The Great Betty Read #38: Neels’s GRASP A NETTLE

Grasp_a_NettleThe quotation opening Neels’s Grasp a Nettle is quite the thing: “Tender-handed stroke a nettle/And it stings you for your pains;/Grasp it like a man of mettle/And it soft as milk remains,” attributed to Aaron Hill and eponymously referring to the romance’s heroine, Jenny Wren, her surname suggestive of bird-like cuteness. Well, there’s nothing “cute” about Jenny, or her hero, the acerbic, temperamental Professor Eduard van Draak te Solendijk. Jenny is, like the majority of Neels’s heroines, a nurse, but she is independently wealthy, of a storied estate family, and has neither a need to work, or marry to ensure a living. Her parents are long dead, but she may go home whenever she likes to Dimworth House, where her Aunt Bess, aka Miss Elizabeth Creed, would welcome her any time, indeed, would prefer that Jenny remain with her, take care of the estate as it receives visitors and be at her beck and call. Aunt Bess is loving, but imperious, expecting Jenny to care for her and marry her neighbour’s son, Toby. But Jenny is Neels’s attempt at a more modern heroine: Jenny wants to work at her nursing because she loves her work and is devoted to it, is ambitious for herself, and willing to wait until she meets “the one”: “There would be someone in the world meant for her; she had been sure of that ever since she was a little girl, and although there was no sign of him yet, she was still quite certain that one day she would come face to face with him, and he would feel just as she did — and in the meantime she intended to make a success of her job.” How beautifully Betty sets us up for The Man’s entrance. Aunt Bess takes ill, Jenny leaves her job to devote herself to her aunt’s care … and thus encounters and spars with Draak, through England, a cruise, and Holland. Continue reading

MINI-REVIEW: Lisa Kleypas’s COLD-HEARTED RAKE (Ravenels #1)

Cold-Hearted_RakeIf I can say a few things about Kleypas, they would be: she still writes books that made me fall in love with romance in the first place (Derek Craven!) and she’s only gotten better over time (except for the woo-woo books). It’s sad that I side-eye so much romance these days: afraid I’ll find yet another novel with trite, or formulaic ideas; or another trying so hard to do something new that it fails to come alive. But Kleypas still takes joy in the genre and it comes through in the Ravenel series. Though I’d read and reviewed Chasing Cassandra (back when the pubs most likely to decline a small-time reviewing outfit like Miss Bates went into pandemic-sales panic and granted ARCs right left and centre), I’m glad I went back and started the series from the first volume.

The pub-blurb makes Cold-Hearted Rake sound like any other standard-fare histrom, but the sheer delight and reader-joy I took in it was more than most historical romances I’ve tried to read have offered:

Devon Ravenel, London’s most wickedly charming rake, has just inherited an earldom. But his powerful new rank in society comes with unwanted responsibilities . . . and more than a few surprises. His estate is saddled with debt, and the late earl’s three innocent sisters are still occupying the house . . . along with Kathleen, Lady Trenear, a beautiful young widow whose sharp wit and determination are a match for Devon’s own. Kathleen knows better than to trust a ruthless scoundrel like Devon. But the fiery attraction between them is impossible to deny-and from the first moment Devon holds her in his arms, he vows to do whatever it takes to possess her. Continue reading

The Great Betty Read #37: Neels’s THE HASTY MARRIAGE

Hasty_MarriageThe Christian edict that “the last shall be first” comes true in many a Neels romance. Such is The Hasty Marriage (1977). The waif. The mouse. The mousy-haired. The too-small, too-plump, too-plain heroine. And, horrors, on the shelf too. Pushing thirsty. An *gasp* old-maid-in-the-making. The heroine who declares her un-attractiveness on every page. Is there a more self-deprecating one than The Hasty Marriage‘s Laura (do we ever learn her last name?).

A ward sister at St. Anne’s in London, she comes home to visit her father and finds her Dutch godfather with his colleague, Dr. Reilof van Meerum. Drama ensues, as we learn from the blurb:

Laura had always been used to taking second place to her pretty younger sister, Joyce. If Joyce wanted something, she got it! It was, therefore, no surprise to Laura that when she fell in love with the attractive Dutch doctor Reilof van Meerum, he chose Joyce instead. But when Joyce walked out on him to marry another, richer man, Reilof asked her to marry him. He needed a wife, and Laura, it seemed, would do as well as anyone. So she accepted–but could she really expect to be happy with a man who did not love her?

