Until 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
It’s rare that Miss B. reacts to a romance (maybe because her choices tend to the tried and true these days) as she did to Amy Sandas’s The Untouchable Earl. About half way through, she wanted to DNF. But there was a sense of purpose and theme to it that said, “No, no, keep reading.” So, she did. And now that it’s done, she doesn’t quite know what to say about it. At its heart is a sexual healing theme that Miss B. despises, akin to her curled-lip reaction to Lisa Valdez’s Passion, possibly rivaling Old Skool romance to be the worst romance novel ever written. And yet, she also can’t dismiss The Untouchable Earl the way she can Passion. Its premise is the stuff of high eye-rolling melodrama. Melodramatic circumstances conspire to bring Plain-Jane husband-seeking ton debutante Lily Chadwick, kidnapped and drugged, up for auction at Madame Pendragon’s, a brothel. It’s all pretty sordid and awful until the eponymous Earl, a hero with possibly the most ridiculous name in romance, Avenell Harte (with, yes, the obvious pun there) purchases Lily and her intact maidenhead. As far as maidenheads go, hers isn’t half as impressive as Passion’s, but still. It doesn’t look like her maidenhead’s in any danger when we find out that Avenell (she’s strictly forbidden from saying his name and when you consider how lame it is, you can understand the guy’s reluctance) … well, he’s functional and all, but he can’t bear to be touched.
Manda Collins’s (a new-to-Miss-B-romance-writer) Good Dukes Wear Black is third in her Lords of Anarchy series. Though Miss Bates hasn’t read the first two, she can safely say there’s nothing anarchic about Good Dukes Wear Black‘s hero, Piers Hamilton, Duke of Trent, from hereon referred to as Trent (Miss B., and thankfully, Collins, dislikes the name Piers). Au contraire, Trent is a sublime hero: generous, understanding, with just the right amount of protective bluster to endear him to reader and heroine. Our heroine is Miss Ophelia Dauntry, journalist on all things needlecraft at the Ladies Gazette. Collins ensures Trent and Ophelia’s acquaintance by making them friends to the heroes and heroines of the first two Lords of Anarchy novels. Though long acquainted, Trent and Ophelia are only aware of each other as attractive, available young people when circumstance bring them even closer. Ophelia’s fellow journalist, Maggie Grayson, is taken by two thugs (Maggie trying to fend off the brutes and getting a good boink to the head in the process) ostensibly on her husband’s orders because Maggie’s gone mad. Maggie’s husband, George Grayson, was one of Trent’s soldiers in the Napoleonic Wars. When George disappears and Ophelia discovers that Maggie may have be taken because of her investigative work into the mental institution’s unethical practices, Trent and Ophelia set out, as friends, to find Maggie and George and bring the culprits who took them to justice.
After finishing Jo Beverley’s sublime Emily and the Dark Angel, Miss Bates was in a reading funk. Much like a fussy baby, “grizzling” (as Hart describes adorable Freya in Juggling Briefcase and Baby) from book to book, unable to settle. Miss Bates read the opening pages to at least 15 e-ARCs; none of them took: the writing was stilted, info-dumps galore, and even romance writers she usually loves were giving her the meh-blues. She tried out a few non-roms; that experiment fell flat as well, too many writers too conscious of the prose and ignorant of the pacing, plot, and characterization. She stood in her spinster’s lair, foot a-tapping, index finger beating a dissatisfied refrain on her chin: nothing stood out from the groaning paper TBR shelves. “What to read? What to read?” … always turn to a title from a favourite author! Hence, Jessica Hart’s Juggling Briefcase and Baby, a one-click buy from years ago when Miss Bates read Wendy’s review. Dear readers, Wendy was right: this is a great great rom. There be reasons. There be one reason above all that makes for great rom. The genre runs with a pretty straight forward narrative: encounter, new or reunited; development with obstacles; HEA. That’s all there is to it; characterization, pretty standard, flawed but basically likeable, on occasion, admirable. What distinguishes the romance genre from others is the emotional wisdom, the deep deep astuteness about the bond of falling in love and making the scary leap to commitment. Hart, alas no longer practicing the romance art, is/was one of its most sensitive practitioners.
