When Only Short and Sweet Will Do: Liz Fielding’s THE SHEIKH’S GUARDED HEART

_Sheikh's_Guarded_HeartTruth be told, as far as romance reading goes, Miss Bates is a category aficionado. Now that she’s somewhat extricated herself (and she was the sole person responsible for putting herself there) of the ARC-shackles, and given that the day job will make relentless demands on her until Christmas, you can expect A LOT of category reading and ruminating. Liz Fielding is an auto-buy and go-to author for Miss Bates. Why? Because the writing is laudable; characters; finely drawn; and, there’s humour and gravitas to the story. For example, Miss Bates loved the 2004 A Family of His Own, with its broody hero, grubby gardener-heroine, and gardening metaphors out of Wilde’s “Selfish Giant.” Fielding’s The Sheikh’s Guarded Heart has similar elements: an oasis-garden setting, a loving heroine, a cute moppet, a brooding, suffering hero and elegant writing. And the idea that the love of a good woman can water the soul of a brooding hero. Was it a thoroughly enjoyable reading experience for Miss Bates? Continue reading

REVIEW: Kate Noble’s THE GAME AND THE GOVERNESS, Standing in Someone Else’s Shoes

The_Game_and_the_Governess

Run-of-the-mill cover for a unique romance novel!

Lessons are learned in Kate Noble’s historical romance, The Game and the Governess. One article led Miss B. to reading it: Jessica’s Book Riot recommendation and one made her think about it, Robin Reader’s DA essay on “Romance and the ‘Meaning of Life’.”  Robin Reader’s questions about romance’s reluctance to engage in existential speculation, which centred, in the discussion, on inspirational romance, raised interesting ideas. Miss Bates thinks that romance is even more enjoyable when it implies an ideological basis. And really, is there any way to escape the ideological, even when an author purports that she’s just telling a good romantic story? That, however, is not the job of the author, but the critic, which is why, with Northrop Frye, Miss Bates would agree that criticism can be as “creative” an act as fiction-weaving. Miss B. digresses, as is her wont. Suffice to say for her purpose here that Noble’s romance novel is, like Jane Austen to whom she has been compared (see Jessica’s review), a novel of ideas, interesting, reader-chewable ideas of privilege, class, merit, and personality.

Noble begins with an interesting premise, years before she brings her hero, “Lucky Ned” Granville, Earl of Ashby, and heroine, governess Phoebe Baker, together. Her premise is “fortunes falling, fortunes rising.” When Ned was twelve, living modestly with his mother in Hollyhock, Leicestershire, his uncle, the then earl, sent him to school, grooming him to be the future earl. Ned never saw his mother again. When we meet him, Ned is a careless, carefree, amoral aristocrat; he’s not a charming rake, hiding his kindness and consideration. It’s not his dissipation that is important, but his attitude towards others and self-importance. When Phoebe was seventeen, she, because of her father’s bad investments, lost her place in the world: from soon-to-be débutante to orphaned governess (and unlike Jane Eyre, whom Miss B. couldn’t help but think of, no fortune lurks in the shadows to make her palatable to an aristocratic husband). In the midst of her loss of fortune is a fraudster, Mr. Sharp, who also milked the then young earl, Ned. Phoebe’s rage, at the time, led her to writing two hate-filled letters to the young man who had the power and privilege to put an end to Mr. Sharp and did not, though he too had been defrauded by him. When we meet her five years later, Phoebe has wrested equanimity from her situation; she makes the best of her governess role, loving her charges, the delightful Rose and Henry, daughter and son to Sir Nathan and Lady Widcoate, and reveling in her teaching role. Her misfortune has given her, if not passion, then contentment and occasionally delight. Phoebe remains a model of hard work and positive attitude: a lesson that Nat needs to learn if his life is to have purpose. Continue reading

REVIEW: Simone St. James’s SILENCE FOR THE DEAD, Or Crossing No Man’s Land

Silence_For_the_DeadWhen Miss Bates was in graduate school many years ago, she read Paul Fussell’s Abroad: British Literary Travelling Between the Wars.  She went on to read Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory, (which she still counts among her favourite books) and all of Wilfred Owen’s poetry.  As she completed her graduate studies, Pat Barker’s World War I trilogy was published, Regeneration, The Eye In the Door, and The Ghost Road, and Miss Bates devoured them in singular sittings.  “The Great War” was a line in the sand in Western history and we experience its repercussions still.  Her reading and rereading of these great books and fascination with the era and its aftermath remain.  It follows that she was disposed to be interested in, if not to like, Simone St. James’s post-Great-War mystery-ghost-story-historical-romance Silence For the Dead.  She found that she loved it!  Its echo of history’s ghosts, their haunting of us, the experience of ordinary, working-class people, the crossing of the dividing-line between classes that the trenches entailed, the walking wounded that are its legacy … all of that and more is in St. James’s hybrid novel of romantic suspense, closed-room mystery, ghost story, and one gloriously rendered romance of friendship, respect, love, humour, and desire.  Like most thrillers, it lost some of these wonderful threads in the solving of the mystery as it lapsed into sensationalism, a niggling point in light of its wunder-HEA, however. 😉 If you read one mystery with really “strong romantic elements” this year, it should be this one. Continue reading, but there’ll be more lauding

