational romance lacks is plurality.

After reading Hot Blood, Miss Bates would argue two things: first, that inspirational romance and its readers would benefit from an expansion of their delineations; two, romance novels in general, non “inspirational” ones, like Hot Blood, would benefit from being examined through the lens of their religious implications.

Hot Blood was the final volume in Lamb’s “Sins” series and a fascinating concept. Hot Blood, Miss Bates thought in the course of her reading, is inspirational romance, though niche publishers and readers of the genre as described above would not recognize it as such. There is no God talk, and none of its characters practice any religion. Yet, it emerges with a theologically correct position, for want of better words. The key to understanding and appreciating this is evident in Lamb’s characterization; what matters in looking at the novel through this lens is not who these people are, but how do their instinctive selves behave. What do their bodies do as they are overwhelmed by emotions? What makes Lamb’s novel a romance with religious implications is a turning away from the passions, the “hot blood” of the title, to a movement, for the characters, towards “dispassion.” In the romance novel as envisioned by Lamb, this is a movement away from eros and towards agape.

There isn’t much to the plot of this novel; yet, certain unusual elements drew Miss Bates to it. The hero and heroine are in their fifties and they’re sexy as hell. Kit Randall is divorced and a grandmother; her lover, Liam Keble is a widower and grandfather. They’ve been lovers for two years. When the novel opens, they are estranged because Kit wants to marry, but Liam is commitment-shy. There are secondary love interests, Joe Ingram and Cary Burnaby respectively, who exacerbate the main couple’s volatile relationship. Though there is no physical or verbal abuse in this novel, these two seethe with rage, hatred, and jealousy. Note some of the language and imagery Lamb used to describe her characters and build an argument which privileges dispassion over passion:

Kit’s eyes are, “wide, glittering and sharp like shards of broken green glass in sunlight.” (7)

When Kit sees Liam, “She looked at him with love and anger, wanting to smack him hard.” (32)

When Liam confronts Kit about being seen with Joe, “his tone [is] as cutting as a knife going through silk,” and “he bit out like someone snapping cotton between their teeth.” (35) (The grammatical error in that last one grates.)

In just a few pages, note how physical responses represent their extreme emotions: “Are you dating Joe Ingram to stick a knife in me?” and “His voice was angry” and “Face burning, she angrily said,” and “His mouth twisted cynically” and “She bristled, glaring at him” and “she asked in pain” and “His eyes flashed; she felt the violence seething behind his face and tensed” and “her face clenched in misery and anger.” (44 – 47)

As emotions reach feverish intensity, Lamb pens Miss Bates’s favourite little passage describing one of Kit and Liam’s many confrontations, “Across the table their eyes met, like the eyes of deadly enemies with drawn swords between them” (112). These characters are out of control, their passions, or “hot blood,” rule/rules them, so much that their arguments take on a force “as if they had been fighting physically instead of verbally.

One of the ways in which Lamb intensifies the tension between the protagonists is by making Liam’s actions and reactions a mystery to Kit. (Indeed, Miss Bates enjoys this also in Betty Neels’s romances.) The hero is a closed room to the heroine. By staying strictly in the heroine’s consciousness, without accessing the hero’s, the hero holds as much mystery to the reader as he does to the heroine. Note the following passage from Hot Blood: “Yet Liam was still mysterious to her, his responses and emotions as indecipherable as some ancient script scratched on a primitive artefact. You could sometimes make out a line here or there, but the meaning of the whole defeated you. In fact, she was sure that he did not want her to know too much about him” (42). Miss Bates thinks that this is what makes the alpha hero, a hero whose motivations remain mysterious. He remains mysterious, unknowable, other.

