Review/Response: Jessica Hart’s JUGGLING BRIEFCASE AND BABY, Or The Crumpling Heart

Juggling_Briefcase_and_BabyAfter finishing Jo Beverley’s sublime Emily and the Dark Angel, Miss Bates was in a reading funk. Much like a fussy baby, “grizzling” (as Hart describes adorable Freya in Juggling Briefcase and Baby) from book to book, unable to settle. Miss Bates read the opening pages to at least 15 e-ARCs; none of them took: the writing was stilted, info-dumps galore, and even romance writers she usually loves were giving her the meh-blues. She tried out a few non-roms; that experiment fell flat as well, too many writers too conscious of the prose and ignorant of the pacing, plot, and characterization. She stood in her spinster’s lair, foot a-tapping, index finger beating a dissatisfied refrain on her chin: nothing stood out from the groaning paper TBR shelves. “What to read? What to read?” … always turn to a title from a favourite author! Hence, Jessica Hart’s Juggling Briefcase and Baby, a one-click buy from years ago when Miss Bates read Wendy’s review. Dear readers, Wendy was right: this is a great great rom. There be reasons. There be one reason above all that makes for great rom. The genre runs with a pretty straight forward narrative: encounter, new or reunited; development with obstacles; HEA. That’s all there is to it; characterization, pretty standard, flawed but basically likeable, on occasion, admirable. What distinguishes the romance genre from others is the emotional wisdom, the deep deep astuteness about the bond of falling in love and making the scary leap to commitment. Hart, alas no longer practicing the romance art, is/was one of its most sensitive practitioners.   
Continue reading

Three-Day Quote Challenge: Day Two

With a nod of thanks for Willaful who nominated Miss Bates for this challenge. Miss B’s having a blast!

The category romance is the humblest and most succinct manifestation of the romance narrative: the encounter, the attraction/detraction, the separation and dark night of the couple soul, and the grovel and HEA. Category romance distills the romance narrative to its essentials: two people working out, in their relationship, a beloved romance trope. Take, for example, the wondrous Molly O’Keefe contemporary category, His Wife For One Night, a contemporary marriage-of-convenience, so difficult to pull off. And yet, O’Keefe convinces, moves, and engages her reader in Jack and Mia’s story. 

Promoted_To_Wife_&_MotherMarriage of convenience is a beloved trope for Miss B.: it satisfies her old-fashioned sensibilities for sex within the sanctity of marriage and makes for courtship-within-marriage an interesting narrative twist. And yet, her favourite category romance is built on a hated trope: the office romance. Yuck. Boards and profit margins and pencil skirts just ain’t her thing. Besides, everything that could possibly go wrong with the trope is inherent in it, like power differentials, usually to the detriment of the heroine. But here she is LOVING today’s opening line romance, Jessica Hart’s execrably titled, Promoted to Wife and Mother:

Perdita drummed her fingers on the sleeves of her jacket and tried not to look as if she were sulking.

Continue reading

Wendy Superlibrarian TBR Challenge: Jessica Hart’s UNDER THE BOSS’S MISTLETOE, Taking the Sweet Out of Sweet Romance, Or From Heyer to Hart

Under_Boss's_MistletoeIf Miss Bates as romance reader has a romance writing twin, it’s Jessica Hart. Hart pushes all of Miss B’s romance-loving buttons: her books are a perfect balance of realism and fairy tale, emotional intelligence and ideas. (Miss Bates is indebted to Emily J.H., a Twitter friend, for inspiring this post, and hopes inspiration is with her.) All of this wondrous goodness is in Miss Bates’ latest Hart read, Christmas-inspired of course, the 2009 Harlequin Romance, Under the Boss’s Mistletoe. Miss Bates suspects that Hart’s writing is both intuitive and conscious (as the best writing is), aware of craft and led by muses and the unconscious. In Under the Boss’s Mistletoe, Hart offers a classic romance narrative arc, as defined, always for Miss B., by Pamela Regis’s A Natural History of the Romance Novel (social context defined – meeting – barrier – attraction – declaration/realization – point of “ritual death,” what Miss B calls “darkest before dawn” or “dark night of couple-soul” – recognition/overcoming of barrier(s) – betrothal/marriage/baby-filled epilogue, preferably all three!). In this case, Hart frames the narrative most beautifully with a prologue and epilogue set where hero and heroine first meet, reconciling past to present. Under the Boss’s Mistletoe isn’t quite re-united lovers, or second-chance at love, but it does bring together one wild youthful kiss shared by antagonists into their present, now ten-years-later, meeting. Let’s get the review part of this post out of the way first by quoting Audrey Hepburn to Cary Grant in one of Miss B’s favourite films, Charade. “You know what’s wrong with you?” says Audrey to Cary. He shakes his head. “Absolutely nothing.”  (All right, it lags a tad in the middle; and the dialogue sounds contrived there too as Jake and Cassie debate what makes a good marriage. But Miss B. quibbles.)