Miss Bates loves the opposites-attract romance trope, especially when the hero’s and heroine’s surface characteristics mask their opposites. Opposites-attract “squared” describes Sabrina Jeffries’s second Sinful Suitors 1830-set romance, The Study Of Seduction. “Grumpy Edwin” Barlow, Earl of Blakeborough, pits himself against “frivolous beauty” Lady Clarissa Lindsey, his sister’s best friend. In time, Edwin reveals a wicked wit and Clarissa, a gravitas borne of pain.
Edwin is a member of the St. George’s Club, a gentleman’s circle dedicated to protecting their families’ and friends’ women from scoundrels, socalled “sinful suitors.” Edwin’s friend, Warren Corry, Marquess of Knightford, Clarissa’s cousin, has watched out for her and her widowed mother, Lady Margrave. Knightford is called away to the continent to help Clarissa’s brother, Niall. Edwin and Clarissa, long-acquainted, have sparred and jabbed at each other since Clarissa and Yvette, Edwin’s sister, tittered, gossiped, and shopped together. Edwin’s steadfast, stodgy, introverted propriety rubs Clarissa’s social butterfly effervescence and flirtatious energy to poke and prod at his restrained demeanor. Nevertheless, Edwin insists he take Knightford’s place, protecting Clarissa from a stalker. Count Geraud Durand, France’s chargé d’affaires, follows, goads, importunes, and forces his unwanted, oily attentions on Clarissa and infuriates Edwin.
Miss Bates loves the reunited husband-and-wife trope. When Douglas offered her an ARC of A Deal to Mend Their Marriage, she accepted (though she dislikes the line’s closed-bedroom-door “love scenes”). Miss B. was pleasantly surprised when Douglas’s romance followed her own missbatesian edict to keep the relationship “kisses only” (not keeping anything from the reader that might be essential to understanding the protagonists’ relationship). What intense, character- and relationship-building kisses they are! Douglas’s title, A Deal to Mend Their Marriage, plays cleverly with the initial state of the hero and heroine’s marriage, “a deal to end their marriage.” Caro Fielding is at the reading of her father’s will. Their relationship was fraught, with Caro failing to fulfill her father’s expectations. She’s achieved a hard-won independence working as an antique dealer, reconciled to being disinherited. Instead, Rolland Fielding leaves Caro a vast fortune and his loving, devoted second wife, Barbara, zilch. Caro and Barbara share a warm relationship. Caro wants to redress her father’s injustice, until she realizes her father thought Barbara was stealing from him. When an expensive antique snuffbox in Caro’s possession on behalf of her employer goes missing, soft-hearted Caro wants to save Barbara from legal repercussions. She turns to her security-and-detecting-agency-owning, estranged husband, Jack Pearce, to help her solve the mystery of the missing snuffbox and save her beloved step-mother. Continue reading
Miss Bates’s heart went pitter-patter when Kelly Bowen’s hero in Duke Of My Heart first appeared. The heroine is ignorant of his duca-city and has “the vague impression of a worn greatcoat, battered boots, and a hulking bearing.” This is no ordinary ducal presence, suave, roguish, rakey, or even beta; this duke is PIRATICAL. And piratical is good: we don’t have enough ship-board romance and we need more! Alas, Maximus Harcourt, Duke of Alderidge is no more piratical than a Regency spinster. He is, however, a “hulking” presence and Miss Bates settled into Bowen’s Regency romance with smug satisfaction.
Maximus unexpectedly returns from India to an in-an-uproar household and Ivory Moore’s presence, a stranger in his rarely-occupied home. He is one irritated, confused duke. Max’s beloved eighteen-year-old sister, Lady Beatrice is missing; his Aunt Helen, beside herself; and, one naked, dead Earl of Debarry, aka the “Earl of Debauchery,” is tethered to his sister’s bed with red, satin ribbons. The scandal, she is HUGE! What was a spinster aunt to do but call on the ton’s detective-fixer, Ivory Moore, to hold back scandal and locate Beatrice.
