The quotation opening Neels’s Grasp a Nettle is quite the thing: “Tender-handed stroke a nettle/And it stings you for your pains;/Grasp it like a man of mettle/And it soft as milk remains,” attributed to Aaron Hill and eponymously referring to the romance’s heroine, Jenny Wren, her surname suggestive of bird-like cuteness. Well, there’s nothing “cute” about Jenny, or her hero, the acerbic, temperamental Professor Eduard van Draak te Solendijk. Jenny is, like the majority of Neels’s heroines, a nurse, but she is independently wealthy, of a storied estate family, and has neither a need to work, or marry to ensure a living. Her parents are long dead, but she may go home whenever she likes to Dimworth House, where her Aunt Bess, aka Miss Elizabeth Creed, would welcome her any time, indeed, would prefer that Jenny remain with her, take care of the estate as it receives visitors and be at her beck and call. Aunt Bess is loving, but imperious, expecting Jenny to care for her and marry her neighbour’s son, Toby. But Jenny is Neels’s attempt at a more modern heroine: Jenny wants to work at her nursing because she loves her work and is devoted to it, is ambitious for herself, and willing to wait until she meets “the one”: “There would be someone in the world meant for her; she had been sure of that ever since she was a little girl, and although there was no sign of him yet, she was still quite certain that one day she would come face to face with him, and he would feel just as she did — and in the meantime she intended to make a success of her job.” How beautifully Betty sets us up for The Man’s entrance. Aunt Bess takes ill, Jenny leaves her job to devote herself to her aunt’s care … and thus encounters and spars with Draak, through England, a cruise, and Holland. Continue reading
The Christian edict that “the last shall be first” comes true in many a Neels romance. Such is The Hasty Marriage (1977). The waif. The mouse. The mousy-haired. The too-small, too-plump, too-plain heroine. And, horrors, on the shelf too. Pushing thirsty. An *gasp* old-maid-in-the-making. The heroine who declares her un-attractiveness on every page. Is there a more self-deprecating one than The Hasty Marriage‘s Laura (do we ever learn her last name?).
A ward sister at St. Anne’s in London, she comes home to visit her father and finds her Dutch godfather with his colleague, Dr. Reilof van Meerum. Drama ensues, as we learn from the blurb:
Laura had always been used to taking second place to her pretty younger sister, Joyce. If Joyce wanted something, she got it! It was, therefore, no surprise to Laura that when she fell in love with the attractive Dutch doctor Reilof van Meerum, he chose Joyce instead. But when Joyce walked out on him to marry another, richer man, Reilof asked her to marry him. He needed a wife, and Laura, it seemed, would do as well as anyone. So she accepted–but could she really expect to be happy with a man who did not love her?
For the most part, and thank the good Neelsian gods, Joyce is absent from the narrative. When she appears, at the start to lure Reilof and at the end to put a canker in the rose of Laura’s marriage (stilted and unconsummated as it is, it’s hers and she loves Reilof enough to be willing to live with this compromise). Continue reading
Ah, beloved Betty, your Matter of Chance took me through many a bathtub reading session and kept me annoyingly flipping pages. You broke the bank with your hero’s inscrutable meanness and heroine’s puckered-brow peevishness. I admit to an eagerness to read my Betty #36 because of the sheer delight I took in your protagonists’ names, as evidenced from the blurb:
Cressida Bingley needs a fresh start, so moving to Holland for a new job seems perfect. Until she finds herself lost in Amsterdam and accepts help from a charming knight in shining armor — who turns out to be her new boss’s partner! Dr. Giles van der Tiele can’t forget the alluring young woman he rescued, and longs to make her his bride. But Cressida refuses to marry for anything less than love.
Hmm, the blurb is deceptive because Giles doesn’t propose to Cressida until near the end and the blurb moves this into the preamble to MoC territory, which it isn’t. As a matter of fact, I hate to say this, but Giles spends most of the novel being so incredibly unkind that I came as close to being mad at precious Betty as I ever have. I loved Cressida: she’s smart, competent, beautiful, and hard-working. So what gives, Giles, why you gotta be so mean? Continue reading
Marion Lennox’s Pregnant Midwife on His Doorstep should have, could have, and on some level, probably was a fine romance. It contains many love-worthy elements: forced-proximity, one-bed, puppies, a super-nice hero, and likeable heroine. And yet.