As our protagonists boil and seethe and clench their teeth and turn red, even “fuchsia” for poor Kit, as their tempers run rampant and burst out of them uncontrollably, Lamb places her novel squarely in the inspirational camp, establishing an argument for dispassion. Passion puts these characters in a hellish realm. Indeed, the character who speaks for dispassion is none other than Liam’s foil, Joe Ingram, a war photographer who has witnessed what the rule of the passions brings to humanity. He says to Kit, ” ‘I want to believe in things again — in innocence and goodness and kindness. And people. Most of all, I want to like people and believe in them, without getting laughed at for my gullibility. I wanted to get up in the morning without being afraid that before I went to bed again I’d see people being blown apart or tortured or raped’ ” (87). “Hot blood” is outside of the rational, outside of attaining Joe’s “innocence and goodness and kindness.”

Lamb puts sexual passion in that realm too when she writes about Liam and Kit’s reconciliation in their love-making as, “her blood had begun to run like wildfire through her veins” (156). When Liam finally reveals the reason he was reluctant to marry, even though he loved Kit and was eaten by jealousy over her friendship with Joe, it involves “hot blood,” a traumatic experience he lived through with his wife (trying to avoid a spoiler here). “Hot blood” makes a character weak because he/she is not in control of him/herself. Anger, jealousy, lust, these are the passions that beset our protagonists and only dispassion can set them free to love, to be good to each other, to be kind to each other. When Kit and Liam finally come to this loving point, Kit in particular does so as a rational being in full control of her will and heart; her love for Liam and his for her is genuine, freely chosen and given, and will lead to a shared life of loving equals, “it had come at last in a mood of warm contentment, a shared happiness, not in the hot blood of their lovemaking” (188). Agape over eros, dispassion over passion.

This is a provocative and interesting read. In rendering her judgement, Miss Bates must look to Miss Austen’s own propensity for dispassion in creating/critiquing her most pro-passion heroine, Emma, when she described her thus, “A mind lively and at ease.”

(If you’d like to read Hot Blood and Miss Bates recommends that you do, it is available digitally, or used at the usual places. It was published in 1996 by Harlequin. Miss Bates picked it up for pennies at a church bazaar because the hero and heroine on the cover are grey-haired and the coverlet on the bed is kitschy.)

REVIEW: “Manda Collins’s THE PERKS OF BEING A BEAUTY: Contrite Mean Girl Gets Her Man”

Miss Bates hasn’t recovered from her snark regarding novellas, so don’t expect her to make nice in this review. Even though The Perks of Being a Beauty is better written and better all-around than The Misbehaving Marquess and Hot Under the Collar, Miss Bates is even less enamoured of the novella than in her previous reviews. Collins is in firm control of the form here; she doesn’t let the plot take over from the romance. She maintains a nice balance of character and narrative. Her transgression comes in the form of backstory; because Perks follows from her Ugly Ducklings series and centres on the bully-girl in those books, she provides a lot of filler to help the reader understand the heroine and how she arrived at this point in her life.  After the first few chapters set up the love story, backstory takes over and makes for tedious reading. Therein lies the problem that Miss Bates has discussed before: because these novellas come from an understandable desire to sell an upcoming series or bolster a previous one, authors write them as marketing fodder, which should not diminish what is a pleasant read. So is blanc-mange … and even though Miss Bates is a 19th century spinster who often partakes of blanc-mange, she still prefers a cake-pop.

Amelia Snowe is the mean girl brought low by circumstance and a desire to make amends for her former nastiness. Her mother’s death has left her destitute and debt-ridden, working as a debutante’s companion in the bosom of an up-and-coming nouveau riche family, the Smithsons. Our hero, Quentin Fortescue, younger son of an aristocrat, Amelia’s childhood sweetheart and rejected suitor, reunites with Amelia when he attends the Smithsons’ house-party. Quentin’s addition to the party makes for an odd number of men and Amelia is recruited to “make up the numbers,” much to the chagrin of her haughty and resentful mistress, Mrs. Smithson. When straws are picked for partners in the scavenger hunt, of course Amelia and Quentin are thrown together. Here is another problem that Miss Bates finds with the novella: because length does not allow for a natural development of the romance, coincidence reigns and coincidence does not make  for convincing characterization or interesting plot.  Expediency seems the best an author can do under the circumstances.

