Karen Ranney is a long-established romance writer and her books much-beloved to many readers. The Devil of Clan Sinclair, however, was Miss Bates’s first Ranney novel. While Miss Bates never says never, and always gives an author a second chance (if the sins are literary and not ethical), she’ll remain wary of any and all of Ms Ranney’s titles if this is what she has to go by. Though there are echoes to Judith McNaught’s Once and Always, Downton Abbey, and Grant’s A Lady Awakened, all of which Miss Bates loved (well, maybe not the McNaught, but Downton and Grant are the non-pareil), The Devil of Clan Sinclair does not inspire similar enthusiasm or loyalty. Only after a two-thirds slog of a read was Miss Bates somewhat engaged, the characters elicited a modicum of sympathy, and the writing style became less off-putting, but problems remained, festered, and left Miss Bates dissatisfied. She realized there may have been serious purpose to Ranney’s tale: to convey a theme of “forgiveness,” “acceptance,” and “understanding,” as the hero states, necessary to forging a solid marriage; the journey to that HEA however, fraught with lies, deceptions, and a good dollop of blackmail and kidnapping, and that doesn’t even describe the villain, only the hero and heroine, was not fun. If you’d like the details of Miss Bates’s displeasure, read on
Tag: Historical Romance
GASP: Patricia Gaffney’s TO HAVE AND TO HOLD
When Miss Bates turned the last page of To Love and To Cherish, she sighed with relief. It hadn’t been as bad as she’d feared. Nothing’d shocked her; nothing’d disturbed her all that much. On the contrary, in the end, her sensibilities were at ease; she thought Christy endearing and a great study of the meaning of Christian faith. Anne was a good, decent heroine, with integrity and had blossomed in the most wonderful way. All was well in Miss Bates’s romance universe. Gaffney’s first Wyckerley novel had inspired associations with many 19th century novels Miss Bates’d loved, still loved. It was all good and what need was there for any fuss? To Love and To Cherish was what its title claimed: loving and cherishing the other, making the other precious in one’s eyes. Christy comes to this state naturally; Anne has to learn it. There is a darkness to her understanding; there is a price, but it is one that she makes of her own free will. Then, Miss Bates read To Have and To Hold and is reeling. She doesn’t have much to say, hopes to reach some equanimity by the time a much-anticipated discussion takes place at Something More. For now, however, there are only half-formed thoughts. Read on at your peril; Miss Bates is too riled to say that much and the little she does say would be of mild interest only to those who’ve read the novel
CONNECTIONS/REVIEWISH: Juliana Gray’s A LADY NEVER LIES, Unless She’s Trapped in Shakespearean Farce
Miss Bates read … was it in The Invention of the Human? … Harold Bloom’s claim that there aren’t any happy marriages in Shakespeare. There aren’t any in romance either, but there is the assumption that the couple will be happy. The reader is left feeling that the HEA is a guarantee. It may not be conventional; it may not be traditional, but it will be blithe! Not so with The Bard. In Shakespeare, we sense that some couples, think Bianca and Lucentio, have misunderstand each other thoroughly and will be unhappy; some, like the Macbeths, are unhappy; and some, like Kate and Petruchio, will fall into the give-and-take/renege/renegotiate that every established couple reaches if they want to keep their sanity and commitment (even Bloom thinks these two might work out just fine). Gray’s A Lady Never Lies, based on The Bard’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, runs into that very problem. How could it not when it doesn’t consider the inherent irony in choosing to base a romance novel on a play called Love’s Labour’s Lost? How does a romance writer make the romance per se romantic when her narrative’s basis is The Bard’s ironic, farcical, comedic mode? Well, she certainly writes a hilarious narrative; as for the irony, she has to relinquish it about half-way through. What that does to the romance narrative (at least in this reader’s opinion) is make for an ambivalent, wonky first third. As the narrative moves away from irony and closer to the troth of love and sacrifice and care that is the mark of the genre, it gains in convincing us of the existence of love and sacrifice and care. Though, to credit Gray, it remains as droll and entertaining as its inception. Read on, if you care to, for more convoluted reasoning involving Shakespeare
IMPRESSIONS/CONNECTIONS: Courtney Milan’s UNLOCKED, Or Katie Keeps Her Golden Boy
