Miss Bates Reads Regency Romance: Carla Kelly’s LIBBY’S LONDON MERCHANT

Libby's_London_MerchantMiss Bates dislikes romance where the heroine has to choose between two suitors. She prefers her romance protagonists to know this is the one, no matter how antagonistic or impossible their relationship seems to be, whether thanks to external, or internal reasons, or both. But romance authors have time and again humbled Miss Bates by proving that her most hated tropes can be redeemed. Carla Kelly’s Libby’s London Merchant redeems the two-suitor trope most finely.

As with most Kelly romances, there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye. Kelly uses the genre’s formulaic narrative arc and conventions to dress her most beloved themes: her young, intelligent, but inexperienced heroines have to learn the lesson that hard work and purpose go hand in hand with finding a person to love and share their lives with. In Libby Ames’s case, her struggle to figure out who she loves, the Duke of Knaresborough, Benedict Nesbitt “Nez”, who comes calling as the chocolate merchant “Nesbitt Duke”, or her neighbour and friend, Dr. Anthony Cook, is also the story of Libby’s coming-of-age, taking on adulthood by figuring out what will make life as meaningful as it is love-filled.  Continue reading

MissB. Reads Regency Christmas Romance: Diane Farr’s ONCE UPON A CHRISTMAS

Once_Upon_A_Christmas_2Miss Bates was in the mood for something long buried in the TBR, not an ARC, or new release, something Christmas-y and vintage-y. Diane Farr’s Once Upon A Christmas is no Georgette-Heyer rom, but it certainly hails from a happier, more innocent time for the genre. Published by Signet in 2000, it belongs with Balogh’s and Kelly’s Regency Christmas romances. Though not the stylist Balogh is, Farr’s romance plumbs depths that surprised MissB and tells a lovely Christmas-consummated romance.

When the novel opens, Celia Delacourt, tragically solitary after losing parents and siblings, in mourning, is visited by Her Grace, Gladys Delacourt, Duchess of Arnsford. “Aunt” Gladys, sufficiently supercilious, willful, and autocratic to rival Austen’s Catherine de Burgh, offers Celia a home for the holidays and beyond. Still numb with grief, knowing she’ll soon vacate the vicarage that has been her only home, Celia travels to Delacourt Palace to find that Her Grace plans to groom her for marriage to her benignly cavalier son and the Delacourt heir, John/Jack, Marquess of Lyndon. Suspecting his mother’s matrimonial machinations, Jack arrives, ostensibly for the holidays, with every intent to foil them.
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MINI-REVIEW: Kate Hewitt’s A VICARAGE CHRISTMAS

A_Vicarage_ChristmasMiss Bates admits she is excited when she sees a new Kate Hewitt romance. Hewitt hits all of Miss B’s reading sweet-spots: a reverence for fidelity and commitment, a diffident sensibility about sexuality, and a portrayal of sympathetic vulnerability in her characters. The first in Hewitt’s latest series (with its cumbersome title, The Holley Sisters of Thornthwaite), A Vicarage Christmas has all that and Christmas! And a curate hero! The BESTEST heroes are Protestant clerical types: Miss B. has a real penchant for them. Also, Miss b. loves a northern England setting, and celibate, but not Puritanical, protagonists. Perfect, thought Miss B., and delved into the romance between third daughter/sister Anna Holley and Simon Truesdell, Anna’s vicar father’s curate. Anna travels home to the village of Thornthwaite (from Manchester, where she works as a legal librarian) to spend the holidays with her family: father Roger and mother Ruth, and two of four sisters, Esther and Rachel. The Holleys are a loving family. The girls obviously grew up in a home of care, comfort, and security. But Anna’s visits home are rare. She usually spends her holidays in Manchester and, while Anna’s mother, Ruth, has the cookies and trimmings and Christmas bows and whistles making up most of the vicarage’s spaces, there is something sad about the family, something off.
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REVIEW: Mary Burchell’s CHILD OF MUSIC

Child_Of_MusicMary Burchell’s 1970 Child Of Music is the Warrender Saga’s fifth book. Though not MissB’s favourite (see A Song Begins and The Curtain Rises reviews) Burchell is unrivalled in her acute psychological penetration and articulation of character. And this is as evident in Child Of Music as any other Burchell romance.

