Sarah Morgan’s MIRACLE ON 5TH AVENUE

Miracle_On_5th_AvenueContemporary romance is a big and diverse animal. Its “infinite variety” inhabits a breadth of verisimilitude, from HP fantasy to the realistic, at times gritty, MC urban wasteland, which, MissB argues, meet and mate in the fantasy realm when the straight-line continuum is arced to a circle. All this to say that along realism’s continuum, where tropes work at one point, may fail on another. Sarah Morgan’s third “From Manhattan With Love” romance, Miracle On 5th Avenue, is an example in comparson to her HP, Playing By the Greek’s Rules (possibly MissB’s favourite HP were it not for that pesky Lynne Graham writing annoyingly good HPs, like The Greek’s Chosen Wife.) The Greek’s Rules contains a naïvely endearing, full-force of positivity heroine and brooding, cynical alpha hero, as does Miracle. What works in one doesn’t in t’other, or maybe imitation isn’t the highest form of flattery when an author imitates herself?
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He RULES Over All: Georgette Heyer’s CONVENIENT MARRIAGE and Omnipotent Hero

Convenient_Marriage_2Sometimes, Miss Bates’ reading is desultory. Sometimes, “the world is too much with us” and our ability to immerse ourselves in a book is distracted and restless, no matter how willing we are, no matter how much we desire to lose ourselves in story. Miss Bates read Georgette Heyer’s The Convenient Marriage in fits and starts, dribs and drabs: picking it up for only minutes at a time; then, dropping it to follow the latest debacle on Twitter. She read trusted points of view on the Kathleen Hale/Guardian disappointment and wrestled with her redefinition of Miss Bates Reads Romance and a return to her original purpose. The blogger black-out was a blessing in disguise: for the first time in over a year, Miss Bates had to put the blogging aside and think about the blogging. With so many voices raised in protest, she re-acquainted herself with other blogs, ones she’d visited daily before MBRR, always anticipating a post, places where she typed her first comments, places of welcome and delight. Throughout, she read without any great concentration, but with commitment to get through the darn thing, Heyer’s Convenient Marriage proving inconvenient.

Miss Bates was bored, bothered, and preoccupied … and then, Horry took a poker to Lethbridge and she was captivated. That’s what it takes, dear readers, one delightful, or profound moment and the book can take us away, out of the daily into the “other” place … the paradox of the fictional world which, in a moment, becomes more real than waking reality. Horry emerged: impetuous, immature, and heavy-browed; Lethbridge, vindictive, unhappy, and strangely sympathetic; and then, Rule, he who ruled over all, urbane, powerful, wise, utterly charming and loveable. BUT …  Miss Bates had to contend with the breaking point of the novel: Rule, wonderful as he may be, is 35 and his wife is 17. This never left Miss Bates’ mind and she never quite made her peace with it. But she loved the novel and will have to live with her conflicted feelings. Because, sometimes, that’s what fiction leaves us, a sublime discord that we can pull out and think about for distraction, delight, and discussion 😉   Continue reading

REVIEW: Ruthie Knox’s TRULY Yourself

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Finally, a lovely Loveswept cover (no waxy mannequins)!

Ruthie Knox’s latest (previously serialized) novel and first in the New York series, Truly, exemplifies a theme dear to Knox: the discovery and triumph of the hero’s and heroine’s authentic selves. The discovery of the authentic self on the part of heroine and hero is worked out in the romantic relationship of desire, conflict, and love; push-back comes from their masked, or social selves and embedded family neuroses. Miss Bates must say she loves this about Knox and finds it endearingly American: the notion that authenticity is at the core of the self and the self can be remade in a more open, psychically healthier and happier way. When Knox is at her best, her core characters’ authentic selves emerge by abrading the old skin of past hurts and habitual patterns of self-sabotage. This was so in Miss Bates’ favourite Knox novels, Ride With Me and About Last Night, as it was of the less-successful Camelot and Roman Holiday series. (It is a theme that runs throughout her Robin York NA Caroline and West series, more successfully than the latter titles.) Knox’s writer’s-triumph depends on her willingness to free her characters to gambol and screw up and argue and have messy passionate sex; her weakness is a tendency to use them as mouthpieces. Where does Truly fall on that spectrum? Miss Bates loved most of it: the writing is smooth and funny and touching. She loved the opening with the surly hero and innocent-in-the-city, “dairymaid”-wholesome heroine; she loved the interactions between Ben Hausman and May Fredericks. She loved the NYC setting and the hero and heroine wandering through it, falling in love, kissing, challenging each other, and exploring its parks, restaurants, and denizens’ mosaic. However, once again embracing the journey narrative that Knox favours, she transports her couple to Wisconsin … and there, things fall apart and the centre doesn’t hold. Continue reading

