MINI-REVIEW: Kate Clayborn’s LUCK OF THE DRAW

Luck_Of-the_DrawI am a stubborn cuss and resisted the lure of Clayborn’s much-lauded first romance, Beginner’s Luck. As my Twitter handle says, “always late to the game”! I confess I’m here to sing praises. I won’t even do it very well because I was up till the wee hours polishing off Luck Of the Draw, despite having a full work day with several important, need-to-be-alert meetings slotted in it. But here I am and here we are and I’m tethered to the cheering bandwagon.

There’s another reason I wasn’t keen on Clayborn’s first, or second for that matter, other than the romance cheering section; more pernicious to me was the alternating first-person narration: heroine/hero, heroine/hero, like that. When one of my favourite romance writers, Ruthie Knox, went first-person-rogue on me, I was annoyed, but I followed. (I’ve only ever fully forgiven first-person narration in my favourite novel of all time, Jane Eyre.) So, between the squee and the self-conscious “I’s“, Clayborn had to work hard to thwart my side-eye. But foil it she did, by keeping the action on its toes; the characters, compelling and lovable; and by a perfect balance of humour and angst (my favourite narrative tone/mood). What I couldn’t fault her for? The premise was all kinds of tropish catnip.
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REVIEW: Rebecca Rogers Maher’s ROLLING IN THE DEEP, Or “Hope Hurts”

Rolling_In_DeepAs a spinster of modest means, Miss Bates was intrigued by Rogers Maher’s premise for Rolling In the Deep. Who doesn’t buy the occasional lottery ticket and dream big? Ramòn “Ray” Lopez and Holly Ward stock shelves at a Poughkeepsie Cogmans, a “Walmart-like” superstore. Single-mum Holly is a Cogmans veteran; Ray, a newcomer. They shoot the breeze when they share an aisle, tell each other about their lives, and harbor a shy attraction. Holly survived a nasty divorce. Brett, her ex, and she share custody of Drew, their eight-year-old son. Brett, a cheating, domineering husband, is still nasty, insulting and demeaning Holly. She is anxious and self-effacing. She believes Drew is better off with his father: there’s a marked difference between the quality of Drew’s life when he’s with Brett and his wife Emma and when he’s with Holly in a dreary apartment and sparse life-style. But she’s “too selfish” to give him up; she loves him. At first, Ray appears the cheerier of the two. Newly arrived from Queens, Ray works two jobs, at Cogmans and a local restaurant, hoping to fulfill his recently-deceased mom’s wish for him to attend culinary school. Ray carries an uprooted grief, but seeing Holly smile and chat make him happy. He wants a date, but senses her single-mum’s caution. On a lark, he asks her to go halfsies on a Powerball ticket. When they win eighty million dollars apiece, their fledgling attraction and financially-straitened lives change overnight. 
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REVIEW: Deanna Raybourn’s A CURIOUS BEGINNING, Or Curmudgeon Meets His Match

Curious_BeginningAs 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 BeginningSet 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. Continue reading

Sort-Of A Review: Courtney Milan’s TRADE ME

Trade_MeMiss Bates doesn’t know how to write about a good book she disliked, not hated, not DNF-headed, not snark-inspiring, but a desultory slog, like eating a flavourless oatmeal biscuit. Partly, she attributes her response to the unappealing conventions of the New Adult romance sub-genre: the college scene, protagonists’ callowness, first-person narration, and HFN. New adult romance elements Miss Bates’ reader-self dislikes. Nay, avoids. She wasn’t well disposed to Milan’s Trade Me from the first solipsistic notes of “I” and “my”, but the issues were engaging, questions of wealth and privilege, the pressures on immigrants’ children versus good ole wealthy established American families. 

Trade Me is, at least initially, a romance of economic realities. Californian heroine Tina Chen, computer science and chemistry college student, second-generation Chinese-American, struggles to get through school, pay rent, groceries, and help her parents out financially. Her mom succours persecuted Falun Gong members seeking asylum in the US, her dad’s on work disability and sister, with ADHD, requires pricey medication. Tina is poor: she can’t afford to do anything but survive on a shoe-string budget, working part-time and studying the rest. Hero Blake Reynolds is the only child of one of the wealthiest, most influential men in the US, owner of an innovative tech company, Cyclone. Unlike Tina, who has eleven dollars to her name, Blake is worth billions. During economics class, Blake makes privileged, ignorant remarks about people on food stamps. Tina retorts with hard truths about poverty that point to Blake’s cluelessness and presumptions. Blake is chastened and apologetic. He’s also nicer and more down-to-earth than Tina expected. He has the hots for her and she for him. He proposes a “trade,” to learn something about each other: swap lives. He lives in her unheated converted-garage apartment on her budget and she gets his Tesla, condo, and a hefty allowance. For Blake, he gets to be close to Tina while anonymity helps him figure out a “problem” plaguing him. Tina reciprocates the attraction, but also sees an opportunity to help her family. Continue reading