One of the initial strengths of this novella, unfortunately not sustained, is the honest and open conversation between the re-united sweethearts. What is less convincing is the habit of authors, like Collins here, to endow their historical characters with modern sensibilities. Though it’s obvious that Quentin is attracted to her and willing to take up where they left off, Amelia resolves that she doesn’t want him. Let’s be realistic: why would a young woman of straitened circumstances, whose future holds nothing more than a journey from one genteel but menial job to another, reject a young, healthy, handsome and rich man? Though some reviewers have disliked Grant’s upcoming A Woman Entangled for the heroine’s mercenary attitude, it makes perfect sense to Miss Bates, all the more so when one considers her own straitened circumstances and spinster status.

Quentin is a lovely hero, forgiving, generous, and even more possessed of a modern sensibility. He is as much hero as psychologist, nursing Amelia through her self-hatred, even while making love to her (which, by the way, they do without thought for reputation or consequences, such as, well, pregnancy). When Quentin learns of the extent of Amelia’s bullying behaviour, he recognizes how she’s been trying to amend for it through reparation to those she wronged and by being a loving and nurturing companion to her ward. He is a dear when he soothes her self-recrimination thus, ” … you had no one to rely upon. And that made you a little … hard.” In lines such as these, you can see where Collins’s strength lies. Does this novella do it justice?

Miss Bates would say, these snippets of goodness are not enough to render a rating of more than “Tolerable comfort.” Mansfield Park (Collins’s novella is available on June 18, 2013)

As for the novella trend, Miss Bates is not pleased and joins Mr. Knightly in saying, “It was badly done, indeed.” Emma (Miss Bates thanks her readers for their forebearance as she spouted snark regarding novellas. She promises not to repeat the activity, unless you enjoyed it, in which case, let her know. She has plenty snark left over.)

This honest review was made possible thanks to a courtesy ARC from St. Martin’s Press via Netgalley.

REVIEW: “Leigh LaValle’s THE MISBEHAVING MARQUESS: Ain’t Misbehaving”

These days, says Miss Bates, romance novellas are like samples at the Costco: a delectation of good things to come, if you’re willing to dish out for a lifetime supply of candied ginger. Thus, Miss Bates has come to feel manipulated by the novella (she’s got one more to review and then she’s swearing off … ), even LaValle’s Marquess, which she enjoyed. Now, Miss Bates does not want to detract from the review at hand, which is a fairly positive one, but the romance novella, such as it is, annoys her. Why can’t publishers stand behind a stand-alone? Why does every romance novel spawn a series? Why does every series have a novella launch, or bridge between two longer books, such as this one?

To start, this marquess hasn’t misbehaved; he has merely pouted … a lot. The marquess, Jamie Forster, has been in a snit for five years because he thought that his wife, Cat, betrayed him mere weeks after their marriage. Even though she’s sworn up and down that she did not, immaturity and hurt pride ensued nevertheless. He nursed his amour-propre in parts unknown until making his appearance in the opening chapter in the marchioness’s sitting-room.

For five years, Cat has been holed up on this country estate, atoning for her non-sin by saving widows and their children from the workhouse. She is renovating cottages in which to house them and building a lace factory to provide work. She’s grown up; she’s changed. Jamie has as well; though he still harbors some hurt, he recognizes that his actions were hasty and immature. He sets out to win his wife back. Cat rightly wavers. Even though she still loves him, can she forgive and trust him? Ah, the marquess eats humble pie to redeem himself. He also bears gifts from his travels that would warm any woman’s heart, or in this case, thaw it.

This story was quite enjoyable. The prose was fairly smooth, a trifle overly impassioned in places, but it read with relative ease. It didn’t break any moulds, or enthral Miss Bates, but it didn’t jar either. Jamie and Cat are likeable and their hurt feelings make sense. LaValle handled the perimeters of the novella’s shorter length well and made the romance front and centre, unlike Miss Bates’s previous read (see her review of Jackie Barbosa’s Hot Under the Collar). She conveyed Cat’s and Jamie’s hurt and love and anger convincingly. She also developped their growing desire to release the hurt and anger in order to forgive each other, love each other, and give their marriage a second-chance. Miss Bates loves a second-chance romance.

