REVIEW: Susanna Kearsley’s BELLEWETHER

BellewetherA new Susanna Kearsley book is cause for celebration. As Bellewether was a long time coming, I was tickled all the colours of the rainbow to read it. It is, at least initially, a novel that felt quieter than others Kearsley has written. I thought the first half of the narrative meandered, like a ship unmoored, like the ship it’s named after and like the bopping ghost-light in the Long Island forest that beckons to Kearsley’s contemporary heroine. Bellewether felt deceptively benign, but Kearsley’s hand steered the narrative ship on a sure course and it sneaks up on you how masterfully she does so when you experience the novel’s last third. It’s not as visceral a read as The Winter Sea, or as gothic-y and deliciously-Mary-Stewart-ish as Named Of the Dragon, but it sure is wonderful. 

Signature Kearsley, Bellewether is a double narrative: made of a contemporary heroine in search of discovering something of the past, a past that is meaningful and significant to her in a more-than-scholarly way. And there is a historical narrative, centred on people caught up in a particular era meeting, loving, and redeeming the losses and griefs of their pasts. The most wonderful idea that I took away from Bellewether is that we should never allow historical circumstance, the sweeping canvas of power and politics, to blind us to the possibility of HEA.
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REVIEW: Lauren Willig’s THE ENGLISH WIFE

English_WifeA groggy, caffeine-heavy morning for me after a night reading into the wee hours, thanks to Lauren Willig’s Gothic romance, historical mystery The English Wife. The novel opens in January 1899 in Cold Spring NY, at “Illyria,” Bay and Annabelle Van Duyvil’s country estate. Bay and Annabelle’s hermetic existence has thus far been the bane of Bay’s appearances-are-all mother, Alva. Formidable, humorless Alva is ever flanked by Janie, her mousy, silent daughter and Anne, the mouthy, flamboyant niece she took in. To Alva’s great society-loving heart, Bay and Annabelle are finally celebrating the opening of their magnificent estate by holding a costume ball for New York’s best, brightest, and finest. Until now, Bay and Annabelle’s life has been a mystery. Rumours of eccentricities and infidelities swirl around them, about them … maybe because they keep to themselves and, at least on the surface, appear to live an idyllic existence with twins Sebastian and Viola. Bay and Annabelle don’t seem to give a fig about what the “best people” think, rendering them endlessly fascinating to the society pages and ensuring Alva Van Duyvil’s frustrated, officious meddling. Continue reading

MINI-REVIEW: Jennifer Ashley’s DEATH BELOW STAIRS

Death_Below_StairsI’m a fan of the kind of book Ashley’s written: historical setting, central mystery, a romance to follow from book to book. I LOVES’EM! My favourites are C. S. Harris’s Sebastien St. Cyr historical mysteries and Deanna Raybourn’s Veronica Speedwell. 2018 is turning out to be a global crapfest in so many ways, but it’s good for having two additions to these series to look forward to. Add the time travel historical-mystery-romance of a Susanna Kearsley and life doesn’t get better. So, you’d rightly say, dear reader, where does Ashley’s fall in your category of reading bliss? Argh, must I add another series to the ones I already follow? It appears I must. Ashley’s premise captured me (and not only because I was a sucker for Downton Abbey). Her cast of characters stays pretty much below stairs, except for one compelling example and a hero who seems to be a class-chameleon.

In 1881 London, Mrs. Kat Holloway arrives at her new position as cook in Lord Rankin’s household, which includes wife Lady Emily, and sister-in-law Lady Cynthia. Kat acquaints herself with the downstairs staff: butler Davis; housekeeper, Mrs. Bowen; and recruits kitchen-maid Sinead as cook’s assistant. Before she knows it, handyman Daniel McAdam shows up too, as a house-staff member. It is immediately obvious that Kat and Daniel have a history, a flirty, attracted manner to him and a “get away, you pest, come hither, big-boy” to hers. Continue reading

