REVIEW: Beatriz Williams’s THE SUMMER WIVES

The_Summer_WivesOne 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

REVIEW: Deanna Raybourn’s A TREACHEROUS CURSE

Treacherous_CurseDeanna Raybourn’s third Veronica Speedwell, Victorian-set mystery finds her prickly, sleuthing pair, Veronica and Stoker, where they’ve settled since book one’s conclusion: in Bishop’s Folly, setting up the Earl of Rosemorran’s museum from his vast, eclectic, esoteric collection. In A Treacherous Curse, their museological endeavours are interrupted by a mystery that tickles their adventurous spirits and curiosity, challenging and deepening their relationship. Unlike my other favourite historical mystery series, C. S. Harris’s Sebastian St. Cyr, it is interesting to note how Raybourn’s sleuthing protagonists are not endowed with a strong sense of justice. They’re driven by a crossword-puzzle-doer’s instincts, the need to solve the quandary, or as Veronica quips, “To investigate one murder is a curiosity. To investigate two is a habit.” This is not by way of criticism. It isn’t fair to compare persimmons with pineapples, but I do like to muse on authors’ world-building and thematic choices. What gives Raybourn’s series moral impetus, at least in these initial volumes, is the revelation of our main characters’ pasts. (In A Treacherous Curse‘s case, Stoker’s is under scrutiny.) Maybe this will change in future volumes? What else informs Raybourn’s series’ moral impetus is the fierce protectiveness and loyalty that Veronica and Stoker (aka Templeton-Vane) hold for each other. There’s romance dearth for romance readers, but enough of a spark to keep me reading, for this and sundry reasons. (I am delighted that Veronica ogles Stoker’s Laocoönian body, while he exhibits near-prudish bashfulness. So much fun in those scenes!) Continue reading

REVIEW: Lauren Willig’s THE ENGLISH WIFE

English_WifeA 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

MINI-REVIEW: Jennifer Ashley’s DEATH BELOW STAIRS

Death_Below_StairsI’m a fan of the kind of book Ashley’s written: historical setting, central mystery, a romance to follow from book to book. I LOVES’EM! My favourites are C. S. Harris’s Sebastien St. Cyr historical mysteries and Deanna Raybourn’s Veronica Speedwell. 2018 is turning out to be a global crapfest in so many ways, but it’s good for having two additions to these series to look forward to. Add the time travel historical-mystery-romance of a Susanna Kearsley and life doesn’t get better. So, you’d rightly say, dear reader, where does Ashley’s fall in your category of reading bliss? Argh, must I add another series to the ones I already follow? It appears I must. Ashley’s premise captured me (and not only because I was a sucker for Downton Abbey). Her cast of characters stays pretty much below stairs, except for one compelling example and a hero who seems to be a class-chameleon.

In 1881 London, Mrs. Kat Holloway arrives at her new position as cook in Lord Rankin’s household, which includes wife Lady Emily, and sister-in-law Lady Cynthia. Kat acquaints herself with the downstairs staff: butler Davis; housekeeper, Mrs. Bowen; and recruits kitchen-maid Sinead as cook’s assistant. Before she knows it, handyman Daniel McAdam shows up too, as a house-staff member. It is immediately obvious that Kat and Daniel have a history, a flirty, attracted manner to him and a “get away, you pest, come hither, big-boy” to hers. Continue reading

Miss Bates’s Favourite Books: 2017 Edition

Pretty_FaceAnother year of reading and reviewing for Miss Bates, a strange, difficult one, the reading sparse and hesitant at times. Personal and world affairs often took precedence over quiet evenings of reading and certainly less blog writing, reading, and commenting. Those books that took Miss Bates out of the daily eddies were all the more precious. She reminds herself and readers that the act of reading books that posit human love and justice are bright lights in times of darkness. As MBRR enters its fifth year, Miss Bates thanks her readers for visiting Miss Bates Reads Romance so faithfully. She also thanks the writers who pen their books and offer us respite, pleasure, and food for thought. She wishes fellow readers and writers a new year filled with possibility, inspiration, peace, hope, and love. Continue reading

