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
Until reading Mary Burchell’s A Song Begins, Miss Bates found it hard to believe that anyone could rival Betty Neels. Yet, here MissB stands, enthralled with Mary Burchell. 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 from 1965 to ’85. They are set in the opera world and feature harsh, closed-off heroes and heroines who 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. The heroes’ kindness and love for the heroine are hinted at with rare 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 in the rehearsal hall. A Song Begins opens with Anthea Benton, aspiring singer, trying to win a TV singing spot to help 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 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 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