I’ve been thinking a lot lately about where romance fiction “fits” in the scheme of things literary. I’m tired of arguments either defending the genre or condemning it, discussing its relevance or irrelevance … blah blah blah. Not that these discussions aren’t relevant, they are to those who partake and more power to them. I do enjoy listening “in” to the Twitter debates, etc. But I have been asking why I persist in reading romance when the world around me makes the romance’s domestic world focus feel irrelevant. I think we read romance of any ilk, paranormal, historical, contemporary, conservative to radical in its perspective, because it’s utopian (minus the satire; there is nothing Thomas More would recognize in the genre). End of thought bubble.
The latest “utopian” romance I read was Kelly Bowen’s Last Night With the Earl, depicting the love and closeness of Napoleonic War veteran, Eli Dawes, the eponymous “Earl” of Rivers, and artist Rose Hayward. Like many romance couples, Eli and Rose are “broken” and their relationship, as it plays out, works towards achieving their healing and wholeness. As a narrative, it succeeded and failed in depicting their story. Continue reading
I’d never read a Maxwell romance and embarked on A Match Made In Bed with curiosity and enthusiasm. Because I’m a naïve, gullible reader who’s too easily pleased, I lauded Maxwell to a Twitter friend and smiled smugly to myself on having “discovered” a great, new-to-me historical romance author. Unfortunately, I didn’t end up where I began. A Match Made In Bed showed initial promise. The hero and heroine intrigued me and the narrative promised compelling themes about money, women’s place in society, class, and family dynamics.
Soren York, Lord Dewsberry, and Miss Cassandra Holwell meet at a house party held outside of London. It’s not their first encounter. They share an interesting history: their Cornish-origined families have long feuded over past deception. Soren, aware of Cassandra’s dislike, yet woos her … because he needs an heiress’s money to bolster his soon-to-be-lost estate, Pentreath Castle. The novel opens with great banter and a wonderful antagonistic attraction between Cassandra and Soren. Even though Soren is mercenary, Maxwell manages to show us how he’s also kind and honourable. Cassandra is bookish and intelligent and has a lot of our sympathy, nursing a childhood hurt inflicted, unknowingly mind you, by Soren.
It’s rare that Miss B. reacts to a romance (maybe because her choices tend to the tried and true these days) as she did to Amy Sandas’s The Untouchable Earl. About half way through, she wanted to DNF. But there was a sense of purpose and theme to it that said, “No, no, keep reading.” So, she did. And now that it’s done, she doesn’t quite know what to say about it. At its heart is a sexual healing theme that Miss B. despises, akin to her curled-lip reaction to Lisa Valdez’s Passion, possibly rivaling Old Skool romance to be the worst romance novel ever written. And yet, she also can’t dismiss The Untouchable Earl the way she can Passion. Its premise is the stuff of high eye-rolling melodrama. Melodramatic circumstances conspire to bring Plain-Jane husband-seeking ton debutante Lily Chadwick, kidnapped and drugged, up for auction at Madame Pendragon’s, a brothel. It’s all pretty sordid and awful until the eponymous Earl, a hero with possibly the most ridiculous name in romance, Avenell Harte (with, yes, the obvious pun there) purchases Lily and her intact maidenhead. As far as maidenheads go, hers isn’t half as impressive as Passion’s, but still. It doesn’t look like her maidenhead’s in any danger when we find out that Avenell (she’s strictly forbidden from saying his name and when you consider how lame it is, you can understand the guy’s reluctance) … well, he’s functional and all, but he can’t bear to be touched.
Lily Maxton’s The Improper Bride is the fifth Regency romance in the Sisters of Scandal series. The scandal informing it is one of Miss Bates’s least favourite tropes, the cross-class historical romance. Least favourite because, at least in Regency or Victorian Britain where most of these romances are set, was as unlikely as it was scandalous. And yet, the fairy-tale-like mood of Maxton’s version makes it more palatable.
