Miss Bates was in the mood for something long buried in the TBR, not an ARC, or new release, something Christmas-y and vintage-y. Diane Farr’s Once Upon A Christmas is no Georgette-Heyer rom, but it certainly hails from a happier, more innocent time for the genre. Published by Signet in 2000, it belongs with Balogh’s and Kelly’s Regency Christmas romances. Though not the stylist Balogh is, Farr’s romance plumbs depths that surprised MissB and tells a lovely Christmas-consummated romance.
When the novel opens, Celia Delacourt, tragically solitary after losing parents and siblings, in mourning, is visited by Her Grace, Gladys Delacourt, Duchess of Arnsford. “Aunt” Gladys, sufficiently supercilious, willful, and autocratic to rival Austen’s Catherine de Burgh, offers Celia a home for the holidays and beyond. Still numb with grief, knowing she’ll soon vacate the vicarage that has been her only home, Celia travels to Delacourt Palace to find that Her Grace plans to groom her for marriage to her benignly cavalier son and the Delacourt heir, John/Jack, Marquess of Lyndon. Suspecting his mother’s matrimonial machinations, Jack arrives, ostensibly for the holidays, with every intent to foil them.
For her final 2016 review, Miss Bates writes about a romance novel that held her in thrall though the night and into the morning, Kerrigan Byrne’s The Hunter, second in Byrne’s Victorian Rebels series. New to Miss Bates, Byrne’s Hunter reminded her of the Monica McCarty Highlander romances that were some of the first she ever read and loved. Byrne’s romance is violent; her protagonists, larger-than-life; and her writing, unabashedly melodramatic and yet elegant. At times, Miss Bates thought this feels “Old-Skoolish” but the heroine’s intelligence and sang-froid and hero’s humility and respect for her make it anti-old-skool. What Miss Bates can affirm is that she loved it. To establish sympathy for a hero who is an assassin hired to kill the heroine in the novel’s first scene, Byrne portrays Christopher Argent’s Newgate-Prison childhood. She paints a scene so horrific for his 11-year-old self that our sympathy is maintained even when, without that introduction, we’d have found his actions unacceptable. Christopher is not as nuanced and interesting as Hoyt’s Duke Of Sin, but Byrne’s romance builds our sympathy for him as Hoyt did for Val Napier: by using the pathos of a difficult, abused childhood … and then sustaining it by showing our out-of-type hero with animals, or children.
Sarah M. Anderson’s hokey-titled One Rodeo Season is anything but. What starts as a fun little rodeo-meet-cute between Ian Tall Chief, bullfighter, and Lacy Evans, stock contractor, turns from a “no-strings” relationship to friendship and love, from rom-lite to considered romance novel about identity, cleaving to others, and negotiating commitment. Ian Tall Chief works as a bullfighter when he’s not working at the S. Dakota Real Pride ranch. Lacy Evans is a rodeo stock contractor when she’s not at the Wyoming Straight Arrow ranch she recently inherited from her parents. From their first meeting, Ian is Lacy’s protector and defender. She’s threatened by a powerful rancher, Slim Smalls, and hit on by a slimeball. Ian rushes in where “angels fear to tread,” his former-football muscles standing between Lacy and a world of hurt. But Lacy is a tough cookie, and comes at Ian from the get-go: “Who was she? Someone tiny and fierce and unafraid of him.” Lacy is “fierce,” gauche, a loner, but the attraction between them is undeniable. Except. There be inner turmoil for Lacy and Ian. The inner turmoils’ sources are deep and troubling. They make building a commitment-based relationship unfeasible. Ian charms and gently compels skittish Lacy to a friendship. While Lacy vehemently declares her ability to care for herself, she knows Smalls’ threat and her own precarious emotional state dictate she accept Ian’s help and protection. Ian and Lacy are one of Miss Bates’s favourite couple-combinations: Ian is charming, funny, and knight-in-shining-armor. He has a wide circle of friends, makes friends easily, fits comfortably in his huge clan, and is a looker. Lacy, on the other hand, is solitary, awkward with people, lacks social graces, and plain.