Now that Miss Bates has read Bliss Bennet’s second romance novel, she can place her in histrom-world with Rose Lerner, Cecilia Grant, and recent discovery Blythe Gifford. They all have the rare, and becoming rarer, ability to create main characters who reflect their times and are in turn uniquely, likably themselves. Their main characters’ constraints are not solely those of personality or circumstance, but political, economic, social, and/or gender strictures. Bennet creates creatures of their time and yet uniquely themselves, approachable and sympathetic to the reader. In her second Pennington romance, Bennet tells the story of Sibilla Pennington, sister to Rebel Without A Rogue‘s Kit Pennington. Like Lerner’s Lydia in True Pretenses, Bennet’s heroine is a young woman grieving her beloved father’s recent loss. Neither Lydia nor Sibilla were daddy’s-girls-spoiled-princesses. Their fathers’ love and acknowledgement allowed them the unique opportunity for women of their time, to lead lives of social and political purpose. Without their paternal lodestones, they’re adrift. Their only recourse is to place their political championing onto their reluctant brothers and make marriages of convenience to further their charitable causes. Continue reading
Elizabeth Hoyt: Miss Bates just can’t quit you. Thus Miss B. found herself reading Hoyt’s, yes, ninth Georgian-set, Maiden-Lane novel, Sweetest Scoundrel. And what a scoundrel Asa Makepeace was, paired with a plain-Jane heroine, his “harpy,” as he called her, Eve Dinwoody, sister to Valentine Napier, Duke of Montgomery (the previous novel‘s villain). As the old duke’s illegitimate daughter, Eve lives an introvert’s ideal life: Val provides her with a lovely home and servants, ample income to indulge her miniature painting hobby, keep her caged dove in fancy seeds, and a bodyguard, a great character in and of himself, Jean-Marie Pépin. Eve is the only person who genuinely loves her nefarious brother. Responsible for Val’s interests in his absence (his shenanigans sent him into “exile” on the continent), she ensures his investment in Asa Makepeace’s grand rebuilding project, the pleasure garden known as Harte’s Folly, is solid. Officious, book-keeping, and dignified Eve meets volatile, foul-mouthed, and crude “Mr. Harte”, Asa, when she confronts him about his cavalier spending of her brother’s money and then goes about controlling Asa’s purse-strings.
As Miss Bates discussed elsewhere, she was a fan of Deanna Raybourn’s Lady Julia Grey mysteries. She enjoyed Lady J.’s cool, independent demeanor and was in love with Nicholas Brisbane, Julia’s sometime-partner, occasional-antagonist, at-long-last husband, enigma-in-an-alpha-hero. Her quibble remains: long on long-winded mystery, short on romance. And then … this … Raybourn’s new historical mystery series, with a delightful dose of romance, the début Veronica Speedwell mystery, A Curious Beginning. Set in Queen Victoria’s Jubilee Year, Raybourn’s murder mystery leaves behind the distancing characterization of Lady Julia and Brisbane to revel in an endearing heroine and hero, poignant back stories, humour and, dare Miss Bates say it, sentiment.
Miss Veronica Speedwell, 25, buries her Aunt Nell Harbottle in Little Byfield, England. Veronica is irrepressible and intrepid: a world-adventuring lepidopterist, sexually uninhibited, no-nonsense, and fiercely independent. She is nonplussed when Aunt Nell’s Wren Cottage is ransacked and finds herself in the protective hands of the kindly, mysterious Baron Maximilian von Stauffenbach.The Baron travels with her to London and leaves her in the protective custody of his friend Stoker, a taxidermist with a workshop on London’s docks, whose robust musculature, piratical eye-patch, blue eyes, and wild Beethovenian black hair stir Veronica’s womanly desires. But Veronica lives by the rule never to take an English lover. Once Stoker growls and snarls, only a tad friendlier than Huxley, his bull dog, sparks fly and, to Raybourn’s credit, flicker, sparkle, and burn bright, depending on the poignancy, or comedy of Veronica and Stoker’s scenes. Continue reading