REVIEW: Meredith Duran’s FOOL ME TWICE, Or How the Mighty Are Risen

Fool Me TwiceUntil Miss Bates read Jeannie Lin’s Jade Temptress, she’d despaired of recent historical romances. Her faith was restored by Lin’s 9th-century-China tale of mystery and romance, that of the smooth, skillful writing and historical authenticity. Okay, Miss Bates thought, maybe it’s the European historical one should give up … and then she read Duran’s Fool Me Twice and, as Shakespeare’s Macbeth says, “mine eyes are made the fools of the other senses.” Miss Bates was all eyes the two days it took her to read Duran’s novel: eyes glued to e-reader through workplace lunch hours, sneaked-in quarter hours, and staying up too late only to appear bleary-eyed at the breakfast table until she was delivered of a thoroughly satisfying end by late afternoon. Duran has been a favourite since Miss Bates was enthralled by The Duke of Shadows to the more recent, and one of Miss Bates’ favourite romance novels, A Lady’s Lesson In Scandal. Everything that appealed in those, Miss Bates found in gentler mode in Fool Me Twice: a sensitivity to the class issues of the day, a complex heroine, a flawed and compelling hero, wondrously good writing, a central couple who talk more than they couple and embody a meeting of equals akin to Jane and Rochester, who ” … stood at God’s feet, equal … ” Continue reading

REVIEW: Jayne Fresina’s MISS MOLLY ROBBINS DESIGNS A SEDUCTION, Or Hoisted on Your Own Bobbin

Miss Molly Robbins Designs A SeductionMiss Bates loves a cross-class romance.  Indeed, it is one of her most frequently-used review tags!  Obviously, it is a trope that “works” better in historical fiction, but if The Great Gatsby is anything to go by and it is, then it has potential for contemporary romance.  In historical romance, however, Miss Bates’s (and many other romance reviewers much wiser and more widely romance-read than she) favourite cross-class romances are Elizabeth Hoyt’s Raven and Leopard Princes.  Miss Bates’s recent cross-class romance read was Jayne Fresina’s Miss Molly Robbins Designs A Seduction.  Fresina’s effort has similarities to Hoyt’s, but not their mastery, the weakest link being the cross-class element.  The ease with which this historical given is overcome puts the novel on the fluffy-wish-fulfillment shelf.  On the scale of MissBatesian goodness of romance reading, it is middling.  On the other hand, it is humourous and well-written and offers a likeable hero and heroine. Continue reading

MINI-REVIEW: Isabel Cooper’s LEGEND OF THE HIGHLAND DRAGON, Or Brogue Meets East End

Legend Of the Highland DragonMiss Bates has read only a handful of paranormal romances.  For example, she read J. R. Ward’s Lover Eternal, #2 in the Blackdagger Brotherhood, and enjoyed it, but never returned to the series, or any others from one of the romance genre’s most popular incarnations.  Isobel Cooper’s Legend Of the Highland Dragon, though well-written and worthy of praise on certain levels, reminded her why she didn’t, and doesn’t, read paranormal romance, or does so rarely.  It’s not that paranormal romance is less worthy of her attention; it is, for Miss Bates, a matter of sensibility: and there’s something about these transforming/shifting heroes/heroines that she finds … well, silly and unconvincing. 

On the  other hand, she acknowledges that paranormal romance, more than any other romance sub-genre, confronts and explores the encounter with the “other”: its hyperbolic, and/or fantastical nature brings into the foreground the foreignness of another person/creature and the sheer miracle of recognition, of the romantic assertion that “I know you.  I see you. You are my equal, my companion, my familiar friend,” to quote the psalm.  Cooper’s novel does this no less and no less well than any well-written, tongue-in-cheek, witty paranormal romance … yet, it fell a little flat for Miss Bates and she often had trouble buying into the narrative. Continue reading

REVIEW: Inez Kelley’s TAKE ME HOME, “Country Roads”

Take Me HomeEvery spring, in Miss Bates’ cold, northern land, people visit the sugar shacks, where they use what-look-like-wooden-tongue-depressors to scoop warm maple syrup from snow.  They take sleigh rides through grey-white woods and sit to a meal of eggs, ham, and baked beans … doused in maple syrup.  Precious memories for Miss Bates from her early school years, even if present comforts don’t mind relinquishing maple syrup goodness to avoid muddy boots, bumpy rides, and artery-hardening fare.