Along with the frisson of utter delight that the first commentator (Pamela from Badass Romance) to MBRR gave Miss Bates, in the exchange, she articulated what always pulled at her when she read Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Yes, Jane got her man, a little broken, but she got him; yes, in the end, she was an heiress. Yes, she had her allotted babies, an indication he wasn’t broken where it counted. Jane won her glorious HEA. More than anything, however, in reading Jane, Miss Bates asks: quoting Hamlet (because Shakespeare always says it better) why do we endure “the oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, the spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes”? Why indeed? Why does Jane endure the nastiness of Rochester’s house-party, the fortune-telling fiasco, Blanche and her mother’s jibes, the horrible aunt and cousins, the evils of Lowood? (To a certain extent because she has to, but let’s not be reductive, Jane never is.) Why do we sob in self-pity when we read these passages and secretly remember every hurt to our self-worth and read on and on even though reading causes us pain? Because at the end of Jane Eyre, at the end of every GREAT romance novel, the heroine (or whoever stands in for the “heroine,” but that’s for another discussion) isn’t just LOVED, SHE IS VINDICATED. Hah, we say, see, she showed them! (The ugly-duckling-fat-girl-awkward-girl-heroine incarnates our vindication fantasy … maybe it’s even sweeter than getting your man, the foiling of the queen bee and bullies?) If you read on, yes, Miss Bates’ll link this inchoate burst to Milan’s novella and more
REVIEW: Miranda Neville’s THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING WICKED, Or How A Stuffed Shirt Won A Bohemian Beauty
Between the contrived angst of the HP and the brilliant, genuine angst of Gaffney’s To Love and To Cherish, Miss Bates comfortably settled into the wit and light touch of Neville’s The Importance of Being Wicked. Reading Neville’s romance novel was like skimming the bubbly goodness off a milkshake on a summer day! Delicious, sweet, but not substantial. The writing is good, the hero is lovely, and the pacing of the narrative smooth and appealing. The heroine’s fey and childish ways grated about three-quarters of the way through and Miss Bates thought the yummy hero was overly indulgent and a tad doltish for being as devoted as he was. The mystery of what makes seemingly incompatible people happy together is not for Miss Bates to solve; nor is that the purpose of our beloved genre. Nevertheless, making this incompatible couple endearing is to Neville’s credit. Reading about Lord Stuffy and his irrepressible Caro was fun; if you’re looking for a read that doesn’t stint on good writing, interesting characters, many funny, farcical scenes, and a healthy dose of lust on the part of the hero and, refreshingly, heroine, then you’d enjoy The Importance of Being Wicked. Read on for a more detailed look at this romance novel
SECOND THOUGHTS On Patricia Gaffney’s TO LOVE AND TO CHERISH: Why Not JANE too?
In the cool of the evening, Miss Bates swatted a fist-sized wasps’ nest from the back porch. She’d like to do the same to Gaffney’s novel. No matter, the wasps and it will settle in the vicinity to plague her. Not for a full and missbatesian pedantic post, but a pinata swipe, yes, she’ll manage. Miss Bates has settled into ambivalence’s discomfort zone. Ambivalence in an ordered spinster’s world … not good. Need a lodestone, a familiar one … like Rochester at his neediest, she calls out to “Jane.” If you want more, read on, but clarity still eludes
IMPRESSIONS Of Patricia Gaffney’s TO LOVE AND TO CHERISH
After supper, Miss Bates tried a piece of wasabi-flavoured chocolate. The smoky-sweet flavour of the dark chocolate was familiar; the wasabi, not so much. This is also her reaction to Gaffney’s To Love and To Cherish. She can’t really review it per se because she’s not sure what she can say about it other than you might want to read it. She doesn’t even really want to review it. There’s more, but not much, nor is it articulate
REVIEW: Elizabeth Hoyt’s THE RAVEN PRINCE, Or Writing the New Jane
Elizabeth Hoyt’s The Raven Prince hasn’t been around long enough to be “classic romance,” but give it another ten years and it will be. Miss Bates is jumping the gun, but she’ll stick by this claim. Hoyt’s been in Miss Bates’s “get-to” pile of romance novels for a long time. Silly spinster should have read them ages ago because, if The Raven Prince is typical of Hoyt’s writing, she missed out. She now says with confidence that the reading of The Raven Prince is “the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” This is as wonderful a romance novel as one can get and especially so because it plays with references to Miss Bates’s most beloved romance, Jane Eyre. Continue reading
REVIEW: “Rosanne Bittner’s PARADISE VALLEY: Old-Fashioned Western Or Bust”
Miss Bates loves American Western-set romances. She cut her teeth on Cheryl St. John and Lorraine Heath and hasn’t looked back since. If there’s a cowboy romance to be had, she be reading it. Bittner’s Paradise Valley is only a shadow of the heart-wrenching and well-written romances of St. John, Heath and the more recent Kaki Warner, and it was a near-bust for Miss Bates. Her spinster’s heart hardly beat for this old-fashioned Western romance. Miss Bates knew there was a lot wrong here, but struggled to articulate what. Yet, the pithy chapters and clipping-along plot kept her reading. Sometimes, she felt that she was clopping along on an old nag in a John Wayne film; sometimes, she thought she was caught in an episode of Deadwood. Those two contradictory views of the “Old West” pretty much sum up Paradise Valley. Bittner wrote the Wayne version, and maybe that’s what turned Miss Bates off.
