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: The Radical Theology of 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 the puritanical, stringent, miserly, dour thumbs of father and aunt. Her singular joy: ballet. Her love of dance leads to her escape from her father’s house to join an eccentric, eclectic 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 are lovers. Another Woman, nasty machinating by sundry parties, including Harriet’s father, aunt, and ex-ish fiancé, conspire to destroy Harriet and Rom’s idyll. 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 a little 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, boring? Miss Bates would argue not because they create characters who are good people with plenty of personality. The dialogue is strong, the inner conflicts are believable, and the romance, well, it’s of the sigh variety. When MissB reaches the end, she is replete with sighs of satisfaction. Such a book is Liz Fielding’s The Sheikh’s Convenient Princess

The premise is outlandish, but Fielding’s hero and heroine are believably fleshy, in their dilemmas, their give-and-take and back-and-forth of 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, temporary PA (when Bram’s right-hand-man is laid low by a skiing accident). Bram may not have seen kith nor kin in five years, but he’s cleaned up his act and is now a man worth billions. 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 her beloved Betty Neels. And yet, here she is, enthralled with Mary Burchell. And 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 stretching from 1965 to 1985. They are set in the opera world and feature harsh, closed-off heroes and heroines who can 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. Their kindness and love for the heroine are hinted at with only very occasional 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 on the stage. A Song Begins opens with Anthea Benton, aspiring singer from Cromerdale, trying to win a TV singing spot to help her 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 it 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 the maestro himself, Oscar Warrender!   Continue reading

Cheryl St. John’s and Sherri Shackelford’s COWBOY CREEK CHRISTMAS

Cowboy_Creek_ChristmasMissB’s been very busy at the day-job and preparing for Pascha to get a lot of reading done. Though it’s seasonally months-late and incongruous given the Paschal season, she thought she’d try one of her not-yet-reviewed Christmas romances. Maybe get that warm glow of hope going. And … novellas, short reads are good when your time is at a premium. Yet it still took her ages to get through them, despite being possessed of some of Miss B’s favourite tropes. St. John’s “Mistletoe Reunion” has a proto-feminist, no-nonsense alternative medicine doctor-heroine, Dr. Marlys Boyd, and the man she left to be educated and practice her profession, newspaperman and widowed father, Sam Mason. Theirs is a reunited-fiancé(e)s romance with doubt and hurt on the hero’s part and a reassessment of her life-choices on the heroine’s. Shackelford’s “Mistletoe Bride” is a marriage-of-convenience romance, Miss B’s favourite histrom trope. Newly-arrived Austrian immigrant mail-order bride, Beatrix Haas, arrives in Cowboy Creek, Kansas, only to be told that the man she was to marry, Sheriff Quincy Davis, was killed by a local gang. When farrier-hero Colton Werner meets her, it’s because he’s been summoned by the mid-wife to help translate from Beatrix’s German as she labors to give birth. Beatrix travelled to Kansas to give her baby a name and Quincy Davis, it seems, was willing to do so. Now, the realization that she’s near-death and her baby to be born thus and left without a care-giver is devastating. Until Colton offers to marry her, even knowing she might die and he left with an infant’s care.  Continue reading

Mini-Review: Barbara Wallace’s CHRISTMAS BABY FOR THE PRINCESS

christmas_baby_for_princessOne of Miss Bates’s favourite films is Frank Capra’s 1934 It Happened One Night. Barbara Wallace’s gently romantic Christmas Baby For the Princess echoes it. Wallace’s hero, Manhattan night club owner Max Brown, is a film noir buff. References to Miss Bates’s beloved black-and-white films abound, enriching Wallace’s romance narrative. Capra’s film is not noir, but its themes of class, sex, love, and HEA are certainly of the romance variety. Like One Night‘s Ellie, Wallace’s heroine, Princess Arianna Santoro, has run away from her father, King Carlos IV of the mythical kingdom of Corinthia. Arianna was near-affiancéd to Manolo Tutuola, a Corinthian businessman her father had urged her to date with the hope they would marry. Always conscious of duty, and wanting to make her still-grieving father (after her mother’s loss) happy, she did her darndest to work out a relationship with Manolo. But Manolo turned out to be a cheating rat-bastard and now, Arianna is in Manhattan for the time and space to figure out what to do next. She’s pregnant with rat-bastard’s baby and her flea-bitten hotel doesn’t afford her protection, or comfort. Out and about for some air, she finds that “her wallet was missing”. “Out of all the gin-joints in all the world,” she walks into Max Brown’s for help (Miss Bates knows, wrong film, but since we’re making vintage film references … ) where the charming maître d’, Darius, Max’s friend and right-hand man, mistakenly thinks she’s answering their help-wanted ad for a waitress.   Continue reading

Review: Sherri Shackelford’s A FAMILY FOR THE HOLIDAYS

family_for_holidaysA Family For the Holidays is the third Sherri Shackelford romance Miss Bates has read and she can say with confidence that Shackelford gets better and better. Miss Bates liked the first one, with misgivings; loved the second; and the third is a charm for auto-buy territory. One of the reasons Shackelford’s romances are getting better is because they’re funnier, without losing the pathos and sentiment romance readers enjoy. A Family For the Holidays reminded Miss Bates of her favourite HPs, Lynne Graham’s The Greek’s Chosen Wife and Sarah Morgan’s Playing By the Greek’s Rules. You’ll rightly think, dear reader, what a strange pairing: the contemporary HP with the historical inspie. And yet … like the HPs, Shackelford’s romance has an orphaned, irrepressible, blithely-plunging-into-danger, child-loving heroine and broody, alpha-male hero who turns to putty in the heroine’s small, vulnerable hands, a heroine who grows in bravery and élan and hero who learns how to tap into the pleasures of the heart. Like Graham’s and Morgan’s HPs, Shackelford’s romance is a hoot! The characters aren’t drippy the way inspie characters can be, the plot moppets neither pathetic nor corny. They and Lily beset the hero’s space and heart with their energy and humour until they dissolve his good-bad-and-ugly, cheroot-chewing persona.    Continue reading