Other than the virtuoso handling of the romance narrative, what fascinated Miss Bates about this novel and, in general, novels deemed “sweet,” or “fade to black,” is how, when they’re as good as Hart’s, they portray as passionate and interesting a “take” on physical attraction and desire as more explicit ones. Miss Bates examines how the masterful Hart does so in this delightful novel. Be warned, dear reader, Miss Bates quotes the novel at length. Mixed up in these quotations are maybe-spoilers, though the joy of the novel lies in language and characterization, not plot.  Continue reading

Stretching Reading Muscles and Learning to Listen

Barefoot_BrideIn the after-math of blogger black-out, midst a stressful, busy work month and nasty flu, Miss Bates turned to her old stand-by and greatest romance love, the category, to help her find pleasure in a few snatched hours of R&R. She coupled reading with listening to an audiobook on dark morning and, thanks to the end of DST, equally dark evening commutes. She didn’t have energy to read more than a few chapters in the evening and wanted the e-reader to tell her that the end was nigh, a you-have-38-minutes-to-finish-this-book message. As for the audiobook commute, let’s say that taking her mind off the sundry tasks she has to fulfill and personalities to juggle are blessings. She hoped that her paltry minutes of comfort and pleasure would offer the thrilling jolt of reading, or listening to things truly great. And the book gods visited boons upon her. Miss Bates read a lovely category romance, Jessica Hart’s Barefoot Bride. It is as thoughtful, well-written, and heart-stoppingly romantic as its title and cover are trite. (Why oh why does Hart have terrible luck with titles and covers? Miss Bates’ favourite Hart, Promoted: To Wife and Mother, is probably the best worst example. Don’t let the title fool you, though, this is one of the best categories Miss Bates has read.) She listened to and is still listening to (it’s a long one, folks) Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley, not The Charlotte’s best known book, but sheer pleasure to Miss Bates. She sends out her heartfelt thanks to Sunita for finding the audiobook and Sunita and Liz for listening along with her. Continue reading

REVIEW: “Jessica Hart’s WE’LL ALWAYS HAVE PARIS: A Marriage of Mind & Heart”

Miss Bates has a crise de coeur when she starts a Jessica Hart novel. Could it be that she’s fallen into … gasp … chick lit? The beginning of Hart’s novels is deceptively frivolous. When Promoted: to Wife & Mother (a fave of Miss Bates’s) opens, the hero and heroine are attending a corporate conference on personality types. Silly. When We’ll Always Have Paris opens, the heroine is trying to convince the hero to star in a reality show she’s producing, Romance: Fact or Fiction?  Kitschy. But Hart’s novels do not end as they begin, do not remain in “frivolous” territory for long. Hart doesn’t tarry before she brings her characters from flat to full, from two dimensions to three, consistently increasing the reader’s sympathy and liking for them.

Hart cleverly plays with allusion to popular film, the title itself an echo of Casablanca; the narrative, analogous to The Sound of Music. (There are moments of screwball comedy reminiscent of Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby.) The hero and heroine of Hart’s novel, Clara and Simon, enact the story of Maria and Capt. Von Trapp. This gives the novel tongue-in-cheek charm and novelty. Hart establishes Clara’s  light-heartedness and joie de vivre and Simon’s dourness through their clothing: Clara meets Simon in a fuchsia mini-dress and purple heels; he is dressed soberly in blue, or grey throughout. Clara is a TV producer, a purveyor of fantasy; Simon is an economist, grounded in hard economic reality and fact. Hart machinates some less than stellar coincidences forcing Simon onto Clara’s show. But when the star opposite Simon bails on the production, Clara has to step in and sparks fly. What ensues is a debate, embodied in witty dialogue, between the heart, Clara, and the mind, Simon; between fantasy and romance, Clara, and reality and pragmatism, Simon.

If Miss Bates claims that Hart brings her characters from flat to full, how does Hart accomplish this in light of the “allegorical” nature of her novel as described in the previous paragraph? Hart fleshes out her hero and heroine by filling in their lives previous to the meet cute. Their present demeanours mask the pain of their pasts. In Simon’s case, this means a spendthrift dad, who died and left the family destitute, and a mom as romantic and blithe as … well, Clara. Simon shudders to think how alike Clara and his mum are. Clara’s singing, dancing, and romantic sensibility hide a heart bruised, broken, and irreparable from a relationship where the love of her life, Matt, left her for the high school sweetheart.

The other interesting though less successful aspect of the novel is Hart’s use of setting. Clara’s reality show situates the debate of Romance: Fact or Fiction in location shooting in some very romantic places: Paris, the Caribbean, the Scottish Highlands. Setting acts as foil or partner to the debate between romance attainable and sustainable, or in fact!, a spectre soon dispelled by practical reality. How Clara and Simon arrive at a compromise and fall in love is wonderfully depicted through their dialogue. The frequent shifts in setting are less successful, resulting in a novel that does not flow, is episodic, and leaves annoying gaps in the narrative.

Miss Bates can’t believe she’s stating this, considering her spinsterish ways, but the absence of detailed love scenes is unappealing. Miss Bates reads inspirational romance, devoid of any love-making scenes, and quite enjoys it; detailed love scenes are not essential to portray the connection between hero and heroine. However, in this case, the closed-door “policy” of this category of romance diminished the love story. Maybe the severe hero and carefree heroine would have had yet more depth by a depiction of their love-making? Miss Bates is uncertain, unable to express what she means, but has a niggling feeling about this.

In the end, this is a strong little novel. Hart has humour, clever use of allusion to classic film, especially the beloved Sound of Music, smooth writing, witty dialogue, a tongue-in-cheek awareness of the genre, and the theme of love’s healing possibility. There is a lovely reversal at the end of the novel: Clara’s dans la lune romanticism gives way to practicalities and rueful awareness of the true nature of love in Simon’s steady, faithful presence and support, and Simon’s sober and utilitarian realism gives way to a grand romantic gesture (worthy of the closing scene of Pretty Woman) and the realization that complementarity is the cement of a relationship and not compatibility.

Miss Bates, despite her quibbles, did enjoy this romance novel, and says, “Almost pretty.” Northanger Abbey