A 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
No reading disappointment compares to a book that starts with fireworks of promise only to crash and burn like a petering petard. Sadly, 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 full 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.
I’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
My 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
Caitlin 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.
This 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
Miss 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
Reading Michelle Smart’s Once a Moretti Wife was balm to Miss Bates’s reading soul after its wounding by Knox’s Madly. Admittedly, if you’re an HP reader, you’re going to recognize some of the line’s pernicious elements in Smart’s novel: a hero and heroine plagued by abusive and/or disappointing families, a heroine the nonpareil to the hero’s negative views of women, and a gargantuan mis. MissB. had one of two choices: cling to every accusation thrown at the HP, even though conventions are givens and if you don’t like them, don’t read them, OR revel in its wit and the characters’ vibrancy. Add a dollop of amnesia to the heroine, show her disoriented and weak, even while the dark, nasty hero conjures his revenge against her, then catches her when she collapses at his feet and nearly has a heart attack from his fear over her well-being. Marvelous, thought MissB., this is going to be great! And it was. Continue reading
Miss Bates rolled joyously around in Lucy Parker’s romance writing like the first touch of clean sheets. Before reading Pretty Face, she listened to Act Like It. MissB. is a fickle rom-reading mistress, rarely glomming, as she did when she first started reading rom ten years ago. But Parker’s original setting, flawed, likeable characters, and witty writing, who still manage to be heart-tugging and romantic, captured and held on for two days of continuous listening and reading. Though this review will focus on Pretty Face, everything she says about it applies to Act Like It (with the exception of one of the best audio-book narrators Miss Bates has ever listened to). Like Miss B’s Ruby Lang discovery, Parker made it onto a “not-to-be-missed” romance writer list by page three of Pretty Face and oh, ten minutes into Act Like It. There be many reasons why MissB. liked Parker’s work, but she’ll start with setting. Original, engaging, charming, Parker’s novels take place in London’s West-End theatre district, amidst actors, agents, directors, celebrity gossip-rags, and paparazzi bulb-flashes. Kudos to Ms Parker for normalizing the scene, for eliciting sympathy for the “pretty faces”, male and female, with their vulnerabilities, weaknesses, insecurities, and ordinary yearning to love and be loved, find a life-partner, and enjoy understanding, support, affection, and tenderness. Continue reading
Miss Bates was conflicted reading Duran’s latest, A Lady’s Code Of Misconduct, her responses a roller-coaster of dips and climbs of disappointment or enthusiasm. Misconduct contains Duran’s signature themes: trust, conscience, identity, wealth, class, ambition, power, and how they mesh, shift, and change as two people who start out one way make their way to their better selves because they discover they love the other.
To start, Duran’s narrative takes a convoluted route, opening with a compelling scene and then flashback to bring us the sequence of events leading to it. A man in his prime, a Victorian MP, Crispin Burke, lies dying of a head wound in his parents’ London house. Charlotte, his sister, brings a young woman to his death-bed, a woman who is familiar, yet he’s ignorant of their relationship. Jane Burke, née Mason, announces she is his wife.
Duran then takes us three months prior: filling in Crispin and Jane’s unholy alliance, bred of coercion, manipulation, and expediency. Duran’s plot starts and remains tangled. Crispin and Jane have been long-acquainted: Crispin, a frequent visitor to Jane’s uncle’s, her guardian’s, estate. Allied by ambition, Crispin and Uncle Philip shared a politics of personal gain. They’re not friends, nor loyal, content to use each other for political gain. Duran sets up the villainy: by pointing to how people, without love, see the other as an object, used for personal advancement. Continue reading