Our hero and heroine are Sage Lightfoot and Maggie Tucker. (Getting used to a hero, a rough outlaw cowboy type, named Sage was challenging!) In 1886 Wyoming, Sage and Maggie meet on Sage’s land, the Paradise Valley of the title, over her husband’s grave. James and Maggie had been attacked by outlaws who robbed them, killed James, and raped Maggie. Sage had been riding for these very outlaws, who murdered his best hand and raped the hand’s wife. Sage returns to the ranch with Maggie, where she convinces him to bring her along when he seeks revenge against the bad guys. For the most part, though Miss Bates loved the idea of Paradise Valley as an idyllic place of plenty where innocence is restored, the novel really only took place “on the road.” This is a revenge road romance. As Maggie and Sage travel together to avenge the death of her husband, her brutalization, and the loss of Sage’s hand and money, they fall in love.
Conflict in this novel is two-fold: internal and external. The external conflict is obviously that between Maggie/Sage and the nasties. Internal conflict has to do with the Other Woman and the Big Secret, Sage’s former wife, Joanna, and Maggie’s “carrying” of a child bred of rape. Sage’s been hurt and, even though it doesn’t take him long to realize he loves Maggie, he can’t trust her. Maggie too loves Sage, but keeps the pregnancy from him, fearing his judgement of her and timorous about his mistrust of women. Keeping the Big Secret ensures that she deceives him. But, Maggie is “feisty,” she’ll take his love as long as she can get it … then, be willing to lose him to the Big Secret, rather than lose him on the trail to the bad guys.
Miss Bates had a hard time warming to the hero and heroine. Bittner’s aim in creating her novel’s characters was to capture something raw, harsh, and vulnerable about the people who’d settled this land at this time: does she succeed? She wants her characters to reflect the harshness and beauty of the landscape: does she succeed? Miss Bates would say “no.” She found the characters unsympathetic, unlikeable, and unlikely. A case in point is our first meeting of Maggie, digging her husband’s grave, having just hours ago survived a rape. She’s matter-of-fact and feisty, no trauma, no fear … just forges on ahead to revenge. Sage too is hurt, by his past, ex-wife, status of being half-white, half-Native. He derides “Indians;” Bittner creates a Native secondary character, a baddy named Cutter, whose stereotyping horrified Miss Bates. Sage keeps saying he loves Maggie, but behaves coldly and abandons her in several places when she’s obviously scared and uncertain, even sending her off to the murdered hand’s abandoned cabin to spend the night when they finally return to Paradise Valley. What’s he doing? Why just having dinner and having it out with the ex. He redeems himself finally, but does Maggie the Ninny deserve it? Miss Bates isn’t so sure. Moreover, Sage behaves with such brutal violence that Miss Bates was distressed, waving her sprigged hankie as she read. A successful romance novel pulls the reader closer to the characters; in this case, Miss Bates felt alienated from them.
Miss Bates’s troubles didn’t end with the H/h. Most problematic for her was the very ethos of the novel: the desire for revenge, taking the law into their own hands, the vigilante justice that Sage and Maggie pursue. Miss Bates had a lot of trouble with these ideas and the gratuitous violence that comes with them. Bittner tries to make a case for this by including passages such as, “It’s a strange sort of character you’ll find in country like this. There’s the good, the bad, and sometimes they actually work together to survive.” Miss Bates guesses this would be the idea that there are nuances of character here, but when you examine the actions of the badies and compare them to the hero and heroine, they don’t look all that different. The hero and heroine have no redemptive moments, which would have redeemed the narrative, where say, they realize that life and love are more important than revenge and go home to Paradise Valley and marry and breed many babies. Just on a practical level, Miss Bates wanted to shake them and say, “You’ve found each other, just let it go … why put yourselves at risk of being killed when you’ve got a chance for a good life?!” And boy, that violence visits our hero and heroine too: they are shot with arrows and bullets, attacked by a bear, etc. Bittner was trying to portray what passed as justice in that time and place and that may be accurate and true, but to sanction it is problematic for Miss Bates and will be, she might think, for readers.
This encapsulates Miss Bates’s criticisms of the novel, but she has two more niggling points that troubled her. One is Bittner’s propensity for the declarative sentence, especially at the end of chapters. For example, when Sage’s socalled good nature forces him to bring Maggie back to the ranch to heal from her ordeal, Bittner writes, “He cursed the awkward situation he’d got himself into.” Something we’d already figured out from the context of the chapter. And the love scenes, which are thankfully few and quickly over, are quite purple-prosy with a significant ick factor involved in phrases such as, Maggie’s “gasp” of ecstasy “with the splendor of his manhood.” Gah.