REVIEW: Beth Andrews’ SMALL-TOWN REDEMPTION, Or Nursing the Wounded Hero

Small-Town_RedemptionIf there’s one thing grown ubiquitous in the past five years in the genre, it’s the small-town romance. Beth Andrews’ fourth title in the “In Shady Grove,” Pennsylvania, series stands for the very idea behind the small-town romance. If urban dwellers leave big-lights, big-city behind, with its rat race, stress, temptations, and sped up lives where we lose sight of our humanity, to return to a smaller world, communities where everyone knows you and you know everyone, our lives will somehow be redeemed. As the hero of Small-Town Redemption suggests, less than a year in Shady Grove and he’s turned into a “boy scout.” The refuge that the small-town purports to offer is a venue by which life is renewed and made better, more human, less overwhelming, where a person can belong by laying down roots and participating in the life of the community, where the community gives the heroine and hero the perfect matrix, ultimately, to live a more sedate pace and bring up children. How accurate is this picture? Not terribly, but it is a powerfully attractive one. What is interesting about Andrews’ romance novel is that the small town promise of redemption figures next to … not at all. It is a novel devoid of a strong sense of place, focussed as it is on tormented hero, Kane Bartasavich, and paragon of virtue and compassion, heroine Charlotte Ellison. The town figures only as a foil for the hero to reject his dissipated Houston past. If this were a historical romance novel, Kane would be an intemperate rake and Charlotte, the sensible, loving, plain virgin-heroine who leads him to the promised land of virtuous family life in the country. In Miss Bates’ opinion, too many romance novels laud and advance the idea that couplehood and family life are defined by a withdrawal from society to a domestic enclave. Andrews’ novel is a romance heavily invested in characterization, not setting. It was a solid read; Miss Bates enjoyed it. She was, however, frustrated with it as well. Continue reading

Romance Panacea Part II: The Betty Neels Canon, Gifts That Keep Giving

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Weird cover: what’s with the “rival” nurse? Not in book, Harlequin.

As you know and may be tired of hearing, Miss Bates is revising and renewing her blogging project without straying too far from her original purpose. One way she’s done so is by reading outside her romance comfort zone, tackling a Big Fat Book over the summer (Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which she’s enjoying more than she expected to). At the same time, she’s revivifying her blog by writing about romance beyond the review (rest assured she’ll still review romance). In her previous post, she considered the idea of romance reading as panacea, as a comfort zone in the daily grind, when “troubles come not single spies, but in battalias,” as Claudius says to Gertrude in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Romance reading, however, doesn’t happen solely as an escape, or coping strategy. Romance is read for comfort, but it’s also read for pleasure. Miss Bates offers this eloquent summary of what she’s been trying to say about romance, which she found quoted in the Mary Burchell Wikipedia article (thanks to a Twitter convo with Sunita). Burchell, one of the founders of the Romance Novelists’ Association, wrote in one of their newsletters, ” … a good romantic novel is a heart-warming thing which strikes a responsive chord in those who are happy and offers a certain lifting of the spirits to those who are not.”  There is one writer, at least for Miss Bates, who exemplifies Burchell’s point: the Immortal, Inimitable Betty Neels.

