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
Some time in the late 90s, Miss Bates saw a film she hasn’t forgotten, much as she’d like to. It was bleak, depressing, definitely anti-romance. In it, the heroine had opportunities to save herself, to achieve an HEA. She was so passive, so unable to accept help from the people she encountered that she perished needlessly. The film is Amos Kollek’s Sue: Lost In Manhattan (it’s available, in its entirety, on YouTube, if you’re so inclined). What does this bleak portrait, in the centre of which is an anti-heroine with a strangely compelling passivity, have to do with Molly O’Keefe’s Indecent Proposal? Miss Bates couldn’t help but recall the film as she read O’Keefe’s final book in her Boys of Bishop series. Kollek’s Sue is unemployed, evicted, and meanders through Manhattan looking ethereally, cadaverously beautiful. She worked as a temp and has a degree in psychology. She’s friendless and without family. She cleans up well and is intelligent and soft-spoken. Sue carries a defeated look, her eyes say “I’ve lost even before I’ve begun.” She meets a wonderful friend (actually, she’s a bartender!) and a beautiful man: the friend wants to help her, the man to care for her. She doesn’t reject them: she’s so tired of life she doesn’t call on them.
O’Keefe’s heroine, Ryan Kaminski, could have easily been Sue: a high-school drop-out, a divorcée who survived a shiftless and violent man, a 15-minutes-of-fame teen-age model who makes ends meet by working as a bartender in a Manhattan hotel. Ryan lives in a tenement and buys used psychology books because that’s what she’d like to study if she ever goes back to school. She’s 32, too old, she feels, to call it opportunity. The connections between Sue and Ryan are compelling. Miss Bates couldn’t help but think of these disparate texts because their juxtaposition spotlights what distinguishes the romance narrative. Same girl, same narrative, same edge of hopelessness, same seediness, cheap clothes and worn-out beauty … what does the romance narrative do with the same stuff, the same material, but imbues it with hope in place of despair? (As a side-note, she loved O’Keefe’s Indecent Proposal: marriage-of-convenience, a heroine who gains in strength and love, a Hubbell-hero humbled. What’s not to love?) Continue reading
Reading Rose Lerner’s Sweet Disorder, first in her Regency-Era-set Lively St. Lemeston series, Miss Bates recognized Lerner’s connection to Georgette Heyer and what Miss Bates calls the “nouvelle vague” of romance writers, such as Emma Barry: educated, erudite, both entrenched in the romance tradition and bringing new elements to it. Like Heyer, to whose influence Lerner admits in her author bio, she writes a combination of adventure with touches of farcical comedy, also glimmers of pathos, in an ensemble cast, with nuanced villains and – mai oui – a central couple’s romance. (Sweet Disorder feels like a departure from the sombre tone of Lerner’s previous novel, A Lily Among Thorns, and this lighter touch suits her. Miss Bates hopes she keeps it.) Like Barry’s latest series, The Easy Part, Lerner unfolds the romance couple’s relationship in a political arena. The day’s politics inform the hero and heroine’s courtship, bringing them together, setting them apart. They serve as coalescence and disruption. Sweet Disorder, set in the West Sussex riding of Lively St. Lemeston in an election year, 1812, sees hero’s, Nick Dymond’s, brother, Tony, struggle to beat the Tory candidate. The stakes are high for the Whig Dymonds, as they are, it turns out, for their loyal voters, the Knight family, one of whom, writer of sensational tales for Girl’s Companion, Phoebe, now the widow Sparks, is our heroine. (It’s safe to keep reading, Miss Bates has gone out of her way to avoid spoilers. Sweet Disorder‘s plot is vulnerable to them, so there’s not much summary either.) Continue reading
Miss Bates read one Susanna Fraser Regency-set romance, The Sergeant’s Lady, and enjoyed it, especially its exposition of a cross-class romance in the loosening of social strictures during wartime. Fraser’s latest, the Regency-set romance novella, “A Christmas Reunion,” echoes many of the same themes: an upper-class lady-love, an officer returned from the Napoleonic conflict in Portugal and Spain, and strong, enduring feelings from when he left five years ago. Unlike The Sergeant’s Lady, “A Christmas Reunion” has the added poignancy of the hero, Captain Gabe Shephard, and heroine, Lady Catherine Trevilian, as reunited sweethearts, a passion they staunched because of their unequal social status. Gabe has returned to the home in which he grew up, the “bastard” son of an aristocratic family, and the adopted wealthy, aristocratic girl they succored, to ensure that a foundling child, the irrepressibly cute Ellen, finds a home and family away from war. He returns to the scene of his youthful love, still burning strong for “Lady Cat” as he calls her, hoping to find safety and affection for Ellen. What he doesn’t expect is to find a betrothed Catherine who feels the same way about him, grown more beautiful and interesting than ever. Fraser’s novella is based on premises that Miss Bates enjoys: the good man, (allegorically called Gabriel) who unselfishly takes on the care of a child not his own, the vulnerable-to-her-feelings woman, the spirit of Christmas and traditional wassailing of a great hall … but there’s that pesky fiancé, Sir Anthony Colville, how to resolve that? There was much to enjoy in Fraser’s novella and, unfortunately, parts that jarred. Continue reading
