Tag: Historical Romance

REVIEW: “Manda Collins’s THE PERKS OF BEING A BEAUTY: Contrite Mean Girl Gets Her Man”

Miss Bates hasn’t recovered from her snark regarding novellas, so don’t expect her to make nice in this review. Even though The Perks of Being a Beauty is better written and better all-around than The Misbehaving Marquess and Hot Under the Collar, Miss Bates is even less enamoured of the novella than in her previous reviews. Collins is in firm control of the form here; she doesn’t let the plot take over from the romance. She maintains a nice balance of character and narrative. Her transgression comes in the form of backstory; because Perks follows from her Ugly Ducklings series and centres on the bully-girl in those books, she provides a lot of filler to help the reader understand the heroine and how she arrived at this point in her life.  After the first few chapters set up the love story, backstory takes over and makes for tedious reading. Therein lies the problem that Miss Bates has discussed before: because these novellas come from an understandable desire to sell an upcoming series or bolster a previous one, authors write them as marketing fodder, which should not diminish what is a pleasant read. So is blanc-mange … and even though Miss Bates is a 19th century spinster who often partakes of blanc-mange, she still prefers a cake-pop.

Amelia Snowe is the mean girl brought low by circumstance and a desire to make amends for her former nastiness. Her mother’s death has left her destitute and debt-ridden, working as a debutante’s companion in the bosom of an up-and-coming nouveau riche family, the Smithsons. Our hero, Quentin Fortescue, younger son of an aristocrat, Amelia’s childhood sweetheart and rejected suitor, reunites with Amelia when he attends the Smithsons’ house-party. Quentin’s addition to the party makes for an odd number of men and Amelia is recruited to “make up the numbers,” much to the chagrin of her haughty and resentful mistress, Mrs. Smithson. When straws are picked for partners in the scavenger hunt, of course Amelia and Quentin are thrown together. Here is another problem that Miss Bates finds with the novella: because length does not allow for a natural development of the romance, coincidence reigns and coincidence does not make  for convincing characterization or interesting plot.  Expediency seems the best an author can do under the circumstances.

One of the initial strengths of this novella, unfortunately not sustained, is the honest and open conversation between the re-united sweethearts. What is less convincing is the habit of authors, like Collins here, to endow their historical characters with modern sensibilities. Though it’s obvious that Quentin is attracted to her and willing to take up where they left off, Amelia resolves that she doesn’t want him. Let’s be realistic: why would a young woman of straitened circumstances, whose future holds nothing more than a journey from one genteel but menial job to another, reject a young, healthy, handsome and rich man? Though some reviewers have disliked Grant’s upcoming A Woman Entangled for the heroine’s mercenary attitude, it makes perfect sense to Miss Bates, all the more so when one considers her own straitened circumstances and spinster status.

Quentin is a lovely hero, forgiving, generous, and even more possessed of a modern sensibility. He is as much hero as psychologist, nursing Amelia through her self-hatred, even while making love to her (which, by the way, they do without thought for reputation or consequences, such as, well, pregnancy). When Quentin learns of the extent of Amelia’s bullying behaviour, he recognizes how she’s been trying to amend for it through reparation to those she wronged and by being a loving and nurturing companion to her ward. He is a dear when he soothes her self-recrimination thus, ” … you had no one to rely upon. And that made you a little … hard.” In lines such as these, you can see where Collins’s strength lies. Does this novella do it justice?

Miss Bates would say, these snippets of goodness are not enough to render a rating of more than “Tolerable comfort.” Mansfield Park (Collins’s novella is available on June 18, 2013)

As for the novella trend, Miss Bates is not pleased and joins Mr. Knightly in saying, “It was badly done, indeed.” Emma (Miss Bates thanks her readers for their forebearance as she spouted snark regarding novellas. She promises not to repeat the activity, unless you enjoyed it, in which case, let her know. She has plenty snark left over.)

This honest review was made possible thanks to a courtesy ARC from St. Martin’s Press via Netgalley.

REVIEW: “Leigh LaValle’s THE MISBEHAVING MARQUESS: Ain’t Misbehaving”

These days, says Miss Bates, romance novellas are like samples at the Costco: a delectation of good things to come, if you’re willing to dish out for a lifetime supply of candied ginger. Thus, Miss Bates has come to feel manipulated by the novella (she’s got one more to review and then she’s swearing off … ), even LaValle’s Marquess, which she enjoyed. Now, Miss Bates does not want to detract from the review at hand, which is a fairly positive one, but the romance novella, such as it is, annoys her. Why can’t publishers stand behind a stand-alone? Why does every romance novel spawn a series? Why does every series have a novella launch, or bridge between two longer books, such as this one?