In the end, however (Miss Bates picks up the snark again), LaValle’s novella is serviceable. It tells a nice story about two likeable people learning to forgive each other their wrongs and admit their love. By all means, read it; it is a pleasant way to while away an hour. And an hour is about as long as you’ll remember it after you’re done. (LaValle’s novella previously appeared in the anthology Three Weddings And A Funeral.)

Miss Bates would read one of Ms LaValle’s romance novels on the basis of this sampling, but for this diminutive effort, she can only say, “Tolerable comfort.” Mansfield Park

This honest review is the result of an e-novella offered by Heart Bay Publishing via Netgalley.

REVIEW: “Jackie Barbosa’s HOT UNDER THE COLLAR: Casting Stones at the Vicar Hero”

Miss Bates struggled with this novella, alternating liking and disliking it. The prose is polished and smooth; the story, reminiscent of 19th century novels like Trollope’s, except it’s set in 1803 and contains hot love scenes. The fact that the hero of this novella is a vicar makes for interestingly liberal Christian ethics, but the romance is a failure. It pales next to other more interesting aspects. The characters, especially the hero, Walter Langston, the fallen woman, Artemisia Finch, the townspeople of Grange-Over-Sands, their dilemmas, their quarrels are more engaging than the romance, as if Barbosa wanted to write about those things instead of torrid love scenes and a cardboard villain.

The plot of this novella is straightforward. Walter Langston, third son of a viscount, ignominiously injured in the army, unwilling to live on the charity of his older brothers, takes the position of vicar in a small English town. Among his parishioners is the beautiful Artemisia Finch, fallen woman and town outcast. At 16, Artemisia slept with the local aristocratic bad boy, who got her pregnant, sullied her reputation by claiming that she’d slept with other men, and abandoned her. She lost her baby and left for London where she became a highly paid courtesan.  Now, she’s returned to nurse her ill father. Walter takes one look at Artemisia and determines to make her his.

Walter is a very sympathetic character, one who matures and finds purpose as the novella progresses. He recognizes the injustice done to Artemisia and embarks on a campaign to win her, as well as reconcile her with the town. There is a lovely scene where he openly calls on her, setting the example of Christian charity for the townspeople. She is lonely, isolated, and suspicious. He offers friendship. How refreshing, how lovely, how original, thought Miss Bates … above all, our vicar hero is kind. When he turns into alpha-vicar and yanks her to him and kisses her … Miss Bates thought, “Badly done.”

In several excellent scenes, Walter ministers to the townspeople, comforting, reassuring, and counselling them. In the process of doing so, Walter realizes that a sense of purpose had been missing from his life. He found it in this last-resort position of town vicar. As he states at the end, “All his life, Walter wondered what was wrong with him. Why he could find … no pursuit that engaged him … But now he understood.” By going through the motions of being a vicar, already by temperament a kind and charitable person, Walter becomes the very thing he took on so lightly and cavalierly. His journey is believable and engaging. His journey is so believable and engaging that the romance plays second fiddle to it. In the end, the love scenes are not moving, or interesting, or as subversive as Barbosa hoped. The romance doesn’t interest us as much as the individual fates of our hero and heroine. Maybe the shorter form of the novella didn’t give the romance much room to develop convincingly. We are not invested in it, whereas we are invested in Walter’s journey to acceptance and maturity. This is a novella of many interesting ideas, but not much feeling.

Miss Bates is enamoured of the vicar, but not his hotness and says, “Tolerable comfort.” Mansfield Park

This honest review is the result of an e-novella provided by Circe Press via Netgalley.

