I’m not certain what possessed me to want to read Fiona Davis’s The Masterpiece, other than a yen to leave the familiar reader-world of genre fiction for a while. Romance and mystery fiction are like comfortable only-at-home pants and sweatshirt. I ease into them and enjoy their sense of familiarity; on occasion, they also stifle. I need “something else,” so I venture into other reading territory. As a result I’ve read some remarkable non-fiction, Philippe Sands’s East West Street, the overhyped Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads, or left-me-agog Yuval Harari’s Sapiens. This time around, I went for historical fiction, that in retrospect, has a great dose of women’s fiction to it (cue moue of disappointment) Fiona Davis’s The Masterpiece. I love all things art and museums and thought this might be the thing to refresh my romance-murder-mystery-reading malaise. Written in third-person POV, The Masterpiece tells the story of two women, very much of their time and circumstance, 1920s-30s illustrator Clara Darden and 1970s breast cancer survivor, newly divorced Virginia Clay. The main character, however, is NYC’s Grand Central Terminal, its fortunes and misfortunes, its acme and nadir, its glory, dereliction, and resurrection. Of all the novel’s elements, I liked the building and Virginia the best.
One of the many things I love about Susanna Kearsley’s, Lauren Willig’s, Karen White’s, and now Beatriz Williams’s writing is their fidelity to the HEA. They hybridise various forms, historical novel, romance, gothic novel, mystery, murder or otherwise, social novel, they mash it up and produce novels that never fail to end up among my year’s favourites. Like their closest predecessor, Mary Stewart, they write in the first person (which used to be a romance-rarity but not so these days), creating a young, female protagonist who moves from innocence to experience during the narrative’s course. All this can well describe Beatriz Williams’s The Summer Wives, a novel that had me in its thrall over two days, waking up at dawn today to finish it. Initially, the novel impressed me as convoluted, with a plethora of characters and three historical narrative strands, but the voice of its central character and first-person narrator, Miranda née Schuyler Thomas, offered an Ariadne ball as I made my way through Williams’s labyrinth of love, hate, revenge, and betrayal. Underlying it was the susurration of Shakespeare’s Tempest, not only thanks to the eponymous heroine, but an island with native and visiting denizens, the sea’s ever-present beauty and danger, and a mystical, outside-of-time atmosphere. I would read it, stopping for a cup of tea and a biscuit, and whisper to myself, “Full fathom five thy father lies … ” Continue reading
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
Donna Thorland’s Renegades Of the American Revolution series, of which The Dutch Girl is fourth, is unique and wonderful. Miss Bates thinks it should become one of the great rom-sagas and certainly deserving of the same status as the dubious Outlander (Miss Bates isn’t a fan). Thorland cleverly interweaves history, adventure, spy thriller, and romance. Thorland’s Renegades are as much fun to read as Willig’s Carnation series (Miss Bates is a HUGE fan).
Thorland’s heroines are intelligent, beautiful, marginalized, caught up in the politics of war and espionage, but always, at core, ethical, admirable, and independent. They may start out naïve and young, but they’re survivors. They learn to navigate turbulent waters of intrigue and political interests without ever losing themselves. At their side, though often on opposite sides of the American/British divide, are heroes, somewhat more knowing, experienced, and equally embedded in the political interests of their day. The heroines, however, tap into the heroes’ romantic, protective core, an inner self the heroes have forgotten, seemingly discarded, or tucked away as years of political and/or military expediency hardened them. The eponymous Dutch Girl is Annatje Hoppe, whose alias is Miss Anna Winters, spinster New York school teacher. Our hero is childhood sweetheart, disgraced and disinherited-landed-rich-boy-no-more highwayman, Gerrit Van Haren. Continue reading
This month’s TBR theme was “Recommended Read.” Miss Bates chose to read a novel recommended by one of her rom-reading alter egos, Insta-Love Book Reviews. Insta-Love may not know this, but she’s never recced a rom Miss Bates hasn’t liked. (And Miss Bates isn’t easy to please.) Frankly, MissB’s an Insta-Love Reviews fan-girl and, yes, in her unstately ebullient spinster-fashion, squees when the occasional – sniff – review is posted. Miss Bates and Insta-Love share a love of, and acknowledgement of its problematic nature, inspie rom. Miss Bates read Jody Hedlund’s Colonial-America-set romance novel, Rebellious Heart (loosely based on John and Abigail Adams’s courtship). In 1763 Braintree, Massachusetts, defense lawyer Benjamin Ross saves accused murderer Hermit Joe Crab from the noose – to watch him lose his ears and be branded with an “M”. Hedlund’s Rebellious Heart is honest about the harsher aspects of 18th century Colonial America: slavery, corporal and capital punishment, indentured servitude, class differences, and social and economic strictures on women. In the midst of this world are two remarkable protagonists, lawyer Ben Ross and the young woman sitting in the court audience, his childhood nemesis, Miss Susanna Smith.