Divine BettyN. is Miss Bates’ heal-all turn-to writer, good for all occasions, and when no other romance will do. When Miss B. wrote about her bad-day reading of Judith McNaught’s Paradise, it was a sheepish admission. She returns Paradise to the keeper shelf feeling a tad soiled … she can’t believe she read that … AGAIN. Like eating too much chocolate, or ice cream straight from the tub. Betty Neels’ romances have an opposite effect. Neels validates how very very good romance can be, as good as honeyed tea, buttered toast, orange marmalade, and a slice of sharp cheddar. Food to be eaten every day, at any time of the day. A staple, a stalwart reading friend, a BFF when the BFF can’t come ’round. She’ll explore this by writing about her fifth Neels read, Damsel In Green (again, with thanks to Sunita, for the rec). Miss Bates has read Sister Peters In Amsterdam, Visiting Consultant, Tulips For Augusta, and “Making Sure of Sarah.” Tulips is her favourite thus far, but Damsel vies with Visiting Consultant for second place. Continue reading

Romance Panacea Part I: “Taking the Waters,” Searching for Paradise …

DontBeAfraidAbout a month ago, Miss Bates, stuck in afternoon traffic, listened to a favourite CBC Radio podcast, Tapestry, a show that self-describes as offering “the more subtle news of life – a thoughtful consideration of what it means to be human.” Their motto is Kant’s “The human heart refuses to believe in a universe without purpose” (which is also a darn good motto for the romance genre). One segment of that particular podcast was “The Novel Cure,” an interview with Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin who run Bibliotherapy at The School of Life in London, England, and have published a book called The Novel Cure: An A-Z of Literary Remedies. What a great idea, thought Miss Bates, a book recommendation for what ails you: feeling blue, out of sorts, plain pissed off, or having the “mean reds” as Holly Golightly said. Have you been dumped, are about to embark on a voyage, be married, divorced, change jobs, or cities? Berthoud and Elderkin’s prescribed book eases the transition, comforts, and diverts. Books as “prescription” medicine for the under-the-weather soul, mind, and heart.

She listened, rapt, as Berthoud and Elderkin suggested titles for a variety of moods and circumstances: H. E. Bates’s The Darling Buds Of May for cynicism; Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity for a recent break-up; Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Night Flight for fear of flying; and, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road for a new father. Miss Bates considered their choices lugubrious. Blatty’s The Exorcist for a loss of faith!? She’s read de Saint-Exupéry’s Vol de nuit and there’s nothing in it to comfort someone who’s afraid to fly (especially in light of de Saint-Exupéry’s night flight disappearance during WWII). What cheer is there for a new dad in the post-apocalyptic world of The Road? Great books all, but do they comfort and divert? They are intelligent, well-written, and challenging; they offer answers and considerations. They are great choices, BUT! Miss Bates protested WHERE ARE THE ROMANCE NOVELS? Do they not offer comfort, diversion, and thought to feeling blue, turning green, and seeing red? To despair, uncertainty, ennui, malaise? On the occasion of birth, death, and everything in between? Don’t they have a place in the prescriptive canon?

Anecdotal or not, Miss Bates has encountered many women who find respite in reading a romance novel (which is not to say men don’t, she simply hasn’t met any). For many, including Miss Bates, who can’t “take the waters” at Baden-Baden, cracking open a romance novel and being lost in it, laughing, crying, mourning, and celebrating with heroine and hero, thinking about its thematic implications, enjoying its wit and wisdom, serves as panacea to a day gone terribly wrong. Continue reading

REVIEW: Jennie Lucas’s THE SHEIKH’S LAST SEDUCTION Couldn’t Breach Her “Ironclad Virginity”

The Sheikh's Last SeductionThe loquacious Miss Bates is rarely rendered speechless by a romance novel, especially of the suspension-of-belief-HP-variety, but Lucas’s Sheikh’s Last Seduction came close.  Presents are romance fiction concentrated; when done well, they are the ultimate escapist fare, outlandish, skirting caricature, but sexy and fun.  In the hands of a good writer, like Sarah Morgan, Kelly Hunter, or Caitlin Crews, even their most over-the-top qualities are transformed into sympathetic heroes and heroines, compelling story-lines, and heartfelt romance.  When done badly, romance fiction can’t get worse; they open themselves up to ridicule (and that’s only from romance-loving readers).  Lucas’s sheikh, Sharif, and his virginal prig of a heroine, Irene, never make their way to our hearts, but inspire, thanks to the sentimentality of the writing and unsavoriness of the sentiments, no more than a snicker … or a whimper … and, believe Miss Bates when she says there’s ne’er a bang to be found. Continue reading, but it won’t be pretty

REVIEW For TBR Challenge: Betty Neels’ MAKING SURE OF SARAH, Or Whatever Happened To Spine and Sense?