Burchell’s heroine, Felicity Grainger, is a music teacher with a child prodigy-student in eleven-year-old Janet Morton, orphan and violinist, overshadowed by a hateful aunt. Felicity wants very much to get Janet into the Tarkman Foundation School, a musical foundation nurturing musical prodigies. Sadly, hateful Aunt Julia also happens to have set her sights on Stephen Tarkman, the handsome chief administrator of the Tarkman Trust, which administers and funds the foundation, wealthy himself and possessed of a talent for discovering and nurturing musical genius. Of course, nothing could be more wonderful than getting Janet into Stephen’s school, but Janet suffers from blocks to her playing when Auntie Dearest is around. And, Aunt Julie makes sure she’s around when Janet, with Felicity’s accompaniment, auditions, BADLY, for Stephen. When Stephen expresses an attraction for Felicity, “Aunt” Julie’s enmity and anti-Janet-and-Felicity campaign intensifies.  Continue reading

Reading: Theology in Eva Ibbotson’s A COMPANY OF SWANS (1985)

A_Company_Of_SwansMiss Bates read one of the best romances ever and it was Eva Ibbotson’s A Company Of Swans. Woven into Harriet and Rom’s magnificent romance is Ibbotson’s notion of what faith constitutes: how it calls us and how we enact it. Religious references are threaded throughout Harriet and Rom’s great love.

To set the scene: Harriet lives in 1912 Cambridge, England, under her father’s and aunt’s puritanical, stringent, miserly, dour thumbs. Her singular joy: ballet. Her love of dance leads to her escape from her father’s house to join an eccentric company of dancers and prima ballerina, Simonova, slated to dance in the Amazon rainforest. There, she meets Rom, a wealthy, generous, darkly good-looking, self-exiled ex-pat. Rom falls in immediate love, as does Harriet, but they, for individual reasons, bide their time. Eventually, they become lovers. Another Woman, sundry parties’ nasty machinations, including Harriet’s father, aunt, and ex-fiancé, conspire to destroy Harriet and Rom’s love affair. Rom plays shiny-armor knight, in a scene reminiscent of one of MissB’s favourites, the ending of Hitchcock’s Notorious. All’s well that end’s well, as is the Bard’s wisdom and the romance genre’s. MissB will, in a most unscholarly fashion, pen what struck her about Ibbotson’s theology in A Company Of Swans. Read it for the romance, remember it for how love is our most vital calling.
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REVIEW: Mary Burchell’s THE CURTAIN RISES

The_Curtain_RisesMiss Bates ran a gamut of reactions to Mary Burchell’s Warrender Saga. She adored the first and loathed (DNF-ed) the second and third. And yet, the first, A Song Begins, was so good, she get kept trying to read one after another. Well, fourth time’s a charm because The Curtain Rises is masterful. There is much in it that Miss Bates usually dislikes, but it totally totally swept her away with its emotional intelligence. To set the scene for MissB’s reader: Nicola Denby, possessed of looks, sound judgement and reasoning, and a doting, country-life-middle-class-respectability English family, goes off to London to earn her living as a secretary. Family connections see her become assistant to her prima donna aunt (who must never be referred to as “Aunt”) Gina Torelli (Torelli is a fascinatingly machinating character: a mercurial, temperamental fairy god-mother, vain and sharply intelligent, one of romance’s greatest secondary characters). Nicola was engaged to a brilliant viola player, Brian Coverdale. When Brian was on tour in Canada, he took ill and yet rushed to Toronto from Montreal at the conductor’s, Julian Evett’s. Brian, sadly, died of some consumptive-like illness and Nicola is left with great enmity towards Julian, who soon turns up to direct her aunt’s Covent Garden production.   Continue reading

MINI-REVIEW: Liz Fielding’s THE SHEIKH’S CONVENIENT PRINCESS

The_Sheikh's_Convenient_PrincessMiss Bates is a loyal reader to certain romance writers because they offer engaging romance about goodness: Liz Fielding, Marion Lennox, Carla Kelly, Jessica Hart, and Kate Hewitt. Their heroes and heroines may be melancholic, mistaken, even sharp at times, but they are fundamentally good – decent, caring, and kind. No one is smarmy, no one is mean, and no one dominates. It’s fair to ask if this makes their books, their characters, humdrum? Miss Bates would argue not because they create characters who are good people with plenty of personality. The dialogue is strong; the inner conflicts, believable; and the romance, of the sigh variety. When MissB reaches the end, she is replete with reader satisfaction.