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
Small-town contemporary romance abounds: cutesy towns, quaint “main streets,” bake-shop-owning heroines, and heroes or heroines who ride into town to meet the hometown girl/boy. But writing small-town contemporary romance requires a particular risk. Contemporary small-town romance is light on plot. It doesn’t have the social whirl/hierarchy of the histrom, nor romantic suspense’s thriller-danger zone. It relies on two conventions dosed light-to-heavy: the small town endowed with utopian character, a harbor, a sanctuary for all, or colouring the hero and heroine’s emotional journey potent and compelling. Maisey Yates’ Copper Ridge, Oregon series has accomplished this with some success, as Miss Bates’ reviews of the novella, “Shoulda Been A Cowboy” and first novel, Part Time Cowboy attest. In her second Copper Ridge novel, Brokedown Cowboy, however, Yates is at the top of her game in portraying a hero and heroine’s emotional journey, imbued with banter, honesty, hard truths. When the contemporary romance’s emotional journey convinces, as it does in Brokedown Cowboy, it’s riveting. Such was Miss Bates’ experience in reading Yates’ friends-to-lovers romance of surly Connor Garrett, hard-drinking, still-grieving widower, and Felicity “Liss” Foster, his secret-torch-carrying best friend of eighteen years. Continue reading
Kat Latham is a new author to Miss Bates. She read a glowing review of Latham’s novella in her London Legends series, “Unwrapping Her Perfect Match,” and was curious to try one of her books. (Some *day*, Miss B. will link to all these reviews she reads, but that day will not be today … some *day*, Miss B. will keep a record of reviews she reads … ) In any case, she dug into Latham’s fourth rugby-playing heroes novel, Taming The Legend. Miss Bates is strictly a hockey watcher, but thought the rough-and-tumble rugby-world would appeal and it did. Latham’s novel is much more than that: it’s about forgiveness and love, new-found hope and redressing of past wrongs. It’s about being friends and lovers and working together to achieve something worthy and good. It’s also really really funny!
Taming The Legend opens with London Legends star-player Ashley Trenton, 36, holding the World Cup. Ash’s victory is bittersweet: he and his team have reached the apex of rugby achievement, but this is his last game. Ash is retiring and like everyone who dedicates a life to a beloved career, he’s uncertain and scared he’ll not be able to find a purpose as all-consuming as his career. Ash puts it best when he says, “He’d married his career, and he’d never questioned that decision. So what did he do now his career was divorcing him?” The answer comes in the form of Camila Morales and a punch to Ash’s victorious jaw. One glance in the hotel lobby brought Ash back to the girl he loved and left in Barcelona eighteen years ago. Ash’s grin and sexual excitement at seeing her again last a blink … before Camila has him reeling back on his very fine bum. Continue reading
Miss Bates is grateful NOT to be adding Sophia James’s Marriage Made In Money to a DNF post. She was sooo glad to find a romance novel that at least kept her attention to the HEA. James’s alliteratively-titled Marriage Made In Money echoes Mary Balogh’s A Christmas Promise and Rose Lerner’s In For A Penny, favourites of Miss Bates’s. (If you haven’t read them, do it now!) Marriage-of-convenience on the basis of one of the two characters’ need for money, usually the impoverished lord, is often a difficult trope-variation for Miss Bates to stomach. It takes subtle skill to convince a reader that the marriage-deal’s mercenary nature can turn to love and devotion; after all, one of the two protagonists is morally compromised from the get-go. Balogh’s and Lerner’s romances convince. James’s tried. Amethyst Amelia Cameron, 26, and widowed, her former marriage a sham of abuse and trauma, agrees to marry Daniel Wylde, 6th Earl of Montcliffe and Napoleonic war veteran, to make her tradesman-father, gravely ill, happy. Lord Daniel agrees to marry Amethyst to save his crumbling, debt-ridden estates, brought to this low point by his gambling brother, Nigel, whose untimely death also left him a peevish, spendthrift mother and two unmarried sisters. (Just once, Miss Bates would like to read a romance that reverses that convention … but then mercenary women are not half as attractive as men, right?) The novel follows Amethyst and Daniel as they interact, attract each other, misunderstand each other, and stumble their way to an HEA. Continue reading
Miss Bates can’t offer readers chocolates, or flowers such as our lovely cowboy carries on the cover of Donna Alward’s latest, but a review of a Valentine romance, she can deliver!
