It’s rare that Miss B. reacts to a romance (maybe because her choices tend to the tried and true these days) as she did to Amy Sandas’s The Untouchable Earl. About half way through, she wanted to DNF. But there was a sense of purpose and theme to it that said, “No, no, keep reading.” So, she did. And now that it’s done, she doesn’t quite know what to say about it. At its heart is a sexual healing theme that Miss B. despises, akin to her curled-lip reaction to Lisa Valdez’s Passion, possibly rivaling Old Skool romance to be the worst romance novel ever written. And yet, she also can’t dismiss The Untouchable Earl the way she can Passion. Its premise is the stuff of high eye-rolling melodrama. Melodramatic circumstances conspire to bring Plain-Jane husband-seeking ton debutante Lily Chadwick, kidnapped and drugged, up for auction at Madame Pendragon’s, a brothel. It’s all pretty sordid and awful until the eponymous Earl, a hero with possibly the most ridiculous name in romance, Avenell Harte (with, yes, the obvious pun there) purchases Lily and her intact maidenhead. As far as maidenheads go, hers isn’t half as impressive as Passion’s, but still. It doesn’t look like her maidenhead’s in any danger when we find out that Avenell (she’s strictly forbidden from saying his name and when you consider how lame it is, you can understand the guy’s reluctance) … well, he’s functional and all, but he can’t bear to be touched.
There’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
Miss Bates is a Tessa Dare fan. She read the first three Spindle Cove novels and adored them, especially the third, A Week To Be Wicked, with its bespectacled paleontologist-heroine and dissolute rake-hero. Also, it’s a road romance and Miss B. loves a road romance almost as much as she does a closed-cabin one.
Do You Want To Start A Scandal, Spindle Cove #5, doesn’t take place in Spindle Cove, but at the Nottinghamshire estate of Sir Vernon Parkhurst and, as such, is more a closed-estate romance, with a dash of closed-room mystery thrown in. Heroine Charlotte Highwood and hero Piers Brandon, Marquess of Granville, are Sir Vernon’s guests. When the novel opens, neither is in a good place. Charlotte’s marriage-machinating mum, reminiscent of Austen’s Mrs. Bennett, has landed her in the humiliating position of being a gossip-rag’s ridiculed gull, the Prattler‘s. Charlotte is the source of the eponymous “scandal” and the moniker plagues her throughout. Piers, on the other hand, is everything proper, controlled, and aristocratic. His presence at the Parkhurst estate, however, is not in the convention of the languid gentleman enjoying a few weeks in the country. He’s on official crown business, spying on Sir Vernon, who may be asked, by the government, to take a sensitive overseas position. Piers is there to find out if scandal, tryst, blackmail, or any politically-lethal weakness, may put the crown at risk of humiliation. So, Charlotte, prodded by her mother, is on a husband-finding mission while Piers is on a fact-finding one.
Last year, Miss Bates was introduced to Marguerite Kaye’s work when she read the Comrades In Arms series, The Soldier’s Dark Secret and The Soldier’s Rebel Lover. She loved them and found they brought something new to the tired old Regency romance: truly independent heroines, with will, will power, conviction, and a strong impetus to forge their own destiny and heroes who let them be themselves. In the Hot Arabian Nights series, Kaye brings the same feminist ethos to her heroines and the same consideration to her heroes. In the second book, Sheikh’s Mail-Order Bride, this heroine-centric disposition comes in the form of Lady Constance Montgomery, on her way to India to fulfill her parents’ arranged marriage for her to an English merchant. We learn that “mama” and “papa” sent her to India in exchange for Mr. Edgbaston’s hefty payment to deal with debts incurred by her father’s hare-brained money-making schemes. On the way, however, Constance is shipwrecked on the Kingdom of Murimon’s shores. Murimon’s soon-to-be crowned king, Kadar, is native and would be to the manner born had he not spent the last seven years travelling the world and putting his cultural-know-how and sharp judgement to kings’ and nobles’ disposal. With his brother’s Butrus’s death, Kadar, though he’d vowed never to return because of the “sad thing” that happened to him (ah, cherchez la femme, chère lectrice) must take power to devote himself to his people’s well-being and country’s prosperity.
Miss Bates positively reviewed the first volume of Alissa Johnson’s Thief-Takers series, A Talent For Trickery. However, it was glimpses of the hero and heroine of the present volume, A Gift For Guile, that she anticipated. Guile‘s premise remains the same: three Victorian PIs’ lives are interwoven with the thief-turned-police-informant Will Walker’s family. Walker was killed when he and the three PIs rescued a kidnapped duchess and retrieved her jewels. To Walker’s family, however, two daughters and a son, his death was blessing and curse. Walker manipulated and used them, especially the girls, and yet, for all intents and purposes, with a mother who abandoned them, he WAS their family. A Gift For Guile is the story of the daughter who, Miss Bates suspects, suffered the most damage from Will Walker’s machinations and dishonesty, Esther Bales-Walker. Will used Esther to thieve and trick. When the present novel opens, Esther, known to police and therefore in danger of being identified and caught, is in a London train station, awaiting a meeting with a mysterious young man who claims to have information about her family. The young man has revelations about Esther’s parentage and Esther is compelled, despite the ever-present danger of discovery, to find out what they are. Until, into the station and her life, again walks private investigator (and nemesis), Sir Samuel Brass and said mysterious young man runs away. Samuel and Esther embark on a quest to find him and the truth behind Esther, her mother, father Will Walker, and her origins.
