MINI-REVIEW: Kelly Bowen’s LAST NIGHT WITH THE EARL

Last_Night_W_the_EarlI’ve been thinking a lot lately about where romance fiction “fits” in the scheme of things literary. I’m tired of arguments either defending the genre or condemning it, discussing its relevance or irrelevance … blah blah blah. Not that these discussions aren’t relevant, they are to those who partake and more power to them. I do enjoy listening “in” to the Twitter debates, etc. But I have been asking why I persist in reading romance when the world around me makes the romance’s domestic world focus feel irrelevant. I think we read romance of any ilk, paranormal, historical, contemporary, conservative to radical in its perspective, because it’s utopian (minus the satire; there is nothing Thomas More would recognize in the genre). End of thought bubble. 

The latest “utopian” romance I read was Kelly Bowen’s Last Night With the Earl, depicting the love and closeness of Napoleonic War veteran, Eli Dawes, the eponymous “Earl” of Rivers, and artist Rose Hayward. Like many romance couples, Eli and Rose are “broken” and their relationship, as it plays out, works towards achieving their healing and wholeness. As a narrative, it succeeded and failed in depicting their story. Continue reading

REVIEW: Caroline Linden’s AN EARL LIKE YOU

An_Earl_Like_YouReaders familiar with MBRR will know I am interested in romance’s dark moment, which I define as a betrayal. The darker and more heinous the betrayal, the better executed the narrative tension, when it seems as if hero and heroine will never mend their rift. In Linden’s latest, An Earl Like You (second in the series The Wagers of Sin), this new-to-me author deftly creates a romance which sustains the coming betrayal from the first chapter to the final. I was coiled with tension from the get-go which I attribute to Linden’s premise. Upon his father’s death, Hugh Deveraux, 7th Earl of Hastings, learns that the 6th earl’s profligate ways left their family destitute: estates given to gardens and follies rather than tenants, debts galore, two sisters dowry-less and a mother grieving; the Deveraux women are ignorant of their new circumstances … and Hugh wants to keep it that way. What’s a peer to do but take to the gambling tables in a desperate attempt to ensure his mother’s well-being and sisters’ future? Until Hugh loses and is faced with a devil’s bargain from a wealthy speculator, Edward Cross, looking to ensure his daughter’s future. Cross asks Hugh to meet him at his palatial Greenwich home, tells him he now holds his debts and will call them in …  unless Hugh woos and wins Cross’s plain, spinster daughter, Eliza. 
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REVIEW: Louise Allen’s A LADY IN NEED OF AN HEIR

Lady_In_Need_Of_HeirWhen I read the title of Louise Allen’s A Lady In Need Of An Heir, I immediately thought of Cecilia Grant’s incomparable A Lady Awakened. And, of course, reading Allen’s effort, I couldn’t help but compare it to Grant’s. At first, I thought it would be too similar and prepared to be disappointed, harbored a certain peevishness at Allen for copying Grant’s idea. I was happy to discover that Grant’s Lady and Allen’s are two different animals. Allen wrote her own story; I just didn’t like it very much. It was smoothly written, researched, considered, an attempt was made at thematic richness, a feminist message was conveyed without betraying the historical realities. It was rich in stuff. It was a romance that Allen obviously worked carefully and hard on. Still. I was, at least initially, deceived into a false sense of reader-enthusiasm. Allen’s Lady had a promising opening: atmospheric, a compelling premise. In the fall of 1815, former Colonel Nathaniel Graystone, Earl of Leybourne, from hereon referrred to as “Gray,” arrives in Portugal’s Douro Valley at his godmother’s, Lady Orford’s, behest. As his barge moors at the port-producing estate of Quinta do Falcão, Gray is beset by memories of the Peninsular War. I thought, “oh, wounded warrior, this could be good … ” (Alas, this aspect of the novel wasn’t dropped. A romance red herring I do not like.) Continue reading