In keeping with Miss Bates’ fa-la-la posting until the 25th of the month, she dipped, this time, into the e-ARC TBR and from therein pulled Theresa Romain’s Season for Desire. The cover was pretty; out since October 7th, it deserved its spot on MBRR and Miss Bates had enjoyed To Charm A Naughty Countess. For brevity’s sake, Season‘s blurb:
Like her four sisters, Lady Audrina Bradleigh is expected to marry a duke, lead fashion, and behave with propriety. Consequently, Audrina pursues mischief with gusto, attending scandalous parties, and indulging in illicit affairs. But when an erstwhile lover threatens to ruin her reputation, Audrina has no choice but to find a respectable husband at once. Who would guess that her search would lead her to Giles Rutherford, a blunt-spoken American on a treasure hunt of his own? When a Christmas snowstorm strands the pair at a country inn, more secrets are traded than gifts – along with kisses that require no mistletoe – and Audrina discovers even proper gentlemen have their wicked side.
Um, no … the novel is both more serious and yet less interesting than the blurb makes it out to be. The blurb’s fun frivolity is no where to be found. The faux seriousness of the novel, in turn, makes it drag and fizzle. A convoluted plot, too many secondary characters, and a hero and heroine who barely interact left Miss Bates cold. Continue reading
Miss Bates loves Christmas: stars, trees, lights, baking, candle-lit church services. Carols! She decorates; she cuts out gingerbread people. She even mails Christmas cards. And, with Mrs. Bates, they haul a beautiful sapin de Noël up the narrow staircase to her apartment and spend happy hours with tinsel, glitter, garland, and ornament. Early December finds her ribbon-cutting the season by bringing out her Christmas tea mugs. Every year, on November 25th, the feast day of St. Catherine, patron saint of spinsters (also lace-makers) Miss Bates embarks on a month-long reading of Christmas-themed, Christmas-set romances. The genre presents her with a plethora of choices and the covers are sentimental favourites. She’s read some duds and she’s read some wonders. Here are her wonders; if you’re a Christmas-romance fan, you might have read them, or you might consider reading one, or two 😉 this year. Continue reading
Miss Bates is going to make wild and wooly assumptions about Betty Neels. Her 1971 Fate Is Remarkable will be the ground in which Miss Bates will sow outlandish seeds by saying that Neels’ romances can be read as historical romances in disguise, or at least that Neels was NOT interested in telling a romance of her day. This is not unique to Miss B. Liz from Something More said that Neels’ romances are set in a post-WWII England, rather than the 1970s, 80s, and 90s in which Neels wrote. As long as one is willing to suspend one’s disbelief and replace a fast car with a fast curricle, then they may as well be set in the Regency Era as well. This comes through in Neels’ to-some-tedious, detailed descriptions of interiors and architecture. Miss Bates eats them up … along with any references to clothes, food, or gifts, as she’s written about before. Neels often fails in incorporating details from the time and place in which she actually wrote. In Fate Is Remarkable, for example, there are references to awkward cigarette moments, which Sarah, the heroine, dismisses with a titter. Hugo, the hero, smokes a pipe, like a good Victorian gentleman. There are a few telephone conversations, but one knows that Hugo and Sarah would rather correspond. As a matter of fact, more often than not, their day begins with the post. Neels is good on sleek cars, but even those are the kind that last forever, that go from showroom to vintage in a lifetime. Neels’ interiors and her descriptions of furniture and objets d’art are about finding permanence in a changing world. Miss Bates would say that this is her appeal to readers as well. Continue reading