When Miss Bates went to primary school in the early seventies, her teachers wore fringed leather skirts, peasant blouses, and sported long hair.  They played guitar and had students sing along.  One of the songs they sang was John Denver’s “Country Roads.”  Miss Bates didn’t know where West Virginia, the Blue Ridge Mountains, or Shenandoah River were and didn’t care.  She sang her heart out and not terribly well to the accompaniment of teacher’s guitar: “Country roads, take me home, to the place I belong … ”  Her then sophisticated and risqué native city was as far from the Appalachians as bodies can get in North America, but the sentiments of home, nostalgia, and belonging are still with her.

What do Miss Bates’ happy reminiscences of sugar shack outings and Denver’s “Country Roads” have to do with her latest romance read?  Everything.  Because the running of the sap and a mountain mamma have everything to do with Inez Kelley’s latest, Take Me Home, the first in her “Country Roads” series, which Miss Bates really really liked, with caveats, but liked. Continue reading

More Reading Than Review: Why Miss Bates Loves Betty Neels’ TULIPS FOR AUGUSTA … or Not

Tulips For AugustaMiss Bates hated elements of Neels’ Tulips For Augusta, but she devoured it in a few loving hours.  Though she ought to have been peevish and disgruntled, her interest and enjoyment never wavered.  Therein lies La Neels Power: to madden us with her spinster-bashing, callow (thank you, CG) nurse-y heroines, overbearing, wealthy, medical doctor heroes, and a world that never departs from a mythic, middle-class English gentility … at least until the hero whisks the heroine away to luncheon in his Rolls Royce.  In Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the narrator, Nick Carraway, says of our crass, nouveau-riche hero Jay Gatsby: he “represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn.”  Miss Bates thinks that way of Betty Neels, but feels differently. 

This post will unabashedly focus on what Miss Bates loves about Neels, or at least this Neels … about what she hates, she’ll, like Nick, for now, “reserve judgement.”  For many, Neels is a romance reader’s “restorative niche,” (thank you, Dr. Little), the effortless place where we re-new our love of the genre, a place where we turn a blind eye and adopt an attitude of receptivity.  Come on, Betty who is the nonpareil, “charm me,” we say.  Continue reading

REVIEW: Brenda Novak’s THROUGH THE SMOKE, Not “Worth the Fight”

Through The SmokeWhat happens when an author names her hero Truman?  The obvious.  Her reader has the plain, geeky, tight-lipped 33rd U.S. president floating in her head as she tries tries tries to conjure the magically engrossing experience that reading a romance novel brings. A woeful, bespectabled, steel-haired figure intrudes into the narrative space.  Thus it was with Brenda Novak’s Through the Smoke and her strangely-dubbed hero, Truman.  There might be an allegory there, you say?  Truman Stranhope, Earl of Druridge, is a True Man, a loyal man, a good man, a steadfast and loving man? Actually, as Miss Bates argues below, more a nonentity. 

In her note to the reader, Novak says that her girlhood reading of Jane Eyre informs her return to historical romance, “I love the gothic feel, the air of mystery and … the heart-pounding romance.”  Indeed, Miss Bates recognizes that Jane-Eyrean elements are in Through the Smoke: a mysterious hall named Blackmoor, a fire, a scarred hero, the nefarious wife-figure, an ingenue heroine true to her convictions and spunk-full, the cross-class nature of the protagonists’ relationship … even the housekeeper privy to the socially transgressive affair of hero and heroine.  It’s all there.  And, Miss Bates’ expectations rode high … as she willed herself not to flinch every time she read the hero’s name.
Continue reading to learn how Novak’s novel held up

REVIEW: Culling the TBR One Letter At A Time, “B” Is For Barry

roses2In the spirit of Disclosure! that has been the subject of an interesting discussion at Something More, Miss Bates confesses to being disposed to like Barry’s Brave In Heart for reasons other than her love of: American-set historical romance, spinster-schoolmarm heroines, military heroes, and Ken Burns’s The Civil War.  Ms Barry is a sympathetic and likeable blog presence to Miss Bates, though they’ve never met in person, nor communicated in any other fashion.  Frankly, Miss Bates was whew-relieved when Brave In Heart, Barry’s Connecticut-Civil-War-set romance captivated her from the opening sentence … and proved to be without any connection to one of Miss Bates’s most abhorred novels, Gone With the Wind.  With only minor bumps along the road to reader-joy, Miss Bates loved Brave In Heart … and, like Oliver Twist, begs for, “Some more, please.” Continue reading for Miss Bates’s thoughts on this wonderful novella