To start, this marquess hasn’t misbehaved; he has merely pouted … a lot. The marquess, Jamie Forster, has been in a snit for five years because he thought that his wife, Cat, betrayed him mere weeks after their marriage. Even though she’s sworn up and down that she did not, immaturity and hurt pride ensued nevertheless. He nursed his amour-propre in parts unknown until making his appearance in the opening chapter in the marchioness’s sitting-room.

For five years, Cat has been holed up on this country estate, atoning for her non-sin by saving widows and their children from the workhouse. She is renovating cottages in which to house them and building a lace factory to provide work. She’s grown up; she’s changed. Jamie has as well; though he still harbors some hurt, he recognizes that his actions were hasty and immature. He sets out to win his wife back. Cat rightly wavers. Even though she still loves him, can she forgive and trust him? Ah, the marquess eats humble pie to redeem himself. He also bears gifts from his travels that would warm any woman’s heart, or in this case, thaw it.

This story was quite enjoyable. The prose was fairly smooth, a trifle overly impassioned in places, but it read with relative ease. It didn’t break any moulds, or enthral Miss Bates, but it didn’t jar either. Jamie and Cat are likeable and their hurt feelings make sense. LaValle handled the perimeters of the novella’s shorter length well and made the romance front and centre, unlike Miss Bates’s previous read (see her review of Jackie Barbosa’s Hot Under the Collar). She conveyed Cat’s and Jamie’s hurt and love and anger convincingly. She also developped their growing desire to release the hurt and anger in order to forgive each other, love each other, and give their marriage a second-chance. Miss Bates loves a second-chance romance.

In the end, however (Miss Bates picks up the snark again), LaValle’s novella is serviceable. It tells a nice story about two likeable people learning to forgive each other their wrongs and admit their love. By all means, read it; it is a pleasant way to while away an hour. And an hour is about as long as you’ll remember it after you’re done. (LaValle’s novella previously appeared in the anthology Three Weddings And A Funeral.)

Miss Bates would read one of Ms LaValle’s romance novels on the basis of this sampling, but for this diminutive effort, she can only say, “Tolerable comfort.” Mansfield Park

This honest review is the result of an e-novella offered by Heart Bay Publishing via Netgalley.

REVIEW: “Jackie Barbosa’s HOT UNDER THE COLLAR: Casting Stones at the Vicar Hero”

Miss Bates struggled with this novella, alternating liking and disliking it. The prose is polished and smooth; the story, reminiscent of 19th century novels like Trollope’s, except it’s set in 1803 and contains hot love scenes. The fact that the hero of this novella is a vicar makes for interestingly liberal Christian ethics, but the romance is a failure. It pales next to other more interesting aspects. The characters, especially the hero, Walter Langston, the fallen woman, Artemisia Finch, the townspeople of Grange-Over-Sands, their dilemmas, their quarrels are more engaging than the romance, as if Barbosa wanted to write about those things instead of torrid love scenes and a cardboard villain.

The plot of this novella is straightforward. Walter Langston, third son of a viscount, ignominiously injured in the army, unwilling to live on the charity of his older brothers, takes the position of vicar in a small English town. Among his parishioners is the beautiful Artemisia Finch, fallen woman and town outcast. At 16, Artemisia slept with the local aristocratic bad boy, who got her pregnant, sullied her reputation by claiming that she’d slept with other men, and abandoned her. She lost her baby and left for London where she became a highly paid courtesan.  Now, she’s returned to nurse her ill father. Walter takes one look at Artemisia and determines to make her his.

Walter is a very sympathetic character, one who matures and finds purpose as the novella progresses. He recognizes the injustice done to Artemisia and embarks on a campaign to win her, as well as reconcile her with the town. There is a lovely scene where he openly calls on her, setting the example of Christian charity for the townspeople. She is lonely, isolated, and suspicious. He offers friendship. How refreshing, how lovely, how original, thought Miss Bates … above all, our vicar hero is kind. When he turns into alpha-vicar and yanks her to him and kisses her … Miss Bates thought, “Badly done.”

