REVIEW: Donna Alward’s THE HOUSE ON BLACKBERRY HILL, Or “Loved I Not Honour More”

House_on_Blackberry_HillWhen Miss Bates saw the bucolic, small-town romance look of Donna Alward’s latest, The House On Blackberry Hill, she was afraid that one of her favourite category romance writers had gone the way of treacly-sweet-eat-pie-at-the-local-diner-to-be-cured-of-your-bright-lights-big-city ennui. Step right into a Thomas Kinkade world. In category romance, Alward’s canvas contains small towns, but they’re Albertan small towns (how MissB loved the Argentinian-set one) with grasslands, modern cowboys, and space demanding independence and solitude. In her latest effort, the town is small and picturesque, Jewell Cove on Penobscot Bay in Maine, but the canvas is broader, the narrative development expansive and involved. Alward is a romance writer of subtlety and complexity and House On Blackberry Hill, though its trappings have the feel of small-town contemporary romance and some of its elements are derivative, its characterization and narrative unfolding are signature Alward: thoughtful in its portrayal of love’s messiness, family, guilt, coming to terms with the past, growth, acceptance, redemption, and the road to happiness. Alward’s palette shows growth in this novel and growth, as we know, comes with growing pains. Alward’s Her Rancher Rescuer is one of Miss Bates favourite 2014 reads: it’s tight and zippy and interesting, with heroine and hero who have to grow up and extend their understanding to be together. We find no less in House On Blackberry Hill, but Alward also weaves family history, creates places and houses who are as much characters as heroine and hero (Abby Foster, school teacher and heiress of the “house on Blackberry Hill, and Tom Arsenault, contractor) an interweaving of three love stories, two of which are tragic, one of which is set in WWII, and a ghost story. It took Miss Bates much longer to “get into” this novel than the instantaneous love she feels when she opens one of Alward’s categories romances, but it won her over, surprised and moved her. It reminded her of Karen White’s Tradd Street series in mood and circumstance, but containing a more complete, more satisfying romance. Continue reading

REVIEW/Reading/Acclamation: Elizabeth Hoyt’s THE LEOPARD PRINCE, Or Why Scheherazade Always Wins Her Man

The Leopard PrinceGroundskeeper/land-steward/gardener/gamekeeper/estate manager, an eminently attractive and endearing hero-figure to Miss Bates.  This, ever since she read Lady Chatterley’s Lover, a better novel than many give it credit for and more romantic than titillating.  (It concludes with an HEA and baby-filled epilogue, folks.)  There’s also the marvelous film The Go-Between, based on L. P. Hartley’s novel, the story of an innocent and humbly-originned boy carrying clandestine messages between the lord’s daughter and a local farmer. 

The hero with deep roots in the land, in nature, manifests a special quality, a depth and salt-of-the-earth-ness.  But, is that Miss Bates’ only attraction to these heroes?  We must also know them by their relation to the heroine.  Miss Bates draws one conclusion: simply put, she loves a cross-class romance, especially one centered on an aristocratic lady and a man of the land.  (She’ll throw another narrative into the mix that compelled her: Ian McEwan’s Atonement, though the hero was not a man of the land; nevertheless, his origins are humble and he, and his mother, work for the lord of the manor.  They don’t inhabit the manor.  Nevertheless, it did contain an anti-romance conclusion that had Miss Bates sending the volume flying across the room.) 

As for her latest read, Elizabeth Hoyt’s The Leopard Prince, it has it all: labourer hero, a man of the earth, and an aristocratic lady.  As a sampling of cross-class romance, of the stoic farmer and his seemingly flighty lady (plumb the depths, reader discovers she’s no intellectual lightweight): well, it doesn’t get better than this.  Miss Bates will temper her enthusiasm with reasons why this romance has its flaws, but her love and devotion will break through … as they do in every romance where the “marriage of true minds” overcomes “impediments.”  For that is the essence, the core, of a cross-class romance done well. Continue reading

REVIEW: Inez Kelley’s TAKE ME HOME, “Country Roads”

Take Me HomeEvery spring, in Miss Bates’ cold, northern land, people visit the sugar shacks, where they use what-look-like-wooden-tongue-depressors to scoop warm maple syrup from snow.  They take sleigh rides through grey-white woods and sit to a meal of eggs, ham, and baked beans … doused in maple syrup.  Precious memories for Miss Bates from her early school years, even if present comforts don’t mind relinquishing maple syrup goodness to avoid muddy boots, bumpy rides, and artery-hardening fare.