REVIEW: “Cecilia Grant’s A WOMAN ENTANGLED: Or How Jane Austen’s EMMA Triumphed”

Oh, Cecilia Grant, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” With a nod to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, it is what came to mind as Miss Bates closed Grant’s best novel yet, A Woman Entangled. She considers A Lady Awakened and A Gentleman Undone two of the most original and interesting romance novels she’s read. A Woman Entangled is great, less alienating, gentler too. Grant has you reconsider figures such as Samuel Richardson, Jane Austen especially, Mary Wollstonecraft, et. al.. She connects what she does in her novel squarely in the romance genre’s “founders” (and detractors?) and other literary influences. This does not make for a dry romance novel. It is great: memorable, witty, engaging, and heart-wrenching.

Grant’s novels are structured on the basis of one premise: putting her characters in a quandary. This allows her to focus on the most important literary element of the romance novel, characterization. Grant’s premise has been one where the heroine navigates the economic, legal, and social givens of her society. It relies on illuminating and critiquing questions of class and status. In A Lady Awakened, Martha contends with a woman’s inability to retain her deceased husband’s property. In A Gentleman Undone, Will and Lydia are both in straitened circumstances; however, Will is in this position because of honour and obligation. It is a free choice. Lydia’s dilemma, on the other hand, is darker, uglier, desperate. In A Woman Entangled, hero and heroine are caught in a similar dilemma: the desire to restore their families’ reputations. This binds them in friendship, but prevents them from acknowledging their love. Their marriage would result in thwarting their ambitions. Even when they’re willing to admit their feelings, they recognize the impossibility of their union in light of their aspirations.

Kate Westbrook hopes a society marriage will restore her family’s reputation, lost when her father married her actress-mother. Their family friend, Nick Blackshear, has the same mission, his family’s reputation shattered when his younger brother married a courtesan. To this end, Kate cultivates her father’s estranged sister-in-law, Lady Harringdon. When Lady Harringdon summons her, Kate is hopeful that her sponsorship will open society’s doors and lead to a respectable marriage, thus ensuring her siblings’ future. Kate’s father, suspicious of the ton’s Lotharios, asks Nick to watch over her. This proximity forces Nick to reconsider Kate’s rejection of his former suit (oh yes, there’s lovely history there!). It rekindles his love and desire for her, improbable as they are. Kate too harbours feelings she is unwilling to admit. Huis clos. Circumstance and obligation bring them close and the pull of attraction, friendship, desire, and love will leave no room for either to make a marriage of convenience.

We are introduced to Kate at a lending library. She holds a copy of Pride and Prejudice. She ruminates on the novel, dismissing Lizzy Bennett’s refusal of Darcy’s first proposal as impractical, even foolish. Kate is pragmatic. She self-identifies as an anti-Lizzy, content to settle for wealth, comfort, and status. In the end, however, it is a conversation with her blue-stocking sister, Viola, about Austen’s Emma, that helps Kate realize the importance of friendship and a love match, such as she would enjoy with Nick. It is Austen who helps her make up her mind about Nick, Austen who urges her to listen to her heart, not to compromise, to live honestly and openly with her deepest desires.

We meet Nick in court, an ambitious lawyer, pondering the likes of Blackstone, Goldsmith, Donne, Fielding, and a variety of law reformers. Nick yearns for a place in history as a barrister and parliamentarian. He yearns for the respect of his peers, a reward for his talent and work ethic. Kate, in turn, yearns for a place as a society wife. Marriage to each other would not alter their status, or serve their ambitions.

In the end, however, Nick and Kate are worthy of our love because they are essentially good people who love their families. They are worthy of our admiration because they have integrity. At the eleventh hour, they are honest about their feelings. They dismiss society’s hypocrisy and choose to live honestly, even though it means their life together will be spent on the fringe. But, maybe not … Grant describes a society in flux, the rigid hierarchies of early 19th century English society giving way to the stirrings of radical social change. This gives hope to Nick and Kate, but does not matter to them as much as it originally did. They’ve done some growing up since then.