In several excellent scenes, Walter ministers to the townspeople, comforting, reassuring, and counselling them. In the process of doing so, Walter realizes that a sense of purpose had been missing from his life. He found it in this last-resort position of town vicar. As he states at the end, “All his life, Walter wondered what was wrong with him. Why he could find … no pursuit that engaged him … But now he understood.” By going through the motions of being a vicar, already by temperament a kind and charitable person, Walter becomes the very thing he took on so lightly and cavalierly. His journey is believable and engaging. His journey is so believable and engaging that the romance plays second fiddle to it. In the end, the love scenes are not moving, or interesting, or as subversive as Barbosa hoped. The romance doesn’t interest us as much as the individual fates of our hero and heroine. Maybe the shorter form of the novella didn’t give the romance much room to develop convincingly. We are not invested in it, whereas we are invested in Walter’s journey to acceptance and maturity. This is a novella of many interesting ideas, but not much feeling.

Miss Bates is enamoured of the vicar, but not his hotness and says, “Tolerable comfort.” Mansfield Park

This honest review is the result of an e-novella provided by Circe Press via Netgalley.

REVIEW: “Cecilia Grant’s A WOMAN ENTANGLED: Or How Jane Austen’s EMMA Triumphed”

Oh, Cecilia Grant, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” With a nod to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, it is what came to mind as Miss Bates closed Grant’s best novel yet, A Woman Entangled. She considers A Lady Awakened and A Gentleman Undone two of the most original and interesting romance novels she’s read. A Woman Entangled is great, less alienating, gentler too. Grant has you reconsider figures such as Samuel Richardson, Jane Austen especially, Mary Wollstonecraft, et. al.. She connects what she does in her novel squarely in the romance genre’s “founders” (and detractors?) and other literary influences. This does not make for a dry romance novel. It is great: memorable, witty, engaging, and heart-wrenching.

Grant’s novels are structured on the basis of one premise: putting her characters in a quandary. This allows her to focus on the most important literary element of the romance novel, characterization. Grant’s premise has been one where the heroine navigates the economic, legal, and social givens of her society. It relies on illuminating and critiquing questions of class and status. In A Lady Awakened, Martha contends with a woman’s inability to retain her deceased husband’s property. In A Gentleman Undone, Will and Lydia are both in straitened circumstances; however, Will is in this position because of honour and obligation. It is a free choice. Lydia’s dilemma, on the other hand, is darker, uglier, desperate. In A Woman Entangled, hero and heroine are caught in a similar dilemma: the desire to restore their families’ reputations. This binds them in friendship, but prevents them from acknowledging their love. Their marriage would result in thwarting their ambitions. Even when they’re willing to admit their feelings, they recognize the impossibility of their union in light of their aspirations.

Kate Westbrook hopes a society marriage will restore her family’s reputation, lost when her father married her actress-mother. Their family friend, Nick Blackshear, has the same mission, his family’s reputation shattered when his younger brother married a courtesan. To this end, Kate cultivates her father’s estranged sister-in-law, Lady Harringdon. When Lady Harringdon summons her, Kate is hopeful that her sponsorship will open society’s doors and lead to a respectable marriage, thus ensuring her siblings’ future. Kate’s father, suspicious of the ton’s Lotharios, asks Nick to watch over her. This proximity forces Nick to reconsider Kate’s rejection of his former suit (oh yes, there’s lovely history there!). It rekindles his love and desire for her, improbable as they are. Kate too harbours feelings she is unwilling to admit. Huis clos. Circumstance and obligation bring them close and the pull of attraction, friendship, desire, and love will leave no room for either to make a marriage of convenience.

We are introduced to Kate at a lending library. She holds a copy of Pride and Prejudice. She ruminates on the novel, dismissing Lizzy Bennett’s refusal of Darcy’s first proposal as impractical, even foolish. Kate is pragmatic. She self-identifies as an anti-Lizzy, content to settle for wealth, comfort, and status. In the end, however, it is a conversation with her blue-stocking sister, Viola, about Austen’s Emma, that helps Kate realize the importance of friendship and a love match, such as she would enjoy with Nick. It is Austen who helps her make up her mind about Nick, Austen who urges her to listen to her heart, not to compromise, to live honestly and openly with her deepest desires.

We meet Nick in court, an ambitious lawyer, pondering the likes of Blackstone, Goldsmith, Donne, Fielding, and a variety of law reformers. Nick yearns for a place in history as a barrister and parliamentarian. He yearns for the respect of his peers, a reward for his talent and work ethic. Kate, in turn, yearns for a place as a society wife. Marriage to each other would not alter their status, or serve their ambitions.

In the end, however, Nick and Kate are worthy of our love because they are essentially good people who love their families. They are worthy of our admiration because they have integrity. At the eleventh hour, they are honest about their feelings. They dismiss society’s hypocrisy and choose to live honestly, even though it means their life together will be spent on the fringe. But, maybe not … Grant describes a society in flux, the rigid hierarchies of early 19th century English society giving way to the stirrings of radical social change. This gives hope to Nick and Kate, but does not matter to them as much as it originally did. They’ve done some growing up since then.