Making Sure of SarahReading Betty Neels’ “Making Sure Of Sarah” made Miss Bates sad.  Everything vibrant and quirky is sucked out of Neels and all that’s left is a deflated balloon, forlornly, droopingly, valiantly swaying in the breeze.  Neels’ voice is tired in “Making Sure of Sarah,” even if there are moments, paragraphs, phrases, passages when her light shines; for the most part, though, the sun is waning on her talent.  Miss Bates has announced her Neelsian love loud and clear; she cannot say this novella gave her that old Neelsian thrill.  The signature robustness of hero and heroine is etiolated: the Minerva/Diana of Augusta has given way to a will-o’-the-wisp; the officiousness, presence, and mystery of Contantijn has surrendered to a softer, less imposing, more conceding giant; maybe more considerate and likeable to our contemporary sensibilities, but not half as deliciously maddening?  To Miss Bates, Neels’ heart wasn’t in it any more. Continue reading

Looks Like A Review: Sarah Morgan’s THE SULTAN’S VIRGIN BRIDE, Or Lysistrata In the Desert

When “the world is too much” with Miss Bates, when she’s “in disgrace with fortune” and has had the work month from hell, when Friday rolls around and fatigue comes cheap … she reads an HP.  HPs are Miss Bates’s preferred escapist reading: the caricatured masculinity of the uber-hero, the moral goodness and myriad virtues of the often-misunderstood heroine (even heiress-party-girls are good and secretly self-sacrificing).  Setting is set at minimum and the over-wrought physicality of the hero and heroine’s attraction is strung so tight Miss Bates hears zinging as she reads. 

The Sultan's Virgin BrideThus was Sarah Morgan’s The Sultan’s Virgin Bride.  Smooth, coconut-flavored chocolate, an espresso as dark as our hero’s eyes and Morgan’s PC-not tale and Miss Bates rejuvenated on a weary Friday night.

When Saturday’s grey-fogged incipient dawn crept into her room, however, she woke with thoughts whirling.  She’d enjoyed every moment of her HP; however, niggling and annoying considerations sidled into her consciousness.  She’s going to impose them on you, dear reader.  Bear with her.  This be reader response.

To the HP reader, there are no spoilers.  One of the HP’s virtues is its predictability.  But if you don’t read them and you’re reading this, there might be mild ones.  HPs require the suspension of your suffragette and post-suffragette sensibilities.  Continue reading

REVIEW: Grace Livingston Hill’s THE SUBSTITUTE GUEST, Or “Pilgrim and Stranger Man”

TheSubstituteGuestTo appreciate Livingston Hill’s 1936 The Substitute Guest, one must read it as an artefact. Thus did Miss Bates and was equally fascinated and horrified; the experience was akin to looking at a train wreck, wanting to look away yet unable to. To the general romance reader, this author will have little appeal. To the historian and critic of the romance genre, she is of consequence. To the reader of inspirational romance, she may prove engrossing, if your tastes run to heavy-handed religious content, religious conversions that rival a non-inspirational’s heightened love-scene diction, and characters reminiscent of 1930s Hollywood melodrama. To the women’s studies scholar, this will provide a spellbinding picture of the idealized fantasies of the thousands of women who read Hill. For Miss Bates, reading her was like reading an evangelical Betty Neels, though Neels is, by far, the better writer. (Miss Bates would add that both have a penchant for writing good food descriptions … and in 1936, at the height of the Depression, this too may have been a fantasy for some readers.) Hill’s narrative (and she wrote over a hundred) is the epitome of all things being well that end well. This is not truer anywhere, Hill asserts, than in her vision of the Christian narrative as reflecting her time, place, and concerns. Continue reading for Miss Bates’s commentary on this iconic writer of inspirational romance