REVIEW: Katherine Reay’s LIZZY AND JANE, Of Sustenance and Austen

Lizzy_JaneWith a book about food, love, and family, Miss Bates launches her review by eating humble pie. “Never say never” should be Miss B’s mantra regarding romance reading. Katherine Reay’s Lizzy and Jane is mild romance; it’s … GASP … women’s fiction, a fictive genre Miss Bates purports to abhor. Indeed, there’s been scorn-heaping. It’s the type of fiction she’s most likely to DNF. She finds it precious and precious becomes boring and boring becomes the worst kind of sentimental. Reay’s novel skirts close to DNF territory: estranged sisters (sibling relationships have never interested Miss B.), acrimony remaining from their mother’s illness, CANCER, one of the two sisters ill with CANCER herself, confronting the past, each other, and salvaging, or sundering, relationships. It focuses on younger sister, Elizabeth, “Lizzy,” Hughes, 33, moving back to the Pacific Northwest (from New York City where her chef’s career was floundering) to come to terms with people she left behind: retired firefighter dad and especially older sister, Jane. Her journey tries to answer: what is home? What do we owe the people closest to us, particularly those with whom we share strained relations? What is family? From where do we derive meaning and purpose? How do we find God amidst acrimony and failure?

It is the start of the Lenten season for Miss Bates, a season of re-evaluation and reflection, and Reay’s novel was a perfect fit. While suffering from the failure of inspirational fiction to make a tangible, ritualistic participation in church life as essential to defining ourselves as Christians, Reay’s novel nevertheless took a eucharistic perspective through Lizzy’s creative food acts. And her spirit guide, and that of others as well, like her sister, Jane, was Jane Austen. Like food, which serves as healer and binder, literature stands in as such as well. Continue reading

REVIEW: Robin York’s DEEPER, Or “Like A Drumbeat”

DeeperPhillip Phillips’ “Gone Gone Gone,” made the rounds in Miss Bates’ head as she read Robin York’s, aka Ruthie Knox, Deeper.  The song’s lively beat and Phillips’ glowingly adorable looks, despite the sentimentality of its “everything I do, I do it for you” ethos (more in keeping with Miss Bates’ youth 😉 ) are irresistible and an echo (“When life leaves you high and dry/I”ll be at your door tonight/If you need help … I’ll lie, cheat, I’ll beg and bride/To make you well”) of York’s début New Adult romance series.  York captures youth’s passions, its ignorance and sensitivity, and its resilience, in a story that is as much coming-of-age as romantic.  Miss Bates, especially in light of this post at Vacuous Minx about what is and isn’t a romance, would say this isn’t, lacking, as it does, the de rigueur HEA.  On the other hand, York subtitles Deeper with the caveat Caroline and West, Part I, so the possibility of an HEA is open to later volumes.  Be warned, however, that Deeper‘s end was a cryfest for Miss B. Continue reading

REVIEW: Susanna Kearsley’s THE SPLENDOUR FALLS … “On Castle Walls”

The Splendour FallsElgar’s Salut d’Amour for violin and piano is one of the composer’s early efforts, charming, moving, though minor in light of the entire oeuvre.  It informs the raison d’être of Kearsley’s Splendour Falls, this greeting of love, this welcoming.  Kearsley’s novel is also an early work, a reissue of a 1995 effort.  Its rawness is evident, the writer not yet in full control of her material, characters, or themes.  These elements are excessive: too many characters, too much detail, a bogging down of the narrative, and various threads  abandoned.  Nevertheless, Miss Bates enjoyed it.  She recognized in it the promise of what Kearsley does in The Winter Sea, or recent Firebird.  (Miss Bates hasn’t read these titles, but she’s read rave reviews.)  There is much to like in The Splendour Falls and like it Miss Bates did.  She can’t embrace it wholeheartedly, but it is thoughtful, serious, and contains wonderfully lyrical descriptive language.  It’s a quiet book; what it lacks in action, it makes up for in thought.  It’s not riveting, but it is well-written and the narrator’s voice is introspective, engaging and sympathetic. Continue reading