REVIEW: C. S. Harris’s WHERE THE DEAD LIE

Where_the_Dead_LieThis summer, in anticipation of reading MissB’s Where the Dead Lie ARC, she listened to the first 10 volumes of C. S. Harris’s Regency-set murder mystery, C. S. Harris’s Sebastian St. Cyr series. MissB. listened to them, rapt, when she took a walk, prepared dinner, and dabbed make-up on in the morning. And, she discovered something about her mystery reading: she reads mysteries for the detecting figure’s personality, his mind’s workings, motivation, method, and relationships. Nothing is more satisfying for good doses of those reading interests than Harris’s series.

At the centre of it all is the enigmatic, gorgeous figure of Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, amateur sleuth, military veteran: tall, handsome, with penetrating strange yellow eyes, and a deep sense of finding justice for the vulnerable and oppressed. Equally fascinating and much beloved are his family: wife Hero and baby-son Simon; the doctor-friend who helps him reveal what dead bodies can tell about their murders, Paul Gibson, and his mid-wife partner, Alexi Sauvage; the austere, fragile elderly man who is Sebastian’s father, Alistair St. Cyr, Earl of Hendon; arch-nemesis, father-in-law, Lord Jarvis; embittered, jealous sister, Amanda; beautiful, tragic niece, Stephanie, and dissipated nephew, Bayard; sleuthing partner, magistrate Sir Henry Lovejoy; former actress-lover, Kat Boleyn; and Miss B’s personal favourites, Sebastian’s valet, Jules Calhoun and former-street-urchin tiger, Tom. While some novels in the series are stronger than others and MissB. may prefer some over others, Harris has created a Regency world, peopled it with the most likeable set of characters, drawn her villains with complexity, and ensured that MissB. remain with the series no matter where it might go.   Continue reading

REVIEW: Juliana Gray’s A MOST EXTRAORDINARY PURSUIT

A_Most-Extraordinary_PursuitThere’s a certain kind of novel Miss Bates adores and it appears Juliana Gray has written one in A Most Extraordinary Pursuit. Maybe it’s the summer Miss Bates spent in Greece reading Elizabeth Peters. Maybe it’s the heroines: feral spinsters, independent, prickly, and devoted to their work. A hero who may or may not be “heroic,” a combination 007, Indiana Jones, and Lord Peter Wimsey; he’s ambiguous, as are the heroine’s feelings for him. Nevertheless, hero and heroine must work together to solve a mystery, a mystery set in a locale east of their western European English setting, a place hot and difficult to navigate linguistically and culturally, where the narrative isn’t easy to read, Egypt, India, or Greece. Not since Deanna Raybourn’s first Veronica Speedwell mystery has Miss Bates found and enjoyed a novel of this ilk, not until Gray’s Pursuit.

Our heroine and narrator, Miss Emmeline Rose Truelove, has faithfully served the Duke of Olympia and his Duchess, Penelope, for six years. Emmeline and her employers’ relationship is a close and protective one. Sadly, Emmeline’s beloved Duke died while trout-fishing and his now-Dowager Duchess entrusts her with finding the missing heir, grand-nephew Mr. Maximilian Haywood, off studying Knossian ruins in Crete. Miss Truelove seems to have, at least initially, two companions on her voyage aboard the Duke’s yacht “Isolde” and throughout her journey-pursuit of Mr. Haywood: the charming “reprobate,” Freddie, Marquess of Silverton and Queen Victoria’s finger-wagging, admonishing ghost! Continue reading

Review: Cathy Pegau’s BORROWING DEATH

borrowing_deathCathy Pegau’s second Charlotte Brody historical murder mystery, Borrowing Death, is set between two colossal mistakes: the Great War and the enacting and enforcing of American Prohibition. While the Great War remains a definitive Canadian event, Prohibition figures prominently in the social rifts and conflicts of Pegau’s early-twentieth-century-Alaska-set novel. But Pegau’s journalist-amateur-sleuth heroine, Charlotte Brody, embodies an equally important historical moment. As Charlotte says, she’s not as interested in the 18th Amendment as she is in the 19th.