For the most part, and thank the good Neelsian gods, Joyce is absent from the narrative. When she appears, at the start to lure Reilof and at the end to put a canker in the rose of Laura’s marriage (stilted and unconsummated as it is, it’s hers and she loves Reilof enough to be willing to live with this compromise). Continue reading

Mini-Review: Cara Bastone’s CAN’T HELP FALLING (Forever Yours #2)

Bastone is as much at the top of her romance-game in Can’t Help Falling as she was in Just a Heartbeat Away. I may have enjoyed the latter a smidgen more than the former, but it doesn’t stop Can’t Help Falling from being one of the best romances I’ve read this year.

Falling picks up where Heartbeat leaves off and includes lovely cameos from the first romance’s hero and heroine, hero’s son and pooch, Seb, Via, Matty, and Crabby. While Heartbeat tells Seb and Via’s romance, Falling is about the road to love and commitment for Seb’s and Via’s best friends, Tyler Leshuski and Serafine “Fin” St. Romain:

Serafine St. Romain doesn’t need her psychic powers to know she’s no longer in Tyler Leshuski’s good graces. True, she did tear him to pieces when he asked her out, accusing him of being shallow and selfish. Despite the energy crackling between them, the gorgeous sports writer is a no-strings, no-kids kind of guy. And Serafine, raised in the foster system, intends to be a foster parent herself. She won’t compromise that dream, even for a man as annoyingly appealing as Tyler.

In a simpler world, Tyler would already have gotten Serafine out of his system. For him, women equal fun. Not this kind of bone-deep, disconcerting desire. Life gets even more complicated when he becomes the guardian of his much younger sister. Suddenly, he’s way out of his depth. Serafine’s the only person who can connect with Kylie. He can’t jeopardize that for a fling. But maybe…just maybe…he’s finally ready to risk everything on forever.

The blurb, however, makes the romance more lighthearted than it is. While Bastone can write great comic scenes and with great wit, neither Tyler, nor Fin start the narrative in a particularly good place and they experience anguish, doubt, and heartache. Continue reading

Mini-Review: Jackie Ashenden’s HOME TO DEEP RIVER

We can add Jackie Ashenden to the queendom of the small-town contemporary romance duo of Maisey Yates and Caitlin Crews/Megan Crane to make a triumvirate. Which means you get more of the same if you’re a fan of Yates, or Crews-Crane. I’m not a fan anymore. I’m tired of the formula: former military heroes are now suspect, small-towns are scary “off the grid” loony-territory, and tough-talking heroines hiding lonely vulnerabilities aren’t quite believable when “they doth protest too much”. If these characters turn your crank, then you’re the reader for Ashenden’s first “Deep River, Alaska” romance, Home to Deep River.

Ashenden establishes her series setting with a romance that sees hero Silas Quinn return home when his best friend, RIP Caleb West, the town owner, bequeaths him, well, the town. It’s been thirteen years of bad memories of Deep River, except for Silas’s love for Hope Dawson:

Deep River, Alaska, boasts a fiercely independent though small population. The people who live here love it, and they don’t much care what anyone else thinks. Until the day Silas Quinn comes back and tells them an oil reserve has been found below the town and now it’s neighbor vs. neighbor. Some want to take the money and run, while others want to tell the oil company to put its rigs where the sun don’t shine.

Hope Dawson never expected to leave Deep River. Her mom needs her. Her grandfather died and left her the local hangout to run. Her dreams of college and adventure died long ago. Until Silas comes back to town, holding the key to set her free. But freedom means she loses him again, and he’s the one she’s really always wanted.