REVIEW: Emma Barry and Genevieve Turner’s FREE FALL

Free_FallEmma Barry and Genevieve Turner write one of my favourite historical romance series and Free Fall is their fifth story in it. I love that it’s set in the 1960s, a decade I was born into, but don’t remember much of … other than a vague black-and-white memory of MamaB, in bouffant hair, sitting on the coffee table, smoking, and weeping over Bobby Kennedy’s assassination flickering on our tiny, bunny-eared TV. Barry and Turner’s series avoids America’s many ’60s tragedies and focusses instead on the American race to space. Their novels are peopled with astronauts, space scientists and engineers, and Jello-mold-making wives. There is one marvelous female engineer heroine and her grumpy second, Parsons, the scowling engineer who makes an appearance in this present volume. To us, living in these bizarre times, and without the ’60s’ take-to-the-streets ethos, Barry and Turner give their novels a setting that feels like a more innocent, less fraught one. Yet, just around the corner are the women’s movement that will change the genre and us forever and the loss of whatever hope and possibility our American neighbours wrought in Camelot. What I really liked about Free Fall, by way of introduction, is how it’s a domestic novel and more focussed on the heroine’s growth. Vivian Grace “Vivy” Muller is loud, brash, colourful, big in every way, physically, in her laugh, walk, and taste for “bouffant hair” and “winged eyeliner”: “She laughed too loudly, and she did more than wink at boys, and she was always losing her gloves.”   Continue reading

MINI-REVIEW: Stacy Henrie’s A COWBOY OF CONVENIENCE

Cowboy_Of_ConvenienceThough I read less and less inspirational romance these days, I chose to read Henrie’s A Cowboy Of Convenience because Harlequin is shutting down its Love Inspired Historical line and I was feeling nostalgic. Like Superromance, I’ve found some authors I’ve loved in it: Lacy Williams, Sherri Shackelford, Karen Kirst, and Alie Pleiter. I hope they’ve found writing pastures and are busy and happy sowing their talents.

Henrie’s Cowboy Of Convenience contains much of what we’ve come to expect of the subgenre and, most importantly, what I appreciate of it: a certain humility in its world-building and characterization. Nothing in Henrie’s romance rocked my romance-reading world, but I appreciated what it had to say nonetheless. Its story is typical: a cowboy, Westin McCall, who yearns to start his own dude ranch asks the ranch (where they both work) cook, widowed single-mother Vienna Howe, to pool their resources, marry as a “business arrangement” and start their own enterprise. Vienna, with her daughter Hattie, recently inherited her abusive, deceased husband’s near-by ranch, in Wyoming. Until West’s proposal, Vienna was uncertain as to what she would do with her windfall. The idea of creating a country home and business that her daughter could inherit was too good to pass up and Vienna agrees to marry, in name only, with West. 
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REVIEW: Katharine Ashe’s THE PRINCE

The_PrinceIn 1825 Edinburgh, Miss Elizabeth “Libby” Shaw yearns to follow in her father’s footsteps, to become a doctor, to heal others. But a woman in 1825 Edinburgh, or anywhere in the Western world, cannot apply to Surgeon’s Hall for studies and sit qualifying exams, for the very reason that she is a woman. Miss Libby Shaw strikes an arrangement with Mr. Ibrahim Kent, a society portraitist and exiled “Turk,” actually Ziyaeddin Mirza, Prince of Tabir. Libby will live in his house as his guest, under disguise as Mr. Joseph Smart, surgical student. In return, as Libby, she will sit as Ibrahim’s artist’s model. With this convenient bargain, Ashe begins her fourth Devil’s Duke historical romance and a remarkable achievement it is too. I’d read the first, The Rogue, and liked it very much, but The Prince far surpasses it. The two novels are linked in having admirable, easily-loved stubborn heroines who have a cause and  mission that they fulfill by taking on acts then only enacted by men. Their heroes  are taciturn loners who come to see the rightness of their heroines’ causes and aid and abet them without taking over, dictating, or directing. The novels are linked by questions about what it means to be a woman, a man, and have meaningful work. By virtue of their eccentricity, these heroes and heroines are outsiders yet live within society and are rewarded with a warm circle of friends and family.  Continue reading