Such a book is Liz Fielding’s The Sheikh’s Convenient PrincessThe premise is outlandish, but Fielding’s hero and heroine are believably fleshy, in their dilemmas, give-and-take and back-and-forth witty banter, serious sharing, charming flirtations, and deepening affection. When we meet Sheikh Bram Ansari, he is “disgraced, disinherited, and exiled.” Youthful shenanigans led his father to disinherit him and put his younger brother on the throne, a younger brother who also married Bram’s arranged fiancée, Safia. Enter Ruby Dance, exclusive, much-sought-after, lauded temporary PA. Bram may not have seen kith or kin in five years, but he cleaned up his act and is now a billionaire. He can afford Ruby Dance.  Continue reading

REVIEW: Kate Hewitt’s MEET ME AT WILLOUGHBY CLOSE

Meet_Me_At_Willoughby_CloseMiss Bates  loved Kate Hewitt’s A Di Sione For the Greek’s Pleasure and willingly delved into Hewitt’s women’s fic/romance incarnation in Meet Me At Willoughby Close. Meet Me has enough romance, and a likeable one at that, to satisfy a rom-reader. It contains an endearingly goofy heroine, Ellie Matthews, working at figuring out her divorced, single mum life, moving away from family and, for the first time, at 28, tackling life with eleven-year-old daughter, Abby. Ellie has a new job as an “administrative assistant” in the University of Oxford history department and new cottage in Wychwood-on-Lea, at Willoughby Close. Ellie is paired with her “boss,” a history professor she’s temporarily assigned to, the Darcy-like, upper-crust, Victorian-Era historian Oliver Venables, he of the grey-green eyes and impressive physique. Meet Me At Willoughby Close is funny and romantic. It tackles some serious subjects, with a light touch but no less profoundly: parent-child relationships, bullying, family dynamics, deadbeat dads, and class. Oh, and the joys and vagaries of pet ownership. Ellie’s dog, Marmite, is a great loping mutt whose exuberance (and wee bit of flatulence) elicit reader-giggles in every scene he snuffles into. Continue reading

REVIEW: Mary Burchell’s THE BROKEN WING

The_Broken_WingWhen Miss Bates read her first Burchell, A Song Begins, the 13-volume Warrender Saga introductory romance, she waxed adoring and enthusiastic. With the second title, The Broken Wing, as her mama would say, she had to put a little water in her wine. Burchell remains, in Miss Bates’s estimation, one of the finest writers in the genre; her prose is refined, elegant, clear, polished, and yet still tugs at the heartstrings. An appreciation of Burchell’s writing will ensure that Miss Bates reads to the end. She has too much respect for fine prose to DNF, even when narrative elements prove problematic, or personally unappealing.

The Broken Wing is set in the opera world that was so dear to Burchell’s heart and provided one of her most vivid settings. Oscar Warrender and now-wife Anthea Benton, A Song Begins‘s hero and heroine, play a part in Quentin Otway and Tessa Morley’s romance, yet another element Burchell handled well. Oscar and Anthea aren’t in the narrative for a reader’s glimpse of wedded bliss. They play an interesting role in nurturing Tessa’s talent and providing support and friendship, respectively. Tessa, Quentin’s “Mouse” and “Angel”, is the artistic director’s irreplaceable secretary. Quentin and conductor Oscar Warrender are the key figures and driving forces behind the Northern Counties Festival. The novel takes place during the hectic weeks of preparation that precede the festival, throwing the volatile, charming, and rogue-ish Quentin into closer and closer proximity to Tessa, his right-hand women, tea-steeper, and mercurial moods’ soother, “selfless devotion would not have been much good on its own, of course. But fortunately Tessa was remarkably efficient too.”    Continue reading

Mary Burchell’s A SONG BEGINS: Romance Doesn’t Get Better Than This …

A_Song_BeginsUntil reading Mary Burchell’s A Song Begins, Miss Bates found it hard to believe that anyone could rival Betty Neels. Yet, here MissB stands, enthralled with Mary Burchell. All she can say is, MOAR! A Song Begins is the first of Burchell’s Warrender Saga, a series of thirteen romances she wrote for Mills and Boon from 1965 to ’85. They are set in the opera world and feature harsh, closed-off heroes and heroines who hold their own against them. Burchell and Neels share the exclusive heroine POV and the mystery, which Miss Bates loves, of knowing the heroes only by their actions. The heroes’ kindness and love for the heroine are hinted at with rare near-tender gestures. Otherwise, they’re cyphers of raised eyebrows, mysterious smiles, flashing, angry eyes, suppressed frustration, and an exacting work ethic, to which our heroine’s inexperience is subject, in Neels’ case in the surgery and Burchell’s in the rehearsal hall. A Song Begins opens with Anthea Benton, aspiring singer, trying to win a TV singing spot to help pay her way to London and voice training. Anthea’s family is financially humble; while loving and supportive of her aspirations, they cannot afford to help her. This TV spot is her only chance and is foiled by one of the judges, the famous conductor Oscar Warrender. Anthea’s disappointment is short-lived, however, because she receives word, through her voice teacher Miss Sharp, that a mysterious benefactor is funding her move to London to study with none other than maestro himself, Oscar Warrender!   Continue reading