In 1885 Gatlinburg, Tennessee, Jessica O’Malley discovers “a bruised and battered man,” “his celestial blue eyes” anguished and confused. She half-carries him to the cabin she shares with her mother, Alice. Jessica and Alice care for his wounds, but there is no healing for his mind. What- or whom-ever brought him to this state rendered such a blow to his head that man they call Grant Parker (from a dedicated Bible they found in his pack) cannot remember who he is, where he came from, what he did, or why he was left for dead on their homestead. Karen Kirst’s Reclaiming His Past contains elements that are some of Miss Bates’s favourites: a temperamental heroine, mysterious hero, an idyllic setting, and AMNESIA narrative! Kirst made wonderful use of the trope, so dear to soap-lovers everywhere, to say something about coming to terms with oneself and one’s past. She created a clever contrasting counterpoint between hero and heroine: Grant can’t reclaim his past because it’s a blank; Jessica, in turn, is haunted by hers. Grant and Jessica work together to find answers and lay ghosts to rest to forge a new, beautiful, and hopeful future. Grant struggles to figure out his identity and purpose, while Jessica struggles to put away her cynicism and suspicion. What they share, even when their exchanges are antagonistic, or problematic, is a prayerful stance towards God: whatever their trials, they call on Him for help and understanding.
Candace Calvert’s contemporary inspirational medical romance Step By Step is second in her Crisis Team series. It is Miss Bates’s first Calvert romance novel and won’t be her last. Whatever liking Miss Bates holds for this title, she acknowledges that the problem with inspirational fiction is its appeal to a niche market. This is problematic when Miss Bates finds an author who merits a wider audience. The dilemma remains, however, because inspie romance, even when it’s as well-written and psychologically nuanced as Calvert’s, contains elements that alienate the general reader.
Calvert’s Step By Step is a second-chance-at-love romance for two widowed protagonists. The wounds are deeper and grieving still fresh for nurse Taylor Cabot: ” … the rings had finally come off, after migrating from her left to her right hand in a painfully slow march through grief – like a turtle navigating broken glass.” Step By Step opens with Taylor and her cousin Aimee watching the San Diego Kidz Kite Festival. A private plane crashes, wreaking havoc and death on festival goers. This disaster scene is one of the “crises” that ER health care workers contend with and are heart-stoppingly described in Calvert’s novel. Taylor rushes to help, abandoning her conversation with Aimee about returning to life and love after grieving her beloved Greg for three years. The transfer of patients to San Diego Hope’s ER reunites Taylor with Seth Donovan, crisis chaplain with California Crisis Care and the man who offered Taylor friendship and compassion when she lost her husband.
This month’s TBR theme was “Recommended Read.” Miss Bates chose to read a novel recommended by one of her rom-reading alter egos, Insta-Love Book Reviews. Insta-Love may not know this, but she’s never recced a rom Miss Bates hasn’t liked. (And Miss Bates isn’t easy to please.) Frankly, MissB’s an Insta-Love Reviews fan-girl and, yes, in her unstately ebullient spinster-fashion, squees when the occasional – sniff – review is posted. Miss Bates and Insta-Love share a love of, and acknowledgement of its problematic nature, inspie rom. Miss Bates read Jody Hedlund’s Colonial-America-set romance novel, Rebellious Heart (loosely based on John and Abigail Adams’s courtship). In 1763 Braintree, Massachusetts, defense lawyer Benjamin Ross saves accused murderer Hermit Joe Crab from the noose – to watch him lose his ears and be branded with an “M”. Hedlund’s Rebellious Heart is honest about the harsher aspects of 18th century Colonial America: slavery, corporal and capital punishment, indentured servitude, class differences, and social and economic strictures on women. In the midst of this world are two remarkable protagonists, lawyer Ben Ross and the young woman sitting in the court audience, his childhood nemesis, Miss Susanna Smith.
