I both dreaded and looked forward to Barbara O’Neal’s The Art Of Inheriting Secrets, dreaded because I dislike women’s fiction and looked forward to because the blurb offered gothic potential. In the end, the novel’s gothic and romance aspects outweighed the women’s fic. I was one contentedly satiated reader at pages’ end. Be warned, there’s also first-person narration, but the narrator is engaging, funny, self-deprecating, intelligent, and as the hero notes, looks like Kate Winslet (I adore Winslet, ever since I saw her in Heavenly Creatures). Our narrator-heroine is San Francisco-based food writer and editor of the fictional magazine Egg and Hen, Olivia Shaw. When the novel opens, Olivia’s life has taken some spectacularly difficult, life-altering turns. She arrives in Hertfordshire’s Saint Ives Cross having recently learned she has inherited a crumbling estate, Rosemere Priory. She is mourning her mother, only six weeks gone, but she’s also learned that her mother kept her identity as Lady Caroline Shaw secret. The drippily unhappy heroine, the rain, the English countryside, the quaint village, down to the country-accented friendly cab-driver who drops her off at the local inn, absorbed me. I loved the premise of the family secrets, the crumbling priory, Olivia’s voice, and the notion of a heroine navigating a new place, culture, community, and her own new-found, strange identity.
A new Susanna Kearsley book is cause for celebration. As Bellewether was a long time coming, I was tickled all the colours of the rainbow to read it. It is, at least initially, a novel that felt quieter than others Kearsley has written. I thought the first half of the narrative meandered, like a ship unmoored, like the ship it’s named after and the bopping ghost-light in the Long Island forest that beckons to Kearsley’s contemporary heroine. Bellewether felt deceptively benign, but Kearsley’s hand steered the narrative ship on a sure course and it sneaks up on you how masterfully she does so when you experience the novel’s last third. It’s not as visceral a read as The Winter Sea, or as gothic-y and deliciously-Mary-Stewart-ish as Named Of the Dragon, but it is wonderful. Signature Kearsley, Bellewether is a double narrative: made of a contemporary heroine in search of discovering something of the past, a past meaningful and significant in a more-than-scholarly way. And, there is a historical narrative, centred on people caught up in a particular era, meeting, loving, and redeeming the losses and griefs of their pasts. The most wonderful idea that I took away from Bellewether is that we should never allow historical circumstance, the sweeping canvas of power and politics, to blind us to the possibility of an HEA.
A groggy, caffeine-heavy morning for me after a night reading into the wee hours, thanks to Lauren Willig’s Gothic romance, historical mystery The English Wife. The novel opens in January 1899 in Cold Spring NY, at “Illyria,” Bay and Annabelle Van Duyvil’s country estate. Bay and Annabelle’s hermetic existence has thus far been the bane of Bay’s appearances-are-all mother, Alva. Formidable, humorless Alva is ever flanked by Janie, her mousy, silent daughter and Anne, the mouthy, flamboyant niece she took in. To Alva’s great society-loving heart, Bay and Annabelle are finally celebrating the opening of their magnificent estate by holding a costume ball for New York’s best, brightest, and finest. Until now, Bay and Annabelle’s life has been a mystery. Rumours of eccentricities and infidelities swirl around them, about them … maybe because they keep to themselves and, at least on the surface, appear to live an idyllic existence with twins Sebastian and Viola. Bay and Annabelle don’t seem to give a fig about what the “best people” think, rendering them endlessly fascinating to the society pages and ensuring Alva Van Duyvil’s frustrated, officious meddling. Continue reading
Miss Bates has followed the fortunes of Karen White’s heroine, Melanie Middleton, her on-again, off-again fraught relationship with writer Jack Trenholm, and her ghostly encounters, malevolent and benign, through four books. Though written in first-person narration and with a maddeningly slow-moving romance, MissB enjoyed every one, especially when they culminated in pleasing romantic conclusions. How could she pass up an opportunity to learn of Jack and Mellie’s further adventures? And how not to revisit beautiful Charleston and the vintage homes that feature in each mystery? Be warned, readers, if you haven’t read the first four books, MissB’s review of #5, The Guests On South Battery, contains spoilers. It’s inevitable when each book, while resolving the ghostly mystery at its heart, only moves Mellie and Jack’s relationship one smidgen forward. But there’s epilogue-satisfaction to The Guests On South Battery. When it opens, wife and husband, Mellie and Jack, their ten-month-old twins, JJ and Sarah, and Nola, Jack’s daughter from an earlier marriage, and now Melanie’s step-daughter, are living a good life. Continue reading
