The Soldier’s Rebel Lover is second in Marguerite Kaye’s post-Peninsular War “Comrades In Arms” series and, like the first, The Soldier’s Dark Secret, is as much about honour, loyalty, patriotism, and disillusionment as romantic love. Kaye’s historical veracity (Miss Bates holds it above the pragmatic notion of accuracy, library research and cue cards provide that) thematic richness, and exceptional prose make for histrom reading as fine as any a rom reader is likely to encounter. Kaye makes the characters’ feelings of disillusionment and questioning that come with the historical owl’s dusky flight come alive. Miss Bates elevates Kaye to her histrom favourites: Cecilia Grant, Rose Lerner, and Meredith Duran. She loved the first in Kaye’s series, but thinks the second even finer. At Wellington’s behest, Jack Trestain, Dark Secret‘s hero, appeals to his friend Major Finlay Urquhart to re-enter Spain, in disguise, and rescue/extract El Fantasma, the still-active Spanish partisan leader who helped defeat Napoleon’s army. Why? Because should El Fantasma be captured by the present repressive Spanish régime, he may reveal actions damaging to Wellington and England. Finlay, like Jack, is restless and purposeless now war is over. Finlay’s loyalty to his friend, and Jack’s to his country, as well as Finlay’s “unsettledness”, convince him to take the mission. Soon thereafter, Finlay enters Spain disguised as a wine merchant. (more…)
As Miss Bates discussed elsewhere, she was a fan of Deanna Raybourn’s Lady Julia Grey mysteries. She enjoyed Lady J.’s cool, independent demeanor and was in love with Nicholas Brisbane, Julia’s sometime-partner, occasional-antagonist, at-long-last husband, enigma-in-an-alpha-hero. Her quibble remains: long on long-winded mystery, short on romance. And then … this … Raybourn’s new historical mystery series, with a delightful dose of romance, the début Veronica Speedwell mystery, A Curious Beginning. Set in Queen Victoria’s Jubilee Year, Raybourn’s murder mystery leaves behind the distancing characterization of Lady Julia and Brisbane to revel in an endearing heroine and hero, poignant back stories, humour and, dare Miss Bates say it, sentiment.
Miss Veronica Speedwell, 25, buries her Aunt Nell Harbottle in Little Byfield, England. Veronica is irrepressible and intrepid: a world-adventuring lepidopterist, sexually uninhibited, no-nonsense, and fiercely independent. She is nonplussed when Aunt Nell’s Wren Cottage is ransacked and finds herself in the protective hands of the kindly, mysterious Baron Maximilian von Stauffenbach.The Baron travels with her to London and leaves her in the protective custody of his friend Stoker, a taxidermist with a workshop on London’s docks, whose robust musculature, piratical eye-patch, blue eyes, and wild Beethovenian black hair stir Veronica’s womanly desires. But Veronica lives by the rule never to take an English lover. Once Stoker growls and snarls, only a tad friendlier than Huxley, his bull dog, sparks fly and, to Raybourn’s credit, flicker, sparkle, and burn bright, depending on the poignancy, or comedy of Veronica and Stoker’s scenes. (more…)
Miss Bates doesn’t read as much histrom as she used to, but it is her first romance-reading love. A new-to-her-author, Marguerite Kaye, is someone she’s been curious about since Kaye’s sheikh books were published by Harlequin, Innocent In the Sheikh’s Harem especially looked intriguing. As Miss B’s leery of sheikhs, she took a chance on her first Kaye read in the Regency romance The Soldier’s Dark Secret. It contains some of Miss Bates’ favourite romance conventions: hero and heroine solve a mystery; multiple locations, including continental ones; and, the plot is centred on working together to overcome instead of bickering to make it to the bedroom. Kaye’s protagonists don’t squabble, they converse in heated, or humorous tones … and still manage to be sexy as heck.
Waterloo veteran, former Lieutenant-Colonel Jack Trestain struggles with PTSD at his brother’s, Sir Charles’, estate. Enter Parisian heroine Celeste Marmion, commissioned by Charles to paint Trestain Manor’s grounds before his wife’s, Eleanor’s, planned renovations begin. Celeste, however, has another reason for being in England: she seeks the truth of her mother’s mysterious death, “to find some answers and close an unhappy chapter in her life.” Continue reading
In Secrets Of A Scandalous Heiress,” the final volume in her Regency-set Matchmakers trilogy, Theresa Romain offers a romance as much about identity as finding and keeping love. Miss Bates read and loved the second in the trilogy, To Charm A Naughty Countess. The former follows the latter in theme and concern, though reading Scandalous Heiress as a stand-alone doesn’t require any previous knowledge. Romain loves to create characters who are on the fringe of a rigid and judgemental ton: they may have a whiff of scandal, or peculiarity about them. Their romance narratives see the working-out of how they accept, relish, and come to enjoy happiness despite their marginalized positions. Romain’s romances are not cross-class, but are concerned with class no less.