Sherri Shackelford’s The Rancher’s Christmas Proposal isn’t proposed by Shane McCoy, said rancher; rather, Tessa Spencer, our heroine, proposes. (A more original and interesting premise, but the word “rancher” in a title sells books. And Shackelford’s book deserves a readership.) Miss Bates is guilty of inspie romance assumptions (sadly proving true too often), which she extended to Shackelford’s unlikely pairing of con artiste and rancher. Inspirational romance characterization is one-dimensional: hero and heroine make Christian conversion avowals and Pollyanna-world reigns, making internal and external conflict caricaturish. Shackelford’s previous Prairie Courtships series novel, The Engagement Bargain, though not as fine as Rancher’s Christmas Proposal, contained this complexity of characterization in a sub-genre that sees so little of it. Continue reading
Regina Scott is a new-to-Miss-B author. Miss B’s relentless pursuit of good inspie fiction is running down like an wound-up toy. Scott’s Frontier Engagement is inspie-light (some heartfelt praying and one lovely forest-set singing of “Amazing Grace”), but not inspired to offer anything new or original in the subgenre. If you’re looking no further than the pleasantness that the subgenre has on offer with none of the offense that it occasionally exhibits, Scott’s 1866-Washington-frontier romance will be for you. Logger James Wallin travels to Seattle to bring a school teacher to Wallin Landing, his family’s fledgling town, and finds Alexandrina Eugenia Fosgrave, newly arrived with the Mercer expedition. Like all good inspie heroines, she’s suspicious and mistrustful, but James’ charm and persistence pay off: “So, like it or not, that schoolmarm had an engagement with the frontier.” James convinces Alexandrina, re-christening her with the diminutive “Rina,” as they set off for Wallin Landing, where Rina hopes to “make something good out of the tatters of her life, where she could make a difference.” Readers soon realize that James’ charm and humour, as well as Rina’s regal bearing, conceal psychic wounds. But Rina is barely established in Wallin Landing when the challenges of teaching leave her tear-eyed and on her way to an easier teaching post. To ensure her safety and, frankly, because he’s sweet on her, James accompanies her in the guise of her fiancé and the narrative makes an about-face, becoming an inspie road romance. The “road” provides much fodder for both humorous and dangerous incidents, as well as James and Rina opportunity to know each other better and grow closer in love and friendship. Continue reading
Miss Bates wended a weary way through Renée Ryan’s The Marriage Agreement. Sometimes, the world is “too much with us” and even a romance can’t carry us away from daily worries. Miss Bates can say with certainty the slow pacing and preciousness of inspirational romance make the immersive reader experience elusive. Ryan’s novel is of that ilk of eye-rolling premises calling for reader tolerance and suspension of chagrin.
Ryan’s inspirational romance opens in 1896 Denver, at the Hotel Dupree, with handsome, aloof owner, Jonathan Hawkins, and his pretty, blonde guest services manager, Fanny Mitchell. It’s obvious to the reader Fanny and Jonathan carry a whiff of notoriety. Fanny rejected a suitor, a fiancé actually, at the last minute, a man her parents, family, and friends thought ideal. She held out, rejecting a man she didn’t love who didn’t love her; her reputation, the price. Alas, it looks like scandal dogs her in Denver, possibly, according to Ryan’s rendition, the most supremely puritanical “upright” Christian town ever conceived. A broken engagement and Fanny might as well slap a J on her dress for Jezebel. Jonathan fares no better: though a successful, wealthy, caring man, who runs his businesses with employees who would otherwise be on the street, prostitutes and their children, he carries the stigma of illegitimacy and a prostitute mother. He and Fanny share friendship, affection, and an affable working relationship at the hotel. When a charity ball finds them NOT fighting (horrors! 😮 ) their attraction by sharing a kiss and caught by a gossiping silly puss of a girl, well, Jonathan, to save a woman he’s come to care deeply about, offers marriage. Continue reading