When Miss Bates went to primary school in the early seventies, her teachers wore fringed leather skirts, peasant blouses, and sported long hair.  They played guitar and had students sing along.  One of the songs they sang was John Denver’s “Country Roads.”  Miss Bates didn’t know where West Virginia, the Blue Ridge Mountains, or Shenandoah River were and didn’t care.  She sang her heart out and not terribly well to the accompaniment of teacher’s guitar: “Country roads, take me home, to the place I belong … ”  Her then sophisticated and risqué native city was as far from the Appalachians as bodies can get in North America, but the sentiments of home, nostalgia, and belonging are still with her.

What do Miss Bates’ happy reminiscences of sugar shack outings and Denver’s “Country Roads” have to do with her latest romance read?  Everything.  Because the running of the sap and a mountain mamma have everything to do with Inez Kelley’s latest, Take Me Home, the first in her “Country Roads” series, which Miss Bates really really liked, with caveats, but liked. Continue reading

REVIEW: Amanda Flower’s A PLAIN DISAPPEARANCE, Or The Hammer and the Mouse

A Plain DisappearanceIf there’s one thing Miss Bates can say about the occasional cozy mystery series she follows, it’s that they remind her of a favourite autumnal sweater. Heather-green wool, hand-knit from Scotland, she’s waiting for that October chill to don it and walk the red- and gold-leaf-strewn streets of her native city. Thus is Amanda Flower’s Appleseed Creek series now that Miss Bates has read the latest and third volume: comfortable, familiar, endearing. It’s also lovingly written and in keeping with the sympathetic conventions of the cozy. On the other hand, it suffers from the bane of any series: familiarity breeding contempt … and the particular bane of the cozy, the reader’s increasing difficulty to sustain belief in the viability of that many people murdered in a small town and our heroine’s bad/good luck in consistently finding the bodies!  Continue reading to learn what Miss Bates thought of Flower’s latest

MINI-REVIEW: Amanda Flower’s A PLAIN SCANDAL, and Wherein A Little Malaise Sets In

A Plain ScandalLong before Miss Bates was ever a spinster, she read all the Pippi Longstocking books she could get her hands on. It was with a nostalgic smile that she read Chief Greta Rose’s assessment of our romance heroine and amateur sleuth, Chloe Humphrey, in Amanda Flower’s first Appleseed Creek cozy mystery, A Plain Death, “You’re like the Pippi Longstocking version of Nancy Drew.” Our red-haired geek girl and wanna-be detective continues to eavesdrop, interview, investigate, and fight for truth, justice, and the Amish way in Flower’s second cozy mystery, A Plain Scandal. In this case, she’s in pursuit of the culprit who is cutting off the beards of Amish men and Amish girls’ long hair … until these nasty shenanigans turn to murder, the murder of a successful young Amish man, Ezekiel Young. Continue reading for a rare look at a surprisingly succinct Miss Bates

REVIEW: “And Now For Something Completely Different,” Amanda Flower’s A PLAIN DEATH

A Plain DeathFor some time now, Miss Bates had a hankering to read outside of her contemporary and historical romance comfort zone. She wanted to read an Amish-set romance, but didn’t know enough about the sub-genre to select an author or title. She’d read about Amanda Flower’s Appleseed Creek series in USA Today and thought this might be her gentled way in, thought she’d pay a call and linger for a spot of tea. Miss Bates is leery of the cozy mystery’s cuteness and catness, having consumed tons of these before embracing romance wholeheartedly. Once assured that there was a strong romantic element woven into the who-done-it, she gave Flower’s first Appleseed Creek, Amish-set, inspirational, cozy mystery a try. With some misgivings aside, smack, smack, like trying a new food, she uttered, “me like”. Continue reading about Miss Bates’s foray into Amish country