MINI-REVIEW: Karen Kirst’s THE ENGAGEMENT CHARADE

Engagement_CharadeAfter reading Amber Belldene’s Not Another Rock Star, with its unique, true-to-life mix of messed-up faith characters and non, minister-heroine, earthy love scenes, the wonder of its ability to posit a faith-based romance with an atheist hero, a novel where sexuality, love, faith, romance, community, goodness and integrity don’t come within the strait-jacket of inspirational romance tropes … well, I really wanted to read an inspirational romance and consider my response to it. Karen Kirst’s The Engagement Charade fit the bill, especially because I’ve loved her books in the past and I’d be inclined to do so again. And, I did … mildly (it isn’t her best). However, it also solidified why the either-or, evangelical-Christianity-based romance narrative brings me out of reader-pleasure-zone to render me hyper-conscious of its flaws.

First, to set the scene: in late nineteenth-century fictional Gatlinburg Tennessee, our hero, Plum Café owner Alexander Copeland broods in his office, tormented by memories of a fire that killed his wife and son back home in Texas. Meanwhile, widowed, pregnant heroine Ellie Jameson cooks and runs his business. Continue reading

REVIEW: Kate Hewitt’s KISS ME AT WILLOUGHBY CLOSE

Kiss_Me_at_Willoughby_CloseKate Hewitt’s Willoughby Close series is more women’s fiction than romance and yet, even though Miss Bates is no fan of women’s fiction, she embraced Hewitt’s little English-village-life novels. They’re written with a poignant, gentle touch. Their protagonists are often people with difficult pasts. They’re squarely focussed on the heroine’s growth and POV, but contain heroes no less likeable, sexy, and burdened with their own compelling baggage.

Kiss Me At Willoughby Close opens with the will-reading of Ava Mitchell’s older, moneyed husband and the news that David left Ava only 10 000 pounds, his vast fortune going to his grown, rapacious children by his first wife. Ava is genuinely grief-stricken over her husband. She may not have been in love with him. Five years ago, she was urged by poverty and lack of opportunity and education to marry him for the creature comforts and ease he could provide; nevertheless, she cared for and about him and been content in his company. Now, Emma and Simon are staring her down coldly and informing her she must leave the only home she’s ever known in a week’s time, with only her clothes and David’s “generous” gift of a mini Austin only. As Ava quips, “For being a trophy wife, she didn’t possess that many trophies.” She moves into Willoughby Close, following the heroines of Hewitt’s previous novels in the series, who become neighbours and, eventually, friends. Continue reading

REVIEW: Mary Burchell’s UNBIDDEN MELODY

Unbidden_MelodyMy goodness, Miss Bates loves Burchell. Is there a better writer? A more nuanced, interesting one? Unbidden Melody contained elements that Miss Bates and other romance readers scorn: an ingenue heroine; dense, uncaring hero; nasty Other Woman; a capitulation of the heroine’s will to the hero’s “genius”. And yet. By the end, Miss Bates had that heart-clenching-hold-your-breath response the best romance novels elicit.

Here are the plotty particulars. Introduced by one of those older, machinating, wise, charismatic characters, like the mercurial, adorably-arrogant prima donna, Gina Torelli (who makes a compelling, delightful appearance here), impresario Dermot Deane, the romance focuses on his secretary, Mary Barlow, and tenor, Nicholas Brenner. Like most of Burchell’s heroines, Mary is modest, efficient, competent, and a music-lover. She has barely started working for Deane, but loves every moment of it. Indeed, she’s the one who suggests Deane coax Nicholas Brenner to London for a production of Carmen. Deane is delighted with Mary’s idea and soon thereafter, Brenner is rehearsing Don José. Brenner hasn’t performed since his wife died in an automobile accident and a wistful sadness clings to him. He and Mary are immediately attracted, however, and she brings him out of his shell. As he confesses to her, his wife Monica had driven him mad with her jealousy and mistrust and her death brought grief, but mainly guilt-ridden relief. With Mary, he can finally embrace love and life again. At the novel’s half-point, Nicholas proposes; Mary accepts. What follows could be construed as a Big Mis; except in Burchell’s capable hands, it turns into the story of two people, obviously in love, without the acquaintance and comfort that make for commitment and stolidity. Love, says Burchell, must come with trust, understanding, and communication to build a life together.  Continue reading

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