As 2016 draws to an end, Miss Bates offers new-year wishes to her readers: may 2017 bring good cheer, good friends, hearty constitutions, and every book be a keeper! Every year is marked by a particular reading mood and this year was harried for Miss Bates. A new job and responsibilities made reading and reviewing more infrequent than she would’ve liked. Maybe because of this, however, Miss Bates was reminded, as she winds down her reviewing year with a final “best of” post, what a soul-sustainer a life-long love of reading is. No matter how busy the week, how laden with tasks the week-end, even a half hour in another place or time, with characters working their way to an HEA, buoyed her spirits and gave her renewed strength for entering “once more unto the breach”. Romance itself had a lacklustre year. As you’ll note from her “best of” choices below, there are as many older roms as recently published ones. Romancelandia lost its unified magic and its controversies paled in light of world events. Review blogging felt quaint, which might be in keeping with Miss Bates’s own persona, but the loss of waning, or shut-down blogs saddens her. And yet, the genre’s message remains true and good: love, forgiveness, reconciliation, and the promise of plenitude, of body and spirit, is a candle in the darkening room that seems to be our world. Reading, thinking about reading, and engaging in dialogue about what we read with others, which is what MBRR always wants to be about, still feels right to Miss B. Continue reading
For her final 2016 review, Miss Bates writes about a romance novel that held her in thrall though the night and into the morning, Kerrigan Byrne’s The Hunter, second in Byrne’s Victorian Rebels series. New to Miss Bates, Byrne’s Hunter reminded her of the Monica McCarty Highlander romances that were some of the first she ever read and loved. Byrne’s romance is violent; her protagonists, larger-than-life; and her writing, unabashedly melodramatic and yet elegant. At times, Miss Bates thought this feels “Old-Skoolish” but the heroine’s intelligence and sang-froid and hero’s humility and respect for her make it anti-old-skool. What Miss Bates can affirm is that she loved it. To establish sympathy for a hero who is an assassin hired to kill the heroine in the novel’s first scene, Byrne portrays Christopher Argent’s Newgate-Prison childhood. She paints a scene so horrific for his 11-year-old self that our sympathy is maintained even when, without that introduction, we’d have found his actions unacceptable. Christopher is not as nuanced and interesting as Hoyt’s Duke Of Sin, but Byrne’s romance builds our sympathy for him as Hoyt did for Val Napier: by using the pathos of a difficult, abused childhood … and then sustaining it by showing our out-of-type hero with animals, or children.
A Family For the Holidays is the third Sherri Shackelford romance Miss Bates has read and she can say with confidence that Shackelford gets better and better. Miss Bates liked the first one, with misgivings; loved the second; and the third is a charm for auto-buy territory. One of the reasons Shackelford’s romances are getting better is because they’re funnier, without losing the pathos and sentiment romance readers enjoy. A Family For the Holidays reminded Miss Bates of her favourite HPs, Lynne Graham’s The Greek’s Chosen Wife and Sarah Morgan’s Playing By the Greek’s Rules. You’ll rightly think, dear reader, what a strange pairing: the contemporary HP with the historical inspie. And yet … like the HPs, Shackelford’s romance has an orphaned, irrepressible, blithely-plunging-into-danger, child-loving heroine and broody, alpha-male hero who turns to putty in the heroine’s small, vulnerable hands, a heroine who grows in bravery and élan and hero who learns how to tap into the pleasures of the heart. Like Graham’s and Morgan’s HPs, Shackelford’s romance is a hoot! The characters aren’t drippy the way inspie characters can be, the plot moppets neither pathetic nor corny. They and Lily beset the hero’s space and heart with their energy and humour until they dissolve his good-bad-and-ugly, cheroot-chewing persona. Continue reading
Karen Kirst’s The Sheriff’s Christmas Twins is the ninth romance in her “Smoky Mountain Matches” series and even though after nine volumes Miss Bates would’ve thought the series would feel tired, it’s fresh and lovely. While The Sheriff’s Christmas Twins doesn’t reach Reclaiming His Past‘s greatness, there is much to recommend it. Firstly, a character we’ve followed in many of the previous novels, Sheriff Shane Timmons, protector of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and its environs, finally gets his story and a heroine worthy of his dour, but committed and decent soul. Shane’s heroine is visiting childhood friend, Allison Ashworth, the now-woman whose father once took in the friendless, homeless, orphaned Shane. Allie and Shane are now in their thirties, but thanks to Shane’s continued correspondence with Allie’s brother George, Shane’s bond to his foster family remains strong. When Allie and George’s father, David, brought the 14-year-old angry Shane to their household, 12-year-old Allie immediately latched onto him, regaling him with love, affection, and gentle good-hearted teasing. She wanted to be his friend, to make him a part of every family holiday and tradition, but Shane held back – especially from her. At George’s insistence, he and his family and Allie travel to Gatlinburg, from their home in Norfolk, Virginia, to spend the holidays with Shane. Continue reading
Miss Bates waits for, anticipates, and relishes every volume of Donna Thorland’s “Renegades of the American Revolution” series. She is especially intrigued by Thorland’s cold-blooded, single-mindedly-devoted-to-the-cause American spy, Angela Ferrars. Thorland’s author’s note to “Christmas At Mount Holly” (in the Christmas In America Anthology) offers fascinating information about Ferrers: she is based on a historical character; we don’t know much about her except she was the cause of the hero’s loss of face and Washington’s triumph at an important Revolutionary War battle; she mentors the first book’s heroine in the interest of creating a female figure who is cunning spy, instrumental in America’s victory against the British, and unusually characterized as female mentor to female-neophyte-spy. In this short, moving, and beautifully-written story, Thorland gave Miss Bates what she and other readers long for: Angela Ferrars stripped of craftiness and uncompromising devotion to the American cause, Angela Ferrars weakened by desire, liking, maybe even, in the end, love. Thorland gave her a worthy hero: strong, ruefully amusing, loving, honest, kind, and most importantly, capable of showing The Widow a glimpse of another life, one of connection in place of conflict, love in place of hate, hope in place of resignation.