MOSTLY A READING, Bit of a Review: Rose Lerner’s SWEET DISORDER “Does More Bewitch”

MedSweetDisorderReading 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

REVIEW: Kate Noble’s THE GAME AND THE GOVERNESS, Standing in Someone Else’s Shoes

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Run-of-the-mill cover for a unique romance novel!

Lessons are learned in Kate Noble’s historical romance, The Game and the Governess. One article led Miss B. to reading it: Jessica’s Book Riot recommendation and one made her think about it, Robin Reader’s DA essay on “Romance and the ‘Meaning of Life’.”  Robin Reader’s questions about romance’s reluctance to engage in existential speculation, which centred, in the discussion, on inspirational romance, raised interesting ideas. Miss Bates thinks that romance is even more enjoyable when it implies an ideological basis. And really, is there any way to escape the ideological, even when an author purports that she’s just telling a good romantic story? That, however, is not the job of the author, but the critic, which is why, with Northrop Frye, Miss Bates would agree that criticism can be as “creative” an act as fiction-weaving. Miss B. digresses, as is her wont. Suffice to say for her purpose here that Noble’s romance novel is, like Jane Austen to whom she has been compared (see Jessica’s review), a novel of ideas, interesting, reader-chewable ideas of privilege, class, merit, and personality.

Noble begins with an interesting premise, years before she brings her hero, “Lucky Ned” Granville, Earl of Ashby, and heroine, governess Phoebe Baker, together. Her premise is “fortunes falling, fortunes rising.” When Ned was twelve, living modestly with his mother in Hollyhock, Leicestershire, his uncle, the then earl, sent him to school, grooming him to be the future earl. Ned never saw his mother again. When we meet him, Ned is a careless, carefree, amoral aristocrat; he’s not a charming rake, hiding his kindness and consideration. It’s not his dissipation that is important, but his attitude towards others and self-importance. When Phoebe was seventeen, she, because of her father’s bad investments, lost her place in the world: from soon-to-be débutante to orphaned governess (and unlike Jane Eyre, whom Miss B. couldn’t help but think of, no fortune lurks in the shadows to make her palatable to an aristocratic husband). In the midst of her loss of fortune is a fraudster, Mr. Sharp, who also milked the then young earl, Ned. Phoebe’s rage, at the time, led her to writing two hate-filled letters to the young man who had the power and privilege to put an end to Mr. Sharp and did not, though he too had been defrauded by him. When we meet her five years later, Phoebe has wrested equanimity from her situation; she makes the best of her governess role, loving her charges, the delightful Rose and Henry, daughter and son to Sir Nathan and Lady Widcoate, and reveling in her teaching role. Her misfortune has given her, if not passion, then contentment and occasionally delight. Phoebe remains a model of hard work and positive attitude: a lesson that Nat needs to learn if his life is to have purpose. Continue reading

MINI-REVIEW: Trish Milburn’s THE TEXAN’S COWGIRL BRIDE

Texan's_Cowgirl_BrideMiss Bates is always interested in a romance novel portraying an ill hero, or heroine (though it’s interesting that she has yet to read an ill hero). As Fitzgerald’s narrator, Nick Carraway, said in The Great Gatsby, ” … there was no difference between men, in intelligence or race, so profound as the difference between the sick and the well.” This has made for some great romance novels; in both cases, the heroine is ill, or recovering from a life-threatening illness: Donna Alward’s How A Cowboy Stole Her Heart and Karina Bliss’ Here Comes the Groom. Indeed, how a romance writer treats the topic (sorry for the pun) makes for compelling reading, especially the hero and heroine’s navigation of their relationship in mortality’s crosshairs. It’s the only reason Miss Bates made it through the sole J. R. Ward Blackdagger Brotherhood novel she ever read, Lover Eternal. (She quite liked it, but one was enough, thank you.) Trish Milburn’s The Texan’s Cowgirl Bride, a mouthful of a title, held that promise for Miss Bates. She really, really wanted to like the story of Savannah Baron, peach-pie-baker par excellence and store-owner, faced with a life-threatening illness, and soldier-turned-private-investigator, widowed hero, Travis Shepard. Milburn’s romance novel is set up with interesting premises: its problems lie in their execution. Continue reading

REVIEW: Molly O’Keefe’s NEVER BEEN KISSED, Or The Flower and The Watering-Can

Never_Been_KissedMiss Bates noted, since reading Molly O’Keefe’s first Boys of Bishop contemporary romance, Wild Child, that her second, Never Been Kissed, again builds a romance around headline news. Characters are besieged by the media, or embroiled in it, seeking, or avoiding notoriety, or manipulating it to gain their ends. This makes for an interesting vacillation between the public world of the camera’s flash and news report and the private world where characters work out their varied, complex relationships with lovers and family. It reminds us how easily, in this age of voracious media, the private becomes public, how it encroaches, and what a challenge it is to stay. This theme adds depth to O’Keefe’s story, depth that she’s always had in spades anyway, if Miss Bates’ last O’Keefe review is anything to go by. If you read one historical romance this year, it should be O’Keefe’s Western-set, post-bellum Seduced. Though years and worlds away, Never Been Kissed confronts similar questions of how to move on from the past, of self-worth and purpose, of negotiating a relationship with odds stacked against it, of the heart’s conflicts, of what it means to be American. Never Been Kissed is the story of the romance between taciturn ex-Marine-bodyguard, Brody Baxter, and rich-girl do-gooder, Ashley Montgomery, who, ten years ago, at seventeen, made a pass at him when he worked as a bodyguard for her family. He rebuffed her, quit his job, but never forgot her … nor she him. Extraordinary circumstances bring them together again, but everyday, private life, when they retreat to Brody’s hometown of Bishop, Arkansas, will make, or break their fragile love. Continue reading