Miss Bates assumed that Romain’s To Charm A Naughty Countess would provide a few hours of fun with some histrom fluff, one of the ephemeral romance novels that one reads and promptly forgets. She was surprised to find a unique, well-written, angst-filled novel with flawed but likeable protagonists, tackling challenging issues for the hero, in particular. Recently, historical romance has the maddening habit of using long, cumbersome titles that are likely to misrepresent the content. This is true of Romain’s novel, as it is of others. Miss Bates reckons that the “fluffy” titles are a buying inducement; if so, it has the opposite effect on Miss Bates, as does the smirking heroine cover, which also graces Romain’s novel. Miss Bates, however, does not dictate the terms of the genre … though she’d like to. 😉 In Romain’s novel’s case, the title serves to tell the reader what this novel is not about. The hero, Michael Layward, Duke of Wyverne, is the least charming duke Miss Bates has ever encountered in the pages of a romance novel. Charm is one weapon he is incapable of wielding in winning his countess, Caroline Graves; honesty, intelligence, and humour serve him well and are preferred qualities, to Miss Bates at least. His countess is beautiful, smart, kind, and compassionate; she isn’t naughty, a word Miss Bates despises, conjuring only nasty images of ludicrous Benny Hill episodes. To Charm A Naughty Countess surprised Miss Bates and she very much enjoyed it. It is not flawless, but it is one of the better historical romances a reader could spend time with this year. Continue reading
The marriage-of-convenience trope is one of Miss Bates’ most beloved. It is difficult and rare, however, to see it done well in contemporary romance. It is unlikely that the reasons for the marriage will be convincing. What compelling reasons can there be for contemporary characters to agree to such a union? Eons ago, Miss Bates saw a Peter Weir film, Green Card, which posited one possible scenario; or the more recent, less adept, The Proposal, which isn’t really marriage-of-convenience, but engagement-of-convenience, so much less … well … engaging. It’s the idea of a binding marriage that is absorbing for Miss Bates: the-stuck-with-you-getting-to-know-you-daily-grind-and-growing-love ethos of it that she adores. Certainly, the trope triumphs in historical romance. The truth is that any contemporary marriage-of-convenience narrative isn’t plausible in light of the ease and convenience of divorce laws. Lily Everett’s Shoreline Drive, second in her Sanctuary Island series, stands or falls on the believability, the plausibility of her use of this trope. Miss Bates read and enjoyed the first in the series, Sanctuary Island, but what was good in the latter is not echoed in the former. While the premise for Sanctuary Island was convincing, there be misgivings about Shoreline Drive. Continue reading
Time and again, romance readers contend with harsh verdicts aimed at the genre from non-romance readers. It is interesting, however, that within the romance-reading community, gradations of snootiness exist as well. Those judgements are aimed at sub-genres, or category romance, or individual authors, or books, or whatever chip a reader/reviewer carries on her shoulder. Miss Bates herself has a certain distaste for the silliness factor of paranormal romance, indulging in a sweeping generalization and dismissal of hundreds of beloved and worthy stories. Kristen Ashley’s novels, Miss Bates suspects, have received their share of disdain.
When Miss Bates read Kristen Ashley’s opening page for Law Man, she understood why Ashley’s novels come under scornful fire: sloppy writing, bizarro switches in point of view, a certain sentimentality, the hero’s machismo, heroine’s naïveté, and rugrats’ cuteness … all at the mercy of a reader’s sneering lip curls and exasperated eye-rolls. Miss Bates too, at first note, slipped into derision mode. However, by the end of chapter one, she was eating humble pie. Ashley’s devil-may-care prose and not-politically-correct characterization and narrative won her. Miss Bates discovered that Ashley wrote, in her breezy style, a contemporary cross-class romance, a perceptive portrait of class and status, a debate between nature/upbringing and individual will, between determinism and free will.
Detective Mitch Lawson is a middle-class, college-educated, no-working-beat cop. Mara Hanover is “pink collar,” a successful retail salesperson, but nevertheless one of the vast number of women who occupy precarious service-industry positions, working mainly on commission. Suffice to say, hero and heroine are people, as originally defined (thank you, Oxford American Dictionary) by the word “proletarian,” “having no wealth in property.” (They certainly do not own the “means of production!”) Fear not, Miss Bates is not doing a Marxist reading (she wouldn’t even know how), merely sharing some fascinating, to her at least, observations regarding class and status that permeate Ashley’s romance. Her reading may be erroneous, but she’s going to plunge into it anyway. Read on, at your peril