The conclusion to this novel is one of sheer happiness, hope, contentment, friendship, acceptance, and forgiveness.  How they reach it is all the pleasure of this novel. Read it. Grant’s novel posits the triumph of desire over intellect, heart over will, and love over pragmatism. It is a romantic, love- and life-affirming vision and a novel not to be missed. Grant takes her place in the romance novel canon alongside Heyer, Chase, and Balogh. Her novels are complex, beautifully written, conscious of their place in a tradition, original, moving, and a breath of fresh air in the miasma of derivative romance.

Miss Bates is so very pleased and says, “You have bewitched me.” Pride and Prejudice

A Woman Entangled is available June 25th.

This honest review was made possible thanks to a generous e-ARC from Random House/Bantam via Netgalley.

REVIEW: “Jessica Hart’s WE’LL ALWAYS HAVE PARIS: A Marriage of Mind & Heart”

Miss Bates has a crise de coeur when she starts a Jessica Hart novel. Could it be that she’s fallen into … gasp … chick lit? The beginning of Hart’s novels is deceptively frivolous. When Promoted: to Wife & Mother (a fave of Miss Bates’s) opens, the hero and heroine are attending a corporate conference on personality types. Silly. When We’ll Always Have Paris opens, the heroine is trying to convince the hero to star in a reality show she’s producing, Romance: Fact or Fiction?  Kitschy. But Hart’s novels do not end as they begin, do not remain in “frivolous” territory for long. Hart doesn’t tarry before she brings her characters from flat to full, from two dimensions to three, consistently increasing the reader’s sympathy and liking for them.

Hart cleverly plays with allusion to popular film, the title itself an echo of Casablanca; the narrative, analogous to The Sound of Music. (There are moments of screwball comedy reminiscent of Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby.) The hero and heroine of Hart’s novel, Clara and Simon, enact the story of Maria and Capt. Von Trapp. This gives the novel tongue-in-cheek charm and novelty. Hart establishes Clara’s  light-heartedness and joie de vivre and Simon’s dourness through their clothing: Clara meets Simon in a fuchsia mini-dress and purple heels; he is dressed soberly in blue, or grey throughout. Clara is a TV producer, a purveyor of fantasy; Simon is an economist, grounded in hard economic reality and fact. Hart machinates some less than stellar coincidences forcing Simon onto Clara’s show. But when the star opposite Simon bails on the production, Clara has to step in and sparks fly. What ensues is a debate, embodied in witty dialogue, between the heart, Clara, and the mind, Simon; between fantasy and romance, Clara, and reality and pragmatism, Simon.

If Miss Bates claims that Hart brings her characters from flat to full, how does Hart accomplish this in light of the “allegorical” nature of her novel as described in the previous paragraph? Hart fleshes out her hero and heroine by filling in their lives previous to the meet cute. Their present demeanours mask the pain of their pasts. In Simon’s case, this means a spendthrift dad, who died and left the family destitute, and a mom as romantic and blithe as … well, Clara. Simon shudders to think how alike Clara and his mum are. Clara’s singing, dancing, and romantic sensibility hide a heart bruised, broken, and irreparable from a relationship where the love of her life, Matt, left her for the high school sweetheart.

The other interesting though less successful aspect of the novel is Hart’s use of setting. Clara’s reality show situates the debate of Romance: Fact or Fiction in location shooting in some very romantic places: Paris, the Caribbean, the Scottish Highlands. Setting acts as foil or partner to the debate between romance attainable and sustainable, or in fact!, a spectre soon dispelled by practical reality. How Clara and Simon arrive at a compromise and fall in love is wonderfully depicted through their dialogue. The frequent shifts in setting are less successful, resulting in a novel that does not flow, is episodic, and leaves annoying gaps in the narrative.

Miss Bates can’t believe she’s stating this, considering her spinsterish ways, but the absence of detailed love scenes is unappealing. Miss Bates reads inspirational romance, devoid of any love-making scenes, and quite enjoys it; detailed love scenes are not essential to portray the connection between hero and heroine. However, in this case, the closed-door “policy” of this category of romance diminished the love story. Maybe the severe hero and carefree heroine would have had yet more depth by a depiction of their love-making? Miss Bates is uncertain, unable to express what she means, but has a niggling feeling about this.

