MINI-REVIEW: Caitlin Crews’s IMPRISONED BY THE GREEK’S RING

Imprisoned_By-the_Greek's_RingCaitlin Crews’s Imprisoned By the Greek’s Ring is a cautionary tale about revenge, a redemptive story of two broken people learning to love, and a sly meta-romance. It is outlandish, exaggerated, high strung, and over-the-top. Its premise is unlikely; its romance, hyperbolic; its hero and heroine, made of clichés and uberness. In a nutshell, it’s an HP romance and delivered exactly what I sought: an immersive id-reading experience. It is apropos that it kept me up till the wee hours and I crawled into work (looking quite deceptively crisp and business-like, with a string of meetings to plan for and endure) with major bleary-eyed book hangover. (And to whomever left espressos and stickie buns in the common room, you have my eternal gratitude.) Crews is one of the masters of the genre and she drew me in (it took some work) and left me on the bank and shoal of time, happy to have spent a few hours with her visceral characters and plot.  Continue reading

REVIEW: Lorraine Heath’s BEYOND SCANDAL AND DESIRE

Beyond_Scandal_and_Desire

True to characters cover!

One of the first romance novels I read when I returned to the genre and combed through best-of lists for titles to throw money at was Lisa Kleypas’s Dreaming Of You. I adored Sarah and Derek, the casino setting, the pesky, bespectacled heroine and hardened with a secret heart of gold hero. Ostensibly, Lorraine Heath’s Beyond Scandal and Desire has echoes of Kleypas’s romance classic, but in many other ways, it is an entirely different beast, unique to Heath’s vision. Beyond Scandal and Desire‘s cross-class promise, its ingenue heroine who’s too smart to stay that way and guttersnipe-made-good hero kept me reading through a slow, though evident of a sure writing hand, first third. The similarities to Kleypas saw me through the premise’s set-up. What kept me rivetted was Heath’s weaving of a tale about the need to be recognized, acknowledged, loved, and validated, a journey both hero and heroine take in their unique ways, about what family means, and where we can meet on a plane of forgiveness and reconciliation. To start, the novel’s gothic opening sees a London aristocrat deliver a new-born to the East End Widow Trewlove, by-blow of an affair? shame of the aristocracy? Yet, the birth scene had been one of tenderness and love between mother and father … whatever happened here, I wanted to know.
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MINI-REVIEW: Michelle Smart’s A BRIDE AT HIS BIDDING

Bride_At_His_BiddingI adore Michelle Smart’s category romances. The HP is my romance-ice-cream-tub of choice, so good while I’m reading it and then, disoriented and nauseous from melodramatic hangover. My forehead-slapping reaction: “Did I really just read that?” Yes, dear reader, I read them: the romance guilty pleasure, outlandish, overblown, eye-rollingly breaking every smidgen of feministic progress the genre has made. Some HPs are out there and so badly written, they’re easy to ridicule. Some are written with elegance and humour: I’m looking at YOU, Sarah Morgan. Smart’s HPs usually elicit the latter response, but A Bride At His Bidding? Well, this is one of the strangest HPs I’ve ever read … and that’s saying a whole hell of a lot if you’re one of the category’s aficionados as I am. I’m having a hard time making up my mind whether A Bride At His Bidding is a laughable mess, or brilliant. Maybe both? All I know is that its idiosyncratic narrative and character about-faces gave me reading whiplash, goggle-eyed reactions of gasping disbelief, derision, and heart-clenching delight and enjoyment.  
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REVIEW: Deanna Raybourn’s A TREACHEROUS CURSE

Treacherous_CurseDeanna Raybourn’s third Veronica Speedwell, Victorian-set mystery finds her prickly, sleuthing pair, Veronica and Stoker, where they’ve settled since book one’s conclusion: in Bishop’s Folly, setting up the Earl of Rosemorran’s museum from his vast, eclectic, esoteric collection. In A Treacherous Curse, their museological endeavours are interrupted by a mystery that tickles their adventurous spirits and curiosity, challenging and deepening their relationship. Unlike my other favourite historical mystery series, C. S. Harris’s Sebastian St. Cyr, it is interesting to note how Raybourn’s sleuthing protagonists are not endowed with a strong sense of justice. They’re driven by a crossword-puzzle-doer’s instincts, the need to solve the quandary, or as Veronica quips, “To investigate one murder is a curiosity. To investigate two is a habit.” This is not by way of criticism. It isn’t fair to compare persimmons with pineapples, but I do like to muse on authors’ world-building and thematic choices. What gives Raybourn’s series moral impetus, at least in these initial volumes, is the revelation of our main characters’ pasts. (In A Treacherous Curse‘s case, Stoker’s is under scrutiny.) Maybe this will change in future volumes? What else informs Raybourn’s series’ moral impetus is the fierce protectiveness and loyalty that Veronica and Stoker (aka Templeton-Vane) hold for each other. There’s romance dearth for romance readers, but enough of a spark to keep me reading, for this and sundry reasons. (I am delighted that Veronica ogles Stoker’s Laocoönian body, while he exhibits near-prudish bashfulness. So much fun in those scenes!) Continue reading