REVIEW: Mary Balogh’s THE ESCAPE, Running To, or Running From?

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Beautiful cover!

One of Miss Bates’ dearest friends is an artist. She once told Miss B. that visual artists fall into one of two categories: those whose primary focus is colour, or those whose primary focus is line. Maybe we can say the same about romance writers? Those who use line make use of strongly delineated roles for their characters; they rely on convention to build a narrative. Their characters, such as in PNR romance, do not deviate from their prescribed roles: mates are fated; there may be some negotiation and manoeuvring to reach the HEA, but, overall, the reader can see exactly where this is going. Deviations occur in plot rather than characterization. We may also see this in romantic suspense, which is not to say that subversions of the conventions don’t occur. Then, there are colorists, whose primary focus is in the development and transformation, over the course of a simple narrative, of character, in particular the heroine and hero. Mary Balogh is a colorist; her interest lies in characters in transition, caught in a moment when they have to do serious thinking and decision-making about where they’re going. She is also interested in how desire and love can insert themselves into people’s lives at the most inconvenient, unlikely, and often unwelcome moments. Hero and heroine have to work out the impetus towards love/commitment and pulling away from the bonds of engagement, a yearning for connection and longing, at the same time, solitude and independence. These conflicting and conflicted impulses are evident in both her male and female characters. Continue reading

REVIEW: Molly O’Keefe’s SEDUCED, Finding “Rainbows in Little, Wrinkled Brown Seeds”

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What a beautiful cover!

 Miss Bates’ Canadian perspective of the American ante- and post- bellum periods is set, in most unscholarly fashion, by popular culture. She read Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind when she was in grade six. She loathed it then; she loathes it now. (And no, she wouldn’t reread it to gauge her response years later.) In 1976, when Miss B. was a new teen, she, and millions of others, watched the TV miniseries adaptation of Alex Haley’s Roots, a novel with its own controversies and questions. Nevertheless, at the time, Miss Bates and her family, European immigrants to North America, loved it. In 1990, Miss Bates, again with so many others, was glued to Ken Burns’ The Civil War. Who can resist the images, soulful music, and epistolary eloquence? But, it too has its misrepresentations. She doesn’t purport any expertise on the topic other than what she refers to here and that is no expertise at all, really. Moreover, Miss Bates sees the American civil conflict through the lens of a tsk-tsk-ing outsider, her own country’s conflicts never having seen a battlefield other than the legislative (though Louis Riel, the rebellions, his trial, and execution in 1885 might have something to say about that. It is a time and place worthy of a romance). Not that Canada is immune to racism and conflict, au contraire, but our “quiet revolutions” have been linguistically decentralizing, while our neighbours’ claim to unity has always struck her as more mythic than actual. All of this to say that she, nevertheless, welcomes a romance set in the aftermath of the war, though she’s also leery of it, thanks to GWTW, given this period in American history remains a tender, if scabbed over, wound. She’s uncertain, nay ignorant, how well O’Keefe’s Seduced skirted historical and political landmines. From this outsider’s perspective, however, as a romance, Miss Bates loved it … with a few caveats for some weaknesses … but a highly recommended read nonetheless. Continue reading

REVIEW: Beth Andrews’ SMALL-TOWN REDEMPTION, Or Nursing the Wounded Hero

Small-Town_RedemptionIf there’s one thing grown ubiquitous in the past five years in the genre, it’s the small-town romance. Beth Andrews’ fourth title in the “In Shady Grove,” Pennsylvania, series stands for the very idea behind the small-town romance. If urban dwellers leave big-lights, big-city behind, with its rat race, stress, temptations, and sped up lives where we lose sight of our humanity, to return to a smaller world, communities where everyone knows you and you know everyone, our lives will somehow be redeemed. As the hero of Small-Town Redemption suggests, less than a year in Shady Grove and he’s turned into a “boy scout.” The refuge that the small-town purports to offer is a venue by which life is renewed and made better, more human, less overwhelming, where a person can belong by laying down roots and participating in the life of the community, where the community gives the heroine and hero the perfect matrix, ultimately, to live a more sedate pace and bring up children. How accurate is this picture? Not terribly, but it is a powerfully attractive one. What is interesting about Andrews’ romance novel is that the small town promise of redemption figures next to … not at all. It is a novel devoid of a strong sense of place, focussed as it is on tormented hero, Kane Bartasavich, and paragon of virtue and compassion, heroine Charlotte Ellison. The town figures only as a foil for the hero to reject his dissipated Houston past. If this were a historical romance novel, Kane would be an intemperate rake and Charlotte, the sensible, loving, plain virgin-heroine who leads him to the promised land of virtuous family life in the country. In Miss Bates’ opinion, too many romance novels laud and advance the idea that couplehood and family life are defined by a withdrawal from society to a domestic enclave. Andrews’ novel is a romance heavily invested in characterization, not setting. It was a solid read; Miss Bates enjoyed it. She was, however, frustrated with it as well. Continue reading