Miss Bates is fascinated by romance writers’ use of gesture and body language in establishing character. She wrote about her preoccupation in an analysis of Heyer’s Devil’s Cub and cemented her heroine-chin obsession in her quasi-review of Lynne Graham’s The Greek’s Chosen Wife. Since then, ne’er a romance novel goes by without Miss Bates noting the romance writer’s iterations of the heroine’s lifted chin in fury, defiance, revolt, or mulishness. She indulges in a post about some of the chins she’s read in the past few months. Hope you enjoy it! Continue reading
Named Of The Dragon is another manifestation of Susanna Kearsley’s magic, a writerly witch’s pot of goodness, a virtuoso mix of gothic romance, amateur-sleuth mystery, and historical fiction mixed with legend and chronicle. On entertainment level alone, Named Of The Dragon will please – but, oh, there is so much more to think about and enjoy. Kearsley’s novel is signature and, with Simone St. James and Deanna Raybourn, the best in this hybrid genre the Ritas identified as novels “with strong romantic elements”. Atypical of the romance genre but typical of the hybrid, Kearsley’s novel has a first person narrator. Lynnette “Lyn” Ravenshaw is a London-based literary agent accompanying one of her writers, Bridget Cooper, to Christmas hols in rural Wales. This is no “child’s Christmas in Wales,” but children figure prominently in a narrative that alternates between Lyn’s vivid, anxiety-ridden, prophetic dreams of evil in a sterile wasteland where a lady in blue and blond, blue-eyed boy call for help and the waking world of temperamental authors amid village Christmas preparations. Lyn’s own loss of her newborn son five years ago fools the reader into thinking she is mourning and her dreams an expression of unresolved grief. But when she arrives in the Welsh town of Angle, with its rich history in Tudor England and connections to Merlin and Arthur, when she meets a fey young mother, Elen, who recognizes Lyn as her baby son’s, Stevie’s, savior and protector, when she meets the brooding playwright Gareth Morgan who figures in Elen’s life, and when she settles (Bridget’s friends) chez two brothers, James and Christopher Swift, who are also mysteriously involved with Elen and Stevie, her dreams take on dangerous, waking-world proportions.
Finding a TBR challenge title for July’s theme, a RITA Award winner, was easy for Miss Bates. She loved Simone St. James’ Silence For the Dead and The Other Side Of Midnight; it was natural to choose St. James’ first hybrid gothic-romance-ghost-story-mystery novel to read, The Haunting Of Maddy Clare, which won Best First Book and Novel With Strong Romantic Elements in RITA’s 2013 competition. Again Miss Bates had to read with the light on, again she read non-stop to reach the HEA, and again St. James delivered gothic romance’s promise: eerie atmosphere, a naïve, intelligent, diffident heroine, mysterious, dark hero, haunted places and unsettled spirits, and the heroine’s voice, growing in strength and understanding as she sets the world aright. The Haunting Of Maddy Clare opens in London in June 1922. Alistair Gellis, ghost hunter, seeks an assistant to help him investigate the ghostly presence of Maddy Clare in the village of Waringstoke. His request to a temp agency brings him solitary, lonely, poverty-stricken, sad Sarah Piper. While he already has an assistant in volatile Matthew Ryder, Maddy Clare’s ghost is particular in her hatred and violence towards men. With Sarah’s help in approaching and recording Maddy’s ghostly presence, Alistair and Matthew hope to rid Mrs. Clare, Maddy’s foster parent and employer, of the malevolent spirit residing and wreaking havoc in her barn. Continue reading
When 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
Elgar’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
What happens when an author names her hero Truman? The obvious. Her reader has the plain, geeky, tight-lipped 33rd U.S. president floating in her head as she tries tries tries to conjure the magically engrossing experience that reading a romance novel brings. A woeful, bespectabled, steel-haired figure intrudes into the narrative space. Thus it was with Brenda Novak’s Through the Smoke and her strangely-dubbed hero, Truman. There might be an allegory there, you say? Truman Stranhope, Earl of Druridge, is a True Man, a loyal man, a good man, a steadfast and loving man? Actually, as Miss Bates argues below, more a nonentity.
In her note to the reader, Novak says that her girlhood reading of Jane Eyre informs her return to historical romance, “I love the gothic feel, the air of mystery and … the heart-pounding romance.” Indeed, Miss Bates recognizes that Jane-Eyrean elements are in Through the Smoke: a mysterious hall named Blackmoor, a fire, a scarred hero, the nefarious wife-figure, an ingenue heroine true to her convictions and spunk-full, the cross-class nature of the protagonists’ relationship … even the housekeeper privy to the socially transgressive affair of hero and heroine. It’s all there. And, Miss Bates’ expectations rode high … as she willed herself not to flinch every time she read the hero’s name.
Continue reading to learn how Novak’s novel held up