The conclusion to this novel is one of sheer happiness, hope, contentment, friendship, acceptance, and forgiveness.  How they reach it is all the pleasure of this novel. Read it. Grant’s novel posits the triumph of desire over intellect, heart over will, and love over pragmatism. It is a romantic, love- and life-affirming vision and a novel not to be missed. Grant takes her place in the romance novel canon alongside Heyer, Chase, and Balogh. Her novels are complex, beautifully written, conscious of their place in a tradition, original, moving, and a breath of fresh air in the miasma of derivative romance.

Miss Bates is so very pleased and says, “You have bewitched me.” Pride and Prejudice

A Woman Entangled is available June 25th.

This honest review was made possible thanks to a generous e-ARC from Random House/Bantam via Netgalley.

REVIEW: “Allie Pleiter’s HOMEFRONT HERO: Casting Off the Old Adam”

Allie Pleiter’s Homefront Hero is a gem. Pleiter wields the strict parameters of the category and inspirational romance like a sonnet in the hands of the Bard. If inspies aren’t your thing, this lovely little book may change your mind. This is one of the best romance novels I’ve read in a sea of uninspired ones!

What does Pleiter accomplish? Because this is an accomplished book. She depicts established and burgeoning faith as something living, breathing, elemental, and essential to a full life.  She does so without preaching, only weaving her characters’ faith effortlessly into the narrative in a believable and moving way. In her hero and heroine, she creates two loveable, sympathetic, and flawed individuals. She makes history come alive with detail and atmosphere without over-riding the plot or the romance. She makes wonderful use of a central, unifying metaphor. Her romance is a fully fleshed romance as well as an allegory of death and resurrection of body and soul. Some of the writing is simply superb. There is banter, delightful dialogue between the two leads and secondary characters with “character,” not just functionality.

The story is set in the midst of America’s involvement in the Great War, at Camp Jackson in S. Carolina.  A wounded, recovering war hero, John Gallows, and a neophyte nurse, Leanne Sample, meet when General Barnes orders him to assist with her project. He has been the driving attraction of an army recruitment campaign; he’s handsome, cavalier, charming, wealthy … and wants only to return to battle. Leanne is also on a mission to convince men and boys to join women in knitting socks for the troops. What better poster boy than John Gallows? John uses his acquiescence as a bargaining chip with General Barnes to return to the front, even though his leg is not, nor ever will be, healed and he is in constant pain. What follows is a wonderful, humorous undermining of an alpha male as he learns to knit at the hands of this beautiful, intelligent, pious, and sharp-tongued young woman who takes a stand against his charm.

What starts as a gentle inspie romance soon grows into a dark night of the soul. John grapples with feelings of self-hatred and worthlessness, declaring himself “an unfinished hero,” even while his feelings for Leanne and her gentle persuasion towards God have him in knots. Once the hero’s and heroine’s feelings are fully engaged, John’s imminent departure, his need to be worthy of his heroic status, brings the first of the dark moments for this couple: separation, possible death. But death comes in another form and John cannot abandon Leanne to it. The Spanish influenza epidemic strikes; John and Leanne are plunged into a dark night of the soul. But it is always darkest before the dawn and this novel concludes with stirring scenes of redemption and rebirth. It also has the best “baby” epilogue I’ve ever read … with nary a baby in sight.

For me, the most appealing aspect of Homefront Hero is Pleiter’s use of the unifying metaphor of knitting. If you’re thinking how prosaic … you’d be wrong. Witness the following lovely little phrases. We are introduced to Leanne as she asks that “God cast her life’s reach far and wide,” playing on the notion of “casting” stitches and nets, as in the Christian reference to fishermen’s nets. She uses an understanding of tension in a knit’s weave to represent the tension that attraction brings between the hero and heroine. It stands as the central metaphor of a communion with God: “God spoke to her thoughts and breaths, in colours and sensations.  All her senses seemed to weave together — sometimes tight and coarse, other times loose and billowy.  When the world was tight and coarse, she would feel God beside her, holding, protecting. When the world was loose and billowy, she would feel Him underneath her like the wind under a seagull.”

Homefront Hero is a story, to quote the hero, of “love and God,” of redemption and hope, of humour and everyday life and heroism.  It is not insipid, naïve, or simplistic, which are the adjectives we can sometimes lay at the feet of inspirational romance.

Miss Bates is very, very pleased and says “You have bewitched me.” (Pride and Prejudice)