As a matter of fact, no oil company shows up, there’s no neighbour vs. neighbour and the oil reserve is a minor plot point in this day and age of climate change and alternative energy to bring Silas and Hope together. Does it matter? Not really. Because the town shenanigans and oil reserves and what the town will decide are the background to Ashenden’s purpose: her protagonists waffling on about their tormented feelings while having a lot of sex, lotso’ sex and lotso’ internal distress and denial.  Continue reading

The Great Betty Read #36: Neels’s A MATTER OF CHANCE (1977)

A_Matter_Of_ChanceAh, beloved Betty, your Matter of Chance took me through many a bathtub reading session and kept me annoyingly flipping pages. You broke the bank with your hero’s inscrutable meanness and heroine’s puckered-brow peevishness. I admit to an eagerness to read my Betty #36 because of the sheer delight I took in your protagonists’ names, as evidenced from the blurb:

Cressida Bingley needs a fresh start, so moving to Holland for a new job seems perfect. Until she finds herself lost in Amsterdam and accepts help from a charming knight in shining armor — who turns out to be her new boss’s partner! Dr. Giles van der Tiele can’t forget the alluring young woman he rescued, and longs to make her his bride. But Cressida refuses to marry for anything less than love.

Hmm, the blurb is deceptive because Giles doesn’t propose to Cressida until near the end and the blurb moves this into the preamble to MoC territory, which it isn’t. As a matter of fact, I hate to say this, but Giles spends most of the novel being so incredibly unkind that I came as close to being mad at precious Betty as I ever have. I loved Cressida: she’s smart, competent, beautiful, and hard-working. So what gives, Giles, why you gotta be so mean? Continue reading

REVIEW: C. S. Harris’s WHAT THE DEVIL KNOWS

What the Devil Knows is C. S. Harris’s 16th Regency-set Sebastian St. Cyr mystery. Always leery of a series losing its reading-lustre, I’m amazed how each one keeps me in thrall for the one or two days in which I devour it. Part of it is thanks to Harris’s rich historical setting, focussed on the injustices of a society where the privileges of wealth and birth are in turn the exploiters of the poor, vulnerable, and low-born. Most of it, however, is due to Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin; wife, Hero (adorable son, Simon), a slew of sleuthing-helpers (among my favourites, Irish surgeon Paul Gibson and Sebastian’s “tiger,” Tom) who care: they care about justice being done, they care about the downtrodden; they care about the precarious lives of the ordinary people who make up Regency London. If you come looking for the verve and froth of Bridgerton‘s London (I loved it, but this is a different animal), you won’t find it. Instead, the steadiest, most loving of couples and Harris’s meticulously researched world, more in service of great fiction than exactitude (always read the author’s note). In What the Devil Knows, London’s port and the publicans who serve her is her setting; past murders and mysteriously connected new ones set Sebastian on the path to untangling past and present:

It’s October 1814. The war with France is finally over and Europe’s diplomats are convening in Vienna for a conference that will put their world back together. With peace finally at hand, London suddenly finds itself in the grip of a series of heinous murders eerily similar to the Ratcliffe Highway murders of three years before.

In 1811, two entire families were viciously murdered in their homes. A suspect–a young seaman named John Williams–was arrested. But before he could be brought to trial, Williams hanged himself in his cell. The murders ceased, and London slowly began to breathe easier. But when the lead investigator, Sir Edwin Pym, is killed in the same brutal way three years later and others possibly connected to the original case meet violent ends, the city is paralyzed with terror once more.

Was the wrong man arrested for the murders? Bow Street magistrate Sir Henry Lovejoy turns to his friend Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, for assistance. Pym’s colleagues are convinced his manner of death is a coincidence, but Sebastian has his doubts. The more he looks into the three-year-old murders, the more certain he becomes that the hapless John Williams was not the real killer. Which begs the question–who was and why are they dead set on killing again? Continue reading

Mini-Review: Kaki Warner’s ROUGH CREEK

Rough_CreekIf you are looking to read great historical Western romance, you’re in for a treat with Kaki Warner’s Blood Rose Trilogy. Because I’d loved it and despaired of seeing more from Warner, I was delighted to see she was back with contemporary Western romance. I’m not keen on cowboys and I hate horsey stories, but, hey, Warner! And I happily plunged into Rough Creek. The blurb made me nervous there would be too many horsey details and I was right, but the protagonists are always what’s best in Warner. The blurb was encouraging:

 
I do love me some simmering “heart-pounding tension”. Sadly, it’s not what I got: instead, a story about two careful, caring people who hadn’t exercised their heart muscles, or any others for that matter, in ages, a drawn-out dance of closeness, then distance, and a halting pace to the HEA.