Here is, verbatim, Pregnant Midwife‘s blurb-summary:
Neurosurgeon Josh O’Connor’s isolated island hideaway is on lockdown, but nothing will stop him entering a raging cyclone to rescue mom-to-be midwife Hannah Byrne. Hannah hasn’t found happiness since leaving her beloved Irish village. Yet stepping into Josh’s warm house, she starts to feel she might finally have found a home—for her and her unborn baby. Might Josh’s rescuing Hannah from the storm change both their lives for the better?
It doesn’t do justice to Lennox’s fine writing, her ability to capture landscape and stormy weather, to draw the reader in with a knight-in-shining-armor, breath-holding rescue scene, one of Lennox’s favourite openings. Put the heroine in danger, match her with a knight-hero, have her be rescued and then, have her, in turn, emotionally rescue the hero. It’s a lovely theme and it should have appealed more than it did. Together, Josh and Hannah are lovely. They’re not given to sentimental dialogue, nor do they snap and banter their way to a reluctant liking and truce. They’re gently humourous, no-nonsense, and good at their work. They make a great team when they have to rescue another family stranded in the storm on the other side of the island. So, what made this a desultory read? Continue reading
Though I don’t read as much historical romance as I used to, Mimi Matthews is one histrom author whose books I’d never miss. They’re elegantly written, with finely-drawn characters, and thoughtful themes; her protagonists’ journey to the HEA is sigh-worthingly romantic. Her heroes and heroines are beautifully compatible, showcasing Matthews’s ability to match characterization to plausible future happiness. Her ethos agrees with mine and mine with hers.
Matthews’s novella, “Fair as a Star,” (“A Victorian Romance”) is a wonderful introduction to her work if you’ve yet to read her and thoroughly satisfying an addition if you have and are a fan. Matthews’s Victorian Era is neither idealized, nor villified; if the HEA is an argument for the idyllic over the realistic/pragmatic, this is why I read romance. To follow, verbatim, the blurb-ish summary of “Fair as a Star”:
After a mysterious sojourn in Paris, Beryl Burnham has returned home to the village of Shepton Worthy ready to resume the life she left behind. Betrothed to the wealthy Sir Henry Rivenhall, she has no reason to be unhappy–or so people keep reminding her. But Beryl’s life isn’t as perfect as everyone believes. As village curate, Mark Rivenhall is known for his compassionate understanding. When his older brother’s intended needs a shoulder to lean on, Mark’s more than willing to provide one. There’s no danger of losing his heart. He already lost that to Beryl a long time ago. During an idyllic Victorian summer, friends and family gather in anticipation of Beryl and Sir Henry’s wedding. But in her darkest moment, it’s Mark who comes to Beryl’s aid. Can he help her without revealing his feelings–or betraying his brother? Continue reading
While always happy to add another Betty to my Great Betty Read endeavour, reading A Gem Of A Girl didn’t come easily and I dragged it over weeks and weeks. Unlike most Betties, this had the Other Man in place of the Other Woman, which I thought would be a refreshing reversal on one of romance’s, and Betty’s, most tired conventions. And yet, I didn’t love it: I recognized Gem‘s virtues, but didn’t relish reading it. It started out great with the nurse-heroine, long-suffering from taking care of something like ten younger siblings, loses her job when the long-term care home where she works burns to the ground. There’s a great heroic scene where Gemma practically runs into the flames and is pulled back by the hero, Ross, a visiting Dutch doctor:
“It’s my ward,” she cried, “the wind’s blowing that way. Oh, my dear old ladies!” She leapt forward and was brought up short by a large hand catching at the back of her sweater.
“Before you rush in and get yourself fried to a crisp, tell me where the fire escape is?” Gemma wriggled in a fury of impatience, but he merely gathered more sweater into his hand.