Charlotte is an independent, idealistic young woman, working as a journalist, deeply committed to causes near and dear to her, women’s suffrage and rights. Though only in her early twenties, Charlotte has done some living. She travelled from afar to the frontier town of Cordova. In the series’s first book, we learn Charlotte survived a fraught love affair. Her relationship with former lover Richard left her with a sour view of men and relationships and a diminished sense of her ability to understand and judge people. When she refused to follow her lover’s demand for a conventional end to their romance, that is, marriage, children, and Charlotte as home-maker, wife, mother, he turned on her. As a result, Charlotte made painful, irrevocable decisions, one that haunts her still. Moving to Cordova, reuniting with her brother Michael, is how Charlotte will lay the past to rest. Her writing and sleuthing, curiosity and intelligence, restore Charlotte’s faith in herself. If she can only find some way to restore her faith in romantic love.  Continue reading

MINI-REVIEW: Cathy Pegau’s MURDER ON THE LAST FRONTIER

Murder_On_Last_FrontierMiss Bates had every reason to want to read Cathy Pegau’s Murder On the Last Frontier: feminist-writer heroine, wintry setting (MissB’s favourite!), blue-eyed deputy hero, and that gorgeous hat! Sailing from her native Yonkers, journalist Charlotte Brody arrives in 1919 Cordova, Alaska, to join her doctor-brother, Michael. Charlotte’s plans are to write about northern frontier life as it confronts twentieth century American concerns: financial boom-times, women’s changing roles, mechanization, and the “soon-to-be-voted” Volstead Act. Charlotte is a proponent of women’s rights, especially the struggle for suffrage, and writes from that unique perspective, sending dispatches to Yonkers’s Modern Woman Review. Cordova is a small, but growing northern frontier town with sufficient amenities and a population, especially its upper echelons, who prides itself on its successes and attractions. Michael introduces Charlotte to  the Kavanaughs, town mayor and wife, his fiancée Ruth and her most respectable father, the Reverend Bartlett and his missus. Continue reading

REVIEW: Susan Elia MacNeal’s MRS. ROOSEVELT’S CONFIDANTE

Mrs_Roosevelt's_ConfidanteEver since youthful Miss Bates watched black-and-white film matinées, she’s a sucker for a narrative set in WWII (also, the glorious Band Of Brothers). She watched The Guns Of Navarone sundry times, even Mrs. Miniver, which gets a nod in Susan Elia MacNeal’s Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante, fifth in the Maggie Hope series set during WWII. MacNeal’s murder mystery is historically rich, interweaving fictional and non-fictional characters that never feel contrived. The heart of Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante is the eponymous heroine, Maggie Hope, ostensibly Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s secretary, actually special ops spy and code-breaker. For the most part, the novel takes place in Washington D.C. during Christmas of ’41 to New Year’s ’42. Maggie and her cohorts, David Greene and John Stirling (former RAF pilot and ex-fiancé) accompany Churchill to his meeting with President Roosevelt. For Maggie, David, and John, this is the culmination of what Churchill and they have been hoping for and planning, an alliance giving Britain the edge to defeat Nazi Germany. However, forces in the U.S. and Europe are operating against them, some of global significance and others of an equally pernicious domestic nature. Maggie is embroiled in the latter when figures, aiming to hurt the liberal president and scuttle his war efforts, frame his wife Eleanor. Blanche Balfour, Mrs. Roosevelt’s secretary, is found dead, an apparent suicide, with a note claiming that Eleanor made amorous advances to her. Should the letter be leaked to the media, repercussions would affect Roosevelt and Churchill’s plans …  Continue reading