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: Anna Bennett’s THE ROGUE IS BACK IN TOWN

Rogue_Is_Back_In_TownNo reading disappointment compares to a book that starts with fireworks of promise only to crash and burn like a petering petard. Such was Anna Bennett’s The Rogue Is Back In Town. I was excited after the first chapter (with its promise of early-Julia-Quinn-like humour); half-way through, I had a lip-twisting downward trend to my mouth; by 70% in, I was into eye-roll and exasperated sighs territory.

First, let me set the scene for you, dear reader. In 1818 London, Lord Samuel Travis, fortune-less younger son, is the bane of his older brother’s existence: carousing, brawling, and neglecting debts. Older brother Nigel, heir and anti-prodigal son, sets Samuel an ultimatum: out of their home and into a property Nigel wishes to sell. Unfortunately, said property has an uncle and niece living in it, thanks to their deceased father’s largesse. Samuel must oversee their eviction and ensure the property is ready for sale. Can you see it coming, dear reader? Yes, Sam meets the adorable, malapropism-spouting Uncle Alistair and beautiful Miss Juliette Lacey and falls in love. Sam and Alistair get on like a house afire and Juliette and Sam, initial resentful bantering aside, follow suit. In a word, dear reader, they bond, full of affection and family-like feelings, with a strong dose of lustful yearnings on Sam and Juliette’s part.
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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

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

MINI-REVIEW: Caitlin Crews’s THE PRINCE’S NINE-MONTH SCANDAL

Prince_Nine_Month_ScandalCaitlin Crews’s Prince’s Nine-Month Scandal opens with as ludicrous a premise as we’ve come to expect from the HP romance. In a bathroom at London’s Heathrow, Natalie Monette contemplates leaving her PA job with billionaire Achilles Casilieris after five years of all-consuming dedication to her volatile employer. In the mirror, she espies her twin, or someone who could be her twin. Princess Valentina of the mythical kingdom of Murin is running away from her arranged marriage to Prince Rodolfo of the mythical kingdom of Tessely. What better solution to both their dilemmas than to “switch” places: Natalie off to a princess’s life and Valentina to escape her impending nuptials by serving the mercurial Achilles. They put on each other’s clothes and take each other’s cell phones, with which they agree to text. Valentina pretty much goes off-grid till the romance’s final revelations and Natalie is left with her princess-fantasy in a bit of a shambles. She must navigate her kingly father, royal duties and protocols, and most importantly, devil-may-care, reckless, promiscuous fiancé. But Natalie hasn’t “handled” the temperamental Achilles for five years without learning a thing or two about difficult men. She sets out to set a few things straight with Rodolfo – for Valentina’s sake. She doesn’t count, this is an HP after all, on her visceral physical and emotional response to him.
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REVIEW: C. S. Harris’s WHERE THE DEAD LIE

Where_the_Dead_LieThis summer, in anticipation of reading MissB’s Where the Dead Lie ARC, she listened to the first 10 volumes of C. S. Harris’s Regency-set murder mystery, C. S. Harris’s Sebastian St. Cyr series. MissB. listened to them, rapt, when she took a walk, prepared dinner, and dabbed make-up on in the morning. And, she discovered something about her mystery reading: she reads mysteries for the detecting figure’s personality, his mind’s workings, motivation, method, and relationships. Nothing is more satisfying for good doses of those reading interests than Harris’s series.

At the centre of it all is the enigmatic, gorgeous figure of Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, amateur sleuth, military veteran: tall, handsome, with penetrating strange yellow eyes, and a deep sense of finding justice for the vulnerable and oppressed. Equally fascinating and much beloved are his family: wife Hero and baby-son Simon; the doctor-friend who helps him reveal what dead bodies can tell about their murders, Paul Gibson, and his mid-wife partner, Alexi Sauvage; the austere, fragile elderly man who is Sebastian’s father, Alistair St. Cyr, Earl of Hendon; arch-nemesis, father-in-law, Lord Jarvis; embittered, jealous sister, Amanda; beautiful, tragic niece, Stephanie, and dissipated nephew, Bayard; sleuthing partner, magistrate Sir Henry Lovejoy; former actress-lover, Kat Boleyn; and Miss B’s personal favourites, Sebastian’s valet, Jules Calhoun and former-street-urchin tiger, Tom. While some novels in the series are stronger than others and MissB. may prefer some over others, Harris has created a Regency world, peopled it with the most likeable set of characters, drawn her villains with complexity, and ensured that MissB. remain with the series no matter where it might go.   Continue reading