In the end, this is a strong little novel. Hart has humour, clever use of allusion to classic film, especially the beloved Sound of Music, smooth writing, witty dialogue, a tongue-in-cheek awareness of the genre, and the theme of love’s healing possibility. There is a lovely reversal at the end of the novel: Clara’s dans la lune romanticism gives way to practicalities and rueful awareness of the true nature of love in Simon’s steady, faithful presence and support, and Simon’s sober and utilitarian realism gives way to a grand romantic gesture (worthy of the closing scene of Pretty Woman) and the realization that complementarity is the cement of a relationship and not compatibility.

Miss Bates, despite her quibbles, did enjoy this romance novel, and says, “Almost pretty.” Northanger Abbey

REVIEW: “Tonya Burrows’s SEAL Of Honour: Action Heroes and Damsels In Distress”

Burrows’s soon-to-be-released début, SEAL  Of Honour, is action-packed, well-paced, and entertaining. It is also raw, crude, caricaturish in its characterization and cartoonish in its ethics. The writing is uneven, typical of the newbie writer, but improves as the novel progresses. It doesn’t break any ground, or say anything new about the genre. Even though it is not to Miss Bates’s taste, it was obviously written with commitment and heart. Ms Burrows loved her story and characters and this comes through. It disturbed Miss Bates’s sensibilities in places, but it is genuine and engaging, reminiscent of a good action flick with accompanying romantic interest. Good for a sleepy, rainy Sunday afternoon curled up on the couch.

In principle, SEAL Of Honour, is simple: good guys, former SEALS turned rescue team for kidnap victims, extract the heroine’s brother who was kidnapped by unsavoury ones in Colombia. The love story happens between the stalwart leader of this motley crew, injured and retired SEAL Gabe Bristow, and the victim’s sister, free-spirited artist Audrey Van Amee. They fall in lust, then love, are taken hostage, shot, beaten, abused in sundry ways by such a variety of bad guys that Miss Bates had trouble keeping track of them. Like an Indiana Jones film, after a while this didn’t matter. The action sequences swept her along and just when things reached an idyllic point for hero and heroine, bad guys reared their ugly heads again and again … were foiled again and again …   until the true happy ending was enacted.  A neat and entertaining package, if that’s what you’re looking for.

Miss Bates made a point of saying this novel was not her cuppa and she needs to back that up. To start, Burrows’s novel had passages of awkward writing, stilted dialogue, and convoluted plotting. One of the things that Miss Bates loves about romantic suspense novels is that hero and heroine are motivated by honour and integrity. What she doesn’t love about them, and this comes through loud and clear in this novel, is the glorification of vigilante justice and passionate and acrobatic love scenes in circumstances where that would be the last thing on anyone’s mind. The superhuman ability to enact lustful scenes, especially when hero and/or heroine are injured or beaten is ludicrous. This is especially evident in SEAL Of Honour. Miss Bates was also nonplussed by love scenes that were crude and … well, a trifle too clinical for her taste.

One loves one’s heroes larger-than-life, yes, but these guys sound like their muscles are blown up using a bicycle pump. The heroine is harder to pinpoint: her characterization is uneven. Initially, she is supposed to be free-spirited and fey, but comes across as puerile and immature, calling the hero “numb nuts” and “grumpy butt”! As the writing improves, she does too: she is honest and forthcoming about her physical and emotional needs and this was refreshing to read. A heroine who is not coy, or strident. It’s unfortunate that she’s constantly weeping: read it, you’ll see what Miss Bates means. Miss Bates is circumspect about crying a river, but then Miss Bates isn’t a free-spirited artiste! The violence in this novel is over-the-top and Miss Bates had a hard time reading certain scenes. If you like that kind of thing though, you’ll definitely enjoy this book.