What can Miss Bates say in favour of this novel? It is a novel that at least tries to recapture the sheer sweep of Old Skool romance; Miss Bates just wishes it had left the ethos behind. It is well-paced; it does clip along and the chapters are nice and short. This helped Miss Bates at least finish the book and she wasn’t bored, just flabbergasted.
Miss Bates really really really wanted to like Bittner’s novel; in the end, she couldn’t and has to say, “Rubs and disappointments everywhere.” Mansfield Park
This review is made possible by a generous e-ARC from Sourcebooks Casablanca via Netgalley. Paradise Valley is available as of July 2nd from the usual places in the usual formats.
REVIEW: “Monica McCarty’s THE HUNTER: Or Two Mules for Sister Jenna”
The Hunter is Monica McCarty’s seventh Highland Guards novel and a solid read. McCarty is obviously enamoured of Scottish history; this comes through in the novel, as well as the extensive and interesting afterword. Miss Bates abandoned reading McCarty’s work after gorging on her Campbell trilogy and the first of the series, The Chief. Miss Bates enjoyed this one too, but had no desire to fill in the blanks between The Chief and The Hunter. Why? It has to do with McCarty’s love of Scottish history. After reading The Hunter, she noted McCarty’s strengths, but also pinpointed her weakness: McCarty loves her history more than her romance. Her historical research is interesting and fresh; her romance, on the other hand, is formulaic, effective but written to type. Miss Bates always learns something from McCarty; while she enjoys her hero and heroine and their journey to their HEA, she can’t help feeling that she’s read something similar in previous books. Her formula is a winning one, but it is a formula nevertheless.
What can McCarty consistently deliver? A competently written, well-paced romance novel, with the right balance of history, passion, endearing if one-dimensional characters, nasty villains, and a suspenseful build-up to a halcyon conclusion. A winning formula, yes? In this case, her interest in Scottish history focuses on the role that monastic couriers played in the establishment of King Robert Bruce in 14th century Scotland.
Her heroine, Sister Jenna, is a courier, though she has not actually taken the veil. She is Janet of Mar, a noblewoman disguised as a nun, working for Bruce as an intelligence agent on the English side of the border. Her hero, Ewen Lamont, is a member of Bruce’s elite Highland guard, on a mission to return Janet to her family and Bruce’s court. When Ewen finds himself attracted to the nun, not only does he have a serious case of libidinal frustration, but his Catholic conscience is in shambles! This part of the novel was quite charming and reminded Miss Bates of a beloved film, Two Mules for Sister Sarah, with a sexy, pre-Dirty-Harry Clint Eastwood and an unlikely nun in Shirley MacLaine. Amidst stealth and danger, with Janet’s disguise eventually compromised, these two fall in lust. It is charming, heart-stirring lust and the physical sparks between them are fun to read.
McCarty didn’t leave these two lusting and challenging the English, she wanted internal conflict driving a wedge between them. She gave Ewen some daddy issues, a daddy dissipated and wild. Ewen wants to be responsible, honourable, and dispassionate. He’s got quite a ways to fall as he struggles with conscience, honour, and his loyalty to the king to bring this noblewoman back to her family and king in tact. Ewen wants to do the right thing so much that he hurts Janet in the process. Janet’s block to her HEA, on the other hand, rings false. She loves Ewen, wants Ewen, but will not give up her work, or her independence to a man. Miss Bates has no doubt that intelligent women of the Middle Ages might have questioned their inferior status, might have yearned to be something more than what their societies afforded them. Nevertheless, Janet’s consideration of these issues makes her sound distinctly contemporary and renders McCarty’s novel anachronistic. The lady just simply “doth protest too much” to make her a viable historical figure. That Ewen comes to recognize Janet’s competence, intelligence, and usefulness, but still wants to protect her is more believable. What isn’t? The Disney-esque, castle turrets and all, ending. You’re better off not reading the epilogue, but don’t neglect the fascinating afterward.
In the end, Miss Bates enjoyed this novel, though she was nonplussed by the anachronistic heroine. McCarty delivers, and you’ll get exactly what you expect: nicely paced plotting, admirable hero and heroine who grow to love and respect each other. This is a very competent, enjoyable romance novel that’ll blend in with every other one you’ve read by her. McCarty is not interested in breaking any molds, or asking any questions of the genre. Sometimes Miss Bates wishes she’d try her hand at a contemporary, set in Scotland of course, but a novel where she can maybe let her emancipated heroine run freer.
Miss Bates was moderately pleased and renders a verdict of “tolerable comfort.” Mansfield Park
The Hunter was made available to Miss Bates as an e-ARC from Ballantine Books via Netgalley. It will be released on June 25th and available in the usual places and formats.