Donna Alward is the queen of domestic romance. How she manages to keep Miss Bates riveted with ordinary lives of ordinary people, doing no more than making dinner, watching TV, and drinking a beer at the local pub is a wonder. But that is exactly what Alward does: expose the soft core of her characters, their fears, vulnerabilities, dashed hopes and dreams, all the ways in which life has worn them down amidst everyday ordinariness. Alward is good at depicting characters vacillating between giving in to the fears received from life’s knocks and reaching towards hope, counting on love to renew them. This rich inner life is enacted amidst simple possibilities and domestic chores: a place to belong, meaningful work, a partner to love, a child to rear, and puppy to walk. Miss Bates says that Alward is the only romance writer she knows who has her rushing home from work to read her novels when the only exciting moment that makes up a scene is the flip of a pancake! Well, there’s all that and pancakes, chocolate-chip ones, in Alward’s latest romance novel, The Cowboy’s Valentine. Continue reading
Rose Lerner’s True Pretenses is permeated with its protagonists’ sadness and loneliness. Romance readers take it on faith that heroine and hero may be torn by angst and trauma; cataclysmic life-events may alter a person’s consciousness. Yet, we’re often told this about romance heroes and heroines while reading about two people who flail around with pseudo-pain, but seem to have a good time otherwise. Most telling are the love scenes, where angst is forgotten, where traumatic events stop at the bedroom door: all is redeemed in a flurry of physical ecstasy. But people bring their sadness and loneliness, their traumas if they’ve experienced any, into every aspect of their lives. It’s hard to write that into a romance novel: it takes psychological acumen and risk to emerge out of the genre’s conventions to write about two people who are unhappy, who aren’t sure even when they seem to have found someone they’re attracted to and like that they can recover from their sadness. Rose Lerner has done this very thing in True Pretenses, the saddest romance novel Miss Bates has ever read. It’s slow and meandering, and it near broke her heart. As Lerner reached the climax of her story, it intensified; it brought all that disparate uncertainty, ennui, and melancholy into focus: pointed to all the ways we lie and make ourselves unhappy, all the rigid rules and self-regulations that lead to stultified lives. Continue reading
Emma Barry writes Miss Bates’ favourite kind of romance novel: rich in context, with characters immersed in a definitive place and time, uniquely themselves, but also emerging out of that place and time. Barry sets her contemporary romances in the arena of contemporary American politics. It was the stew that bubbled forth the first in the Easy Part trilogy, Special Interests, and second, Private Politics. Barry’s third “politically-set” romance, Party Lines, is her most “politically dense” novel yet, but it also offers a gloriously interesting romance. It contains a delicious irony in premise and title. Party politics/lines, especially modern party politics, are constantly in the public eye in this social-media age. How to carve space for intimacy, friendship, love, for “private spaces” in the midst of an election campaign as a key organizing player? That is the story of Democratic campaign manager, Michael Picetti, and Republican assistant to the deputy campaign manager, Lydia Reales. What if the furthering of one’s career hinges on this performance? What if the object of one’s love and desire is on the opposing side? Ideology, conviction, ambition, loyalty come into play and clash with desire, friendship, love, fulfillment, when political affiliations draw the line on what lines can’t be crossed for love. Continue reading