The Improper Bride possesses Eyre-like tendencies, as any cross-class romance owes its raison d’être to the near-bigamous fraught relationship between a dissipated aristocrat and mousy governess. Like Brontë’s Eyre, the hero’s near-death by fire changes him. Henry Eldridge, Marquess of Riverton suffers burns to his face and arm when one wing of his Buckinghamshire estate, Blakewood Hall, is set aflame. In his pain and delirium, Henry feels the soothing touch of an angel. Cassandra Davis, Henry’s housekeeper, seeing to his comfort, is seized by a compulsion to touch him; she’s always wanted to touch the “coldly perfect marquess”. When Henry recovers sufficiently to grow restless and jeopardize the use of his arm, Mr. Faulkner, his doctor, advises Mrs. Davies to keep him occupied. A poor but cultivated daughter of a country teacher who loves to learn, Cassandra asks Lord Riverton to spend some time each day teaching her German. Continue reading
Miss Bates’ first great rom-love was the historical. Given the recent contemporary romance glut, she’s grateful for any historical romance writers she discovers. Alissa Johnson is not new to the genre (début publication dates 2008), but certainly new to Miss Bates. A Talent For Trickery is first in the Victorian-Age-set Thief-Takers series. Johnson’s characterization, plot, and theme reminded Miss Bates of Lisa Kleypas’s Hathaways (if you liked the Hathaways, you’re going to like this). Viscount Owen Renderwell arrives at Willowbend House, Norfolk, with his detecting partners, Sirs Samuel Brass and Gabriel Arkwright. He is reluctantly welcomed by his former-thief-turned-agent-for-the-crown partner, Miss Charlotte “Lottie” Bales, formerly Walker, daughter of Will Walker, notorious criminal. In eight years, Charlotte built a new life and persona for herself and her family. Owen reminds her of days of yore when she helped her father swindle London society. She shares a home with Esther, her sister, and Peter, their younger brother, for whom Charlotte would make any sacrifice to keep him from discovering the truth of their father’s life. Abandoned by their mother, father perishing while aiding Owen recover a kidnapped duchess and her jewels, Charlotte’s memories of working alongside and yearning for Owen return in full emotional force. Owen is equally affected, but his mission carries more weight than his physical desires and emotional yearnings. Mrs. Maggie Popple was murdered and Charlotte’s father’s letters and journals may hold the key to solving the crime. Lottie has the talent and know-how to decipher Will Walker’s encryption.
Jessica Gilmore’s latest category romance, Expecting the Earl’s Baby, holds out the promise of a marriage-of-convenience between opposites. Gilmore is a good hand at tropish writing, aware of the genre’s conventions in a witty, loving way; the last Gilmore category Miss Bates reviewed was a wonderfully written reunited husband-wife story. Though marriage-of-convenience is difficult to pull off in contemporary romance, Gilmore made a great start with a magical castle setting to add a touch of old-world fantasy and top it off with cheeky regency allusions. It reminded Miss Bates of one of her favourite castle-set romances (which also has the advantage of being Christmas-set!) Fiona Harper’s Snowbound In the Earl’s Castle. Gilmore’s heroine, like Harper’s, is an artistic working gal. Daisy Huntingdon-Cross, a wedding photographer, is doing a shoot at Hawksley Castle when her dedication to be last of the party to leave lands her, her stilettos, and flimsy car tires in a foot of snow. Her about-face to the castle to ask for help has her: ” … skid[ding] straight into a fleececlad chest. It was firm, warm, broad. Not a ghost. Probably not a werewolf. Or a vampire. Supernatural creatures didn’t wear fleece as far as she knew.” Said chest belongs to one pragmatic earl who offers chains for her tires because ” ‘… wouldn’t want you to freeze to death on the premises. Think of the paperwork.’ ” Humming “Good King Wenceslas” as she tiptoes in his steps’ wake, Daisy is attracted to The Chest. As is the guy in possession of The Chest, Sebastian Beresford, Earl of Holgate … and, well, one thing leads to another … six weeks later, Daisy returns to Hawksley Castle to tell Sebastian he’s going to be a daddy. Continue reading