Now, isn’t that marvellous? Only in England to consult with Gemma’s doctor neighbour, after rescuing old ladies from immolation, Ross invites Gemma to Holland where he needs someone to care for his ill sister. Gemma is soon caught up in the life of his wonderful, loving, caring family. She feels centred and happy in Ross’s home, but there’s a snake in the grass named Leo, a “modern” young man who pursues Gemma plain and plump, a double-whammy of unmarriagability in the Bettyverse. Continue reading
Lacy Williams’s His Small-Town Girl isn’t a perfect romance, but it is true to the genre. And that was something I wanted to read after two lugubrious duds. Williams came from one of my favourite category lines, with favourite authors too, Harlequin’s “Love-Inspired” historicals (aka inspiehistrom). Since that line shut down, she has navigated to self-publishing and this series is, I would say, “kisses-only” contemporary, ne’er a soupçon of inspie content. But it still carries her ability to draw characters, write a fine line, and create a heart-tugging romance. There is something alive about Williams’s characters: they reach out to the reader and the reader cares about them. Even though overall His Small-Town Girl is an angsty read, the quick-fire, at times banterish exchanges between hero Cord Coulter and heroine Molly English lend a light, engaging touch. Angsty as heck is what these two are: Cord has returned to Sutter’s Hollow after years away in Houston to repair and sell his legacy, his grandmother’s run-down ranch. Orphaned with his baby brother, Cord suffered at the hands of his grandmother (and she’s never redeemed, which is a good thing in a contemporary that avoids the all-sunshine label in small-town Texas). As he tries to bring order into chaos, deal with an impending mortgage, and not lose his general contracting work back in the city, Molly English comes walking onto his ranch, sunshine to his grump, willing to do any labour to stay. Continue reading
On the Betty Neels scale of perfection to meh, The Edge of Winter falls closer to perfection, except for one great big ole blip near the end. In the dramatic opening, our heroine, with the unlikely name of Araminta Shaw, is rescued from a treacherous Cornish cliff (she descended the ramparts to save a stranded child) by a mysterious sailor, who … behold, shows up as Dutch visiting Dr. Crispin van Sibbelt at the hospital where Araminta is employed as a nurse. Like my favourite Neelses, Araminta and Crispin do NOT hit it off: he’s arrogant, overbearing and teasing; she’s annoyed and peevish. She hates him and especially herself for finding him attractive. One night, after a particularly harrowing hospital day, Crispin shows up at Araminta’s flat, with supper … from Harrod’s. Is there anything to compare to a hero who appears when the heroine is too tired to deal with supper? They eat companionably enough and Crispin kisses Araminta. She’s half in love with him and in total denial, giving rise to one’s of Betty’s finest peevish-heroine passages: “He had invited himself — and he had behaved very strangely; she had been kissed before, but somehow this time she had felt disturbed by it, and that was strange in itself, because she didn’t like him. She would take great care to treat him with polite aloofness when next they met. She entered the Accident Room, carrying on a mythical conversation with him in which he came off very much the worse for wear” (40). WARNING: spoilers ahead. Continue reading
If there’s one thing I miss, it’s a good category romance. With many categories going the way of the bodice-ripper and trusted, true category writers absconding with their talents to other publishing pastures, it’s a rare and wonderful thing to have a few trusted category friends. One such is Sherri Shackelford, whose inspirational histrom I continue to miss. Though I’m not a fan of Intrigue, or this inspie-light parallel category, I ready by author and every other perimetre be damned (it’s how I *shudder* followed Sarah Morgan, beloved HP-author, to WF). In Shackelford’s latest, Stolen Secrets, I found the same delightful sense of humour and likable protagonists as I did in the histrom. The “suspense” part wasn’t to my particular interest, but I went along, and the narrative clipped along nicely, just to reach the HEA for heroine Lucy Sutton and hero Jordan Harris. When Shackelford’s scene opens: Lucy and Jordan are meeting in a coffee shop, a year after Lucy lost her fiancé and Jordan’s mission partner, Brandt Gallagher. Jordan has had a long road to recovery from the blast that killed Brandt and both Jordan and Lucy are still raw from grief. Their meeting is interrupted by a shooter in the café and Jordan and Lucy barely make it out alive. Continue reading
When you’re in a pandemic, what can you do but pick up your GREAT BETTY NEELS READ from where you left off, victim of neglect and ennui? Sigh. So glad I’m back on my epic quest to read all 134 of her oeuvre. It was a comfort to return to a world where the tea is good, the sandwiches are better, there’s always a pudding, the hero is enormous and ethical, as is the heroine, and everyone receives rewards commensurate with their qualities. A warning to readers: our eponymous heroine had a childhood accident, which left her disabled in one foot. The novel’s first half is dedicated to her encounter with the hero, Dr. Thimo Bamstra, a renowned Dutch surgeon, who will “fix” her foot. This may be offensive to some, that Esmeralda needs “fixing” in any way and, indeed, I don’t think the hero feels compelled to “fix” her. It’s Esmeralda herself who has crawled into a hole of shame, aided and abetted by a society that sees disabled people as less than (pub. date is 1976). I can’t say I embraced Esmeralda when I started reading because of this. But I can’t help but say how much I ended up enjoying it. Continue reading