Miss Bates’ determination to read inspirational romance is quixotic. (It hasn’t been in vain: there’re last Christmas’s Lacy Williams and Karen Kirst discoveries). Most of her inspirational reads have been duds at worse; “okay” at best. And yet, there goes Miss B., tilting at reader windmills. That the combination of faith in love and God may be conjoined in a romance narrative persists in Miss B’s “this can work” universe. Her latest inspie read, Sherri Shackelford’s The Engagement Bargain, proved to Miss B., once again, the marriage of faith and romantic love, as defined by the inspirational subgenre, is elusive. There was much to like in Shackelford’s effort and much not to. To start, Miss Bates liked the premise, the build-up. Small-town veterinarian Caleb McCoy escorts his sister, JoBeth, to a suffragist rally in late 19th-century Kansas City. Caleb is mesmerized by the speaker, determined, committed, and beautiful Anna Bishop. Anna’s impassioned speech is barely underway when she is shot. Caleb carries her to the nearby Savoy Hotel to succor and heal her. Caleb and Jo continue to care for weakened Anna; Caleb has fierce and uncomfortable urges to protect her. Anna, used to her independence, is discomfited by her reliance on Caleb, but can’t deny how safe and cared for he helps her feel. An unsavory Pinkerton detective shows up; another attempt is made on Anna’s life. The usually reticent Caleb, drawn more and more to Anna’s intelligence, blue eyes, and bearing up under fear and danger, offers to take her to his home town, Cimarron Springs, under the guise of being his fiancée. She will be cared for by his family and her safety assured. Continue reading
Well, dear readers, here we are again: with Miss Bates’ accumulated DNFs. Her tolerance is low as she chases the sigh-worthy romance read. Sometimes, as evident in this latest DNF post, she ventures outre-genre; it’s much much harder to please her when her preferred narrative arc is missing. The rest, romances that didn’t work for her. She’s also tapped into a few “it-was-okay” reads lately: she’s a tad disheartened, but will persist. The next winner is around the corner … Continue reading
With a book about food, love, and family, Miss Bates launches her review by eating humble pie. “Never say never” should be Miss B’s mantra regarding romance reading. Katherine Reay’s Lizzy and Jane is mild romance; it’s … GASP … women’s fiction, a fictive genre Miss Bates purports to abhor. Indeed, there’s been scorn-heaping. It’s the type of fiction she’s most likely to DNF. She finds it precious and precious becomes boring and boring becomes the worst kind of sentimental. Reay’s novel skirts close to DNF territory: estranged sisters (sibling relationships have never interested Miss B.), acrimony remaining from their mother’s illness, CANCER, one of the two sisters ill with CANCER herself, confronting the past, each other, and salvaging, or sundering, relationships. It focuses on younger sister, Elizabeth, “Lizzy,” Hughes, 33, moving back to the Pacific Northwest (from New York City where her chef’s career was floundering) to come to terms with people she left behind: retired firefighter dad and especially older sister, Jane. Her journey tries to answer: what is home? What do we owe the people closest to us, particularly those with whom we share strained relations? What is family? From where do we derive meaning and purpose? How do we find God amidst acrimony and failure?
It is the start of the Lenten season for Miss Bates, a season of re-evaluation and reflection, and Reay’s novel was a perfect fit. While suffering from the failure of inspirational fiction to make a tangible, ritualistic participation in church life as essential to defining ourselves as Christians, Reay’s novel nevertheless took a eucharistic perspective through Lizzy’s creative food acts. And her spirit guide, and that of others as well, like her sister, Jane, was Jane Austen. Like food, which serves as healer and binder, literature stands in as such as well. Continue reading
It’s been a wonderful year at Miss Bates Reads Romance, thanks to everyone who dropped by to read, comment, and make Miss Bates’ life that much brighter and happier by her presence. She takes this opportunity to wish you a hearty new year, full of joy, laughter, love, inspiration, conviviality … and great books!
Miss Bates read over eighty-five books in 2014: some forgettable, some precious rereads, some by new-to-her authors; others, familiar and beloved. She kept a running list of books that struck her at time-of-reading; in the past weeks, she pruned pruned pruned. Below you’ll find titles that resonated: the memory of whose scenes, characters, and turns of phrase provokes a smile, thought, or question. They may not be perfect, but, for sundry reasons, Miss Bates holds them close to her heart. (Miss Bates links to her original review and keeps to a few lines about each title.) Continue reading