What happens to your identity when everything you’ve known about your family is a lie? This is Lauren Willig’s premise for The Other Daughter. It opens as a cross between Mary Stewart and Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Heroine Rachel Woodley’s life has the air of impoverished 19th century governess as she cares for the Comte de Brillac’s three daughters in the French countryside. An urgent telegram summons her to England. Rachel, however, is too late: her mother is dead of influenza, the funeral wreaths bought, adorned, and withered. At 25, Rachel is bereft of mother and father and destitute; her only hope, a secretarial course and immediate employment. Troubles come in battalias when their landlord in the obscure village of Netherwell evicts her. As Rachel packs her mother’s things, she makes a remarkable discovery – a Tattler photograph of Lady Olivia Standish and her father, the Earl of Ardmore, the man Rachel knew as Edward Woodley, the father she thought dead when she was four. Is the title’s “other daughter” Olivia, wealthy, polished, privileged, or Rachel, Ardmore’s by-blow? To lose job, mother, home … and discover you’re the illegitimate daughter of a man you’d adored and thought dead, alive, well, and callously indifferent to the wife and daughter he deceived and abandoned, what does it do to a girl? Can an author, other than Brontë, deprive her heroine of everything stable and loving and throw her into a surreal sense of dislocated self: Willig certainly has. Continue reading
At Ros Clarke‘s instigation and inspiration, Miss Bates joined her and others in reading a BIG FAT BOOK in July. Lately, Miss Bates reads romance restlessly, ARC after ARC, writing reviews … it feels flat, too much of the same for too long. She had difficulty articulating her malaise until she read this latest post by Jessica of Read React Review. Jessica is forthcoming about her own blogging and reviewing blehs-mehs. When Jessica didn’t feel the blogging love anymore, when blogging was a chore and burden, she put her blog on hiatus. Miss B. missed her terribly, but she understood. Then, Jessica returned, to all our joy! It was enlightening and comforting for Miss Bates to read Jessica’s blogging take because it’s positive, helpful, and hopeful. In a nutshell, blogging blahs happen: don’t feel guilty, take a break, make some changes; you will blog again and enjoy it. Your blog is bigger than you: let it brood while you brood. Miss Bates knows that she would miss MBRR terribly, so it’s not a hiatus she needs.
The blogging blahs after only a year? 106 posts later? Regular readers and commentators and you’re restless? For shame, Miss Bates. Miss Bates has always had a short attention span, a tendency to master a skill, or task and move on. As a result, she’s left behind things that have given her pleasure and fulfillment: cue in knitting projects and attempts at bread-making. Writing Miss Bates Reads Romance has given her great pleasure and she’s so grateful to everyone who’s read and commented on her posts. And truly blessed by the people she’s met and chatted with (also in her latest most addictive cross-over meeting-ground, Twitter). In the end, she’d miss it: she’s not where Jessica was when she called a blogging hiatus. Miss Bates still reads and loves romance. She still loves to write her posts. She is, however, tired of the sameness of read review, read review, ARC after ARC. She’s lost her blogging edge. What she’s proposing is to shake things up a tad: she’ll still review new and old romance titles. She’ll mostly be writing about romance, romance with romantic elements, classic romance especially, and romance-related anything-that-strikes-her-fancy. She’s not laying down her keyboard, just tapping away a little differently. Posting about her Big Fat Summer Book and what it feels like to be reading something outside the romance genre, after exclusively reading romance for five years, will be one such experiment, even if an utter failure. After reading Mantel’s Wolf Hall for a 25-minute increment, a “Pomodoro” (again, a method of work discipline she learned from Jessica and Sunita), failure may be where she’s headed. Continue reading