The “Beginning of a Beautiful Friendship”: Mary Stewart’s MADAM, WILL YOU TALK?

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Love these Hodder & Stoughton re-issue covers.

As a life-long bookworm, Miss Bates has fallen in love with many a writer. Sometimes, the relationship is long-lasting (hello, Charlotte Brontë); sometimes, not (good-bye, D. H. Lawrence). But the experience has always been love at first sight: it’s rare that an author woos her over several books. Reading the first sentence of Mary Stewart’s Madam, Will You Talk? was like Romeo recognizing Juliet across the ballroom. “The whole affair began so very quietly”: Stewart’s novel and Miss B.’s tumble into amore was as lovely and definitive as reading “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.” A turn of phrase pulling the reader into the writer’s world, a declarative sentence mysterious, question-inducing: What is this “affair”? How was it “quietly” begun? What came next? If a walk wasn’t possible: why not? what happened instead? What other possibilities were explored? Reading further in Madam, Will You Talk?, Miss Bates discovered more similarities to her beloved Jane Eyre: a heroine moral and fearless, standing on principle, defending the vulnerable, showing compassion, and answering to the unknown with firm purpose and stalwart spirit. Moreover, in the midst of danger and a world of corruption and crime, our heroine finds love in confrontation with a man who is hero and possible villain. Our heroine’s moral stance and fortitude set the world aright for herself and her hero, who emerges worthy of her. There were bumps on Miss B’s Mary Stewart ride, discomfiting jolts encountered on rough country roads by the Bentleys and Mercedes her heroines and heroes drive, but oh what a ride, what views and vistas. Stewart’s novel did not have Brontë’s scope or brilliance, but as Stewart claimed, her stories “love and imitate the beautiful and the good,” marvelously so, says Miss Bates. Continue reading

REVIEW: Simone St. James’s SILENCE FOR THE DEAD, Or Crossing No Man’s Land

Silence_For_the_DeadWhen Miss Bates was in graduate school many years ago, she read Paul Fussell’s Abroad: British Literary Travelling Between the Wars.  She went on to read Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory, (which she still counts among her favourite books) and all of Wilfred Owen’s poetry.  As she completed her graduate studies, Pat Barker’s World War I trilogy was published, Regeneration, The Eye In the Door, and The Ghost Road, and Miss Bates devoured them in singular sittings.  “The Great War” was a line in the sand in Western history and we experience its repercussions still.  Her reading and rereading of these great books and fascination with the era and its aftermath remain.  It follows that she was disposed to be interested in, if not to like, Simone St. James’s post-Great-War mystery-ghost-story-historical-romance Silence For the Dead.  She found that she loved it!  Its echo of history’s ghosts, their haunting of us, the experience of ordinary, working-class people, the crossing of the dividing-line between classes that the trenches entailed, the walking wounded that are its legacy … all of that and more is in St. James’s hybrid novel of romantic suspense, closed-room mystery, ghost story, and one gloriously rendered romance of friendship, respect, love, humour, and desire.  Like most thrillers, it lost some of these wonderful threads in the solving of the mystery as it lapsed into sensationalism, a niggling point in light of its wunder-HEA, however. 😉 If you read one mystery with really “strong romantic elements” this year, it should be this one. Continue reading, but there’ll be more lauding

A REVIEWish Reading of Carla Kelly’s SUMMER CAMPAIGN, or The Hero-Suitor as Grand Strategist

Summer CampaignWhen Miss Bates rediscovered romance and dipped into various authors to determine who would suit for long-term relationships, she resolved to read certain authors’ oeuvres because she enjoyed, appreciated, or found the initial sampling thought-provoking . One of those was Carla Kelly; this reading comes of Miss Bates’s reach into the back-list. Summer Campaign did not disappoint. After a slow start, Summer Campaign was wonderful and had the rare honour of turning Miss Bates into a watering-pot on several counts. What is it about Kelly’s stories that Miss Bates finds poignant, slow in places and imperfect, but moving and loveable? In the case of Summer Campaign, it lies in Kelly’s use of a military metaphor to tell a story about laying a siege of the heart. If you are vulnerable to her writing and the type of stories she tells, Kelly’s novels besiege the reader’s heart, tear down the walls, and expose vulnerable centres all the while reminding us that the purposeful life is a life of service conducted with humour, strength, and good will. Read on for more of Miss Bates’s watering-pot commentary