Continue reading

Mini-Review: Deanna Raybourn’s AN UNEXPECTED PERIL

An_Unexpected_PerilAn Unexpected Peril is the sixth “Veronica Speedwell” Victorian-Era-set mystery Raybourn has penned and as solid an addition to one of my favourite series as any. While the mystery component didn’t engage as well as the previous two volumes, the marvelous A Dangerous Collaboration and A Murderous Relation, Veronica and lover-and-fellow-sleuth, Stoker, were as charming, sharp, and funny as ever, with, on Veronica’s part, a tenderness and vulnerability that made me like her even more. As for Stoker: his candy-eating, Keats-quoting, animal-obsessed nerdiness, broad shoulders, and good looks, are easy to love. His love for Veronica and one heart-stopping avowal in this volume would make him irresistible to any romance reader. But first, to the mystery, best recounted by the novel’s descriptor:

January 1889. As the newest member of the Curiosity Club–an elite society of brilliant, intrepid women–Veronica Speedwell is excited to put her many skills to good use. As she assembles a memorial exhibition for pioneering mountain climber Alice Baker-Greene, Veronica discovers evidence that the recent death was not a tragic climbing accident but murder. Veronica and her natural historian beau, Stoker, tell the patron of the exhibit, Princess Gisela of Alpenwald, of their findings. With Europe on the verge of war, Gisela’s chancellor, Count von Rechstein, does not want to make waves–and before Veronica and Stoker can figure out their next move, the princess disappears. Having noted Veronica’s resemblance to the princess, von Rechstein begs her to pose as Gisela for the sake of the peace treaty that brought the princess to England. Veronica reluctantly agrees to the scheme. She and Stoker must work together to keep the treaty intact while navigating unwelcome advances, assassination attempts, and Veronica’s own family–the royalty who has never claimed her.

That final element, the family “who has never claimed her” and her love for Stoker make for a new facet to Veronica: the young woman who never belonged suddenly belongs to someone, the child who yearned for family has it in her grasp. But the years of solitude, solitary adventure, and a certain steeling of the heart have rendered Veronica uncomfortable with attachment, and Stoker, loving, funny, astute, gorgeous Stoker, drives a stake through the heart of Veronica’s strikes-out-on-her-own existence and scares her more than any villain. And this is the best part of An Unexpected Peril. Continue reading

Mini-Review: Roni Loren’s YES & I LOVE YOU

yes_&_i-love_youRoni Loren’s series, The Ones Who Got Away, about the grown-up heroes and heroines who share a high school shooting, is one of the best contemporary romance series I’ve read; therefore, any new Loren series comes with anticipation and high expectations. This latest “Say Everything” series sees Loren pull deep from her counsellor background in creating her protagonists. Her heroine, the lovable Hollyn Tate, has Tourette’s, and her hero, the less lovable Jasper Deares, ADHD. Their portrayal, Hollyn’s in particular, is sensitive and knowledgeable. The premise is a tad ludicrous, but aren’t many in romance fiction? The blurb will give you an idea of it:

Everyone knows Miz Poppy, the vibrant reviewer whose commentary brightens the New Orleans nightlife. But no one knows Hollyn, the real face behind the media star…or the fear that keeps her isolated. When her boss tells her she needs to add video to her blog or lose her job, she’s forced to rely on an unexpected source to help her face her fears.

When aspiring actor Jasper Deares finds out the shy woman who orders coffee every day is actually Miz Poppy, he realizes he has a golden opportunity to get the media attention his acting career needs. All he has to do is help Hollyn come out of her shell…and through their growing connection, finally find her voice.

Hmm, this doesn’t quite honour the novel’s attempted complexity: Jasper is the barista in Hollyn’s work co-op. When she learns his acting expertise is improv, they strike a deal to help her prepare to do video using improv games and help him get his theatre troupe off the ground with a Miz Poppy review. In some muddled and muddy way, they also end up agreeing to a pretend-relationship/affair: something about helping Hallyn emerge from her sexual naïveté and give her amorous wings? But the heart will do what the heart will do and Hallyn’s heart, and eventually, I guess, Jasper’s, falls in love. Continue reading