Burrows’s SEAL Of Honour doesn’t break any ground, or do anything more than a good Cindy Gerard novel does. It doesn’t reach the goodness of the early Suzanne Brockmann, but it’s entertaining and will keep your interest, if you can stomach it.

Miss Bates is a tad displeased and may not come calling here again, but she does say, “Tolerable comfort.” Mansfield Park

This review was made possible by a generous e-ARC from Entangled Publishing via Netgalley.

REVIEW: “Allie Pleiter’s HOMEFRONT HERO: Casting Off the Old Adam”

Allie Pleiter’s Homefront Hero is a gem. Pleiter wields the strict parameters of the category and inspirational romance like a sonnet in the hands of the Bard. If inspies aren’t your thing, this lovely little book may change your mind. This is one of the best romance novels I’ve read in a sea of uninspired ones!

What does Pleiter accomplish? Because this is an accomplished book. She depicts established and burgeoning faith as something living, breathing, elemental, and essential to a full life.  She does so without preaching, only weaving her characters’ faith effortlessly into the narrative in a believable and moving way. In her hero and heroine, she creates two loveable, sympathetic, and flawed individuals. She makes history come alive with detail and atmosphere without over-riding the plot or the romance. She makes wonderful use of a central, unifying metaphor. Her romance is a fully fleshed romance as well as an allegory of death and resurrection of body and soul. Some of the writing is simply superb. There is banter, delightful dialogue between the two leads and secondary characters with “character,” not just functionality.

The story is set in the midst of America’s involvement in the Great War, at Camp Jackson in S. Carolina.  A wounded, recovering war hero, John Gallows, and a neophyte nurse, Leanne Sample, meet when General Barnes orders him to assist with her project. He has been the driving attraction of an army recruitment campaign; he’s handsome, cavalier, charming, wealthy … and wants only to return to battle. Leanne is also on a mission to convince men and boys to join women in knitting socks for the troops. What better poster boy than John Gallows? John uses his acquiescence as a bargaining chip with General Barnes to return to the front, even though his leg is not, nor ever will be, healed and he is in constant pain. What follows is a wonderful, humorous undermining of an alpha male as he learns to knit at the hands of this beautiful, intelligent, pious, and sharp-tongued young woman who takes a stand against his charm.

What starts as a gentle inspie romance soon grows into a dark night of the soul. John grapples with feelings of self-hatred and worthlessness, declaring himself “an unfinished hero,” even while his feelings for Leanne and her gentle persuasion towards God have him in knots. Once the hero’s and heroine’s feelings are fully engaged, John’s imminent departure, his need to be worthy of his heroic status, brings the first of the dark moments for this couple: separation, possible death. But death comes in another form and John cannot abandon Leanne to it. The Spanish influenza epidemic strikes; John and Leanne are plunged into a dark night of the soul. But it is always darkest before the dawn and this novel concludes with stirring scenes of redemption and rebirth. It also has the best “baby” epilogue I’ve ever read … with nary a baby in sight.

For me, the most appealing aspect of Homefront Hero is Pleiter’s use of the unifying metaphor of knitting. If you’re thinking how prosaic … you’d be wrong. Witness the following lovely little phrases. We are introduced to Leanne as she asks that “God cast her life’s reach far and wide,” playing on the notion of “casting” stitches and nets, as in the Christian reference to fishermen’s nets. She uses an understanding of tension in a knit’s weave to represent the tension that attraction brings between the hero and heroine. It stands as the central metaphor of a communion with God: “God spoke to her thoughts and breaths, in colours and sensations.  All her senses seemed to weave together — sometimes tight and coarse, other times loose and billowy.  When the world was tight and coarse, she would feel God beside her, holding, protecting. When the world was loose and billowy, she would feel Him underneath her like the wind under a seagull.”

Homefront Hero is a story, to quote the hero, of “love and God,” of redemption and hope, of humour and everyday life and heroism.  It is not insipid, naïve, or simplistic, which are the adjectives we can sometimes lay at the feet of inspirational romance.

Miss Bates is very, very pleased and says “You have bewitched me.” (Pride and Prejudice)