The eponymous scandalous, secretive heiress is Augusta Meredith. She and hero Josiah “Joss” Everett meet in Bath’s Pump Room. They share a previous, vague acquaintance and have been aware of each other as living on the fringes of the ton: Josiah, by virtue of his blood (his mother was half-Indian); Augusta, by virtue of class (her parents made oodles of money with a built-from-humble-origins cosmetics company). Their arrival in Bath comes from dissatisfaction and dilemma. Augusta recently lost her parents and was lied to and abandoned by a worthless lover. She poses as the widowed Mrs. Flowers to find a lover, hoping that an affair will assuage her grief and heart-ache. Josiah, who works as his cousin’s, Baron Sutcliffe’s, man of business is trying to uncover the baron’s blackmailer. They encounter, recognize, and agree to help each other achieve their goals. The opening chapter is filled with wit and banter, note Josiah’s consideration of Augusta’s figure, “a young woman with more curves than subtlety.” Augusta, on her part, notes Joss’ sandalwood scent, hinting of his heritage and, as she later observes, “a man of kind hands and unexpected honour.” They are attracted to each other; while class doesn’t separate them, money does. Augusta is “heiress to a cosmetics fortune” and Joss wants to scrape together a hundred pounds to leave his dissipated, immoral cousin’s employ. When she proposes that he become her lover, he refuses, citing his integrity and self-possession. He wants her, though. Continue reading
… from whose bourn no traveler returns,” says Hamlet – except in a Simone St. James novel says Miss Bates. St. James’ latest, The Other Side of Midnight, is dedicated to Mary Stewart, one of the mothers of gothic romance. Stewart’s spirit permeates St. James’ novels. Stewart’s spirit lives in the diffident, ethical cores to her heroines, in the mysterious atmosphere, foreboding mood, impending danger, and unknown territories heroines enter. Stewart peeks through in heroes who are ominous, frightening, ambivalent, but prove caring, loving, and protective. Stewart’s influence hints in the strength to St. James’ rendering of time and place. Stewart is present in the heroine’s venture into uncharted places, her crossing into extraordinary places, meeting, conversing with, and discovering the secrets of the dead. Stewart is present in the young, coming-into-her-own voice of the first-person narrator. In Stewart and St. James, a seemingly insignificant young woman destroys the powers of evil; she is the one who brings justice to a world disjoint. The Other Side of Midnight may not be homage to Stewart in content, but St. James places herself within a beloved literary tradition. She belongs there: after four wonderfully atmospheric novels, she’s proven her mettle and Miss Bates hopes she’ll reign long. Miss B. loved St. James previous novel, Silence For the Dead. In The Other Side of Midnight, St. James offers another hybrid mystery-ghost-story-suspense-romance novel and weaves her narrative threads for our reader delectation. Continue reading
Miss Bates appreciates a good author’s note, especially at the end of a historical romance. A sense of where the author is coming from, her interests and motivations, and a tad about research are enlightening. One senses, Susanna Fraser, from her author’s note at the end of her latest, is thoughtful, respectful of historical mood, and details of time and place. She’s considered in her characterization, drawing her characters from historical context. Certainly, Miss Bates greatly enjoyed Fraser’s début, The Sergeant’s Lady, with its unique titled lady and ordinary soldier-hero, a nice reversal of the usual duke-and-commoner-focussed histrom.
In Freedom To Love, Fraser tackled a cross-class and mixed-race identity to her romantic couple and placed them in Louisiana at the end of the War of 1812. Though only spare to his brother’s, Charles, heir-status, Henry Farlow, officer in his majesty’s army, is still aristocratic. Part of General Pakenham’s retreating British forces at the 1815 Battle for New Orleans, wounded and disoriented, Henry wanders onto the Chalmette Plantation where he meets Thérèse Bondurant and her half-sister, Jeannette. Thérèse and Jeannette sneaked onto the plantation, now their father is dead, to find treasure he left behind for them. They must seize the jewels before the rightful plantation owners, their cousins, Bertrand and Jean-Baptiste, discover them. In addition to the treasure, they find and care for the wounded Henry. Thus, the three of them, Thérèse, free woman of mixed race, with a grandmother of African and Choctaw origins, Jeannette, the enslaved sister she wants to free, and a defeated, wounded British officer take refuge on an abandoned plantation hoping to flee before the Bondurant cousins claim the treasure and hand the delirious Henry over to American forces as a POW. 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
Miss Bates has a weakness for heroines who rule with their chin … a chin described as defiant, stubborn, mutinous, obstinate. The thesaurus yields a world of possibilities. This perception of willfulness is the hero’s interpretation of the heroine’s personality. He knows better, thinks better, and it’s to the heroine’s benefit that she submit to his greater wisdom. BUT her usually stubborn little chin (body language is all in the romance novel, folks) goes up, or down, depending on whether her eyes spark defiance, or her brows lower with disobedience, and boom, she asserts her will … against the hero’s better judgement. No romance category is more subject to these interactions than the charged emotions, reactions, and interactions of the HP (no longer exclusive to Harlequin, of course, but most easily associated with it). In Lynne Graham’s The Greek’s Chosen Wife, Miss Bates found the most delightfully truculent heroine she’s read since early Julie Garwood, though Miss Bates would argue that Garwood’s heroines are oblivious over truculent (that’s for another post). As for Graham’s HP masterpiece, what could be more appealing than the chin-leading truculence of a doughy heroine named Pudding? Continue reading
Miss Bates will expose her uncouth romance-reading ways and admit she’s not keen on Brockway’s books. She read rav-y reviews about As You Desire, dutifully read it, and it left her cold. She read All Through the Night and liked it better, but wasn’t inspired to read more of the oeuvre. Miss Bates suspects that there was something about Brockway’s voice, a privileging of it, a bringing into the forefront of the narrative that made the reader too conscious of it. When The Songbird’s Seduction came along … well, there was a mitigating factor, the Edwardian setting. Surprise, surprise … Brockway’s latest won her over. The novel was charming and funny, and pulled at the heartstrings. The voice was captivating, droll, affectionate towards its hero and heroine’s youthful foibles. The distancing was still there, but it was gentler. Though it may be deemed a light read, frothy and fun, there were also lovely, poignant moments, moments of pain in the characters, whose effervescent mood and carryings-on, embracing of life, willingness to forgive wrong-doing, were endearing. And did Miss Bates mention the laugh-out-loud moments … 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