MINI-REVIEW: Cathy Maxwell’s A MATCH MADE IN BED

A_Match_Made_in_BedI’d never read a Maxwell romance and embarked on A Match Made In Bed with curiosity and enthusiasm. Because I’m a naïve, gullible reader who’s too easily pleased, I lauded Maxwell to a Twitter friend and smiled smugly to myself on having “discovered” a great, new-to-me historical romance author. Unfortunately, I didn’t end up where I began. A Match Made In Bed showed initial promise. The hero and heroine intrigued me and the narrative promised compelling themes about money, women’s place in society, class, and family dynamics.

Soren York, Lord Dewsberry, and Miss Cassandra Holwell meet at a house party held outside of London. It’s not their first encounter. They share an interesting history: their Cornish-origined families have long feuded over past deception. Soren, aware of Cassandra’s dislike, yet woos her … because he needs an heiress’s money to bolster his soon-to-be-lost estate, Pentreath Castle. The novel opens with great banter and a wonderful antagonistic attraction between Cassandra and Soren. Even though Soren is mercenary, Maxwell manages to show us how he’s also kind and honourable. Cassandra is bookish and intelligent and has a lot of our sympathy, nursing a childhood hurt inflicted, unknowingly mind you, by Soren.  
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Reading Revivified and A Review of Lenora Bell’s WHAT A DIFFERENCE A DUKE MAKES

What_A_Difference_A_Duke_MakesThings are looking up reading-wise since my last post. I had a few quiet days at home to catch up on work and find some leisure reading time. DNF-ing a few turgid titles helped too: there’s no greater reading downer than that awful reviewer’s ARC-obligation. You can kill it with snark, or you can kill it by shutting down the Kindle before crossing the reading Rubicon. You know, that point where you’ve bloody read 68% of The Thing and you might as well finish it. Enough, though, of reading despondency.

I made a few decisions about reading and things are looking up. When I’m in a romance-reading slump, there’s only one author who can coax me back from the reading blues: Betty Neels. I put the ARC list away and started Betty Neels’s Tabitha In Moonlight (you can follow along with my nightly #bathtubromreading hashtag on Twitter). I put Frankopan’s The Silk Roads away for a less fraught working time. Then, I plunged back into the ARC pile with the express purpose of divesting myself of a few more dreary, meh titles. What I found instead was a funny, charming, flawed little romance in new-to-me Lenora Bell’s What A Difference A Duke Makes. It has all the eyebrow-raising qualities of wallpaperhood, but it delighted me. It’s first in a new series and I liked the characters so much that I’m looking forward to reading the second, about the hero’s Egyptologist sister and her archaeological rival and nemesis. Continue reading

REVIEW: Susanna Kearsley’s BELLEWETHER

BellewetherA 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.
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MINI-REVIEW: Marguerite Kaye’s FROM GOVERNESS TO COUNTESS

From_Governess_To_CountessWhether it was my mood, or a super-busy two weeks, I slogged through the first in Kaye’s new series, From Governess to Countess. If I had to give you a baseline of my narrative immersion, it’d be: perked up to the premise, dragged my way through two-thirds and zipped through the last. Kaye’s novel is well-researched, with a fascinating and nicely developped setting, a lovely heroine and engaging secondary characters. The hero, on the other hand, is concocted out of bleached-out niceness and a copious dose of cluelessness.

I loved the premise: a mysterious “Procurer,” a woman, in 1815 London, seeks out disgraced women to offer them a task that may reestablish their finances and reputation. She is a “procurer” of second chances and her first mission is Miss Allison Galbraith, a Scottish herbalist, whose work has been derided by London’s medical establishment. The Procurer offers Allison a job, in St. Petersburg, as governess to the three orphaned children of Duke and Duchess Derevenko, presently in the care of their military-officer Uncle Aleksei, recently returned from defeating Napoleon.       Continue reading